Sonus faber Topolino Loudspeakers Reviewed

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Recession or schizophrenia? Whatever the cause, some specialist manufacturers appear to be jumping from one end of their catalogues to the other, as if to downplay the current inappropriateness of high-priced gear. Apogee launched the budget Centaur models around the same time as it unveiled the Ferrari-priced Grand. Krell's least expensive electronics were launched at the same CES as the big Balanced Reference amps. Roksan unveiled a range of high end electronics at the same show where it produced a state-of-the-art CD transport with real world pricing. Now it's Sonus Faber's turn to acknowledge the economic downturn while we're still feeling the shockwaves of the seriously expensive Extrema.

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If it took the Extrema to convince the world that the Italians could do more than make pretty boxes, then the Minuetto should add to that revelation the company's ability to bring the price down to approachable levels. The existing models are all brilliant performers but they bear price tags which limit their appeal. As sales drop logarithmically with every added pound sterling, the need for a speaker costing below four figures was obvious. Even the Minima, at a shade over the #1000 mark, is just too dear for something not much larger than an LS3/5A; no matter how good a mini-monitor may be, too many consumers equate mass and girth with value.

Even though I'm scoop-crazy, there are two reasons why I shouldn't be looking at the Minuetto -- the first being that I am known to adore Sonus Faber products. This, coupled to my love for all Things Italian (even Fiats, Topo Gigio and pasta made with squid ink), makes me question my own impartiality. The other is that I've been told that the Minuetto is a direct response to a remark I made when Editor Harris and I attended the Extrema launch, something to the effect that the biggest problem with Sonus Faber speakers is that few can afford them. So my ego has been polished with carnauba. To a high gloss.

On the other hand, he said, justifying this review, I have lived with Electa Amators for a year or two and Extremas for six months, as well as having enjoyed long sessions with the non-Amator Electa and Minimas, so I have a reasonable grasp of what the Minuetto should do allowing for its friendlier pricing. The questions raised are: How did the company cut corners? (No pun intended, though it's well-known that the company has never put a corner on any of its speakers.) What sonic compromises were deemed acceptable? And, above all, does the Minuetto deliver Sonus Faber performance and appeal for #875 per pair?

Fresh out of the box, the Minuetto is classic Sonus Faber. Indeed, I wished that I'd had the opportunity to show them to colleagues familiar with the brand without telling them the price to gear their guesstimates. The trademark woodwork, with solid walnut sectioning and compound curves, maintains the family resemblance, as do the front and back leather-clad baffles, sculpted grille frame and Mercedes-logo tweeter protection. So, aesthetically at least, no cost-cutting seems evident.

The speaker terminals are gold-plated, with bi-wiring/bi-amping facility. As if to throw the cost analyst off the scent, the company has produced a new, bespoke, uniquely shaped gold-plated terminal link for single-wiring. The opening to the rear port is properly finished. The etched metal badges are where you'd expect them to be. So far, no signs of penny-pinching. I'd have guessed #1500 per pair at the very least.

Lifting the speakers, you note that they're not deceptively heavy lumps like their siblings. Weighing only 10kg each, the Minuettos are still solid little devils, but they seem less hefty than the similarly-sized Electa or Amator. A rap on the 350x230x280mm (HWD) cabinet provides relief: the new Sonus Faber is no apple crate.

All that's left to do, short of dismantling someone else's speaker, is to remove the grille, and it's here that you suspect Sonus Faber made the necessary savings. Instead of the hideously expensive drivers used in the dearer models, you find a woofer and a tweeter of humbler origins. The 170mm mid/bass driver employs a cellulose/acrylate cone, the 26mm tweeter features a silk dome and ferro-fluid cooling. And I'd venture to say that the crossover is simpler than the complex circuits used in the dearer models.

But less is often more, as I learned when I heard what Be Yamamura could do with a five-quid tweeter from Richard Allan. Would Sonus Faber's designers manage to exploit the strengths and bury the weaknesses of these components? And at what cost to the user?

Read more about the Topolino loudspeakers on Page 2.

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