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.
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.
Forget any thoughts of weird impedances or low sensitivity. Whatever
thaumaturgy was required to get the drivers to work to Sonus Faber
standards, the company did not forget that the speakers would be
purchased by customers unlikely to mate them to loony-tunes amplifiers.
Instead, we find a speaker blessed with an 8 ohm impedance and a 6.5
ohm minimum, with sensitivity of 88dB/1W/1m – which resembles so many
affordable British boxes that the Minuettos beg to be connected to
As luck would have it, the Minuettos landed on my doorstep around
the same time as Musical Fidelity's new #500 pre/power combination – a
likely mate in terms of price, quality and 'cred'. Additionally, I had
the 60W/channel Technics SA-GX505 AV receiver to hand, plus the usual
array of silly money products like the Michaelson Audio Da Vinci
pre/power package and the Classé DR-10 power amps. The latter were of
particular interest, as I'd had them strapped to the Extremas for
months and would be able to compare the Italians' cheapest to dearest
with some ease.
So, to dispense with the question of matching the Minuettos to a
suitable amplifier, yes, even the Technics receiver drove them to
satisfactory levels in a large room. The Minuetto is sensitive enough
to allow a 60-watter to drive it to uncomfortable levels with minimal
clipping from the electronics. And at no point did I manage to get any
of the amps to shut down. Exciting the Minuettos themselves into a
stage of groaning and rattling took the mono'ed Classé DR-10s and the
Da Vinci, with levels I found excruciatingly loud. On the other hand, I
have acquaintances who'd call those levels 'merely adequate'.
But the Minuetto does benefit from top-flight amplification, as do all
speakers. Because the least-expensive Sonus Faber is so forgiving,
you're less likely to feel the need for electronics upgrades as you
would with Acoustic Research's M1, but choose you amps carefully,
whatever the price. The two main characteristics of the Minuetto which
allow you to pretend that you've dropped big bucks on an Electa Amator
are the bass quantity/extension and the sense of physical scale. If
your amp, whatever the price, is incapable of exploiting these, then
the purchase of the Minuetto would be an exercise in wastefulness.
Both qualities contribute to an impression that you're listening to
a very large speaker, certainly one much larger than the Minuetto.
Soundstage width and height are so impressive than one visitor thought
I had the Apogee Stages, up against the back wall, wired to the system.
As for the bass, you need an amp not just with extension but with the
control of a martinet. With small valve amplifiers or 'soft' transistor
amplifiers, the Minuettos sound lumpy and sluggish; I wouldn't suggest
running them with the small Copland, which so perfectly suits the
Minima and its more precise lower registers. And this is true no matter
how solid the stands, how precise the speaker positioning, how 'trick'
the cables you use with the Minuetto.
For a poor man's Sonus Faber, the Minuetto ain't bad at all. Hell,
it's one of the most 'fun' products I've used in ages, requiring little
running-in and sounding better than 'good' with even sloppy set-up. Its
forgiveness and willingness to work with affordable amplifiers are
achieved partly by its 'normal' electrical demands and partly by an
overall sweetness. The latter is also true of its relatives' behaviour,
but only when they're set up with a hypercritical earand hypercritical
gear. They're well-known for an aversion to sibilance and grain. The
less-precise Minuetto smooths off all manner of nasties with only a
slight loss of detail and transparency as the tariff. The midband
suffers least from this Mother Theresa approach, because it's as clear
and detailed and analytical as an LS3/5A, with that speaker's wonderful
handling of vocals.
Imaging, too, suffers but a little when you hear the Minuetto
side-by-side with another model. The aforementioned stage height and
width match even the Extrema, but the cheaper model cannot offer the
front-to-back depth of an Amator or an Extrema. Allowed to indulge in
unbridled subjectivity, I'd venture that the stage depth produced by a
Minuetto is two-thirds that of the Extrema.
Neither does the Minuetto offer all the weight or slam of its more
costly catalogue-mates. However much it resembles them in bass
extension and (fronta)l scale, it sounds like a Sonus Faber Lite, but I
find this easy to forgive considering the price. That's because the
Minuetto is, at all times, musical and remarkably consistent and
coherent. The very weaknesses I've described – the sweetness, the
non-NWA bass – are evident only when the speaker is confronted by
dearer opposition. I could find nothing within #300 of it which I'd
rather use long-term.
Which brings me to a confession: had I not just splashed out on
bi-wired LS3/5As, Christmas presents and a new exhaust system, the
Minuettos would not be going back to Absolute Sounds. Not only are they
the first Sonus Fabers for under a grand, they're also (along with
Apogee's Centauruses) among the first entry-level high-end speakers
I've tried which don't demand megabucks amplification. If you've been
lusting after Sonus Fabers for their sound, their looks or both, but
you couldn't quite stretch to four figures, think of their arrival as
Christmas in March.
Competition and Comparison
Be sure to compare the Topolino against other Sonus Faber loudspeakers by reading our reviews for the Conceto GP and the Amati loudspeakers. You can also find more information in our Floorstanding Speakers section.