None but the most pedantic of commenters would debate the contention that Sony has made more great audio products than any other company in history, but Sony typically hasn't made particularly good speakers. Why? I don't know, but the situation has spawned all sorts of absurd and unsupported speculations. I even heard from an employee of a different Japanese audio company that some Japanese believe it's because the speakers are tuned for Japanese people and Americans' bigger noses change the sound.
In the last few years, though, Sony has put such nonsense to rest with a series of super-speakers that have earned rave reviews around the world. The effort started in 2011 with the $27,000/pair SS-AR1, and I've been hoping the work done on that speaker would trickle down into more affordable products. Until now, though, the least expensive of the company's new and improved tower speakers was the $10,000/pair SS-NA2ES. That's an unremarkable price in a world where $50,000/pair high-end speakers are common, but still it's more than most audiophiles have to spend.
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This spring, Sony shocked me when it announced the SS-CS3, a tower speaker clearly influenced by the SS-NA2ES but priced much more affordably. "So...$5,000/pair?" you might be thinking. Nope. Try less than one tenth as much.
The SS-CS3 lists for $239 each, or $478/pair. For a tower speaker with dual 5.25-inch woofers, that's not a bad price at all, especially when you consider it's not easy to find a really good-sounding bookshelf speaker at that price...and when you consider that the SS-CS3 looks nice. A little plain, perhaps, but not in any way cheap.
The main element the SS-CS3 shares with the SS-NA2ES, besides the look, is its 0.75-inch super-tweeter, which is intended to reproduce frequencies up to 50 kilohertz. What does that extended frequency response do besides annoy your Chihuahua? It reproduces the wider bandwidth of high-resolution digital audio files that use DSD or 24-bit/96-kilohertz PCM.
You can't hear that high, but it's said that expanding the bandwidth of a recording shifts the phase effects of the anti-aliasing filter in the analog-to-digital converter to frequencies where you can't hear them. Of course, a conventional tweeter also introduces its own phase anomalies as its frequency response starts to roll off above 20 or 25 kHz or so. Theoretically, then, the super-tweeter's relatively flat response way up to 50 kHz preserves the pristine phase information that high-resolution audio captures.
And if all that just sounds like a bunch of technical gobbledygook...well, you can still annoy your Chihuahua.
Below the super-tweeter sits a one-inch conventional tweeter, with an ordinary polyester fabric dome. The twin woofers use cones made from dual-layer foamed mica. What's that? I have no idea, but I can tell you it feels about as light as a doped-paper cone, but it's stiffer and seems better-damped, which means it should distort less.
The enclosure is ported below the bottom woofer, and the back panel has speaker-cable binding posts that are nicer than those on many high-end speakers. A removable grille snaps on to cover the drivers, but the speaker looks and sounds much better without the grille. The matte-black-finished cabinet is well built and fairly solid for something in this price range.
The SS-CS3 is the top model in the line. There's also the $169 SS-CS8 center speaker, the $239 SA-CA9 10-inch subwoofer, and the $219/pair SS-CS5 bookshelf speaker.
Because the SS-CS3 is small (at just over 36 inches high) and light (at just over 30 pounds), it's much easier to unpack and set up than most of the speakers I review. I worried that the towers might need to go closer to the wall behind them to reinforce the bass, but no - the balance sounded just right with the speakers in the same places I usually put my Revel F206 towers. That means the backs of the speakers were 24 inches from the wall behind them; the speakers were nine feet apart and 10 feet from my head.
As usual, I used my Krell S-300i integrated amp for the review. Of course, it's unlikely anyone will use a $2,500 amp with a $478/pair speaker, but it's the amp I'm used to and I'm sticking with it.
This speaker is inexpensive enough that it might find itself mated with one of those $20 Lepai or Pyle Class D amps from Parts Express. That would be a shame because my measurements have shown those amps can deliver sub-optimal results when connected to even a medium-impedance load like the six-ohm SS-CS3. No, it's not like you have to connect the SS-CS3 to a Krell or even an NAD, but at least use a decent stereo receiver.
My audio sources were a Sony PHA-2 USB DAC/headphone amp connected to the Toshiba laptop that holds my music collection - a good choice because the PHA-2 handles high-res DSD and PCM audio, which is what the SS-CS3 was designed in part to handle. I also use a Music Hall Ikura turntable connected through an NAD PP-3 phono preamp, plus a Samsung BD-C6500 Blu-ray player.
Often when I'm listening to high-end audio gear, I think to myself, "It's so great to be able to listen to the music I love through such nice gear." I think it every single time I listen to my Revels. What surprised me was how often I thought it when I was listening to the SS-CS3.
Here's a great example. I was messing around with a preproduction sample of the Constellation Audio Cygnus, a very high-end music streamer with an unusual Web-based control interface. I was clicking buttons on my Web browser trying to get it to play, when suddenly Holly Cole's unaccompanied voice blared out of the speakers at extremely high volume as she tore into her rendition of "If I Were a Bell." (I'd failed to anticipate that the Cygnus would have a much higher output level than the phono preamp I'd just been using.) I quickly hit pause and turned down the volume on the Krell, while marveling that the voice sounded clear, smooth, and entirely free of distortion even at such a loud level. "Good thing I had the Revels hooked up," I thought. But when I went to change some connections in the system, I realized that I'd been hearing the Sonys, which were right next to the Revels. Not bad for under $500, huh?
But anyone who wants a crank-speaker isn't going to buy this one. If you're putting the SS-CS3 into a two-channel rig, I figure you're buying it to listen to music of above-average refinement at moderate levels. Maybe you'd listen to something like jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd's classic Forest Flower album - which I spun through the Sonys because I happened to have the original vinyl release on loan from a friend.
On material like Forest Flower, the Sony speakers really shine, approaching the sound quality of much more expensive speakers like the Revels. The dual 5.25-inch woofers had plenty of oomph to carry the weight and groove of Cecil McBee's upright bass, but more important was the stereo imaging and dynamics. I loved hearing Keith Jarrett's jarring solo toward the end of side one, with Jarrett pounding full-bore in the piano's top octave, then hitting and plucking at the strings. This is tough for a speaker to play well because dynamics are so hard for a tweeter to handle, but the SS-CS3s sounded completely clear and natural, never seeming troubled by Jarrett's theatrics. Even though the mix puts the piano hard in the left channel, I still got a convincing portrayal of the body and size of the instrument.
Go to Page Two for more on Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...