Show me the cattle

“All hat and no cattle,” they say in Texas, I’m told, of those who are all talk but no action or those who have the appearance but not the substance. That saying came to mind during the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early in January when Sonus Faber introduced its new Suprema loudspeaker system to the press. I didn’t attend that show—it’s been a decade since CES has mattered at all for hi-fi—but, like many, I watched from home as coverage of the system trickled out. Disappointingly, other than regurgitating Sonus Faber’s press release, this coverage focused on just two extraordinary features of this system: its stratospheric price of $750,000 in the US and its gorgeous finish options, something the Italian brand is well known for.

Suprema systemThe full Suprema system in the main Sonus Faber listening room

There was virtually no talk about the engineering underlying the system: the design and number of the bespoke drivers, the mix of passive and active crossovers, the complex curvature of the cabinets, the external subwoofer. Much of this information could have been—should have been—inferred at a glance from the company-supplied press pictures. I couldn’t even find anything about why the company decided to create a flagship product like the Suprema in the first place. After all, extravagant models destined for a tiny niche market are never a bread-and-butter product; they typically serve a strategic function. Most frustrating, the few comments on the system’s sound were woefully uninformative.

Followers of the press reports on the Sonus Faber Suprema from this event could hardly be faulted, then, for surmising it’s all hat but no cattle.

Grilling Cucuzza

Shortly after the launch, knowing more questions needed to be asked about the Suprema system, I contacted Livio Cucuzza, Sonus Faber’s chief product designer, and invited him to be a guest on our SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast. He gladly agreed. This podcast is normally hosted solo by Jorden Guth, but on this episode, I joined him as I wanted to grill Cucuzza thoroughly about the technical details of the Suprema system. Jorden filled in on some non-technical aspects of the system. This episode was published on February 2, and being over an hour long and jam-packed with insightful information, it seemed to cap off the case.

Sonus Faber factoryVideographer Chris Chitaroni about to enter the main factory

A few weeks later, however, I received an invitation from Sonus Faber to take part in a press trip in early April to the company’s facilities in Vicenza, Italy, to learn about and experience the Suprema in person. Although I’d been to the Sonus Faber factory and design lab a few times before, the lure of learning more about the Suprema and the opportunity to listen to it critically at length was compelling. At my request, Sonus Faber extended their invitation to Chris Chitaroni, our chief videographer, so that we could complement our written coverage with videos, which will be online shortly.

A technology showcase

Given its cost, the Suprema’s relevance to all but the few who could seriously consider its purchase seems questionable. As a purchasing option, it clearly is. But the Suprema was created to signal a new technical direction for future Sonus Faber speakers, Cucuzza explained, as technologies incorporated in this state-of-the-art speaker system will inevitably trickle down into real-world speakers.

In 2009, shortly after an ownership change, Sonus Faber underwent considerable restructuring, during which several new staff members, including Cucuzza, were brought onboard. A few years ago, a similar “revolution” swept over the engineering department, Cucuzza said, and today the company has many more engineers—acoustic, electrical, mechanical, and industrial—than it had even five years ago. With that influx of talent came many new ideas and a new technical direction.

Mario PassarelliMario Passarelli

The Suprema was a team effort, with Cucuzza at the helm of its industrial design. But he was quick to credit one of the company’s two R&D managers, Mario Passarelli, who arrived at Sonus Faber at the end of 2019, as being the mastermind behind most of the Suprema’s acoustic design. (Prior to working at Sonus Faber, Passarelli worked for 16 years at Faital, an Italian maker of professional loudspeaker drivers.) “It’s really his speaker,” Cucuzza said, adding in jest, “For that big speaker, we needed a big designer.” The Suprema system is certainly big—each tower is 75″ tall; the subwoofer, 57″ tall and 34″ across at its widest point—and, yes, so is Passarelli. Standing beside him, I felt like a squirrel next to a bear. But his large, imposing presence is completely foiled by his affable, jovial nature. It was not out of character for him, apparently, to wander around the design lab with a woofer cone on his head, as he did while we were there.

Subwoofer integration

One aspect of the Suprema system that is most unusual for loudspeakers of this stature is the pairing of its towers with an external subwoofer, or, ideally, two subs. (The $750,000 price tag is for a system with two subwoofers; a Suprema system with a single sub costs $680,000.) This configuration is not new, and no one at Sonus Faber is claiming it is. External subwoofers hit the home hi-fi market in the early 1960s. The first packaged satellite/subwoofer system—two small speakers and a subwoofer, a configuration known today as a 2.1 system—was introduced in 1976 by Miller & Kreisel (M&K), a system they called David & Goliath. In 1980, when I was just getting into hi-fi, there were still very few subwoofer options. But their popularity has been rising steadily since then. Nowadays they are quite common, of course, especially in home-theater applications.

Suprema systemAll-McIntosh electronics powering the Suprema system

According to Cucuzza, the reason the Suprema was designed for operation with one or two external subwoofers is simple: better sound. Audiophiles have long recognized that proper placement of stereo speakers is a trade-off between optimizing bass response and optimizing tonal balance, soundstage, and imaging. Often, the best position for bass reproduction is not the best position for the other attributes. Separating the bass section from higher-frequency drivers through the use of a subwoofer (or two) gives you the freedom to position it where bass reproduction is best and to position the main speakers where tonality, soundstaging, and imaging are best.

With two subwoofers, you get stereo reproduction of bass and, with judicious placement, the potential to smooth out room modes. You can’t do that with a single sub. None of this is new. The use and placement of multiple subwoofers have been researched for decades, and the benefits are well documented. But in most situations, even a single subwoofer, if well-placed, can help optimize bass output without impacting other sonic qualities.

Sonus Faber can take credit for creating a complete, unified system that integrates subwoofers and towers both sonically and visually, presenting a harmonious whole to both ear and eye. Such seamless integration of design aesthetics and finish between subwoofers and towers is seldom seen. Typically, subwoofers look like big, rectangular afterthoughts. In the Suprema, towers and subs are expressions of the same design language.

SubwooferThe Suprema subwoofer

Since the Suprema system is intended to operate with one or two subwoofers, the towers are made to roll off at around 40Hz. Without a subwoofer, the Suprema wouldn’t qualify as a full-range system, which by definition is one whose bass extends down to 20Hz or lower. The Suprema subwoofer is claimed to have a flat response down to 16Hz, and the system needs it—ideally two. In fact, it is not sold without at least one subwoofer. Sonic integration is implemented by an external active crossover that performs low- and high-pass filtering (the latter only if needed). Amplification comes after the crossover. The Suprema’s crossover includes what is known as a Linkwitz transform circuit, which, operating purely in the analog domain (there’s no digital signal processing in this system), increases bass output as frequency decreases.

For a complete system, the user must provide an amplifier for each tower speaker as well as an amplifier for each subwoofer. In other words, three or four channels of amplification, whether from mono, stereo, or multichannel amps. And the more power the better—the Suprema is designed and configured to take a lot of power.

The drivers

Apart from his significant contribution to the overall acoustic design of the Suprema system, Passarelli also headed the development of each of its drivers. Drawing on and expanding existing technologies from Sonus Faber and other companies, Passarelli and his team created all new drivers for this model.

The Suprema’s sealed subwoofer enclosure has two identical 15″ woofers, each with a carbon-fiber cone, a massive motor system, and a unique basket with a substantial heatsink. The two woofers combined are said to be able to withstand about 2000W. A pair of McIntosh MC1.25KW mono amplifiers drove the Suprema subs for our demo. The MC1.25KW is specified to output 1200W into 2, 4, or 8 ohms and to provide 2.2dB of headroom, which translates to about 2000W.

Subwoofer driverSuprema subwoofer driver

The Suprema system’s subwoofer impedance is specified as 4 ohms, with a 92dB (2.83V/m) sensitivity; its towers are specified to have an impedance of 4 ohms and sensitivity of 91dB (2.83V/m). Each tower comprises eight drivers (plus two independently controlled rear drivers) configured as a 4.5-way system. In addition to the external active crossover, a passive crossover is built into each tower, which distributes its allotted frequency range among the different drivers. The crossover slopes are said to optimize linearity as well as phase, a property that received particular attention from Sonus Faber’s engineers. The Suprema’s towers were driven by a pair of McIntosh MC3500 Mk II all-tube mono amps, specified to continuously output 350W into 2, 4, or 8 ohms, with 2.4dB of headroom (i.e., peaks of around 600W).

Four identical 8″ woofers are housed in the Suprema tower’s sealed cabinet: two on the top, two on the bottom. These paper-cone woofers handle frequencies from about 360Hz down to their natural rolloff, at around 40Hz, and incorporate a motor system with two 2″ voice coils and two neodymium ring-magnets for increased output and reduced distortion. (This is Sonus Faber’s take on JBL’s differential drive motor technology, which debuted in the 1990s in JBL’s pro speakers’ woofers.)

An additional 8″ woofer, of a different design, is placed above the bottom two. This woofer plays up to 430Hz and provides a transition from the bass woofers to the midrange driver, directly above it. Cucuzza pointed out that the other four woofers don’t play this high by design, to avoid interfering with the midrange. This “link midwoofer,” as Sonus Faber calls it, also employs a paper cone, one different from the cone used in the other woofers. Its single voice coil is 2.5″ across, and it uses a neodymium slug magnet.

The Suprema’s midrange and tweeter drivers are mounted in a discrete, teardrop-shaped section of the front baffle, between the three bottom woofers and two top woofers. The 6.5″ midrange driver, which reproduces the crucial midband, where vocals live, is the one Cucuzza was particularly enthusiastic about. It is the first midrange driver, he claimed, to implement JBL’s differential drive motor-system technology. Another first is the peripheral outline of its white, paper-based cone. Unlike that of most cones, it is not perfectly round: several small outer segments are trimmed out of the cone, giving it a flowerlike form. In fact, Sonus Faber calls this driver the Camelia (the Italian word for the flower camellia). This adaptation is purported to push the driver’s breakup modes higher in frequency for a more pistonic behavior within its passband, from around 430Hz to 1.7kHz. This, too, is not new, Cucuzza pointed out. The Danish electroacoustics manufacturer Vifa patented the technology many years ago. The patent was later reassigned to Scan-Speak, but it has since entered the public domain, so Sonus Faber was free to implement it in the Suprema, as it intends to do in forthcoming speakers. According to Cucuzza, “Vifa used it in its drivers, but the cuts were always covered by the rubber suspension, which partially masked the effect. The Sonus Faber take on that technology was to find a way to make it more effective.”

Midrange and tweetersThe Suprema midrange and tweeters

Treble is handled by two silk-dome tweeters of differing sizes: a 1.5″ dome, directly above the midrange, which operates from about 1.7kHz to 6.7kHz, and a 0.75″ dome, above it, which goes from 6.7kHz to a claimed 40kHz. The silk-dome diaphragm Passarelli wanted for the Suprema’s highest-frequency tweeter had to be this small to extend up to 40kHz, he explained. A larger dome wouldn’t hold its shape as well and wouldn’t go this high. But that little dome wouldn’t work well for frequencies below 6.7kHz. This is where the second tweeter comes in. Its 1.5″ dome is unusually large—most tweeter domes are 1″ to 1.1″—but this enables it to handle frequencies down to where the midrange driver can take over. This offers two benefits: higher power handling, thanks to the larger voice coil, and a better transition to the midrange driver in terms of on- and off-axis dispersion than that from a single, smaller dome. Again, none of this is new—a pair of tweeters of different sizes or types (or both) have been used in other speakers before—but it is indicative of the level of care that went into the design of the Suprema to ensure it provides accurate, low-distortion sound, from low to high output levels.

Near the top of the Suprema tower’s rear panel are two drivers that are easy to overlook: a 1.1″ soft-dome tweeter, which operates above 2.3kHz, and a 4″ midrange driver, which works from 2.3kHz down to around 500Hz. These two drivers can be left off or turned on to any volume. The idea goes back to a flagship speaker Sonus Faber released in 2010 under the rather uninspired name The Sonus Faber (hey, it could have been worse: The Sonus Fabulous anyone? The Phonus Saber?). It was carried forward into the design of other models, such as the Aida, before its re-embodiment in the Suprema. These back-emission drivers are meant to supplement midrange and high-frequency output when necessary, such as in highly damped rooms. The Suprema demonstration at Sonus Faber’s lively listening room required no such supplementation. Once the effect of these drivers was shown, they were turned off.

The Sonus Faber Suprema is a complex system replete with fascinating technology and interesting technical details, and I could go on and on. But I’ll close this section with just a couple of other notable features, ones that aren’t immediately obvious.

CorkThe cork enclosure

The cabinet cavity behind the baffle section in which the midrange and tweeters are mounted houses an acoustic chamber formed entirely of molded cork. This chamber is shaped as a truncated oval whose open front coincides with that baffle section. It has an intricate, organically shaped interior designed to suppress back radiation from the three drivers, and thereby to improve their performance. It is essentially a small three-driver loudspeaker enclosure embedded within a large five-woofer cabinet. The application of cork as an acoustic material is a first for Sonus Faber—quite possibly a first in the industry. The idea arose serendipitously when Cucuzza, while visiting his wood supplier, saw a sample of that cork material and intuited its acoustic damping properties. This intuition was later confirmed by Sonus Faber’s engineers.

In addition to the enhanced acoustics the midrange and tweeters are given by the cork chamber, their degree of inclination can be adjusted by tilting their baffle section to best suit the listening room, listening position, and personal preference. Generally, good driver integration yields consistent sound over a fairly wide range of listening positions and ear heights, so I doubt this adjustment would make much of a difference. But even if the improvement is marginal, on a speaker of this caliber, it counts.

The sound

I had two opportunities to listen to the Suprema system while in Italy. On both occasions, the system was set up with two subwoofers and driven by all-McIntosh electronics, as seen in the accompanying photos. As mentioned, the rear drivers were turned on for a short while during the first demo but were off after that. Sonus Faber’s listening room is about 20′ wide by 26′ long and is at least 10′ high. Given how lively it is (it was meant to be), those rear drivers would have been of little benefit there.

Livio CucuzzaLivio Cucuzza leading listening

The first listening session that I, along with two other visitors, attended was an hour long. Initially, Cucuzza played several of his favorite tracks, then he took requests. Since I didn’t know any of Cucuzza’s tracks, and since the song I requested, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Enough for You,” was new to me—I had heard it on headphones only a few days earlier—I couldn’t properly gauge the sound of the Suprema. Critical listening would have to wait until the second session.

What I did learn from that first listening session is that the Suprema system stays very clean however loud it is played—and loud it can play! With each successive track, Cucuzza notched up the volume, flaunting the system’s dynamics, going for shock and awe. By the last track, the power needles on the McIntosh amps were bouncing so far I thought they might tap out. They didn’t, and neither did the speakers. This was much louder than I would ever presume to play. Even my loudest playback is comparatively conservative—of neighborly norms and of diaphragms and eardrums. But trusting that Cucuzza knew how far he could push this system, I just leaned back and listened. And I am pleased to report that if your playback ideal is a veritable orchestra or rock concert at full tilt right in your listening room, you will likely find the Suprema system most satisfactory. Provided, of course, you have ample amplification—hundreds or even thousands of watts, which can be tricky to find. If extreme playback is not your thing, extreme amplification is not a must, and suitable amplifiers would be easier to find.

Listening positionThe view from the main listening position

I returned the next day for the second listening session and this time had the demo room to myself. Cucuzza was steeped in meetings that day, so I got Passarelli to configure the system for me for streaming. I wanted to stream some of my favorite audition tracks from Qobuz, via Roon, a music roster that would be familiar to readers of my reviews: Bruce Cockburn’s “Pacing the Cage,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Dominique Fils-Aimé’s “Birds,” Ani DiFranco’s “Everest,” Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” and “Misguided Angel,” a selection of songs by Lana Del Rey, a few from Olivia Rodrigo, including “Enough for You” again, and some tracks that I hadn’t heard in a long while. Later that day Cucuzza was able to join me, and I thought I’d play AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” for him. People are often surprised by the quality of this recording, and Cucuzza was too. He was particularly impressed by the sonic image of the drum kit, which he felt was just the right size. At the volume level this music demands, many speakers flounder on the wailing guitars and hard-hitting drums. The Suprema did not. It kept playing cleanly, with neither strain nor distortion, begging to be played louder and louder. But it’s easy to curb the temptation because the Suprema doesn’t need to be played loud to sound good—it sounds great at any volume level!

Sonus Faber speakers may have been accused sometimes of being excessively warm, overly relaxed in the midrange, a little woolly in the bass, and generally more musical than detailed. If the brand’s sound is now to be defined by the Suprema system, then any lingering such perception must be laid to rest. The Suprema delivered sound precisely as recorded without a hint of subdued highs, understated midrange, or ill-defined bass. It was musical, and it was replete with fine musical detail.

The system’s imaging was outstanding too. I often gauge imaging with Ani DiFranco’s “Everest.” Unusually, DiFranco’s voice images way over, just short of the left speaker, a couple of feet back. The Suprema system nailed this position unambiguously. On this and other tracks, it presented a properly scaled, well-proportioned soundstage, with all the spaciousness captured in the recording, never expanding it. The soundstage ventured just beyond the left or right speaker on occasion—on the two Cowboy Junkies songs, for example—but that was supposed to happen; it’s in the recording.

An important, though not surprising, observation I made during my two listening sessions is that the Suprema subwoofers, while prominent visually, were sonically indistinct: they never sounded detached from the main speakers. Had I not seen the subwoofers in the room, I wouldn’t have been able to tell where they were. Subwoofers do blend seamlessly with main speakers on good stereo systems. I’ve witnessed this many times. The Suprema system just demonstrated how complete such integration can be. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

House of SoundA Suprema system at House of Sound New York City

Another observation I made about the subwoofers is that their position in that listening room may not have been optimal. When I played “Misguided Angel,” the palpable deep-bass whumps that punctuate the song were reproduced perfectly in some parts of the room, whereas in others they were barely or not-at-all audible. This is indicative of standing waves, or room modes, which cause the amplitude of certain low frequencies to increase in some areas of the room and decrease in others. Had I had more time on this visit, I would have implored Cucuzza and Passarelli to indulge me and move the subwoofers around to different positions in the room. The effect of room modes at the listening position can often be reduced or eliminated by tweaking the position of the subs. It would have been interesting to see what improvement in sound could have been achieved.

Since room modes occur mostly in the bass range, separating the bass from the main speakers is of great benefit: it allows subwoofers to be positioned, and repositioned, independently to overcome any room-mode issues while leaving the main speakers at the optimal position for imaging and soundstage. This flexibility of subwoofer systems is significant. It shouldn’t be underestimated.

Back to the Futura for a new direction

Since its inception in 1983 and for many years after, Sonus Faber has released a succession of speakers whose sound and styling didn’t quite speak to me. They had their fans, but I was not among them. Then, in 2011, the Amati Futura was released, and it surpassed everything that had come before it from Sonus Faber. I liked its sound, and I liked its styling. This was a transformative introduction that ushered in a new age for Sonus Faber. Such was the change that I consider the company Sonus Faber V1.0 prior to 2011, V2.0 after. Of note is the time of this introduction: the Amati Futura arrived shortly after Franco Serblin, the company’s founder, had departed and the new ownership took over.

TeamThe Sonus Faber design team

Now, having spent some quality time with the Suprema, I am convinced that it is every bit as transformative for the company as the Amati Futura was in 2011. It has the hat and a whole lot of cattle, and it proves that its maker does too. I believe this is the Sonus Faber V3.0 era. The Suprema brings with it a host of innovative features and brilliant implementation of known technologies, but of equal significance is its incorporation of that 60-year-old idea: external subwoofers. Acoustically, as discussed above, the flexibility such systems offer is invaluable—to any system.

As I was leaving, I intimated to Cucuzza my hope that Sonus Faber will continue on this path and create other speaker systems with external subwoofers as well integrated as the Suprema’s—ones that could be had by ordinary folk. If Sonus Faber does, many more audiophiles will be tempted to consider a subwoofer setup.

. . . Doug Schneider