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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 July 2016 01 July 2016
My four trips to Italy have taught me that a North American should never try to outdress any of the multitude of well-dressed Italian men. It’s like trying to outbox the late, great Muhammad Ali in his prime -- the chances of failure are almost assured. Italians have a knack for making and wearing clothes that fit so well and look so good that it’s no wonder that they’re usually the literal walking definitions of what’s in style at any given time. And Italian women follow suit.
That keen sense of style is seen not only in Italians’ clothes but in their art (think Michelangelo) and the consumer products they produce. Furniture, cars, sunglasses, handbags, you name it: If they can make something look better, they will; if they can’t, they probably won’t make it at all. Nor do they make this stuff only to look good -- their build quality, too, is exceptional. No wonder so many luxury goods come from Italy.
Italian style and luxury extend to hi-fi. Companies such as Opera, Unison Research, Pathos, Rosso Fiorentino, Gold Note, and Audia Flight make cool-looking stuff -- but the undisputed champ is Sonus Faber, which operates out of Vicenza, a small city just west of Venice. Since 1983, Sonus Faber has made hi-fi equipment that mixes sound and styling better than almost anyone else; in fact, they won our annual Aesthetics and Sound award three years running.
Doug Schneider at the Lilium launch at High End 2014
Sonus Faber’s founder, the late Franco Serblin, has been credited with creating audio products that can be proudly showcased in a living room -- hi-fi furniture, in a way. And the company seems to be getting better at it all the time, as they proved in 2014 with the launch of the Lilium loudspeaker, which I think is the best-looking speaker ever made by anyone. I haven’t listened to it at great length, let alone reviewed it, but I’ve heard that it sounds really good. Even if it didn’t, it could be placed in a museum as a work of art.
Sonus Faber has again demonstrated its sense of style with the Sf16, a brand-new product they unveiled for press, dealers, and distributors from all over the world at a lavish McIntosh Group event at the Forte Village beach resort, in Sardinia, Italy, on the Mediterranean Sea. This exceptional vacation spot was a fitting launch pad for a luxury hi-fi product -- particularly the Sf16, with which Sonus Faber has taken a bold new direction; it might prompt other companies to create cost-no-object, all-in-one sound systems.
McIntosh Group is the umbrella brand encompassing Sonus Faber, Audio Research, Pryma, Wadia, Sumiko Subwoofers, and McIntosh Laboratory. Almost all audiophiles know that McIntosh, the best-known of these brands, isn’t Italian (the company has long been based in Binghamton, New York), but it’s always had a unique, instantly identifiable visual style that’s so beloved that everyone at McIntosh Group knows enough to leave it alone -- those blue meters can never go away.
The Audio Research portion of the event focused on ARC’s Foundation series, currently comprising the LS28 line stage, PH9 phono stage, and DAC9 digital-to-analog converter. As impressive as the Foundation models are, they were first shown in May, at High End 2016; I wrote about them last month in “The Best of High End 2016.” ARC’s engineering director, Ward Fiebiger, showed a rendering of the final model in the line, the forthcoming Foundation VT80 stereo amplifier -- it looks really cool. However, details of price and availability weren’t given.
Ward Fiebiger and the VT80
Under the McIntosh Laboratory banner, company president Charlie Randall and product manager Ron Cornelius talked about three new products, to be released later this year. The C2600 is a tubed stereo preamplifier that Cornelius claims outperforms any other single-box preamp they’ve made, tubed or solid-state (the C2600 is based on the two-box C1100, which he said is still their best). Next was the MP100 phono stage, McIntosh’s first-ever standalone phono stage -- until now, they’ve concentrated on the quality of the phono stages included in their preamps. The MP100 is unique in having not only analog outputs (balanced and single-ended), but digital ones as well, which might have some scratching their heads. Here’s the deal: Inside the MP100 is a 24-bit/96kHz analog-to-digital converter that feeds the digital outputs, which in turn allows a digital music stream to be piped into an audio system -- handy for those with multiroom systems. Last, there was the MVP901 A/V player, which can play BD, SACD, CD, and DVD-Video and -Audio discs. The only disc type it doesn’t support is 4K Ultra HD BD -- for that, you have to get a player from a company such as Samsung or Sony. Nevertheless, McIntosh is boasting topflight upsampling to 4K resolution -- if you have a 4K TV, you can use it with the MVP901.
But the star of the show was Sonus Faber’s Sf16 -- fitting, given that the event took place in Italy. Its design is inspired by Franco Serblin’s Snail, which he created in the early 1980s, before founding Sonus Faber. The Snail was a passive speaker system whose two woofers were enclosed in a cabinet that rested on the floor; arms extending from the top of this cabinet supported two smaller speakers, for the midrange and high-frequency drivers. The similarities to a snail’s body and eyestalks were unmistakable.
Sonus Faber’s Livio Cucuzza, Paolo Tezzon, and Fiore Cappelletto unveil the Sf16
That Cucuzza could remake the original Snail concept into a thing of true beauty is a testament to his skill as an industrial designer. Like the ugly duckling that matured into a swan, the homely Snail has become the sleek and sexy Sf16 -- far more compact than its ancestor, and flat-out cool to look at. To see the Sf16 is to want it; when Sonus Faber removed its black veil, people rushed the stage to get the first photos and to touch it. Our own Ken Kessler was gobsmacked by the response: “I haven’t seen such enthusiasm in hi-fi in 30 years!” For those 30 years, Ken has ranted, in person and in print, about how poorly most hi-fi companies market their products. At the McIntosh Group event, and particularly during the unveiling of the Sf16, he was all smiles, with no complaints -- and if you know Ken, you know how rare that is.
The rush for the first Sf16 pictures
The price of the Sf16 wasn’t formally announced, but glances at its outsides and insides told us it won’t be cheap. The materials are exceptional, as are the fit’n’finish; in fact, the scarcity of the parts and the time it takes to build each Sf16 in Sonus Faber’s Italian factory is limiting the company to making just 200 Sf16s per year (they say that only two companies in Europe can properly shape the plywood-based bass enclosure). Furthermore, the Sf16 is full of features, and the technology within appears to be at the edge of the art. From what I could glean from conversations with others at Sonus Faber, the Sf16 likely won’t cost more than $10,000 USD, but I can’t see it going for much less than that. This technically advanced luxury item could never be mistaken for something cheap.
Ken Kessler with McIntosh Group CEO Mauro Grange
Whereas the Snail was a purely passive design that needed an amplifier and a source component, the Sf16 has everything built in: the amplifiers and crossover are contained in the main bass section; so is the source section, based on DTS’s Play-Fi technology, which currently supports wired or wireless streaming of music files with resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz -- and, with the release this fall of an update, will support up to 24/192. Play-Fi supports all of the popular music-streaming services -- Amazon Prime, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, etc.; Sf16 owners will be able to plug it in, download the Play-Fi app to an iOS, Android, or Windows device, and start listening.
Paolo Tezzon and Livio Cucuzza
Then Sonus Faber’s chief acoustical engineer, Paolo Tezzon, gave an overview of the Sf16’s acoustical design. In the main cabinet are two 5” woofers -- one on the front, the other on the rear -- connected internally by a metal rod, for a force-canceling effect that maximizes bass output while minimizing cabinet vibrations. Each small satellite also has drivers front and rear: a tweeter and midrange on each front panel and the same on the back, all firing in phase. The matched front and rear driver arrays aren’t to produce force canceling, but to spread the sound more, to approximate the spaciousness of soundstage typically produced by standalone speakers spaced several feet apart. The crossover uses a combination of typical passive components, along with DSP technology.
The Sf16’s little satellites have three positions. When the Sf16 is powered off, they’re tucked inside the bass enclosure. When the Sf16 is first turned on, the speakers are automatically raised on arms that extend out of the enclosure just a bit. The Sf16 can be played like that, but pressing a button then extends the arms to their second position, in which the satellites are 1.1m apart. Sonus Faber posted a video on YouTube when the Sf16 was unveiled; I encourage you to watch it to see what this device looks like in operation.
Soon I’ll know how all of these materials, parts, technology, and design come together in a listening experience -- but not in time for this article, which I had to submit to our editors for publication on July 1 before my first listening session with the Sf16, still a day away as I write. So for now, I’m signing off from Sardinia -- but check this space next month, when I’ll tell you more about the Sf16, including how it sounds.
. . . Doug Schneider