It's not every day that I am invited to visit a dealer for the introduction of a new loudspeaker, much less one costing $266,000. I politely turned down the offer on the grounds that I'm too busy, but also thinking it wasn't a relevant product for our readers. A few days later I emailed Bill Parish at GTT Audio and asked him if the Wednesday slot was still open. Hell, I'm always too busy. And just because no one reading this is likely to ever buy such a speaker doesn't mean there would be nothing important to learn and share from the experience. I got up at 6am, stuffed some orange foam plugs into my ears and drove to New Jersey. At the appointed hour of 1:30pm Bill tapped on the window of my car and woke me from my power nap.
Dick Diamond, whom I had met years ago at CES, was quick to point out that the speaker is not the Sonia "15", as in Louis the 15th, in spite of the fact that YG will soon be celebrating their 15 years. Rather, it is pronounced "Ex-Vee" as in the Gibson Flying V guitar. That said, I insisted they lead me blind-folded into the listening room so what I was about to hear would not be corrupted by what I saw. I over-rode their objection by donning my Yamaha motorcycle neck gaiter, twice folded over. They led me to the center seat of the leather sofa positioned directly behind a single leather chair. From the original invitation I already knew the XV was a four-tower design and from my previous visit to GTT Audio a couple months ago I knew what the Sonia 1.3 sounded like. These two preconceptions only vaguely prepared me for what I was about to hear.
From the ten LPs I brought along in a plastic bag Bill latched on to the Sheffield Lab copy of Wagner with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a direct to disc recording. The particular cut doesn't matter. Goosebumps ran up my arms as the orchestra miraculously appeared in the room. The music entranced me, but slowly the audiophile mindset emerged. The orchestra was spread out over a soundscape that was much wider than the room, yet because of the type of mic or the positioning of the mics, or maybe the acoustics of the MGM soundstage, it seemed like I was sitting too far back in the theater for the apparent width of the orchestra as it was presented on the record. I groped my way into the chair in front of the sofa, and that helped reduce the discrepancy a bit. Other LPs we listened to had their own anomalies which led me to believe the XV (and the rest of the system) is very revealing of the spatial information present in the recording. Often times such information is embedded in the lowest octave where the room tone of the recording venue resides which further suggests that the additional subwoofer towers were making a substantial contribution. Not only was this a large listening room; it was also a very large soundscape.
The space in which the orchestra was playing was clearly delineated from left to right and from front to back, while the height seemed natural and unrestricted with the vertical mid-point just slightly above eye level. A chair that set me a little more upright like seats in a concert hall would probably shift that perception, but personally, I like the comfort of a chair or sofa that encourages me to slouch and relax. Moreover, the sizing of the instruments was believable and consistent throughout the orchestra, and it remained consistent at one point when we changed the volume. The orchestra drew closer as we raised the volume and the imagined size of the instruments grew proportionally larger.
Frequency response was extraordinarily smooth from top to bottom and tonal balance seemed perfectly level. Except the treble drew inordinate attention to itself by likely being the finest tweeter I have ever heard. A small bell in the back right side of the orchestra gave away the secret. It was so real I could see the sparkle of stage lights reflecting off it. From there the finest resolution of violins took over and I began to realize what a very special speaker I was hearing. And this from a person who has survived rock ‘n roll and other acoustic atrocities of the working world.
To evaluate the other end of the spectrum I requested Howell's "Master Tallis's Testament" from John Marks' compilation of organ music, Pipes Rhode Island, which contains some seriously low bass. Even more impressive than the lowest organ notes was the sound of the organ bellows that sounded a lot more real and a lot less like surface noise on a bad LP. The XV tames the bass by making music sound real; not by giving you excessive volume. But if the recording calls for louder bass, the XV can deliver, as Bill illustrated by putting on Ray Brown + L. Almeida "Audiophile Legends", a remastering of the direct-to-disc Moonlight Serenade with Ray Brown on closely mic'd stand up double bass that sounded clean and mean while Laurindo Almeida's guitar was relatively light and nimble.
Feeling the urge to rock out a bit I asked Bill to put on "When the Music's Over" from Absolutely Live by the Doors. While the XV clearly revealed noise and shouts from the audience, and portrayed the instruments with clarity and nuance – especially Ray Manzarek on organ, it also revealed the cheap stage mic used by Jim Morrison (or poor tweaking by the guy on the mixing board). Enjoyable? You bet! But the XV is very revealing of recording quality and the equipment upstream. Ruthlessly revealing? Well, I didn't bring any ruthlessly recorded CDs or LPs with me. People who will eventually own these speakers will likely have extensive collections of finely recorded, mastered and pressed music, so it is really a non-issue. In the couple of hours we spent listening, the music was eminently enjoyable and it was usually a very small leap to imagine you were listening to the real performance.
We took a break and while Bill prepared a light lunch for us Dick showed me a short video that will eventually be available on the YG website. It covers the two principle technical advances of the XV – the BilletDome tweeter which combines a rigid triangulated space frame dome tightly fitted beneath the silk dome you see from the front.
In the photo here you can barely see the triangulated dome through the silk. It is said to combine the advantages of the traditional hard dome usually made out of metal, with the soft domes usually made from paper or silk, while eliminating the disadvantages of each. The triangulated space frame is CNC machined and is thicker and stronger than a continuous metal dome. At the same time, because it is only a frame and not a continuous hemisphere of metal, it is much lighter than a conventional metal tweeter. The video compared the amount of pressure a silk dome, a metal dome and the BilletDome could support before collapsing. The BilletDome was substantially stiffer. The resulting dome tweeter is ultra-light, ultra-rigid, ultra-fast and ultra-precise. And what I heard was very smooth and precise music coming from it.
The other touted breakthrough was the ViseCoil inductor used in the crossover for the bass drivers. It uses CNC wound wire that is given the extreme bondage treatment with a vise-like milled structure that minimizes vibrations thereby reducing residual loss by 24% and improving linearity by 60%. Energy that passes through a passive crossover and is converted to hum is energy that is not available to produce the music. So even though you may not be able to hear the hum at the listening chair, it is imperceptibly masking the signal as well as robbing energy that should be going to the drivers.
In the video, a regular inductor and the ViseCoil inductor were each plugged directly into a duplex outlet, taking a hit of over 500 Watts. The resulting hum from the standard inductor was noticeably louder than the ViseCoil inductor. What I heard in the music was tight, accurate bass that went very deep without any apparent roll-off. The ViseCoil is also said to make driving the bass drivers a much easier job for the amplifier, but since the bass was being driven by a 700 Watt (@ 4 Ohm) Audionet MAX monoblock with a 125dB signal-to-noise ratio it was nigh impossible to verify that. Bill said the XV, at 88dB/W/m sensitivity with a relatively benign impedance curve, can be driven very well by the 100 Watts per channel stereo amplifier from Audionet, though people buying this speaker invariably opt for something more powerful. Peeking around back the cabling for the bass is a nightmare, involving a combination of series and parallel wiring. But fear not, Dick assured – Bill will set it all up for you. Here he points out the bass crossover connections in the main tower:
The XV is a large speaker intended for a large room. Driven by four Audionet Max monoblocks, it played effortlessly in the 35' x 20' x 14' high room at GTT Audio and produced music on a grand scale. It begs the question "Will the BilletDome tweeter and ViseCoil inductor trickle down into smaller Sonia series speakers that are more suitable for smaller rooms?" Certainly the XV is priced to recoup the R&D of these technological advances, but it would not be a surprise to eventually see them trickle down into other models, albeit with an appropriate price increase. I recently heard the Sonia 1.3 in this same room driven by a single Audionet Max. As good as it was it was neither as effortless, nor as grand. A small part of the improvement I heard here may be due to the upgrade of the Kronos Pro Limited Edition turntable which had just received the optional upgraded power supply. The Kronos was fitted with the Black Beauty tonearm and the top of the line Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge. After all, to get the most out of a speaker, you have to have a first class front end. Everything in between was also top of the line from Audionet and connections were with top-of-the-line Kubala-Sosna Research Elationcables. As Bill pointed out, this was a no-holds-barred assault on the State-Of-The-Art.
Many years ago ads in Stereophile proclaimed YG to have the world's greatest speaker (or something to that effect.) That was bold and it seemed pompous at the time, but YG has walked the walk since those days and the innovations of the XV are indicative of their exemplary commitment to advancing the state of the art. While the XV is currently their pinnacle it will not be the end of their innovation. Great engineering minds do not typically shut down. Nonetheless, the XV is a statement product that seems destined to remain a benchmark for many years to come. Moreover, in a commitment to current owners of the Sonia 1.3, they offer an upgrade to the XV level, thereby removing any buyer's remorse.
With the new ViseCoil inductor, a separate, single-driver subwoofer could make for an interesting addition to bridge the difference between the XV and the Sonia 1.3 or even lesser models that are more suitable for smaller rooms. I'm not trying to out-guess Yoav Geva, but it is clear from the XV that there is a lot of room for YG to grow their existing line in the near future and beyond.
So, who buys such an extreme system as this or the XV in particular? Bill tells me he has sold four sets of XV already. They are not audiophiles. They are self-made people with lots of discretionary income who have had a life-long passion for music. They are music lovers, not gear heads.
As an audiophile, I used to begrudge expensive products like the XV that I will never be able to afford. And in an age when wealth is divergent, much of it coming to rest in the hands of a few percentage of people, I could become all the more resentful of such luxury goods, but I'm not. The concentration of wealth slows down the speed of money – the frequency in which it changes hands. But every time it changes hands, it creates more economic activity and more prosperity. Wealthy people need to spend money to keep the economy flowing and it is products such as the XV which offer unique, very high quality experiences that entice them to open their purse strings. They don't go shopping at Wal-Mart. The money that is spent on the XV helps pay for the R&D, the actual production of the speakers, the commodities that are required for the parts and tooling, the promotion of the product and the delivery, installation and service of the product down the road. Ultimately, the dollars land in the pockets of a lot of different people in a lot of different walks of life, who ultimately turn around and spend those dollars once again. I'm reminded of the lines of Dear Landlord by Bob Dylan:
"…anyone can fill his life up with things
I'm not that bitter any more.
So, I went to New Jersey. I saw, I heard, and I even touched the Sonia XV – just to feel any vibrations that might be coming through the double walled aluminum cabinets. (I'm not sure I could.) It is not every day that I, or most anyone else, get to hear a half-million dollar stereo system. It was quite an experience–especially blindfolded. The blindfold removed the equipment and left the orchestra performing fifty feet in front of me with just the slightest hint from my imagination. That the system was entirely solid state electronics was evident primarily from the absence of the glow of tubes. It didn't bother me at all – that coming from a guy who revels in low power SET tube amplifiers. The goosebumps on my arms spoke the truth. I've written elsewhere that the Audionet gear is the most tube-like solid state gear I've heard.
I know of two other high-end audio companies (not speaker manufacturers) that have expanded their production facilities this year and are producing cutting edge products for the very wealthy as well as more affordable ones for the rest of us. They have both indicated that the economy is heating up. And there are lots of examples of audio companies who are pushing their top lines even higher. At the same time there seems to be a lot of activity in the entry level and the next step or two above that. The very wealthy do not have time for all that. Their time is worth a lot of money. It is more economical for them to travel to a place like GTT Audio (the only place in North America where the XV can be auditioned) and put their trust in a man who understands their needs, than to spend years reading about audio gear and going to High End shows. They love music and they simply want "the best" without having to go through all the audiophile agony and drama. I get that. For those who can afford it, I urge you to put your money in motion and enjoy the music.
Thank you for the audition, gentlemen.
Sensitivity: 88dB/W/m anechoic