A certain mystique has grown up around Sonus Faber loudspeakers, whose construction and finishes take their cue from the world of musical instrument design. Indeed in the company’s slim book of words, the creator of the Sonus Faber line, Franco Serblin, notes that ‘making speakers is like making a violin or an acoustic guitar: a mixture of science and technique’. My personal take on the Grand piano Home is that it is in the best sense a very European loudspeaker, European in the way it looks, the way it is constructed and above all of course in the old world sophistication of its sound.
Each of the major speaker making European countries has a particular sound that many of their better known brands somehow seems to hover around. German loudspeakers tend to have a touch of oompah about then (excepting brands like ALR which goes for a deliberately British sound in some key models). French speakers tend to be more upfront and presence band-led, and British speakers used to be and often still are refined, but slightly dull and laid back. They’re not all this way of course. I’m talking weighted averages here, and a situation that is by no means as clear now as it once was. Finally, Italian speakers, in fact Italian hi-fi generally, is often is often described in similar terms to the national temperament – smooth, lush, refined. If you want a single word, it would have to be romantic. Italian hi-fi manufacturers are also known for the quality of their cabinetwork and the use of high-grade real wood enclosures and finishes.
There are many generalizations in the preceding paragraph that don’t necessarily apply to particular brands or models, but the Grand piano Home does confirm to some of the stereotypes. But this is not the Grand piano that was introduced around half a decade ago. The GP Home is a totally revamped loudspeaker whose only real similarity with the original is its overall shape, which is characterized by a flat base, a perpendicular back and sides, and a front which leans gently back, all wrapped in black leatherette, with smoothly rounded solid wood flanks.
As already noted, the Grand Piano Home tested here is not the same speaker as the original Grand Piano, which was a shorter two way speaker with an ABR (Auxiliary Bass Radiator), sometimes unkindly but not altogether inaccurately known as a flapping baffle, and which had a simpler T-bar type base and accessory stone plinths to bring the tweeter up to an appropriate listening height. Sonus Faber is not exactly overflowing with glasnost when it comes to the wheres and whys of their speaker designs, but from speaking to the UK distributor and reading between the lines, the aim seems to have been to improve midband transparency, as the original bass/mid unit was forced to operate deeper into the bass, to the inevitable detriment of mid-band quality. The GP Home is of a kind generally known as a 2½ way design, with the mid/bass and tweeter units supplemented by a fully driven bass unit which is rolled gently out of circuit around 200Hz, and which is voiced in conjunction with a large area port on the front panel, and a box with a larger enclosed volume than the original Grand Piano. A larger 26mm tweeter, which I think is of Vifa extraction, has replaced the 19mm Scan Speak of the original, and the upper crossover frequency has migrated up to 3kHz from its original 2.3kHz.
The mid bass and bass drivers are 180mm units with fiberglass cones and inverted dust caps and what is described as multi-coating, whatever that may be. I believe these units are from Vifa but are extensively customized by Sonus Faber. The tweeter is a silk dome unit, with a 26mm nominal diameter, magnetically shielded and protected from prying fingers with a spider arrangement that may also play a phase correcting role, and with ferrofluid in the voice coil gap, which provides damping or more efficient cooling - or both, depending on who you consult. All drivers are magnetically shielded in deference to the GP Home’s secondary role as the lead speaker in the Sonus Faber Home home theatre system, which also includes the Solo (a center speaker with a vertically in line driver array), the Wall (a two way direct radiating surround effects speaker) and the Gravis (an active subwoofer). The GP Home is equipped with a single pair of good quality 4mm brass binding posts mounted on a solid, barely recessed panel. Quite why the speaker isn’t bi-wired is not clear, but it is in good company: JMlab do the same on their senior models, on the grounds that they don’t want people ‘reinventing’ their speakers with inappropriate bi-amplified arrangements. Perhaps Sonus Faber takes the same view.
As always with this marquee, it is the intricacies of the enclosure design that sets the GP Home apart. The tapering shape will naturally tend to disperse some internal resonances as well as aiding time alignment on the design listening axis, but the GP Home enclosure is not as complex as some of the senior Sonus Fabers, though it is more so than most similar speakers from other brands. In this case, the main carcass is make from MDF, which is braced and damped internally, and then wrapped in leatherette. Finally, the solid wood side panels are glued in place with a damping adhesive and then bolted to the main enclosure, the aim being to damp the main enclosure.
Also supplied with the GP is a tripod metal platform fitted with carpet piercing spikes. The platform does little for the otherwise gloriously organic aesthetics, but it does mean that the speaker can be angled to suit the listing height. The baffle tilts gently backwards, and adjusting the spikes differentially means that the output can be roughly time aligned at the listening seat.
Setup Is Key
The practicalities of setting up are not especially onerous, and there is nothing about the speaker which is like to make it a problem in any moderately large room, and probably quite a few smaller ones too, as long as room nodes are well distributed. About the least friendly aspect of the design is that it likes some space to breathe. Push it hard against a wall and the bass level increases, and although it doesn’t become boomy, thanks to inherently good driver control and a well-judged balance, the midrange definitely suffers, becoming more colored and less transparent. If the GP is about anything, it is about the magic of a really well voiced mid-band can bring to the party. Leave about half a meter of room behind, keep them well away from corners (of course), ensure that the spikes are well planted so that the speaker doesn’t rock, and toe them in so that the you are listening more or less on the tweeter axis - but see later. The final, crucial step is to tune the vertical orientation of the speaker by adjusting the spikes. Ideally get a partner to do this while you are seated in your normal chair, use wide bandwidth material, and aim for the most sharply focused result, an effect that is analogous to adjusting the VTA on a record cartridge with a line contact stylus, for those who are familiar with the world of vinyl. Oh, and it is best to remove the baffle covers, which definitely have a impact negatively on sound quality.
The choice of amplifier and cable is not hard either. From what I can judge, the GP Home is not a difficult loudspeaker to drive, and it is even relatively sensitive (probably within a dB or so of the claimed 90dB/watt), so unless your room is particularly large or absorbent, or you are intent on playing music at head banging levels - in which case this may not be the speaker for you – then a moderately powerful integrated amp from the likes of Classe, Krell, Lavardin, or one of the bigger Musical Fidelity models, should do the trick. I used a variety, including a Musical Fidelity A3 pre and A300 power amp, and a TAG McLaren system comprising their DVD32R DVD/CD player, AV32R processor and a 100x3R power amplifier for much of the listening, wired with Chord Odyssey speaker cables, though high resolution Nordost Valhalla cables were used with the Musical Fidelity amplifier. Other equipment was available too, including several DVD-Audio and SACD players, and where the latter performed well musically (which was not always the case), the GP Home was more than capable of showing where the advantage was, even though the tweeter is not certified to extend up to 50kHz, still less 100kHz.
On performance, the basic prognosis is straightforward, though my test pair was already run in, and I cannot vouch for the way it sounds fresh from the box, which could be substantially different. In its run in state, this is a speaker which is broadly neutral tonally, except for a localized lower treble lift, which is discussed later. The bass is well extended for what is a relatively compact floor stander.
The treble is not absolutely top quality. My own main speaker for some time has been the JMlab Mezzo Utopia, whose inverted dome Focal tweeter is practically in a class of its own, being as near as I have encountered to ideal in the sense that it has practically no character or ‘voice’ of its own, yet it is exquisitely detailed. But this is part of a speaker which costs roughly four times as much as the GP, and simpler versions of the same Focal tweeter used in lower grade speakers are not quite in the same class. The Sonus Faber tweeter is sweet and refined, and the treble output is more energetic than most Italian speakers. In a lesser speaker and with less than first rate electronics in charge it might be dismissed as bright, in fact it appears to loose output smoothly at it approaches 20kHz. The excess energy is in the lower treble, apparently centered around 5kHz.
The bass is good – really good. The bass line in Jennifer Warnes Rock you gently from The Hunter album has a complex repeating pattern, which often causes even some very good speakers trip over themselves and sound ungainly. Here it merely served to demonstrate the Grand Piano’s mettle by applying an agility and tunefulness that most speakers simply don’t possess, and which smaller speakers are simply blind to. The effect is that the song floats on the bass line, which must be as it was conceived. Of course I could have just been lucky with the choice of material, but after listening to a range of material, it quickly became obvious that this wasn’t the case. This is a speaker with an assured bass, which is quite full and deep when taking the modest enclosure dimensions into account, and which above all gives a clear impression of pitch and propulsive timing.
This is also a loudspeaker with a wide working dynamic range, which manifests in various ways. It can be heard most clearly in recordings with an obviously wide dynamic range, one very good example of which is Sheffield Lab’s Kodo - Heartbeat Drummers of Japan, which ranges from whisper quiet to passages of intense loudness, and here the GP managed to speak out loud without apparent stress or strain at levels that were uncomfortable to listen to simply because they were so loud, but at the lowest levels the sound remained clear and articulate. The only real loss of impact here was set by the bandwidth of the speakers, which at the low frequency end of the spectrum doesn’t quite allow the big drum sounds the tactile quality that a bigger, beefier loudspeaker can bring to the task.
But the issue of dynamics is not restricted to overtly loud, dynamic recordings like this. Dynamic resolution (if you will forgive the term) is also an issue with orchestral recordings, where the requirement is for small scale, quiet sounds to be resolved in the presence of much larger ones, and where individual instruments should be heard in a group of similar sounding instruments. This is something that concerns the whole system of course and not just the loudspeakers, but the GP Home is one of the best in my experience. It has a scalpel like ability to dig down to the finest detail, yet the music never sounds desiccated or brash. The brightness is unlikely to be a problem in practice unless the listening distance is low, perhaps because the room is small. Ideally listen from around three meters or so, and if necessary orient the speaker so that the tweeter axis cross over a little behind the listening place.
Most of all this is a smooth, detailed and attractively voiced loudspeaker of a sophistication unusual at the price. It is notably free of box like artifacts, and it is particularly effective with acoustic instruments - chamber music for example, where its accurate tonality plays a key role, and with human voice. This is a loudspeaker that understands how to sing.
Type: 30 litre two-way with ABR front vented design,
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