Sonus Faber Il Cremonese Floorstanding Loudspeaker
If there is anything obvious about obvious truths, it is their truth. Nothing else about them need be, and often nothing else is. Moreover, some obvious truths are obvious only in retrospect. Obvious truths truisms can be revealing, insightful and even important.
I. An Audio System Is A System
You may have been asked the question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is present to hear it, does it make a sound?' The sensible answer is that falling trees create sounds, but if at the time and place they fall nothing with the capacity to hear is within earshot, none of the sounds made are heard. Machines, instruments, and other inanimate objects, as well as humans and other animals, can produce sounds. But hearing requires auditory hardware that producing sounds does not.
Importantly, the hearing hardware that most humans have is quite similar and has developed evolutionarily to create sustainable adaptations to an ever-changing environment. Though we hear similarly what we hear even given the same auditory landscape can differ dramatically. What we hear depends in part on how we organize our engagement with what the world presents to our auditory sense. Outside our NYC apartment, police cars chase down burglars as well as partygoers, ambulances rush the injured and infirm to nearby hospitals, more than the occasional car serenades the neighborhood with god-awful music at ear-splitting volume, and garbage trucks make their way ever so slowly up and down the streets in a modest attempt to clean up the filth that has been left for their attention on sidewalks and street corners. These familiar sounds keep my wife awake at night and scurrying back to our home in Connecticut. Me? The clatter constitutes the soundtrack of my life.
II. Hearing And Listening
But even fine-grained hearing, the kind my wife has for the sounds of NYC sirens, does not constitute listening. Hearing and listening are related but importantly different activities. You can't listen to what you don't hear, so listening requires hearing. But hearing does not imply listening as parents learn early on from their children. I know my children have heard me admonishing them to clean their rooms and complete their homework assignments, though I knew full well that they were barely listening to a word I said.
Listening requires a directed focus paying attention. Of course, the phrase 'paying attention' has at least two senses. One involves focus; the other involves absorbing or internalizing the message. My children sometimes listen to my directives in the first sense having no interest or willingness to pay attention in the latter. Audio listening often involves both forms of paying attention. Indeed, one of the main reasons for focusing on the music is to get the gist of the composer's intentions, to explore the music for its emotional and cognitive content, and so on.
III. Part Of What It Means To Be An Audiophile
Listening is an iterative teaching process as well. It is one of the ways in which we sharpen our interpretive skills, cultivate our tastes and develop the values we bring to our listening. It is learning (in part) by doing. Audiophiles listen through their systems, even though they are often criticized for listening primarily to their systems. There is some truth to the criticism of course, but it misses a larger point. A genuine audiophile is at her core a music lover who appreciates that the personal, social, intellectual, cognitive and emotional values associated with music as well as the experience of it can be significantly enhanced by its presentation. The quality of presenting recorded music depends on the machinery of its reproduction. Audiophiles want to be able to listen to the best version of the music they can so that they can get the most from the listening experience, given the constraints (e.g. space, time, financial resources) within which each operates.
To be sure some who would claim (incorrectly in my view) the mantle of 'audiophile' listen more to their system than through it. They lose the thread and forget that at the end of the day an audio system is an artifact with the specific immediate purpose of presenting recorded music. Their motives are many and the paths that lead them there are varied. There is no perfect test for determining if one has lost the thread. Still, there is something to be said for the view that when one stops listening to the music one loves on one's system in favor of the music that sounds best on it, one's gone to the 'dark' side.
Most of us have fewer opportunities, less time and not enough money to experience as much live music as we would like. On the other hand, recorded music is virtually everywhere available and virtually free. Whatever it is less than salutary consequences may be, we have the internet to thank for this. Even were we able to listen to as much live music as we would like, that would not fully satisfy our desire to experience it. In part that is because the desire to have music in our lives is more spontaneous than attending live events can accommodate. Moreover, there is a distinctive kind of pleasure (or pleasures) that results from experiencing music in different ways not just at different times, or when the fancy strikes, but also through different mediums. Finally, listening to music on the radio, in the car, at the office, through earbuds and the like is how most listened to music and to cultivate our taste for it.
One of the distinctive features of being an audiophile is that we reserve substantial periods of time listening to music while doing nothing else: not driving, not reading, not eating, and not in an elevator. We give ourselves over to listening and direct our intentions as well as our attention to doing so. For most of us in the developed world, this means listening through a music playback system. Though the desire to create and enjoy music is broadly, perhaps even universally shared among humans, the opportunity to listen to recorded music is less so, and the capacity to do so through a system designed primarily, sometimes exclusively, for the purposes of doing so is limited to an even smaller segment of the world's population.
IV. Putting An Audio System Together
I am going to have a hell of a time putting a system together if I have no idea what I want from it, what I want it to do for me. Even if we agree that we listen to music to please us, we may differ both about the kind of pleasure music brings, even about whether there is a mode of pleasure that is distinctive of music. We don't all share the same view, if we have a view on the matter at all, about what it is in the music listening experience that brings pleasure, for obviously different aspects of the experience can bring pleasure to different people and in different ways. We likely have little technical or other understanding of how a music system's various components interact with one another to bring the pleasure we seek from the source we find it. We don't have a formula for putting the pieces together in a way that will 'work' for us; there is no reason to suppose that what works for me will work for you.
I know that a system that creates an immersion in the music pleases me, but I am less sure of the extent to which accuracy, fidelity to the recording, dynamic realism, and so much else contribute to my experiencing immersion. And I sure as hell cannot tell you which mix of components operate with one another in such a way as to create the formula I seek, in part because I don't know how the pieces do what they do in tandem with one another to produce the outcomes that they do. Like Justice Potter Stewart once famously said about pornography: "I know it when I see it."
I experiment employing an iterative and not merely a repetitive process that involves trial and error. I can't put a system together by mere reflection. Nor can I put together a system from a magazines' lists of recommended products based on 'performance' even a list that is presented as if the audio component performance could be captured by the once familiar but now very much outdated primary school grading system. Indeed, the very idea of such a grading system surviving in the world of audio is as good a sign as any of the mean age of the audiophile class.
Even 'objective' measurements are unlikely to be of much help. Putting together components each of which measures well will produce a system, unsurprisingly, in which we can sure of only one thing: namely that each of whose parts measures well. We have no idea of whether such a system will be musically convincing or bring pleasure? Whether it is musically convincing or pleasurable depends on how the components play with one another. Not only do we listen from a particular place and a particular time, but our listening experience and judgment are also framed by what I call our 'epistemic circumstances.' Our epistemic circumstances include what we know about music, the taste we have cultivated for it, our capacity to appreciate it and to express our appreciation for it, our knowledge of the tools for its reproduction, the ways in which they interact with one another, and so on.
Looking to uncover a scale for measuring absolute quality whether through 'objective measurements' or through the lens of 'an ideal listener' is a fool's errand. But even the more appropriate goal of seeking to develop appreciation, cultivate taste and understanding while finding pleasure, joy, insight, and enjoyment is hard enough. Not just for end-users, but for designers, manufacturers, retailers, listeners, and reviewers as well. And we all have a role to play in helping those who care to do so reach those goals.
Usually for two reasons. First, I have little idea about what they are listening for. I am not sure that they do either. Second, who am I to tell them what to do. I can sometimes provide them with questions they might want to answer before proceeding, but I can't advise them what to do. But I do offer one bit of advice to everyone, not just those who ask for it. Whatever system(s) you have now, keep it. Not necessarily forever, but certainly well beyond the period when you first become dissatisfied with it.
Well, in the first place, the honeymoon period during which time you likely feel that you have found audio nirvana is, more often than not, absurdly short. It is too often followed by 'get this stuff out of my house immediately," or "how can I sell this stuff," and "I'm going to take a bath, but I can't stand listening to this piece of junk," and more. Give yourself time with your system and a more balanced view will emerge.
Second, and even more importantly, the best way to learn about yourself, the distinctive virtues and limits of audio reproduction and what kinds of components do and don't work well together is to keep one system, with minimal changes, in place for a decent period of time. Patience with a system does not always mean leaving it alone. Sometimes it means trying to make it the best it can be and that requires making changes at the margin: keeping the core in place and seeing if you can get it all to work its magic in the right setting.
Let's focus for a moment on two such periods in audio history. It is easy to forget that horn loudspeakers of one sort or another were everywhere on the audio landscape at least until the advent of small bookshelf speakers produced by the likes of Acoustic Research, Advent and KLH. The mighty Klipsch line of speakers was still very much in vogue well into the 1970s. Though invented at Bell Labs in 1947, the transistor did not find its way into mainstream audio amplification with a vengeance until the late 1960s/early 1970s. There is no denying the achievement of the extraordinary good that has come from its invention and its continued development.
But its bursting onto the audio amplifier scene in the 1970s almost completely killed the horn loudspeaker. Designed to work with low powered tube electronics, the horn loudspeaker developed over a half-century to bring recorded music to life in the context of a given set of microphones, recording machines, and tube electronics. Horn loudspeakers were not built primarily to grace home living spaces, especially apartments. And they were most certainly not designed to work with transistors which in the early years were painfully metallic sounding and harsh.
In the early 1970s, I recall hearing nothing as bad as audio systems that mated harsh and metallic transistor amps with horn loudspeakers. The transistor killed the horn loudspeaker market in the USA. Had it not been for the continuity of the horn loudspeaker culture in Japan (which is hard to fathom given the small size of dwellings in Tokyo in particular and the large Voice of the Theater speakers that graced so many of them) mated to low powered vacuum tubes, the horn loudspeaker might very well have disappeared altogether from home audio.
Which brings me to the second example of bad luck in audio, and another instance of the truism that putting together an audio system is a daunting task.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the home speaker market reflected the many new opportunities the transistor created. The bookshelf speaker of the 70s morphed into the stand-mounted imaging champ of the 1990s. The two-way mini-monitor was de rigeur for smaller space listening. The narrow baffle reigned supreme and showed itself on all manner of three and four-way floor standing speakers featuring higher-order crossovers and exotic tweeter materials.
Listening sessions became exercises in picking out and locating well-defined musicians placed appropriately distanced from one another on an ever-widening and deepening soundstage. Transient response and leading-edge replaced harmonics, inner detail, density, and a much more holistic rendering of the soundscape. The concepts of the day were 'detail', 'transparency' and 'neutrality': virtues, in my view, more appropriate to a liberal political order than to audio playback.
But there was no denying the fact that the transistor and the speakers it made possible had altered the music landscape and the home listening experience.
And then came 'perfect sound forever': the introduction of the silver disc, the CD. The impact of the CD is best appreciated in retrospect and most accurately reflected in the audio lexicon of the day. New terms were introduced to describe the listening experience, chief among them being 'listener fatigue.' Reviews of audio equipment often discussed how a system in the living room or listening room sounded from the kitchen while cooking or eating dinner. My view, with which many may well disagree, is that while presented as a virtue of a system, the emphasis on how the system in the family room sounded while preparing dinner 50 feet and many walls and doors away in the kitchen, was just an indirect way of expressing the fact that the system was best heard as far away from it as possible.
VII. Enter Sonus Faber
Undeterred, Serblin formed Sonus Faber in 1983 and introduced his first fully commercial product, the Parva. This two-way speaker met with mild success, but Serblin soldiered on and by 1991, Sonus Faber had launched several two-way stand-mounted speakers that have become near-legendary in their impact, including the Minima, the Electa, the Electa Amator and the Extrema. The Electa Amator and the Extrema, in particular, helped brand the company as manufacturers of visually arresting and extraordinary music transducers.
To many, these speakers were as remarkable for their exquisite beauty as for their luscious sound. I was not among the legion who found the physical aesthetic alluring. To my eye, the Extrema, was a squat and overbearing. My taste in Italian design runs less to the ornate and self-aggrandizing, favoring instead of sleek lines and well-defined purpose. Sonus Faber speakers were meant to be visually arresting and noticed, more in the manner of a Ferrari or Bugatti, and entirely unlike a fine Armani suit, a Renzo Piano-designed museum or residence. In the home, a Sonus Faber speaker was not meant to disappear aesthetically. It was meant to be more sculpture than furniture, more art than an appliance.
Admittedly, and certainly, among the audio cognoscenti, my view of the aesthetic of the earliest Sonus Faber designs represented a minority position. The saying that 'beauty is only skin deep' did not apply to Sonus Faber. The speakers' sonic signature, not in every design, and not to the same degree in every design, was not just exquisite but a godsend especially during the early and dark days of CD. Musically, Sonus faber designs were quite magical. You could say that turned what might otherwise have been a scream into a soothing melody; a pelting of hail into a sun-shower. There was a question of course whether this meant that they were colored, dishonest and unfaithful to the source. It's a question worth answering. But answering it requires first an account of what fidelity and honesty amount to.
Imagine being tasked to interpret a text presented to you. Texts should be understood broadly to include anything capable of expressing cognitive or emotional content: poems, plays, novels, dances, artworks, performances, even legal documents. To understand what we are being asked to do we need to understand what providing an interpretation of a text amounts to. Are we being asked to provide its literal meaning? In that case, we apply the rules of syntax and the tools of semantics to figure out what is being expressed. But that doesn't seem appropriate to interpreting a painting, a dance or even a poem. Sometimes we are being asked to identify the author's (composer's, choreographer's) intention. But this can hardly make sense of works made by collections of people who have many diverse intentions and motives.
A better view begins with the idea that interpretation requires judgment. Interpreting a text requires making a certain kind of sense out of it. Think of the task a good editor of a book plays. She must get a sense of the main story and plot lines as well as the underlying themes. When she has that, she recommends ways of emphasizing those features and eliminating or moving to the background other material that is distracting, counterproductive or simply at odds with her view of the key plot lines and themes. The next task is to make the entirety hang together and to present itself as best it can. The picture I have of interpretation is roughly the same. Interpreting a text is a judgment-based activity designed to find the meaning or implications of the text and to present that meaning in its best light that is to say, as forcefully and convincingly as possible.
This is the difference between editing and copy-editing. The task is not to put a text under a microscope, nor is it to approach the text in the manner of a who-done-it. Interpretation is not translation. It is not a reproduction of what is already there. That is best done by copy machines which are judgment proof and available in abundance. Interpretation is archeological and fundamentally evaluative. It is also performative, for its task is in part to present the most persuasive rendering of a text's meaning, consequences and significance if any.
Interpretations of particular texts may differ and even the very best are, sometimes as a result of just how good they are, controversial. But for all that, they are by their very nature, honest and faithful. Good interpretations add color, but they are not colored. That they favor and display some elements of a text at the relative expense of others is no sign of distortion but of sympathy to the textual undertaking.
The key to understanding the magic of the Sonus Faber line of speakers is to see some speakers not as translators or microscopes, nor as spell or grammar checkers, but as interpreters, in the sense, I have outlined here. Those who design speakers in this way see the speaker's task as requiring that it dig into the material before it as would an archeologist, uncover what it can and reconstruct the materials it is given and to present that material in its most favorable light musically. So understood, the speaker is constructed to sort through the material in search of its most musically relevant components and to present that material in the way that makes it most capable of conveying its meaning its cognitive and emotional content.
That is, I would suggest, the magical feat of the very best loudspeakers or those I am most drawn to; and it was in this camp that the Sonus Faber speakers found themselves; and more importantly, it was implicitly at least how they identified themselves.
On the other hand, while the speaker had a clear signature, it did not offer a simply homogenized presentation. After all, the goal of the speaker is not merely to come up with an interpretation, but to convey it forcefully. And no speaker can do that unless it allows one to access the musical and spatial cues that are essential to the appreciation of the presentation by a listener who has cultivated an interest understanding how music contributes to our understanding of ourselves, the natural and social world and of our place within it.
I don't find phrases like 'colored' or 'neutral' or 'resolving' particularly useful when applied by most audio reviewers. Adding color to a presentation is a way of filling out, not necessarily a way of being unfaithful to it. Resolving in the audio lexicon sounds to me too much like HDTV at its worst: like watching a football game so you can distinguish one blade of grass from the next an activity that, by my lights has nothing to do with either watching or playing football. I say this having done both. Resolution is a kind of completeness. An unresolved work is incomplete, unfinished: sometimes the art in it is that it is intentionally so; sometimes there is no art in it precisely because it is not intentionally so. And neutrality is a virtue in some contexts in which one must judge among competitors, but audio components do not play the role of unbiased judges. My view is that an audio system is itself a performative presentation.
Interpretations are invariably contestable. All highlight some aspects of a text or performance at the expense of others. All involve judgment about what counts most and why. Sonus Faber speakers were no different. The emphasis on tonal balance, emotive content, engulfing immersive experience involved choices: a less dynamic form of majesty, a less precisely defined bottom end, less sparkle in the highs and so on. No speaker can be everything to everybody, and that's fine.
VIII. The Transition
Moving from individual to corporate-controlled to changes at the speaker manufacturer, some, though not all, of which were widely regarded then and now as missteps. There was an immediate and sensible effort to broaden the potential customer base by introducing a wide array of speaker lines at different price points. While sensible in principle, the net effect of this effort was to 'cheapen' the Sonus Faber brand, as the first thing to go in the lower-priced models was the signature Sonus Faber design aesthetic. There was also no obvious rationale for the explosion of speaker lines, let alone for the number of speakers in each line. The decision must have produced the desired results in expanding the customer base as the number of speakers currently on offer by Sonus Faber remains high.
The real problem, and the one that was to dog the company for quite some time, was musical, not visual. The top of the lineup the Reference line maintained the exquisite aesthetics associated with the brand. But nearly everything that was distinctive of its musical presentation changed abruptly. Gone was the expansive musical envelope, glorious midrange, density in the higher frequencies, a warmish, full (sometimes too full) if not extended bass; if not lost entirely, the Sonus Faber signature sound had gone missing. Those seduced by Sonus Faber felt abandoned. Seduced then abandoned and for what? Sonus Faber left its past behind in favor of pursuing what by then had become the modern sound: a musical presentation fueled by propulsive dynamics, leading-edge transients, sharply focused images, high resolution (in the audiophile sense of the term), and so on. In a phrase, Sonus Faber had gone all-in on becoming the Italian Wilson, Focal or Magico.
All of these speakers (and others as well) represented the apex of the modern sound. The problem is not with the aspiration, which, after all, may well have represented the prevailing market preference, and in many ways continues to do so. It's just that when you are arguably very nearly the best at what you do, you are not only going to find it hard to win over your loyal customer base to your efforts to do well what others are already acknowledged to be doing extremely well; you are going to have a hell of a time convincing those drawn to the acknowledged leaders to abandon ship in favor of your offering. The Sonus Faber, vintage 2010, bore only a passing and ill-defined resemblance to the company that Franco Serblin founded in 1983. Worse yet, Sonus Faber, circa 2010, did not do Wilson particularly well.
IX. Creating A New Voicing
I was fortunate enough to hear that voice in my listening room for three months this past year and the memory of my time with it lingers. The occasion was provided by an opportunity to review the Il Cremonese speaker, which at $50,000, sits at the entryway to the Reference line. Introduced in 2015, the Il Cremonese speaker was named to honor Antonio Stradivari's Cremonese violin on its 300th birthday. Franco Serblin believed that audio speakers are instruments of a sort and should be made of similar materials. Sonus Faber has never wavered from this commitment at least with respect to its reference quality products. And the Il Cremonese is no exception.
The view that speakers are a kind of instrument, however, has been widely misunderstood to mean that Sonus Faber intentionally tunes their speakers as one would tune an instrument in order sympathetically to resonate with the music they play. The Il Cremonese puts the lie to this misrepresentation and does so forcefully.
Paolo Tezzon is the head of R&D at Sonus Faber and the Il Cremonese makes clear that he is no fan of resonating, vibrating speakers. Steps to reduce vibration and resonance are everywhere designed into the speaker from its tippy-top (which rests nearly five feet above the floor) to its base. The speaker is a five-sided or rhomboid design that in theory is structurally more stable and solid than the typical four-sided box. In my listening, I found no reason to think that the theoretical claim was not realized in practice. Solidity is enhanced by the internal structures that house the various drivers. The Il Cremonese is designed for linear response, not for sympathetic or complementary resonance.
At over 180 pounds, two feet deep, nearly five feet tall, and nearly 16" wide, the Il Cremonese create a visually arresting and commanding presence. It is meant to be seen as well as heard, and to be admired for its visual as well as musical beauty. The speaker itself is a 3.5-way design. The tweeter, midrange, and two woofers are all located on the front baffle, each surrounded by Italian leather. This array of four drivers constitute the 3 of the 3.5-way driver design. These drive units are intended to cover the frequency range between 80 Hz and 35 kHz. The tweeter takes responsibility for frequencies above 2500Hz; the midrange for those between 250 and 2500 Hz, while the dual woofers handle frequencies between 80 and 250 Hz.
Two additional woofers are mounted to one of the side panels of each speaker. The side panels are finished in wood, not leather, which is reserved for the remaining two rear panels. Sonus Faber refers to these additional bass units as 'infra-woofers,' and they are designed to handle frequencies between 35 and 80Hz. Sonus Faber recommends that the infra-woofers be placed on the outside panel of each speaker thereby facing the respective sidewalls. One could try setting them up so that they in effect fire more or less at one another.
The McIntosh group team set my review pair up with the infra-woofers firing into my large listening room's sidewalls. I figured that these folks had enough experience with the speakers to know what was most likely to sound best in my room. I did not hesitate to defer to their judgment and consequently did all my listening with the infra-woofers in that position. The fact that the speakers weigh in at 185lbs no doubt influenced my decision.
Every driver is designed in house. More importantly, each driver is set inside a separate acoustic chamber, isolated from the housing of other drivers. Each chamber is acoustically tuned to promote linear response to the extent possible.
One should not underestimate the design challenge. On the one hand, isolating each driver from the others improves the structural stability of the speaker while reducing the untoward impact of each driver's resonant frequency might have on the others. The problem of controlling resonant frequency is confined to each driver's chamber and dealt with accordingly. At the same time, this leads to arguably four different independent driver or driver arrays (in the case of the bass and sub-bass units). Once having isolated the impact of the drivers on one another and on the entirety taken as a whole the challenge is to get the units to integrate seamlessly from a music reproduction point of view.
The challenge is met by the crossover network designed using high-quality capacitors and inductors. The technical goal of the crossover network is to improve time delay by improving volume and phase response. The musical goal is easier to express and understand: to get the various drivers working in concert with one another to create a unified, fully resolved, integrated musical presentation.
I am among the group of audiophiles who look favorably (at least in theory) on single, full-range driver speakers for two reasons. First of all, a single driver speaker has no crossover and thus runs no risk of the sonic discontinuity that crossovers, however well designed, fight mightily if not always successfully to overcome. Second, multi-driver speakers, including even simple two-way designs almost always use drivers made of different materials, and virtually all materials have their sonic signatures.
That said, it is also the case that the fears associated with multi-driver speakers whose drivers boast different materials are often overstated. Everyone 'knows' that metallic tweeters 'ring' and so everyone claims to hear the ringing all the time. Not so. If the ringing were always as prominent as critics allege it is such designs would have long since disappeared. I am not saying metal tweeters don't ring. They do. But reducing their impact is a challenge, not an objection. Less than charitable critics, often confuse a challenge with a telling objection.
To my ears, the 3.5-way Il Cremonese speaker proved more than up to challenges that its multi-driver array and individual isolated chamber design presents.
At the same time, unlike the rest of the house which sits above a full basement and cross-braced flooring, the family room is part of an addition I designed that sits above a crawl space. Its wood floor, though of the same materials and density as the flooring elsewhere in the home, is not nearly as well braced. I would say that it produces a somewhat softer and less deep bass than some speakers are capable of. I am reluctant therefore to comment on any speaker's bass extension and any comments I do make should be contextualized accordingly. On the other hand, the room is generally sympathetic to music both live and recorded.
Though the room is sympathetic to music overall, it is a difficult room to energize. I've had mammoth speakers in the room that were unable to do so and much smaller ones, properly set up and with appropriate associated equipment, capable of lighting a firestorm of musical energy. After listening to music in this room for over 30 years, I know it well what it gives and what it takes away and listen (and review) accordingly.
The good folks from McIntosh spent the better part of a morning and early afternoon setting the speakers up. The final set up placed the speakers about six feet from the back wall and eight feet from one another. The front end of the review system consisted of a highly modified Resolution Audio CD player and accompanying DAC, a Well-Tempered Labs turntable / tonearm and EMT cartridge. Electronics were all PASS Labs: separate line stage and phono stage, and the Pass Labs XA 200.5 monoblocks. When employing balanced inputs and outputs, interconnect and cabling duties were handled primarily by Merrill Audio. Unbalanced RCA connections were handled by a mixture of Auditorium 23 and Audience. Power cords and conditioning were provided by a mix of Merrill and Audience as well.
Though visually imposing the Il Cremonese managed to disappear as a source. The soundstage it produced varied with the recording as appropriate. On music as different as Leonard Cohen's haunting "You Want it Darker" and his "Everybody Knows" to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme", the Il Cremonese was able to throw a soundstage that extended from sidewall to sidewall and from the back wall to a near field listening position. On other songs, the soundstage was far more intimate and personal.
I am typically moved by pinpoint imaging. Mind you, I take no pleasure in having images wandering aimlessly across the soundstage. When that happens, there is usually much more to complain about in the presentation than its imaging. But I get no special pleasure from unrealistically well-defined or high definition imaging. People and instruments blend in the space around them. Blades of grass similarly blend into one another on a golf course or football field. The intentionally finely cut images in photorealist paintings are designed to call attention to the unreality of the scene being portrayed. I feel similarly about the kind of imaging that so many of my contemporaries find alluring. Attention-getting, yes; but distracting and precisely for that reason.
Sonus faber's Il Cremonese struck an attractive balance in this regard. It presented instruments and musicians on the soundstage as stable and recognizable images, but not so finely detailed as to be cartoon cut out figures. Very much to my liking. Not enough attention is paid to what I like to think of as the 'density' of both the music and the images. Here the density of an image bolsters a speaker's musical presentation. I find holographic images ephemeral, lifeless, while dense images often stand as cues to the depth of a speaker's capacity to reveal the harmonic structure of music and the interaction among the musicians. Many otherwise excellent speakers succeed at presenting dense images in the midrange but present less and less dense images as they proceed up the frequency range. But even notes in the highest registers have a weight and density appropriate to them and only a speaker that can reveal and portray that weight can be musically convincing.
Sonus faber's Il Cremonese are among the handful of most convincing loudspeakers I have heard and precisely because from top to bottom the images they present are dense; they are not simply locations in space, but they can be heard as occupying space over time! This feature of the Il Cremonese made it very easy to listen to all types of music for extended and diverse listening sessions. I recall one night in particular in which my listening session began soon after dinner by listening to Tom Wait's "House Where Nobody Lives" from his extraordinary Mule Variations album. I expected the evening would proceed along this mellow and depressing road, but within the hour, I was turning up the volume on Van Morrison's 'From the Bright Side of the Road'. By midnight, my music choices had taken a turn to Ornette Coleman, though I couldn't begin to tell you how I got there. I was just following the momentum of the music and letting it take me where it wanted me to go.
It was approaching 3:15am when I finally returned to the somewhat morbid key that started the evening's meanderings. I closed the evening with Warren Zevon's "Keep Me In Your Heart For A While", not satisfied to have put proceedings to an earlier end with Jeff Buckley's heartbreaking rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
The speaker favors no type of music. This distinguishes it from many speakers I have reviewed and owned. Large orchestral and choral pieces fall within the Il Cremonese's sweetspot as it can sort the pieces while never disconnecting the parts from one another. The presentation is enveloping yet at an appropriate remove: a remove appropriate to take it all in at once. At the same time, well-recorded jazz combos (especially those produced by the Chesky group) were at once more intimate and present on the one hand but as capable of filling out the overall soundscape as the Cleveland Symphony.
I have a soft spot for Donovan that I feel the occasional need to explain to others. The simple answer is that I went to High School with one of his original bandmates and we smoked a good deal of marijuana together. On the other hand, he ended up naming his children after various planets, while I was content to name mine after relatives who had passed away. Still, fond memories. In any case, Donovan is a fine songwriter, and his songs are intimate and personal. The Il Cremonese portrayed them accordingly.
There was a seamlessness to the presentation that was especially bewitching. Many speakers speak different languages throughout the audible spectrum: heavy bass, dynamic mid-bass, articulate midrange, ephemeral highs. It's a continuum of course but it is rare to find a speaker that speaks with one voice and in one language throughout the frequency range and across the musical spectrum. The last speaker I heard that had this trait was the Sound Lab 845, which I rate as among the greatest audio achievements of the past ten years. The Il Cremonese share this extraordinary characteristic.
The speakers are very different though. Though both are visually imposing (the 845 so much so that it in my room it nearly blocked out all the natural light!), the SoundLab was a bit more natural to my ear. If they risk anything, it is being a bit too pleasant or patient. It is hard to get them fired up or intense. In contrast, the Il Cremonese is a more intense loudspeaker; it is still very much a modern speaker. Or I should say it is very much designed from a different starting point than the Sound Lab. The Sound Lab has had a consistent voicing always being drawn from the vision of Dr. Roger West. Sonus Faber spoke with Franco Serblin's voice until he left. Then in searching for a voice of its own, it moved in the direction of the modern speaker and has been retreating from that in incremental steps to find its current musical voice.
I don't expect that process to end any time soon. But if it stopped here with the Il Cremonese it would have landed in a musically divine state. Some, but not all of the lusciousness is back; at the same time, far more information and nuance are available now than ever before. The story it tells has more to listen to, more to get lost in; more to appreciate and admire both in the story and the telling of it. For me, the only flaw at all is in the intensity of the presentation, which one can sometimes hear most directly from the tweeter, which, while it no longer needs to be tamed, could still benefit from a more understated presence.
I have read reviews of the Aida II from reviewers whose tastes, while very different than my own, I understand and whose reviews I invariably find fair-minded and informative. It is clear from those reviews that the Il Cremonese and the Aida II are part of the same family and share many of the same virtues and musical characteristics. At roughly one third the price of the Aida II, that makes the Il Cremonese something of a bargain for those drawn to these characteristics. In searching for a way to sum up my feelings about the speaker, I kept coming back to the very simple idea that the Il Cremonese simply has a way with music. On the other hand, if you are investing $50,000 or so for a loudspeaker, you may want to be able to say more than that. You'd want to be able to give a list of particulars.
But you'd be misguided if not mistaken. If you can invest $50,000 for a loudspeaker and it makes the music feel so right, you needn't explain yourself to anyone. There are lots of ways to spend much more and receive far less in return.