Out of the 20-plus years of reviewing experience I have under my belt, I can safely say that around 97 per cent of it has happened on land, either locked in one of our test rooms, or wandering local streets and jumping on and off public transport while testing noise-cancelling headphones.
There is also perhaps 2.9 per cent that has happened on four wheels. When the chance arises, I take the odd in-car sound system for a spin and have been lucky enough to have tested some of the best systems the market has to offer from the likes of Bentley, BMW and Porsche, to name but three.
But I can safely say I have never experienced anything quite like the sound systems that greeted me on a recent press trip to Italy. They all feature McIntosh amplification and Sonus Faber speakers – but, instead of being on land, these particular systems are available only on the high seas...
A joint high-end venture
Why? Well, they are the fruits of a recent partnership between the two high-end hi-fi brands and the Italian luxury yacht manufacturer Wally. Wally is renowned for using innovation and technology on board its yachts, with owner Luca Bassani placing an emphasis on space, light, comfort and performance. And, having spent a few hours in the company of one of its latest yachts, the Wallywhy200, I can safely say that all those boxes are ticked, at least in my eyes.
When you see the yacht’s futuristic looks in the flesh, you can’t help but be impressed. And it gets better when you step aboard (although, to be honest, I haven’t set foot on many luxury yachts). The Wallywhy200 is decked out (pardon the pun) in perfectly smooth, and exquisitely finished teak, with more than the odd smattering of carbon fibre. Nowhere is this more evident than when you walk through from the rear of the boat into the main deck salon.
You are greeted by a laminated carbon fibre staircase that runs from the top through the middle of the boat all the way to the bottom, just like a cocktail stick that runs through the middle of a gourmet burger. Very impressive and equally drool-inducing.
But before I start daydreaming about living a life on the open seas in a yacht worth millions (the Wallywhy200 starts at €8 million but by the time clients have added options and custom design flourishes you’re easily looking at over €10 million) it’s probably best I head back to port and talk about the main reason I was actually on board.
When one system isn't enough
One of the options at your disposal when speccing up your shiny new Wallywhy200 is a full-blown McIntosh and Sonus Faber sound experience, which will set you back a cool €300,000. But what exactly do you get for your money? Well, you don’t get just the one system – you actually get three…
One is positioned in the master cabin at the front of the yacht, one on the upper deck salon and one on the main deck salon.
Starting on the upper deck salon, on the top floor of the boat (pictured above), you will find:
5x Sonus Faber Palladio two-way in-ceiling PC662 speakers
1x 12in Sonus Faber Custom active sub-woofer
1x McIntosh MX123 A/V Processor
1x McIntosh MI347 – seven-channel digital amplifier
This is one of the tricker systems to put together, according to McIntosh and Sonus Faber, not least because of the limited places you can position the speakers, and the sheer amount of glass that is present in the room. The ceiling speakers are purposely positioned away from the edges of the room to reduce reflections.
Move down a level and there’s the master cabin, which had been configured to be the main bedroom on this particular boat, although you could have it made into a grand dining room if you so wish. It offers a fabulous 270-degree panoramic view of the outside world.
It consists of:
5x Sonus Faber Palladio PC662 in-ceiling speakers
1x Sonus Faber 12in Custom Active Subwoofer
1x McIntosh MX123 A/V Processor
1x McIntosh MI347 seven-channel digital amplifier
But the showstopper is the system taking pride of place in the main entertaining area, the main deck salon (above). Here you will find:
2x Sonus Faber Custom Speakers
2x 12in Sonus Faber Custom Active Subwoofers
2x 10in Sonus Faber Custom Active Subwoofers
4x Sonus faber Palladio PC683 - three-way in-ceiling speakers
1x McIntosh MC255 – five-channel solid-state amplifier
1x McIntosh MC312 – two-channel solid-state amplifier
1x McIntosh MX170 A/V processor
You can’t exactly miss the front left and right channels of the system, even though they have been tucked into the rear corners of the room. They look stunning in situ, the silk tweeters and paper cones covered by Sonus Faber’s trademark string grilles. Looking equally impressive is the row of McIntosh electronics lined up along the left side of the room.
When all powered up, they light up the room with the company’s trademark blue glow. The sense of theatre in the salon is also helped by the motorised flatscreen TV that drops down from a recess in the ceiling. High-tech and highly desirable.
It isn’t all plain sailing
Obviously, designing and building three different audio systems for a yacht isn’t without its challenges. Similar to an in-car environment, the physical construction of a boat means you are limited in terms of where and how you can position speakers. For example, the systems in the upper-deck salon and the master cabin require in-ceiling speakers all the way around. Large areas of the yacht are covered in glass, so you also need to be able to control, or at least minimise, the effects of internal reflections.
Also, the subwoofers used in the three systems have been positioned in specific areas so they can blend in with the rest of the furniture and not unbalance the aesthetic. They are secured to the floor using custom-made blocks to stop any vibrations being felt through the yacht itself.
The larger main system also has extra challenges. Looking at the left and right speakers you can see one is actually a little shorter than the other. Why? Because this particular room also has been specified with an open kitchen which is in the way of the right speaker.
There is also a little bit of toe-in to reduce the effects of the glass panels on the deck. And this is all before you get to the challenges presented by that central staircase to stereo imaging.
It’s unlikely that critical listening is going to be happening on the yacht, but McIntosh and Sonus Faber have still tried to keep any distortion to a minimum by moving the imaging of the speakers so the stairs don’t interfere.
The layout of the room also creates one big final challenge. It makes it impossible to accommodate a traditional centre speaker in the system. So the setup uses clever processing to create a phantom centre channel. And it works well. It took my ears a little time to adjust, mainly because you are so used to hearing the presence of a centre speaker in a traditional system. But over time, and given the fact you are not going to be sitting right in the sweet spot, I would imagine you get used to it relatively quickly.
The first thing that strikes you is that the tone and character of each system is consistent throughout. Each one sounds clear, detailed, powerful and precise. This is whether you are lying down in the master cabin or lounging around in the main deck salon. There is plenty of punch from the master cabin set-up, while the upper deck system does a good job of sounding sprightly but not overcooking it, especially with all those hard surfaces to contend with. The use of only ceiling-mounted speakers seems to allow for an good spread of sound too.
But the stand-out is undoubtedly the main system. As you would probably expect, it sounds the most ‘hi-fi’ of the three. Playing Liberty by Anette Askvik over Bluetooth, there seems to be plenty of space around her voice. It sounds precise and focused as does each instrument as they seep into the soundstage. Edges are clearly defined and there is a fine sense of agility.
We switched to a clip from Top Gun Maverick, where our hero is trying to hit Mach 10 in his hypersonic jet, and the system delivers a performance bursting with power and detail. As he engages the scramjets, you can almost physically feel the surge in speed, not to mention the rise in tension as you wonder if he (and the jet) will be able to withstand those tremendous forces.
I don’t have the yacht’s standard systems as a comparison but if it mirrors what I have experienced and heard in the automotive world, I doubt they will be able to hold a candle to any of these Sonus Faber/McIntosh set-ups. It’s still very early days for this partnership, but it is one that completely makes sense to me. If you’re spending most of your year cruising around Miami or the Bahamas, why wouldn’t you want to take a superb sound system along for the ride too?
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