Sonus faber Fenice: the phoenix rises in Venice

It was hot in Venice – yes, I know it was in London, too, but the presence of endless tour groups, disgorged from the monster cruise liners churning up the lagoon, in the narrow alleys made getting around on foot a chore, and those very expensive water-taxis very tempting.

However, the cruise ships and equally huge ferries weren’t the only big thing in Venice this weekend: Italian speaker company Sonus faber assembled the world’s audio press to launch a new model not only designed as a statement for the brand, but also as a call for a resurgence in the high-end hi-fi industry.

At least that’s the way CEO Mauro Grange puts it.

Grange (left) joined Sonus faber a while back from phone company 3, moving from a large-scale mobile operator to an outfit with an office staff of 10, 20 production workers and 10 outside consultants, and has put in place an aggressive plan for investment and product development, for which the new loudspeaker is the clarion call.

And he feels that if other companies invest as Sonus faber has, under investment management company Quadrivio (which also owns Audio Research), the high-end sector can grow stronger and more profitable, not just weathering the storm but benefiting from it.

The launch took place at the Palazzo Grassi, an 18th century building converted into a modern art museum by Italian industrial giant Gianni Agnelli of FIAT, and now owned by a company headed by François Pinault, whose business interests include the Gucci Group, the Chateau Latour vineyard and auction house Christie’s.

The Palazzo currently houses an exhibition drawn from Pinault’s collection – well actually, it fills the Palazzo and the recently restored and reopened Punto della Dogana, the old customs building, back at the mouth of the Grand Canal.

I’ve never attended a product launch in the middle of a piece of art before, but this one took place in, and on, Piotr Uklanski’s 2008 work Untitled (Dancing Nazis), which combines a wall-sized montage of pictures of fictional and historical wartime German leaders and soldiers with a disco-style illuminated floor and dance music.

In the midst of this, Grange explains that, as we all know, times in the high-end industry have been tough. So rather than putting up the shutters, or just sitting back and hoping things will improve, Sonus faber has been investing in new models (there’s at least one more to come this year, and three more on the way in 2011), hoping to inspire the rest of the industry to follow its example.

The company has established its own direct-distribution network in China – based in Hong Kong, this serves the rapidly-growing mainland market – and currently has 43 distributors worldwide, making the speakers available in some 2000 specialist hi-fi outlets.

It makes over 18,000 speakers a year, and 87% of those are exported.

So, Fenice, then: named after the Phoenix – even though with worldwide sales up 60% year on year, Sonus faber was hardly in the ashes. This massive speaker is the combination of the technology and craftsmanship for which the company is known, plus a massive injection of new thinking.

The familiar superb woodwork is still there, along with the leather trim, but the structural integrity has been ramped up several notches with massive aluminium top and bottom assemblies, machined from solid material and linked by an internal shaft to take away unwanted energy.

Sonus faber R&D director Paolo Tozzen explains that the basis of this speaker is silence: removing as much as possible to ensure we’re only hearing the music, not the loudspeaker. ‘Silence,’ he says, ‘is the canvas where music is painted.’

So the concept of the new speaker is the ‘silent case’: an enclosure from which all noises and spurious vibrations are excluded.

Central to this is the ‘Anima legata’ system. Tozzen says: it’s based on those two aluminium clamshells, ‘that “collect” the vibrations coming from the cabinet walls and the transducers, like the parabola of an antenna.'

‘The two clamshells are rigidly connected by a special steel rod, a high speed mechanical interface' – that Anima legata, or “Soul Pole” – 'that concentrates the vibrations to the “Multiple Tuned Mass Damper”, a device usually used in record height skyscrapers and F1 cars to critically damp structural resonances, by oscillating in anti-phase.’

Furthermore, the entire speaker is decoupled from the floor using a patent-pending suspension system, avoiding any transmission of mechanical energy, and ensuring acoustic feedback is damped out.

It’s all a bit strange for those of us brought up on a solid connection between floor and speaker via spikes, and also means the 1.7m-tall, 305kg speakers can be made to wobble on their bases, in a very precise, well-damped manner, with a gentle push.

However, that mechanical isolation and mass tuned damping is only a part of the story in a speaker designed to do as much as possible to deliver the music without any let or hindrance, by eliminating all the problems inherent in lesser designs.

Take the striking enclosure, for example: as designer Paolo Villa (above) explains, Sonus faber has long been known for its curvaceous cabinets, inspired by musical instruments, and finished in lush wood veneers, but here the company has adopted the double curve of the lyre for even greater stiffness, and furthermore built a ‘box within a box’.

Two enclosures are used, both made from marine-grade ply, and separated by a visco-elastic damping layer.

And to further free the speakers from room effects, it’s adopted what it calls a Sound Field Shaper, giving variable radiation geometry. Using extra drive units on the rear of the enclosure, in a development of the classic bipolar speaker idea, it provides a control to adjust how much effect they have.

Thus the company has managed to develop a system enabling the user to tune the speakers’ soundstage without affecting the focus of the stereo image.

As you might expect, the drive units are all-new, and designed specifically for Fenice. The tweeter is a 25mm ring-type, using a neodymium/samarium-cobalt motor, and mounted compliantly in its own wooden labyrinth, with a dedicated mass-damper.

The 16.5cm midrange unit has a cone made from cellulose, papyrus and other natural fibres, and a substantial motor in a chassis machined from two metals – avional and gunmetal – for mutual damping, while the twin woofers use 25cm cones constructed from a sandwich of syntactic foam and cellulose pulp like that used in the midrange.

A similar construction is used on the side-firing 38cm infra-bass unit (above), except here the ‘bread’ in the sandwich is nano carbon fibre. The 11cm voice coil has progressive damping built-in, and it’s also possible to adjust the sound pressure level of the infra-bass section to suit the room.

The speaker also uses what the company calls ‘Stealth Reflex’ loading: this para-aperiodic tuning system reduces the cabinet volume required – yes, hard to believe given the size of the speakers! – and resolves the problems of conventional ports.

Finally, the rear driver array uses a ring tweeter and an 11cm driver based on that made for the company’s classic Minima speaker, but using a cone made from the same materials as the front midrange driver.

And then the unveiling, and the world’s audio press descends on the speakers, snapping details of everything from the clamshell pieces to the drive units, wobbling the speakers on their suspension, and – in many cases – having themselves snapped with the Fenice, just to prove they were there.

The scrum is more akin to a fashion show than a hi-fi launch, and some hard-learned tactics are required to get the pictures: you don’t stand back and let someone else do their thing, even when you’re asked to stand aside so ‘an important Japanese critic’ can get closer; do that, and you miss your chance.

I’m shooting pictures when I am handed a snapshot camera, and asked to take a picture of someone with the speaker: I comply, hand the camera back, and the owner looks at his picture on the screen and smiles broadly.

On to the listening, and the speakers sound magnificent on the end of some very serious Audio Research amplification and source components. Well, they do as far as I can tell, given the fact that the music being played is of the kind you only ever hear at hi-fi shows.

One of my fellow journalists is heard muttering ‘I’d love to have heard how they’d handle some Rammstein’; another suggests with a sigh that 'Even if they'd played Hotel California it would have given us some kind of benchmark...'

Oh well, I think, it’s always hard to form any sensible impressions at events like this – best to wait until you can hear the product in a more familiar environment.

Then I give myself a reality check: the speakers sell for ‘more than €140,000’, and only 30 pairs will be made, all of which have already found homes. That means that quite a few of those 43 distributors will never get a sniff of them, let alone there being review samples flying about. 305 kilos apiece, flying about? Maybe not…

Clearly the intention is that the technology developed for the speakers, and the design work, will trickle down the range. Someone with inside knowledge lets slip that they’ve already seen smaller versions of the Fenice concept under development at the Sonus faber factory, keeping the same clamshells and lyra curves, but shrinking the height. Look out for those over the next year or so.

Back downstairs from the listening session, and the music is playing, Uklanski’s Saturday Night Fever-style dancefloor is throwing its multicoloured shapes while the wall of Nazis stares down on the well-dressed and the press, and the water-taxis are lining up to take us to dinner.

If this is Mauro Grange’s idea of not just raising the Fenice, but putting a rocket up the high-end, I think he may be on to something.

The high-end audio industry, unlike the other luxury consumer goods sectors with which it must compete, just doesn’t do things like this – until now.

The Sonus faber Fenice launch, and the speakers it showcased, is going to be talked about for a long time…

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.