So Doug Schneider, Jeff Fritz, and I are walking into Sonus Faber’s suite at the Venetian Hotel, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. There to present the Italian brand with a Product of the Year award for their excellent Venere 3.0 loudspeaker, which Jeff reviewed last year, we run into 33-year-old Livio Cucuzza, chief designer for the Fine Sounds Group, which owns Sonus Faber. Cucuzza introduces himself, and despite being preceded by quite a reputation, given his work on Sonus Faber’s Venere models, their stunning Aida speaker, and sister brand Wadia’s Intuition 01 integrated amplifier-DAC, I can’t help staring at his shirt. In this sea of ill-fitting suits, bad plaid, and dad-khakis, Cucuzza is rocking tight jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a bat on it. Except that the bat’s head has been replaced by a cat’s head. It’s a bat-cat. Naturally.
When we mention that we’re there to present the award, Cucuzza lights up, and hustles out of the room to fetch the rest of the Sonus Faber crew. A few minutes later he strolls back in, followed by four colleagues. These dudes look like they’ve just sauntered off a Versace catwalk. Two wear impeccably tailored suits: one sports a skinny tie and a fierce tan, while the second is a Jeremy Renner look-alike with a spread-collared Oxford and a pocket square. The other two, between them, wear stylish designer glasses, a supremely well-fitting tweed jacket, and award-winning smiles. Doug and I just stare at these guys, then at each other, then back again. We feel like total slobs.
Granted, Italians have an inimitable sense of style, but this show of fashion force from Sonus Faber didn’t just make me and everyone else in the Venetian look bad. It was worse than that. It rendered us sartorially irrelevant.
Oh. Their entire display was dedicated to Sonus Faber’s new Olympica line, the baby of which, the Olympica I, is today’s subject.
First, a word on this speaker’s name. I heard many people at CES refer to the Olympica models -- the I, II, and III -- as, respectively, the “One,” “Two,” and “Three.” It turns out that, its numeral being Roman, the Olympica I would actually be referred to aloud as the Olympica First. I confirmed this with Livio Cucuzza as I admired his bat-cat shirt. I mentioned this to another exhibitor, who was using Olympica speakers in his room. He kind of shrugged, and muttered, “Well, they have it wrong on their own website, then.” This was untrue, and a testament to how little some folks in this industry care about the details.
The Olympica I is all about the details. Tremendous attention and affection have been lavished on this $6500 USD per pair speaker. The stand-mounted two-way measures 13.8”H x 8.7”W x 14.4”D and weighs about 21 pounds. Its cabinet is a knockout -- its cross section is in the shape of a lyre, and the cabinet is made of wood sourced from a family-owned supplier just 12.5 miles from Sonus Faber’s factory in Arcugnano, in the province of Vicenza. SF has used the supplier for years, and given the quality of the Olympica I’s woodwork, it’s easy to see why. While a graphite finish is available, my review samples arrived in classy walnut. The matte finish lacks the high gloss or sheen of some of SF’s more expensive models, but that makes it all the more attractive to me. The side panels are traversed by four fine, maple-wood lines, and the front and rear panels are of fine leather. The top panel, too, is of hand-stitched leather; an aluminum bezel bridges the gap to the side panels.
The photos make it clear that the Olympica I is one beautiful minimonitor. The woodwork is superb, and never ostentatious. The leather is soft, supple, eminently touchable -- I and visitors to my apartment kept finding ourselves instinctively reaching out to grasp the tops of the speakers. There’s something deeply organic about the design, in terms of both its shape and its harnessing of natural materials to comprise a whole that is visually and tactilely harmonious. Sonus has even branded its logo into the leather top panel.
Cucuzza told me that Sonus Faber’s goal is to create objects for music, not objects for listening. It’s all well and good, he mused, for folks who want to listen to the same three albums for the rest of their lives. His target was people who love listening to music who would want to put something like the Olympica in their living rooms. And who wouldn’t? It’s easily the best-looking speaker I’ve reviewed. There’s something admirable about a company that wants to make something that’s not only beautiful to listen to, but equally attractive to look at and touch. I think there are exceedingly few manufacturers that adopt such an approach. Are compromises made in doing so? Possibly. But that doesn’t make me respect the Olympicas, or Livio Cucuzza’s vision, any less. The literature accompanying the loudspeakers announces that the Olympica line is “a sincere homage to the Olympic Theatre, temple of geometric pleasure in the voice of Music, the container in which sound seamlessly expands and an accurate reference model of acoustic enhancement.” Perhaps a little over the top, it’s both quintessentially Italian and totally sincere. Endearing, if you ask me.
But the Olympica I is not just a pretty face. The speaker has been thoughtfully designed, with asymmetrical sidewalls to reduce internal resonances and to exponentially increase cabinet stiffness. The rear of the speaker is canted to one side; on it are pairs of brushed-aluminum binding posts with removable metal jumpers for biwiring, angled one way, and the Olympica’s vent facing the other. Eschewing traditional ported design, Sonus Faber uses what they call a Stealth UltraFlex vent. This narrow metal vent runs vertically from the top of the bottom panel, between the rear and the side panels, and has a perforated grid to reduce airflow turbulence, its small holes overlaying a thick wadding. Sonus Faber says that the most advanced air brakes make use of a similar design and geometry. In terms of the Stealth UltraFlex, each pair of Olympicas is mirrored or “handed” -- depending on the room gain, the user can aim the vents outward, toward a sidewall, or inward, toward each other.
The Olympica I has a 1.1” silk-dome tweeter with an aluminum ring. This is Sonus Faber’s own Damped Apex Dome (DAD) design, which they describe as a synthesis of a classic dome and a ring transducer. SF chose silk because “nothing sounds better on treble than well-treated fabric.” Soft-dome tweeters also perform well off axis, a characteristic important to the lead design engineer, Paolo Tezzon. One shortcoming of a traditional dome, he explained, is that its apex frequently operates out of phase with the rest of its radiating surface, resulting in rolled-off high frequencies. The DAD tweeter has an arc of metal that crosses the tweeter vertically to damp the dome’s apex, thereby avoiding the phase problem. The Olympica I’s claimed frequency response is 50Hz-30kHz, ±3dB -- 30kHz is remarkably high for soft-dome tweeters, which tend to peter out below 20kHz.
The 5.9” midrange-woofer, also designed by Sonus Faber, has a custom diaphragm made of an air-dried, non-pressed blend of the traditional cellulose pulp, kapok (from the seeds of the ceiba tree), kenaf (an African hibiscus), and other natural fibers. The basket/chassis has been designed to let the driver breathe while minimizing air compression, and the spider has a special profile and material made by the Berlin manufacturer DKM. (The initials stand for Dr. Kurt Müller, who founded the company in 1934; DKM specializes in material design and construction for a variety of audio applications.)
The two drivers are crossed over to each other at 2.5kHz. The crossover itself is impressive, with Mundorf Evo oil capacitors, Jantzen inductors, and what SF calls a “progressive slope design.” This means that, around the crossover point, the Olympica I uses a first-order, 6dB/octave slope, to harness that arrangement’s excellent time-domain behavior and phase response. This then changes to a third-order, 18dB/octave slope. Tezzon explained that they use such a crossover design because it sounds “warm, natural but fast, and precise at the same time.” The Olympica I’s claimed efficiency is 87dB; Sonus Faber suggests that its partnering amplifier be able to output at least 40Wpc.
The speaker’s removable grille mostly comprises SF’s signature “strings.” Their semi-transparency meant that, even when the grilles were in place, I could still admire the Olympica I’s leather baffle. This subtle touch enhanced the speaker’s overall appearance; in fact, these ended up being the first speaker grilles I’ve kept in place throughout an entire review period.
Included with the Olympica Is were their dedicated stands, which retail for $1200/pair. That may sound a bit steep for stands, but much attention has been paid here as well. Each stand is made entirely of aluminum, with a brushed base plate adorned with an engraved Sonus Faber logo, and four tall, conical aluminum feet. The taller front feet mean that stand and speaker tilt slightly upward. SF’s signature “strings” surround the stand’s single column and match the speaker’s grille. On their stands, the Olympica Is stand 42”H.
Having mounted the speakers on their stands, I switched between Dynamique Audio Caparo and Nordost Frey 2 speaker cables, and hooked up my Hegel Music Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC. The Olympica Is also spent time with Devialet’s 110 and Wadia’s Intution 01 integrated amplifiers. Each of the latter would make an excellent and unobtrusive partner for the Olympicas in a simple, compact system.
My experience of earlier Sonus Faber speakers has been limited but pleasant. They’ve had a golden, liquid-smooth sound that, though initially alluring, quickly turned stale for me, as they poured on warmth and sweetness regardless of the recording. The Olympica I allayed those worries -- I can’t imagine anyone taking exception to its sound. Tonally it was evenhanded, with a density and suppleness in the midrange that managed to never veer far from neutrality. And unlike its forebears, it was smooth -- not too smooth. The pair of them were relaxing to listen to, and super-easy on my ears.
With “Ho Hey,” from The Lumineers (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Dualtone), the Olympica Is situated lead singer Wesley Schultz’s voice a little farther back in the soundstage than I’m used to. Those wishing for a more forward, visceral sound should look elsewhere -- the Olympicas won’t smack you in the face with sound so much as suggest that you lean back and take in the larger performance as a whole. There was neither a “punch” to the bass nor a “sparkle” to the highs. The midrange was, if anything, slightly recessed. Indeed, a lack of spotlighting of any part of the sound meant that, in longer listening sessions, or hours of background playing as I went about my day, “listener fatigue” never became a problem. This was surely intentional on the designers’ part, and remains true to Sonus Faber’s roots, and to Cucuzza and Tezzon’s aspiration to make this a livable speaker -- easy on the eyes, even easier on the ears.
This doesn’t mean the Olympica I was somehow less than articulate. The Lumineers’ “Slow It Down” has Schultz front and center, with a bare minimum of instrumental support. The spare arrangement makes it possible for Schultz to really croon, and the Olympicas did quite well at not only capturing his tenuous singing but also providing a bit of bite. An overall relaxed sound didn’t mean that these speakers were too kind to recordings. This quality -- neutral but not boring, smooth without obscuring fine detail -- is tough to find in a loudspeaker. And yet, particularly when hooked up to the Devialet 110, the Olympicas were a delight with unaccompanied vocals.
The Olympicas’ imaging was solid, if not quite as precise as, say, that of my reference KEF R900s, or Vivid Audio’s Oval V1.5s. With “Giorgio by Moroder,” from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia), the opening monologue by Giorgio Moroder -- recorded using several microphones dating as far back as the 1960s -- was a little larger and more diffuse than through my benchmark speakers. Despite being quite detailed, the delineation of the voice was a bit soft. The next track, “Within,” is significantly more complex, with heavily filtered vocals, piano work by Chilly Gonzales, and a variety of supporting instruments. All of which sounded really euphonic -- it was easy for me to just hit Play, sink back into my couch, and take the track in. In terms of soundstaging, however, the Olympicas did sound a hair closed in. It wouldn’t surprise me if the tweeter’s extension is relatively flat out to 20kHz, possibly even down a little bit. As stated above, those looking for twinkling highs won’t find them here. The Olympicas were all about the midrange.
In line with a neutral arrangement, the Olympicas didn’t have particularly punchy bass, but this was not helped by my having placed them several feet out from the front wall. Those who want some bass boost can simply place them closer to the walls. With “If I Survive,” from Hybrid’s Wide Angle (16/44.1 ALAC, Distinctive Breaks), for instance, the turn-of-the-century bass line struck with reasonable depth, and remained totally coherent even at high volume. This was particularly impressive given the substantial excursions I was foisting on the Olympicas’ midrange-woofers.
The Olympica I ($6500/pair, or $7700/pair with stands) is cut from sonic cloth different from that of my reference loudspeaker, the KEF R900 ($5000), or Vivid Audio’s Oval V1.5 ($7700), which I recently reviewed. Those speakers have a zest and pop that make their sound more lively and visceral. They render transients with greater speed and relish, and the midrange a bit more forward and pronounced; and they have more-extended highs.
The KEF, for instance, is a good reference point for what one should expect in a nearly full-range loudspeaker costing $5000/pair: a large and solid cabinet, decent finishes, very well-engineered custom parts, and excellent overall sound. It’s quite neutral, with deep bass to boot. Most impressive, the R900s image very well. The Olympicas couldn’t quite match the KEFs in ultimate resolution or imaging, and that’s fine -- the KEFs are big, squarish boxes; the Sonus Fabers are infinitely more pleasing to look at. They’re also easier to listen to than the R900s, with a kinder, more forgiving attitude toward recordings, and a modest emphasis of the midrange.
At the same price as the Olympica (when the latter’s matching stands are included), Vivid’s Oval V1.5 provides a starker comparison. These two two-way speakers wildly differ. The Vivids look space-age and avant-garde, as if they belong in a laboratory or a modern-art museum. Their sound, though, is the state of the art for a two-way. They’re electrostatic-fast, cast an enormous soundstage, and can retrieve from a recording all but the very finest details. That’s all well and good, but they look absurd and unnatural. The Olympicas, by contrast, with their copious use of natural materials -- leather, fine wood, and organic fibers for their drivers -- strike me as far more appropriate companions in a traditional living space. And their laid-back sound complements this. The Vivids have a crazy clarity that calls attention to itself, but the Italian speakers keep it classy, and offer, perhaps, a more dignified approach: a dense, anchored midrange that focuses on the heart and soul of most music.
Sonus Faber’s Olympica I is one of the easiest speakers to spend time with that I’ve heard. Their visual design is nothing short of inspired, with a wealth of soft leather, gorgeous woodwork, and a profile that even the most aesthetically deficient can appreciate. The attention to detail in their construction is very difficult to find elsewhere for $6500/pair, and should attract those who appreciate that a loudspeaker can be something more than a box that moves air. And they make delicious music. The Olympica I should go to the very top of the shopping lists of those who want a loudspeaker that looks and feels every bit as good as it sounds.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF R900, Vivid Audio Oval V1.5
- Integrated amplifiers -- Devialet 110, Hegel Music Systems H300, Wadia Digital Intuition 01
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam irDAC
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Caparo, Nordost Frey 2
- Interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow, Nordost Frey 2
- USB cables -- DH Labs Silversonic, Nordost Blue Heaven
Sonus Faber Olympica I Loudspeakers
Price: $6500 USD per pair (optional matching stands, $1200/pair).
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Sonus Faber SPA
Via Antonia Meucci 10
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Phone: (39) 0444-288788