I’ve reviewed many loudspeakers over the years, and while many were quite good, only a few stand out in my memory. There seems to be a limit to how much pleasure I get from looking at rectilinear boxes made of MDF over the 12 weeks of the average listening period for a review. Some manufacturers, in an effort to stand out from the crowd, might throw in a curve here, a flourish there, maybe a super-high-gloss finish to add flair to yet another box whose primary -- and, for most listeners, sole -- purpose is to move air.
The several Sonus Faber speakers I’ve reviewed over the years are some of those few. The company has never troubled itself to follow industry trends. To suggest that a manufacturer of high-end transducers put as much emphasis on a speaker’s appearance as its sound quality could well be construed as a misappropriation of funds and effort. For a value-oriented guy like me, that would normally be the case. Yet Sonus Faber’s creations, especially their more expensive models, don’t look only a little better than the competition: They’re on a different planet.
Consider the Electa Amator III ($10,000 USD per pair), one of two models in Sonus Faber’s Heritage Collection. Built by hand in SF’s factory in Arcugnano, Italy, it was created to celebrate the company’s 35th anniversary, in 2018, and is the third iteration of one of the brand’s most iconic minimonitors, following the Electa Amator (1987) and the Electa Amator II (1997). When the little Electa Amator IIIs were delivered -- on a shipping pallet -- I was pleased to see two boxes: one for the included dedicated stands -- a rarity, that -- and one for the speakers themselves. As a rule, speaker stands are incredibly unsexy, but the EAIIIs’ stands are striking. Weighing a substantial 24.7 pounds, each has an oversize base cut from marble quarried in Carrara, Italy. There are brass accents on each corner of this base, on the top of each of the spiked feet, and in the form of an oblong brass plate through which rise the two halves comprising the column, each of brushed aluminum and with a crescent-moon cross section. Altogether, the bottom of each speaker is lifted 28.4” above the floor. Each sealed column half is pre-filled -- these stands are plenty inert. The bottom of the speaker is secured to the stop of the stand with two oversize screws that pass through holes in the stand’s top plate into the bottom panel of each speaker. Finally, a set of floor savers are included for audiophiles who, like me, have hardwood floors.
In the box containing the speakers I found a simple owner’s manual, teardrop-shaped grilles that magnetically attach to the speakers, and a small, gold-accented book filled with pictures of the EAIII and its two forebears. The photos of the EAIII were taken in the historic Tenute SalvaTerra winery in the Valpolicella valley, some 37 miles from Sonus Faber’s headquarters, outside Vicenza. It’s details like this that you just don’t get from other brands. Necessary? No. Appreciated? Yes. Cool? Absolutely.
Finally, I arrived at the speakers themselves. Each Electa Amator III weighs 32.2 pounds and measures 14.8”H x 9.3”W x 14.2”D. The cabinet is made of 1”-thick panels of locally sourced solid walnut. The use of solid wood instead of MDF is rare in the high end -- panels of solid wood are more resonant and thus more likely to produce unintended tonal colorations in the sound. But walnut was the material used by Sonus Faber in the firm’s early years, and lead acoustic designer Paolo Tezzon told me that walnut, being denser and stiffer than most other woods, was a good choice for the EAIII. The walnut side panels are joined to a base of Carrara marble with a thin plate of brass, while the front and rear panels are clad in supple, locally sourced leather. On the rear panel are a sizable bass-reflex port, and two pairs of brushed-brass binding posts for those who biwire. (I don’t.)
The EAIII boasts impressive specifications. It uses the same 1.1” Damped Apex Dome (DAD) silk tweeter used in Sonus Faber’s flagship speaker model, the Aida ($130,000/pair). The 7.1” midrange-woofer, with a cone of cellulose pulp, is based on the midrange driver used in Sonus Faber’s Il Cremonese and Lilium loudspeakers -- the diaphragm, basket, and rubber suspension are identical to the ones used in those models, but the driver’s motor structure has been completely redesigned. The crossover frequency is 2.5kHz, with a fourth-order (24dB/octave) Linkwitz-Riley slope for the tweeter, and a first-order (6dB/octave) slope for the midrange-woofer. This comprises Sonus Faber’s Paracross crossover network, which uses ClarityCap polypropylene capacitors and Jantzen inductors. The EAIII’s frequency range is specified as 40Hz-35kHz, its nominal impedance as 4 ohms, its sensitivity as 88dB/2.83V/m, and its range of power handling as 35-200W. That recipe looks to be a tasty one.
I secured the speakers to their stands and stepped back to get a look. The pair of them made a seriously striking picture. The Electa Amator III is on the large side for what is nominally a “bookshelf” speaker, but given their volume and the inclusion of matching stands, they’re effectively floorstanders. And it works well. With its natural materials, colors, and textures combining to great effect, the EAIII is furniture-grade hi-fi. Unlike so many other speakers I’ve had in my listening room, the longer I looked at them, the fonder of them I became. They’re really works of art, and, like most Sonus Faber designs, should age gracefully.
Positioning the Electa Amator IIIs was a cinch. They sat 6’ apart, 6.5’ from my listening position, and 1’ from the wall behind them. I connected the speakers to my Hegel Music Systems H590 integrated amplifier-DAC with AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables. The Intel NUC computer that I use as a Roon server was connected to the Hegel via USB link; I also used a Chromecast Audio connected with a generic TosLink interconnect to one of the Hegel’s optical inputs. A Nordost Blue Heaven power cord ran from the Hegel to an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner, which helps eliminate persistent AC hum in my old inner-city home. I toed in the EAIIIs until I could just see each speaker’s inner side panel, and was instantly happy with the result.
My job as the Sonus Faber acoustic guy in the last 14 years has been transitioning the sound of our creations from a pretty colored starting point to something which sounds as natural and neutral as possible. Of course, I try at the same time to keep intact several other elements of the brand’s early days. So, I approached the Electa Amator III project by walking the path backward, to go back to the sort of tonal balance of the brand’s early days: A pronounced “loudness” frequency response, or a “smiling” frequency response, if you will, with the midband pretty laid back, and both the lows and the highs boosted quite a bit.
It’s jarring to hear a speaker designer -- in this case, Sonus Faber’s Paolo Tezzon -- openly admit that he designed a $10,000/pair loudspeaker to be non-neutral. Still, making a neutral-sounding speaker would break with Sonus Faber tradition. I’ve heard several pre-Tezzon models from SF, and all had a quite warm sonic signature that made voices sound syrupy. The audiophile jargon for such a sound is musical, and with certain types of music, I can see the appeal. So for my first listening session with the EAIIIs, I’d braced myself to hear a cloyingly sweet sound.
My presentiments went unfulfilled. While the EAIII’s sound wasn’t strictly neutral, it was clear that its frequency response had been skillfully tailored. Consider “Take My Hand,” the final track of Dido’s No Angel (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Arista/Tidal). The recording itself leans toward the hot side of neutral, Dido’s voice marked by a tetchily digital edge that highly resolving audio gear only exacerbates. The EAIII revealed the recording’s warts as well as I expected it to, with some low-level white noise audible right away, drifting in and out of audibility as the music’s focus shifted from Dido’s voice to her simple guitar chords and back again. And yet what should have been a more trebly, wince-worthy sound seemed to have been subtly glossed over. The bottom end of Dido’s voice was unusually robust. When she reached for the top of her range, I heard plenty of energy and drive, but it was delivered more smoothly than I’d expect from this track when listened to through dead-neutral speakers. Sonus Faber’s DAD tweeter was interesting, both for its performance envelope and its voicing in the EAIII. It sounded tilted up a decibel or two from what I would normally expect to hear. And while it never sounded dark, neither did this silk dome sound remotely harsh or bright.
“The Wheel,” from Sohn’s Tremors (16/44.1 FLAC, 4AD/Tidal), has a sound far different from the Dido track, released 15 years earlier. It’s a significantly quieter and cleaner recording, with no hash or grain to speak of. The voice of Sohn, aka Christopher Michael Taylor -- a talented British musician and producer whose parents cruelly bestowed on him three first names -- sounded sensational through the EAIIIs. A lot of “textbook” speaker designs can sound, well, a bit boring. And that’s intuitive, isn’t it? Nothing attenuated, nothing accentuated. But Sonus Faber has conjured up a formula that allowed Sohn’s voice to sound vivacious, red-blooded, and very much right there in my room, while also sounding utterly liquid and unburdened. I felt engaged with the music, not a forensic investigator of it. And despite Paolo Tezzon’s “smiling” frequency response -- “the midband pretty laid back, and both the lows and the highs boosted quite a bit” -- Sohn’s voice wasn’t pushed back on the soundstage or lost in the mix. Indeed, it had terrific presence. Then came the track’s fat electronic bass line, which sounded more than a little fulsome through the little EAIIIs. They supplied big, bold bass right down to 50Hz, with healthy output, albeit lower in level, below 40Hz. This seriously punchy two-way minimonitor had gobs of weight in the 50-80Hz range.
That’s the Sonus Faber party trick. The Electra Amator IIIs wore several hats at once, massaging subpar recordings into something eminently pleasurable, while conveying huge amounts of inner detail from tracks blessed with more accomplished mastering. The EAIII’s sound wasn’t neutral, but as the tracks rolled on, I found myself seduced by its exciting yet supremely nonfatiguing sound, due in large part to that silky soft-dome tweeter.
With music requiring a more balletic touch, such as Overture to “The School for Scandal” by Samuel Barber, with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (16/44.1 ALAC, Argo), I developed a better feel for the Electa Amator III’s sound. From the tinkling triangle to the frantic brasses, I heard profound levels of detail and nuance, but the EAIII’s treble didn’t produce the kind of sparkle or crystallinity that I hear from high-end metal-dome tweeters, or the effortless quality of a beryllium dome. This will ultimately boil down to a matter of personal preference in sound rather than intrinsic aptitude. I heard a similar trait in the EAIII’s reproduction of string sound -- the overture’s sweeping violin melody was sweeter and slightly more forgiving than I’m used to hearing from this recording. And the EAIII’s sound had a tonal density in the midband that made Barber’s orchestration sound deliberate in its musical interpretation. Quiet passages permitted me to hear deeply into the recording -- the solo oboe stood out in stark relief against the rest of the orchestra, and the sounds of shifting feet and creaking chairs abounded. The grand finale of the Barber was satisfyingly epic, the EAIIIs’ 7.1” woofers eagerly re-creating the whomping drum thwacks -- these big minimonitors sounded more like small floorstanders. But they might not be the cup of tea of those who favor a spacious, wide-open sound: The EAIIIs cast their collective gaze more on the performance than the recording venue.
Most important, Sonus Faber’s Electa Amator III was just fun to listen to. For some speakers, the pivot from classical to pop to singer-songwriter can be less than satisfying. But these little walnut-and-marble knockouts remained consistently enjoyable, from genre to genre. In my final listening session I wove my way from Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road (Diplo Remix)” to “Superbeast,” from Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe, and finally to Eric Prydz’s Steve Winwood-infused “Call on Me (Radio Edit).” Not once did my head stop bobbing right along to the attendant melody. In my humble opinion, that might be the highest compliment a reviewer can pay a loudspeaker.
After eight weeks of listening only to the Electa Amator IIIs, I unbolted them from their stands and replaced them with my KEF LS50s ($1299/pair). Not only does the LS50 cost less than one-seventh the price of the Sonus Faber, it’s notably smaller in volume, and its little 5.25” midrange-woofer had no chance of matching the EAIII’s supple bottom end. Straightaway, the KEFs sounded gutless with The School for Scandal’s massive bass-drum thwacks, with notably diminished reach and impact. There was no question that the Sonus Faber could go a good 10Hz deeper, and with greater control. Moreover, the LS50’s overall sound was flatter, duller, and less involving than the EAIII’s. As the songs rolled by, I became more acclimated to the KEF’s more neutral midrange, which was less meaty and substantial than the Sonus Faber’s. Despite the KEF’s reputation for excellent stereo imaging, the stylish Italian design inched ahead in this regard, with greater three-dimensionality. By contrast, the LS50’s tweeter sounded a bit more delicate and airy, with transients and microdynamics more easily discernible in the Barber. As much as I love my little KEFs -- there are very good reasons they’ve earned universal acclaim from the hi-fi press -- the Sonus Faber’s more finely tailored frequency response, and ability to play louder, with a lot more weight in the mid- and upper bass, while sounding more vibrant and arresting through the all-important midrange, all made for far more engaging listening.
Magico’s A3 three-way tower speaker ($12,600/pair), which I had in for review at the same time, presented a study in contrasts with the stand-mounted Sonus Fabers. The black A3 is as cold and utilitarian to look at as the EAIII is evocative. The Magico makes no apologies for its uninspiring appearance, and its 110-pound cabinet of solid aluminum with intricate internal bracing is built to a fearsomely high standard. The outputs of the A3’s beryllium tweeter and carbon-fiber midrange and two bass drivers combine to produce a positively immaculate sound. While the EAIII thrills with its robust, lifelike midrange and healthy dollop of bass energy, the A3 counters with obscene transparency and a remarkably flat frequency response. The Magico offered greater insight into every recording I played through it, in the process casting a bigger, clearer soundstage. It also sounded cleaner, and could play fairly loudly with white-knuckled control. While the Sonus Faber could play just as loudly as the big, sealed-box Magico, it couldn’t do so with the same ease. And it was no surprise that the A3’s far bigger cabinet (44.4”H x 9.3”W x 10.9”D) and two 7” woofers made possible notably deeper bass extension with vise-like control.
With the Magico objectively being the more accurate and revealing of my two review samples, you might assume that it’s the speaker I’d opt for every day of the week. Nope. As accomplished as the A3 is -- it handily earned a Reviewers’ Choice award when I reviewed it in August 2019 -- it speaks only to my head. It checks almost every box I would want checked, and almost every box I think potential buyers would want for almost 13 grand of their own money. And yet it was all a bit sterile. I have great respect for the A3’s build quality and exceptional sound -- but I could say the same about a Viking stainless-steel kitchen appliance. For all its talents, the Magico A3 never stirred the ol’ cauldron of emotion.
And its stirring of that cauldron is how Sonus Faber’s Heritage Collection Electa Amator III has won my adoration. This minimonitor’s shape, and the colors and textures of its cabinet and dedicated stand, are emotive. Its sound was supple and fun. Whether I was playing something easygoing in the background, or listening with rapt attention to a complicated instrumental piece, I consistently derived pleasure from looking at and listening to this buoyant Italian monitor. Of the many products I’ve evaluated in my years of reviewing, there are precious few I can say that about. It’s a two-way speaker defined by its big, ballsy bass and fulsomely energetic midrange. On top of that is Sonus Faber’s flagship soft-dome tweeter, which gives the Electa Amator III a dash of cultured top-end bounce. It might not be as faithful a transducer as some of its direct competitors, but its beguiling combination of visual style and sonic substance make it one of my favorite products of the last few years. Bellissimi!
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50, Magico A3
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50, PSB M4U 4
- Integrated amplifier-DAC -- Hegel Music Systems H590
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC
- DAC-headphone amplifier -- Oppo Digital HA-2SE
- Sources -- Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal; Chromecast Audio
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Rocket 33, DHH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Nordost Blue Heaven LS (XLR)
- Digital link -- DH Labs Silver Sonic (USB)
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Sonus Faber Heritage Collection Electa Amator III Loudspeakers
Price: $10,000 USD per pair including stands.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Sonus Faber SPA
Via Antonia Meucci 10
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Phone: (39) 0444-288788