We are in the high end territory that is Sonus faber, a brand whose products I have drooled over at countless hi-fi shows and, yet, have never had the pleasure of trying in my own system. Excitingly, that was about to change with the Olympica Nova 1 standmount two-way.
History and ethos
Sonus faber is a prestigious manufacturer of handcrafted speakers, headphones, and other high-end audio equipment, based in Arcugnano near Venice. The company was founded back in 1983 by Franco Serblin in a small laboratory in Monteviale, on the hills of Vicenza. It was from here that the first product was launched, the Parva two-way monitor speaker with a midrange cone in Kevlar and the cabinet in solid walnut wood. I remember the excitement in the audio press at the time, and among the handful of high street dealers selected to stock it.
Then, in 2006, after 33 years Franco left to pursue more boutique loudspeaker design although he sadly passed away in 2013. Manufacturers become known for certain signature trademarks. Sonus faber have made their name through their fabulously elegant cabinets, as well as higher-end models being named after great violin makers (like Stradivarius and Guarneri) or Italian locations associated with musical history, such as Cremona.
An important part of the McIntosh Group, Sonus faber appears to have returned to its high-end roots of ultra-stylish Italian design. The Olympica Nova 1 is the smallest model in the latest range and made in Vicenza, Italy. I have always admired the company’s smooth, well-balanced ‘house sound’ with tremendous detail and sublime driver integration. Just my kind of loudspeaker. But, in complete contrast to my staple diet of BBC-style monitors with their traditional veneered boxes, the Italians gift us the sheer allure of magnificently crafted cabinets which are as much a part of their DNA as the sonic characteristics.
Sharing many features with the earlier Guarneri Tradition, the Nova1’s newly-designed cabinet is truly a thing of beauty, all 35cm high of it, with its sweeping lines and almost nautically-shaped rear. Then there’s the combination of aluminium top and base caps as well as genuine leather embellishment to the front baffle. Complex in the extreme, the sides comprise an eight-piece laminate of birch wood and high-density fibreboard, heavily lacquered and curved gently, towards the back where a slotted port runs the entire length of the cabinet. This is the company’s Stealth Ultraflex system which goes to the extreme of aluminium vents to control what is, in essence, a reflex port albeit of a most unusual form. Even the grille is unconventional, comprising over 50 strands of thin rubber, suspended from curved metal bars which fit the baffle. I listened sans grille throughout as, to me, they obscured the iconic look of those solid-wood front baffles.
Drive units comprise the company’s own 140mm pulp-fibre cone mid/bass (complete with fabric-coated dustcap and long-throw voice coil) crossing over at 2.5kHz to a one-inch silk-dome tweeter with what Sonus faber calls Damped Apex Dome technology, this is designed to supress distortion and phase errors. The network relies on a first-order low-pass filter to the woofer, and fourth-order slope high-passed to the tweeter. The quoted frequency response is 45Hz to 35kHz while sensitivity is claimed at a rather low 87dB/W (4 Ohms) so will benefit from grippy power. Not something to feature in most cases, but the binding posts deserve special mention here. They are some of the most robust and well-engineered that I have seen, each shaped and monogrammed for easy connection and torquing.
The review pair was supplied in a stunning wenge wood finish (above). I have to admit that I didn’t have the same affection towards the matching single-column anodized aluminium stands with their oversized base (with bullet-spikes) plate which have more a Bauhaus approach rather than the engineering finesse seen in the speakers themselves. Acoustically they were fine, it was the rather overpowering visual effect that I had difficulty accepting although, of course these are optional and build quality is to a very high standard.
Placement proved most straightforward and as easy as any speaker I’ve come across although I found that if too far apart there was a tendency for the centre of the image to have be slightly diminished. There is the option to have the reflex ports pointing inwards (towards each speaker) or outwards towards the side walls. I have to say that both worked equally well from what is a most unfussy loudspeaker that performed at its best when the tweeters were at ear-level. I tend to adopt a very minor toe-in, if any toe-in at all, and this worked well with the Nova 1s in my modest listening environment. I connected my trusty 150W/ch Hegel H190 streamer/DAC/integrated amp and settled down.
First impressions count for a lot and I was delighted to be recreating the sound I remembered so fondly from auditions at so many hi-fi shows around the globe. We have here a very well-mannered, highly-refined design with superb crossover design that creates a seamless sound across the spectrum. This is such good news when so many speakers present a mid/bass response and HF but fail to knit them together coherently due to poor design and/or implementation.
At this price point I would have expected the high level of detail that was presented, along with the clearly even frequency response, certainly across the critical mid-band. These are a non-fatiguing design and can be enjoyed for hours on end, but something was missing: my feet were not tapping, the timing ability was less than I’d remembered from those shows and I just didn’t feel part of the performance.
Speech material was presented with a high-degree of realism; classical music was reproduced with quality and the instruments sounded natural in a presentation full of natural air and the characteristics of the recording venue. For a country which produced Monteverdi, Rossini, Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi this was to be expected. It was with popular music that I felt I should be getting more for my money, the more processed the sound the greater the missing element.
I did wonder whether time would solve this conundrum, and that the speakers would run-in but even a week did not and looking at the cartons these were a well-used demo pair rather than fresh from the factory. Looking for solutions, I connected a new Lindemann Musicbook Combo that arrived for review, this is another streamer/DAC/integrated but, unlike the Class-A/B amp of the Hegel, it’s a Class-D design.
This seemed a much better pairing. Not only did we have all the refinement from before but now the added benefit of tremendous pace, rhythm and timing. Class-D amplification is something of a Marmite product in audio terms; sometimes it can be on the lean and bright side. Not here though where we seemed to have an ideal paring and I settled down to review in earnest.
Here is a relatively small speaker producing large, attention-grabbing sounds when the material warrants it. For example, with the mighty forces of Mahler’s Eighth (Solti and the CSO on Decca from 1971) my room filled with an immersive sound as this Symphony of a Thousand was brought home with incredible realism. The massive forces revealed the speaker’s dynamic ability as well as its innate capacity to portray the innermost details of a performance and bring it to life in a most realistic way. This is the essence of a top-notch loudspeaker design and a credit to the team at Sonus faber.
On choral works the Nova1 was clearly in its element, and it seemed appropriate to use at least some Italian sources, such as Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers (Taverner Consort under Andrew Parrott – Virgin from 1984) which created spine-tingling moments from this sacred work. The soundstage was correctly proportioned and voices portrayed with immense realism.
Bass extension was good for a cabinet of this size and the quoted 45Hz response was believable from the output, clean and silent. Tracks with pronounced LF performed well and anyone requiring deeper bass can always add a sub. I turned to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day where that famously punchy bassline was reproduced with aplomb and I found my foot tapping involuntary to the beat.
Midrange is this speaker’s hallmark and, not only did it pass my usual tests of well-known speech material including Ian Carmichael’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Maurice Denham as Rumpole of the Bailey (BBC drama productions on CD) without any obvious blemishes, but with midrange-rich acoustic instruments as well, including clarinet and piano. Mozart’s Concerto for the same, K622, maintained a warm, rich tone with the instruments sounding natural and without coloration. Imaging is also revealed as being another of the speaker’s key strengths, locating performers and instruments precisely and beyond the physical cabinet boundaries. Moving across the room, to answer the telephone, I became aware of the phenomenal off-axis abilities of the Nova 1 which created remarkably lifelike sounds many degrees ‘off’.
As a final test, I decided to see what would happen with the likes of Metallica. The Nova1s didn’t even flinch with heavy metal. The cacophony of drums, bass guitar et al managed to retain their harmony. Impressive stuff. In fact, it was during this phase that I realised just how the sound improved at a higher levels, and continued to listen with the volume increased, never mind the neighbours.
Probably the most exquisite compact loudspeaker I have had the privilege to gaze upon in my own system, the Olympica Nova 1 sets new standards in its class. Paolo Tezzon’s design is elegant beyond measure and the engineering standards supreme, build-quality to the highest standard.
Loudspeakers though are about sound and here, too, the design does not disappoint since Sonus faber have managed some kind of audio alchemy to achieve so much from a cabinet of this size, using such diminutive drivers. Matched with a suitable amplifier it will generate some of the most beautiful sounds you will hear. I am very sad to see them go. A winner in style and sound across all music genres and that tell-tale of loudspeaker ability, the human voice.