These little Sony speakers came up in a conversation I was having with a Hollywood film editor who’s heavily into hi-fi. He had heard them at a reviewer’s house in the States and said I should give them a go as he thought I would like them, knowing my love for BBC monitor speaker designs. He wasn’t wrong, as you will see.
Each is packed in a separate box and five can be used (with an optional sub) for a surround system, but I am strictly a two-channel chap so two boxes arrived for me at The-Ear’s offices and were delivered by Editor Kennedy.
The first thing to notice is the weight, 10kg each. Then there’s the luxurious piano-black gloss lacquer finish to the rigid cabinet, which is exquisite but shows every speck of dust and fingermark. It is notable for the thickness of laminated plywood construction and steel plate on the base, both factors which give it high rigidity. The twin binding posts are also pretty heavyweight but, for some reason, the product label is every so slightly crooked: really annoying to a Virgo like myself. Above this are two rear-facing ports, each 40mm diameter, which will preclude their use on a bookshelf. Instead, stand-placement is ideal with a ‘decent’ gap from the rear wall and a slight tow-in towards the listening position, although perhaps not quite as much as Sony’s brochure suggests. An optional grille frame clips into position but, for me, this cheapened the overall look so it was consigned to the packing carton.
The SS-NA5ES are a two-way design yet boast five drive units a piece… let me explain: apart from the 130mm aluminium-coned midrange/woofer as the main driver there are then three tweeters, a 25mm doped soft-dome main HF unit and what Sony call two ‘Assist Tweeter Units’, being 19mm textile-domes. Slightly larger in all dimensions than the infamous LS3/5A and all the various spin-offs, the Sony stands 355mm high, and can be classed in the same category, particularly since they are in the same price bracket.
Of late, I’ve grown more puzzled by the increase in brands ‘re-inventing’ the ageing BBC speaker, a design which was highly flawed if one looks at the LS3/5A’s frequency response and impedance curves. It wasn’t good enough to be a Class I monitor and was not suitable for monitoring broadcast material. It was popular in BBC office listening systems and in studios so that the presenters could hear tapes and other material being played in to the programme without the continual need to wear headphones. Why, I’ve wondered, would you want to produce such a mediocre product apart from nostalgia. It was, after all, a speaker designed in the days of mono transmission and when everything was analogue. A far cry, surely, from the demands of a present-day monitor speaker?
Thankfully Sony has not attempted to emulate those BBC pioneers bedecked of cashmere cardigans and briar pipes who were limited by the technology of the day, but rather they have created something totally new in an enclosure of roughly the same proportions and at a similar price. Has it paid off?
I have to admit that I’ve not generally been a fan of hi-fi products voiced by the Japanese, finding many of the designs rather sharp and brittle for my Western taste, but in the SS-NA5ES we have a design from Yoshiuki Kaku. A man whose Sony speakers have been well received in audiophile circles since his creations began to appear in 2008. His key objectives match many of those I look for in an audio product, namely a smooth frequency response, low distortion and resonance control. He spends much time investigating materials and their mico-effects, not only with meticulous measurement but alongside intense listening.
First impressions often count, and with this model it is that Kaku San has made something of potentially near universal sonic approval. Their performance belie their size and cost. Relatively small, they are capable of dynamic power and a bass extension to suit most applications. Deployment of those anodized-aluminium mid/bass units results in startling power-handling, even at LF, and an obvious deep bass extension – pretty solid down to 50Hz or even lower. Sony quote the -3dB point as 45Hz and that’s not exaggerated although there’s a rapid and audible roll-off below that, hence why they offer a matching sub for those who like to feel the floorboards rattling. The compromise is the sensitivity (just 86dB) but since they thrive on power, the Sonys are happily coupled to modest amplifiers and began to sing with my Trigon monoblocks (135 Watts).
Organ works (Christopher Herrick on Hyperion) showed that the engineering of these drivers goes far beyond anything we ever experienced in BBC studios with the paltry ‘5As: greater bass power and extension from a small cone. Solo instruments as well could be played at their full dynamic range because even they become loud at times and it is refreshing to find a small speaker capable of reproducing this convincingly, which brough to life Du Pre’s famous cello and the dexterous Brendel on piano.
Switching to a more modern genre (Phil Collins, Pink Floyd and Supertramp Live) showed that they will play loud and undistorted, filling my medium-sized room with sound. The treble is detailed with air and poise – so that tweeter array deserves special attention. Sony has a central dome with a smaller dome above and below all mounted on a plate for precise driver alignment and to give an improved HF dispersion pattern. This led me to experiment with listening height. I had assumed that the main tweeter was the listening axis but found improved imaged and increased soundstage when raising the speakers by a good few inches. The treble response is certainly one of this speaker's highlights, producing realistic brass and metallic percussion sounds (Evelyn Glennie’s ‘Rhythm Song’ for example) with a clean, clear and crisp HF.
The midrange made me sit up and think though. I listen to a lot of speech-based material (radio dramas, live feeds from Parliament, audio books and alike) and was not entirely happy with the response from the Sonys, albeit they had excelled themselves across a wide range of musical repertoire. But there was a presence region issue and it took a while to nail it. Rather than the presence-region boost many of us are used to, here there was something of a dip – audibly between about 1kHz and 3kHz. This balance creates an unfatiguing sound, without any hint of aggression, but an accentuation of sibilance which can appear unnatural, as well as some issues with plosive sounds (evident in BBC’s recording of Lord Peter Wimsey/Five Red Herrings) and some fricatives as well.
Some quick internet research suggests that this is probably a deliberate chosen response by Sony, in the model of the German engineer Siegfried Linkwitz (famed for the Linkwitz–Riley filter) who suggests that a 4dB responsive dip at around 3kHz will yield the most natural sound, based on the response of the human ear and the laws of physics. With time, it was a balance I not merely accepted but grew to like as it created a most convincing soundstage across a variety of my most treasured recordings.
Small they may be, but the SS-MA5ES create a ‘big’ sound and in high resolution, full of detail and with dynamics and bass extension which seems hard to believe from something of this size and price. If calling them a bargain isn’t vulgar, then that’s what they are. Natural sounding and with no sonic additions (as one so often finds in speakers of this size), this review has made me change my opinion of Japanese-designed loudspeakers.