Audio Research, Sonus faber, Transparent cable system

Tubed power amplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Disc players,
AC power cords,
Loudspeaker cables,
Audio Research CD6,
Audio Research LS28,
Audio Research VT80SE,
Sonus faber Serafino Homage Tradition,
Transparent Cable Reference

Sonus faber has long used a Damped Apex Dome (or Arrow Point) soft-dome tweeter in its higher end models. This 28mm design is coupled with a 150mm pulp midrange driver with a neodymium magnet, and a pair of 180mm bass cones. Such is the elegance of Sonus designs that neither this nor the pair of 220mm cones on the Amati make the loudspeaker look particularly imposing. Of course a big part of that is the boat-backed design and the frankly gorgeous polished Wengè with maple inlay and titanium details, and coffee-coloured leather front baffle. Sonus faber advertising really pushes the Riva motor launch styling for a reason: you see either in the flesh and you want one. It’s that simple. The only difference between a Serafino and a Riva Aquarama is the price... and that you can’t go waterskiing in a loudspeaker. On the other hand, this loudspeaker is also styled and finished in the way that really does honour violin makers and high-end piano makers.  

The last link in the chain is Transparent Cable. Transparent’s Reference series of interconnects, loudspeaker cables, and power cords have been around for some time, are highly prized, and fully upgradable to the company’s Reference XL line. Each cable in the line features its own network box, precisely attuned and optimised using the ‘this’ rule: this network for this length of this specific cable. The cables themselves feature multi-strand twisted pairs of high-grade copper for their conductors, feature non-metallic components in the design of their plugs, and sit in extremely well made braided outer sleeves. We used balanced interconnects throughout.

As suggested earlier, if you are expecting the traditional Audio Research and Sonus faber values, you are sadly mistaken. This is perhaps one of the most perfectly poised and constructed systems, ideally optimised to work together in absolute harmony, but those old concepts of the rose-tinted Audio Research and the lush-sounding Sonus faber are far out of date. This is a system that’s surprisingly clean and bright sounding. Not so bright that it’s forward or pinched, but it definitely adds a sense of sparkle to music.

I’m not big on drug references and am dead against promoting the use of recreational pharmaceuticals, but if I recall my wilderness years, there’s something about music played through this system that’s like the world seen through the filter of a small amount of cocaine. I’ve been told. Not a full snootful, but just enough to bring out the best in everything. And similarly, this system is a bit ‘moreish’; you want to use this stuff more and more, but at least this sytem doesn’t end in tears, and a drugs bust.

Unlike other high-end systems though, this one is relatively fine with compressed albums. ‘Sleeping by Myself’ from Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs[Monkeywrench] is a fine example of a compressed album that masks hidden depths. There’s some difficult rhythmic work hidden in the basic strumming of a ukulele here. No system can rescue the album from its compressed prison, but they can make it seem less bleak and thin, and this system makes it sound entertaining.

What this system does exceptionally well is fill a room with sound. The soundstage is large and deep, possibly deeper than wide in most rooms. There is a sense of a stage rather than a forward, enveloping presentation, and there is a palpable sense of living, breathing musicians in a solid three-dimensional space. My go-to check track for this is ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ by King Curtis [Live at Fillmore West, ATCO]. It’s an outstanding live slow-build from one bass guitar, to a full-sized funk band, complete with horn section, piano, two types of percussion, and famous names like Billy Preston, Bernard Purdie, Jerry Jemmott, and Cornell Dupree. Each instrument is introduced, the musician plays a few licks, and joins the build-up. On a good system, you can follow each musician in turn, shift focus from musician to musician and back again, and never once lose the musical theme and the infectious rhythm. And that’s precisely what this system does so well. Yes, I’ve heard systems that have even more of a ‘walk-in’ feel to the sound (including a few from the same stable) , but invariably they are either vast and unwieldy designs that require a room the size of an aircraft hangar, or they cost a King’s ransom. Or both.

Everything about this system is both effortless and in good order, which kind of makes for great listening and very dreary writing. Every aspect of the performance is exceptional and outstanding, but the system is so unfussed by such things and just gets on with playing music, you are hardly aware of these performance high points. Take the system’s dynamic phrasing for example; this system has the sort of microdynamics and ability to create tonal shades that were simply not possible a couple of decades ago at any price. Now, it makes that truly staggering sound so easily, that you almost overlook it. Only when you realise you are listening to the hi-hat in a piece of music where a dozen other musicians are playing at absolutely full tilt, do you appreciate just how good this system really is at reproducing music.

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