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When Paolo Tezzon puts his Sonus faber speakers through the paces at the company’s headquarters in Italy, he has a very specific checklist of things he’s looking for, to make sure they’re sounding their best.
“There are many things I try to address any time I test a loudspeaker system,” Tezzon tells Rolling Stone, on a recent visit to the Vicenza factory where all Sonus faber audio systems are still designed and manufactured today. “First and most importantly, at least to me,” he says, “is the overall ‘tonal balance,’ meaning all the frequencies must be present and well-harmonized.”
“Sonus faber tailors the sound of our creations,” Tezzon explains, “so that our speakers will never sound artificial to human ears, but rather replicates natural sound as best as possible.”
Other things that can affect the way your speakers sound: “transparency,” a.k.a. “a speaker system’s ability to reveal every detail, down to the smallest ones, contained in the recording,” Tezzon says. To wit: during a listening session, Tezzo demonstrates how a speaker should reflect not just the main voice, but every background vocal and harmony too. Listening to a rock or jazz track? A good pair of speakers should let you hear the drum beat down to the distinction between hi-hats and snare.
The “dynamic range” is another very important parameter, Tezzon says, referring to the “speaker’s ability to perform music within the widest possible range of sound pressure levels (expressed in dB).” The higher the dynamic range, the closer you are to the real thing.
“Finally,” Tezzon says, “I care about the ‘staging ability’ [of the speakers].” Once properly set up, Tezzon explains, a good pair of speakers should be able to “disappear” from your perception, so that when you close your eyes, you should be able to perceive each instrument coming from a specific point in the space in front of you, just as if you were in a concert hall or theater.
Of course, a premium set of speakers should also look the part, and Sonus faber’s Chief Design Officer, Livio Cucuzza, spends years ideating new forms and features for the company’s product line, which now spans more than eight collections and 50 different models.
“Aesthetics can help performance,” he tells Rolling Stone during a tour of his design studio. “And we also pay a lot of attention to not just sound, but also to taste.”
Cucuzza says his designs draw inspiration from everything from boats to high-end cars (indeed, Sonus faber provides the custom audio system for Maserati’s new MC20 super sports car). The region in Northern Italy where the company is headquartered, meantime, is known for its leather artisans, who supply the luxe hides for fashion brands like Prada and Bottega Veneta. Nestled just a few miles away are some of Italy’s most famous wineries, producing the full, rich, Amarone wine the country is known for. The same artisanal feeling of leather work and winemaking goes into creating a Sonus faber speaker, Cucuzza explains.
Cucuzza says it often takes an entire month to cure the wood used in many Sonus faber speakers, which can include everything from walnut and maple, to the same red spruce used for Stradivarius violins. The natural wood grain is preserved in each design, meaning no two speakers are alike.
Sonus faber sources its wood from Italy, North America and Eastern Europe, then employs a family-owned Italian wood maker about 40 minutes from the company’s design studios. For the finishing touch, the company uses the same lacquer company employed by Steinway pianos and other leading piano manufacturers. The craftsmanship and attention to detail is obvious from the moment you set foot in the Sonus faber workshop: “The guys here spend more time caressing the speakers than they do their wives,” one of the workers jokes.
The entire process of bringing a Sonus faber speaker to life can take anywhere from one to two years, Tezzon says, with at least 30% of the time dedicated to testing. “The tests involve every single part prior to the assembly,” he says, “and then a test routine at the end of the production line.”
One of the final steps in the testing process: running the speakers through a curated playlist of songs, designed to put the new system through its paces. It’s important, Tezzon says, to have that “human connection” to the product and not just listen for the audio quality, but also to the feeling a speaker can express through the songs its playing.
“High-quality speakers provide the listener more detail and a more complete experience,” he says, “and therefore they allow you to get in touch with the form of art more deeply while experiencing music or a movie. Top-quality speakers offer you a deeper understanding of the artists’ expression.”
Here, Tezzon shares the five songs he listens to when testing Sonus faber speakers at the company’s listening room in Italy.
1. Eva Cassidy, “What a Wonderful World” (find the song here)
“I use this track because of the beautiful female voice. It is very useful when it comes to understanding the speaker’s tonal balance and level of transparency — every single nuance of Eva’s voice must be perfectly reproduced. Furthermore, the staging ability can be understood [as] her voice has to sit perfectly in the middle of the sound stage.
In the beginning of the track, the piano and guitar, both played very softly, provide interesting information. Finally, from the moment when the drums come to action, played with the percussion brush, the bass allows you to tell the speaker’s ability to manage signals recorded with different intensities. A gentle track is the perfect beginning for a critical listening session. Listening sessions are like wine tasting — you always want to start from the softer track and then grow with intensity.”
2. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker” (find the song here)
“There are three important elements with this track: first, Leonard’s baritone — an almost guttural voice — is a challenge in itself for the speaker’s reproduction and tonal balance, as the lower midrange presentation has to be very good. Second, the choir at the beginning of the song is a good display of the speaker’s staging ability, as the voices have to spread nicely, covering the whole horizontal dimension, well-detached from the speakers themselves. Third, the very percussive bass and kick drum playing in unison has to be fast and tight while remaining fat and rich in harmonics.”
3. Camille Saint-Saens, “Danse Macabre” (Tezzon uses a version played by the New Symphony Orchestra of London, conducted by Alexander Gibson, but you can find similar versions of the song here).
“This track literally has everything. From the low-level pizzicato harp strings to the low level (and hard to correctly reproduce) double basses solo, both available in the introduction, you can immediately tell the great variance of sounds available in this amazing recording from 1958.
If you are familiar with the different sounds of stings, woods, brass, and percussions, here you have the perfect tool to evaluate the speaker’s tonal balance. The track also offers an amazing sound stage – every element coming from a different spot of a super wide image projection exceeding the spatial limit of the distance between the two speakers. Further, the dynamic range of a speaker is challenged to the maximum level as the track ranges from pianissimo to full orchestral many times, and the ability to handle undistorted power is under the spotlight.”
Other songs used during Sonus faber testing:
- Paul Simon, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (find the song here)
- DubXanne, “Roxanne, Police in Dub” (find the song here)
Of course even the most technically precise and fine-tuned speaker won’t be a substitute for the real thing, and Tezzo says there’s only one way to experience music: “Attend as many live concerts as possible and always pay attention to the sound,” he says. “Being familiar with live music will allow anyone to build a reference on their own so that they can compare it with what any given speaker is capable to provide. Listening to live music is the foundation.”