- Created on Wednesday, 01 May 2013 00:00
- Written by Tim Shea
As a glance in my closet confirms, I’m not a huge fan of fashion or style. I’m more about function and value. But despite my proclivity for practicality, I can appreciate when something looks good. And if I can get style, performance, and value together in one package, I’m good with that.
But unless boxy really blows your skirt, there’s not much style to be found among inexpensive speakers. Sonus Faber (pronounced SO-nus FAH-ber) feels your pain, and has had the audacity to launch a line of speakers, Venere (for Venus, and pronounced VAY-neh-ray), that offer style and substance at very reasonable prices.
The Venere 2.5s ($2498 USD per pair) are the most stylish audio components ever to grace my system. Before I even had a chance to ask, my wife remarked on how much she liked their looks. She, too, is Italian, so the deck was probably stacked a little in the Venere’s favor. I’m a little more conservative about style, but even I could appreciate the Venere’s graceful proportions and curves.
Unlike my wife, the Venere 2.5 is not 100% Italian. While it was designed by folks in Italy, and the drivers were specced by Sonus Faber and sourced from other European manufacturers, those sexy cabinets are made and the final assembly is done in China.
Sonus Faber was founded in the early 1980s by the late Franco Serblin, who began by selling smaller bookshelf speakers in Vicenza, Italy. Serblin retired from the company in 2007; the last speakers he worked on directly were the acclaimed Amati and Stradivari. Acclaimed, yes; cheap, no. Sonus Faber has since been acquired by the Fine Sounds Group, a subsidiary of Quadrivio SGR, which also owns Audio Research Corporation, McIntosh Labs, Sumiko, and Wadia -- not shabby company. But would becoming part of an audio conglomerate dilute the quintessential Italianness that makes Sonus Faber Sonus Faber?
One of the first things Fine Sounds Group decided was that it was necessary to bring the Sonus Faber flair and sound to younger, less affluent folks who can’t afford the premium stuff. Producing such products in Italy wasn’t an option due to cost, but FSG seems to have done as much as they could to make sure the Sonus Faber DNA is carried on in the Veneres. The six Venere models were designed in Italy by the same people who work on the pricier lines: Paolo Tezzon designed the electrical and driver components, and Livio Cucuzza was responsible for exterior design. These are the guys who worked on the company’s current flagship model, the Aida ($120,000/pair), to which the 2.5 bears more than a passing resemblance.
In addition to the relatively new corporate ownership and Chinese manufacture, something else is at work here. Despite all the heritage involved in the design process, the Venere 2.5 is not your father’s Sonus Faber. And that seems to be by . . . design.
Description and use
The first thing I noticed about the Venere 2.5 is that its fashion-model looks are accompanied by a fashion-model weight. Each svelte tower, despite being constructed of MDF and standing 43.6”H x 13.4”W x 17.2”D, weighs a Twiggy-like 43 pounds. According to Sonus Faber, it took quite a bit of work to be able to consistently and reliably produce all those curves, but it’s paid off. The 2.5 can be had in Gloss Black, White Lacquer, or real walnut veneer (add $500/pair).
The cabinet’s alluring shape is not for looks alone. As those of you familiar with Sonus Faber’s upscale models may have noticed, the Venere 2.5’s curvaceous lines are reminiscent of the company’s flagship Aida and echo that speaker’s lyre-inspired shape. An obvious benefit of such a cabinet is that it has few or no parallel internal surfaces, which helps dissipate back pressure within the cabinet by preventing the formation of standing waves, but also serves to stiffen the overall structure so as to minimize unwanted resonances and vibrations. I have to assume that this is how Sonus Faber was able to get away with a cabinet of such low mass, though I did notice significant vibrations in the side panels when I knocked on them, or when I played mid- and low-bass notes at higher volumes.
The Venere 2.5’s stylish top and bottom plates are made of glass, and the speaker comes with adjustable floor spikes. The cabinet has a slight backtilt that’s said to help properly align the drivers, and the baffle is gently curved, with radiused cutouts for the drivers that serve as waveguides, and a slot-shaped port near the bottom. The curved baffle is said to minimize diffraction effects and help improve the speaker’s efficiency at producing dynamic impact and a large, spacious soundstage. Around back are four high-quality binding posts suitable for biwiring. Sonus Faber has even staggered the pairs of posts so you have more room to work with -- a thoughtful touch that I haven’t seen on any other speaker I’ve had here.
As its name implies, the Venere 2.5 is a two-and-a-half-way design: one 7” woofer cone handles the bass duties up to only 250Hz, while an identical midrange-woofer hands off to the 1” tweeter at 2500Hz. The woofers are made of a polypropylene composite named Curv, and the tweeter has a fabric dome made by DKM of Germany, with a proprietary coating formulated by Sonus Faber. One interesting aspect of the tweeter is that it’s not cooled with ferrofluid, which Sonus Faber feels hampers dynamics and openness. The crossover is claimed to be of an “unconventional progressive slope” design, which is about all the company would say about it.
Sonus Faber claims for the Venere 2.5 a frequency response of 40Hz-25kHz, +/-3dB; a sensitivity of 89dB/2.83V/m; and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms. I asked about the speaker’s minimum impedance and at what frequency that occurs, but Sonus Faber doesn’t share that information. However, they said that, given the speaker’s price, they’ve engineered it to work with relatively modest amplification, and that they’ve used a 60Wpc Audio Research integrated tube amp with great success. While I wouldn’t bring my low-powered SET amp to the party, it seems the 2.5 will be a fairly willing dance partner for most amps. My McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev.A, a 100Wpc solid-state amp, had no problems driving them.
The Venere’s grille, though fairly thin and flimsy, was perfectly fine in terms of appearance and snapped fairly easily into place with some assistance from magnets. I didn’t expect magnetically attached grilles at this price, but it was a nice feature, as I never listened with the grilles on, and swapped the grilles on and off fairly frequently.
The review samples’ Gloss Black finish was perfectly acceptable, especially for the price. It didn’t quite measure up to the automotive-quality lacquers I’ve seen on pricier speakers, but that would have made the Venere 2.5 a lot more expensive -- duh. The only indication of a corner having been cut was that one of the eight holes that the spikes screw into was stripped; still, it worked fine and was never a problem. A metal sleeve would have been more robust.
Some speakers sound pretty decent right away; others are almost unlistenable. The Venere 2.5 was in the latter camp. Fresh out of the box, the Veneres sounded a bit bright and edgy up top, but after 100 hours or so the highs began to mellow out and the sound was much better balanced. Still, I put about 200 hours on them before doing any critical listening. If you audition them, make sure the pair you’re listening to has had at least that much playing time, or you’ll almost certainly get the wrong impression of this speaker.
Even after all that break-in, I was surprised at what I heard from the Venere 2.5s. My past experience with Sonus Faber speakers, and the many reviews I’ve read of their other models, had led me to expect a very refined and unaggressive sound, especially in the top octaves. I was a bit concerned that the 2.5 would somewhat put my ears to sleep. But the 2.5 turned out to be a less-abashed truth teller in the highs, which is the direction my tastes lean in anyway. My guess is this is intentional on the part of the new management, in an effort to woo the younger generation they seek. In my first listening sessions I heard lots of air and space, well-defined reverb trails, and crisp transients aplenty. I think one of the triumphs of the Venere 2.5 is that its sound went just far enough in these directions without going too far.
A sure indicator of this is voices and vocal sibilants, in particular how they’re balanced and integrated with each other. Through speakers with too hot a sound, sibilants overtake more important aspects of the reproduction of voices, and in the worst cases sound hissy, sizzly, and overdone, to the point that they distract from the musical message. I’ve found the recordings of Norah Jones to be useful in revealing just how well a speaker performs in this critical area. Along with her wonderfully unique vocal quality, she has a breathiness just above her primary range that makes her a very expressive singer. Cut that off, and while the vocal character survives, a great deal of Jones’s expressiveness is gone; go too far in the other direction, and Jones’s sibilants overwhelm the unique character of her voice. I think the Venere 2.5 stuck the landing on this one. Not only did it nail the balance of character and sibilants, but the power of Jones’s voice a bit lower in the mids also came through in spades. For those who want to be seduced by a speaker, this is key -- so much of the musical message is in the critical midrange, and the Venere 2.5s were aces in this regard. I did occasionally hear just a hint of opacity at the lower ranges of husky male and female singers, but this didn’t significantly detract from my overall enjoyment of the music.
Voices aren’t the only producers of sound that has lots of midrange content. How would the Sonus Faber do with instruments? Again, aces. Those looking for flesh on the bone, for fully portrayed instrumental tonality, should find little to complain about in the Venere 2.5. It was at once audiophile- and musician-friendly, with a unique ability to portray not only the upfront nuances of instrumental timbres and how they’re being played, but also a wonderful sense of the venue in which they were recorded. Many speakers offer much more of one than the other; again, Sonus Faber seems to have done a nice job of managing the trade-offs.
Through generally neutral but lighter-sounding speakers, I’ve found that Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (CD, MCA MCAD-10475) can sound a little thin and edgy, without much tonality or weight to properly flesh out the sound. Then again, through other speakers I thought were neutral, this album sounds distinctly more present and alive, with good tonal color and dynamic impact. The Venere 2.5 definitely fell in the latter camp, and had me listening to this CD far longer than usual. The piano, in particular, had a grander scale, with more weight and presence, and plenty of soundboard to go along with the tinkle of the keys. I also noted that the voices of backing singers were very evenly fleshed out, not light and thin; and Lovett’s voice was smooth, with greater tonal depth and impact. Higher in the audioband, I also really liked how the 2.5 reproduced the cymbals: they sounded very pure and tonally distinct, without sizzle or hash. The bass was good and provided a solid foundation, but was a little more prominent in the mix than I’m used to. This bass boost may have been another deliberate choice on the part of the designers, to cater to the likely buyers and situations in which the 2.5s will find themselves.
I heard these same characteristics when I played Opus 3’s 15th Anniversary Sampler (CD, Opus 3 9277). In “Pick a Rib,” the tone of the vibraphone was very nicely balanced with the impact of mallet on keys. The more complete tonal saturation generated by the 2.5 served up a healthy helping of dimensional presence, and a clearer sense of physical separation among instruments across the stage. In general, I felt I was pulled about ten rows closer to the players, which was completely in the service of the music.
The flip side of sitting ten rows closer is that you tend to lose some sense of the overall hall sound. This was the case when I played Daboa’s From the Gekko (CD, Triple Earth trecd 115). Through the Venere 2.5s, the flute in “Campo del Pilón” wasn’t quite as waaaaay back there as through my reference Soliloquy 6.2 speakers, and the birds fluttering around the stage seemed to be more in my room, rather than flying more freely within a larger space. Still, the 2.5s were no slouches in this area -- they countered by more solidly communicating the sound of the flute and the fluttering of the birds. This is what I meant by the 2.5’s ability to appeal to both the audiophile and the musician: I got good doses of both “they are here” and “you are there.” There’s a little something for everyone here.
Also apparent with From the Gekko was that the 2.5s were capable of moving a good bit of air for their size. In “Campesina,” I could feel the bass on my pants legs -- the entire room felt pressurized and immersed in sound. But there were limits -- big bass-drum thwacks in some classical recordings, and aggressive bass drums in rock music, didn’t have quite the gut-punching impact through the 2.5s as they do through some other speakers I’ve had here, some of which were, admittedly, significantly more expensive. There was certainly enough there to give me a good idea of what was going on down low. But if head-banging rock and/or large-scale classical are your staples and you need the complete picture down to the stygian depths, I think you’d need a subwoofer or two, just as you would with almost any speaker in this price category.
Of a bit more concern were the lower strings. “All or Nothing at All,” from Diana Krall’s Love Scenes (CD, Verve 284136), begins with a well-known double-bass solo. The bass was very rich and full through the 2.5s, but when it dove deep it lost focus, and the image spread out between the speakers rather than maintaining its rock-solid placement in the middle. This could have been partially a function of my untreated room -- results here might vary widely -- but I couldn’t ameliorate it by playing with speaker placement. If I had to guess, this might be where the behavior of the 2.5’s relatively light, thin-walled cabinet wasn’t completely controlled by those graceful, carefully constructed curves. I noticed this only within this specific range of music and instruments, and was one of the few hiccups of an otherwise very solid package.
My reference Soliloquy 6.2 speakers ($2699/pair when available) have a lighter sound than the Venere 2.5s. Both models were very good in the upper and middle midrange, almost precisely matching each other’s performance in this critical region by reproducing so much of what’s found there: the music’s life and emotion. But lower in the mids, the Venere added a whole different level of tonal color that brought out the character and dynamic impact of a wide variety of instruments and sounds. Higher in the audioband, I found the Veneres to sound cleaner, with even better tonal properties in the treble range that allowed them to more completely convey the specific characters of various cymbals and the like. However, the Soliloquys’ clearer reproduction of air, space, and reverb trails resulted in a better sense of the recording venue. The upper bass was more full and pronounced through the 2.5s, but more tightly focused and linear through the 6.2s, which also moved a bit more air and had more punch down low -- as they should, with claimed output down to 28Hz vs. the 2.5’s 40Hz (both +/-3dB). With music that included both voices and low bass, the Venere was better able to clearly reproduce music -- I think its midrange driver was less stressed and operating more within its comfort range. The Venere 2.5s sat me a good ten rows closer to the performance than my Soliloquy 6.2s, which was perhaps the biggest difference between the two.
Sonus Faber’s foray into more affordable speakers is, so far, impressive. In terms of appearance, I can’t think of anything that can touch them at the price. But the apparent high quality of the Venere 2.5’s components and their implementation have also yielded impressive sound, especially from the all-important midrange up. Imaging and dynamics are also big pluses. That all of these sonic goodies are made possible even with relatively low-powered and/or modestly priced electronics is a not-insignificant bonus. These strengths should help win Sonus Faber many new audio-oriented customers, in addition to the style conscious. But if you’re seriously considering buying a pair of Venere 2.5s, listen carefully to their reproduction of the upper bass and lower. Though a perceived prominence in this range provides a nice sense of foundation and heft that belies a relatively dainty package, the sound could get a little loose down there with certain material, though this will likely vary widely, depending on your room and how much sound treatment you’ve given it.
But overall, the Venere 2.5’s rare combination of style, performance, and value presents an awful lot to like for a wide range of listeners. Kudos to Sonus Faber for having the guts to break with tradition and bring a unique breath of fresh air to an otherwise boxy, boring world.
. . . Tim Shea
- Speakers -- Soliloquy 6.2
- Amplifier -- McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev.A
- Preamplifier -- Bryston BP 6 C-Series
- Digital sources -- Oppo DV-970HD universal A/V player (used as transport), Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1 D/A converter
- Interconnects -- Acoustic Zen Silver Reference and Silver Reference II
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Zen Satori shotgun biwire
- Digital cable -- Apogee Wyde-Eye
Sonus Faber Venere 2.5 Loudspeakers
Price: $2498 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Sonus Faber SPA
Via Antonio Meucci 10, 36057
Arcugnano (VI), Italy
Phone: (39) 0444-288788
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Phone: (510) 843-4500