Sony SS-NA5ES Speaker System Page 2
Sinister has Ethan Hawke seeking a serial killer with supernatural overtones. While the haunted-house story was predictable, the soundtrack told it eloquently, and the speakers celebrated both its low chamber music of ambiguous unease and its flamboyant high-decibel arias of terror. Low synth tones, a staple of horror movies and thrillers, were expertly and seamlessly delivered by sub and speakers. When the volume rose in a blend of thunder, bass hum, and guitar feedback, the system juggled adroitly. A sudden boom sent a tingling sensation through my spine and limbs, a sensation I don’t recall previously having with an audio system. It may not be one I’d like to feel all the time.
I Hear Voices
The stand-mounts found distinctive ways to voice solo instruments. In Frans Bruggen’s Complete Sonatas and Partita for Transverse Flute (an ABC Classics double LP of music by J.S. Bach), the soloist’s breath was downplayed, but the instrument’s decay was extended, which became most apparent when the music rested briefly between notes. Though not strongly outlined, the flute image was far from vague. In fact, even large lateral head moves barely budged it from its place midway between the two speakers. The sweetening and long, luscious decay offset the hard edges in Leo van Doeselaar’s Complete Organ Music of W.F. Bach, a Direct Metal Master LP of a digital recording on the Dutch Etcetera label. Buried treasure was uncovered in the midrange department, imparting an unexpected mellowness and spacious ambience. The instrument sounded less metallic and more woody than it has through other speakers.
Bach’s eldest son used the pipe organ more for melodic rumination than for thundering apocalypse. In search of more aggressive passages, I turned to the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony as performed by Charles Munch leading the Boston Symphony in a Living Stereo recording—delivered as a 24/176 HDtracks download. I have heard this work performed live at the Munich Gasteig, a hall with great acoustics, so I have a rough idea of how it should sound. Even at the restrained initial entrance of the pipe organ’s pedal notes, it became apparent that the relative restraint of the sub’s Passive Radiator setting was the winner in musical terms—and that conclusion was only underscored as the instrument went full-throttle. If I’d used room correction to counteract my room’s inherent standing wave, I might have reached a different conclusion. The speakers did nothing to disguise the brightness of the strings in this recording (though the ES speakers are not intrinsically bright).
Piano recordings were well served by the stand-mounts with or without the sub. The speakers had enough bass content to fill out the left-hand parts acceptably, even satisfyingly. Alfred Brendel’s complete set of Beethoven piano sonatas (in the late 1970s Philips LP release) emerged full-bodied, not clattery, with the loads of decay in the recording fully supported by the speakers. Arpeggios turned into big liquid pools of pleasure. The multichannel SACD release of Private Brubeck Remembers, a set of World War II songs, presents Dave Brubeck in a more spatially flat recording. The stand-mount’s warmth perfectly suited the then-84-year-old pianist’s chromatic and emotional richness as he freely interpreted the tunes of his youth. Once again, an attempt at spot-the-crossover was futile. The four stand-mounts (minus the unused center channel) and subwoofer combined to operate as a single instrument.
For rock ’n’ roll, I learned to close my eyes, ignore the receiver’s volume display, and pour on as much power as I could stand—and these speakers love power. In the Rolling Stones double LP anthology Hot Rocks 1964–1971, I further contemplated the bass response of both the stand-mount and the sub at its Passive Radiator setting. In “Jumping Jack Flash,” routing all bass through the stand-mount actually increased overall bass output, suggesting that the speaker had strong response below the 80-hertz crossover. But the drum impact of “Honky Tonk Women” was weightier with the sub. For most tracks, the sub’s more aggressive Closed setting was too much of a good thing—but it did enable optimum party pounding on “Brown Sugar.” The 12-string guitars on “Wild Horses” seemed to demand more resolution; removing the grilles provided it. With any tweak, at any setting, the ES speakers never provided anything less than a big epic sound that was mesmerizing.
I continued with grilles off with Led Zeppelin IV. This seemed to embolden the polite top end of my poor man’s audiophile phono cartridge. The balance and shaping of Jimmy Page’s studio-honed guitars couldn’t be better, making “Four Sticks” a multi-layered treat and “Stairway to Heaven” a thing of shimmering beauty. John Bonham’s drums responded well to the sub’s Closed setting, especially in the brief but perfect drum solo that precedes the guitar coda of “Rock and Roll.” In general, these speakers rocked and rolled as well as any I have ever heard.
Readers will note—maybe angrily—that this $19,000 set of speakers is not affordable to all. The ES speakers cost more than most of what I review and a lot more than I could afford myself. (I wonder what would happen if I refused to send them back? Would Sony send a collection agent to my door?)
The ES speakers won’t sell on the basis of price-performance ratio alone. But they do offer an incremental edge to listeners who want the very best—especially those who might appreciate their winning personality, their golden midrange, their spacious treble, their power handling, that prodigious sub, and Sony’s avowedly listening-based approach to design. The last part is perhaps the most critical.
This is what it boils down to: Do you want your speakers to be dispassionate or passionate?