Test Report: Sonus Faber Liuto Speakers and REL R-528 Subwoofer

Romantics see Italy as a place of rich history and sophisticated culture. Not me. As a non-romantic, I can think of Italy only as the birthplace of the Fiat 128 that often left me walking instead of driving, and the location of a honeymoon in which I fought frenzied traffic and struggled to find a decent meal.

That’s why the Italian-made Sonus Faber speakers are tough for me to review. I try to think of Italy’s technological triumphs — Ferrari, Ducati, Piaggio Aero — yet I keep coming back to the sub-Denny’s-quality pasta I had on Venice’s Grand Canal. Still, even a non-romantic has to admit that Sonus Faber’s construction quality is four or five cuts above the average, and better even than that of most other high-end speakers.

Consider the new Liuto, the company’s lowest-priced tower. The speaker’s curving, lute-inspired shape gives it an elegance that few speakers can match, and it also contributes to the cabinet’s extremely stiff, non-resonant character. The front baffle is covered in leather of a quality and workmanship comparable to that of elite sports-car interiors. Every single line of the speaker, from the gently arcing rear panel to the sloping top plate, reflects thoughtful design. Not a single component of this speaker seems generic.

Two other models, the Liuto Smart center speaker and the Liuto monitor minispeaker,  round out the collection. All use the same 1-inch fabric dome tweeter and a 6-inch midrange/woofer driver woven from polypropylene fiber. The Liuto adds a 9-inch woofer with a cone made from aluminum/magnesium alloy, with a brass phase plug in the center to eliminate resonance within the voice coil and help cool the woofer’s motor structure.

Sumiko, Sonus Faber’s U.S. distributor, often packages Sonus Faber speakers with subwoofers from the U.K. company REL. The same high-end ethos seen in the Sonus Faber speakers is evident in the REL R-528, part of the company’s new Serie R line. (Yes, that’s Serie, not Series; the La Gloria Cubana Serie R, which happens to be one of my favorite cigars, was the inspiration for its name.)

The R-528’s small, sleek enclosure conceals muscular components. A beefy, front-firing 12-inch driver and a down-firing 12-inch passive radiator made from carbon fiber get their power from a digital amplifier rated at 500 watts continuous. The gloss black cabinet with discreet silver highlights gives the R-528 a look that complements the Liuto system’s visual aesthetic.

Setup

Like almost all high-end speakers, the Liuto tower benefits from careful experimentation with placement — although it sounds good even if you just plop it down and plug it in. I placed the towers about 2 feet from the wall behind them and toed them in so that they were pointing directly at my listening chair. At the suggestion of Sumiko president John Hunter, I placed them a little farther apart than I usually would; this move widened the soundstage without sacrificing the solid center image.

I tossed the grilles into a corner; the speakers look and sound better without them. One aesthetic complaint: I didn’t like the look of the old-style plastic grommets used to mount the grilles. Sonus Faber should switch to the invisible magnetic mounting system that many other speaker manufacturers have recently adopted.

I used a pair of Liuto Monitors mounted on Sonus Faber’s own stands, first as surround speakers and then as a stereo pair placed in the same spots where the Liuto towers sounded best. The Liuto Smart center sat atop a pair of short stands, pointed up slightly so that it aimed directly at my head.

REL equips its subs with a high-level input and a special cable that attaches to the speaker terminals of the amplifier. This way, the subwoofer gets the same signal as the main speakers. It is typically set to a low crossover point (around 40 Hz) so that it picks up where the main speakers’ bass response starts to drop. The company recommends this setup to avoid the latency (i.e., time delay) inherent in the bass management systems in surround processors/receivers. There’s also a line-level input that connects to the LFE output of your receiver or surround processor. The high-level and line-level inputs have separate controls so that you can fine-tune the bass to your liking. However, this sub really needs a master level control to facilitate quick level adjustments.

Performance

When I encounter a high-priced, beautifully crafted audiophile speaker of continental European pedigree, I expect it to sound ultra-delicate, but this didn’t hold for the Liuto or its stablemates. To my ears, the Liuto has the natural tonality and awesome dynamics of an impeccably engineered Canadian speaker (i.e., Paradigm or PSB), but with a mellower treble.

The warm tonal balance of the Liuto towers practically begged me to play jazz records. I started with a 1995 recording that S+V reader Bruce Erwin recently told me about: An Evening of Jazz with the John Harmon Trio (Klavier). Bruce called this the best piano trio recording ever, and I can’t disagree. The Liutos reproduced Harmon’s piano with impeccable realism and detail; I bet someone who knows about pianos could have told from hearing this exactly what kind of piano it is. The soundstage had good depth, stretching way back behind the speakers, but it didn’t have the colossal — and, some might say, artificial — wraparound quality that some high-end speakers deliver.

Pop music also sounded great through the Liutos, with the same smooth character I heard in jazz recordings, although I do think the tonal balance lends itself better to jazz and classical than to pop/rock. Voices seemed especially clear, even perhaps a touch emphasized in the upper midrange or lower treble. I noticed the same effect in the Liuto Smart Center and Luito Monitor, and in most cases I liked it because it increased the clarity of vocals and dialogue. Only when the voices in question were very high in pitch, such as the grade-school girls in the movie Matilda, did the emphasis sound unnatural.

Despite the Liuto tower’s specified bass response of 40 Hz, it delivers substantial output below that, even shaking my floor a bit when I played the sub-20-Hz low notes from the recording of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony on the Boston Audio Society test CD.

When I replaced the Liuto towers with the Liuto Monitor minispeakers, I actually liked the minis a bit better. They sounded pretty much the same, minus the low bass, but somehow the minis seemed ever-so-slightly more lively. They delivered decent bass on their own, too.

While the Liuto towers clearly don’t need a sub, the REL R-528 did give them some nice extra kick. The sub easily passed the toughest home theater bass test I know of — the spaceship flyover that starts Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones — shaking the hell out of my room without the slightest trace of distortion. It also delivered a tuneful groove on melodic bass lines from the James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD, Toto’s “Rosanna,” and all the other studio-slick pop tracks from my test CD-R.

Bottom Line

The Liuto collection is something I’ve rarely encountered: a speaker system that lends itself just as well to audiophile listening as it does to high-impact home theater. It’s a truly beautiful creation. While they may seem rather expensive, I doubt you could find lower-priced speakers that combine the Liutos’ technical excellence and incredible craftsmanship.

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