Yamaha Soavo Speaker System
A few weeks before I started on this review, I went to a press event in New York City for the premiere of a "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's legendary 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. No, they didn't play a new CD or even the original master tape; we heard Mr. Gould, who passed away in 1982, virtually playing a Yamaha Disklavier Pro concert grand piano. And it was no scam. Zemph Studios (a music technology company based in Raleigh, North Carolina) converted the original recording to high-resolution MIDI files and played them back over this very special Yamaha piano. The concert thrilled everyone, especially those in attendance who were lucky enough to have heard the flesh-and-blood Gould perform back in the day. The event organizers gave each of us a copy of the new Sony/ BMG Masterworks SACD of the re-performance.
And if the Glenn Gould SACD wasn't enough to whet my appetite for Yamaha's all-new Soavo speakers, my fond memories of the company's NS-1000M speaker would have done the trick. That beautifully built speaker made a splash in the mid 1970s with its advanced beryllium dome tweeter and midrange drivers. NS-1000s still go for big money on eBay; maybe that's why Yamaha decided to bring their serious audiophile speakers to America after all these years.
I had the complete line in for evaluation, including the Soavo-1 tower ($1,800), 900C center-channel speaker ($1,000), 900M surround ($1,000), and the 900SW subwoofer ($1,300). By the time you read this, Yamaha will have added a large bookshelf model to the line, the Soavo 2. (Price was yet to be determined at press time.)
Big and bold, the Soavos' daring shape may register as mildly retro in design. The tapered cabinets and sharp intersecting angles serve to quell internal standing waves and make the speakers seem a little less imposing than their actual bulk. The veneers, Yamaha tells me, are real birch wood. But my samples' finish looks like really nice vinyl—not as sumptuous as I'd like to see on a high-end speaker. Whatever the case, the real wood veneers are applied to the outside and inside of the cabinets because Yamaha's engineers found that the Soavos sound better that way. Speaking of wood, Yamaha machines the Soavos' port flares out of solid wood that, quality-wise, feels like a big step up from the molded plastic tubes you get in most speakers nowadays. Furthermore, the Soavo-1 tower comes with its outrigger feet already bolted into place, so you won't have to waste time assembling your new speakers. The thick aluminum tweeter plate is distinctive and provides a solid platform for the series' 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. The grilles are held in place with magnets, and the speakers are all fitted with beefy speaker connectors. Only the towers come with a double set for biwiring or biamping, though.
The Soavo-1 is a three-way design that features a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter, a 5-inch A-PMD (Advanced Polymer-Injected Mica Diaphragm) midrange driver, and twin 6.5-inch A-PMD woofers. The 900C center and 900M monitor use the very same 5-inch drivers and tweeter. The midrange and woofer drivers' aluminum die-cast frames are said to minimize frequency response anomalies.
The 900SW sub is a big, chunky cube with a front-firing 10-inch driver and a 600-watt digital amplifier. Compared with the speakers, the sub's styling seems pretty bland, but I felt better about the 900SW after I spotted the tiny remote control that makes initial setup easier and lets you make on-the-fly volume adjustments. You can also select from three Bass Action Selector System modes and custom memory presets for movies and music.
Getting to Know Soavo
The big Soavo-1's low-end prowess was pretty good for a pair of 6.5-inch woofers, but not so deep that the speaker didn't require the 900SW subwoofer's assistance to supply the deepest bass. Over the first few hours, I started to become aware that all of the speakers had a recessed midrange/forward treble that made for a somewhat pinched and aggressive sound. Maybe they just needed some playing time to mellow out, so I left the radio playing for the next week or so, and most, but not all of the edge/glare subsided. I also wound up placing the Soavo-1s a little further apart than the norm for my room, 7.5 feet instead of the usual 7. I used my Pioneer DV-45A DVD player, Sunfire Theater Grand III surround processor, and Ayre V-6xe power amp throughout the review, and I hooked up the speakers with my Tributaries Silver cables.
That Glenn Gould SACD I mentioned earlier summoned a surprisingly faithful reproduction of the glorious 9-foot Yamaha piano in my home theater. The Soavos seemed to have an affinity for intimate, acoustic performances.
Sticking with acoustic/orchestral works, I popped on Styx and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland to check out the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" from their One With Everything concert DVD. The orchestra swooned with gusto, and James Young's spot-on vocals sent chills up and down my spine. Mobile Fidelity's SACD of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was even better. The recording from the mid-1970s was mixed for quadraphonic surround, but, even so, it handily trumped most newer surround recordings. The sense of being out in the hall, hearing the orchestra's sound reflecting off the proscenium and side walls was an absolute thrill. I could quibble about the violins' tone; it wasn't as sweet as I would have liked, but the basses and cellos sounded voluptuous.
Next up: one of the scariest films I've seen in years, Children of Men, set in terrorist-gripped London in 2027. The Soavos reproduced the sounds of the busy city streets, claustrophobic car interiors, and noisy pubs with near holographic vividness. The scene with a motorcycle chasing and shooting into a car was terrifyingly realistic, and, later, when the streets are filled with marauding gangs, the overwhelming density of sound added to the film's gut-wrenching emotional pull.
To test the Soavos' imaging, I popped on Vessels, a pumped-up psychedelic CD from Wolf & Cub. The recording's soundstage appeared from behind the actual plane of the Soavo-1s. The music's abrupt bouts of abrasive noise and hyperactive stereo mixes toss swirling guitar feedback between the two speakers where they were almost visual in their, well, imaging. Yes, it's a cliché, but the speakers almost disappeared as sources of sound.
But could the Soavos rock? To find out, I used the Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf to put the speakers through the wringer. Clearly, the Soavos didn't reproduce the band's thrashing power chords with enough muscle, bass definition was soggy, and the music's hard-hitting dynamics were blunted. Backing down on the volume helped matters, but, if you're into loud, visceral music, the Soavos may not be the best way to go. The complete 5.1-channel system runs $7,900; however, for that kind of money, I'd expect a lot more oomph. The Soavos shined with less demanding music and movies, and the verging-on-retro aesthetic will attract its share of admirers.
• Yamaha's first high-end speakers in the USA in decades
• Retro yet edgy style matched with high-end engineering