Sonus Faber Cremona surround speaker system Page 2

Sumiko imports Sonus Faber and REL products to the US, as well as electronics from the Swedish company Primare. They sent the new Primare SP31.7 pre-pro and A30.5 5-channel amplifier for use in this review. The Primares will be reviewed separately in an upcoming issue; I used them about half the time for the review. For the rest of my listening, I used the TAG McClaren AV192R AvantGarde pre-pro and Theta Dreadnaught II power amp. The Primare combo couldn't quite equal the smooth detail and sheer effortlessness of the more powerful TAG-Theta pairing, but it still sounded first-rate at roughly a third the cost.

A Little Night Music
I did much more than a little music listening through the system, primarily in 2-channel, using only the left and right Cremonas and the subwoofer. My first reaction was that the Sonus Fabers were exceptionally clean and sweet, but a little lacking in high-frequency air. The Sumiko crew who set up the system in my house had positioned the speakers a foot or so farther back from the locations I normally use for the L/R front channels. Moving the Cremonas about a foot closer helped considerably. So did removing the string grilles—as attractive as they are, they don't seem to be as acoustically transparent as no grille at all (surprise). For the rest of my listening, 2-channel and surround, the speakers were auditioned au naturel.

Sumiko had also sent along a set of OCOS speaker cables for the front channels. These added a noticeable sparkle to the sound, but with the other changes I made, I was not convinced that this additional high-frequency energy was a plus. I did most of my listening with my resident Monster cables.

With these tweaks, and extended listening, the Cremonas began to shine, though they didn't wow me right out of the gate with sparkling highs and an explosive dynamic range. Coming on the heels of the Revel Performa F50 system I'd just finished reviewing, the Sonus Fabers sounded distinctly more polite, and more forgiving of less than the best program material.

But "forgiving" doesn't mean "dull." The more I listened, the more I enjoyed the detail the Cremonas uncovered. I began to appreciate again the subtly different ways a percussionist can brush a cymbal, a violinist can attack a string, or the way the ambience of the recording venue can alter one's reaction to a piece of music. Much of this was due to the quality of the tweeter. At the end of the day, I might have preferred just a trace more air at the very top end, but the Cremona's honest resolution and freedom from smear or edginess were more than enough to compensate.

The midrange was also outstanding: a little forward, but only enough to give the sound a natural immediacy and presence. Instrumental attack was lively, and voices were simply there. And there was no identifiable coloration to distract—no chestiness, nasality, or boxiness. No speaker is completely uncolored, but in several weeks of listening I never heard anything from the Cremonas that pulled me out of the music—or the film—to remind me that what I was listening to was merely a simulation of the real thing.

The imaging produced by a pair of subwoofered Cremonas was also hard to criticize. Centered vocalists and instruments were anchored firmly enough to produce that "Is the center speaker on?" sensation. Depth was just what was called for by the program material. The overall soundstage ranged from small and intimate to enveloping—again, determined by the program material, not the speakers.

The Lowdown
The proper blending of a subwoofer and main speakers can be tricky. The room is just as important as the speakers in determining how well a combination of sub and mains will work—a room peak at or near the crossover point will defeat even the best efforts. While they might not deserve all the credit, the Cremonas blended well with three different subwoofers in my room: the REL, the MartinLogan Descent, and the B&W ASW 675.

Crossed over at either 60 or 80Hz by the filters in my pre-pro, the REL Stadium III subwoofer provided solid low-end support for the Cremonas. It shook the floor when required (mostly on films—more on that shortly), calling attention to itself only when needed. I suspect that its solo 10-inch driver would not be well suited for very large rooms (like the 7000-cubic-foot space in my previous house, a real sub-killer), but I was rarely able to stress the REL in my 3200-cubic-foot home theater at high (but not insane) listening levels. In fact, the REL audibly complained on only one selection I tried. Curiously, it was music: a passage with a strong 19Hz fundamental (underpinning a higher frequency, but average level, melodic line) on a Hindemith piece for pipe organ (Hindemith Organ Works, Argo 417 159-2, 4:45 into track 5). Here the REL substituted a gravelly, higher-pitched rumble for the fundamental. The comparably priced MartinLogan Descent reproduced the same extreme-low-frequency note without complaint. On most material this difference was irrelevant, but I did hear it on a few of my most difficult bass references.

In fairness to the REL, however, other otherwise impeccable subwoofers have hiccupped in the Hindemith test—including the Aerial Acoustics SW12. And, arguably, hooking up the Stadium III the way I did, and forcing it to reproduce an octave or so above the 40Hz upper limit recommended by REL may have somehow placed its deep bass response at a disadvantage, though I'm not certain exactly how. REL may wish to discuss this point in a manufacturer's comment.

I listened to all or parts of dozens of movies through the Cremona system with the REL subwoofer. The system's strengths were clear: a big, expansive soundstage, an immediate but not pushy sound, a superbly clear midrange, and a deep, powerful low end.

The positive traits of the Cremona L/R fronts described earlier were also evident in full surround mode. But with films, the Cremona Center made its own case. It was as good as any center-channel I have yet auditioned, equaled only by the best center speakers from the likes of Revel and, perhaps, ATC (though I haven't heard ATCs in my own listening room).

The Cremona Center's strength was its ease and unobtrusiveness: It was simply there, and didn't muscle its way into the sound in any obvious way. Over the weeks I lived with it, I appreciated its naturalness with everything I threw at it. While it handled even the most aggressive soundtracks without complaint, its way with dialog impressed me most. If it had a fault, it was a slight warmth in the midbass. But the Cremona Center was superbly uncolored through the midrange.

The soundtracks I played through the Center spoke for themselves. I have noticed in the past that there's a wide range of coloration in soundtrack dialog, largely due, I believe, to post-production dialog replacement (aka looping) and the processing it requires. With the Cremona Center, those variations were less intrusive than they often are. Was this, in itself, a coloration? I don't think so, but if it is, it's a coloration that kept me absorbed in the film rather than constantly reminding me of the manipulation and processing that soundtrack production requires.

More often than not, I never noticed the contributions of the individual speakers in the Cremona system, so well-integrated was the soundstage they created. The drivers in the Cremona Center are slightly different from those in the Cremona L/Rs (conventional dome tweeter and smaller midrange, both likely chosen to limit the height of the cabinet). But the balance across the front soundstage was superbly uniform: as close as is likely possible, except with identical speakers—and even then, slight variations due to location will work against perfect uniformity. The surround-sound ideal of a huge, uniformly balanced "bubble of sound" had never been more obvious in my listening room.

As a surround, the Cremona Auditor may be a little pricey, but it worked extremely well with this system. In fact, to check out the Auditor's consistency, I briefly substituted our pair for the Cremonas as the front L/R speakers. They came as close as one could hope for in duplicating the Cremonas' front soundstage and overall sound. The only difference I noted was a slightly less uniform balance with steered dialog. I also tried using the Auditor as a center speaker. It worked very well, though the Center sounded slightly clearer in the upper midrange (probably due to the smaller midrange driver) and a little sweeter in the treble. Both differences were very subtle; I suspect that a system composed of five to seven Auditors, plus sub, would make a fine, less expensive alternative to the system reviewed here.

I listened to soundtracks as diverse as Holes (with its superb dialog and nicely balanced music track), Finding Nemo, Solaris, and Final Fantasy. Finding Nemo sounded sweet yet detailed. Steered dialog is used often in this film, and it sounded consistent across the soundstage (though, as noted above, less so when the Auditors were used in front). The balance was neither bright nor dull. Nothing was slighted or exaggerated, from subtle sounds like bubbles or the footsteps of crabs on an underwater pipe, to the explosive sequence of sharks, mines, and submarine.

Steven Soderbergh's recent remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris has no really explosive moments. Its strength is in the ambience it creates—a combination of music and discreetly chosen sounds designed to envelop the listener. The superbly coherent way that the Cremonas reproduced this ambience almost made this simultaneously absorbing and frustrating film itself coherent—no mean feat.

The soundtrack of Final Fantasy, however, probably illuminated the strengths of the Cremonas best of all. At very low levels, subtle details were clear, sometimes in ways I hadn't heard before. The speakers let me appreciate how good this soundtrack actually is, from the sound effects—which are surprisingly natural and not over-the-top—to the well-recorded music score. The soundstage was magnificent: a continuous sweep from left to right, with excellent depth and well-integrated surrounds. Everything held together at high levels, and while the dynamics might have been a little compressed at the very highest levels, nothing sounded edgy or harsh or—just as important—squashed or dulled. The soundtrack sounded so listenable and exciting that even audiophiles who dislike home theater might admit to being impressed.

Hold the Butter
During my time with Sonus Faber's Cremona system, an analogy came to mind that perfectly sums up their strengths. For many years, I've avoided fatty meals (those old high-cholesterol blues). I rarely use butter, or anything resembling it. It wasn't long before I noticed that I could actually better appreciate the fine points of different breads when they weren't slathered in grease. And while beef isn't often what's for dinner chez Norton, the same would apply to a prime steak smothered—or not—in ketchup.

Sound reproduction is a lot like that. With the Cremonas, I could discover the sound of music and movies without butter (distortion) or ketchup (coloration) getting in the way. I could hear what was on the recording the way it was meant to be heard. It's an outstanding system.