Sony SS-NA5ES Speaker System Page 2

Battleship, with the U.S. Navy fighting aliens at sea, depends more on low-frequency mayhem, which the sub and speakers handled effortlessly. The system blended aggressive pseudo-mechanical effects, explosions, and music with the finesse of a master chef. The painless comfort of it threw me off a bit. With most review gear, I’ll dial in the master volume on an action movie by raising it till the harshness hurts my ears and then backing off. With this system, the usual stop sign was hard to discern, and I let the system pump more decibels into the room than I could normally withstand. As the movie waxed noisily to its conclusion, I cut the volume, but it was the sheer quantity of sound (as opposed to the quality) that made me back off.

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?

Sony Electronics
(877) 865-SONY

CW's picture

The Sony speakers reviewed in this article are not the most efficient speakers and probably have not reached its full potential based on the reference components used by the reviewer. It is also unlikely that anyone who is willing to spend $19,000 on a set of speakers will be pairing the speakers with an $1,100 receiver. If the reviewer does not own suitable matching reference components it may be best if some else in the Sound & Vision staff write the review. Writing a review with inappropriate reference components does not do justice to the speakers or more importantly, the reader. 

While not doubting the speakers deserve a top pick recommendation, what point of reference does the reviewer base his recommendation on? Similarly priced or category of speakers are not mentioned in the article. I appreciate the several paragraphs describing different types of audio played through the speakers, it may be more usefully to the reader to include a paragraph comparing the Sony speakers to other speakers. Otherwise the review may come off as more of a advertisement then any form of critical buying advise.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
The SS-NA5ES has a rated sensitivity of 86dB, well within reach of my reference receiver. The reason I use the same amp to review everything is to have a stable frame of reference so that I am certain of how the product sounds relative to other products.
CW's picture

Yes, the speakers are rated at 86 dB but with an independence of 4 ohms. Do you think your receiver is capable of obtaining the full potential of the Sony ES speakers? In a professional review the full capabilities of a speaker should be explained. If the Pioneer receiver is capable of obtaining the speakers full potential then please disregard my comments.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
The receiver had no trouble powering the speakers. It did not clip noticeably. Nor did it have to run anywhere near the top of its volume range. If the receiver had not been capable of powering the speakers, I would not have proceeded with the review. In general, if my reference receiver could not handle challenging loads, I would find myself a new reference receiver.

When I visited Sony in Japan recently, I had an opportunity to meet with Takashi Kanai, who designs Sony receivers. He developed the Sony STR-DN1040 (and predecessors) using B&W Matrix 801 speakers as his longtime reference. He gave us a demo which was quite convincing: the receiver dominated the speakers handily. The speakers cost thousands more than the $599 receiver, but in practice, price differential is not a reliable predictor of whether two products will work well together. I have spent much of my career combating this misperception. What matters is how the two products interact, not how much they cost.

CW's picture

Thank you Mark. I appreciate your honesty regarding cost and its relationship to sound quality.

javanp's picture

"The reason I use the same amp to review everything is to have a stable frame of reference so that I am certain of how the product sounds relative to other products." Frankly I take more of an issue of Sony speakers being priced so high (why on earth would anybody consider Sony over Triad or Dynaudio is beyond me) than using an $1,100 receiver to drive them; that being said, it would be nice to know how they perform with higher-end gear that is more suited to their potential... assuming the Sony speakers have any, that is. However, on to the main point--I'm not sure if you guys are acutely aware of this (if you are, I'm sure there's a reason you all don't do this) but it's actually really hard to gain an idea of how the majority of the items reviewed compare with other products. YOU may know how the Sony speakers here compare with other $20,000 speakers, but we, the reader, don't. Nor do we know how they compare to $5,000 speakers.

To date, the only audio review entity I've known to give a reliable, well-rounded, and informative insight into what each product is like and how it compares to its peers is Stereophile. Unfortunately for us home theater folk, they pretty much stick to two-channel audio. Seeing as how that's a sister publication of yours, I don't see why adopting similar methods of review would be prevented.

Typically when I'm trying to get a feel for a system, I have to go through several different reviews to get the whole picture. There are many facets to how a HT system performs that I want to know before taking the dive. Usually a review covers a few aspects, but almost never all of them (it flabbergasts me when a review of a home theater system leaves out timbre-matching between different types of speakers and how well the speakers work together to make a cohesive soundfield--to be fair it was vaguely mentioned here and the front and rear speakers are identical, but imaging is still an important factor that could be elaborated upon.)

I imagine reviewers face the difficultly of choosing between sounding like a broken record, judging the same movie scenes over and over and over vs reviewing the system under new films and coming up with new ways to describe the same characteristics they've identified in numerous other speaker systems. Frankly though, I'd prefer the monotony if it meant getting a real feel for how the speakers compare to others you've reviewed. Just my two cents.

daylightdon's picture

I enjoyed your review Mark. I have listened to a lot of speakers in my day all the way from AR-2's, Bozak, Bose, to University 312's and more.....
Very few came into the classification of "I want to own them!"
Many years ago attending a "HI-FI" show in New York City with the owner of a "Hi Fi" store, I heard what sounded to me like live music coming from one of the rooms where a vendor/manufacturer was displaying its wares. I said "Hey, they have a live band in that room!" We entered to see the Audio Empire 9000M speakers. (Round or Octagonal with a marble top). Long story short; I purchased a set of those and was happy with them for many years.
About 2 decades ago I auditioned Definitive Technology BP-10 and 20's. My budget at the time would only allow for the BP-10's, which I owned up to the time I auditioned, (after reading the review in Home Theater magazine), the Golden Ear Triton 2's. A pair of the Triton 2's now proudly take up space in my living room.
Those Golden Ear speakers come as close to "Live" as I can afford.
I would love however to put my Triton's against the Sony speakers you have reviewed here in a double blind test. My thoughts based on over 50 years as an Audiophile are that the Triton's would win hands down/no contest!
Big sound from small speakers just does NOT happen.
Keep on reviewing!!!