Lavish launch unveils €140,000-a-pair statement loudspeaker
On Saturday, at a launch event in Venice more akin to something from the fashion world or car industry, Italian loudspeaker company Sonus faber launched its new flagship model: the Fenice.
The significance of the name? CEO Mauro Grange explained that times in the high-end industry have been tough, but rather than sitting back and hoping things will improve, Sonus faber has been investing in new models.
There’s at least one more to come this year, and three more on the way in 2011, and it hopes to inspire the rest of the industry to follow its example, and emerge phoenix-like from the recession.
That said, the company has been weathering the storm rather better than many in the business: it has established its own direct-distribution network in China to serve that rapidly-growing market, and currently has 43 distributors worldwide, with its speakers available in some 2000 specialist hi-fi outlets. It makes some 18,000 speakers each year, and 87% of its production is exported.
Gathering journalists and distributors from around the world, the launch took place at the Palazzo Grassi, an 18th century building converted into a modern art museum by Italian industrial giant Gianni Agnelli of FIAT, and now owned by a company headed by François Pinault, whose business interests include the Gucci Group, the Chateau Latour vineyard and auction house Christie’s.
The massive new speaker – it stands over 1.7m tall, and weighs 305kg – is the combination of the technology and craftsmanship for which the company is known, plus a massive injection of new thinking.
The familiar superb woodwork is still there, along with the leather trim, but the structural integrity has been increased with massive aluminium top and bottom assemblies, machined from solid material and linked by an internal shaft, to take away unwanted energy.
Sonus faber R&D director Paolo Tozzen explained that the basis of this speaker is silence: removing as much as possible to ensure we’re only hearing the music, not the loudspeaker. "Silence," he said, "is the canvas where music is painted."
The concept of the new speaker is the ‘silent case’, an enclosure from which all noises and spurious vibrations are excluded. Central to this is the ‘Anima legata’ system, said Tozzen: it’s based on those two aluminium clamshells, "used to 'collect' the vibrations coming from the cabinet walls and the transducers, like the parabola of an antenna."
The steel linking rod – that 'Anima legata', or 'Soul Pole' – is "a high speed mechanical interface, concentrating the vibrations to the speaker's Multiple Tuned Mass Damper, a device usually used in record height skyscrapers and F1 cars." This is used to damp structural resonances, by oscillating in anti-phase.
Furthermore, the entire speaker is decoupled from the floor using a patent-pending suspension system, avoiding any transmission of mechanical energy, and ensuring acoustic feedback is damped out.
Product designer Paolo Villa explained that Sonus faber has long been known for its curvaceous cabinets, inspired by musical instruments, and finished in lush wood veneers, but here the company has adopted the double curve of the lyre for even greater stiffness, and furthermore built a ‘box within a box’.
Two enclosures are used, both made from marine-grade ply, and these are separated by a visco-elastic damping layer.
To further free the speakers from room effects, the Fenice has what Sonus faber calls a Sound Field Shaper, giving variable radiation geometry. Using extra drive units on the rear of the enclosure, in a development of the classic bipolar speaker idea, and controls to adjust how their effect, the company has managed to develop a system enabling the user to tune the speakers’ soundstage without affecting the focus of the stereo image.
As you might expect, the drive units are all-new, and designed specifically for Fenice. The tweeter is a 25mm ring-type, using a neodymium/samarium-cobalt motor, and mounted compliantly in its own wooden labyrinth, with a dedicated mass-damper.
The 16.5cm midrange unit has a cone made from cellulose, papyrus and other natural fibres, and a substantial motor, while the twin woofers use 25cm cones constructed from a sandwich of syntactic foam and cellulose pulp.
A similar construction is used on the side-firing 38cm infra-bass unit, except here the sandwich is enclosed in nano carbon fibre. The 11cm voice coil has progressive damping built-in, and it’s also possible to adjust the sound pressure level of the infra-bass section to suit the room.
Of course, all this comes at a price, and it's a pretty substantial one: the speakers sell for ‘more than €140,000’, and only 30 pairs will be made, all of which have already found a home.
Clearly the intention is that the technology developed for the speakers, and the design work, will trickle down the range. I hear there are smaller versions of the Fenice concept already under development at the Sonus faber factory, keeping the same clamshells and 'lyra' curves, but shrinking the height.
This was a launch event as likely to be remembered as the speakers it revealed: the high-end audio industry, unlike the other luxury consumer goods sectors with which it must compete, just doesn’t do things like this.
Until now, that is...