pl | en

Meeting No. 87:

(vs Sonus faber GUARNERI HOMAGE)

Via Antonio Meucci, 10 | 36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Vicenza, Italy | tel.: 0444 288 788

Manufacturer’s website:
Country of origin: Italy

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Photos: Wojciech Pacuła, Sonus faber
Translation: Andrzej Dziadowiec

Published: 3. April 2013, No. 108

Standmount speakers are a kind of an aberration. One can go even further and say that they are a denial of the very idea of a speaker – speakers of that type are just asking for such a comment. The whole point about audio playback is to convey as much as possible information recorded on analog or digital tape, or in computer memory. That, in addition to such characteristics as dynamics, color, differentiation, resolution, selectivity and consistency, also means the widest possible frequency response. The latter is inextricably linked to a large speaker cabinet and sizeable woofers. In other words, exactly the two components that are eliminated in the standmount speakers at the outset. A question might be asked, what about a kind of standmount monsters, such as the Harbeth M40.1, the SP100R2 from Spendor, the BB5 from PMC, or the SCM150 from ATC. After all, while these speakers require stands, they are huge and sound better than most large floorstanders, with such bass extension that makes the latter look helpless like a babe in the woods. For talking about ‘standmount speakers’ one needs to dig deeper into the subject. It is known that the term is often used interchangeably with another one: ‘a monitor’.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias define the term in different ways, associating it with the navy, with literature (at least in Polish) as well as electronics. We are of course interested in the latter. In this perspective, a monitor would be a device such as e.g. a screen but also a telephone that monitors the incoming signal; meaning, it allows signal observation and control. Theory of measurement specifies that the measuring (monitoring) instrument must be at least an order of magnitude more accurate than the item being measured (monitored). Hence, we nearly arrive at a full definition of the monitor, which might read as follows:

Monitor is a device or an instrument used to observe, control; enabling the EVALUATION of the incoming signal. It is a MODEL (reference) device or instrument.

That is exactly how the role of a monitor is understood in audio – a monitor, or a standmount speaker, is used to monitoring or to reference presentation of the incoming signal. How does this relate to its limits? How can the "referentiality" and the preliminary restrictions be reconciled? As it turns out, it is possible.
Ken Kessler, describing in his book EFC. 50 Years Innovations in Sound the history of KEF speakers, repeatedly uses the word 'monitor' referring to the cooperation between the British manufacturer and the BBC, for many, many years the highest authority in matters relating to sound. He uses it at the same time, as far as I understand, in its original form, i.e. as a synonym for “standmount loudspeaker” ("bookshelf loudspeaker"). Yet when he begins describing the LS3/5A, it is for him a "monitor" in the full sense of the word, which is a reference product. It seems, therefore, that the LS3/5A is an iconic product from which the history of high-end monitors can be derived.
Its history can be started in 1997, when a prototype was presented of a speaker, developed at the BBC Research Department in Kingswood Warren, designed to monitor audio signal in outside broadcasting vans (called ‘scanner units” by the BBC). The speaker was tiny, used KEF speaker drivers (see our review of the KEF LS3/5A HERE), and was quickly recognized as one of the most successful monitors in audio history. Its advantages have been low distortion, extremely accurate (at that time) presentation of a human voice and a pretty good soundstage.
It seems, therefore, that the following statement is valid: the basic advantage of a 'monitor' as a reference speaker would be its ability of a perfect presentation of these two aspects of audio recordings. If we agree with that, we will finally be able to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive concepts: a “monitor” and a “standmount loudspeaker”. Actually, this might be nicely supported by recalling another meaning of the word “monitor” which, according to Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition), is “a senior pupil in a school, or (formerly in England and still in America) a student in a college, who has special duties assigned to him, esp. that of keeping order, and who may occasionally (as in some elementary schools) act as a teacher to a junior class " And now I think everything is clear.

Sonus faber Guarneri Homage

Revolutionary debut of a whole generation of Sonus faber loudspeakers, Guarneri Homage is the first loudspeaker produced by drawing inspiration from the shape of the lute. Defined as “a musical instrument” by the press and expert critics, considered by its lovers “a cult object”, it is considered one of the few projects that influenced the history of high fidelity, so much so that Salvatore Accardo and Uto Ughi are mentioned among its enthusiasts, both of them owning one Guarneri Homage.

Sonus faber history, and hence also a chunk of life story of Franco Serblin, the founder, chief designer and owner, begins in a way fairly typical for audio: from dissatisfaction with and dissent against the current situation. According to the story in the company information catalogue, it happened in the late 70s when Franco Serblin along with a friend were coming back from a failed – in their opinion – audio show and at the Milan Central railway station decided to build something better. Thus was born the Snail Project, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci designs. The Snail was a system consisting of two standmount speakers mounted on long wooden extension arms with a subwoofer in the center. Shown for the first time in 1980 at the S.I.M. show in Milan, ten units had ever been manufactured. The Snail Project led to the creation of the Parva stand-mounted speaker - the first monitor from Sonus faber available to the public. For it was the monitors that Franco Serblin came to love more than anything.
The above quote comes from a mini-catalogue issued by the company in 2006, shortly after the launch of the Domus series. However, the history of the Guarneri Homage, which defined the legend of the Italian company, goes back much further, as far as 1994. The Guarneri initiated a whole Homage series, which culmination was the powerful, technologically advanced Stradivari. Despite its enormous popularity, as for high-end, the top Sonus faber design from those years never became such a "cult" object as the Guarneri.

Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution

Despite the passage of years – the next year the Homage project and hence the Guarneri will be celebrating its 20th anniversary – so far the manufacturer decided to introduce their successors only twice: the Guarneri Memento in 2007 and the Evolution in 2012. The latter has been however prepared not by Serblin but by a completely new team.
Launched to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of master violin maker Giuseppe Guarneri (del Gesù), the Guarneri Homage is a two-way design, with a cabinet consisting of 21 staves of maple wood, a soft dome tweeter and a 150 mm midwoofer. The Guarneri Evolution is also a two-way speaker with a soft dome tweeter and a midwoofer featuring, however, a few new design concepts presented for the first time in the Sonus faber model and then repeated in the Amati Futura. The cabinet is still lute-shaped but it is much larger, with the rear panel having a lower surface area, and the top, bottom and rear are aluminum alloy plates clamping together the actual wooden enclosure. The woofer is also larger – the 150 mm (5 ") driver in the Homage has now been changed for a 176 mm (7") unit. Its loading changed as well – it is now loaded into the Stealth Reflex system. Naturally, the measurable parameters are different: the new Guarneri has a wider frequency range (46-20,000 Hz versus 40-30,000 Hz), lower efficiency (88 dB vs. 86 dB / 2.83 V / 1 m) and custom made stands.


Recordings used during the audition

  • Corelli, Concerto Grossi Op. 6, Naxos 550403, CD (1990)
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Vu de l'extérieur, Universal, 530 118, CD (1973/2012)
  • John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impulse!/Universal Music Japan, UCGU-9002, SHM-SACD (1963/2012)
  • Stan Getz & João Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve/Lasting Impression Music, LIM K2HD 036 UDC, “Direct From Master Disc. Master Edition”, gold CD-R (1963/2009)
  • James Blake, James Blake, A&M Records/Atlas, AYLAS02, CD (2011)

Like any iconic product, the Guarneri is a very interesting design. Hence, as soon as there was an opportunity to lay my hands on its latest incarnation and listen to it at a Krakow Sonic Society meeting, I did not hesitate. A wild thought immediately came to my mind of comparing the Evolution to the original Homage owned by Wiciu, one of the KTS companions. The more so as in 2006, shortly after the Guarneri Memento arrived in Poland, we met and listened to them, comparing them both against the Homage and the Electa Amator (I). The audition took place at Janusz’s, a happy owner of the latter. Do not look for the meeting description in the KTS archives; it's not there. Despite our most strenuous efforts, first listening when absolutely sober, then remedied by large quantities of wine, we did not come to like the speakers. Not that they were bad; they were actually very good. However, they offended our ears with a large dip in upper midrange and uneven bass. The sound was muffled and not very resolving. Since Janusz uses a 16-watt SET amplifier on 300B tubes, we considered that it might be a problem of its insufficient power output and low damping factor. The more powerful McIntosh Mc275 Commemorative Edition tube amplifier, however, did not show anything more. Since there was nothing to say, I kept silent.

In 2005, Franco Serblin sells his beloved company to Fine Sounds, an Italian investment group, the (current) owner of such brands as McIntosh, Audio Research, Wadia, Sumiko and REL (Sumiko bought the latter in 2006). That kind of consolidation is nothing new, but in the world of audio it had never been seen on such scale. In recent times, apart from Fine Sounds, it also happened with the Naim – Focal deal when Naim was bought by the French company (August 2011) and when Krell was bought by KP Capital Partners (November 2009, in which case it was more of a hostile takeover). The latest change concerns Thiel Audio, purchased in November 2012 by TN, a private-owned company. In retrospect, it seems that it’s the only way for high-end to survive.
What’s interesting is the issue related to the so-called "legacy" that is a continuation of earlier designs, or to put it bluntly - the question of who actually designs new products. In Krell these are new persons, in Audio Research some are new, and some kept their positions; in Thiel all staff and employees remained, as they did in Naim. Sonus faber, in turn, witnessed a complete change – its design department is currently headed by Paolo Tenzon and co-operates with two well-known outside consultants: Umberto Nicolao, the owner of the Sound Field Shaper patent, and Joseph Szall. And it is the three of them who are responsible for the new Guarneri Evolution.

It might seem that in order to audition the new reference Sonus Faber monitors it would be the easiest and most reliable to do it in the same system as their previous versions, i.e. at Janusz’s. It's just that I perfectly remembered an unsuccessful attempt to listen to the Franco Serblin Accordo speakers, which to be properly driven require a few dozen solid watts of output power (see HERE). Knowing that the Evolution have lower sensitivity than the Homage and are more difficult to drive, I decided to conduct the audition at Rysiek’s S. who owns a strong push-pull amplifier on KT88 tubes, the McIntosh MC275 IV. Carrying the new speakers to the second floor where he lives turned out to be more difficult than we thought – the new Sonus fabers are very heavy, with their wooden cabinets heavy enough not to mention their even heavier stands. However, our effort was rewarded with the pleasure of unpacking them. This is a high-end product and it has been treated by the manufacturer accordingly. The speakers sat on their custom stands as did the Guarneri Homage. The Homage were auditioned first, later swapped for the Evolution.


We pressed “play” on the CD player and for a moment everything seemed OK. The music was floating away from the speakers, we were adjusting to the new sound (we’d already listened for a while to the Dynaudio Sapphire to have some sort of a reference point) until the band played forte and one channel started to distort. We rushed to the system, checking all the connections, sat back down - it was the same. The next step was to take out and re-insert all the tubes, as contact pins and pin sockets get hot and often develop a layer of corrosion, disrupting signal flow. That didn’t, however, improve anything. At this point we swapped input tubes (a mix of Neumann and Create Audio) for the stock ones, bearing the McIntosh logo – again, nothing changed. When even swapping the output tubes, the beautiful EAT (see HERE), did not bring a positive result, we were left with one thing only – to drink wine, talk, have a laugh, to pack everything back into boxes (we were obliged to ship the speaker back two days later) and go home.

And that was what we would probably have done, were it not for the fact that to our luck we have in our midst another fan of the McIntosh sound (and let me remind you that this American company now belongs to the same group as Sonus faber), who owns another MC275 Commemorative Edition, with almost identical tubes as those in Rysiek’s S. Incidentally, the owner's name is also Rysiek. One more hour and the new “contestant” arrived, and after it warmed up we sat down, a bit tired, but still very curious about the result of the comparison.

Rysiek’s System

    Power amplifier: McIntosh MC275 Mk IV | McIntosh MC275 Commemorative Edition, see HERE
    SACD player: McIntosh MCD301
    XLR interconnect: Tara Labs ISM The 0.8; see HERE
    Speaker cable: Tara Labs The 0.8/XLO Limited
    Power cord (amplifier + player): Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100; see HERE
    Power conditioner (only for the player): Nordost Thor
    Speakers: Dynaudio Sapphire
    Anti-vibration platforms (under the SACD player): Acoustic Revive RAF-48,
    Isolation feet (amplifier): Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc, see HERE


I really liked the sound of the Evolution, although I missed some decay of treble, which seemed to me a little dull, at least in comparison with the Homage. In the original Guarneri the treble is really great, I liked them. Hence, in my opinion, Corelli sounded better on the smaller Sonus speakers. Other recordings, however, had a nicer color (bearing in mind the treble, naturally) on the Evolution. It was a much fuller sound, with more momentum. The Homage seemed somewhat "small" next to them; you know what I mean. If I were to choose one of them to my home system, no matter the price, I would choose the Evolution.


First, let me say a word about where you’ve put me: in Rysiek’s chair that Wojtek wrote about in his last editorial [ed. note: see HERE] – and I feel great! It really is "my place on earth." Speaking about the speakers, however, the Homage were more to my taste, I enjoyed them more - unlike Marcin. Although he too liked the Homage better on some recordings and needed some thought to choose the Evolution. But please bear in mind that I am not a sophisticated music lover - I have at home a nice, but nevertheless inexpensive, JAG amplifier [ed. note: see HERE]. I am really just learning the art of comparison. My opinion is based on the fact that the sound of the Homage, or actually the Homage driven by the McIntosh, was closer to what I've heard at Janusz’s, with his Electa Amator and the Ancient Audio amplifier. And that's why I would rather choose the older Sonus speakers. But, as I say, it's not like the Evolution sounded bad; it’s just that if Janusz’s system is to be some kind of benchmark, the McIntosh and the.Homage were closer to it.

Ryszard B.

I will be brief, not because you babbled on without sense, but I just know what's going on and I'm sure of my impressions. After all, I know the amplifier in and out, so swapping the speakers is clear for me. In my opinion, we got a better differentiation of color, especially of the bottom and the top, with the Homage. On the other hand, the new model brings exceptionally smooth sound - silky, creamy; nice. Something I did not quite expect. After all, until now it was the original Guarneri that had been a benchmark of a "silky" sound for us. But we can all hear – can’t we? - that in a 1:1 comparison the new speakers sound even more beautiful, more gentle.


I'll start from the end. Both speakers sounded, in my opinion, worse than the Electas in my system. I will say more – the Homage sounded here a lot worse than they did at my place. They were too noisy, lacking saturation. In my system they sounded smooth, sparkling. And for such a tiny woofer their bottom was surprisingly strong. Here, I missed lower midrange. Generally speaking, however, the old Guarneri for me are the "right" Guarneri, the new ones are their clones. Yet ... The more I listen, the more I appreciate what has been done in the Evolution. Maybe I just unnecessarily expected an improved Homage sound. That’s probably not the point here; we rather get a speaker designed according to a different philosophy. And in this particular system it is the new Sonus fabers that, in my opinion, sounded a lot better. First of all, they were better saturated, smoother, without being noisy. Have you noticed how "high" the Homage sounded? Only two years ago we would have sworn that they are the smoothest sounding speakers in the world. The Evolution, however, can do it much, much better. They were not irritating, with any record or any kind of music. And they show a lot more information and have better resolution. This is puzzling to me - even though the Homage are less transparent than my Electas, they are still among the world leaders; I am not talking here about trifles, small, tiny details, but about music presentation, about our opening up to the record, so to speak. And here's a surprise: the Evolution, while sounding lower, with their treble - I agree here with Marcin - withdrawn, show however much more from the recording. Not only because their sound is fuller, more full-bodied, and their bass descends lower, but also because there is more of everything, that "connective tissue" is more pronounced. I am saying this with a heavy heart as I am a big fan of the Homage: the Evolution presentation was better, more homogeneous, and more real./p>

Ryszard S.

Hmmm ... Indeed, something was “not quite right” here. Neither the one nor the other Guarneri sounded like I’d imagine. Maybe it's the lack of synergy? The only album that came out completely on top was Jobim on UDC. It sounded wildly fun - you agree with me, don’t you? As if the best recordings, their best releases, somehow managed to break through the limit of technology.


I'm shocked! I don’t know what's going on, but I need to listen to the Evolution at home, or at Janusz’s. I tried to restrain myself from any murmurs and from shouting that out right at the beginning: the new Sonus speakers sound MUCH better! I love my Homage, they seemed to me the speakers that you bury me with, and what a surprise here. I can hear exactly their character; it's not like their sound is all wrong here, against Janusz, but to me the comparison is clear– the Evolution is a better speaker. Now, in this comparison you can hear that the Homage have somewhat raised midrange and strong treble. And that they are generally quite thin. The Evolution sound much more pleasant, but they also show more; they generate a much more real picture - whether with the piano or the orchestra, or the electronic music of James Blake. It did not matter what kind of music we threw at them, every time it seemed to me that the Homage fall behind the Evolution. Although, I repeat, the Homage are my favorite, beloved speakers. I need to hear this comparison once again, elsewhere.


Indeed - it was not an outstanding sound. I know the Homage from several audio systems, including that of Janusz, and it seems to me that while the McIntosh showed their flaws, it did not pay enough tribute to their advantages. However, one could notice a few things that are independent of the amplifier or the listening room. The Evolution sound lower, are better saturated, and their treble is gentler, better linked with midrange. This is a surprising discovery, because so far we all thought that it is the Homage that are smoothest speakers that convey the most beautiful sound of e.g. the violin. Although this observation is still in force and they ARE a wonderfully sounding design, the Evolution introduce some modifications, taking the sound up to another level. I do not mean here that their sound is fuller and that they handle low frequencies better, thus building a greater volume of sound, because that much is obvious. The evident mismatch of the system, or at least not as good a match as I’d imagined, was something unexpected. On paper, everything made sense: a tube amp (and the Sonus speakers "like" tubes) and a high power output amplifier (I was afraid of not enough power). In practice, it did not work out exactly as I intended. Still, it is of course a valuable lesson and a hint to others. Another audition, elsewhere, was begging to be made. And since we know Janusz’s system best and we listened on it to all the speakers mentioned in the text, namely the Guarneri Homage, the Electa Amator (I) and the Franco Serblin Accordo, another comparison at his place seemed obvious.

Janusz’s system

    Speakers: Sonus faber Electa Amator (I); see HERE
    Power amplifier (monoblocks): Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono; see HERE
    CD player/preamplifier: Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE; see HERE
    Power conditioner: Ancient Audio First Generator
    Rack: Base III
    Interconnects: Siltech Double Crown RCA, see HERE
    Power cords: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300; see HERE
    - anti-vibration platform under the CD player and the amplifier: Acoustic Revive RAF-48; see HERE
    - Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010 quartz insulators and Acoustic Revive RCI-3 speaker cable lifters/insulators; see HERE
    - speaker platforms: Acoustic Revive RST-38

As you know, the Ancient Audio amplifier that Janusz uses generates 16 watts per channel. It would seem not enough, but in practice it can drive, of course to a certain volume level, almost any speakers. What comes out the worst is stand-mounted speakers with low sensitivity. However, the current efficiency of the Polish monoblocks, in conjunction with the Takatsuki 300B tubes (see HERE) is truly outstanding. The amplifier can handle the Electa Amator (I) speakers from Sonus faber flawlessly. As it turned out, that was what the Evolution needed.
Now, since I was not present during that audition, I interviewed all those who were. Actually, they were more than eager to talk, because the next day I had phone calls from almost everyone. And they all agreed, though it's rare, that the Evolution sounded like a dream. And that the Homage are great speakers, but the new Sonus fabers show something their predecessors never dreamed of.
First, however, everybody solemnly assured me that the Homage sounded exactly as they’d remembered them: smooth, saturated, nice. Until they hooked up the new speakers, that is. Then they heard what we had talked about during the meeting at Rysiek’s, but multiplied. It was an exquisite sound that made all heads turn. And even a comparison with the Electas did not change that. Although Janusz did not clearly say he preferred his speakers, it was the first time I heard in his voice a yearning for something else - for something that the Evolution can give. And what about Wiciu, the owner of the Homage? His statement leaves no illusions: if he had the money, he would buy the Evolution right now, immediately. He will probably find the money, sooner or later. Wiciu says that he cannot now listen to the old Sonus anymore; that they sound like broken. Naturally, it’s an exaggeration, they’re still great speakers, but I think there is something more to it than a sudden fascination, infatuation. Wiciu is not the kind of an overly emotional person, especially when it comes to audio equipment.
The more so that both Rysiek B. and Janusz now emphasize only the positive aspects of the Evolution sound, without any of the negatives they mentioned after the first listen. Terms like "resolution", "creaminess", "scale", "fullness" run through their statements over and over again. They both admitted unanimously that it is now clear that the classic Guarneri show quite strong, not fully differentiated treble. The Electa Amator are even better in this respect, but they have yet to find a speaker to beat them in this area.
It's a rare, very rare ability to show a new perspective in a design which has its own legend. It seems, however, that this legend often overwhelms the listener and does not allow for proper identification. Although the Guarneri Homage are truly iconic speakers, the Evolution shows that they have become more an icon than speakers. It is the latter that show how two-way stand-mounted speakers, the real monitors, should sound.

We are saddened to learn that Franco Serblin passed away on Easter Sunday, March 31, at 73. He will be missed.

Distribution in Poland

ul. Moniuszki 4 | 43-400 Cieszyn
tel./fax: +48 033 851 26 91
gadu-gadu: 25790226