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Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolution Review

By Steve Huff

Hi Fi. Music. Soul. Passion. Do they all go together? No, not really. If going by the terminology of high end audio Hi-Fi can be sterile, it can be analytical, it can be soul-less and usually when you talk about “Hi-Fi” it is with a bunch of guys who build systems with $10,000 cables to try to extract that last ounce of detail from their music. These types prefer to constantly tweak their system and obsess over details and imaging and they want perfection, but perfection usually means that the sound will be just as I mentioned above..lifeless.

Listening to music should be something that is enjoyable, something that is relaxing, something that can even move you to tears on occasion. Hi-Fi really doesn’t do that for me but listening to music DOES. I am a huge fan of all kinds of music and am considered by many to be an Audiophile because I like and enjoy really nice speakers, nice tube amps and well made front end equipment (CD players, music servers, turntables). I also take days to position my speakers in my room until all is perfect 😉

With that said, I never go off the deep end with $50,000 amps, $15,000 CD players or $20,000 cables. No, I prefer a “mid (high end)  level”  and over the past 18 years I have had more speakers and electronics (and cameras) through my house than I would care to admit. Over a period of 10 years I bought used, new, sold used and new and traded up to a bigger and better system..until I found that one system in my home that could indeed move me to tears on some occasions here in 2013. But it was a long road to get here and now..finally.. I have my system for life.

Over the years I have had speakers from B&W, Sonus Faber, Merlin, Magnepan, Reference 3A, Revel, and a few others I can not even remember including a one off not fully finished set built by Dennis Had (former head and owner of Cary Audio). I have had tube amplifiers from Cary Audio back when Dennis was at the helm, which have always struck a chord with me because they always seemed to play MUSIC instead if Hi-Fi. Warm, fat, rich midrange with a real palpable presence in my listening room..that is what Cary offered me. Some “Audiophiles” find that sound too warm, too relaxed and not exciting enough, but not me. Nope! I am a fan of lush magical midrange that can bring an artist into the room with me. From Mark Levinson gear to Cary to Musical Fidelity to Linn to Krell, I have listened to and tried them all but always come back to tubes because I can not stand dry, lifeless and analytical sound that seems to be so common among “audiophile systems”.

Yes, over the years with all of the systems I have heard and owned there have been two things that always find their way back to me. Sonus Faber speakers and tube amplifiers. To me, this kind of combo always speaks to the heart with a soul and passion of the music that many speakers can not portray. In fact, on a few occasions I have been moved to tears from music being reproduced on a system in my home and both times it was a Sonus Faber and tube amp setup. But how did I get to this point and discover the sound I have been searching for over many years?

Over a period of 10 years I saved and traded in/upgraded until one day I had my dream system which consisted of:

Sonus Faber Guarneri Memnetos with A McIntosh amp and SACD player along with a Michell turntable. I was in heaven (or so I thought) but I admit that the McIntosh amp was not my all time favorite.

Why the Guarneri speakers? For that there is a back story and I can explain it in a paragraph or two…or more. Bear with me.

It all started with a Homage

In 1997-98 I was lucky enough to find a pair of the original Guarneri Homage speakers on the used market at a fair price. I did not have much money but lusted after these speakers since they were announced as I thought they looked drop dead gorgeous and heard the sound matched the looks. I really wanted these speakers and in a BAD way.

Up until I acquired a pair I have seen them in print and in images but never in person. I have always heard about how this speaker that while not only being the most beautiful stand mounted loudspeaker ever created was also considered an “instrument”  – a speaker that “breathed’ instead of just reproducing music. When I found a mint used pair for $5500 back in 1998 I snagged them and had them shipped all the way from Italy. They took 3 weeks to arrive and when they were delivered I was crazy excited, like a little 6 year old on Christmas day.

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As you can see from the image above, the speakers are jaw dropingly gorgeous. The sound..wow. Real..living..breathing..transparent..but not good with ALL kinds of music. I tried these with all kinds of amplification from low powered tubes to 100WPC tubes to SET to Sonus Fabers own “Musica” amp (which was the weakest of them all) but when I paired these up with a set of 50 WPC Cary 805C amps…wow..it was emotional. But again, only with SOME music like Jazz, vocal and classical.

To this day at the end of 2013 I still feel that these speakers, as in the OLD Guarneri Homage are the most beautiful stand mounted speaker ever created. They were designed and created by the guy who started Sonus Faber, Franco Serblin. Franco is a master at creating speakers that breathed life and soul into the music and this was is crowning achievement back when they were released. Upon release they sold for $10,000 a pair and came in at over 200lbs with the stone base each solid wood stand sat on. They were a sight to see in my home back then and when I hooked them up to my then Cary tube amp they sang like no other. I mean..I had a bond with these.

But I do remember being let down by  the bass as there was not much coming from them but the midrange was so pure, so sweet and so magical it really did not matter because those speakers just melted away and disappeared in my room. I forgave them for the bass weakness due to that magical midrange. I remember moving into a larger house and I ended up having a nice large room for the speakers (30X15). When I gave them room to breath in this large room they were pure 100% magic – to this day I remember that moment..that one WOW moment. You could not tell where the sound was coming from and it sounded like that entire huge room was just flowing with beautiful sound. Running these with a Single ended triode tube amp was jaw dropping with some high quality recordings.

But one day I grew a little tired of the way they sounded if I wanted to rock out because with rock music these speakers were lifeless and dull and flat. With vocal, classical or jazz they excelled. But anything that needed mid bass or attack or slam, they failed miserably.

Because of this I decided to let them go  because I did not have enough money to keep them AND buy a new set of speakers. I regret selling them to this day, but…

Then came the Memento!

I sold those homage speakers and bought some used Merlin TSM’s for much less than I sold the G’s for (I needed the money). The Merlins were fantastic and in many ways outdid the Guarneris for sound.. but looking at them made me really miss my G’s as the beauty was not there as they sat on ugly black metal stands. They also had limited volume before chuffing out.

So on a quest I went.

I decided to start saving for a “reference system” even if it took me years to do it. While saving some cash Sonus Faber created and released the update to the Homage which were the new and improved Franco Serblin design Guarneri Memento. When I saw them at a local dealer near Phoenix, AZ I was floored with the Violin Red finish (which now looks more orange than red). They were gorgeous and looked more stout than the Homage and when on the stands were tilted back a bit.

I was told they had more bass but still retained that midrange magic while expanding the soundstage and transparency. I couldn’t believe it but what is more unbelievable is that I bought them without even listening to them! I just knew they would be phenomenal. I told my dealer… “if you have them in stock, give me your best price and I will take them“! I even signed up for credit to be able to take them home immediately and was approved for a huge credit line (which was a bad idea). This was around 2007.

My Mementos just before being sold in 2010

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This dealer said “You can buy the demos as a nice discount“..so I did. I brought them home and hooked up the Violin Red beauties. When I played the 1st track from a Dead Can Dance CD I almost cried..not due to the sound being so good but due to one of the tweeters pushing out massive distortion. I called my dealer and he said “well you are in luck, because a new in box pair just showed up in the showroom, still sealed..come and swap them“.

Woohoo!

I drove an hour to the dealer and was told that the new pair were in Graphite (black) – but being that they were there, new in box and perfect..I wanted them. It was that or nothing really as now that I had a taste I did not want to wait weeks for a new red pair and besides, the black went better with my decor. So yes, I took the black!

I took the new pair home, set them up with some now AES Six Pacs (bare bones budget Monobloc Tube Amps) and a Cary SLP 98P pre amp and was a happy camper for 2-3 years. When I moved once again they went with and made beautiful music and while they were not the same as the classic Homage in looks or sound delicacy, they did offer more bass and played rock music much better. The Memento was a powerhouse capable of playing almost anything though during some songs they did sound a little constrained, but I chalked that up to my amplification. 50 watts per channel, even tube, ran them nicely but I knew it could get better..much better. I eventually upgraded to the McIntosh MA7000 setup and was in love for a long time with it and had no upgrade itch..at all. This was it.. my home audio system for life. I would retire with this setup and enjoy it until I no longer could. The AES Six Pacs sounded better than the McIntosh integrated but the MA-7000 had more grunt. I was happy and content.

THEN I LOST IT ALL

Yep..life throws us a curve every now and again. I lost my entire setup due to a stinking divorce in 2009/2010

Long story short, I was screwed. I was off to do a photo job across the country and when I came back I found $20 in my bank and my latest check forged and deposited into a new account that I was not even on. I had nothing. No money for the house payment, the car payment, food, insurance or anything. I ended up having to sell it all at about 1/2 of what I paid. But it had to be done because I took that money and used it to buy food, pay my house payment and other bills until I was able to bring some money into my savings again as well as expand my business. It took me 4 years but eventually I got back on my feet, and managed to put myself in a good position. I am NOT rich by any means (at all) but I live a simple life. Simple house, simple car and nothing fancy. Except when it comes to cameras and audio 🙂

So when I found out that Sonus Faber released a third version of the Guarneri called the “Evolution” that was NOT designed by Serblin…(which I was a little worried about) I decided it just night be time to jump in again and set myself up with my “lifetime” setup. I had to go see them but I also knew that if I did go to see these speakers that I would probably want them, and that could be trouble because the retail on these is set at a whopping $22,000. Yes, $22,000 for speakers!! Now some of you reading this know very well that is a lot of cash for some music listening but some of you also know that there are speakers out there in the six figures (just as there are DAC’s for over $20k), so to some the Guarneri Evolution are not THAT insane. Sure, there are speakers for $7k that sound fantastic and are of high quality but me..I always had a connection with the Sonus Faber line, especially the Guarneri. I had the first two versions of this masterpiece monitor and I wanted this latest and greatest..for life. So by deciding once again on a lifetime setup I decided to jump in and see what they were about. I also knew from experience that I would get a deal and usually you never pay retail for these things anyway.

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Then the Evolution

I looked up the old dealer I bought the Mementos from to see if he was still in business and low and behold, he was! He told me he had some beautiful Evolutions in Violin Red on demo and that I was welcome to check them out anytime. So away I went. My now audiophile son and I went to listen to  them and when we entered the showroom I saw speakers ranging from $10k to $250k but for me, the most beautiful was the Guarneri and the Stradavari (almost $50k). I asked what was new with the Evolution and was told that it is bigger, better and can play ANY kind of music with ease. Better bass and a more balanced sound while still retaining the magic of the original Homage. I was also told that the design of the Evolution was based on the Homage and NOT the Memento, so for that I was excited. I sat down to listen and there it was..that full soulful and magical sound that made the speakers melt away while putting the performer in front of me dead center. But the volume was low and we only listened for 20 seconds as the dealer seemed to be in a rush.

So I was upfront and said “I can not afford $22,000” – any deals to be had?

The Walnut finish of the Evolution – not as flashy as the Violin red, but better on my eyes long term

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well of course, my demos are available for a discount” he said. After working out a deal and then working out another deal and then offering a small trade in we settled on a decent and fair price. I took the speakers home and was promised the boxes and papers and all other  things would be available for me to pick up two days later as the store owner was busy and had no idea where the boxes really were..but he said he would find them.

Got home, hooked them up and guess what? The left speaker tweeter was busted! Distorted and fuzzy. I felt sick to my stomach. I called the dealer and asked for a refund and he said he would have a new tweeter shipped from Sumiko (in California, we are in AZ) and it would be fixed within 2 days and he would come to my home to repair it himself. I was not happy with this but I said “OK”.

audioroom

The tweeter only distorted with some sounds like piano and high pitched tones but at this level you expect perfection and want perfection. No way I could be happy until it was fixed. I did get a deal on them so figured once it was repaired I would be good to go. Just a couple of days..not so bad.

Two days go by and my dealer never called and he started to not respond to my emails (or just not getting to them..maybe he was busy I told myself). I then call him on day 4. He said “I will call you later with an ETA on the tweeter“. Never heard back from him. I called the next day and told him I needed my boxes, an invoice (I did not even get an invoice but was paid in full) and the tweeter repaired. I left a message and again, did not get a call back. Long story short..after a couple of weeks I demanded a new pair be ordered for me in walnut.

The stout and muscular looking Guarneri Evolution

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So after some delays…

FINALLY I get the call that said they were there and I was to go pick them up. I drove an hour and returned the defective pair to an employee of the shop. As I was going to load the new speakers in boxes I was told I had to pay the difference as these were new, not the demos! When it was all said and done I had to pay an additional amount (which was in the thousands) and that hurt..as it was NOT in my budget. But hey, I had a new in box freshly sealed pair.

evos2

In any case, the new speakers arrived and once they were set up in my now small room I was taken back to that magic of the Guarneri. There is simply nothing like it. The new Evolutions are a different animal both physically and in sound from previous versions. We still have the amazingly gorgeous 7 layer gloss finish but this time there is metal involved sandwiching the top and bottom of the speaker itself. This helps to brace it all together and eliminate any vibration. The stands have slimmed down some and are no loner made of wood. This time they are hollow metal stands filled with some sort of material. The base went from stone with the Homage and Memento to Granite for the evolution. Much tougher and less likely to chip as well as being black which blends well with the stand itself. Overall they are different but still beautiful to look at.

I also had a new amp on loan from an AMAZING dealer, Arizona HIFi in Phoenix. It was the Line Magnetic 518is which is an 845 tube based SET tube amp and it is a match made in heaven with these speakers, even at only 22 Watts per channel. Hard to believe because these are NOT sensitive speakers. 86db speakers and 4 ohm…how could 22 watts power them with ease, grace, controlled bass and a a rich full sound that makes them disappear?

All I can say to that is that this amp is a VERY special amp indeed and is getting rave reviews all over the world. It is also a beauty to look at though this demo has a louder than normal transformer hum that can not be normal. Even so, the sound is magic.

The line magnetic 518 ia Tube Amp. Single Ended Triode magic. $4550 retail. AzHiFi is a dealer. 

linemag

I ended up ordering one of these amps  to go with my new speakers after auditioning a few other amps (and owning a powerhouse) including a Leben CS600, and an older Musical Fidelity Tri Vista 300 (600 watts into 4 ohms). Not only did the Line Magnetic power the speakers better than the other amps, it sounded the best, had the richest most 3D sound, had the most low level details and biggest holographic soundstage all while being 100% MUSICAL with more than enough power and current to control the drivers in the G’s. I could play anything from Diana Krall to KISS and get amazing sound from my system. BASS is BIG but controlled. No need for a sub as these Guarneris are the best of the three versions in the bass department and is plenty for smaller rooms. Really. Not only is the bass plentiful, the QUALITY of the bass is again..world class. Tight. Musical. There when it is supposed to be. This amp is like a big American muscle car – sweet but powerful.

After placing my order for the new 518ia amp (3 weeks later) I found out that this amp is SOLD OUT everywhere and the distributor was actually out. Since my dealer took my order, and goofed..he showed me the larger and supposedly better Line Magnetic 219ia, which is like a 518i a on steroids. Not in power but in build AND sound..since it was the one I was originally eyeballing anyway I ordered it instead of waiting months for the 518ia. I am still waiting for it but expect it to come in soon and I am excited because if it is even 5% better than the 518ia I will be in musical heaven for a while. 🙂 It is a beast at 140lbs+ but appears to be made to last. My dealer even let me keep his 518ia demo until my new amp arrives..and I am listening to it right now and am amazed even with my back facing the speakers..crazy good amp with these speakers. (Update: The 219ia has arrived and it is amazing! My review is HERE )

The Line Magnetic 219ia means serious business. 845 tubes, 300b tubes, 12ax7..what is NOT to like? SEE MY FULL REVIEW HERE!

LM219ia

So what about the sound of the Guarneri Evolutions?

So with the Guarneri Evolution speakers now in my room, the Line Magnetic amp, a Cambridge Audio 851C CD player/DAC, Nordost IC’s and Speaker cable along with my Analog VPI Classic 1/Grado setup, this is the best sounding system I have ever heard in my home. I know there are megabuck systems and some low power high efficiency setups that can beat it for detail and finesses but none will beat this setup for versatility AND Magic. What I have put together in my room can play ANY kind of music and sound AMAZING doing so.

Depeche Mode, Miles Davis, Metallica, Enya, Alison Krauss, Dead Can Dance, Keb Mo, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Flaming Lips or Diana Krall, it does it all and puts the artist in the room with me every time. The Evolutions do it with style, grace and the ability to literally disappear in the room. What I mean is, you can hear the music surround you but it does not appear that this sound is coming from the speakers. Instead, the sound appears to be part of the room with sound staging and imaging being at the world class level. Better than I was able to get with the previous Mementos in the same exact room and not by a small margin.

As I write this I am listening to an LP..yes, good old Analog that can indeed sound much better than digital with the right LP. What I have on now is one of the best sounding records I have bought in a while and is from Dead Can Dance. It is called “Anastasis” and if you are into this style of music I can highly recommend this LP. Amazon sells it.

This LP has room filling sound with a massive soundstage.

Dead-Can-Dance-Anastasis

When the needle hit the groove from my Grado Sonata 1 cartridge the room filled with rich, warm and musical textures. When sitting in the sweet spot it can literally make you say “WOW! This is how music is supposed to sound”! I mean..there SHOULD be  a WOW factor here due to the costs involved of setting up this system but it is above and beyond any system I have owned in the past.

The sound of my Analog rig could be more exciting though, I admit. The cartridge I use is on the warm side of neutral and DOES color the sound but I do not care. Why? Because it sounds amazing..the music flows..it paints a huge picture in front of me and activates all of my senses.

When listening to vocals such as Enya I can literally picture her in front of me singing as she is there just for me. I often wish there was some sort of hologram device to place between the speakers to project the artist in the room. It is real and a special thing to experience. When I sat my non audiophile friend down in the “sweet spot” and threw on an Enya disc he was speechless…he said “this will make you appreciate music” and he was impressed with the 3D holographic soundtstage and realness of  the system. He said “she is right there in the middle of the speakers singing to me”!

See, the majority of people (those who have no idea speakers like this exists) are just happy with two store bought/best buy speakers and a receiver yet they never get to experience the immersion INTO the music that a really good system can accomplish. BUT BEWARE. If you have not experienced this be very very careful. Once you do have this experience you may never want to listen to music any other way..and it can get expensive. 🙂 My buddy has now tasted it but the good news is that he can come by here anytime to listen if he wanted to.

On album to check out..The Soulsavers “The Light the Dead Can See”

lightdeadsee

The only thing that this particular setup lacks is the SUPER HIGH concert level volume that I was able to get with the Musical Fidelity Tri Vista 300..believe me, the speakers are more than capable of blowing out your ears with no distortion with a high watt SS amp but it does lose that magic that only a SET tube amp can bring.

Most of my listening is late night and at super low late night listening, or semi loud mid day listening or VERY loud party time it does much better than I ever expected. When I tested the 600WPC Solid State Tri Vista amp it had balls but lacked many things. It was muffled sounding and VERY full in the mid bass. I mean, it sounded so nice UNTIL I put in that 845 SET amp in the line. Then I was spoiled. But with the Tri Vista muscle amp it could play ear splittingly loud yet there was no magic, no soul..and nothing special. The soundstage was small, the depth was minimal and as for holographic..did not really exist. It had power and slam but you can get that with ANY speaker. It was horrible at low listening levels. With the Line Magnetic SET tube amp in place I have magic in my listening room/office anytime I want it, day or night. Loud or soft.

I will never go to a high power amp again. Once you hear a SET amp with speakers that are a good match for it..forget about it. There is no going back. But I like transparency, delicacy, depth, magical midrange and a 3D soundstage over slam, power, speed and concert level listening.

Final Word on the Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolution

As for the speakers they are the best sounding version of the Guarneris to date IMO, and yes, I have owned them all.  They are larger, heavier, shinier and can play all kinds of music with ease. They “breathe” and the music that comes through them with the right amplification is something to behold. They may not have the total transparency as the Homage or the sharper highs of the Mementos and many Audiophiles would say the sound is a little too rich and full or “colored” but me, I say that there is magic in these speakers and they carry out the Sonus Faber tradition with a much improved sound that can be dynamic, full of micro details and a sound that can be described as part romantic and part modern with ZERO listening fatigue. It really showcases whatever you have in the system from amps, front end and cables. Give it the goods and it will reward you. Give it less than that and you will hear it.

With this set of speakers you get it all..good looks and phenomenal sound.

To me these Evolutions are the perfect mix of old SF sound and the new SF sound. Also, these are NOT your ordinary bookshelf speakers. In a small to medium room you will NOT need a sub but some may prefer one for those lowest of the low frequencies even though these seem to double the bass output of the previous mementos in my room. The soundstage is HUGE and will amaze you with the holographic reproduction of music. I mean..you will BE THERE or should I say…the ARTIST will BE IN YOUR ROOM with a natural huge and sweet sound that will NEVER have you thinking it is bright, harsh, flat or dull. Yes my audio friends, THIS is music.

Are the Evolutions worth the retail of $22,000? Well, I do feel it is a bit high but when you consider that these are hand made by skilled artisans in Italy using top notch best grade parts, woods and materials…AND that they sound jaw dropingly amazing..then what are they worth to YOU?

Leica makes a digital camera that costs $30,000, without a lens. I know many who have bough this camera. Buy a lens and it goes to $38,000. There are cars that cost $100k, $200k and more. I used to know a guy who would not even blink to go to a shop and spend $20-50k in one session on miscellaneous things that would probably soon be forgotten. What about Jewelry? Some spend $20-$30-$50k on rings, bracelets and even watches (or should I say Timepiece)? The point I am making is that if you can swing it, and you really ENJOY it..then go for it.

Listening to the Foo Fighters live album with the Guarneri Evolutions had me in the 1st three rows with detailed sounds, a large soundstage and amazing imaging. On lesser speakers this may sound rough, harsh or bright. On the Guarneri’s this CD rocks.

foo_fighters_skin_and_bones_cdcov

Speakers that are world class and are designed to propel you to another place and time..to help you melt away and forget about your worries for a while..to enjoy the music as it should be..well, even full retail may be worth it to many out there. No doubt you need some cash to enjoy this set of speakers but the good news is that you can get the same flavor of sound in speakers costing much less.

Here are a few that I like…

Sonus Faber Olympica 1 – $7000 (gorgeous monitor speakers that will be lighter in the bass and higher in the treble than the Guarneri’s but still gorgeous. They look like “Mini Guarneri’s” 

Dynaudio C1 – $8000  – (A speaker I lusted after for years but never ended up buying. These are tougher to drive but the sound is soooo nice, listen to these if you can)

Dynaudio $1500 Xcite series. – (Sort of the same signature as the C1’s but in a smaller cheaper package. Add a nice integrated amp and front end and these can make you happy)

Merlin TSM – $5000 – (these DO have magic and work very well with tube amps. Soundstage and imaging are top notch)

While all of these are fantastic, none will match the same sound, look, build or design of the Guarneri Homage, Memento or Evolution. But if you want a taste of that magical sound some of these can help you get there.

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So the Guarneris…Expensive? Hell yes! Worth it? For music lovers who can afford it, without a doubt. 

Many people buy boats, RV’s, expensive cars, big houses and fancy watches. I prefer to live simple and enjoy one or two of the things that I feel gives me a better quality of life. I do not have an interest in big fancy things but do appreciate music and photography, so that is where my money is spent and these days I do not even own one credit card nor did I finance these speakers. I now own my entire system, paid in full, and man oh man does it feel (and sound) great. BTW I have listened to competing speakers from Wilson Audio (thought they were too analytical), Dynaudio (my 2nd pick but the SF looks won me over), Magico (nice but overpriced..prefer the SF sound), and Devore (these are AMAZING as well).

My music system is listened to EVERY DAY while I work and then more at night as I sit in my sweet spot for an hour or so. It’s a beautiful thing. The power of music can be incredible and when listened to on a system such as this, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Take life as it comes..enjoy it..be kind to others and do what YOU enjoy. We only go around this earth once in life, remember that.

If you are ever in AZ I highly recommend the small but kick ass Arizona Hi-Fi shop located in Central Phx. They do not sell Sonus Faber but they do sell some amazing Tube Amps from Shindo, Leben, Line Magnetic and Audio Research. They also sell the Devore speakers that I love as well as Audeze headphones. Their website is HERE. 

Music with amazing sound quality that can blow your mind on a nice system

Enya-1988-Watermark

Enya. Her music is beautiful, haunting and can suck you into an abyss where her voice surrounds you and your senses will be overloaded. Try track# 5, EXILE from her Watermark CD and wait for the woodwind instrument. On a nice system the instrument will be playing in front of the speakers, directly in front of you and you will hear every breath, detail and character of that instrument while other sounds surround you. Enya’s vocals are hauntingly real and will presented with a palpable 3D sound on the best systems.  The whole CD sounds amazing and is recorded at a  lower level than normal so your volume may have to be raised..but be prepared to be sucked in. Listen in the dark for an amazing experience. Another top notch CD from her is “And Winter Came” – many excellent tracks here.

More added SOON…

VALSPKR

Cables – Interconnects and Speaker

For almost 20 years I laughed at those who said high end speaker cable and interconnects made a difference. Up until 2013 I always used a $100 set of speaker cables or even homemade..and was happy as a clam. Then for giggles and grins I borrowed a Nordost box from my dealer that included cables from White Lightning to Red Dawn LS. Power Cables, Speaker Cables, and Interconnects all in one tidy metal suitcase. I sat in my room swapping cables back and forth and when I put in the “Blue Heaven LS” speaker cable and IC into the system I noticed a MUCH larger sound with a wider soundstage and airy highs. WOW..even my fiancee’ debby said “it sounds much bigger” and she was in the next room and she is NOT an audiophile..at all.

I knew I was in for trouble and had to have those Blue Heaven cables but the price was over $1000 for the speaker cable and IC’s, ouch. Then I put in the next tier up..Red Dawn LS. I hated these. They were sort of harsh sounding and a bit flat and yet even more expensive. They just did not gel well with the Guarneri’s.  Went back to Blue Heaven and was in heaven! After 2 days I put my $99 specials back in and all went to muffled city. Soundstage shrunk, vocals were muffled and the whole “size” shrunk. For giggles I returned the case and borrowed the next two tiers up. “Heimdall 2” and “Frey 2”. Even though the Heimdall II was $2300 for a 3M set I did not like them much. They sounded big but smoothed everything over and there was not much high end. It was a nice relaxing sound that would help tame a bright system and the bass was great but not for my system. THEN… The Frey 2..popped those babies in with a Heimdall IC and BAM!! INSTANT JAW DROP.

Highs were there but so sweet, bass was there in spades but tight and controlled..vocals were magical and pushed into my room. Bingo..this was it. I emailed my dealer and said “OK, best price out the door”. he said $3k and would take 8 days and then another 8 days if I wanted them burned in. $3k for the speaker cables alone..was over my budget which started at $500, lol.

My dealer informed me he knew a guy who had a 3meter bi wire banana set of the original Valhalla, which is the reference in many $200k-$500k systems. This set normally cost something like $10-12k and I was told I could snag them for a song. I researched online prices and yep, these were much lower than even E-Bay prices. So I contacted the guy and he offered to come by and let me demo them in my system before deciding.

He arrived, I put the cables in and what I did not want to happenhappened. They were about 20% better than those $3k Frey 2 with an effortless flow that just melted from my speakers in a true holographic floating sound. I knew instantly I wanted them. At the price I got them for I could easily resell them ANYTIME and not lose a penny, maybe even make a few hundred. So I dove in and took them. I listened for three hours after he left and just to make sure I wasn’t nuts I decided to throw in a set of Blue Heaven’s that I originally loved so much..while they are good, they are not even close to the Valhalla speaker cables. The soundstage shrunk by about 40%, bass got boomy, vocals were a tad harsh. I knew I made a good choice as Valhalla is the end of the line in speaker cable for me and I have been curious about them for 10-12 years..now I own a pair and I am in awe.

Speaker cables DO make a difference if your system can show the differences. If you have $200 speakers and a $50 CD player, Valhalla will do nothing. You need the front end equipment and amp to really show what these cable upgrades can do. As for interconnects I noticed a difference there as well but power cables..still not convinced on those.

To those who say high end speaker cable is snake oil, it most certainly is not. When you get to this level of performance these cables will indeed give you more of the good stuff the higher you go and if you can’t hear it then you may be a little deaf.

Expensive but I look at it as a componet upgrade as that is what the difference in sound was like. Jet black background, holographic 3D sound, disappearing speakers, perfect mids and bass and treble and nothing is out of place. Imaging is precise and realistic. I could not ask for more.

 

 

 

48 Comments

  1. I have owned both SF Momentos and Evolutions……both among the most beautiful 2 way monitors ever conceived. But after much comparison, I moved to the Raidho D1.1 monitor. These are expensive monitors which list close to $30k depending upon finish, etc. They are built in Denmark and if what pro reviewers have to say means anything at all, then Jonathan Valin has often provided his overwhelming approval. They too are aesthetically beautiful, although the Evo may win out if comparing like high end Vegas hookers.

    I won’t attempt to explain the subjective or technical details but the Raidho’s have the openness of a planar given their ribbon tweeters and bass quality that is second too none. After hundreds of hours of listening to various speakers, the Raidhos easily compete and surpass SF Amati Futuras, Wilson Sashas, Magnepan 3.7i, B&W 802D.

    Dealers in the US import directly from the Denmark manufacturer. There is NO international distributor. Therefore, the pricing in the US is steeply discounted off of list allowing one to negotiate a pair of D1.1s for $15K – $20k quite easily. Used first generation D1s can be had on Audiogon for $10k – $13k.

    If you’re serious about a high end monitor, you owe yourself a listen to the D1.1s.

  2. I came across this review looking at these particular SF speakers and I have to say, I’m incredibly intrigued. I’m currently using a Totem + Hegel H360 setup and lacks the sparkle for some particular songs that I liked using my lowly Jolida 502 with psvane pres and KT88 Gold Lion tubes.

    Now I’m thinking of taking the plunge again but I primarily use a media server. I may have missed it but what DAC are you using in this setup?

  3. Steve – Have you ever thought about creating a forum in your buy/sell section for people wanting to buy/sell their audio equipment? I have some Aperion speakers I’d like to sell.

  4. Hi steve,
    great review, i was wondering, maybe i could use your advice. i own a pair of triangle quartet 92db speakers in my living room. they are powered by an ear834 pre and belles 150a reference ss power amp. though i like every part of my gear, i feel that the the amplification does not match my speakers. i once had a cary sli-80 integrated which was fabulous but just too romantic and sweet for my kind of music and plyback, it was a bit lean in some way i reckon, so i had to sell it, but i always miss its great sound in some kind of way. i now think going for the LM 518 or LM 501. based on your experience i would like to hear your advise on that kind of a move. i hear many kinds of music genres except classical and jazz.
    thank you
    noam

  5. Nice read!
    I’m a SF fan as well but never went past their Grand Piano Home.
    Heard the Guarneri in all their iterations, found them to be divas.
    Very fussy about amp choice, wrong amp and they sound like a dead fish…:-)
    Heard the Cremona, Cremona M, Elipsa, Minima, Franco Serblin’s Accordo (very impressive, regardless of its diminutive size).
    Even had head to head with my trusty GPH and a set of Guarneri Memento and Elipsa in the same room. Never had the urge to upgrade.
    Speakers are like a wife. She’s not perfect but she’s perfect for you…
    I kept upgrading my system though.
    Two Thiel SS1 subs blend seamlessly with the GPH (and perhaps your Guarneri’s too) and make them sound like a clearer version of Amati but the biggest deal:
    I drive my GPH with Joule Electra VZN-80 OTL and Joule LA-100 Mk III preamp. Been through the high power set craze with heavily modified JAS Audio Array 300B/805 SET amp. Its good and sexy and had layered, holographic midrange but it lacks the ultimate clarity, dynamics and effortlessness (with no tonality losses) of the OTL.
    Your Guarneri’s, being 4 ohm are not ideal for OTL but I would try a higher power one just for the heck of it. You may never return to your high power SET.
    Just my two cents. Enjoy the sexy and elegant SF sound!

  6. Steve – great review of the Evolutions. I’ve had Momentos for about 5 years powered with Ayre MXRs and a VAC tube preamp. I’ve recently (by accident) did an A-B comparison of the Momentos to an active pair of ATC SCM20a speakers (British made), which are actually intended for studio monitoring. To my surprise, the mid range blew me away……that whole idea of having the vocalist in the room……the ATCs really nailed it from abundant tight controlled bass, lush mids and beautiful highs. My dilemma is the ATC studio models are not furniture quality, while the furniture grade models are priced at a huge premium.

    Reading your evaluation got me interested in the Evolutions and the tube amps. I happen to live in Phoenix metro area. I talked to the guys at AZ Hi-Fi and was considering a Shindo before I purchased the VAC, but the lack of remote was a deal breaker for me. I would love to talk with you further if you could spare a few minutes. Jym 313-378-1985

  7. Steve, I enjoyed your reviews and comments and fully understand just how difficult it is to be satisfied with a poor sounding system when you have been treated to something marvellous to the ear…..I run a full Naim system with CD player, Pre-amp+ power supply and 125w Amp through B&w speakers which still sounds fantastic many years down the line. A good system is like a high end car…..never goes out of fashion or seems in need of upgrade/replacement. Much like high end lenses and cameras really!

  8. Fantastic review of magnIficent speakers, But you did not mention that Line Magnetic amps are from China. Would it hurt your ears to keep some US guys busy and use a McIntosh ???

    • Eek. My ears WOULD hurt. I owned MANY high dollar McIntosh products and the last go round with the Mementos I owned the MA2275 and the MA7000. NEITHER even came close to performing like the LM 518ia or 219ia in sound. Build is about equal or better with the 219ia. In fact, the 219ia is built to a higher level than my MA7000 was with the plastic dials and buttons, one of which became defective after 9 months (on the MAC). McIntosh is no longer a USA company anyway, they were 100% bought out a while ago. In any case, they just do not sound nearly as good as the LM products so why would I spend $8000 on a McIntosh integrated that sounds worse and is not made as well as the 219ia? I wouldn’t. I just wrote this in my now published review of the 219ia.

      “There is a huge myth out there that McIntosh amps and pre-amps are great or a perfect match with Sonus Faber speakers. I visit forums where people are spending $20k for their SF speakers and then spending $15-$40k on McInstosh equipment to power them. if you have read my speaker review here then you will know my history with Sonus Faber. I love them. I want nothing but the best match for them. After owning SEVERAL McIntosh amps, pre-amps and CD players over the years I can say that McIntosh is not the best match for SF Speakers UNLESS you want that small, direct and fat McInstosh sound.

      I had the 2275 Tube Integrated. It was a fail for my Guarneri’s. Muffled, slow, direct, no magic whatsoever and weak. I had the MA7000 which was MUCH better but again, while playing with more “oomph” it lacked all of the things that I look for in my music reproduction including air, soundstage and the feeling of BEING THERE. It sounded nice and was made AMAZINGLY well but the sound lacked compared to other amps, especially those in the McIntosh price range.

      I have used and tested the 2275, 7000, 352 Amp, 602 Amp, 501 Mono amps and a couple or pre-amps and the SCD500 CD player. ALL of it was made to a high standard and beautiful to look at but sound quality wise it was all below average, especially for the price point.. in my opinion of course. It just did not cut it when it came to sound. I think those who buy McIntosh do so for the name and the reputation and because many rave about the brand. Many use them and never hear anything else because they want a BIG MAC. McIntosh is nice but their MA7000 Integrated is the same price as the LM 219ia and the LM is leagues better in sound quality and equal or better in build. The McIntosh house sound is a recessed treble, fat mid bass, and a direct sound. With MAC amps my speakers never disappeared like they do with other fine amps in the same price range (and under). In fact, a $2500 pair of Cary Audio AES Six Pacs beat the hell out of my McIntosh MA7000 with my older mementos.

      So McIntosh is not for me. Nice quality product with great resale and reliability but sound quality is not their claim to fame.

      BTW, McIntosh is now 100% owned by Fine Sounds who are NOT in the USA. They are no longer the all American company they once were just a few years ago.

      • Hi Steve,
        Really enjoy your reviews, especially as a Sonus Faber user and fan….but I have to take acceptation with the Mac gear, I currently have SF Cremona Auditor M stand mounts parred with a couple of REL G2 subs…powered by MAC 601 monoblocks, C2300(RCA 12AX7’s)pre amp, high end Audioquest speaker cables and interconnects with Audience power cables and it is simply amazing…I live in Cave Creek and recently demo’d the Devores with LM 219 amp at AZ HiFi with Bill….very nice but couldn’t come close to my sound at home. Recently ordered a pair of SF Guarneri Evolutions….almost reluctantly as what I have now is pretty sweet. Suspect the level of musicallity, detail, imaging,focus and the 3D holographic presentation may be some nice synergy going on with all the gear. I’m hoping the GE fit right in and bump it up a notch….everything I’ve heard indicates they should.
        Thanks for all the good info! Happy listening neighbor!
        Pat in Cave Creek

  9. As a follow-up, I brought my Merlin TSMs to the shop today to try them with the leben cs-300 and LM 518IA. The LM wash me to power the Merlin’s much more comfortably and was a much more synergistic match, so I ordered it. Looking forward to enjoying this lovely amp!

    • Awesome! You will really enjoy the 518. I now have the 219ia and the 518ia is 90% of it. Add some NOS driver tubes and 12AX7’s and it gets better. Let me know when you get it!

      • Will do. BTW, the shop suggested LM amps can sound better if you use taps with higher impedance than your speakers. The TSMs are 8 ohms nominal and the amp sounded great on the 16 ohm taps. You can switch on the fly easily and safely, so you may want to give it a shot.

        Speaking of tubes, I’ve been shocked to see how expensive some of the 845s are. Are you considering an upgrade over stock?

        • I had a bad experience once doing this..actually twice. Once with a McIntosh 2275 and again with a Cary V12r. Both times the amps would blow fuses when attempting to push a 4ohm speaker using the 8 ohm taps. So I am hesitant. Plus, I am 110% happy with what is coming out of my system now. But my speakers are a 4 ohm load so I am afraid to try the 8 ohm taps as I do not want to blow anything in my new amp! BTW, did your dealer tell you the expected wait time for your 518ia? Curious if it they have them back in stock at the distributor yet.

          • Fair enough, but as you note, the LM is a very different amp from the Mac. My dealer encouraged me to switch taps as much as I wanted with the amp playing, and I had no problems.

            The wait should only be a week or so– I believe the amp is on the ocean as we speak. I’m in New York, so may get it more quickly here than Phoenix, but the LMs are on their way!

  10. Steve I like reading your pages. I think a lot of us are living vicariously through your exploits in getting exactly what you want. 30 years ago I worked with a guy who was spending a year’s salary on audio equipment and we all thought this won’t last. Turned out he later inherited a fortune from a company that made fishing lures. Then we knew that the universe aligns with those who on a quest.

  11. Aleluyaaaaaaaa!!! for the Best Speakers and Amps!! thanks to Exist for people ho can Apreciated .
    Thank You !! … Steve Huff for your history..:)

  12. Thank you Steve for this very emotional review. It made me realize that too often we ( I ) get obsessed by the technical specs and aspects of our Audio gears and forget that the technology is not the goal but only the mean to reach our goal : pure listening pleasure. So, thanks to you I will read less technical audio reviews and…spend some more time listening with the set-up I already have. And I will start with your wonderful play list that you were kind enough to share with us. So many albums and singers that I was not even aware they exists !
    Please can you suggest some more of your preferred albums or artists ?

  13. Thank you for a great write up. Your passion for music really shows. I just bought the Evolution speakers in graphite to replace my beloved Auditors (the original, not M). I should have the Evolutions in about a week. I am looking forward to your review of the LM 219 as compared to the 518. I’ve been eyeballing the LM for a while now. SET amps are definitely the way to go.

  14. Nice Job Steve! I noticed the Merlin TSMs on your list of speakers you like. I own a pair and am currently deciding between the Leben 300, 600 and the Line Magnetic 518IA. I’m leaning toward the Line Magnetic. Have you had a chance to hear the 518 powering the Merlins? Very curious to hear your thoughts.

    • The TSM’s are fantastic and my guess is that the 518 would be the better match. The Leben’s are nicely made, gorgeous to look at but honestly I found them to be a bit sterile and lifeless. They have a great rep but the sound is more “direct and dry” over “huge and wet” of the 518. The Merlins did their best for me with a Cary tube setup I had at the time and I think the 518 would take them up to a new level. I remember mine well, they were gloss (dark) red and the sound was beautiful.

  15. Nice write up! And yes audio is worse for GAS! Audio neurotica..
    Everyboby have their path to audio nirvana.. But sometimes when people get into tube amps and vinyl, high efficiency loudspeakers usually follows! Heard some? Widebanders, horns..

    Vinyl thru a tube RIIA, SET amp to a pair of widebanders is the hifi world equivalent to a analog Leica M. More sole more music

    Just for reference, I am very happy with my 25w Decware Torii tube amp and my 101db Zu Precence.
    Not as refined as your setup I might guess, but not much can compare with the dynamics and playfullness..

    • I’ve had high efficiency speakers in the past, but I am 100% happy with what I have as this setup plays as loud as I can bare or as soft and sweet as I need, all with ease – Dynamic if needed but never harsh and never dull. I have heard some of the latest and greatest HE speakers and they have a different sound to my ear which is not as sweet, used to own Unos with 8 WPC 300B Wavelength monoblocs. Liked them but they were not even close to what my setup sounds like now.

  16. HI Steve; What a pleasant surprise!!!! I have always been infatuated with SF since my first experience with them at a high end audio store in Florida 20 years ago. I listened to a pair of Extremas powered by some heavy duty Krell and can honestly say I have never experience the holographic effect like I did that day. Over the years I have been chasing that experience again. No one sells SF where I live so I took a long break from the high end. A couple of years back I got the bug again and got back into it. I went with Simaudio Evolution Series P8 preamp with the W8 Power Amp. Their 750D front end and Dynaudio C1’s. My room is small 12′ x 13′ hence the decision of the C1’s. I was happy but was still missing something. I traded in my C1’s for C2 Mk II’s. I have been happy but still don’t have the effect I heard over twenty years ago. As luck would have it my dealer now carries SF and although they don’t carry the Guarneri Evolutions they can get them for me and will take my C2’s back and give me a very good deal. What do you think?? Should I do it? I live in a small city and would not be able to audition them before I buy, hence the reservation before shelling out 10K. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

    • The Extremas! I owned them for about 1 week back in the early 2000’s. I just did not have the correct amp (or cash) to drive them. Gorgeous though and when I did hear them with a once amp they were amazing. The C1’s and C2’s are also fantastic but a bit different than the Sf sound. But the current SF sound is much different than the past SF sound. Much more dynamic, a bigger sound and still retains the sweetness. These Evolutions sound like full range large speakers. I have had a few audiophiles in the room..one of which had a $80k system at his home. He said mine sounded much better than his and he could not believe the soundstage and bass that came out of these G’s. When he sat in the “sweet spot” he was blown away and a bit upset. I think he ended up researching the Evolutions for himself. A couple other guys who were here commented on how amazing these sounded. I almost went with C1 Signatures and could have snagged a new pair for $7k. I spent much more because I just have a thing for these Sf speakers and always have. I do not regret the choice but I can say that they did not sound anywhere near this good with the other amps I have tried. It was not until this 845 SET from Line Magnetic that they became transformed. They sounded great before but now they sound much better than that. Good luck! BTW, the Red Violin color is jaw dropping and prob the best color to go for. The Black is..black. and the Walnut is a bit understated and not as flashy as the red. But most prefer the Red Violin. I is a much deeper red than the previous Memnetos.

      • Nice read!
        I’m s SF fan as well but never went past their Grand Piano Home.
        Heard the Guarneri in all their iterations, found them to be divas.
        Very fussy about amp choice, wrong amp and they sound like a dead fish…:-)
        Heard the Cremona, Cremona M, Elipsa, Minima, Franco Serblin’s Accordo (very impressive, regardless of its diminutive size).
        Even had head to head with my trusty GPH and a set of Guarneri Memento and Elipsa in the same room. Never had the urge to upgrade.
        Speakers are like a wife. She’s not perfect but she’s perfect for you…
        I kept upgrading my system though.
        Two Thiel SS1 subs blend seamlessly with the GPH (and perhaps your Guarneri’s too) and make them sound like a clearer version of Amati but the biggest deal:
        I drive my GPH with Joule Electra VZN-80 OTL and Joule LA-100 Mk III preamp. Been through the high power set craze with heavily modified JAS Audio Array 300B/805 SET amp. Its good and sexy and had layered, holographic midrange but it lacks the ultimate clarity, dynamics and effortlessness (with no tonality losses) of the OTL.
        Your Guarneri’s, being 4 ohm are not ideal for OTL but I would try a higher power one just for the heck of it. You may never return to your high power SET.
        Just my two cents. Enjoy the sexy and elegant SF sound!

  17. I was curious in reading this only because i work in a hi-fi shop in Portugal that sell this kind of high-end equipment.
    But in the end only stay in my mind the sad words or your stinking divorce and in the other end your fantastic recover… that is an inspiration that life don’t stop at that moments and we have to put head up and go ahead.
    After this, you have go to the top of my consideration 🙂

  18. Fantastic review – thanks for sharing your story! Makes me want to upgrade my system (Grant Fidelity W-30 (KT88) tube amp with DAC and similar to SF looking Grant Fidelity RBS-1 speakers.
    I use a MacMini with Sonic Studio Amarra with room correction as my only source for music and overall I’m pretty happy. I still borrow different gear from HiFI stores to compare but haven’t heard anything better in that price range.

    Totally enjoy your recommendations “Anastasis” and “Soulsavers” – getting new ideas for music is one reason why I subscribe to some HiFi magazines.

  19. Hi steve, this is a great review as always, you know how to get readers interest. Yuo are a fantastic reviewer. You should post this review in Audiogon, I’m sure you know this wedsite. 🙂

  20. This is Great Steve! I’m an enthusiast too! Nice to read an audio review this way!
    Please visit Kharma at CES. They build beautiful speakers in the price 10k and up. I’ve worked there with lots of pleasure. They build beatiful soulful products. They just won an award again being best at CES!
    I love Sonus Faber very much. But Kharma will take you much futher espessially with tubes!
    Enjoy your setup for now… audio can also create gas ;). Maybe play 24b audio files? Downloads from HDtracks sound GREAT!

    • Hey Jeffrey! Thanks for reading. I have listened to a few Kharma speakers in my time and they are superb, I agree. I still prefer the speakers I bought 😉 As for 24 bit files from HD tracks..tried that as well and to be 100% honest, the difference between a 24bit and standard CD or CD lossless rip are so minimal, but I have many downloads from HDtracks anyway. Thanks!

  21. Dali makes a line of loudspeakers called epicon. The way the project sound is more “effortless” than anything I’ve ever heard. Brilliant review btw. Much appreciate ur general yolo philosophy too

  22. Super review Steve and thanks for the listening suggestions. In the same spirit, if you haven’t already tried them, check out Jazz at the Pawnshop Vol 1 and 2 .

  23. Maybe I pixelpeeping…*cough*…samplepeeping too much. Maybe less definition and more vibe helps the music for our ears. ^^

  24. Just a things that I don’t understand about the audiophile, why they listening room is almost never acoustically treated? All the listening room in recording, mixing or mastering room, have roughly the same amount in price in room acoustic treatment than in speaker.

    • If treatment is needed it would have been done. It is in no way needed in my room as there are no issues at all. Treatment would not improve anything..in fact, it could have the opposite effect. In the past I have used room treatment to control bass issues, and I had to remove the room treatment in another room as it had a negative effect, sucking some life out of the music. Room Treatment does not always need to be done..many times things such as carpets, plants and other things can do the trick. In my room now there is absolutely zero need for room treatment.

  25. Hi Steve. Just wanted to say what a brilliant, emotive review! I check out your site on a daily basis (I’m a Leica user also, totally addicted, chronic GAS) so you can imagine my response when your review showed up in my Google search!! Your system sounds divine, and I hope it brings you many years of joy into the future. Can’t wait for the day I can comfortably afford my dream setup – Amati Futuras, Linn LP12, and a beautiful, big, shiny valve amp. You’ve got me fizzing with excitement!! All the best, Chris.

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