September 1999Silverline Audio Sonata Loudspeakers
by Bill Cowen
Silverline? Silverline who?
Silverline Audio was an unknown name to me when I first heard the speakers at the Show. However, the company debuted its products at HI-FI 97 in San Francisco, and the motivation behind the company is Alan Yun, who has been an avid audio nut since the mid-60s. This 44-year-old father of two built OTL tube amplifiers in his younger days and sums up his audio passion with, "I like music I cannot live without music."
If you think being a young company means offering a compromised product with serious design and/or cosmetic deficiencies, youll have to revise your thinking when you first lay hands on the Sonatas. This is a serious, well-thought-out product, with construction quality and aesthetic value that run with the best in the business. Retailing at $4995 per pair, the Sonatas represent the third-most expensive product in the Silverline lineup. A true four-way system, the Sonata has a cabinet thats angled back to help time-align the drivers, and the top half of the cabinet features sharply angled front corners to help reduce baffle diffraction effects.
The tweeter and midrange units are soft domes sourced from LPG and modified by Silverline. The midbass and bass drivers are SEAS units, again modified to Silverlines specifications. The tweeter, midbass driver, and woofer feature first-order crossover slopes, with the midrange unit having a second-order slope. Crossover parts are located in a separate internal compartment at the bottom of the speaker, and there are no circuit boards employed -- Yun believes that point-to-point wiring is the best route to sonic splendor. Careful attention is also paid to orientation and physical spacing between the crossover elements to reduce interaction and crosstalk between components.
Further, part of Yuns design philosophy is that less parts is more better. Yun provides the following analogy: "A good chef can control the temperature, timing and flavoring (such as salt, sugar, garlic, etc.), in order to preserve the natural taste of food. A poor chef may put on tons of sauce, MSG, etc. When he finds the food is too salty, he may put on sugar, or vice versa. Coming back to the design of speakers, when the designer finds too much treble, he puts resistors in parallel or series (as with an L-pad) to suppress the treble, making a compressed AND closed-in sound." While its not my job (nor am I qualified) to offer commentary on loudspeaker design, the Sonatas have two very desirable qualities as a result: a claimed 93dB sensitivity and relatively stable impedance that doesnt stray below 7 ohms. In other words, the Sonatas are a very easy load for most any amplifier to cope with. Two pairs of high-quality binding posts adorn the back of the speaker near the bottom, with a gold-plated jumper bar supplied by the factory for those who dont wish to bi-wire. A single port is located at the top rear, which is fed by a sub-compartment behind the woofer.
Finished in a smooth and flawless birds-eye maple, the cabinets are simply gorgeous. The multiple angles keep the speaker from being just another box, and make it look like it should cost much more than it does. Although the picture gives you an idea of the form, it simply doesnt do justice to the quality and beauty of the fit and finish. And they scored an immediate hit in the SAF department. OK, call me a wimp, but relying on "spousal acceptance factor" saves me from using all the politically stupid apologies.
Review system and context
Ive been involved with this, um, sickness for about 14 years now. It started with the purchase of an impossible-to-drive pair of audiophile-approved loudspeakers. I wondered why my old receiver emitted plumes of smoke when I cranked up the volume. I replaced that with an audiophile-approved amp, and then a preamp, and then. Do I really need to go on? I really thought I was weird, and then I met some other audiophiles.
Heres whats in play at present: Basis 1400 table with a modified Rega RB250 tonearm and a Transfiguration Spirit cartridge. Signal goes through a Cardas Golden Cross tonearm cable to a custom-built moving-coil step-up transformer, and then fed to the tubed Cary PH-301 phono stage. Digital source is a modified Audio Electronics one-box player, and it plugs into a Cary SLP-50 preamp modified by Cary to use the newly designed KR Enterprise KR-10 tubes. Amplifiers are Cary SLM-200 monoblocks, which muster around 100 watts of output in push-pull triode using eight EI KT-90s per side. All this finally gets converted to music through a pair of Alón V Mk. III speakers. Wires are predominantly Harmonic Technology: Truth-Links for the interconnects and a tri-wire set of Pro-11s for the speakers. Source equipment sits on a Solidsteel stand, spiked through the carpet to the concrete-slab floor underneath and weighted down on the bottom with an Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 114 line conditioner. Numerous feet, cones, spikes, and other assorted resonance-tuning devices are employed throughout, as well as ASC Half Rounds for room tuning.
My musical tastes are somewhat limited, encompassing most forms of rock and full-tilt classical, but little else. Ive never warmed up to jazz or country, and I havent even the slightest interest in rap or gangsta, um, music. My system is tailored to the warm side, which is not to be confused with slow or syrupy. I must have credible accuracy or my left brain tells me something is wrong. I must have explosive dynamics, good bass extension, and a developed soundstage or my right brain wants to watch TV. My right foot is always the final litmus test on any new component or tweak. If its not tapping, its back to the drawing board. To me, this hobby is about goose bumps, air guitars, and dancing in your underwear, so if I cant connect with the music emotionally, then accuracy is of little importance. Some may find fault with this, but Im sharing my personal priorities only so that you may better understand where Im coming from.
I started with the Sonatas placed roughly in the same position that the Alóns sound best. In my 15' x 26' room, Ive always achieved the best balance by placing the speakers on the long wall, as the short wall produces too many bass anomalies. The Sonatas I received were reportedly those used at the Chicago show, so I was delighted that I didnt have yet another component to break in. Or did I? On first listen, the sound was congested and dynamically reticent, as well as having a spitty quality to the treble. Im well aware of the sonic degradation that afflicts many components that have been unused for a period of time, but this was different. I have heard other speakers that, after having many hours of play with a low-wattage amp, can still sound "un-broken in," if you will. Maybe thats what was happening here.
So I cranked em. The SLM-200s were happy to oblige, their 100 watts of triode power barely breaking a sweat driving the Sonatas to insane SPLs. The more the Sonatas played, the louder they got. And the more they played, the more natural the treble became. I ran them in this fashion -- hard -- for about 40 hours before I sat down to do any critical listening. For positioning, I ultimately found the best balance between bass extension and soundstaging with the speakers 46" from the rear wall, 60" from any side-wall boundaries, and toed in just slightly toward the listening seat. The factory-supplied spikes were used to couple the speakers to the floor, and all critical listening was done with the grilles removed. The speakers were bi-wired at all times.
No matter what I listened to, the same three words kept popping into my mind: fast, detailed, and dynamic. On the 45RPM LP of Frankie Goes to Hollywoods "Relax" [Island 601096-213], the macrodynamics and bass energy are enough to bring many otherwise competent speakers to their knees. Not so with the Sonatas. As the volume got louder, the Sonatas just played louder, and without even a hint of steeliness or edginess to the treble. I cant get the Alóns to anywhere near the same SPLs without either bottoming the woofers or sending the SLM-200s into cardiac arrest. No, I dont normally listen to music at such high levels, but its damn sure fun to let em rip, if for no other reason than, well, you can! On Billy Vera's "Someone Will School You, Someone Will Cool You" from By Request [LP, Rhino RNLP70858], the cheers of the crowd actually sounded like a crowd cheering, or more to the point, like an assemblage of individual voices combining into one deafening roar. The louder I cranked it, the louder the crowd got, but never losing its sense of distinctness.
That said, the ability to play loud doesnt really say much about a speaker -- many cheap speakers can play loud. How a speaker sounds at low volumes is more telling, and probably more germane. Can it convey the dynamics, harmonic detail, weight, and musicality at low volumes? Im happy to report that the Sonatas do very well in this regard, and better than many other speakers Ive heard. Jimmy Buffets "Honey Do" from One Particular Harbor [LP, MCA5447] is one of my all-time favorite test tunes. Even at low volumes, the Sonatas bring across the sax convincingly, and carry the intonation and harmonic overtones even at mid-80 SPLs (measured unscientifically at the listening seat with a trusty Radio Shack SPL meter).
The Sonatas re-create a credible soundstage with ample depth and width, but lets face facts: these are not minimonitors. Im not a big fan of bass-less speakers anyway, so Ill happily trade that ethereal spatial presentation for a bass drum that whacks instead of farts. Imaging was realistically portrayed, with a proper illusion of height and size. I hate speakers that either shrink the perceived size of a performer to Lilliputian dimensions, or alternatively, present a guitar the size of that neon behemoth in front of your local Hard Rock Café. The Sonatas scored high in this area, presenting a sonic picture of correct and believable proportions.
So, am I drooling all over myself in unqualified praise of the Sonatas? Well, nothing is ever that easy. There are some areas that, although possibly complementary in some systems and to some ears, were not in my system or to my ears. As I have no way of measuring the true frequency response of the speakers, all I can say is that subjectively, and based on experience with my room, the published low-frequency extension specifications are a bit optimistic. The Sonatas have a very clean and controlled bass region, but I would guess the roll-off to start somewhere in the mid 30s. This gives the speakers plenty of weight and meat on the bones, but doesnt rattle the windows as the specs of a low-20s bass roll-off would imply. Secondly, even with the warmish presentation imparted by the tube amps, the speakers were a bit too light-balanced for my personal tastes. I missed some of the body and warmth that I get from my Alón Vs to complete the illusion and draw me in emotionally. This is not to be confused with poorly designed speakers that have broad range frequency suckouts -- it is more a matter of personal preference and system compatibility. For someone who needs a lively speaker to partner with dark-sounding components, the Sonatas may be just right. I would, however, throw some caution in if the Sonatas are to be partnered with a system that is bright or thin-sounding, as too much of anything is not good for the body (or soul).
Finally, two of the binding posts worked loose during my time with the speakers. Yes, they still made the connection, but they were loose, damnit. And not to make a bigger issue of it than it is, but I simply hate connectors that work loose with only infrequent and normal use. Sorry. And no, I dont use an impact wrench to tighten binding posts, but I expect a $5k speaker to allow me the luxury of using a jackhammer on those posts if I so desire.
What? Are you a complete moron?
Here we have a speaker rated by the manufacturer at a sensitivity of 93dB, nearly full range, and a 7-ohm minimum impedance. Heres a speaker that has "suitable for use with single-ended-triode amplifiers" written all over it, and youre using Godzilla-powered push-pull amplifiers to drive them? Well, I may be a moron, but the SET appeal of the Sonatas didnt escape me. You see, Im no stranger to the sound of SET amps, having owned both the "B" and "C" versions of Carys fabulous CAD-805 amplifiers. Ive listened to many lower-powered SET amplifiers as well, and while constantly drawn in by the music they make, there was always the same problem, namely the lack of choices that exist in the marketplace for suitable speakers. So when presented with a speaker that broadened the playing field, I just had to find out how the Sonatas would fare. So I borrowed a pair of Cary CAD-300SE/LX20 SET amps, sporting a hefty 20Wpc, which I set up to break in on my secondary system while I completed my listening notes with the SLM-200s in command.
First, a word of caution. This was the first time Id heard the new Cary amps, so I cant honestly tell you what the amps themselves sound like based on my brief experience. But this is a speaker review, so I will tell you this: powered by the Cary SETs, the Sonatas went from a good, well-designed speaker to a sonic marvel. The lightish balance that I found with the push-pull amps was now gone, replaced by a very natural-sounding balance from top to bottom. Seamless? You bet. A four-way system? You certainly wouldnt know by listening. The soundstage went from good to holographic, placing each instrument and performer in its own place in space. And the natural, livin and breathin detail of the most subtle harmonic textures gave rise to legions of the oft-elusive goose bumps. The Evita soundtrack came to life [CD, Warner Brothers 9 46692-2]. You may not think much of good ol Antonio Banderas (only the women drool disgustingly), but his voice was suddenly there. In the room. I was disgusted, but Mary, my wife, was suddenly very interested. Maybe a bit too interested. Then Madonna came in, and Mary listened in disgust as I drooled. I have never heard such a realistic portrayal of voice in my system, especially from digital.
So if the digital was this good, what about analog? Back on the Basis went Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I had to see how much of the 20 watts I really didnt need. Well, the bass line thumped along with more texture and realism. The dynamics were there in spades. And I could play the music loud! No, not stupid loud like I could with the SLM-200s, but loud enough. I could get the amps to run out of steam, but I was quite surprised at how well they powered this large box of a speaker. After satiating my headbanger urges, it was time to try something a little more, um, cerebral? On went Liszts Hungarian Rhapsody from the RCA Living Stereo LP Rhapsodies [RCA LSC-2471]. The harmonic information and detail of the cello sent shivers down my spine. I have never heard this recording reproduced with such raw emotion. I listened to the whole side without the slightest urge to tweak something. Hmmm
The $5k comparison
So how do the Sonatas compare to the similarly priced Alón Vs? Would it shock you if I said they sound quite different? Well, sorry, but they do. First, given the SLM-200s as the only amps to use, Id opt for the Alóns. They are more full-bodied with these amps, present an airier yet less forward top end, and carry a little more wallop on the bottom. Given the SETs as the only amps, Id opt for the Sonatas. First, the SETs just dont have enough ooomph to properly drive the less sensitive and lower-impedance Alóns. Secondly, the looser bass region of the Alóns didnt benefit from the reduced control of the SET amps in the lower octaves. Room placement may have been part of the problem, but I didnt spend a lot of time dealing with it -- I wasnt reviewing the Alóns. And finally, the Cary 300SE/LX20/Silverline Sonata combo formed one of those magical synergies -- that rare setup when you just forget about the system and wear trails in the carpet swapping LPs and CDs. Audios holy grail.
Is there really a point in comparing apples to oranges like this? Well, yes, I think. It clearly illustrates the importance of the amplifier/speaker interface and the synergies (and problems) that are possible. The amp/speaker combination is probably one of the most important interfaces to be made in all of audio-dom (probably even more important than the marriage between cartridge and tonearm), and one that I feel is too often glossed over in audio magazines and audio salons alike.
Finally, a conclusion
Powered by push-pull tubes, the Sonatas are enjoyable, coherent, and dynamically exciting. They lack some body in ultimate terms, and although weighty on the bottom, they do not plumb the depths as do speakers that are flat into the low 20s. The tonal balance is not incorrect per se, but may not satisfy those wanting a warmer balance. Powered by the Cary SET amps, however, the Sonatas are elevated into a lofty range that few speakers occupy. With this particular partnership, I achieved some of the best sound Ive ever heard in all my years of audio nut-ism. For you SET owners, or those afflicted by the sound of SET amps who have shied away due to the significant speaker demands, the Sonatas should be on your very short auditioning list.
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