August 2001Silverline Audio Sonata II Loudspeakers
by John Potis
It was CES 2001, and my first official duty was to deliver a reprint of my January 2001 review of the Silverline Sonatina II to the Silverline room at Alexis Park. It was a duty in the loosest sense of the word, and I was looking forward to it. Id heard stories of Alan Yuns enthusiasm for both music and audio, and I figured that I was in for an interesting meeting and probably some good music as well.
As I entered Yun's demo room, I found myself staring at the business end of an almost 500-pound pair of Silverline Grandeur loudspeakers. The sound was every bit as grand as the speaker; unfortunately so was the price -- $35,000 USD. So I moved on. Following an impressive trail of speakers around the crowded room (the entire line was available for audition), I eventually came upon the elder (or at least more sizable) siblings to the Sonatina IIs -- the Sonata IIs. This was an updated and redesigned version of the speaker Bill Cowen enthusiastically reviewed in September of 1999. Making a long story short, it was a few months later that I had a pair of the Sonata IIs in my home.
The Sonata II looked less like its predecessor than the Sonatina II, although both speakers retained rear-firing ports and a slight rearward slope to time-align their drivers. The gorgeous briarwood finish was still there, as were the German-made LPG soft-dome midrange and tweeter, 2" and 1" respectively, and the 6" SEAS midbass driver. All were unchanged from the original speaker and still housed in internal sub-enclosures. But the faceted cabinet was gone, and where the original design featured a single 10" SEAS woofer, the new five-way design sported two of them. The upper woofer gets its own ported sub-enclosure, while the lower woofer is housed in yet another sub-enclosure, this one sealed.
The Sonata II still houses the all-new point-to-point-wired crossover (first order for all drivers except the midrange, which is second order) in a separate compartment, but there is now a user-filled sandbox at the base of the speaker. Once full, this sandbox is said to increase mass for the dissipation of spurious and damaging bass energy, and it adds some 17 pounds to the speaker's weight. No doubt about it, the new speaker has a brawny look about it with its new broad shoulders and squared stance. It measures 45"H x 12"W x 16"D and weighs 130 pounds sand filled. The speakers come with black grilles that cover the entire front, but I preferred the sound without them.
Silverline specifies a sensitivity of 95dB, an increase of 2dB over the older model, and the same easy-to-drive, tube-friendly 8-ohm nominal impedance. The crossover frequencies are 600Hz, 1200Hz, 2000Hz and 3500Hz, and the frequency response is given as 25Hz to 28kHz with no tolerance stated. Speaker connections were made via very sturdy dual sets of gold-plated five-way binding posts, which are recessed into the bottom rear of the cabinet. Silverline recommends a minimum of 10 watts to drive the speakers and a maximum of 1000 watts. The speaker is also available in rosewood veneer that is as equally beautiful as briarwood. The retail price of the Sonata II is $5999 per pair, the same price as its predecessor.
You might assume that the logical starting point for discussing the sonics of the Sonata II, with its dual woofers, would be the bass. But while the bass was very good and deserving of attention, the speakers forte is actually found elsewhere -- its smooth, effortless and utterly engaging midrange. Like the Sonatina, the Sonata II has all the uncolored, transparent clarity that you would expect of a speaker in its price class. Over the several months that Ive had the speakers, they have proven to be a remarkable reviewers tool when it comes to evaluating components upstream. But thats not to say that the speakers are amusical or analytical -- not at all. Counterbalancing this would-be ruthlessly revealing lucidity is one of the most music-friendly personalities Ive ever had the pleasure to live with. A speaker with this kind of transparency that also possesses such a beguiling roundness of tone may be a little difficult to reconcile on the conscious level, but theres no time for such cerebral distractions once the music begins.
But you may well wonder if Im going to pronounce the Sonata IIs champions of transparency and detail. No, not quite. In my experience, certain electrostatics and planars still outperform the Sonata IIs here. Such speakers are a little faster and exhibit a little greater sense of ease than the Sonata IIs. But planars and electrostatics that can even come close to the dynamics of the Sonata IIs will cost far more, and none of those speakers will come close to matching either the ease of placement and room friendliness of the Silverlines or their exceptionally wide sweet spot.
The Sonata IIs image like champions, and here they reflect the capabilities of the amplifiers that precede them. As I swapped amplifiers, I readily heard the subtle changes in soundstage perspective and image layering that each amplifier wrought, and I was always treated to a soundstage that exceeded the physical boundaries of the speakers. But if the program dictated a center mass of images, thats what was heard, and where there was information relating to the recorded venue, the Sonata IIs created a virtual representation of the venue. While images remained earthbound and naturally represented, the sense of space would often extend up to replace the boundaries of my room. Relatively minor yet easily perceptible changes in perspective were also effected by changing amplifiers. For instance, the Blue Circle BC8s threw a soundstage that started just in front of the speakers, while the Herron Audio M150s soundstage began somewhat behind the speakers -- and went way back. The Audiopax Model 3 integrated amp split the difference between the two.
The Sonata II is so linear from the midrange through the treble that the speaker cant help but have a single voice. And speaking of voices, wait until you hear them over the Sonata IIs. Cue up "Enough to be on Your Way" from James Taylors Hourglass CD [Columbia CK 67912] and listen to the crystalline clarity of his voice. You wont have to work hard to localize it either; it has supreme focus and solidity at center stage. Or if female vocals are more your style, check out "Our Love is Here to Stay" from Jacinthas Heres To Ben [Groove Note GRV2001] for presence that is almost eerie in its precision and articulation. And while you are there, take note of the hall sound; its keenly represented.
But the midrange prowess is not restricted to reproducing the human voice. Throw at the Sonata IIs what you will and try to trip them up. Try anything from the lower registers of George Winstons piano (December [Windham Hill WD-1025]) to the 22nd fret of one of Joe Satrianis myriad of guitars (The Extremist [Relativity 88561-1053-2]). The Sonata IIs will do them all justice and treat each appropriately. The acoustic steel strings on Satriani's "Rubinas Blue Sky Happiness" and the gut strings on "Tears in the Rain" are as deftly handled as the frenzied electronic screaming of "Friends." And if you dont think there is any imaging to be found on todays multi-track recordings, check out the opening guitar located well behind and outside the left speaker on "New Blues," the horns located deep center stage and the voice doing the countdown far off stage to the right. The drum kit is in focus right behind Satriani, who is solidly and almost holographically at front center.
Ive waited until now to talk about the bass capabilities of the Sonata II not because they rank low on the list of what the Sonata IIs do so right, but because depending on what kind of music you prefer, the bass may be one of the last things that grabs your attention. Despite the menacing appearance of these large speakers with their dual 10-inch drivers, the speakers do not sound big and they do not sound particularly powerful -- until your music really requires them to do so. The bass is highly damped, very tight and very controlled.
I didnt find the bass quality as dependent on the number of watts I had available as on the quality of those watts. The 7Wpc Audiopax Model 3 integrated amp did an outstanding job of controlling the bass in my smaller room, as did the 13-watt Wyetech Onyx monoblocks, which worked very well in my larger room as well. But when offered more watts to play with, such as from the 150-watt Herron M150s or the 220-watt Blue Circle BC8s, the Sonata IIs put the power to good use through higher output levels that could reach roof-raising levels before audible compression finally set in. You feel the bass energize the floor, your chair and then in your chest rather than feel it assault your eardrums.
This is bass for long-term listening enjoyment, although some listeners may disagree and want bass that slams more solidly in the gut, bass that's a little less damped and more imposing. But long after these listeners are back sitting in front of the TV, Ill still be listening to James Horners Casper soundtrack [MCA MCAD-11240]. Ill be marveling at how the Sonata IIs reproduce the double basses with power and authority, yet allow them to decay so quickly that I can clearly hear the distant reverberation through the hall. No smearing or detail or overhang here.
While the Sonata IIs dominated my smallish 150-square-foot room visually, they did not dominate it sonically. You may assume given their size and driver compliment that they are way too much speaker for this room, but they are not. You might then assume that the Sonata IIs are so highly damped that they cant energize a larger room, but somewhat paradoxically I have to again dispute this notion by testifying that they did indeed work equally well in my 400-square-foot family room. The reason for this may be found in the uniformity of their bass response. First, as many speakers noticeably weaken in the bass at low volumes, the Sonata IIs are a joy to listen to at very low volumes. They remain both balanced and fairly powerful at the somewhat restrictive levels required of a smaller room. Conversely, the bass does not run out of steam at higher volumes, due in large part, I believe, to the displacement capabilities of the two large woofers.
Sibilants were for the most part a non-issue with the Sonata IIs. I tripped over them from time to time when they occurred on one recording or another, but they were never aggravated by Sonata IIs in any way. On the contrary, the Sonata IIs' character is such that these bumps in the road were largely rendered benign. But dont mistake this kindness for being too polite. The Sonata IIs are not rolled off in the highs, as evidenced by their talent for rendering the recorded venue and space. And unlike with some speakers that excel at such soundstaging presentation, the treble is not tipped up in the least. In fact, no part of the frequency spectrum is emphasized at the expense of the rest.
One thing though
Having lived with the Sonata IIs for several months, I did run into one chink in their armor. Actually, I intend this more as a warning than a criticism because the remedy is something that is no different than what you encounter with all speakers. Im speaking of the way the spikes are attached to the bottom. While very stable in the horizontal plane, the spikes are potentially problematic in the vertical because their threads are too coarse and not deep enough to make for a snug fit. Thus the spikes may work loose if the speakers are dragged or even walked into place. While I would like to see the spikes threaded in a sturdier way, you can very easily sidestep this issue by always removing the spikes before moving the speakers around the room.
Both their family lineage as well as their proximity under my own roof made the comparison of the Sonata II to the smaller and twice-named Reviewers' Choice Sonatina II ($4000 per pair) a natural and begged the question regarding what you get when you purchase the larger and more expensive speaker. Obviously you get more bass. For the added price of a good subwoofer, the Sonata IIs extend the bass response to almost but not quite subwoofer territory. But more important than the bass power and extension, the Sonata II is a more sensitive speaker, which will make more of the amplification fed to it. Both speakers sing with the same coherency, thanks to the deft blending of the dome midrange and tweeter. Somewhat paradoxically, despite its larger baffle and perhaps due to the increased distance to the floor boundary, the taller Sonata II actually throws a more stable and slightly more holographic soundstage than the more svelte Sonatina II.
The Silverline Sonata II speakers not only cater to my list of both sonic and aesthetic priorities, they also answer my needs as a reviewer through their transparent yet friendly personality. If you think you hear one jagged edge, one discordant nuance or one wayward artifact, look elsewhere in the system -- it won't be originating from the Sonata IIs. With proper system ancillaries, the Sonata IIs offer some of the most refined sound that I've heard in my home and certainly some of the most coherent sound I've ever come across. And don't misconstrue this refinement for a reticent politeness; the Sonata IIs are exceptionally neutral and surprisingly pliable to the whims of your choice of amplification. Throw in room-friendliness that other more exotic speakers cant match along with high quoted sensitivity and an easy-going load that will invite experimentation with all sorts of amplifiers and you have a speaker that will appeal to the "set 'em and forget 'em" crowd as well as to those who just can never leave well enough alone.
I know of no other speaker that lets you know exactly what is happening upstream in the system yet remains so totally musical and enjoyable as the Silverline Sonata IIs. Check them out at your very first opportunity.
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