If you attend an audio show, chances are you will hear Alan Yun, president of Silverline Audio, before you hear his speakers. Yun is enthusiastic to say the least, and he admires not only his speakers but also music and high-end audio in general. I cant even remember all of the products hes designed besides speakers -- from speaker cables to amplifiers -- but dont think hes some kind of unfocused, absent-minded audiogeek. Yun is very grounded, telling me in Chicago that his real goal is to be a good husband, a good father (his 11-year-old son designed his website) and a good speaker designer. Whats not to admire in this?
Yuns speakers impressed me in Chicago, so much so that I made sure we were able to get both the Sonata, reviewed a few months ago by Bill Cowen, and Sonatina to write about. I thought the sound in the Silverline room was among the very best at the Show, a lofty appraisal given the bass bloat that plagued so many setups. The Sonatinas, the smaller of Silverlines two newest designs, were driven by KR Enterprise amps, which were fed directly by a Wadia CD player, and the sound was spacious, clear and seductive. Even the bigger and more costly Sonatas playing in KR Enterprises own room didnt sound quite as good.
But Chicago has passed and the Sonatinas have taken residence in my system for the past few months. Will their sound hold up to the promise I heard in Chicago, or will they be a one-Show wonder? Read on.
Go west Yun man
Silverline Audio is located in California, although Alan Yun is a native of Hong Kong, where he sold audio equipment and built speakers for many years. After selling some 4000 pairs of his speakers in Hong Kong, Yun moved his family to the US and started Silverline Audio, displaying his products at the CES and HI-FI Show since 1997. SoundStager Mike Masztal reviewed the Silverline SR17 minimonitors in March of 1998, and Ive heard the two largest and most expensive Silverline designs, the Monte Cristo and Grandeur, at past shows.
The Sonatina, like the Sonata, is a more recent design and a departure from Yuns earlier speakers, which are more boxy in shape. In fact, it would be easy to mistake the Sonatinas and Sonatas for something from Avalon -- their beveled fronts are very similar. The Sonatinas are not gigantic speakers, measuring 38"H x 8"W x 12"D and weighing in at an estimated 50 pounds each (Silverlines literature puts them at 70 pounds each, which must be their shipping weight). The tweeter and midrange drivers are soft domes from LPG and modified by Silverline, while the woofers, identical to the Sonatas midbass driver, are from SEAS and also modified to Silverlines specifications. The speakers feature first-order crossover slopes, with crossover frequencies specified as 1500Hz and 3500Hz. Rated frequency response is 25Hz to 27kHz (more on this later). Sensitivity is specified as 93dB and impedance as 8 ohms, making the speakers an easy load. The cabinet, which is ported out the back, is made out of MDF and has a separate compartment in the bottom for the crossover, which is wired almost directly to the speaker terminals, pairs for treble/midrange and bass.
I have to mention the striking beauty of these speakers, especially in the burl-briarwood finish in which the review samples were supplied. Ive seen good-looking veneer on more speakers than I can remember, but the work done on the Sonatinas is absolutely stunning -- book matched and with a glassy sheen. When I first unboxed the speakers, I thought the veneer was somehow fake, so perfect did it look. I doubt the Sonatinas, given their small size and incredible beauty, will offend anyones aesthetic values.
I used the Sonatinas with a wide array of equipment, including amps from Lamm (ML1 and ML2 monoblocks), Audio Aero (Capitole), and SimAudio (W-5); preamps from Lamm (L1) and SimAudio (P-5); and digital gear from Timbre (TT-1 2000 DAC), Bel Canto (DAC1 DAC), Mark Levinson (No.39), Linn (Ikemi) and Pioneer (DV-414 and DV-525 DVD players). I used interconnects, speaker cables and digital cables from JPS Labs (Superconductor2 and NC Series) and Tara Labs (Air One) along with ESPs The Essence power cords and Power Distributor as well as JPS Labs Power AC and Digital AC cords. The amps and CD spinners sat on Bright Star Big Rock bases, and the other electronics on sand-filled Target racks.
For comparison, I had my reference ProAc Response Four speakers on hand as well as the pair of Silverline Sonatas that Bill Cowen reviewed a few months ago.
Positioning and listening
I found the Sonatinas very easy to position for good sound -- they make music in just about any configuration -- but to set them up optimally, youll want to put them as far apart as you can get them and then toe them in so that the drivers fire just to the outside of your shoulders when youre in your listening seat. In my room, this meant the speakers were more than ten feet apart and about eight feet from my listening seat. I had no problems with center fill in this configuration, and the soundstage the speakers cast was truly breathtaking, melting the side and back walls away with ease. I didnt experiment with setting the speakers up on the long wall, putting 12 or 14 feet between them, but I suspect that they would work very well in this sort of configuration too -- maybe even better. Ooo, now theres an interesting thought!
So lets start with the soundstage, which in terms of the Sonatinas is a function of their very extended yet even treble, the region that portrays the ambience, air and spatial cues they can dig out of a recording. I dont know if the tweeter used in the Sonatina is some special unit, but the speakers have an open presentation that makes hearing into recordings a regular occurrence. Keith Richards Main Offender [Virgin 86499 2] (yes, Im mentioning it in one of my reviews again) is a spacious and driving disc, and the Sonatinas in their wide placement helped my audio system just take over the room, performers and music seemingly everywhere. Another disc thats even more impressive is Roy Gaines Ive Got the T-Bone Walker Blues [Groove Note GRV1002-2], which was our recording of the month for November and very deserving of the honor. What a disc! Played back over the Sonatinas, this disc displays the seamlessness of the musicians and the space they inhabit so acutely that I listened to the disc more than any other while the Sonatinas were in use. But dont think that this means the Sonatinas are just resolution machines; theyre far too refined to be pinned down easily in this way. While they will tell you all about the signal they are fed, they dont do it in an aggressive or overly detailed way. If you have equipment thats aggressive, however, they wont mask anything either, so be warned.
Speaking of equipment, I discovered that the Sonatinas, as Bill Cowen found with the Sonatas, love single-ended amplification, although I suspect that most good tube amps will make very good music with them. When I switched from the single-ended Lamm ML2s to the push-pull Audio Aero Capitole, I remembered instantly what the Capitole does so impressively: portray space. And when I switched back, I realized how really good the Lamms are -- at everything. The solid-state SimAudio W-5, on the other hand, was more of a mixed bag with the Sonatinas. While it could drive the daylights out of them, it was as though a freight train were pushing a Radio Flyer wagon -- too much muscle at work. The sound was not bad and would have been illustrative were it not for the wonderful music the Sonatinas made with the expensive Lamm monoblocks. Given that Bill Cowen found the Sonatas to be "sonic marvels" with his Cary SET amps, I suspect the Sonatinas will sing with just about any single-ended amp you throw their way.
The Sonatinas possess wonderful clarity, and this attribute extends from the treble into the midrange, where SET amps do so much of their best work. The detail and fine gradations throughout the midrange often surprised me with their existence. It was not as though I had never heard, for instance, the breathing of Angie Hart on Frente!s Marvin the Album [Mammoth 92390-2], but that it was never such an elemental part of the sound I was hearing. Piano and acoustic guitar were especially impressive, the Joe Pass and Bill Evans JVC XRCDs I have spending lots of time in my CD transport. And this leads me to another recommendation: if you love jazz and classical music, you have to hear the Sonatinas. Although they can rock too, the intellectual quality of the music seemed heightened by their overall refinement, and this meant I played lots of jazz and more classical than I normally do.
As you might expect given the Sonatinas dual 6" woofers, the bass is not explosive in its power or depth -- that is, it doesnt equal that of my much larger ProAcs with their dual 9" ATC woofers and true 20Hz extension. In fact, Silverlines rating of the Sonatinas bass to 25Hz is very generous -- it didnt reach this in my room. However, and this is important, what the Sonatinas do reproduce down low is very lively and resolved, stopping and starting in realistic fashion. I like to use Suzanne Vegas Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 31454 -583 2] for low-end evaluation. On the song "Headshots," the bass guitar and lowest drum whacks are more differentiated and singular than they are through my big ProAcs, which sacrifice, Ive come to learn, some bass detail for greater extension and heft. I would guess that the Sonatinas bass is ample for everyone but the most discerning low-end worshippers -- more than a minimonitor, but less than a larger floorstanding speaker, and possessing notable speed and delineation. For these reasons, I would carefully experiment with various subwoofers only if you absolutely need to augment the Sonatinas bass -- and then pick the one that seems to do the least. This way youll have your bass, but you wont muck up what the Sonatinas do so well on their own.
Two apples from the same tree
My ProAc Response Fours, given their size and cost, are not really realistic measuring sticks for the Sonatinas, but comparing two speakers from the same company and at different costs is a worthy exercise and hopefully one that will give you a better idea of which you might be interested in auditioning. Thus, I asked Alan Yun about having the Sonatas Bill Cowen reviewed sent to me, and he agreed (Ill also write a follow-up review on the Sonatas later). The two speakers use the same drivers except for the inclusion of a 10" SEAS woofer in the Sonata, which is also a four-way system. And as you can guess, the Sonata goes lower and with greater weight, but even with the identical drivers, the story doesnt end here. The Sonatinas bass is actually a touch more controlled than that of the Sonata. Maybe this is an artifact of the comparison -- two 6" woofers versus a 6" midbass driver and 10" woofer. No matter, I hear what I hear, and the Sonatinas bass is little more tight, has a little less play.
The Sonatinas also more easily disappear into the music they create, no doubt due to their smaller size. Through the midrange and treble, the speakers sound essentially identical, the only very small differences due, perhaps, to the more narrow front baffle of the Sonatina and less area for diffraction and other cabinet-related effects. I can say that I enjoy and admire both speakers, but when I have time to listen for pleasure (which happens infrequently these days), I hope the Sonatinas are in the system. Im jazzed by their soundstaging and way with tubes.
One comment from Bill Cowens review of the Sonatas deserves some discussion in the context of the Sonatinas. Bill said the Sonatas sounded "light," and I cant disagree. The Sonatas, and Sonatinas, dont have the solidity and heft of either my ProAcs or probably Bills Alóns either. The images portrayed are not as full, tending more toward the airy and ethereal end of the spectrum. However, I would also add that their sound is light-filled, meaning that at least in comparison to my ProAcs, they illuminate more of the soundstage, performers and the space on a recording. My ProAcs never seem deficient in these ways, but the Silverline speakers just have more of this characteristic. How much this matters to you will be your decision, but I can appreciate the merits both approaches, although I definitely have my preferences with different kinds of music.
The bottom line on Silverline
The Silverline Sonatinas are beautiful-looking and -sounding speakers. Their traits -- masterful soundstaging, the ability to convey the nature of the equipment in front of them but not in a ruthlessly revealing way, their precision and grace -- were never less than a joy to behold, especially when the amps were just right. Although I drove the speaker to best effect with the very expensive Lamm monoblocks, I suspect that other less-costly SET designs would make them sing too -- as would any number of tube amps that are more in keeping with the cost of the speakers. Although the Sonatinas bass does not have center-of-the-earth power and solidity, it is satisfying nonetheless. I can only cautiously recommend experimenting with a subwoofer for fear of muddying some other part of the spectrum. I wouldnt bother with it, but others may find it a worthwhile venture.
In the end, the Silverline Sonatina is like a smooth-running two-seat sports car that hugs the curves and accelerates oh so smoothly. In terms of high-end speakers, the Sonatina brings the esoteric and seductive nature of SET sound home to more audiophiles. While $3800 is not chicken feed by any standard other than that of a professional athlete, the Sonatinas have to be considered a bargain given their easy load and pure sound. If youve always thought that the single-ended movement was out of your reach, you have to hear these speakers.
Copyright © 1999 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved