Stop the presses!
The Silverline Sonatina, so positively reviewed in SoundStage! by Marc Mickelson and a product that procured our "Best Product Debut" award for Alan Yun and Silverline Audio, is a wonderful speaker. But after what has been undoubtedly one of the shortest product life cycles that I can remember, outside pressures (the particulars of which we won't go into here) have sent the venerable Sonatina and Sonata loudspeakers back to the drawing board.
The new Sonatina II is a four-driver four-way design, whereas the previous version was a four-driver three-way speaker. One of the two previously used SEAS midwoofers has been replaced on the new version by a genuine 6" woofer, also from SEAS. A completely new crossover has been implemented, and the new crossover points are given as: 1000Hz, 1500Hz, and 3500Hz. All networks are first-order designs, with the exception of that between the midwoofer and the midrange, which is second order. As for the midwoofer still in use, SEAS does bill the newer driver as being a smoother version of the one previously used, and it does have slightly different cosmetics, but Silverline maintains that it is essentially the same driver as that used in the original Sonatina.
A new cabinet has been built from 1" MDF and is more stoutly braced internally. That said, Alan Yun is not a proponent of highly braced speakers. Yun once told me he feels that too much bracing results in too rigid a cabinet and an over-damped sound. Side Alan Yun with those who think that some properly controlled resonance of the enclosure helps lend life to the music. The knuckle-rap test to both versions of the speakers demonstrates that the new version has a "bonk" that is higher in frequency, presumably placing the resonance even further out of reach of the critical midrange. The previously faceted fascia is gone, which means that the new Sonatina II has slightly greater internal volume, which works in concert with the new woofer to increase bass solidity. Part of that added internal volume is utilized as a sandbox. Silverline recommends that the bottom panel of the speakers be removed and this new compartment be filled with sand. They maintain that, in addition to providing added weight and lowering the speakers center of gravity, thus making the speaker more stable, the sands mass also absorbs and dissipates spurious bass energy, further cleansing and solidifying bass.
What has not changed is what gave the original Sonatina much of its sonic character: the German-made LPG 2" semi-hemispherical soft-dome midrange. Silverline says that this driver is chosen for its transparency and wide dispersion characteristics, both of which are better than those that can be achieved by conventional cones. Also still in use is the original LPG 1" textile-dome tweeter chosen by Silverline for its 28kHz extension and "open, transparent, grain-free sound."
Another thing that did not change is the speakers finish. Wood veneers available are briarwood and rosewood, and fit and finish are still spectacular. Nowhere else in or around this price range have I ever encountered such workmanship. Book matched and finished with a soft satin gloss, the Sonatina IIs are glorious to look at.
In his review of the original Sonatina, Marc Mickelson remarked that he thought the speakers' quoted low-frequency figure of 25Hz was perhaps generously stated. The new Sonatina II comes with a rated frequency response of 30Hz to 28kHz (no tolerance given). Sensitivity is given as 93dB/W/m and impedance a very stable 8 ohms. Thus the Sonatinas IIs should be tube-friendly speakers. My review samples stand essentially the same height as the previous version: 39"H x 8.5"W x 11"D. Retained are a rear-firing port, dual pairs of high-quality binding posts, and backward lean for time alignment of the drivers. Alas, as there is no such thing as a free lunch, the updated version sells for $4000 USD per pair, which represents a price increase of $200.
Serial SoundStage! readers will know by now that I own a pair of the original Sonatinas. I use them in a smallish 1500-cubic-foot room placed on the long wall. The speakers tweeters are about eight feet apart, and my listening position is roughly seven feet in front of them. The tweeters are 32" from the front wall, with 38" and 42" from the left and right walls respectively. This arrangement was settled on because it fulfills a few important requirements. First, this modest amount of corner reinforcement provides bass that is as deep, clean, and powerful as Ive been able to achieve with the Sonatinas. Second, this setup also renders an incredibly wide soundstage that frequently extends past the locations of the speakers as well as a very stable and solid center image. Lastly, the speakers just vanish into a focused and deep soundstage.
Well, the biggest change in the Sonatina II necessitated a rethinking of this orientation. These new speakers have a completely different bass characteristic that obviates the need for the kind of room reinforcement I used with the original Sonatinas. In locations that used to induce a soft and woolly bass line, I now get a deeper, tighter and more powerful bass presentation. The midbass is a touch more prominent in the new version, further lending a more solid top-to-bottom feel. This has really opened up placement options, and I settled on a new location about another six inches into the room and almost three feet closer together. I still get the panoramic soundstage, and to be honest, the center images are not all that much firmer than they were before, but the sweet spot is a little larger, and thats always a welcome change.
Sound -- new and old
Getting right to it, what Ive always loved about the Sonatina survives the revision completely intact. I refer to the way it speaks with a single voice. From the midrange on up, the original Sonatina is one of the most coherent dynamic speakers Ive heard. While I wont pretend that my hearing is so acute that I live my life bothered by a lack of congruence between midrange drivers and tweeters, the fact is that once I heard the Sonatina, my attention almost immediately focused in on this aspect of its performance. Is this because both midrange and treble elements are domes that share a similar sonic signature? Is it because the 2" midrange retains better dispersion at the top of its operating range than a larger (at least twice the size) cone diaphragm would? Or is it just a case of an expertly chosen and superbly executed crossover? I cant say for sure, but I can tell you that whatever it is, it succeeds.
I cant recommend highly enough that anyone considering the Sonatina II read Marc Mickelsons review of the original version. I believe he captured well the character of the speaker. I do have to take exception to one thing he wrote, however, and I attribute our difference of observation to the differences in our rooms and setups. Marc made reference to a slightly cool character in his evaluation, and this is just something that I dont get in my room. On the contrary, I hear a speaker that mediates descriptions of warm and cool by staying just about as close to center as a speaker can get. I hear one of the most natural speakers Ive ever heard. Perhaps this is one reason why the speaker sounds so good with a variety of amplifiers. Clarity and transparency are two of the Sonatina's virtues, no matter what the version. The Sonatinas have proven invaluable to me as a reviewing tool as they throw into sharp relief differences between amplifiers as no other speaker Ive owned has. Were the speaker a difficult load, I would suspect that rather than showing up the differences, they would cause the differences. But this is clearly not the case as the speaker can be driven by a wide variety of amplifiers -- from low-power SET designs to high-power solid-state amps, almost universally with excellent results.
But now for the Sonatina II. Put on a well-recorded vocal, such as James Taylors Hour Glass CD [Columbia CK 67912]. While not the most spectacular recording overall, Taylors vocals are very well recorded, almost totally artifact free and a good piece for judging the reproduction of the male voice. Over the Sonatina IIs, Taylor sounds fabulous -- smooth and immediate, with no hint of shrillness or resonant suck-out and no chesty colorations either. You can also hear the slight changes in the timbre of Taylor's voice from track to track.
For detail and resolving power, cue up Flim and the BBs Tricycle [DMP Gold 9000] and "Sweet Winds Of Change" and let the Sonatina IIs sort out the frantically paced high-hat from the equally agile bass lines and the skipping bass-drum pedal only to bind it together again with the saxophone and keyboards. "Tell Me" has all the speed and crispness that Ive come to expect with none of the tipped-up-treble-induced faux detail that lesser speakers serve up. Bass drums on "Thunder and Birdies" sound full and fast, with no smearing or overhang. Even if the last smidgen of earth-moving power is omitted, the overall effect is quite satisfying. And rather than the amorphous bass "thud" some speakers provide, these bass drums were easily localizable as being just left of center and appreciably back on the stage. For sheer power, listen to "Cakewalk" for some kick-drum punch as well as sustained low-bass rumble. The Sonatina IIs serve up the growl and body of this cut with newfound authority and weight. Or crank up "Lunch Hour Wedding March" a bit and see if your floor doesnt rumble as mine did -- with an Audiopax 7.5Wpc SET integrated amp to boot! This recording makes lots of use of cymbals and high-hats. At no time do they ever sound harsh, hashy or irritating, even while they are recorded in a somewhat forward manner in the mix. And this quality was not accomplished by sacrificing resolution; where some speakers can turn a roll on the high-hat into a sustained hisssss, the Sonatinas maintained each strike as an individual incident.
The Sonatina IIs are nice and full through the midbass too, particularly compared to their successor. Cello, for instance, does not need to be closely miked in order to experience its brooding majesty. Yo-Yo Mas performance of Christopher Rouses Violoncello Concerto from Premieres [Sony SK 66299], as recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra and David Zinman, is a great example. Though certainly seated in front of the orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma is heard from a perspective that places his cello clearly in the distance. But none of the cellos richness or texture are lost over the Sonatina IIs. I still hear a fully rounded tone and can even make out the state of the rosin on the bow. And if you can break yourself away from the music to observe some of the nuts and bolts of the recording, observe the absolutely cavernous sense of space. Soundstaging as rendered by this CD/speaker combo is breathtaking -- deep, tall, and spacious with tons of air. In my experience, this kind of portrayal of space and air has previously only been bettered by speakers with a tipped-up treble, which comes along with its own set of problematic baggage.
In the mood for more Zinman, I popped into the CD player Verlioz La Marseillaise and Other Favorites, this time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus [Telarc CD 80166]. "Overture To Benvenuto" serves up a rousing experience. And over the Sonatina IIs we are way beyond talking about truth of timbre or about whether or not an oboe sounds like an oboe. We are talking about a soul-stirring extravaganza. We are talking about a slow building melodic masterpiece marked by crisply plucked basses, swirling strings and dancing woodwinds -- you know, goose-bump material. All of this is served up on the Silverlines in a totally lucid manner, enabling the metaphysical transport to the original venue.
In the mood for something a little less syrupy? Play "Rakoczy March" and observe the power and majesty of a brass section running at full bore. One of these pieces should get your juices flowing. Built upon a foundation of resonant bass and boisterous drums, the CD and the Sonatina IIs provide brass that is devoid of any harshness or discord -- just smooth and luxurious emotion, reminiscent of what I get when I visit Baltimores Myerhoff Symphony Hall.
So what dont you get with the Silverline Sonatina II? Well, you dont get a speaker for headbangers. While the bass is markedly better than it was, it still does not provide the whomp of a few other like-priced speakers such as the NHT 3.3. Overall dynamics are somewhat limited too. If you have a large room, most certainly you may want to opt for the larger Sonata or (heaven forbid!) add a subwoofer to the system. In comparison, the NHTs have a more forward tonal balance, which adds spark to pop and rock music that the more laid-back Sonatina IIs don't. However, the NHT 3.3 cant match the Sonatina IIs amenable size, classy looks and ease of placement.
And I dont want to give the impression that the Sonatina Mk IIs cant boogie or rock out. Not at all! When driven within their means in an appropriately sized room, these speakers are fleet of foot, rhythmic and driving, and there is more than enough bass here to satisfy most sane tastes (though you may want to opt for something with more than the Audiopax's 7.5 watts!). The Silverline Sonatina IIs offer clean and penetrating vocals as well as the ability to make rock and pop musics semi-frequent imaging gymnastics particularly fun. Cue up Dire Straits' On Every Street [Warner 9 26680-2], specifically "You and Your Friend," and observe as the opening steel guitar is placed to the extreme left, well past the outside of the speaker, while the electric guitar and cymbals are placed to the extreme right, again, well outside and far behind the speaker. Or go back to James Taylors Hour Glass and listen to "Gaia." Approximately four minutes into the song you'll observe the widest drum kit Ive ever heard as it starts its journey far back at stage right and then traverses the soundstage until it reaches backstage left, building in power and intensity all the way.
Maybe I misspoke when I said that the Sonatina IIs were not for headbangers. Perhaps I should have said that they are not for headbangers who cannot get past the first octave or so of their music. For those interested in hearing the other nine octaves faithfully reproduced, I suggest a CD like Nirvanas Nevermind [DGCD 2445]. Start with "Smells Like Teen Sprit" and observe that the term grunge has nothing to do with the CDs recording quality. On the contrary, the Mk IIs illustrate that its a very well recorded disc with clean vocals, smooth and well-recorded electric bass and deep and powerful kick drum. Cymbals are a little splashy here, so go to "Lithium" for a much better rendition of the ride cymbal, which is clean and tactile. If the opening acoustic guitar on "Polly" was any warmer or resonant it would sound like a strummed cello! And the opening electric bass line on "Lounge Art" should be enough to demonstrate that theres more to bass reproduction than a mind-numbing drum.
Quibbles with the speaker? Just one. The spikes that come with the Sonatina IIs are too short to penetrate the thick carpeting and heavy-duty padding of my family room. Unlike the original versions four spikes per speakers, the new Sonatina II sports only three spikes -- two in the rear, one in the front. At first, I was convinced that this was a mistake and that the speaker was less stable than the older version. But eventually I found that its really not. As the speaker has a slight rearward rake, there is not enough weight over the front spike to cause stability problems. With the sandbox filled, the center of gravity is low and stable enough that I could smack the top of the speaker hard enough to really make it wobble without causing it to fall down.
By now I probably sound like a broken record. Ive gone on and on about the new and improved bass performance of the Silverline Sonatina II. But this is the one area where I thought that the original Sonatina had real room for improvement. While the speakers other strengths have always been more than enough to keep me enthralled and enough to earn it a place on SoundStage!s Reviewers' Choice list, the Sonatina II now needs to apologize for nothing, and neither does it have to rationalize superb resolution, transparency, detail and cohesiveness at the expense of a subjectively lacking bass. While the Sonatina II competes with stand-mounted monitors and wins in areas of midrange development, treble smoothness and overall musicality, there is no mistaking it for one where bottom-end machismo is concerned.
Even more important here is that the Sonatina II retains all the greatness of its predecessor. The newfound bass authority is superbly implemented and does nothing to infringe on the speaker's utter clarity and transparency -- if it had, that would have been a tragedy. Without question, Alan Yun has bettered the already fine original Sonatina.
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