One of the most hackneyed phrases in audio reviewing is, “My wife, who does not comment on such things, said…”. It’s usually accompanied by a proclamation of how wonderful something sounds. My wife, however, frequently comments on the look – and, perhaps tellingly, almost never the sound – of audio products. And it’s rarely positive. She might not be the world’s most talented interior decorator, but has a keen eye for ‘ugh’. Those positive utterances are rare, especially when it comes to loudspeakers that ‘clutter up the room’. So, when the Sonus faber Olympica I rocked up, the best I could hope for was no comment. Instead, they got a “these look nice.”
It might not sound like much, it might not be the most shining aesthetic praise heaped on a pair of loudspeakers, but this terse comment from Domestic High Command is the equivalent of Royal Warrant (or at least, a Royal Pardon) chez Sircom.
It’s not hard to see why. Sonus faber has long since been the one of the few bringers of Italian elegance and style to the audio world, and this best-dressed standmounted two way is no exception. That medium gloss cabinet finish (in walnut or graphite) with contrasting leather top-plate, gentle backwards tilt and black strung stand is an exercise in restrained elegance in its own right. However, this is topped off by the asymmetric lyre-shape of the cabinet and the chrome-plated vent (more accurately, an aperiodic or as Sonus faber puts it, ‘paralaminar stealth flow’ vent) cover along the rear of one side of the speaker. It’s as elegant beneath the surface with solid walnut bracing internally. It’s a more refined design that fits well into the sort of elegant homes where a high-end loudspeaker should look appropriate, rather than the piano gloss and chrome loudspeaker-as-statement of products like the Guarneri Evolution and the Amati Futura. If these are the shiny new Pagani on display in the driveway, the Olympica I is the understatedly elegant 1960s Maserati you keep under cover in the garage.
Shortly before he died, former Sonus faber chief Franco Serblin created the elegant Accordo standmount speaker for his own brand. While there is no longer any connection between the Serblin line and Sonus faber, you can’t help but see presence of the late master in this design, especially in that asymmetry. In fairness, the Olympica’s asymmetric rear layout is less pronounced and possibly all the more elegant as a result, but the two do have a striking similarity that doesn’t factor elsewhere. Both do ‘elegant’ well.
In fact, the only slight blemish in the otherwise stunning design of the Olympica I is the method of gently back-tilting the loudspeaker. Sonus faber supplies two long and two short sets of spikes; the idea is to put the longer spikes to the front, thereby causing the loudspeaker to lean back. It works – and the centre of gravity is suitably low to prevent this being in any way precarious – but it means the base of the loudspeaker seems to look like it’s tilting backwards from the listening position. I imagine the non-OCD of this world will not notice or care, looking instead at the excellence of the design.
The looks are so good, the loudspeaker could pass muster if it were a mediocre design in a fabulous box. Almost. However, Sonus faber are not able to make that kind of cynical compromise, and instead designed a loudspeaker that is as technologically advanced as it is aesthetically pleasing. As the name suggests, the Olympica I is the smallest of a range; in this case a range of two floorstanders and a centre channel loudspeaker. The two-way Olympica I features the company’s “Arrow Point” DAD 29XTR2 29mm tweeter, sourced from a famous Scandinavian speaker name, and made to Sonus faber’s own specifications. ‘DAD’ might seem like an odd prefix for a tweeter, but relates to the company’s Damped Apex Dome technology. This is designed to combine the benefits of conventional tweeter dome and ring radiator in one, but the arrow point looks like a phase plug for a tweeter. This tweeter is derived from the company’s flagship Aida floorstanding giant, retaining the top model’s neodymium magnet, but without the wooden anti-resonance chamber.
The 150mm MW15XTR mid/woofer is also a Sonus-specified driver from the lands of the Vikings. It features a come material made of an air-dried and specially selected range of mashed tree and plant fibres (including kapok and hibiscus), chosen for their sonic properties. This is then doped, connected to a composite former with a voice coil claimed to be free from eddy currents thanks in part to a magnetic field motor sporting three copper (Kellogg) rings.
This is not a difficult loudspeaker to install (just remember to get the back tilt even and get toe-in mild, but consistent), but the combination of the aperiodic loading and a mild lift in the upper-midrange means you need to be a little canny in choice of amplification. Something too clean, and the midrange might come across as too forward, while something too ill-controlled in the bass and the loudspeaker will lose that deep, dynamic bottom end. This is a combination of quality and quantity, although you don’t need kilowatts of power or massive current swings to drive this.
Sonus faber traditionally had a ‘lush’ sound; warm and romantic across the upper bass and midrange, with perhaps a hint of roll-off at the top end to make an extraordinarily listenable and ‘beautiful’ sound. There’s nothing wrong with that and it was very well documented, but times change. The Venere loudspeaker range began to show there was more to Sonus faber than just lush, and that is echoed in the Olympica I, albeit not to the same extent.
This is the loudspeaker that fits between the stark (and sometimes rather dull) honesty of monitor loudspeakers, and the exuberance of some over-compensating designs. It goes for the enjoyment (and to some extent the beauty) of music, rather than the most accurate depiction of sound or the most immediately exciting and zingy sound. You could liken this to the driving position in a car. Some want to feel every twitch, turn, lump and bump in the road, and prefer a car with stiffer suspension, responsive steering and a seat that hugs the body. Others want the outside world to go away, and select cars with active suspension and cossetting seats to make the experience more sublime. The Olympica is right in the middle of that continuum; not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks would be proud.
How this pans out sonically is a loudspeaker that delivers outstanding stereo imaging, excellent detail and surprisingly deep bass. But more importantly, it does all these things with a sense of natural drive and energy. You will hear more open sounding midrange and treble performance from many standmounts, but that isn’t the point; if that midrange insight comes at the expense of the overall presentation, the rival loudspeaker falls flat. And many just do that.
What this loudspeaker does so well is forgive music its sins. Casualties of the Loudness War don’t seem so badly wounded through the Olympica I, while the best recordings are still allowed to shine. So when playing ‘The Lover of Beirut’ from Anouar Brahem’s The Astounding Eyes Of Rita CD [ECM], the sense of space around the oud, bass clarinet, bass and middle eastern percussion highlights the track’s atmospheric feel more than usual. However, the ability to separate bass from bass clarinet is not easy with less than full-range loudspeakers and the Olympica I’s portrayal here is little short of mesmerising. It can also handle itself when things get a little hairy – I tried comparing 16/44.1 and 24/88.2 versions of the classic Kleiber/Beethoven 5th Symphony [DG] and Liquid Spirit from the album of the same name by Gregory Porter [Blue Note] and after some close-knit listening, it was time to kick back and play it loud. The Olympica I can more than handle itself at surprisingly loud levels without cracking up or changing tone. I don’t recommend using these loudspeakers in destruction testing, but they work well at healthy volumes.
If I had to sum up the Olympica I sound in a single word, it would be ‘exquisite’. The Olympica makes the right balance between the rose-tinted sound of old and the requirements for a more accurate and clean loudspeaker today. It looks great, sounds amazing and makes a nice big and powerful sound in many rooms. Highly recommended.
Type: 2-way, two-driver stand-mount monitor with aperiodic loading
Driver complement: One 29mm dome/ring radiator tweeter, one 150mm doped mid-bass cone mid/bass driver.
Inputs: Bi-wire loudspeaker terminals.
Frequency response: 50Hz – 30kHz
Crossover frequency: 2.5kHz
Impedance: >4 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 354 x 222 x 368mm
Finishes: Natural walnut or graphite medium gloss.
Price: £4,398 per pair, £849 (stands)
Tel: +44(0)208 971 3909