Italy’s city of Venice comes into view from the window of the aircraft, a Rorschach test of land and lagoon shrouded in mist; only the Campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica emerges from the thick blanket of gray. This sight inspires thoughts of Giovanni Gabrieli, the city’s greatest Renaissance composer, and I imagine the sonorous trumpets and trombones of his swelling canzon prima toni filling the Piazza San Marco. My final destination will be Vicenza and the nearby town of Arcugnano, less than an hour away from the jewel that is Venice.
Arcugnano is home not only to Bertagni 1882, the world’s oldest maker of filled pasta, but also to Sonus faber, founded 101 years later by a brilliant loudspeaker designer, the late Franco Serblin. That Sonus faber creates among the most beautifully crafted speakers in the world should come as no surprise, hailing from the region that is home to illustrious luthiers with names like Stradivarius and Guarneri. To see and touch the cabinet of a Sonus faber loudspeaker is to fall in love with wood, lacquer and leather, materials as natural and pure as the sound of the speakers themselves.
As a loudspeaker designer, Franco Serblin thought—literally—outside of the traditional loudspeaker box. His first speaker from 1980 set the course for a company as focused on style and craftsmanship as on technology and engineering. Born in 1939 in Vicenza, and of Croatian origin, Serblin founded Sonus faber in 1983, and after years of success—commercial and sonic—left his company in 2006 to pursue more esoteric designs. Though Serblin passed away in 2013, Sonus faber continues to advance the artisanal traditions inspired by its founder.
Recently, I was among a small group of journalists invited to the home of Sonus faber to see and hear firsthand how the speakers are made, and meet the people behind them. It’s difficult to imagine a global audio brand that is, on the one hand, a well-oiled industrial machine and on the other a close-knit family of like-minded designers, engineers and artisans. But that’s what I discovered from the moment we sat for an open-air dinner at the Angolo Palladio Restaurant in Vicenza’s ancient town center. The city was home to the great 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, whose giant marble likeness stands amid the patinated façades that quietly express the aesthetic triumph of Renaissance Italy.
Sonus faber chief designer Livio Cucuzza was our host. We’d met years before in Los Angeles, where we toured an exhibit of Italian Renaissance woodcuts at LACMA—just the thing, I had thought, to engage an industrial designer whose roots were inextricably linked to the art, architecture and musical instruments that defined an unrepeatable age. Cucuzza, who joined the company in 2010, is the man responsible for the look and feel of all Sonus faber products since. (Not to mention some recent Audio Research components prior to the sale of that manufacturer by parent company McIntosh, which owns Sonus faber.) Walking a thin tightrope spanning Sonus faber’s historical past and future think, Cucuzza respectfully embraces the legacy of the luthier’s woodcraft while opening the doors to new possibilities in materials and fabrication with speakers like the flagship Aida II. He has equal respect for iconic designers like Dieter Rams of Braun fame as he does for matter-of-fact design like William Zane Johnson’s original Audio Research components, a stack of which occupies a special corner of a capacious Sonus faber sound room.
Innumerable dinner courses—de rigueur in Italy—struck a final note with espresso, followed by a post-prandial round of drinks and, finally, a jet-lagged bedtime. I joined our group the next morning for a tour of the Sonus faber headquarters which exhibited the family tree of loudspeakers from the company’s beginning to the present. Sonus’ marketing manager, Marta Vecellio (a modern twin of Botticelli’s model Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, a fact of which I am certain), gave a tour of the collection and described the genesis of each product.
For this observer, it was a trip back in time, having owned and enjoyed more than a few of the loudspeaker models poised on pedestals in the gallery. I started to get sentimental. That sentiment was heightened, thinking about the time I heard a particular violin in a string quartet at a small house concert in Berlin. The other instruments sounded fine, but even from an adjacent room and separated by 60 feet of cocktail conversation, the purity and power of one instrument—and the talent of its player—had shone through. I learned only afterward that it was a Guarneri played by the first violin of that city’s philharmonic orchestra; proving the luthier’s legendary reputation for eliciting an otherworldly sound from a wooden box. Sonus faber achieves essentially the same result from its loudspeakers.
The company began exploring the lute-shaped design with the Guarneri Homage loudspeaker in 1993. The first of its kind, the form was so alluring—and successful as a solution to mitigating standing waves and unwanted cabinet resonance—that it’s employed in the design arsenal even today. The violin’s aesthetic power is even evident in the architecture of the headquarters in Arcugnano, presenting a roof outline replicating the shape of that instrument. Designed by Studio Albanese, it’s defined by its architect as “a place for music.” It’s here that physics and imagination are combined with careful listening, an activity in which everyone at Sonus faber is critically engaged.
Thoughtful listening occurs throughout the gestation of a Sonus faber speaker, with two dedicated sound rooms for evaluating both two-channel and multi-channel home theater systems. Additionally, an anechoic chamber for instrumented testing supports the development of transducers, all employing proprietary designs and sourced from a number of world-class producers. One sound room is within the Design Lab, a facility across the street from the main headquarters. Here, Cucuzzo and his team of 10 product designers, who are mechanical and electrical engineers on both home and automotive audio projects, collaborate in an open office that promotes idea sharing and invention. The space is populated by historically significant products that inspire, including early Braun audio components, a few Bang & Olufsen classics and the aforementioned stack of Audio Research electronics. Employing everything from pencil and paper to 3-D modeling, the creators within these walls shared with us a wide range of concepts in various stages of development.
The leap from design to manufacture is a matter of walking across the street, where production and operations manager Simone Farinello gave us free rein of the shop floor. I was astounded to see that, for a brand name familiar to every audiophile and whose reach is global, the production department was not the size of a jet hangar and that the entire team numbered fewer than 30 people. One group of four gentlemen methodically built crossover networks, another team was dedicated to fitting drivers into finished cabinets, while a group of women carefully wrapped enclosures and baffles with the leather and vinyl fabric that is a signature of many Sonus faber designs.
The space was eerily quiet, and everyone performed at a comfortable pace that, according to Farinello, ensures top quality control. Clearly, there was no rush to meet quotas. Or, in the words of parents to kids in the backseat, “We’ll get there when we get there.” I asked about a small stack of front panels put aside for the Lumina bookshelf speaker ($900 per pair). Each had a circle drawn around an infinitesimal speck that Farinello regarded as a flaw, which, though nearly invisible, would prevent the part from being used in a product. Having seen greater irregularities in the wood veneer of six-figure automobiles, I was astounded to see such fanatical attention to detail in the company’s least expensive product.
For the other end of the spectrum, we ascended the stairs to a small mezzanine where two men were quietly working together to build a pair of towering Aida II loudspeakers, the top-tier $130,000 model. One pair requires two days of careful assembly, and to date, only about 100 pair have been built since the model’s introduction in 2012, including a complete redesign of everything but the exterior cabinet in 2018.
With wood—especially American Walnut—being central to the persona of every Sonus faber loudspeaker, our hosts were eager to show the factory where its cabinets are fabricated. About an hour’s ride from the headquarters, in an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Padova, is De Santi, the small woodworking facility that has been Sonus’ cabinetmaker from the beginning. Such artisanal woodworking is a centuries-old Italian tradition, yet only recently have lamination techniques advanced to allow the fabrication of tall, floor-standing cabinets using solid walnut. The result is the Maxima Amator, the third member of the Heritage family and a project developed during the “downtime” afforded by the global pandemic.
As the Maxima Amator is fresh to market, our group was among the first to audition the two-way design, which combines the finest attributes of a stand-mount monitor with added low-frequency authority afforded by additional cabinet volume. Like the technicians assembling speakers, the craftspeople at De Santi build at their own pace, with consistency and quality control paramount. Considerable handwork—especially sanding—follows computer-driven millwork, and like the finest cars, these cabinets are a product of both automated precision and an inimitable human touch.
While the beauty of the Heritage Collection is expressed by solid walnut, other models like the Reference Collection’s Aida II, Lilium and Il Cremonese, as well as the Homage Tradition Collection, use a variety of veneers and colors finished in high-gloss lacquer. This step in the cabinetmaking process is no small feat, and is left to specialist Bi.Sma, a small Padova-based shop whose owner has worked with Sonus faber since the first Guarneri Homage was built in 1993.
Within a special chamber, a fleet of cabinets cure at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 days after being sprayed with 10 or more coats of lacquer, and only then does the careful sanding and polishing process begin. The process requires the skill and attention of a small team who methodically refine the finish until the shop’s owner, Marino—who refuses to retire—finally buffs each and every cabinet that passes through the door.
Over the course of lunch and the evening’s dinner, I spoke with Paolo Tezzon, Sonus’ chief of acoustics, research and development. The truthful sonic signature of the brand that so engages listeners is a direct result of his holistic approach to loudspeaker design. With the company for nearly two decades, he has a deep respect for Franco Serblin’s principles, which have guided him in creating products whose sound really is greater than the sum of the parts comprising them. The goal is achieving natural sound—especially in the critical midrange—by considering drivers, crossovers, cabinets and every other material employed as being somehow interdependent, and where the smallest details matter.
For instance, paper is a fundamental component of the company’s cone drivers, and here, natural fibers added to the cellulose pulp enhance the damping and rigidity of the resulting transducer. But there is no ignoring the frequency extremes, and each model addresses lower octaves within the limitations dictated by cabinet size and driver complement. In the case of larger speakers and subwoofers, the result is stentorian bass. But even the smallest bookshelves like the Lumina are flyweight champions, punching well above their weight.
On the top end of the frequency spectrum, Sonus faber’s Damped Apex Dome (D.A.D.) tweeters use a silk soft dome whose antiphase behavior is damped with an elegant metal bridge centered on the apex, improving high-frequency extension and smoothness. The company’s more ambitious models employ tuned mass dampers—steel plates and rods—within the enclosures to dissipate vibration that can smear detail and muddy sound. On some models, floor vibration caused by sub-80 Hz frequencies is decoupled with springs or elastomers in the base of the loudspeaker. But above all, it’s the cabinets that define a Sonus faber, sonically and aesthetically.
I discovered that the brand’s ambassador is source agnostic, enjoying both LPs and digital recordings. In other words, Tezzon loves music. When pressed just a little, he admitted to a preference for analog, whereupon I derailed the conversation to learn more about his appreciation for idler-drive turntables and Ortofon SPU cartridges, designs that are more than half a century old and yet continue to speak sonic truths. Tezzon’s years of experience and discernment no doubt inform the natural sound that characterizes every loudspeaker, a sound that is technically accurate, yet, like a Gabrieli canzona, emotionally powerful and all-enveloping.
Our last night’s repast was on the historic grounds of a winery in Valpolicella, about an hour from Vicenza and situated between Lake Garda and the Euganean Hills. Tenute SalvaTerra is a producer of some excellent Amarone, Ripasso and Valpolicella wines, and its home is a late-15th-century estate and vineyards surrounded by cypresses and olive trees. In this idyllic setting, passing prosciutto, cheese, olives and bread, everyone shared a family-style dinner while appreciating Italy’s most ancient art: winemaking. As the night drew to a close, the close-knit connection between the Sonus faber and Italian traditions of art, music and craftsmanship in all things became even more evident. Clearly, it’s a connection as authentic as the sound of the speakers themselves.