Sony SS-NA2ES Loud­speak­ers

NOVO - - PRODUCT REVIEW - Mal­colm J. Gomes

There is no doubt that Sony has been one of the gi­ants in the sphere of con­sumer elec­tron­ics for the bet­ter part of the last cen­tury. How­ever, to au­dio en­thu­si­asts, this brand is bet­ter known as one of the co-de­vel­op­ers of the com­pact disc sys­tem, which may be past its prime, but is still quite ubiq­ui­tous in to­day’s world of high­end au­dio.

In the decades fol­low­ing the de­but of the com­pact disc sys­tem, Sony’s top-of-the­line com­pact disc play­ers were a keenly sought af­ter au­dio com­po­nent and were very well known for their per­for­mance, aes­thetics and build qual­ity, but most of their other prod­ucts were de­signed and built mostly for the mass mar­ket and for those seek­ing mid-fi prod­ucts. Over the past few years, Sony has been mak­ing im­pres­sive in­roads into an­other seg­ment of the au­dio­phile mar­ket, namely high-end loud­speak­ers.

Sony made its de­but in this sphere a few years ago with the in­tro­duc­tion of the SSAR1, a no holds barred, high-per­for­mance loud­speaker that made the high-end au­dio in­dus­try sit up and take no­tice. At around $30,000, the SS-AR1 is hardly a cheap speaker and the com­pe­ti­tion at that level is in­tense to say the least. How­ever the SS-AR1 held its own and went on to re­ceive rave re­views with some call­ing it one of the best val­ues in that price range. That was fol­lowed by the slightly more af­ford­able SS-AR2, which also gar­nered high praise for its per­for­mance and value.

de­sign | fea­tures

The con­fi­dence gained with the in­tro­duc­tion of those two mod­els prompted Sony to de­velop a loud­speaker that would play in the very crowded $10,000 price cat­e­gory which many au­dio en­thu­si­asts re­gard as the point of di­min­ish­ing re­turns and so it is the end point for many up­grade paths. This has made it a very lu­cra­tive price point for most of the world’s lead­ing speaker man­u­fac­tur­ers. Sony chris­tened their new baby the SS-NA2ES and that is the sub­ject of this re­view.

One of the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the flag­ship SS-AR1 is the speaker en­clo­sure, which went against con­ven­tional wis­dom. The Holy Grail for most speaker man­u­fac­tur­ers is to make the speaker en­clo­sure as ridged, in­ert and non-res­o­nant as pos­si­ble so that it does not ‘sing’ in­har­mo­niously with the drive units, which re­sults in dis­tor­tions that the hu­man ear can hear as un­pleas­ant ad­di­tions to the sonic per­for­mance of the speaker. To­wards this end, some brands have even de­vel­oped their own ma­te­ri­als, some of which are so hard, heavy and dense, it takes spe­cial blades to even cut those ma­te­ri­als to the sizes re­quired by the speaker en­clo­sure. While, in the­ory, con­trol­ling en­clo­sure har­mon­ics is an ef­fec­tive way to boost speaker per­for­mance, no one has yet found a ma­te­rial that is to­tally in­ert. Sony de­cided to take the op­po­site route. Rather than try­ing to beat en­clo­sure res­o­nance into sub­mis­sion, they de­cided to de­sign an en­clo­sure that would work with and en­hance the speaker per­for­mance with its unique acous­ti­cal prop­er­ties.

Like its big broth­ers, the SS-NA2ES uti­lizes Nordic Birch for the en­clo­sure as well as for the in­ter­nal brac­ing. This wood, which is grown in the very cold cli­mate that ex­ists close to the North Pole and har­vested at a par­tic­u­lar time of the year, dis­plays both mod­er­ate loss and mod­er­ate strength un­like the birch that is grown in ar­eas closer to the equa­tor.

Sony also paid fa­nat­i­cal at­ten­tion to the speaker baf­fle board be­cause of the key role that it plays in the speaker per­for­mance. The ideal baf­fle board needs to ab­sorb the pow­er­ful vi­bra­tions from the driver units with­out adding any­thing to the sound. To at­tain this, Sony used an ex­tra thick 36 mm baf­fle board, and ori­ented the joint be­tween the board and the back cav­ity in the di­rec­tion of the driver os­cil­la­tion, so as to form a ‘lossy’ joint. This struc­tural de­sign iso­lates the back cav­ity side from the pow­er­ful di­rect vi­bra­tions of the driver units.

Sony’s en­gi­neers found that the hu­man ear can clearly per­ceive a dif­fer­ence

in har­mon­ics, even those that mea­sur­ing in­stru­ments may not al­ways be able to de­tect. They there­fore sub­jected the SSNA2ES en­clo­sure to nu­mer­ous lis­ten­ing tests dur­ing which they fine-tuned it by work­ing with Ja­pan’s finest wood­work­ing crafts­men to mod­ify the ad­he­sives, join­ing meth­ods and ori­en­ta­tion to achieve the most de­sir­able en­clo­sure har­mon­ics.

Metic­u­lous at­ten­tion was also paid to the way the in­te­rior of the en­clo­sure was di­vided to op­ti­mize the per­for­mance of the driver units. The midrange and tweeter have been placed in an in­de­pen­dent suben­clo­sure with the midrange cav­ity oc­cu­py­ing the top third of the cabi­net. This is acous­ti­cally iso­lated from the part of the en­clo­sure hous­ing the woofers with an air cav­ity be­tween two par­ti­tions so as to pre­vent the pow­er­ful vi­bra­tions of the woofers from in­ter­fer­ing with the fun­da­men­tal parts of the mu­sic pro­duced by the mid-range and tweet­ers. The midrange driver unit has been given enough space to per­form with min­i­mum stress and al­low it to de­liver max­i­mum dy­nam­ics and head­room. The same minute at­ten­tion to de­tail was given to the driver units, all of which were de­vel­oped from scratch es­pe­cially for the SS-NA2ES.

Sony de­signed a brand new woofer with a stiff alu­minum di­aphragm, which is driven with an over­sized mag­netic cir­cuit. Uti­liz­ing two woofers per speaker helps the SS-NA2ES move a lot more air and gen­er­ate deeper, more tune­ful bass. The woofers are com­ple­mented with a 130mm midrange, which was also de­vel­oped es­pe­cially for this speaker. It has a pa­per cone with spi­ral, ra­dial grooves etched into the di­aphragm to min­i­mize res­o­nance and pro­duce a smoother mid-range.

For the tweeter, Sony pulled out all the stops to op­ti­mize per­for­mance. They de­vel­oped what they call an I-Ar­ray wide dis­per­sion tweeter sys­tem that is com­posed of a 25 mm main tweeter and two 19 mm as­sist tweet­ers. At first, I was skep­ti­cal of this con­fig­u­ra­tion be­cause mul­ti­ple high fre­quency sound sources tend to pro­duce un­wanted peaks and dips re­sult­ing in un­pleas­ant sound col­oration. How­ever, when go­ing through the prod­uct white pa­per I found that Sony en­gi­neers spent a whole year us­ing com­puter sim­u­la­tions and lis­ten­ing tests to cal­cu­late the op­ti­mum dis­tance be­tween the three tweet­ers, the in­stal­la­tion depth and the shape of the frame on which the tweet­ers are mounted, so as to make the three tweeter func­tion as if it were a sin­gle wide dis­per­sion source.

All three tweet­ers are soft dome with the main tweeter as­sisted by a vent in the mag­netic cir­cuit be­hind the di­aphragm to min­i­mize un­wanted res­o­nance and vi­bra­tions. This also helps smooth out the back air pres­sure for a less con­strained and more ex­tended high fre­quency re­sponse. The di­aphragm’s edge in­te­gra­tion and bobbin bond­ing method extends the tweet­ers re­sponse to 30 kHz, at mi­nus three deci­bels.

The main ob­jec­tive of the I-Ar­ray tweeter sys­tem is to achieve max­i­mum dis­per­sion. Some speaker de­signs try to de­liver more vivid­ness by em­ploy­ing a su­per tweeter, Sony on the other hand, has cho­sen to do it with the three-tweeter sys­tem. They feel that their ap­proach dis­penses with the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the su­per tweeter and de­liv­ers a vivid­ness that is more nat­u­ral and closer to the live per­for­mance by en­sur­ing that the tweeter achieves max­i­mum di­rec­tional width at all the fre­quen­cies that it re­pro­duces.

For those of you who pay a lot of at­ten­tion to tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions of the au­dio gear you plan to buy, here are the vi­tal statis­tics for the SS-NA2ES. It is a floor­stand­ing 3-way de­sign, uti­liz­ing a 6-driver bass re­flex sys­tem with a fre­quency re­sponse of 45 Hz to 45 kHz (at mi­nus 10 deci­bels). It em­ploys multi-slope cross­over net­works at 400 Hz and 4,000 Hz, of­fers a sen­si­tiv­ity of 90 deci­bels, a rated im­ped­ance of 4 ohms and power han­dling of 100 watts. The di­men­sions are 255mm wide, 900mm high and 415mm deep. It weighs in at 32 ki­los and is man­u­fac­tured in Ja­pan.

This moun­tain of in­for­ma­tion makes it very ev­i­dent that Sony has put in a lot of new tech­nol­ogy into the SS-NA2ES. So does the out­put jus­tify the plethora of tech­no­log­i­cal in­put? That is what I set out to dis­cover.

per­for­mance

Un­pack­ing and set­ting up the speak­ers were a breeze. Lo­cat­ing them for a good, solid sound stage took less than 20 min­utes. The re­view speak­ers were used at sev­eral au­dio shows, so they were nicely bro­ken in and ready to go.

I heard that the leg­endary Nel­son Pass was par­tial to the Sony SS-AR1 when demon­strat­ing what his mag­nif­i­cent am­pli­fiers can do, and so since, by a happy co­in­ci­dence, one of the am­pli­fiers on hand was a pair of the new Pass Labs XA100.8 mono blocks, that is what I used to re­view the SS-NA2ES and it proved to be a match made in heaven to de­liver au­dio bliss on earth. The power ca­bles and in­ter­con­nects used for the re­view were Sko­grand Beethoven mod­els which are as neu­tral as they come.

Right from the get go, one thing was very ob­vi­ous with the SS-NA2ES. They are cham­pi­ons at recre­at­ing the am­bi­ent son­ics of the per­for­mance venue. They have the un­canny abil­ity to fool your ears into be­liev­ing that you have been trans­ported to the venue of the record­ing be it a stu­dio, a jazz club, a church, a con­cert hall or even a sta­dium. This prompted me to dig into my col­lec­tion for all my favourite live per­for­mance record­ings in­clud­ing Nils Lof­gren, Jazz at the Pawn­shop, Johnny Cash, Su­per­tramp and Leonard Co­hen and with ev­ery one of th­ese al­bums, the am­bi­ence and sonic sig­na­ture of the record­ing venue is very ev­i­dent. The sound stage is in­cred­i­bly deep and is eas­ily the widest that I have heard from any speaker in this price range. I could lit­er­ally hear sounds that seemed to emit from the side­walls of my lis­ten­ing room. The other ob­vi­ous forte of the SS-NA2ES is its abil­ity to re­pro­duce both male and fe­male voices with the pres­ence and full­bod­ied na­ture that is eerily close to what you hear at a live per­for­mance. They are also able to play un­usu­ally loud be­fore I was able to de­tect sig­nif­i­cant com­pres­sion and dis­tor­tion that de­tracts from the lis­ten­ing en­joy­ment.

De­spite the fact that their spec­i­fi­ca­tions state that the lower limit of th­ese speak­ers is 45 Hz, it did seem like they went a bit lower, per­haps be­cause the bass per­for­mance was so tight, con­trolled and tune­ful. They did how­ever ben­e­fit from be­ing aided with a pair of JL Au­dio f112 sub­woofers when play­ing deep or­gan mu­sic. That be­ing said, with over 70% of the mu­sic that I lis­tened to, I felt that the SS-NA2ES de­liv­ered all the bass that I needed to en­joy the mu­sic thor­oughly.

When play­ing “Wil­low Weep for Me” by the inim­itable Ray Brown on his Happy

Coat Al­bum, which hap­pens to be my bass tor­ture track, the SS-NA2ES was able to gen­er­ate an SPL of around 108dB be­fore it showed any sign of dis­tress. This is higher than most of the sim­i­larly priced speak­ers that I have au­di­tioned and speaks vol­umes of the ef­fec­tive­ness and ef­fi­cacy of the in­no­va­tive en­clo­sure, brac­ing and driver unit de­signs that went into this speaker.

There is also an air of ef­fort­less­ness and ease with which th­ese speak­ers de­liver mu­sic. There is sur­pris­ingly lit­tle strain even at rel­a­tively loud vol­ume lev­els. On the con­trary th­ese speak­ers seem to han­dle even the most chal­leng­ing mu­si­cal pas­sages with the same re­laxed de­meanor that a cham­pion sumo wrestler would sweep his slim su­per­model date off her feet!

The real­is­ti­cally sweet and smooth de­liv­ery of the higher fre­quen­cies would in­di­cate the en­gi­neers at Sony have achieved their ob­jec­tive of get­ting the three tweet­ers to be­have like one ul­tra wide dis­per­sion tweeter. The added ben­e­fit here is that the SS-N2ES de­liv­ered an un­usu­ally wide sweet spot.

The midrange per­for­mance has tex­ture, lay­er­ing, tim­bre and tonal­ity that just sounds so right; it did pro­vide me with goose bump mo­ments galore. If I had to nit pick, the only thing I found slightly ob­jec­tion­able about the midrange was the amount of grain that I was able to hear. This meant that the sound was not as clean and pris­tine as the very best speak­ers in this price range.

The bass per­for­mance is well above par for this price point. It has enough punch and slam to sat­isfy the vast ma­jor­ity of au­dio en­thu­si­asts, save for those who lis­ten to or­gan mu­sic of­ten. How­ever, if you are one of those bass freaks that need to feel the im­pact of the bass gui­tar and kick drum on your chest, you may need to add one or two good qual­ity sub­woofers that are quick enough to keep up with th­ese speak­ers.

To sum up, I can con­fi­dently say is that the SS-N2ES is a wor­thy, al­beit more af­ford­able sib­ling to the mighty Sony SSAR1. It is em­i­nently wor­thy of an au­di­tion if you are in the mar­ket for a truly high­end speaker in the $10,000 price range.

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