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Sony SS-NA5ES Bookshelf Speaker Review

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This review began with an introduction to Sony’s “Senior Acoustic Evangelist,” Motoyuki Sugiura, informally known as “Yuki”. The use of the term “evangelist,” on his business card is not typical parlance among audiophiles. Have you ever heard of an Acoustic Evangelist? The term, native to the New Testament, refers to the dissemination of the Good News, or Gospel of Jesus, and the one who spreads it is an evangelist. Sony has borrowed the term to express conviction and zeal over its AR and NA series of speakers. Indeed, this is good news to audiophiles, but bad news for competitors as Sony brings its rich history, deep talent pool and creative genius to the audiophile community.

Yuki’s letter did its job well, whetting my appetite to learn more about Yoshiyuki Kaku, the designer – yes, amazingly an individual designer in a corporation steeped in group design – as well as the speaker itself. Shortly on the heels of the letter and several emails the speakers arrived, also a two sided advertising handout detailing specifications and features, and finally a link to a white paper on the NA series which was just heading to print. If the goal of all this was to show Sony’s wherewithal and earnestness in the project, it worked. I thought, “Ok, this isn’t another mass market product in fancy garb. They’re putting some money behind this speaker.” That intuition was born out over time as the speaker proved to be a classy product in every respect.

ONE MAN OPERATION

Something Western within me takes delight in the fact that a solitary individual’s vision for a speaker prevailed at Sony. We in the West have learned over time the beauty of extreme teamwork epitomized by Japanese workers. It took decades for the tight systems of management, team interaction and performance to permeate the American workforce. It also took years for Yoshiyuki Kaku to convince Sony to let him follow his dream of speaker building. I applaud the vision, the openness of the company to let the visionary’s design be created. In an exchange of methodology I see North American gear makers increasingly being nudged into alliances and partnerships collaborating on design, while Sony discovers that superb products are not always designed by committee. When it comes to what matters to the audiophile, performance, was this move on Sony’s part a good or bad? The result, as they say, will speak for itself!

SONY’S UPPER END AUDIOPHILE SPEAKER LINES

The AR and NA lines of speakers are Sony’s highest expression of the art of speaker making. I recall seeing the rollout of the SS-AR1 a couple years ago at C.E.S. as it made a sizable splash by joining in its demo with no less an icon than Nelson Pass. I heard that system and the speakers one other time, and while I considered them competent I was not overwhelmed by them. Sony had inserted itself firmly into a pack of fine speaker brands but had not taken the lead.

Most recently I heard the SS-NA2ES at the Chicago AXPONA, which provided a nice continuity for assessment. This time, however, my reaction to the Sony speaker was far more favorable since it carried the new I-ARRAY SYSTEM tweeters. This was a much more moving experience; I heard what I consider should be the new direction of Sony’s speakers. The entire top end of the frequency spectrum opened up majestically, not unlike a line stage or panel speaker, a thought which would return to me more than once during this review period. Now “Kaku” and Sony were really onto something!

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

Before I laud the virtues of the SS-NA5ES and the I-ARRAY a few words on the speaker’s design and construction are in order. As described in the white paper, “ES Series Natural Acoustic Loudspeakers: Technical Background,” two of the overarching principles employed by Kaku in development of the NA series were, “natural selection,” and the habitus of the concert hall.

The concept of natural selection – the phrase conjures nonsense images of aggressive larger speakers chasing and devouring smaller ones – is described by an excerpt from Yuki’s evangelistic letter, “Once when he visited a recording studio in Holland, a recording engineer there told him a very interesting story about a famous pianist. When the engineer records a specific piece of music, he brings in three identical Steinway pianos to the studio and selects the one most suitable for the recording that day. This process called ‘natural selection’ inspired Kaku greatly…“ Had I known natural selection would be part of this review I might have requested three sets of SS-NA5ES so that I could pick whichever was suitable for the day’s listening! I’m being facetious, but the incident shows the lengths to which artists may go in performing, and the lengths Kaku is going in designing Sony’s best speakers.

Kaku is said to cherish live performances and attempts to recreate the experience of the concert hall, “from the feeling of a concert hall the moment you enter to the breathtaking stillness as the conductor raises his baton to the most thundering crescendo.” Sony has a powerful PR department to produce inspiring quotes such as this. Would the speaker, however, be as inspiring? I intended to find out.

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