Sonus faber Olympica III Loudspeakers

by Dennis Davis | September 23, 2015

The first thing that comes to mind about Sonus faber, this most Italian of speaker builders, is the use of voluptuous curves where other speaker makers default to sharp turns. Whether it’s high-end cars, tailoring or audio equipment, there’s something immediately recognizable about Italian design. You may not be able to describe what makes products from Modena, Vicenza or Milan uniquely Italian, but you know it when you see it -- and you see it in the curves of the Olympica III. As with its other speaker models, Sonus faber credits the Olympica III as being a product not so much of a designer as the work of an architect -- a musical instrument more than a loudspeaker. The name Olympica is homage to the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. His final project was the Teatro Olimpico (Olympic Theatre, for those of you who skipped Latin) in Vicenza. Sonus faber’s advertising copy proudly displays a pair of Olympica IIIs set on the stage of the Olympic Theatre with wood-and-plaster stage scenery in the background. It evokes a sense of privilege and wealth, a connection with classical values and proportion. The message is that if you close your eyes and cue up The Pines of Rome, your room, cluttered with stacks of LPs, cat scratching posts and piles of magazines, can be transformed into a temple of sound.

Fast-forward from the Renaissance to the 21st century, when Sonus faber introduced three models in the Olympica line at the 2013 High End show in Munich. The Olympica III is the top of that line, a three-way floorstanding speaker using drivers designed and built entirely in-house. The Olympica III sports an aerodynamic teardrop (or lyre) shape that defies the rectangular-box convention. The cabinets are finished with a walnut veneer (also available in a stained graphite finish) that blends well with the leather trim on the top surface and the speaker's face. Standing almost 44" high, 10 1/4" wide and 16 1/4" deep, the Olympica III is small enough to fit into most rooms without taking over, yet large enough to deliver something close to full-range sound.

The tweeter is a 1 1/8" dome driver incorporating what Sonus faber labels Damped Apex Dome technology and using a neodymium-magnet motor system. It’s a synthesis of a dome and ring transducer that is a scaled-back version of the tweeter used in the $120,000/pair Aida. Midrange frequencies are produced by a 6" mid-woofer, constructed of all natural fibers such as cellulose pulp, Kapok and Kenaf. Two 8 3/4" woofers using a sandwich of syntactic foam and cellulose pulp handle the lower frequencies. Like the tweeter, the midrange and bass drivers are modeled after similar (but more refined and expensive) drivers employed in the Aida. The crossover points are at 250 and 2500Hz.

The Olympica III is ported, but not in a conventional fashion. Rather than build the port into the back or underside of the speaker, it is a long, narrow slot that stretches down the edge of the teardrop’s tip, extending the entire height of each speaker. Sonus faber calls this a "side reflex port," the slot covered with an attractive perforated sheet. The two cabinets are mirror-imaged so that the ports are either both aimed inward, or by switching speaker positions, both fire outward, depending on which works better in your room.

Sensitivity is rated at 90dB and the claimed nominal impedance is 4 ohms, making the speakers relatively easy to drive. Sonus faber recommends minimum amplifier power of 50 watts. I drove the speakers with Audio Research’s Reference 150 amplifier, but a Reference 75 SE would supply more than enough power to satisfy the Olympica III’s requirements, I suspect. Electrical connection is made via binding posts with a rotating collar that mimics the shape of the speaker -- rounded at one end and tapered to a point at the other.

Each speaker weighs 97 pounds, which happens to be exactly the same weight as my Avalon Transcendents. However, the weight distribution of the two speakers is quite different; and because of that weight distribution and the shape, the Olympica III is a much easier speaker to wrap your arms around, lift and move. With many speakers that weigh close to 100 pounds, uncrating and moving them around requires either an extra pair of hands or the use of a handcart. Not the Olympica III. Solo repositioning of the speakers during setup was unexpectedly painless. Both the low center of gravity and the placement of the drivers made it easy to lift and move the speakers without feeling like I was about to poke a finger through a woofer or slip a disc in my back, which is important, as the Olympica III is particularly sensitive to placement, demanding small changes in position to extract the maximum performance. The legs extend out from the cabinet creating a 15" by 15" base for stability. At each corner, a steel tip screws into the leg, allowing adjustment of speaker rake and attitude. Those tips are longer at the front than the back, introducing a significant rearward slope as standard, a Sonus faber trademark.

It took me some time to arrive at the Olympica IIIs’ optimum position. With the requisite care and attention to placement, they sounded as good as they looked. These are not speakers to be pushed back into the corners or against the wall, and they need to be placed a significant distance away from side and back walls. The Olympica IIIs were also at their best with a wide stance. I dialed in placement by ear, listening to familiar music, but I also ran a battery of tests using the Sheffield/XLO Test and Burn-In Disc and the Prosonus Studio Reference Disc via Studio Six Digital AudioTools run from an iPad, the Studio Six iAudiointerface2 and a Beringer ECM8000 measurement condenser microphone. I found the LEDR tests (currently available on the Nordost Test and Set-Up Disc) especially effective. These allow you to follow the test tone as it moves up from behind the speakers, in an arc above and then on a level between them in a predictable and repeatable pattern. This allows you to fine-tune the speaker placement, rake and toe-in to create the most consistent steps in the signal’s journey.

The Olympica III excelled at these tests, once properly placed -- I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better LEDR performance in my room. As well as the wider-than-usual stance, I also found that the speakers favored a more nearfield listening position than I normally employ. They also required a fair amount of toe-in, with the face of the speakers firing just either side of the central listening position.

While audiophiles value function over form in selecting speakers, it’s always an added bonus when a speaker is easy to look at, and the Olympica III is an exceptionally good-looking speaker, especially when its $13,500/pair price is considered. At this price, most speakers are still in the "just another box" aesthetic category, with drivers dropped into a rectangular enclosure, hard edges all around. The reason is fairly obvious -- it costs less money to construct a simple box with six sides. Whether its loudspeakers or custom kitchen cabinetry, once you introduce curves into the design the cost escalates. While computer modeling has revolutionized speaker design and the development of new materials has made it possible to turn the most ambitious designs into products that actually work, these innovations come at a price. Witness unique and exceptional designs such as KEF’s Blade 2 ($25,000/pair), the Vivid G4 Giya ($30,000/pair), Wilson Benesch's Endeavour ($49,500/pair) or Crystal Cable's Minissimo ($12,995/pair). These, each an exemplary-sounding pair of speakers, are in most cases the "entry" point to their respective product families, and in two cases (the Endeavour and Minissimo) are stand-mounted speakers. You could certainly find far less expensive alternatives (at least on paper) to each of these designs built into standard speaker boxes. But the curves are not there just for show -- the magic that each of these speakers can produce is due in no small part to their exterior design.

Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, but there’s no doubting the Olympica III’s near-universal visual appeal. Multiple non-audiophile visitors commented on the speaker's appearance, often inquiring whether I’d be keeping them. They can’t all have been my wife’s stooges! Keeping in mind that the normal response to the speakers in use is closer to "Why are those things sticking out into the middle of the room?" I considered these comments ringing endorsements.

Is that beauty only skin deep, or does it reach the ear of the beholder? If an audio system is a special kind of time machine, listening to the Olympica III transported me straight back to a memorable demonstration of the power of stereo imaging, one from several decades ago. Back in the 1990s, Allen Perkins of Immedia was still distributing Audio Physic speakers, and on a visit to his showroom, he set up a pair of medium-sized Audio Physic Virgos in an ultra-wide stance -- way out beyond the more traditional, nearly equilateral-triangular positioning. Almost like a carnival barker, Perkins waved his hands, dropped the needle, and the speakers flat out disappeared, replaced by a huge, incredibly well-defined soundstage, with no clue where or how it was being generated. That decades-old memory had faded into the recesses of my mind, but it snapped back into my cerebral cortex while listening to the Olympica III. This Sonus faber has the same ability as the old Audio Physic Virgo: to disappear while throwing a huge and beautifully coherent soundstage.

Some audiophiles scoff at the importance of an audio system’s ability to re-create a soundstage, claiming it’s an exaggeration of how music sounds in real life. Maybe they are right, but I don’t think so. Why is a large and well-defined soundstage important? Visit any recording or mastering engineer’s studio and you’ll find monitor speakers that are not designed to disappear or throw three-dimensional images. And if you sit midway or further back in an orchestral hall and are inclined to listen to large-scale music, odds are that you won’t hear the kind of soundstage that can be achieved by some of the best home speaker systems. But, on the other hand, if you listen to any kind of small-scale acoustic music (assuming the room acoustics are not defeating the purpose) you should be able to hear the kind of soundstage these and other fine speakers can reproduce. And the same holds true with large-scale classical music, in a good hall and in the better seats. So that should really button up the argument, unless you want to reproduce the sound from the worst seats -- a goal easily achieved at a very fair price.

Early on during my time with the Olympica IIIs, I listened to a lot of acoustic jazz and pop. Listen to most any guitar recording on these speakers and you’ll be thinking to yourself that you’ve never quite heard some of the detail before. For example, on Neil Young’s Live At Massey Hall LP [Reprise 43328-1], the guitar sound is extremely detailed and present. I recently spent some time in a friend’s dedicated guitar room listening to him play various collector guitars, and that session came to mind when listening to Massey Hall and Young's Live At The Cellar Door [Reprise 535854-1]. There is no better reference for deciding what a guitar sounds like in your room than actually having one there, and it was refreshing hearing the Neil Young recordings again after that experience. With the Olympica III, the quickness and clarity of the recordings brought Young’s guitar up close and personal, as close to live guitar sound as I’ve experienced in my room. Indeed, if I were to pick out a single descriptor for the sound of these speakers, it would be to remark on their speed -- transients were reproduced with remarkable quickness and clarity.

At the same time, the speakers’ soundstaging not only placed Neil Young in a believable space, separate from but within in my room, it also altered how the audience noise was presented. The audience sound on those recordings spread out over a larger arc in the room than I had heard before, and it was spread out in a believable pattern. Too often the audience sounds like the seating is all behind the performer. With the Olympica IIIs, on these recordings, the sense of the listener actually being part of the audience greatly enhanced the listening experience.

Inspired by an evening listening to baroque specialist Ton Koopman leading the San Francisco Symphony in a Haydn and Handel program, I pulled out some Harmonia Mundi LPs and put them through their paces with the Olympica III. Nicholas McGegan’s performance of Handel’s Water Musick [Harmonica Mundi France HMU 7010] played to the strengths of the Sonus fabers, which seem almost designed to replicate a baroque-sized ensemble. Pinpoint soundstaging is a hallmark of Harmonia Mundi productions -- and these speakers. The lack of the lowest octave, only available with much larger and more expensive speakers, is almost irrelevant to this music, while the graceful yet fleet nature of the performance was perfectly captured.

What was also immediately apparent with this choice of music was how well the speakers performed at low volume levels. There is a tendency to crank up the volume on orchestral music to achieve concert hall levels, which is often an unintended antidote for speakers that do not perform well at low levels. Concert-hall volume for baroque music is actually quite modest, and many speakers stumble achieving a sense of detail and pace at such levels. Not so with the Olympica IIIs, which were lithe and nuanced at the appropriate low levels.

I took the time while the Olympica IIIs were in house to revisit numerous favorites of classical music. Too often, speakers that seem to shine on small-scale acoustic music fall apart when called upon to reproduce a full-scale orchestra. First up was a Hong Kong CD of Stravinsky’s The Firebird on Mercury [Mercury LPCD 45II] as well as the vinyl original [Mercury SR90226]. I expected that the Olympica III’s speed would serve this music well, delivering the dynamic punch served up on both the vinyl and CD, and I was not disappointed. The dark, brooding "Introduction" held together, without bogging down for lack of pace, and when things got exciting at the "Magic Carillon," with orchestral sections appearing fast and furious. The Olympica III sorted them all out and delivered all the punch, and at the same time, the delicacy that balanced the firepower of that recording. The "Infernal Dance" was as hellish as it should be.

Next up was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in two SACD versions: the RCA Reiner [RCA 82876-66377-2] and Esoteric version of Ansermet’s performance on Decca [Esoteric/Decca ESSD 90119]. The Olympica IIIs were the perfect tool to sort out the differences between the SACD and CD layers of these two versions of this most enchanting of classical war-horses. The speakers’ slightly forward presence in no way obscured the difference between the recording venues or the two conductors’ styles, and easily revealed the differences between the CD and SACD layers.

The Olympica IIIs are not large or complex enough to reach down into the deep-bass region. Sonus faber specifies a lower output limit of 35Hz, but they don’t define that specification, -3dB or otherwise. Either way, these speakers won’t supply the same foundation that is available from the many speakers costing more than twice as much. On the other hand, I’ve heard speakers costing several times the $13,500 asking price of the Olympica IIIs that supply little or no more deep bass. What the Olympica III does is produce solid bass down to its rated level, at least when properly set up. Nor does there appear to be any manipulation in the design of the speaker to make it sound like it has more bass than it actually does, an approach that is all too often initially impressive but ultimately musically frustrating.

And at the other end of the spectrum, the Olympica III doesn’t offer quite the same sophisticated, delicate sound as Sonus faber’s far more expensive Aida -- or much more expensive models from other manufacturers -- but the quality of the high-frequency reproduction is excellent for a speaker in this price range. I could hear a slight loss of air or shimmer in comparison to more expensive speakers, but this was not evident except in direct comparison and only on a handful of recordings.

To evaluate the top end, I queued up Accardo’s lithe performance of Paganini favorites on the 1996 vinyl compilation Diabolus In Musica [DGG 00289 477 6492]. This recording has some of the most beautifully recorded violin sound imaginable, and it floats effortlessly on an exceptionally well-organized orchestral base. With the very best speakers, the high notes of the violin and the occasional orchestral bells seem to float and shimmer in space -- an intoxicating experience that has long made this one of my favorite orchestral recordings. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard less-able speakers make this recording sound ever so boring and the highs a little etched and strident -- not screechy, Ricci etched, but enough to make you wonder what you thought was so special about the recording. The Olympia IIIs fared very well with this diabolical music test, missing out only on the last bit of air and sparkle that some of the finest and most expensive tweeters can deliver -- a shortcoming you would never appreciate or notice unless you made close comparison or lived with such exotic drivers.

The main differences between the Olympica III and the slightly more expensive Avalon Transcendent ($15,000/pair) are in the areas of speed and articulation. Each speaker’s gestalt works perfectly well in isolation from the other, although not necessarily with the same type of music or to suit every listener. But play the Avalons directly after listening long-term to the Sonus fabers and your first reaction may be that they seem a bit sluggish. Conversely, play the Sonus fabers once acclimated to the Avalons and your first reaction might be that they sound a bit light and lacking in texture.

In both cases, this impression is short lived and the collections of attributes soon make sense. Where the Avalons give up speed, they fill in with a little more texture, which can be very intoxicating at the upper range of the violin or cello with classical music or with a well-recorded wind instrument that allows you to hear and almost feel the wind pulsations within the horn, sounds that come into their own almost exclusively with the best all-analog recordings committed to vinyl. The Olympica III, on the other hand, has more pop. Its greater speed can make guitar -- and indeed popular music in general -- sound more alive and propulsive. In many ways, the high-resolution digital formats like SACD seemed to fare particularly well with the Olympica III, which demonstrated differences between the CD and SACD layers of a hybrid disc better than the more polite Transcendent.

Many of today’s speakers, including a few very expensive models that have garnered rave reviews and magazine-cover exposure, tend to favor quickness and precision over what some consider a more natural, expansive sound. For my tastes, this pursuit of precision all too often crosses the line into piercing or unpleasant, dry or lifeless sound. The Olympica III ably straddles the knife edge between delivering detail and speed while succeeding in avoiding sounding strident. Indeed, its quickness probably accounts for many of the things I like most about this speaker, and when set up properly it avoids the edginess that some other observers praise. It combines solid bass with remarkable imaging, a beautiful tonal balance and considerable musical grace in an elegant package. For anybody looking at floorstanders in this price range, the Olympica III is not to be missed.

Sometimes, reviewing audio equipment can be a chore. Not this time. I really enjoyed my time with the Olympica IIIs, and when Sonus faber called to arrange collection of the review pair, my somewhat surprised reaction was, What? Already? That might not tell the whole story, but it tells you enough.

Price: $13,500 per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Sonus faber
Via A. Meucci
10 36057 Arcugnano (VI) PI Italy

Associated Equipment

Analog: Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with Centroid tonearm, Lyra Atlas stereo and Titan i mono cartridges, Nordost Valhalla 2 tonearm cable, Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE phono stage.

Preamp: Audio Research Reference 5 SE.

Amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 150.

Digital: Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player, Luxman D-08U CD/SACD player.

Speakers: Avalon Transcendent.

Cables: Nordost Valhalla 2 interconnects, speaker cables and power cords.

Power distribution: Quantum QB8 AC-distribution unit and Qx4 power purifier, Furutech GTX D-Rhodium power receptacle.

Supports: Stillpoints ESS Grid, Stillpoints Ultras and Ultra 5s.

Accessories: Record Doctor cleaning fluid and brush, VPI "magic bricks," Audio Physic cartridge demagnetizer, Shunyata Dark Field Elevators, Acoustical Systems SMARTractor, Dr. Feickert Analogue’s Platterspeed app.