The Liuto (Italian for lute) range consists of three models: the Monitor reviewed here, a floorstanding variant, the Liuto Tower, plus a speaker called the Smart, which can be rotated for use as a general purpose or surround speaker.
Liuto replaces the Domus models and apart from the compact Toy range, is Sonus Faber's entry-level offering. Our Liuto was supplied with a pair of pedestal stands, made from wood with bolts supplied to fix the speakers and stands securely together. The stands have a wide footprint and come with carpet-piercing spikes.
Technically, this is a conventional design but it is a painstaking one with more than a hint of retro, in the time-honoured Sonus Faber tradition. The supposedly lute-like shape that gives the speaker its name is intended to form a well-damped internal cavity, largely free of internal resonant modes.
The front panel is made from what can only be described as an amorphous material and then externally clad in leather – a Sonus faber trademark, which helps damp the baffle and reduce secondary radiation. The narrow rear panel appears to be made from the same material and the main side panel has a curved section, again for resonance control and to improve panel stiffness.
Compared to the Concertino, its predecessor in the Domus range, the Liuto Monitor is slimmer, more organic-looking and more elegant. The finish is described as a combination of goffered black (a unique texture that provides a better grip when handling) and high-gloss, piano-black lacquer. The remaining panels are matt black.
It should also be said that build quality and general fit and finish are of an undeniably high standard and this applies to the stands as much as to the speakers. This said, construction of the stands appears to have more to do with expedience than engineering integrity, which is disappointing considering that they cost £550 per pair.
Our test subject is a two-way vertically oriented design clearly intended for stand mounting, though at a pinch it could be shelfmounted. The mid/bass unit has a 150mm thermo-set, moulded polypropylene textile cone and this is crossed-over at 3.5khz to a 25mm fabric-dome tweeter, similar to the units used on earlier Sonus faber models.
Bass tuning is by a rear-facing reflex port and the crossover is described as a non-resonant second-order design (12dB/octave), with phase characteristics designed for optimal space/time performance, but this echoes the claims made for virtually any crossover network.
A skim through the numbers tells a story of a loudspeaker that is modestly sensitive – 86dB/watt at one metre is about as good as you can reasonably expect from a speaker this size with any pretensions to useful bass output. Although the 55hz bass limit given in the specifications is not that impressive, subjectively, at least, the Liuto is more fully formed than you might expect.
Impedance is eight ohms and the Liuto is said to be capable of handling up to 150 watts, all of which seems perfectly believable.
To be frank, we were not impressed on the first hearing. The Liuto Monitor sounded a little dull to our jaded ears, preconditioned perhaps, by the more upfront performance of other speakers available at the time. Certainly it lacked electricity initially, but equally, it was also fresh out of the box and, therefore, probably not fully up to scratch.
As is usual with Hi-Fi Choice's in-depth reviews, we gave the speaker an extended run-in period and listened critically over a long review time-frame, allowing time to bed-in. Even from the start, though, there were indications that the Liuto had a neutrality and transparency that was out of the ordinary.
Sure enough, the picture improved after more running-in, but in the event, this wasn't really the main issue, which is related more closely to musical programme content. The turning point was the arrival of some remastered esoteric-branded discs originally from the Decca archive, which will be covered in more detail in a future issue of hi-fi choice (you can read about them here).
This is historical analogue material, beautifully remastered that helps to highlight some of the best qualities of the Liuto Monitor. And if you want to take from this sensitivity to programme content a mute criticism of the Liuto, then so be it, but it's certainly not the whole story.
If you think you are beginning to see a pattern here and that there is some special synergy between the Liuto and analogue source material, then think again. First, although the esoteric discs were sourced from analogue masters, they were encoded and played as SACDs. Second, the main amplifier used for this test is the remarkable and wholly digital Lyngdorf Milliennium Mk IV.
There is certainly synergy at play here, but it is not limited to anything as simple minded as any supposed superiority of analogue over digital. This is a remarkably music-friendly loudspeaker. And, although it doesn't impress initially for its balls or its fiery temperament, it has something else going for it.
The esoteric SACDs, of course, are far from the only discs to show what's going on; they were simply the first to convincingly illustrate the qualities that lay under the skin. Without being especially demonstrative, there is a graceful musicality about this speaker that marks it out as special.
There is a hint of extreme treble output loss – probably no more than half a decibel or so at the upper limit of hearing – but the result is a speaker that sometimes speaks softly and one which has a particularly fine singing voice. We discovered this with favourite recordings such as Jennifer Warnes famous Blue Raincoat, as well as a Brahms and Mahler Lieder recording from a recent BBC Music Magazine covermount disc.
In the best sense this is a speaker that is easy on the ear. At first there were suggestions of boxiness, but they dissipated quickly enough, leaving a quality that if it underlined anything, was the passion of fine musicmaking.
We are also impressed with the Liuto's fine voicing at the low frequency end of the spectrum. Of course it is no bass demon, but is voiced in such a way that any objective lack of real bass goes practically unnoticed. The Liuto Monitor has a full, muscular voice and it projects a well-scaled image, with a natural sense of image placement.
All said and done, the Liuto Monitor could still be a hard proposition to sell. It is a small loudspeaker that costs quite a lot of money. Enough money, in fact, to buy any number of decent-quality floorstanding loudspeakers with deeper bass, higher maximum output levels and greater sensitivity.
It is not the tightest or most dynamic speaker in its class, nor does it offer the super sharp imagery of many recent high-tech designs. But, there's no doubt that the Liuto Monitor is one of the most relaxed and, above all, one of the most musical in its class.
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