This review has brought me full circle -- the Sonatina Mk.I was the first tube-amp-friendly speaker I ever owned. This, of course, led to an overwhelming desire to experiment with a tube integrated amplifier, which I satisfied with the purchase of a bargain-priced Cayin TA-30. I still use that amp (now heavily modified) daily, and it’s an overachiever by any definition. That purchase was followed by a turntable, and a sizable investment in rebuilding a vinyl collection. Who would have thought, as I approach the half-century mark in the midst of the digital age, that I would be returning to analog with such great interest? I owe it all to that first pair Sonatinas.
I sold my Mk.Is not long after moving from a largish colonial tract house in flyover country to the drastically more expensive real estate of the Pacific Northwest. My beloved Sonatinas, and their penchant for requiring more than the usual amount of space between them, sadly fell victims to a much smaller listening room. In fact, it was the Mk.Is’ desire for wide spacing that at first made me somewhat reluctant to review the Mk.IVs -- I was afraid they’d require the same treatment, which would have relegated my listening to the home-theater room -- a task not insurmountable, but still difficult. Happily, they didn’t.
Other than size, there’s visually little to suggest that the Sonatina Mk.IV ($5995 USD per pair) is of the lineage of the Mk.I. The entire cabinet of the Mk.I sloped back a few degrees, and its top front corners had a large, triangular bevel. The veneer was book-matched briarwood burl, finished so impeccably that you’d swear it was vinyl laminate unless you inspected it very closely. The Mk.IV, which measures 40"H x 10"W x 14"D and weighs 55 pounds, is less of a visual conversation piece, but the understated elegance of its shapely, cherry-veneered cabinet will likely extract a less critical frown from the decorator than did the Mk.I. My wife, who has happily embraced my obsession with audio, is more than willing to accommodate the latest six-foot black monoliths in whatever space I decide they need to be in. However, I expect that she is the exception rather than the rule; in most families, the Sonatina Mk.IV’s less obtrusive design will probably improve marital relations. The bass-reflex-loaded cabinet is no simple rectangular box with curved side panels attached -- curved inside and out, it’s said to reduce internal standing waves.
Where the Sonatina Mk.I had two woofers and a dome midrange and a soft-dome tweeter, the Mk.IV is a more conventionally configured three-way design with a single 7" pulp-paper-cone woofer, a 3.5" treated-paper-cone midrange, and a 1" silk-dome tweeter. Silverline’s website states that the crossover frequencies are 1500 and 3500Hz. Next to some speakers I’ve had in the house, all of this sounds positively ordinary, but you’d be amazed at what some people can do with the ordinary. The Sonatina Mk.IV comes with spiked outrigger feet that attach to the bottom for stability. Even on the relatively firm carpet and pad in my listening room, I decided that these were absolutely required for stability.
The Sonatina Mk.IV’s frequency response is a claimed 25Hz-28kHz, its sensitivity 91dB, and its nominal impedance 8 ohms. Biwire connections are provided. The Silverline is rated to handle 500W RMS.
I set up the Sonatina Mk.IVs in my smallish dedicated listening room. The speakers seemed to be much more tolerant of less ideal placement than some speakers, but they did benefit from additional care. They ended up in almost the exact same places as the Gingko Audio ClaraVu 7 Mk.IIs, though I did move my listening chair a little (more on that later). Most listening was done using the aforementioned Cayin TA-30 tube integrated amp, though I spent some time with an older Chiro C-300 amp and an Anthem AVM 20 preamplifier-processor in the system. My preference was for the vast soundstage and liquid midrange afforded by the tube setup, but solid-state aficionados shouldn’t be disappointed with the results. The rest of the playback system consisted of a Music Hall MMF-5 turntable fronted by a Bellari VP129 phono preamp, and a Squeezebox Touch connected to a dedicated music server.
My dedicated listening room has a small hump in its frequency response in the mid-40Hz area that no amount of acoustical treatment has been able to correct. The rest of the range is reasonably flat, but that hump makes setting up full-range speakers a bit tricky. Small movements in speaker placement help somewhat. Moving the listening chair is more effective in my case, but is impractical for normal daily use. Now that it’s been acoustically treated, the room is actually one of the better-sounding listening environments I’ve had over the years -- but no room is perfect, and it pays to know your opponent. That hump can be used to my advantage with smaller speakers, but full-range speakers require a bit more care. The Sonatina Mk.IVs ended up about 3’ from the front wall and 2’ from the sidewalls, with only minor tweaking of speaker placement required. For critical listening sessions, I found it best to pull my chair out about a foot and a half from the back wall, which helped reduce that bass hump.
Vanessa Daou’s second album, Slow to Burn (CD, MCA MCAD-11496), is nearly as good as her first, and a few of my friends who found the language and content of her Zipless mildly offensive are more likely to enjoy this one. Daou’s voice is extremely breathy and fairly high pitched, and so provides a good view of the clarity of a speaker’s upper midrange and treble extension. The Sonatina Mk.IV gave me nothing to complain about -- Daou’s voice was superbly clear, with phenomenal ambience. The opening of "For Anything" has a tight kick drum providing the rhythm. Many lesser speakers get this wrong with exaggerated, flabby bass, but not the Sonatina. The bass was tight, tuneful, and well integrated with the rest of the audioband.
If there’s anyone serious about music who hasn’t heard of Vampire Weekend by now, I might be interested in borrowing the rock they’ve been hiding under for a few days. Their self-titled debut release (CD, XL Records 40318) was easily one of the best albums of 2008, and is still ranked in the top 100 bestselling rock albums on Amazon.com. The soundstage of the chorus in "One (Blake’s Got a New Face)," as reproduced by the Sonatinas, extended way past the outsides of the speakers, which in my case made the room seem at least four or five feet wider than it actually is. That’s kind of a neat trick. I’ve drummed since my school days, and my ear tunes in to anything unnatural in the sounds of percussion instruments. In "I Stand Corrected," the drumsticks clacking together were perfect in tone and fast in transient response through the Sonatina Mk.IVs, which is something that even many of the higher-priced speakers I’ve heard fail to get right.
Another of the most impressive debut albums of the last few years, Lungs (CD, Island 2711239), from Florence + the Machine, is an astonishingly mature first effort. Florence Welch, who cowrote all but two of the tracks, has a forceful, distinctive, crystal-clear voice that makes this album a real treat. Expect to hear more from her. If you think this might be the same old pop junk, ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a harp in pop music. If you’re listening for it, you’ll hear it in the background earlier in "Hurricane Drunk," but it comes out to play about halfway through the track. The Silverlines reproduced this difficult instrument flawlessly, each delicate pluck impeccably hung in midair and tapering off into nothingness.
Portishead is an acquired taste for some, and far too bitter for many. This is dark stuff, but it’s so musically intriguing that it deserves at least serious consideration. Like that of Florence Welch, Beth Gibbons’s voice is haunting, though the effect is very different and much more disturbing, with less perfection of pitch. Portishead’s fourth album, Third (CD, Island 1766401), takes an even darker turn than their two previous releases. Here, in songs like "Nylon Smile," as the Sonatinas accurately reproduced subtle tonal inflections, it was the voice that completely grabbed my attention and pulled me into this deeply emotional music.
I had never heard of Plan B until about a month ago, but The Defamation of Strickland Banks (CD, 679 Records 5186584712) has quickly become one of my favorite new albums. My brother calls the sound "Motown without being nostalgic," and I think that sums it up perfectly. After spending the better part of an hour with Portishead, Defamation will sound positively sunny. There’s not a lot to add to the above comments except to say that the Sonatina Mk.IVs definitely rocked when asked to, and we all deserve a little fun in our lives -- and with energetic rock music, the Silverlines provided that.
Performing a direct comparison with the Sonatina Mk.I was impossible. Those speakers left the house well over a year ago, but my memory tells me that the Mk.IV sounded more transparent, with a cleaner, more detailed midrange. I was always a big fan of the Mk.I’s dome midrange driver, so this was good news.
The closest competitor to the Mk.IV that I had on hand was Gingko Audio’s ClaraVu 7, which at $2999/pair is almost exactly half the price of the Sonatina Mk.IV. Both speakers offer tremendous midrange detail and clarity, but the Silverline pulled ever so slightly ahead of the Gingko in terms of treble transparency, and soundstage width and depth. The main difference was in bass extension, in which there was simply no contest. What bass response the ClaraVu has is exceptionally clean, but it starts to roll off a good 20Hz earlier than the Sonatina’s.
The last major factor to consider was efficiency: the Sonatina is rated a full 8dB more efficient than the ClaraVu. It’ll take a whole lot of wattage to make up for that in a larger room, especially if you like tubes. Based on my listening, I think it’s likely the Sonatina could be driven comfortably to reasonable levels with a single-ended tube amp in a smallish room.
Having the latest version of Silverline Audio’s Sonatina in the house has been like visiting with a long-lost friend. They’ve obviously matured, but you still recognize the traits that made you so comfortable with them all those years ago. I’ll be very sorry to see them go, and hope it won’t be as many years before they visit again. Highly recommended.
. . . Jeff Van Dyne
- Speakers -- Paradigm Studio 100 v.3, Magnepan MMG, Gingko Audio ClaraVu 7
- Amplifiers -- Cayin TA-30 (modified), Chiro C-300
- Preamplifier-processor -- Anthem AVM 20
- Phono stage -- Bellari VP129
- Sources -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch, Music Hall MMF-5 turntable
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Oval 12
- Interconnects -- Audio Magic Apprentice
Silverline Audio Sonatina Mk.IV Loudspeakers
Price: $5995 USD per pair.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
1491 San Carlos Ave
Concord, CA 94518
Phone: (925) 825-3682