Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
To say that Italians are obsessed with design is probably an understatement. They’re fanatical about it. They live and breathe it. It runs in their veins. I experienced this firsthand in September 2014, when I and my wife, whose parents were born in southern Italy and emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, visited Rome, Venice, and the Amalfi Coast. Each place we explored was its own revelation, but for me, Rome was especially awe-inspiring, and it quickly became clear why it’s called the Eternal City. I came away with the distinct feeling that I would need a lifetime to fully explore its treasures. Michelangelo’s colossal sculpture of a horned Moses, Bernini’s baldacchino over the tomb of St. Peter, a canvas by Caravaggio -- the evidence of immense attention to beauty and detail having been paid, century after century, can be found almost everywhere in this magnificent city -- and that is to say nothing of the myriad piazzas, fountains, and other outdoor marvels that pop up around every corner. Never had I visited a place that boasted such a plethora of architectural and artistic riches, much of it within walking distance. But while I’ve written for the SoundStage! Network for almost a decade, I’d never reviewed a single product designed or built in Italy.
That changed a few weeks ago, when Doug Schneider delivered to our place a pair of Sonus Faber Chameleon T floorstanding loudspeakers ($1999 USD per pair). Sonus Faber is arguably the Italian speaker maker best known in North America. As perhaps I should have anticipated, when we unboxed the Chameleon Ts, their appearance was unique, with some design flourishes I’d never seen at the price -- or, for that matter, at any price. But a speaker’s appearance means little if it doesn’t sound good. I was eager to hear if the Chameleon’s sound was on a par with its looks.
In April of this year, SoundStage! Access senior contributor Hans Wetzel was invited to attend Sonus Faber’s press launch in New York City for the debut of the Chameleon series. The line includes just three models: the Chameleon B bookshelf ($899/pair), the C center channel ($549), and the T floorstander. In Hans’s article, he noted that Sonus Faber was going after something a bit different with the Chameleons. First and foremost, their target audience isn’t traditional audiophiles, but younger buyers who care about good sound but aren’t terribly interested in technical specifications or frequency-response curves. More concerned with visual design, these buyers want to own something stylish that will work in their living spaces. Finally, many young buyers have loans -- for houses, college educations, cars -- to pay off, so the cost of their high-end home-audio experience must be reasonable. That said, if the proliferation of high-quality (or expensive low-quality) headphones that I see is any indication, young people are definitely willing to spend money on sound.
Quality of sound aside, the Chameleons are something different: To my knowledge, no other company has introduced a line of speakers with removable, interchangeable side panels. Each pair of Chameleons comes with a set of side panels in your choice of six colors: White, Black, Red, Orange, Metal Grey, or Metal Blue (more colors are promised). If at some point you decide you want to try a different hue for your Chameleon Ts, you can buy another set of four panels (two per speaker) for $399. Not only does this allow the Chameleons to evolve and change with your tastes, but from a practical standpoint, it’s nice to know that if you ever scratch a speaker’s side panel, you can swap it out and make the speaker new again. One of my favorite features is the thin silver inlay that surrounds each of the removable panels -- a small feature, but one that demonstrates superb attention to detail.
The panels themselves fit securely into the sides of the speakers using pegs. You simply push them on or pull them off. No tools required. What’s interesting is that under each removable panel is not simply a piece of MDF with a section carved out by a CNC machine for attaching the panel. Instead, a metal frame spans most of the cabinet’s side. Within this frame are cutouts, and attached to the speaker in these cutouts is a dense material that Livio Cucuzza, Sonus Faber’s industrial designer, explained to me is intended to strengthen the cabinet and help control resonances. Clearly, some thought went into this.
Another feature that sets the Chameleons apart from most (all?) of their competitors is the fact that the speaker’s front, top, and rear panels are wrapped in a single piece of soft-black synthetic leather. Leather, whether synthetic or real, is not widely used in loudspeakers, but when it is, it’s typically found on more luxurious (read: more expensive) models than these -- did I mention that the Chameleon T is made in Italy and sells for $1999/pair? Photos of the Chameleons really didn’t reveal how beautiful they are. After seeing the leather in person, I realize how much the speakers stand out. They have a commanding visual presence in a room, but are also attractive in a more understated manner. The Chameleon T’s lines are exceedingly clean, and the cabinet’s subtly trapezoidal shape is a refreshing change from conventional box speakers. Its gently sloped, leather-wrapped top surface gives the speaker a little flare, and ensures that guests won’t try to set their drinks on your speakers. The Chameleon T is tilted slightly back and supported by a black base that, at the rear, extends past the speaker’s bottom edge, presumably to improve its stability.
A metal ring surrounds each of the speaker’s four drivers; this, in combination with the absence of any hardware for mounting, gives the Chameleon T a clean and somewhat striking façade. The drivers themselves are mounted on a panel of brushed aluminum laid atop the otherwise all-leather front baffle. Magnetically attached grilles are included, but I set these aside -- I never use grilles unless a manufacturer recommends their use (most do not), and because I didn’t want to cover up the clean look of the Chameleon T’s baffle.
Even if prospective buyers of the Chameleon Ts mightn’t be too concerned with technical details, there are a couple of things to consider in getting the best sound from them. The Chameleon T is a three-way design, with a large port close to the bottom of the baffle. As this port fires toward the front, it should be easier to place the speakers slightly closer to the front wall without having to worry about the bass being overblown. I always pull speakers out into the room to improve their imaging, so I had no problem with having too much bottom end, but it’s good to know that if you don’t have room to do this, you should still be able to get good sound.
All of the Chameleon T’s drivers are designed by Sonus Faber and built by another manufacturer. The 1.13” (29mm) tweeter is a pre-coated fabric dome that is not cooled with ferrofluid. This is crossed over at 2.5kHz to a 5.9” (150mm) polypropylene midrange driver, this in turn handing off at 250Hz to two 7” (180mm) polypropylene woofers. Sonus Faber rates the Chameleon T as having a frequency range of 38Hz-25kHz; if accurate, this figure means that a subwoofer shouldn’t be needed for listening to music, though it might be desirable for home theater.
The Chameleon T’s claimed sensitivity of 90dB/2.83V/1m is pretty high, but its nominal impedance of 4 ohms means you’ll need an amplifier that can comfortably deliver current. Sonus Faber recommends powering the Chameleon Ts with anywhere from 40 to 300Wpc, but it’s probably more important to buy an amplifier rated into a 4-ohm load. I drove them with a 135Wpc Bryston integrated amplifier and had no problem reaching volumes above what I can tolerate.
The Chameleon T is sizable at 41.7”H x 10.6”W x 14.0”D. Each speaker weighs 54 pounds and has two sets of binding posts -- they can be biwired or biamplified with cables terminated in spades, banana plugs, or bare wire.
A couple of caveats: First, the leather cladding requires extra care in handling -- one review sample had a small scuffmark on one edge. Accidents can happen, and unlike the side panels, the leather can’t be replaced. Second, the base attaches to the bottom of the cabinet with four long screws that pass through holes pre-drilled through the leather and the bottom panel. I don’t know if it’s just because the holes in one of the review samples hadn’t been drilled properly, but neither Doug nor I could get that screw down all the way -- it wouldn’t go in straight. This may seem trivial, but I’d never before had a problem attaching a speaker’s base, and this was disappointing in a speaker that shows such attention to detail in so many other aspects of its design.
I connected the Chameleon Ts to a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier using AudioQuest Comet speaker cables. An NAD C 565BEE CD player and an Apple MacBook running Audirvana software formed the digital front end, these connected to a Bryston BDA-2 DAC via, respectively, an i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial cable and an AudioQuest Forest USB cable. I played LPs on a Thorens TD-160HD turntable fitted with a Rega Research RB250 tonearm and Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge, all feeding a Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono stage. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner/regenerator.
On first seeing the Sonus Faber Chameleon Ts, I admired them immediately, particularly since the red panels of my review samples were similar in color to the accent wall at the front of my listening room. If I were buying them, this is the color I’d choose. However, a speaker’s color doesn’t affect its sound, and while I care about the former, I got into this hobby for the latter. Suffice it to say that I didn’t need to spend much time listening to the Chameleon Ts to realize that they aren’t just another pretty face.
One thing I learned early in my time with the Chameleon Ts was how resolving they were. Across a number of recordings and musical genres, the speakers consistently impressed me with their ability to reveal musical details. As I listened to the strings of the acoustic guitar that features prominently in the opening of “Backstage with the Modern Dancers,” from Great Lake Swimmers’ Ongiara (CD, Nettwerk 6700 30691-2), the sound was holographic, with a palpable sense of space around the guitar. They also did a good job of portraying the natural reverb that resulted from most of the album’s having been recorded at Aeolian Hall, in London, Ontario. The Chameleon Ts nicely captured the inherent warmth of Ongiara, sounding neither up-front nor laid-back.
In the past, when I’ve heard Sonus Faber speakers -- albeit in rooms and systems different from my own -- they’ve sounded a bit reticent. That wasn’t the case with the Chameleons. They struck a good balance between uncovering detail without being analytical, and reproducing recordings with a sense of presence but without sounding too forward.
The Chameleon Ts’ revealing quality and ability to re-create an atmosphere were especially apparent when I listened to Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-é (CD, Columbia/Legacy C2K 89202). Recorded in two afternoons in the summer of 1993, the two discs of this Legacy edition are more than worth the price of admission, even for casual Buckley fans. Even as an emerging artist, Buckley’s performances were masterful, and here he commands the attention of his audience with a captivating measure of self-assurance. What makes the album extra-special is the quality of the recording, which does an excellent job of capturing the ambiance and atmosphere of the NYC café. The Chameleon Ts did a fine job of transporting me to Sin-é: I could clearly hear the bustle of the bistro, the random clinks of glassware, the chattering of the crowd -- it all convincingly conveyed the feeling of what it might have been like to sit in the audience for those shows.
One evening, in the mood for jazz, I loaded into the CD tray Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (CD, Blue Note 3 35174 2). Track 1, “Monk’s Mood,” opens the concert with a ponderous vibe, but the energy quickly jumps several notches with track 2, “Evidence.” Through the Chameleon Ts, “Evidence” was a treat -- I could feel the infectious energy among the musicians in the storied music hall. Drummer Shadow Wilson’s cymbals sounded crisp and precise as he provided a lively rhythm for Coltrane’s frenzied tenor sax. The vivacity of the show was served well by the Sonus Fabers, which produced punchy, detailed sound across a wide, deep stage.
Midsize floorstanders, the Chameleon Ts produced a fairly big sound, and listening to War Dance, from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba: Suite, as performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Eiji Oue, was a lot of fun (CD, Reference RR95CD). The orchestra had an expansive, powerful presence, and the Sonus Fabers easily traced the dynamic shifts of this pounding music without strain. They sounded clean and composed at volumes higher than I can actually tolerate, and while I’d love to hear War Dance in a grand concert hall, the combination of Sonus Fabers and Brystons made for a pretty good alternative.
With the title track of Cat Power’s The Greatest (CD, Matador OLE 743-2), the Chameleon Ts were again commendable in their ability to create a wide, open soundstage that extended into the corners and beyond the front wall of my room. The drums and violins, in particular, lent a good sense of depth as they emanated from behind Chan Marshall’s piano and reverb-accentuated voice, both solidly placed between and in the same plane as the speaker baffles. The Chameleon Ts’ sound had a natural, unforced quality that made for engaging listening; what especially impressed me was that, even at low volumes, details were well resolved and clearly audible. It’s nice to know that, whether used to energize a party or for quiet late-night listening, the Chameleon Ts should consistently deliver clean, detailed sound.
I listened to the Chameleon Ts alongside Revel’s Performa3 F206 floorstanding speakers ($3500/pair). Like the Sonus Faber, the F206 is a three-way bass-reflex design; it has a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter, a 5.25” midrange, and two 6.5” woofers. Revel is a US company; the Performa3 F206 is manufactured in Indonesia.
With “Louis Collins,” from David Grisman and Jerry Garcia’s Shady Grove (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-21), the Sonus Fabers produced a clean, full sound; the Revels were a touch more precise, which helped them deliver a tighter, slightly more focused sound. Through both pairs of speakers the sounds of the various stringed instruments played on this record were clear, but the Revels were a bit more crisp and incisive. That the differences weren’t enormous is impressive, given that the Sonus Fabers cost $1500/pair less than the Revels.
Listening to Calexico’s Carried to Dust (CD, Quarterstick qs108cd), I found myself content with whichever speakers were hooked up at the time -- a testament to the overall strength of each model. This is not to suggest that they sounded identical. For example, the horns in “Inspiración” had more presence through the Revels, as if their level had been ever-so-slightly elevated. Not a drastic difference, but it was there.
In general, while the Sonus Faber Chameleon Ts offered commendably clear and detailed sound, they were unable to match the transparency of the ultraclean Revel F206es. With “Me and a Gun,” the lone a cappella track on Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes (CD, Eastwest 82358), it was again clear that the Revels produced the more precise sound, with a more focused reproduction of Amos’s voice. Then again, I’ve never heard a cleaner, more open-sounding floorstander for under $5000/pair than the Performa3 F206es; the fact that the Chameleon Ts could hold their own against such competition says a lot about their high level of performance -- and, thus, high value.
Another way the Chameleon Ts distinguished themselves was in their reproduction of deep bass. With “m.A.A.d. city,” from Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (CD, Aftermath B001753602), the Revels produced tighter, punchier, more impactful bass. Through the Sonus Fabers, this track’s bass was a touch fatter and fuller than the F206es’ more disciplined delivery. In this case, I thought the Chameleon Ts better suited this gritty hip-hop track.
The Chameleon T and the Performa3 F206 are both highly accomplished designs, sonically and aesthetically. They will appeal to slightly different tastes, but what most surprised me was how close the Sonus Fabers came to matching the performance of the Revels, which not only cost almost twice as much, but are the best speakers I’ve heard for under $5000.
Before even hearing the Chameleon Ts, many will be impressed by their modern, elegant appearance -- the team at Sonus Faber must be commended for coming up with such an attractive design. Credit is equally due the Sonus Faber engineers, who have ensured that the Chameleon models don’t merely look nice, but offer top-notch sound as well. If Sonus Faber’s goal was to attract a new crowd of consumers to high-end audio, they may well succeed with the Chameleon T, whose exquisite fit and finish were bettered only by its sound. If Italy is obsessed with design and attention to detail, the Chameleon T perfectly embodies those aspects of Italian culture. And if you’re willing to spend $2000 -- or even $3000 -- on a set of speakers, you’ll want to add the Sonus Faber Chameleon T to your list of models to audition. Highly recommended.
. . . Philip Beaudette
Sonus Faber Chameleon T Loudspeakers
Price: $1999 USD per pair; extra side panels (two per speaker), $399/four.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Sonus Faber SPA
Via Antonia Meucci 10
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Phone: (39) 0444-288788