You’re sitting at your desk, minding your own business one fine April afternoon, when you get an e-mail from Sonus Faber’s PR and communications manager asking if you’d like to get an early look at a super-secret new speaker. It’s the new flagship of the company’s entry-level Lumina line. $2799 per pair (USD). Three-way floorstanding tower. Something something Hybrid IFF-Paracross crossover topology. You gloss over the rest. You’ve heard enough. This is totally in your wheelhouse. You fire off an enthusiastic reply—“Let’s do it!”—and then sit and wait for the speakers to arrive.
That takes a few weeks, though. And in the meantime, you develop some expectations. Innovation doesn’t happen in the loudspeaker domain at nearly the same pace as in DACs or streamers or A/V receivers, after all. You hear “three-way tower” and “$2799/pair” in the same sentence, and you pretty much know what to expect.
Or so you think.
The shipment finally arrives, and you tear into the cardboard and foam. And you immediately start to second-guess yourself. Did you read the e-mail wrong? Were these things $2799 apiece, not per pair? That would certainly jibe better with the sexy leather upholstery and gorgeous wooden baffles. Then you give them a quick listen, and you’re absolutely certain that you’ve donked up. No way these things are manufactured in Italy for this price. No way.
If you’re me in this scenario, you e-mail Sonus Faber’s VP of product development, Livio Cucuzza, and ask if he’ll hop on a Zoom call to discuss the design of the new Lumina V loudspeaker; the decision not to offshore production of it; and how, exactly, the company managed to make so much speaker for so little money.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity, but otherwise, this is what he told me.
Dennis Burger: It seems to me that Sonus Faber strives to make every speaker in its lineup special and unique—every new model has its place and serves its purpose. So let’s start by talking about what makes the Lumina V special.
Livio Cucuzza: First of all, the Lumina V is special inside the Lumina family because we’ve introduced a lute-shaped chamber for the midrange that’s unique. This is basically the way we’re matching the Lumina V with the higher-level Sonetto range.
In general, what makes Lumina special is the use of premium materials. That was the fundamental idea behind the concept of entry-level for us. When we approached the project, we had to choose whether we wanted to do lute-shaped cabinets—as we do for all the other lines—made of cheaper materials because we have to save money somewhere, or to use premium materials on a simplified kind of cabinet. And the decision was, of course, the second option.
DB: So if you had decided to do a more complex cabinet shape, what sorts of materials would you have had to use instead?
LC: You can obtain organic shapes with different materials—of course plastics, plastics loaded with wood, some kind of ceramic. There are plenty of opportunities. But not with natural materials. Our credo is to use natural materials as much as possible. So a kind of composite would be pretty far from that credo.
DB: When you initially sit down to have the conversations that result in a speaker like this, does the discussion begin with the need for a speaker at a specific price point, or does it begin with the need for a speaker that serves a specific function? Or does it begin somewhere else entirely?
LC: In general terms, the discussion can start both ways. We can start with a request from sales or marketing: “We need a speaker at that price point.” Or we in the design lab can propose something that we think is appropriate or something we think we’re missing in our catalog.
The second consideration drove the design of Lumina. The decision we made two years ago was to go out of the entry-level market for Sonus Faber, because it was too difficult for us to ensure the right level of quality. But then we had this idea, in the design lab, to do simplified cabinets with premium materials. And we proposed this idea, and nobody at the table was disappointed. We were happy. The product was looking pretty nice—it was looking very Sonus Faber, even if it wasn’t a lute-shaped cabinet. So we decided to go to market with it.
DB: How did the lute-shaped chamber inside the Lumina V come about?
LC: The genesis of the lute-shaped chamber was basically a series of listening sessions. Square cabinets have a particular kind of sonic signature. We were able to mitigate the colorations of the midrange chamber in the Lumina III, but we wanted to do something better for the Lumina V, and we knew that the lute shape would help to improve the performance of the midrange, because we’ve been using that shape in our cabinets since 1992. So we’re pretty familiar with that shape.
And when we did the test, it was working perfectly. The midrange of the Lumina V is clearly better than the Lumina III, perfectly in keeping with the difference in price. The woofers are also sandwich cones instead of just one layer of paper. The cabinet itself is more rigid. It’s truly a different speaker from the III.
DB: From my limited experience with the Lumina V so far, there’s a very simple elegance to the design of the speaker. Focus your attention on it, and it’s gorgeous. But if you don’t focus your attention on it, it’s unassuming. It doesn’t draw your attention.
But it has this secret inside. It has this internal design that no one who simply looks at the speaker is ever going to be privy to. Was there ever any thought given to adding some external visual clue that would point to the lute-shaped inner chamber?
LC: Of course, we tried to make all the features of the speaker visible, and this is why the front baffle is made out of multi-layered wood. We wanted to show the layers in the edge of the wood. Why? Because it’s a natural material, and we have in our brand manifesto an attention to real materials. We want to be transparent about the materials we’re using in the design of our speakers.
So, generally, we like to show everything that the speaker is made of. But in the case of the lute chamber of the Lumina V, of course, it was not possible because the cabinet outside is square. But I think the benefits of that internal chamber will be clear to the customer when they do A/B listening comparisons. It’s all about listening.
DB: You talked about the balance between materials and the complexity of cabinet design. What other considerations come into play when you’re designing a speaker at this level of performance at this price point?
LC: Of course, when you approach a project like this, you try to spend your budget on the elements that are most important for the customer. All the other details are important, but you have to prioritize the list of materials you’re using. So, for example, we identified the front panel as the most important part of the speaker in terms of looks because when you’re in a shop and you’re selecting from different brands of speakers, the front baffle is the first thing you see.
So we spent more money, and we selected the best materials for the front panel. We concentrated all of our efforts in terms of aesthetic design on the front panel. So the finish of the front panel, for example, is exactly the same wood and the same finish as our Olympica range. It’s the same process.
When you approach a larger cabinet like this, the cabinet’s dimensions aren’t what make the bigger difference in costs. MDF is a pretty cheap material, so the cost of material is not dramatically different from the Lumina III to the V. But with the Lumina V we had a bigger budget, so we wanted to add enhancements that could be interesting for the customer. That’s why we spent more money on the woofers and midrange chamber, and a lot more money on the crossover network.
Of course, we save money on other elements of the speaker, like the black leather cover of the cabinet. It’s elegant, but it’s not wood veneer. More expensive processes are not applied.
Then, of course, there are a lot of little details that differentiate our upper-level speakers from the Lumina. In terms of the spikes on the bottom and the binding posts, everything is good and quality is important, but we’re not using our best materials or the most expensive processes here. It’s always a tradeoff, but I think with Lumina we’ve made the best tradeoff possible for the money.
DB: Let’s talk about the temptation to move manufacturing of a speaker like this offshore to cut costs.
LC: We did that with the Venere line years ago. We went to China to find the right supplier and manufacture the products there. And honestly, it was a very good experience for me and my team to experience a different culture, different rules.
But in this case again, the idea of building something very simple in terms of architecture—a square box—was completely compatible with what our artisans can do efficiently. Also, the leather covering is not there just because we wanted that design element. Part of our production is dedicated to the leather covering of all our speakers. Wherever there is a leather-covered element of the speaker, it’s done in-house.
So we selected all the manufacturing technology that we already know or knew pretty well, and we made some calculations and thought that it enhanced the value of the Lumina line to be able to say it was made in Italy.
Also, it’s crucial not merely for marketing but also for the people who work here. We are really like a big family, and if I go to talk with the guys in production and say, “We’re doing a new product, but it won’t be built here,” they are not happy, for sure. This is something that we take into consideration. We really want to build our speakers here, together.
DB: We’ve talked a lot about the aesthetic design of the speaker, but is there anything new and exciting about the Lumina V in terms of electroacoustics? You mentioned the crossover . . .
LC: I’m not the electroacoustics expert here—my focus is on industrial design, although the electroacoustic department is under my responsibility—so I won’t go deep into the details. But what I will say is that the Lumina V is the very first speaker to feature a new crossover approach that we’re going to be using going forward.
The mid-high frequency crossover is basically taken straight from the Maxima Heritage speaker, which is a very successful speaker for us. It has a very peculiar crossover network called IFF that really integrates the two drivers very well. For the bass drivers, we’re using a standard parallel Paracross topology crossover network.
And this is the approach that we’ll follow in the future with the upper-end models. The Lumina V is the first speaker to feature this approach, though.
DB: I’ve found that oftentimes in speakers like this, where there’s such a focus on value, you see a reliance on very simple, tried-and-true technology. You don’t often see innovation at this price point. More often than not, the discussion revolves around trickle-down technologies borrowed from the upper end.
But yet again, that’s another aspect of this speaker that doesn’t stand out as an obvious selling point. You can’t say, “Hey, this crossover implementation comes from our $15,000 speaker,” or what have you.
LC: We have a view on that. We want to be as transparent as possible and have as much as we can be visible. But there are technical details that are crucial for the project, and sometimes they must stay hidden. But not because we’re not happy to talk about them; it’s just because it’s important that the speaker has its identity, and it’s important that the story doesn’t begin and end with a simple look at the speaker.
It’s nice for the customer to discover that this speaker has many details that you only discover with some attention. Sometimes dealers say that Sonus Faber speakers are so rich with detail that they need to have training to understand what’s inside or why we used a specific solution.
And I think this is nice. In a world that is going so fast, Sonus Faber speakers require you to slow down and invest a bit of time, which is a real luxury right now.
DB: What are you most proud of when it comes to the Lumina V? And what is something you would like people to know that might not make it into the press release or marketing materials?
LC: This is something that is—how should I say it?—not really tangible. But it’s the fact that you can recognize the Lumina V immediately as a Sonus Faber speaker. That’s not easy when you design entry-level speakers, because of the tradeoffs. So if you don’t balance the right elements in the product, you can lose that Sonus Faber feeling, and that would be a disaster for me and the company. But that’s the thing I’m most proud of when it comes to Lumina as a whole.
As for the thing that’s hard to convey in marketing, it’s the combination of materials, the thought that goes into that process. For me, from a design point of view, this is the most important thing. When you touch the speaker—when you feel the speaker with your hand—you can tell it’s a quality product. There is no plastic. There is no reliance on cheap, synthetic materials. It’s really a solid and well-made speaker.
You know, we’re still using the Lumina V in our listening room as our reference because we really enjoy how it sounds and how it looks. So it’s an understatement to say that we’re really proud of it.
. . . Dennis Burger