At the recent World Of McIntosh launch of the Sonus faber SF16 (affectionately referred to as ‘The Snail’ harking back to the original of early Sonus faber) we caught up with Livio Cucuzza Chief of Industrial Design and Paolo Tezzon Chief of R&D.
The new product is an all-in-one solution paying homage to Sonus faber’s original Snail concept which integrated a main woofer module with two high quality satellite speakers attached to it via wooden extension arms. The 21st century SF16 evolves the concept by providing multiple inputs and outputs, DTS Play-Fi, built-in DSP-optimised multi-channel amplification, high quality drivers and an overall build quality and styling well beyond the original.
Cucuzza and Tezzon provided brief insights into the ideas behind the making of the SF16…
Edgar Kramer: I’d like to start by asking whether being under an umbrella company with such high profile companies within the group means that R&D, engineering and resources are shared between companies in the group, especially for the new SF16?
Paolo Tezzo: Yes we do. The SF16’s main technology, DTS Play-Fi, was a choice made by the whole McIntosh Group. We worked together with the guys from McIntosh R&D, this opened many possibilities and we went with DTS Play-Fi as we were already using it in other products such as the RS100 wireless speaker system and MB50 streamer. So they were a bit further than us in the development of those applications so we exchanged a lot of data. The main Play-Fi module and the digital preamplification in the ‘Snail’ SF16 is produced by McIntosh into our design.
EK: So bringing the original ‘Snail’ concept, with its main module flanked by the extension arms, into the 21st century with all new features was the intent…
Livio Cucuzza: We loved the concept of having a unit which you can adapt. The original Snail was unique. We wanted to bring it back in a modern and more compact version. The original was the inspiration but the prototypes were totally different to the original.
EK: But was the original Snail a concept or was it ever a production model?
PT: From what I know just 10 pieces were produced at that time. And each of them were produced in different wood finishes. So you might have walnut, rosewood, etc. I’ve seen one in rosewood which belongs to a long-time retailer close to our factory.
EK: What opportunities arise from working with such iconic companies like McIntosh, Audio Research, Sonus faber?
LC: From my perspective the opportunities are huge. There is so much history of design with all of those companies which I can use as a designer to make new products. As we did with Audio Research… a perfect example. We took elements that were identifiably Audio Research and used them in the new products. The heritage of a brand is a huge space where we can take elements and ideas.
EK: As an industrial designer you are inspired by iconic elements and you take that forward…
LC: Absolutely. We can communicate with people via the elements, they know our brand, our signature for example, the blue meters with McIntosh are immediately recognisable. These are huge opportunities. Of course the products change but the elements are there.
EK: Does that open up challenges between the two of you in terms of how you want the aesthetic and the feel of the product to be and the practicalities of circuit design and manufacturing?
LC: It’s easy; I always want small products and Paolo always wants big ones…
EK: The laws of physics, the bigger it is the better it sounds, right?
PT: Yes, that but also if you want the best performance you have to deal with a minimum amount of volume. Sometimes we fight a little bit because from a designer’s point of view, even though he understands, it’s just hard to accept.
LC: But this is the great thing that our team has. A little tension in an R&D team helps creativity.
EK: How many ideas and maybe even prototypes did you go through before you reached what you thought was the end design?
LC: I did an original rough sketch which more or less reflected the shape of the final design. It was very easy to have this idea but then we went through a lot of prototypes to find the right proportion, to find the right materials. The plywood used in the main module is shaped horizontally and back to front too which was a challenge. This requires a particular technology which is not easy. A big challenge for us is to control unit to unit tolerances. It’s wood, a natural material, not plastic and it’s affected by things like humidity, heat etc. But plywood is the most stable wood structure that you can use and our customers know our products are made from wood…
PT: We have huge experience in that. First before creating the multilayers, each layer is well seasoned which prevents the wood from moving too much in the future. Also the kind of shape we’re using, the orientation of the fibre, the glue we use, all extend the product’s life.
LC: Italy has a very strong tradition in these kinds of woods. We’re using a combination of different veneers. The external veneer we source from a German supplier.
EK: From an engineering point of view, what were the challenges for getting big sound from such a small enclosure with so much technology packed into it?
PT: We had many challenges. We wanted to be faithful to our heritage and to our standards in sound quality. We wanted to reduce the size of the drivers without compromising the quality. Secondly, we had to find a smart way to manage the drivers properly so we used one of our technologies which is Sound Field Shaping and we had to figure out how to manage 10 drivers having just four channels available. So we went for the combination of active and passive. There’s a passive crossover inside the SF16 for the mid highs. It worked very effectively. Basically we did the transition between the woofer and the satellites fully active but the filtering inside the satellites is performed passively. Then we introduced some DSP to do some equalisation of the whole thing.
EK: Will there be an expansion of the concept into other models in perhaps different sizes or offering different features?
LC: There are lots of plans. This is a brand new category for us so we have to gauge and understand the reaction of the market. We have plans to expand the family. And in a way we are already doing this via McIntosh where the RS100 will be followed by other devices. Now we have a solid technology to work with as a platform, so yes we will expand.
EK: We look forward to formally reviewing the beautiful SF16 soon.