The end result of combining a smaller cabinet with the two-way configuration is a speaker that delivers the same 89dB sensitivity as the Coltrane and gives up 7dB of low-frequency extension (along with the cut at high-frequencies). But the news is a long way from all bad: smaller and easier to accommodate, the two-way configuration with its simpler crossover is also significantly easier to drive. In comparison to the larger Coltrane, the rated impedance rises from four to five ohms, which may not sound like much, but an increase in the minimum value from 2.7 Ohms to 3.6 Ohms is definitely significant when it comes to drive time. The other big difference is in the bottom-end voicing, which whilst leaner and less obviously powerful than the Coltrane, is wonderfully transparent and surefooted. Combine that with a little welcome room reinforcement and the result offers surprising musical scale and stability from such a compact cabinet.
Use the Sopranos in a large room and they don’t sound authoritative or commanding. Detailed, precise, focused and incredibly quick to be sure; just a little on the cool and lean side to offer the sort of substance and wallop that comes with from a real musical foundation. The orchestral fireworks that enliven the Enigma Variations are certainly impressively sudden, but the full-on tuttis don’t have that grounded feel, that reach right down to the floor feel, that massed brass and heavily bowed strings should really deliver.
Now move them to a medium to small space and hear them blossom. They are the complete opposite of the Coltrane in that regard. The extra reinforcement from the room fills out the body and bottom end, Nimrod really gets to puff out his chest now, the seamless soundstage and cavernous acoustic making the far end of the listening room simply disappear. Of course, it’s an acoustic trick, and comparison with larger, more fulsome designs will quickly reveal a lack of absolute bottom end texture and transparency, a vague rumble where the surface of the stage should be, but that doesn’t stop it being immensely impressive and enjoyable.
And you know what? I won’t tell anyone if you don’t, because the vast majority of listeners will never notice. They’ll be too busy marveling at the scale and dynamic range emanating from such unassuming boxes – and given a smaller listening space I’d be among them.
But there’s more to the secret of the Soprano’s success than a carefully weighted low-end balance. It’s not just a case of what it gives you, but how it gives it to you too. One of the problems with any speaker this clean and this revealing is that those strengths can quickly become a double-edged sword if there’s news you’d rather not hear. The Soprano’s greatest strength is the way it manages to keep those attributes firmly on the positive side of the balance sheet, a feat it achieves largely I suspect, as a result of its incredibly simple crossover design. There’s a genuine lack of restraint or intrusion in the sense of musical flow, with voices and instruments easily able to traverse the crossover region without fracturing or stumbling in the process. It’s this that gives the speaker its lucid agility and, whilst I don’t have the virtue of having the two side by side, I also suspect that this is one regard in which the soprano actually betters the larger Coltrane, despite that speaker’s dedicated midrange driver. It’s not a question of continuity per se; more one of musical freedom and expressive range, aspects at which the Soprano excels.
Reaching for “the man” to make the point could be considered a bit of a cliché, so how about a bit of Miles instead, and Sketches Of Spain. Just listen to the fluidity and freedom of Miles’ lines, the plaintive, stretched out, sinuous melodies that he places, note by unforced note over the muted instrumental backing. Listen too, to the detail and crisp attack of the percussion, but more importantly, the way all those taps and clacks and rattles lock into the music, adding to the atmosphere rather than distracting from it. This level of integration and dynamic nuance are actually harder to achieve, their absence easier to expose, with the measured sparseness of a track like this than with some up-beat frenzy. Just listen and marvel to the way the track grows in density and complexity while Miles’ horn grows almost imperceptibly to keep pace and proportion, always centre-stage, always riveting your attention.
Voices too, are handled with assured and easy grace. Sinatra’s familiar tones and phrasing are unmistakable, Nice And Easy summing up the Soprano’s delivery perfectly – and exceedingly enjoyably, the balance between Francis and the perfectly poised arrangements effortlessly captured and projected into the room. From the careful muting of the brass to the absolute clarity with which you can hear the percussive quality of the piano, the layout of the band, Sinatra’s relationship to the mic and the way he moves for emphasis in his phrasing, the Sopranos deliver exactly the kind of natural intimacy and focused stability that make performances so much more convincing. You can hear the way that the instruments are being played, the way that Sinatra works both his voice and the mic – but rather than screaming, “Look, look at me – look at all the detail I’m revealing”, the Martens integrate that information into a more real whole. This isn’t detail for detail’s sake in the style of some, super-etched speakers; this is simply allowing more of the signal through and making more sense as a result.