In today’s hi-fi market, if a company launches a product that sounds fantastic but looks awful, they’ll have as much, if not more, trouble selling it than if the opposite were true -- a sad state of affairs for those who would be happy to sacrifice visual appearance in the search for the ultimate sound quality. But with the way the consumer-electronics industry (think Apple and Samsung) and makers of other luxury goods (cars, watches, boats, you name it) have stepped up the style game, designers of high-end audio gear have pretty much had to ensure that their products’ looks befit their sound -- that, or get left behind by companies that do understand the need to optimize both form and function, regardless of a product’s cost.
One brand that I’ve noticed making real inroads in ensuring that its products are as beautiful as they sound is the Italian firm Sonus Faber, founded in 1981 by Franco Serblin but now owned by the Fine Sounds Group, also headquartered in Italy. Fine Sounds also owns Audio Research Corporation, McIntosh Labs, and Wadia Digital, all of which still make their products in the US; as well as Sumiko, a North American distributor based in Berkeley, California.
I’ve noticed an interesting progression in Sonus Faber’s most recent designs, which blend their traditional aesthetics with new, cutting-edge elements that thoroughly modernize the brand’s style and give their loudspeakers true luxury appeal. Nowhere was this more evident than in “Past and Present,” a photo posted on Facebook by Livio Cucuzza, the industrial designer overseeing all of the Fine Sounds Group’s brands. Side by side were a 1990s-era Extrema and an Aida, the latter released last year. The similarities and differences between the two Sonus Fabers were so striking that I wrote Cucuzza right away and asked for an interview. The timing was fortuitous: The interview coincided with Jeff Fritz’s review of Sonus Faber’s new Venere 3.0 loudspeaker, published this month on this site.
Doug Schneider: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Livio Cucuzza: My story with hi-fi started when I was a child. My father had a hi-fi shop in Sicily, and I grew up surrounded by speakers, amplifiers, turntables, and every genre of audio gear. My passion for design started with great audio classics like the old B&O, Brionvega, and Braun products. At the age of 18, I left Sicily to study industrial design in Milan. My work experience started in the toy market -- I worked for Lego and Ferrero -- but my passion for music and hi-fi has never ceased to make me think about my dream to work in my elective industry. So, three years ago, after some design work as a freelancer for some Italian brands -- Norma, Audia Flight, M2Tech, Lector, and EMME Speakers -- I joined the Sonus Faber team.
DS: My understanding is that you began with Sonus Faber, but that you now oversee the design of other brands under the Fine Sounds Group umbrella, such as Audio Research and Wadia -- and, I presume, McIntosh Labs, which Fine Sounds recently acquired. What was the first Sonus Faber product you worked on?
LC: Right. The very first product I showed to Mauro Grange [CEO of Fine Sounds Group] was, basically, the concept of the Aida, but the first product I worked on was the Amati Futura.
Past and Present
DS: I saw a picture you posted on Facebook called “Past and Present,” which showed an older Sonus Faber speaker and the new Aida. What aspects of the original designs did you wish to keep so that the heritage of the company was retained, and which ones did you want to discard or improve on?
LC: I love the story of this brand, and I am glad to be a part of it. But I think that most people have a restricted vision of Sonus Faber’s original idea. Many people think of Sonus Faber as an excellent brand of wooden speakers. But the big intuition of [Franco] Serblin was to understand that because speakers have to exist in people’s own environments, like any other piece of high-quality furniture, they need to be beautiful and perfect when they don’t play any music. This is the main concept that I want to keep. And, of course, I want to keep the tradition of craftsmanship of this brand.
DS: I noticed that the newer Sonus Faber speakers have a much shinier finish, but it’s not over the top -- they’re very elegant. Design obviously goes far past the shape and the materials used; the way they’re finished must also be factored in. Can you explain?
LC: I think that this industry -- the high-end niche -- has moved away from the real world. The people that can spend a lot of money for these toys are not attracted by them any more. We need to catch the attention of new people, rich people, so we have to speak the language of luxury. I want people to look at our products the way they look at a supercar or an expensive watch. To do this, a big part of the job is to use design properly. We need to have the best audio performance possible, but also the best luxury materials and finish. I wish that people would stop to look at the displays of our products on the streets.
DS: Obviously, the requirements of the designers must be balanced with the needs of the engineers. Where do the two meet? Does form follow function, or does function follow form?
LC: Paolo [Tezzon], the sound engineer, and I always work together. We share the same space (for the moment), and the engineering and design teams are composed of the same persons. So the ideas come out at the same time for Paolo, me, and our team. Obviously, we have to fight sometimes over the details, but I’m an audiophile, so I know very well where the limit is.
The Sonus Faber team
DS: Not that many years ago, inexpensive speakers were usually uglier than far more expensive ones; in particular, the low-priced speakers of yesterday almost always used to come with vinyl-clad, rectangular enclosures. These days, I’ve noticed that products can be beautiful irrespective of cost. A good example is the Venere 1.5, which costs only $1200/pair in the US. In certain ways it’s every bit as stylish and beautiful as the Aida, which costs $120,000/pair. Why is it that companies can offer such great-looking, low-priced products today, but couldn’t in the past? Is it simply the attention now given design?
LC: The difference between an Aida and a Venere is huge. By the way, I think that in this globalized world, some differences increased a lot. Today, if you want to buy a classic mobile phone, you can have it for less than €30 and it will work perfectly to make calls. But if you want the very best, you have to pay 30 times more. The same for all the components of a loudspeaker system: If you use mass-produced components, you can have good results without spending a fortune; but if you want the best, no way. I think this is a consequence of having fewer artisans and more big factories.
DS: The Wadia brand was out of the public eye for quite some time, but the debut of the Intuition 01 PowerDAC at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show brought the whole thing back in a flash. Details of its inner technology aside, what was the inspiration for the Intuition’s curving top and bottom and its square case?
LC: Wadia is big opportunity for our group. There is still a lot of know-how inside the company -- they only need some fresh ideas. The new line was a pure intuition. After a discussion with Mauro about what real people need, I came out with the concept of this simple, pure shape, and he loved it immediately. Everybody in the Fine Sounds Group loved it. Sometimes it happens that ideas are in the air -- you only have to look outside of your box and catch them.
DS: I noticed that the rear and sides of the Intuition 01 look similar to the front, whereas with most electronic components, all the pretty parts are on the faceplate, and the side and rear panels are almost afterthoughts. Obviously, this was a deliberate design choice. Why?
LC: Most of the classical hi-fi gear has only one face, probably because they were designed to stay in a shelf or in a hi-fi rack, where sides are hidden. The Intuition was designed to stay in a free, modern environment, like a sculpture or a piece of art.
DS: Audio Research’s new products have a look that’s very similar to those of the past, but something seems different in them -- they look more modern. Have there been recent changes in the way they approach design?
LC: I started to do some work on Audio Research, but the design process needs some more time. So nothing in the actual catalog is yet created by me and my team. But yes, my idea for Audio Research is to use a very classic approach respecting the history of the brand.
DS: Since you oversee all the brands, is there the risk of design elements from one brand spilling over to another and blurring the boundaries between brands, particularly with electronics?
LC: Absolutely not! Every brand has its own DNA, and it is important to preserve it.
DS: The design of the Intuition 01 obviously employs some pretty radical thinking. On the other hand, you probably still have to balance your designs with things, such as controls and connectors needing to be in certain places, that at least somewhat compromise a product’s appearance. For instance, I can’t imagine that anyone likes the looks of all the connectors and binding posts sticking out of the rear panels of speakers and components, but they’re functional and are where audiophiles expect them to be. Most readouts on faceplates aren’t that attractive, but they serve a purpose. Are there any aspects of design that must be retained today that you’d like to eventually do away with?
LC: There is a lot of work to do on hi-fi gear; a lot of details need to be refocused in conjunction with our actual living environments. Some of these details -- binding posts, reflex ports, speaker stands, spikes, for example -- seem incredible to any designer who ignores audiophile fetishes. But I am lucky to live in both worlds, so my first priority is to think of these details and their functions with a design perspective.
DS: What’s the next product we can look forward to that best illustrates your approach?
LC: Of course, the Intuition suite for Wadia are some of the most important products I have made for the Fine Sounds Group, but some important new products are coming in the Sonus Faber collections. [The Intuition 01 PowerDAC was shown at CES 2013, but there will also be an 02 model, which Cucuzza indicated will be a digital source component. -- DS] Some of these will represent a good example of the integration of tradition and innovation. You have to wait for the Munich show . . .
DS: We’ll certainly check them out! Thank you for your time, Livio.
LC: Thank you, Douglas. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to stay closer to our customers.
. . . Doug Schneider