Sonus Faber Lumina III Loudspeakers
25 December 2020
Sonus Faber Lumina III Loudspeakers
Italy’s Sonus Faber has a well-earned, decades-old reputation for producing speakers that not only sound great, but are some of the most beautiful and luxurious-looking in the world. Unfortunately, not every audiophile has pockets deep enough to experience the upper echelons of Sonus Faber’s model range.
Enter the new Lumina series, which their maker calls “the new first step into the world of Sonus Faber.” The Luminas, built entirely in Italy, comprise the Lumina I minimonitor ($899/pair, all prices USD), the Lumina CI center-channel ($699 each), and the floorstanding subject of this review, the Lumina III ($2199/pair). Conspicuously absent so far is a Lumina II -- I wouldn’t be surprised to see one in the near future.
Day and date with the Lumina line’s official launch on September 8, 2020, Doug Schneider’s article covering the unboxing of the Lumina IIIs in my basement listening room was published on SoundStage! Global. But I’d received those review samples long before, in mid-August, and had already got in plenty of listening.
While not oozing the opulence of many other, far more expensive Sonus Faber models, my Lumina III review samples, finished in Piano Black, were still very attractive. As Doug lamented as we unboxed the Luminas, it’s a shame we didn’t receive these speakers in one of the other two finishes offered, which feature real-wood veneers: a medium-dark Walnut or a darker, richer Wengè that looks like a medium-dark oak. Based on the photos I’ve seen in the press release, both veneers are more in keeping with the sort of finish that springs to mind when Sonus Faber comes up in conversation.
But whichever finish you select, it’s applied only to the Lumina III’s front baffle of layered MDF. The top and sides of the cabinet, separated from the baffle by a layer of viscoelastic material, are wrapped in black faux leather -- it wouldn’t be a Sonus Faber speaker without some leather! This slightly rounds the corner edges, and is a particularly nice touch. I found their overall appearance subdued, with touches of elegance.
The Lumina is a rectilinear box measuring 36.75”H x 7”W x 9”D (the plinth it sits on is 9”W x 7/8”H x 11”D) and weighing 35.1 pounds. Also of note, despite the Lumina III’s slight weight for a floorstander, is the rigidity of its construction. When I rapped the sidewalls near the midrange driver, I heard a hard thud and felt no vibrational feedback.
On the rear panel, which is painted a matte black, are two pairs of high-quality, nickel-plated, five-way binding posts to accommodate biwiring. The Lumina III is a bass-reflex speaker -- its large Stealth Reflex port vents downward, through the cabinet’s base and a hole in the plinth. If you want to experience the Lumina III’s full bass response, you must use the included threaded spikes to lift plinth and speaker above the floor.
Like its cabinet, the Lumina III’s drivers look decidedly Sonus Faber. Starting at the top of the cabinet and working downward: As its name implies, Sonus Faber’s 1.14” (29mm) Damped Apex Dome (DAD) tweeter has at its apex a small, spongy damper that holds the center of the soft dome in place as it moves. The SF design team says (I paraphrase) that this damper prevents antiphase behavior at and near the dome, and thus improves its high-frequency extension. The tweeter hands off at 3.5kHz to a 5.9” midrange driver, via a crossover SF describes as having been optimized for amplitude and phase using custom high-quality capacitors. The midrange is crossed over at 350Hz to two 5.9” woofers. The paper diaphragms of all three 5.9” cones are made of a blend of cellulose pulp and other natural fibers.
The Lumina III has a specified frequency range of 40Hz-24kHz, a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, a sensitivity of 89dB/2.83V/m, and a suggested range of amplification of 50-250W.
Setup and system
Each Lumina III came packed in its own box with instruction manual, magnetically attached grille, and quartets of threaded spikes and discs (the latter for use on hardwood floors). I screwed in the spikes and placed the Luminas about 10.5’ apart and 9’ from my listening chair. The speakers’ rear panels were 26” from the wall behind them, and their outer side panels were each 21” from the room’s nearer sidewall. I left my stands in place to make for faster comparisons of the Luminas and the minimonitors I had on hand.
I began with the Lumina IIIs toed in about 30°, pointed straight at me, as Sonus Faber recommends in the manual, to optimize image focus. In the end, I settled on my usual 15° of toe-in -- that setup sounded less bright without compromising the imaging.
My relatively small (15’L x 12’W x 8’H), dedicated listening room is treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points on the sidewalls, and on the long wall behind the speakers; a homemade bass trap stands in each front corner.
I connected the Luminas to my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier using homemade speaker cables with 12-gauge conductors of oxygen-free copper terminated with banana plugs. The source component was a Bluesound Node streamer and its built-in DAC, connected to the NAD’s line-level inputs with AmazonBasics interconnects (RCA). The Node served also as an endpoint for the Roon software installed on my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 laptop computer. I streamed music from Tidal, Qobuz, and CDs I’d ripped to FLAC files and stored on a NAS.
I began my critical listening with “Will I Be Waiting,” from Jim Cuddy’s The Light that Guides You Home (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Warner Music Canada). This well-recorded track opens with a strummed guitar just to left of center stage, and the Lumina IIIs reproduced it with attention-grabbing sparkle and transparency and no hint of cabinet coloration. When Cuddy begins to sing, his voice -- dead center and high above the tops of the speakers -- was pure, airy, and forward, but sounded a bit thin. This described the speaker’s midrange in general: forward and lively, detailed and airy, a little lean. There was no shortage of detail retrieval -- the Sonus Fabers let me easily hear the very subtle backing vocals at 1:12, behind and just to the right of Cuddy.
When the bass drops at 0:44, I was impressed. These small yet stiff, dense cabinets let their four collective woofers produce bass that was tight, articulate, and quick-paced, with punch I could feel -- very satisfying.
Focusing on the highs, I noted that the cymbal strokes, layered to left and right throughout “Will I Be Waiting,” sounded less subtle than I’m used to hearing from this track. With the cymbal stroke at 1:57 I heard plenty of detail, shimmer, and a long decay, but definitely more output than I’m used to. A bad thing? See below.
To evaluate the Lumina III’s bass reproduction, I turned to hip-hop: “I Feel It Coming,” from The Weeknd’s Starboy (24/44.1 FLAC, Universal Republic/Qobuz). It begins with high-frequency synth notes to left and right of center. A little later come some snappy high-frequency notes at hard left and right. I don’t usually pay much attention to these -- the track is all about dat bass -- but the Luminas drew too much attention to them by making them sound sharp and piercing.
But at 0:20, when the bass drops, I forgot any grievances. The Lumina III is small for a four-driver tower, but the pair of them sure didn’t sound small in my smallish room. While not quite what I’m used to from my reference system, which includes two subwoofers and produces ample output down past 20Hz -- i.e., below the bottom of the audioband -- the Lumina IIIs’ bass extension was commendable. Using my miniDSP UMIK-1 microphone, I measured their in-room response at nine positions at and around my listening position, then averaged those responses. The -3dB point was just below 30Hz -- respectable bass extension that explains why, through the Lumina IIIs, “I Feel It Coming” provided some rumble in the seat of my chair.
But the Sonus Fabers really excelled at fast, punchy bass. The rapid thumps in this track sounded just that -- really fast -- with slam I could feel in my chest. I played this music quite loud, to peaks of close to 100dB, C-weighted -- the speakers and the small NAD amp driving them, specced to output just 40Wpc into 8 ohms, all retained their composure.
I then looked at the Lumina IIIs’ in-room treble response, which confirmed the tipped-up treble I’d heard: A rise in the frequency response starting at about 4kHz peaked at +4dB (relative to 2kHz) at about 8.5kHz.
Next up was a favorite of mine, the title track of Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence (24/96 FLAC, Geffen/Qobuz) -- I know its sound intimately. The opening piano notes to right of center had a bell-like clarity through the Lumina IIIs, but sounded slightly higher in pitch, and less rounded, than I know them to sound. The Luminas’ bass speed and articulation were again fully displayed in their reproduction of the kick drum and piano in the track’s first seconds. When Henley begins to sing, at 0:25, I heard superb, reach-out-and-touch-it presence -- his voice was well defined and forward in the mix at center stage, surrounded by lots of air. But each time Henley uttered an s sound, the Luminas accentuated that sibilant to an irritating degree. The brushed cymbal behind and to the left of Henley were also brought more to the fore -- not necessarily a bad thing, but different from how I know this track to actually sound.
I often use “Give Me One Reason,” from Tracy Chapman’s New Beginning (16/44.1 FLAC, Elektra/Qobuz), to test a pair of speakers’ imaging and soundstaging. The Luminas passed this test with flying colors. And because this track is not inherently bright and Chapman’s sibilants are not accentuated, hearing it through the Luminas proved very pleasurable. It begins with plucked guitar to left of center, which the Sonus Fabers reproduced with pinpoint accuracy and sparkling detail. Then Chapman’s voice enters dead center, reproduced with complete transparency as a focused, 6”-diameter sphere hanging solidly in space, devoid of any cabinet colorations. Then the drum and bass enter, followed by a cymbal, about 1’ to the right of and 2’ behind the first guitar, followed by a second guitar to the extreme right of Chapman, just inside the right speaker. Two backing singers then enter, the first 1’ to the right and just behind Chapman, the second about 2’ to the left and maybe 3’ behind her. The Luminas reproduced each voice and instrument with the same or nearly the same pinpoint accuracy of positioning and focus in terms of image size -- as I’m used to from my reference setup, which includes Focal Sopra No1 minimonitors ($9990/pair).
I figured that the perfect speaker with which to compare the Lumina III would be the three-way, four-driver Focal Chora 826, for only $9 less: $2190/pair. Trouble was, I didn’t have a pair. So I decided to use Focal’s Chora 806 minimonitor ($990/pair). It would have to do.
Comparing a tower speaker to a stand-mount may seem unfair -- and in terms of bass output, it generally is. However, the sonic character within a given manufacturer’s product line tends to be reasonably consistent, with bass output and extension increasing as you move up the line. So in this case I focused on differences in the speakers’ reproductions of the midrange and treble.
After matching their levels using pink noise and an SPL meter, I began listening at my typical SPL at the listening position of 90-95dB, C-weighted. Overall, I found that the Sonus Fabers sounded brighter than the Focals, and a little thinner through the midrange. For example, the two speakers reproduced Jim Cuddy’s voice in “Will I Be Waiting” with equal presence and palpability, the main difference being the voice’s tonal character: Through the Lumina IIIs it was surrounded by more air, but sounded thinner; through the Chora 806es it was meatier, more robust. Any time the cymbals were played, the Luminas shone a spotlight on them -- through the Focals, the cymbals remained more in the background, behind the lead singer. For example, the cymbal crash to left of center at 1:30 sounded louder and more forward through the Luminas. Through the Lumina IIIs, acoustic guitars had more sting and sparkle than through the Choras, cutting through the mix with more authority.
Precision and transparency of imaging were roughly on a par, with perhaps a slight edge going to the Sonus Fabers. In “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley’s voice sounded even more detached from the Lumina IIIs’ cabinets than from the Choras’. But, again, the same differences in tonal character emerged: the piano at the beginning sounded sharper through the Sonus Fabers, more rounded and soft through the Focals. The overemphasis of sibilants through the Luminas was somewhat irritating, but not through the Focals. At 0:39, when Henley sings “stand by,” the opening s was a bit too piercing for comfort through the Lumina IIIs.
I also played “Homesick,” from Dua Lipa (24/44.1 FLAC, Warner/Qobuz). In her opening vocal passage, the Luminas’ tipped-up treble let me hear farther into the recording venue, actual or not -- there seemed to be more reverb, more air around Lipa’s voice than with the Focals. But through the Sonus Fabers, hard vocal inflections sounded, well, harder, and sibilants more irritating.
On balance, I preferred the Focals’ midrange and more even-keeled top end over what the Sonus Fabers offered in those departments. But lower in the audioband there was no contest. Not only did the Lumina IIIs provide more bass extension, as I heard with “I Feel It Coming” -- more rumble in my seat than the stand-mounts could muster -- the Luminas’ bass was also quicker and tighter. With “I Will Be Waiting,” bass through the Lumina IIIs was faster, and the thumpy synth notes in “I Feel It Coming” were more impactful. But the Lumina III has a much bigger cabinet, two woofers to the 806’s one, and costs more than twice as much. No surprise.
I then listened to all of my reference tracks again, this time at an SPL of 80-85dB -- a level at which, I suspect, many audiophiles typically listen. (I think I listen at louder average volume levels than most.) The results were ear-opening. At this level, even the most accentuated sibilants were not reproduced loudly enough by the Sonus Fabers to be irritating. And with that removed from the equation, I found it a lot tougher to choose between these speakers on the basis of their reproductions of the midrange and highs. I could still hear their differences in tonal character at this volume, and I think I still preferred the Focals -- but the extra treble energy produced by the Lumina IIIs brought forward details that would otherwise be more obscured. All the subtle sounds in “Will I Be Waiting” -- the low-level cymbal to left and right of center and behind Cuddy, the very quiet backing vocals -- were brought farther forward in the mix, making them easier to distinguish and follow.
In short: The volume level at which I listened made a big difference. Anyone comparing the Sonus Faber Lumina III with, say, a Focal Chora 806 -- or with any other speaker -- should try playing music at a variety of volume levels.
In terms of sound quality for its size and price, Sonus Faber’s Lumina III gave me next to nothing to complain about. Transparency, imaging precision, soundstage size -- all were first rate. The bottom end sounded ample in my smallish room; more important, it was taut and toe-tappingly quick. The midrange was open and expressive, with a good amount of presence, if sounding just a little lean.
The top end was a mixed bag. While the Lumina IIIs delivered airy, shimmery highs, they did so with emphasis. If you like to listen at a fairly high level, as I do, you may find their treble off-putting, especially with recordings on which singers’ sibilants are already emphasized. If you listen at more moderate levels, however, the Lumina IIIs may be just the ticket -- at lower volumes, their tipped-up treble could produce impressive levels of detail and air without causing discomfort or listening fatigue.
In terms of visual beauty, these Italian speakers are fetching at the price. While I would have wished for a wood-finished pair to behold, the gloss-black towers I spent time with were finished to a high standard, and the faux-leather wrap offers a touch of Sonus Faber opulence. If you’ve been pining after a pair of Sonus Faber towers but were a little light of wallet to seriously consider any of their upper-end designs, give the Lumina III a look -- and a good listen.