The nineteen seventies was a fascinating time for loudspeakers. Most designs from that decade were invariably pretty crude, but there were still some breathtaking boxes on sale, using state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, there was a far larger gap between run-of-the-mill products and leading edge ones back then – standard speakers weren’t that different from the sort of fare you’d see in the nineteen fifties, whereas the best aren’t far off today’s top designs in technological terms.
The average audio buyer of that era would likely end up with a pair of two-way Wharfedale Dentons or suchlike, and consider it fifty pounds well spent. Meanwhile, serious audiophiles would think a three-way to be the badge of hi-fi respectability, because they were what professional sound engineers used, weren’t they? A few hi-fi buyers at the very top of the tree – think rock gods, film stars or oil magnates – would have four-way loudspeakers, often with built-in supertweeters, but these were few and far between. In the great scheme of things then, the Sony SS-5050 was right at the top of what mere mortals could afford, costing a cool £800 (RRP) per pair in 1976.
Price aside, one its biggest obstacles to commercial success was the received wisdom of the time – that Britain built the best loudspeakers. We used to think they had a “good tone” – something of a self-fulfilling prophesy, because it was simply the one we were used to! We had illustrious brands such as KEF, Tannoy, Celestion and IMF, plus a new wave of BBC speaker builders, from Chartwell to Rogers and Spendor, producing boxes that often had the same (often KEF) drive units inside. What chance did this relatively new company, best known for transistor radios and television sets, possibly have?
Although by this time, Japanese hi-fi was selling in vast quantities, there was still a large amount of snobbery surrounding it. Many owners of specialist audiophile products wouldn’t have “Jap crap” (as the saying went) in the house – it was badly regarded by those who didn’t own it. Little did they know just how fast Nipponese products were developing, and the huge budgets the manufacturers now had to spend on research. Much British fare by comparison, was built around cottage-industry lines – sometimes even in old World War II Nissin huts!
The upshot of this was a kind of parallel audio universe – British companies tended to sell their wares through specialist hi-fi dealers, and these would not in turn sell much (if any) Japanese kit. If you wanted this, ‘sir’ was asked to leave the dealer in an orderly fashion and pay a visit to the local Lasky’s, Dixons or Comet, where he could find the sort of thing that better suited him. Even the hi-fi magazines practiced this odd sort of audio apartheid – some catered for your Hitachis and Sanyos of this world, other titles covered Lecson, Cambridge Audio, Linn and Naim, and never the twain did meet. The latter would quietly ridicule the former, while basic audio buyers looked on in bemusement at the huge prices asked by British specialist hi-fi dealers.
Sadly for Sony, the SS-5050 fell right into this chasm – it wore a mass market Japanese badge and yet was hugely expensive and encroached right into high end British speaker territory. You could hear Spendor BC1s and KEF 104abs in your local specialist hi-fi dealer, but the chances of finding this high end Sony were virtually nil. For this reason, the SS-5050 – and a number of other premium-priced Japanese products like it – became effectively ‘hidden in plain sight’. They were widely on sale, yet few people noticed. British hi-fi magazines of the time didn’t help, often appearing indifferent to Japanese high end offerings at best, and sneering at worst. You’d see them making a fuss about relatively unsophisticated speaker drive unit materials like Bextrene for example, whilst missing the futuristic carbon fibre treated drive units of Sony’s flagship loudspeaker.
The Sony’s sky-high price wasn’t all import duty. Actually, it’s interesting to remember that the Japanese Yen’s value relative to the UK Pound was three times lower back then, yet still the SS-5050 sold for more than most high end British boxes. This was reflected by its battleship build – and also the technology inside. By this time, Sony was a huge corporation with worldwide interests and factories in a number of far Eastern countries. It had a vast research and development budget compared to the average British specialist hi-fi manufacturer, not only making audio of course but also arguably the world’s best televisions and video recording/playback equipment.
Like every range-topping product from this company, the SS-5050 was built without compromise and was surprisingly complex for a seventies speaker. The three-way design weighed in at 20 kilograms per box, quite a lot for its 365x630x318mm dimensions. Although large, it is effectively a standmounter – requiring a serious frame stand (think Linn Isobarik) rather than the spun chrome affair on castors that it often ended up on. Inside its largish, well braced, beech-ply cabinet were three drive units all of Sony design and manufacture – a 25mm cone tweeter, a 35mm midrange driver and a 300mm woofer. The two upper drive units featured special protectors which also aided dispersion; that big twelve inch bass unit needed no extra assistance in its task! All three were screwed into the wide, thick wood front baffle and had their own air-tight sealing gaskets.
By the mid seventies, the Sony Corporation had become very interested in materials technology. By then of course its top integrated turntable featured a carbon fibre armtube, for example, so it knew full well the benefits of low mass and rigidity in hi-fi applications. For the SS-5050, the bass driver cone was a carbon-fibre/paper hybrid (something that Sony called ‘CARBOCON’); this was a technology that the big Japanese company was very proud of and it appeared in all its subsequent high end speakers. (The SS-5050’s replacement, the SS-G7, sold 20,000 pairs around the world, a remarkable number for such an expensive speaker.) The midband and treble drivers were also carbon coated, and all drive units had diecast frames and high quality wiring terminals.
The drivers crossed over from one another at 800Hz and 8,000kHz, which makes the midband driver the star of the show, keeping its breakup regions well away from the human ear’s most sensitive area of 2-5kHz. The result was was a claimed 40Hz to 20kHz (-3dB) frequency response, which was an excellent result for that time. The SS-5050 also had an amazingly high power handling by the standards of the day. When an average budget box would be torn apart by anything more than 25W RMS, the Sony took 80W before doom came its way. It had a quoted impedance of 8 ohms, and very high sensitivity for a nineteen seventies three-way speaker – 91dB/1W/1m. Considering its 73 litre cabinet was a sealed infinite baffle design, this was a great result – all the more so when you remember that most seventies speakers were stupidly power-hungry.
It’s fascinating to hear a well-preserved pair of Sony SS-5050s, four decades after the first reached British shops – but you might be surprised how modern it sounds. That infinite baffle cabinet and its lightweight, high power drivers make for a fast, tight, punchy sound which is far less coloured than most speakers of its time. We’re always told narrow baffles are better for imaging, but this pair of Sonys work just as well as a far smaller bookshelf boxes in this respect. And what really strikes one is the bass – which switches on and off like a flashing LED. There’s none of the time smearing or slurring of bass notes that you get from a reflex ported speaker, and this is aided and abetted by the obvious strength and rigidity of the box. Even though it looks old school, it interferes with the sound relatively little, even at high volume levels.
Interestingly, if there’s any modern loudspeaker you can liken it to, it’s ATC. Funnily enough this company is fond of sealed cabinets and big three-ways, and the Sony is a textbook example of the concept done well. Its ability to move air quickly and without fuss, allied to a powerful punch when called upon is pure monitor loudspeaker territory. Despite this, the big Sony still sounds completely unlike the BBC designs of its day with Bextrene cones, or even the (then) ultra modern polypropylene coned Mission 770 that arrived a year or two later. Carbocon certainly isn’t a gimmick – much as you might wish it to be with its silly Japanese-English name. Feed the SS-5050 some well recorded period rock music, such as Neil Young’s Southern Man for example, and you’re immediately struck by how dry and crisp and clean it sounds. Like much Japanese high end its cup never overflows with tonal warmth or euphony.
Indeed, in some respects, this big Sony speaker is superb then, but play some beautifully rich and sumptuous sounding music from Isaac Hayes – in the shape of Bumpy’s Lament – and you’re soon aware there’s something missing. One of the great classic Stax recordings of the seventies, it’s a riot of strings, brass and flutes, yet the SS-5050 sounds rather dry and analytical. Sure, it’s very tidy and composed with no harshness or grain, but things sound just a little too forensic and antiseptic to really pull the listener in. The Sony does brilliantly on the hi-fi aspects of the track – powering the beat along, serving up dramatic dynamic peaks and giving a pleasing low end wallop, but it sounds a tad dispassionate to these English ears.
Launched in Tokyo, Japan, in October 1975, the SS-5050 was top of Sony’s 1976 range. It headed a line-up that featured the SS-1050, SS-2050 and SS-3050 (four is an unlucky number in Japan, hence its omission). The 3050 is also worth seeking out to get a taste of the 5050 – it too has Carbocon cones and a single (treble) level control. Prices for the SS-5050 have ranged from around £90 per pair to £300 in the past few years – because of their relative scarcity you simply have to wait your turn for a pair to come up in the classifieds, and pay close to what the buyer is asking. Unlike many things on eBay though, they haven’t been seized upon by sellers with vivid imaginations just yet. Some Japanese high end products which used to cost £100 a few years ago are now being advertised for £1,000 or more, in a wild exercise in greed and wishful thinking, but the SS-5050 remains sensibly priced and affordable.
Buying any old speaker secondhand is a punt, which is why it’s always good to try before you buy; if necessary bring your own amp and source, and push the volume up while they’re cold, in search of random buzzes or booms which shouldn’t be there. If you hear such a thing, you have the choice of walking away or making a substantially lower offer, in the expectation than another part of ‘spares or repair’ speakers might surface in a few months’ time. The contacts inside the treble and midrange level pads respond well to a squirt of Servisol, so this is always worth doing before any more serious surgery. Once you’ve got a good pair, it doesn’t hurt to tighten the drive units up in the front baffle, and clean the rear terminals either. This done, some 20cm-off-the-ground tubular steel frame stands will get the best out of them.
More pairs of Sony SS-5050s were sold in the UK that you might think, so they’re still around and relatively cheap on the occasions that they surface secondhand. It’s a fascinating ‘time warp’ transducer – not the best ever or even particularly beguiling to listen to – but still an intriguing reminder of a largely forgotten hi-fi past. Japanese high end isn’t common in this country, but rather like early Lexus saloon cars, it still soldiers on uncomplainingly, doing a surprisingly competent job!