Sony SA-S1

Released in the UK in 1995, Sony’s La Scala 1 system cost around £1,500 at the time – although was discounted to a lot less. It comprised the CDP-S1 CD player, an optional MD-S1 MiniDisc recorder, the TC-S1 cassette deck, ST-S1 tuner and TAE-S1 preamp. Completing the package was a pair of SA-S1 active speakers, and the result was a versatile, high quality midi system that packed way more technology than its rivals. Indeed, if we’re being honest, the speakers were the stars of the show. Word is. that three quarters of the total system cost went into them.

Upon first inspection, the look of the SA-S1 throws you a curved ball. Any audiophile worth their interconnects will instantly recognise what is sitting on an otherwise fairly anonymous looking boxy speaker cabinet – namely the electrostatic tweeter. This is a big deal for any hi-fi speaker of any type and price – let alone something sold as part of a stack system. The 25x100mm treble unit is a proper electrostatic design, pushing out up to 8W RMS of power. As you will know dear reader, the design of an electrostatic is such that the diaphragm that radiates the sound is far lighter than that used in a conventional dome tweeter. That means lower distortion and faster transients – plus superior dispersion, of course.

Normally, that would be enough for any loudspeaker – there are precious few electrostatic/moving coil hybrids. Yet the SA-S1 didn’t stop there, because it had a 170mm bass unit that employed a variant of the highly respected but little used motional feedback (MFB, in Sony parlance) system. This amplifier section powering this put out a claimed 50W RMS, and was linked to a sophisticated system that monitored the cone behaviour and compensated for it in real time, electronically.

Rather like four-wheel steering in cars, motional feedback was a highly sophisticated and effective idea that failed in the commercial marketplace – because it was too expensive to manufacture and hard to market. As Philips found out when it introduced its range of motional feedback speakers in the mid-to-late nineteen seventies, the system got critical acclaim from the press, but just didn’t sell at the dealers – largely because of the extra price and complexity. Honda had exactly the same experience with its four-wheel steering system in its Prelude coupe ten years later, funnily enough.

Sony’s motional feedback arrangement works by using a second voice coil wound onto the bass driver. This is the same approach that’s used in MFB subwoofers that you can buy today – it’s simpler than the original Philips method and arguably a little less effective. This is used to deliver bass correction to make up for the mechanical loss of the cone, and is controlled by an analogue equalisation network that in the SA-S1 is done in a plug-in module inside the loudspeaker cabinet.

An STK-type hybrid chip is used for the power amplifier, working in Class AB2, with the bias current preset in the factory. This speaker uses a stereo version of the power chip to give one channel for the woofer and the other for the tweeter. A protection circuit with a relay is included in the circuit. MFB correction, low level amplification and crossover equalisation are all done in op-amp stages using the familiar 4556 chip, which is commonly found in the phono stages of Japanese integrated amplifiers. It’s interesting that the EQ section uses a plug-in module, presumably so that Sony engineers could quickly repurpose the design for other applications?

The speaker measures 220x500x345mm and weighs 11kg apiece. Its lower cabinet is finished in satin lacquered dark brown paint, with plastic front baffle moulding and a small rear-mounted reflex port. There’s a single front-mounted power switch on the speaker, and the rear panel features a single RCA unbalanced phono input and figure-of-8 IEC power socket. The general build quality of the SA-S1 is extremely good, much better than any other ‘midi system speaker’ I’ve ever seen, if not quite up to the standards of high end hi-fi designs.

To get the best from the Sony SA-S1, you’ll need two things; first is a good preamplifier, and second is a decent pair of speaker stands. For my own listening purposes I used an MF Audio Passive Preamplifier fed by a Chord Hugo TT2 DAC, and a pair of Atacama SE16 stands which in my room took the tweeters up to almost ear height. I found these active speakers work best a good way into the room, which is a little counterintuitive given they’re supposed to be midi-system speakers that would often be rammed against a rear wall. If you do the latter, you’re likely to get a pretty sassy presentation that many may like, but I found just a little too intense. Sony doesn’t quote a frequency response but there was a lot of bass energy around 100Hz, way more than you’d expect from most speakers of this size. Moved 60cm or more into the room, the speakers seemed to breathe better and even the electrostatic treble unit seemed to be more effective.

Properly placed, you get a fascinating sound – one that’s quite different to most other speakers around. In short, it’s smooth but punchy, sophisticated but gutsy and delicate but expansive. There are two standout aspects – namely its beautifully etched and open treble and a bass response that’s far more seismic than you’d expect. Overall, the Sony SA-S1 has a relentless energy that pushes music out at you, yet oddly it doesn’t sound harsh. What it does do it remind you how lifeless and limp many conventional stand mounters can sound. This is partly due to the active design, but this effect is further augmented by the motional feedback system that simply keeps pushing hard. The effect is a barrel-chested performance that keeps thumping music out at you, yet it’s no barbarian.

Let’s take some classic technopop – appropriately enough from Japanese electro pioneers YMO. Ballet showed this speaker’s trademark combination of sophistication and grip better than most tracks I’ve heard. We were very much in ‘velvet glove’ territory here, as the SA-S1 punched out the chunky sequenced bassline with great power and dynamics. Indeed, the force of the bass

It wasn’t just a big blob of bass though; that synth line was tight and taut, and modulated up and down in a tuneful way. At the same time, it didn’t swamp out the rest of the recording, so I heard the lead vocal line very clearly, along with the haunting backing. Then there was the electronic hi-hat sound, which was beautifully delicate and fast – with no sense of harshness, smear or splash. The overall effect was an odd one, in the sense that you normally encounter big and punchy sounding speakers, or smooth and svelte ones, but not both.

Female vocals from Kate Bush were also something special. Cloudbusting was open and expressive, and here I was particularly aware of this speaker’s dynamic presentation. It sounded animated, forceful and expressive, yet that heavy electronic percussion didn’t take over the track. Instead there was a fine sense of rhythm, but still I heard space around Kate’s mesmeric vocals. Again the Sony really singled out the bass and snare drum work for special treatment; it seems to relish the challenge of convey impactful drum strikes, yet there was no sense of this speaker being a crude bruiser that was only good enough to pump out monotonous thrash metal. It may have a large fist, but it’s kept under cover by the aforementioned velvet glove.

Spatially the SA-S1 is an impressive performer – as you’d expect with that electrostatic tweeter. It’s way better than your average box loudspeaker, although it doesn’t quite do the full Quad ESL-57 ‘disappear in front of your very ears’ trick. This is partly due to a wee bit of boxy colouration coming from the main loudspeaker enclosure, which is decent enough but still built down to a price. Still, feed the speaker some expansive sounding nineteen sixties rock music like The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, and when you touch down you’ll find the world is larger sounding than most conventional speakers its size. There’s real subtlety here; instruments are precisely located and there’s even a passable attempt and a three dimensional soundstage with the recorded acoustic hanging back a bit – rather than being thrust into your face, as per so many other mid-price box speakers of that era.
fascinating thing, and sort-of sounds like it looks. Probably one of the most adventurous active speakers of the nineteen nineties, how odd that it ended up being sold simply as an addendum to a mid-price midi system that was neat looking and decently made but nothing fancy!

These things aren’t as easily available as, say, a pair of Mission 780s from that period – but there are more around than you might think, if you keep looking. All the usual caveats apply here; when buying old loudspeakers you need to make sure the drive units are working as nature intended, and don’t have perished rubber roll surrounds, and so on. Then there’s the electronics inside that need to be up to scratch too; the relays tend to tarnish, causing distortion and/or dropouts. As such, you need to get a dem of any prospective pair you might be buying. Some may fall on their feet though – because at between £200 and £300 they’re an audiophile bargain if you get a good pair.

To most people, Sony is more synonymous with its mass market Walkman and PlayStation products than it is with high end, and/or innovatively engineered, loudspeakers. But this Japanese giant has past form on such things and from time to time has drawn on its huge engineering resources to create stunning statement products.

It was obviously interested in electrostatics from an early point; you only need to warp back to 1973 to see its SS-7000 for evidence of this – it’s a curious rebadging of B&W’s long-lost DM-70 Continental electrostatic. Arguably though, the company’s finest hour came on the 1st February, 1996 with the launch of the SS-R10 full range flagship electrostatic. Hugely expensive (at 1,500,000 Yen each, or approximately £10,000 back then), this was and still is Sony’s rarest ever speaker – and is a veritable sight for sore ears!

A pure electrostatic design with no help from moving coil drivers, it is reputed to be a special project developed by one talented engineer, as the company’s earlier SS-G333ES and SS-G777ES speakers had been. In effect, it took the classic Quad ESL 57 electrostatic paradigm as far as it could go.

A veritable behemoth, its sturdy wooden frame measured 1545x805x496mm and weighted 76kg. This contained four 270x50mm treble panels, two 25x500mm midrange panels and two 70x500mm bass panels. Crossover points were 600Hz and 4kHz, and the claimed frequency response was 35Hz to 40kHz (-10dB). With a nominal impedance of 4 ohms and a sensitivity of 80dB/W/m, it was a tricky thing to drive. The R1 badge showed it was the company’s best-of-the-best, a label reserved for its flagship ultra high end line. Considering that the humble SA-S1 isn’t easy to find on eBay, don’t get your hopes up too high!

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