The enthusiast's audio webzine

Sonist Concerto 3

Photos: Erik Putens.

This review has been a long, long, long time in the making. I started a small audiophile magazine called The HI-FI Reader almost five years ago and the first person to place an advertisement in The Reader was Randy Bankert for his Sonist Loudspeakers. The same ad for his company graced the back cover of all fourteen issues of The HI-FI Reader. It was early on that Randy and I discussed me reviewing a pair of his speakers which prompted a slow, slow unraveling of events that lead me to actually getting the speakers in my possession. Manufacturing delays, product upgrades, scheduling conflicts, and illness among many other road bumps contributed to the indefinite delay of this review. I finally got the speakers a few years ago but then I already had other components ahead of them in the que for review. By the time I got to the Concerto 3’s, the woofers in my pair had been discontinued. This prompted another period of delay as I waited for the new woofers to arrive. On and on and on and on. Once I got the new woofers and installed them in the cabinets, I took Randy’s instructions to heart and put no less than 400 hours of continuous play through them to break them in. That’s almost 17 days, which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that long – but at this point, I wasn’t going to cut any corners. In this whole process, I have spent a great deal of time listening to these speakers in two different configurations. Of all the components I have reviewed, the C3’s have easily, easily gotten the most airtime with me.

The Concerto 3 is a two-way floor-stander that utilizes an 8” treated paper cone woofer and a ribbon tweeter. The two drivers produce a claimed frequency response of 30 Hz – 40 kHz with a sensitivity of 95 dB. Yes, you guessed it, Randy is an SET fan and these speakers were designed with those parameters in mind. The cabinets for the C3 are constructed out of poplar. Pop….what? Yeah, I had to ask too. Poplar (according to the Sonist brochure) is a soft hardwood that is less resonant than other hardwoods and has no specific resonating frequency. The C3’s hardwired crossover consists of two components: a first order coil for the woofer and a first order Auricap capacitor for the tweeter. The C3’s have Cardas binding posts that give you the option of bi-wiring or bi-amping. Cardas jumpers are supplied if you wish to do neither – as did I. You also have the option to use 4 threaded spikes under each C3. I tried them out, more than once, but decided that the speakers (like all others I have tried) sounded better on my carpet covered concrete basement floor without the spikes.

Sonist Concerto 3 floor-standing loudspeaker - baffle close-up

Sonist Concerto 3 floor-standing loudspeaker - baffle close-up

You have the option of getting the Concerto 3 “standard,” which consists of a wood grain front baffle and a black laminate/paint (that reminds me of a pickup truck’s bed liner) on the rest of the cabinet. The standard version has a 1 3/4″ thick solid poplar front baffle, and 1″ thick Medite cabinet walls. Or you can have the all wood version that replaces the truck bed with front baffle matching wood grain and has 1″ thick poplar cabinet walls. Standard: $3,495. All wood: $4,195. Randy says there is no measurable or hearable difference between the two. The pair that Randy sent me is the standard, which I was initially kind of bummed on. The aesthetics kind of reminded me of a PA speaker, which I am no fan of. I have seen the all-wood versions at RMAF and they are beautiful. Whether or not that is worth an extra $600 is up to you. I will say that the PA monitor correlation has faded and the visual element of the standard version has grown on me.

Way back when, when Randy and I first started the discussion of this review, he made it clear that his speakers were designed around the parameters of single-ended tube amps. His clarity on the subject was countered with me making it clear that I did not own a single-ended tube amp. Randy, being the generous soul that he is, offered to send along with the Concerto 3’s, the Royal Devices Sara 300B 10 watt integrated amplifier. “Sure!” This is the amp that is Randy’s own personal workhorse/reference that his speakers have been designed around. I listened a fair deal to the Sara 300B driving the Concerto 3’s with the original woofer – and though not bad, the sound it produced wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. Matter of fact, I think I may slowly be coming to the conclusion that I don’t really care for single-ended amps. I know, I know – I’m sure I’m going to suffer another 50 years in audiophile Purgatory for that one. I prefer full frequency coverage from an amp/speaker combo and it seems increasingly difficult to achieve that using a single-ended amp. Or, at least it seems difficult to achieve it at realistic listening levels. Perhaps I just haven’t heard the right combo yet but of the high sensitivity speakers that I have heard in my listening room at length, I have consistently preferred them with push-pull amps that provide more muscle. The Concerto 3’s were no exception. I tried a number of amps and the one I came back to time and time again was my 30 watt tube/hybrid AMC CVT2030. 30 watts seemed to be what the doctor ordered in terms of providing the right amount of oomph and drive for the C3’s. With the 2030, the C3’s sounded effortless and big but never harsh or strained. Bass never seemed to suffer either.

I listened to the C3’s a great deal with both the original woofer and later with the new woofers installed. I asked Randy about the differences between the new vs. old woofer, to which he said this:

  1. 40 oz magnet instead of 28 oz. magnet to increase sensitivity.
  2. Phase plug instead of dust cap:
    –Better treble dispersion from the woofer.
    –No build-up of air pressure behind the cone which caused rear movement of cone to be less than forward movement of cone, causing an asymmetric forward and backward motion, distorting the bass frequency waveforms.
  3. The phase plug is made of copper-plated aluminum, bolted to the magnet assembly, which provides Faraday induction reduction, improving the treble.
  4. Faraday ring installed in the magnet assembly, reducing induction and improving treble speed and air.
  5. High compliance surround and spider, which lowers the Fs (bass response) without increasing the moving mass, which would reduce sensitivity.

I’m not sure what the major contributing factor was (probably all of them, to a certain degree) but swapping out the old with the new woofer was like switching to a whole different speaker altogether. The original woofer sounded good, albeit a bit soft and romantic. It seemed to capitalize on the fact that tubes would most likely be giving it its juice and created a slightly hazy, warm sound – regardless of the amp used. The original woofers sounded good and the speaker as a whole garnered a lot of praise.

To my ears, with the new woofer installed and fully broken in, the Concerto 3 jumped to a whole new level. Where do I start…….? Bass was deeper, had more slam and was way more articulate, musical and engaging. Bass lines stood apart as their own entities against other low frequencies such as the kick drum and did so with ease. The new woofer seemed to integrate more seamlessly with the tweeter and the speaker as a whole was more dynamic. Imaging was way more articulate and among the best I have heard in my listening room as were the textural qualities. They also were engaging at lower levels. I never felt like they had to be cranked to get me attention. And, AND the Concerto 3’s were able to play all kinds of music – and play them well.

I listened to so much material through the C3’s, it’s daunting to try and pick a place to start….. I have recently felt a lull in seeking out new music and have been sifting through my collection, picking out records I haven’t heard in years and/or completely forgot I even had. One such recording is Recoil’s Liquid. Recoil is one time Depeche Moder Alan Wilder’s project that (as you may imagine) is a mostly synthetic affair that mixes elements of experimental, hip-hop and electronic music to create an interesting and intriguing record that can be kind of freaky at times. The Concerto 3’s had absolutely no problem peeling back the layers on Liquid and separating the synthetic from the organic. Being mostly a studio recording, the C3’s were able to recreate the artificial spatial mixing cues that are in part what make recordings like this what they are. Little blips hanging in space here and little bleeps in space over there are part of the entertainment factor of these recordings and the C3’s were able to provide. Track 3 on the record is called “Jezebel” and it’s where the hip-hop element shines the brightest. The bass is (surprise, surprise) big and punchy, which the C3’s kept a firm grip on with no problem. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised at the speaker’s ability in this regard – probably due to their association with SET amps, which I typically wouldn’t equate with their ability to play hip-hop well at higher SPL’s. That said, this quality was one that really made a noticeable leap for the better with the updated woofer installed.

The Sonist Concerto 3 in the listening room

The Sonist Concerto 3 in the listening room

Moving on to the more organic, though still studio, I listened to Ancient Greeks’ The Song is You. The big, full presentation of this not-necessarily-wonderfully-recorded record was undeniable. The C3’s have the knack of being incredibly balanced and listening to The Song displayed this. The highs were extended and smooth and details of the recording like synthetic echo and reverb were defined and apparent as was an elusive triangle on the recording. Also, the bass on The Song had the perfect amount of oomph and punch without being boomy or out of proportion with the rest of the frequency. By the way, this was one of the areas that the CVT2030 excelled over the Sara 300B. Typically, while listening to rock music like Ancient Greeks, the SPL’s are usually on the higher side. No matter the material, the C3’s never ran out of steam, no matter how high I turned the volume pots on my Bottlehead Foreplay. Perhaps, had I pushed them past the point that would have been healthy for my ears I would have heard some strain and compression but I never did that. But I did, repeatedly, listen at a level causing Amy to complain and implore me to turn it down.

Toning it down with some even more organic material, I cued up a personal favorite: Pat Metheney and Charlie Haden’s Beyond the Missouri Sky. Holy smoke! This was the type of stuff that it was playing as I was walking down the hall at RMAF or some other audio show; I would definitely pause and go into the room that was playing it. It possessed that live music quality that most of us strive for. The air of the recording and the extension, placement and detail of Metheny’s guitar and Haden’s bass were better than I have ever heard. Like live music, listening to this recording via the C3’s simply drew me in and stole my attention to every nook and detail of the recording while executing (again, like live music) an undeniable ebb and flow to the timing of the music. This is one of the strongest characteristics of the Concerto 3 – their ability to draw you into the music, and I don’t mean once you are in the sweet spot. I have my system playing a lot while I’m in another room doing housework or on the computer or whatever. I found time and time again that the music would draw me into the sweet spot, away from whatever menial task I was doing. They enthralled me but didn’t get the housework done.

The speakers that I reviewed prior to the Concerto 3’s (and am therefore very familiar with) were the Zu Soul “Superfly.” I really like the Zu’s and highly recommended them, though noted their performance was contingent on the amp driving them – preferably a tube amp with 16-ohm taps. The Zu’s and the Sonist’s are two different speakers based on the same design parameters. They are both two-way, high-sensitivity floor-standing speakers designed to be used with (but not limited to) single-ended tube amps. Like the Sonist’s, I preferred the Zu’s with a push-pull amp. Towards the end of the review period for the Sonists, I decided to put the Zu’s back in my system for a direct comparison. For two speakers that are more similar than they are different in terms of design, they really couldn’t sound more different. The Zu’s want to party. They almost beg to be played loud and sound good when they are. They possess more horn-like tonal qualities and have a smaller sweet spot, have better channel separation and are more articulate. They draw more attention to the qualities that make them a “stereo” pair of loudspeakers – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Studio recordings with synthetic elements, especially electronic music, excelled via the Zu’s because of these qualities. Lastly, the Zu’s Cardas binding posts beat out the Sonist’s standard 5-way’s hands down.

In comparison, the Sonist’s provided a more natural soundstage and were able to pull more detail from recordings at lower listening levels, and the presentation was overall more transparent. They draw less attention to themselves. Is one better than the other? They both drew me into the music in their own ways and in terms of quality, they are both on par with each other. I would guess if you took 100 people and let them listen to each then had them pick, you would get a 50/50 split. I think the Zu’s would appeal more to the music lover who’s concerned first and foremost with records and, although placing a priority on quality domestic sound reproduction, has yet to take the plunge into the audiophile deep end. This person is going to be a bit more concerned with aesthetics as well. On the other hand, the Sonist’s will win over the classic audiophile who knows all the jargon and is looking for something very specific in a loudspeaker. The Sonist’s may be a bit easier to mate with the right amp based on the fact that they are an 8 ohm speaker whereas the Zu’s are 16 ohm. The Zu’s did sound absolutely incredible with a stock Dynaco ST-70 though……. Also, I do think the Zu’s are a visually more stunning speaker with more finish options. The Sonist’s aren’t ugly, the Zu’s are just prettier. And, the Zu’s are $500-$1000 less than the Sonist’s. Apples, oranges. Tomato, tomahto. Potato, potahto. Direct comparisons aside, I recommend the Sonist Concerto 3’s with the updated woofer, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Sonist Concerto 3 floor-standing loudspeakerAll this praise. Sometimes I feel like I have become the audio reviewer that I have always hated reading because everything I review is positive. I do now understand the notion of seeking out products that I actually am interested in hearing and probably lend themselves to my tastes. Who wants to spend a great deal of time listening to components that one most likely won’t care for? Not me. So, of the hundreds of audio reviews that I have read, a lot of which are for loudspeakers, what sets the Concerto 3’s apart? I mean, there have been plenty of other speakers that have been reviewed (and even more that haven’t) that are able to do the things that I have described. As I said earlier, they have the ability to seduce you away from what you are doing and get you to sit down in front of them to listen to music – and nothing else. I get excited to listen to music with the Concerto 3’s in place. All the stuff we have all read in hundreds of other reviews rang true. I listened to recordings that I have heard hundreds of times and heard textures and details for the first time via the C3’s. $3,500 aint no chump change but like I mentioned, I think the Concerto 3’s will appeal to tube loving audiophiles who know exactly what they want. That said, those folks will see the Concerto 3’s as a total bargain both for how they make music and for their high sensitivity. It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t a whole lot of new high-sensitivity speakers offered, and the ones that were commercially available were gigantic and really expensive. Both the Sonist’s and the Zu’s win in this regard. Furthermore, the Sonist’s are special because they are able to play all music. Certain speakers (especially sometimes fragile sounding sensitive speakers) only mesh well with minimal, well recorded stuff and make mediocre recordings sound worse. The Sonist’s maintained a high level of musicality whether it was hip-hop, hardcore or horse yodels. I made that last one up.

Review System:

  • Pete Riggle Engineering and Audio String Theory “The Woody” Tonearm
  • Zu/Denon DL-103 cartridge
  • NAD PP-2 phono stage
  • Sony PS1 CD player with PS Audio xStream Power Punch 7 power cord
  • Sony SCD-CE595 SACD Player
  • Bottlehead Foreplay line stage
  • AMC CVT2030 amplifier
  • Audience Au 24 speaker cables and interconnects
  • Gingko Audio Cloud 14 and Mini Clouds vibration control




Leave a Comment