03 May Audiophilia Review: MarkAudio-Sota Viotti One Loudspeaker
by Anthony Kershaw
In 2014, Steve Cheng founded Sota Acoustics Limited, fulfilling a life long dream to design and manufacture high end audio equipment. Based in Hong Kong, Cheng set about to build a team that could produce high quality loudspeakers available for a reasonable price.
Like all strong leaders, Cheng chose a team of excellence he thought would deliver the goods, including Mark Fenlon, founder of Markaudio, designer/producer of high quality drivers and loudspeakers. Thus, Markaudio-Sota was born.
Design by committee can produce products full of limitations and regret. Space Shuttle, anyone? That said Markaudio-Sota (MAS) has taken pains, even in a relatively short time, to walk before they can run. The MAS lineup includes three loudspeaker ‘families’, Viotti, Cesti and Tozzi. Cesti has three models, Tozzi, two and our speaker in question, Viotti, one.
MAS continues its description of the stand mounted Viotti One as:
Italian styling with British engineering. Our flagship 2-way stand-mount loudspeaker. Custom all-range symmetric driver technology. Minimal control network with range-topping components. Laminated dual-core panels and polymers for maximum strength and acoustic stability. Statement-level sound quality for the discerning listener.
The Viotti One is two way design with a 2nd order shallow slope design crossover @1.9kHz which is said to ‘progressively transition the higher and lower ranges of the audio signal to the driver optimized to handle that part of the spectrum’. All parts of the speaker are purpose built by MAS – no off the shelf parts. The build quality is excellent as is the finish — mine came in a lustrous piano black (they also are available in Light Oak, Dark Oak and White.
The speakers look substantial and measure with stands 246mm x 339mm x 1008mm. Weight with stands is 16.4 kg.
The most interesting part of the design is MAS’ ‘Symmetrical Sound Field’. MAS dispenses with the standard tweeter/woofer configuration and uses two wide dispersion, shallow profile cone drivers. MAS designers’ thinking was to reduce colorations inherent with poor driver matching and for the speaker to deliver sonic coherence. I’ve heard lots of single driver speakers with the tweeter cleverly implanted into the woofer, but not two drivers of such similar topology doing all the grunt work. A very interesting design.
The driver units include a 50mm low mass mixed alloy symmetical sound field cone unit and 110mm low mass, long throw mix alloy symmetical sound field cone unit.
And all these design smarts, superior parts, stands and exceptional fit and finish sell direct from the manufacturer for USD$2995.00/pair.
To get the bandwidth on a Markaudio driver, we end up using aerospace-grade mixed alloys, which are never more than 150 microns thick. That not only gives the performance we desire, but means we are physically using less material: we’re getting that sheet of mixed alloy to go farther and do more, lowering costs, and helping the environment in the process. That is an engineer’s dream – if Colin Chapman were here, he’d be nodding his head in approval! As would many British engineers, because we’ve been brought up on this problem-solving way! It’s the way we are trained, or at least the way we were trained when I was at university. You can go too far, though – there was a famous interview with the owner of TVR about why their high-performance cars didn’t have safety functions like ABS and his answer was “learn how to drive properly, and don’t crash!”
I actually sold Markaudio (the raw driver business) and Markaudio SOTA (the finished loudspeaker brand) three years ago, and the two have morphed into something entirely different than what we imagined. This has given me the time and space to come up with more developments on cone design. For example, there is a cone design I’ve come up with what I call a ‘negative camber’ cone, but forgive me if I can’t say too much more at this time, as we are going through patent application as we speak.
I come from the energy industry (I was an industrial gas engineer and a gas dynamicist), but it would be fair to say that I’m a devotee of the Colin Chapman/Lotus school of engineering – “Simplify, then add lightness!” Most modern manufacturing industries from making mobile phones to building ships are all trying to gain mechanical system efficiency, use more modern materials, and reduce mass in the process. These are fairly standard engineering practices, but they all seem to have passed by the loudspeaker industry. But in the mid to long term, I believe that even the loudspeaker industry will have to learn how to do more with less, and we need to get transducers to become more efficient and use materials more wisely, more efficiently, and able to be reliably made that way. This last point is important, as most drivers go through at least seven glue or bonding processes, but I’m developing a driver that is effectively snap-to-fit, with only three glued processes. That’s far better for the environment, if nothing else.
With our current drivers however, in effect we have a symmetrical layout, as the shape and radii of the small cone and large cone in our drivers are almost identical. This allows us to use a general crossover in multi-way designs, which is advantageous. The first example of this in a loudspeaker design is the Viotti One. The last year and a half we have been getting feedback on the Viotti One, and we plan to keep that feedback going. Part of the reason for that feedback is because if someone asks me what is a ‘good’ sound, I can’t say for sure. That’s for people to decide for themselves. On the other hand, if they ask me what is needed to produce a sound with a bandwidth from 40Hz–14kHz, I’ll go away and tinker and do that. If they say, I’d like it to have 90dB efficiency and give me a rough size of the driver, I’ll design it and the chances are I’ll produce a driver they will like. And historically Markaudio – the driver side – has been built up on constant feedback from end users, often through various forums. With a loudspeaker like the Viotti One though, we hope that we’ve been able to make a two-way system that gets a little bit closer to the 21st Century. It’s not that we’ve made anything especially new – it’s still a transducer, with a coil, and a cone, and a magnet, etc. – but what we’ve done is made it technically more efficient, and that is the core of what we’ve been doing for the last three years; symmetrical driver layout with a general crossover in what we believe to be a stylish box. We’re not stylists, though – that’s where Andrea Ponti comes in. As a driver designer, the whole process has been very good for me, and I’ve enjoyed it enormously and it will be interesting to see how it works in the market.
The Viotti One comes shipped in three boxes, one each per speaker and another for the matching, proprietary stands. Packaging was first class.
Attaching the speakers to the stands takes but a few minutes. You’ll be up and running in no time. There were a few hours on my speakers’ drivers, so 50 hours of very casual listening followed (MAS prescribes 100 hours).
They sound crisp and dynamic out of the box, but the breaking chiseled down some initial edginess.
Because the speakers are sized between a bookshelf monitor and a floor standing speaker, the matching stands should be used to get the correct height for listening. The Viottis are single wired with very high quality binding posts. For position, I placed them firing straight out into my room. They liked the configuration. The speakers are designed to be played with the grills on, much like Sonus Faber models. The sound with grills off sounded slightly brighter. I preferred the sound with the grills on — the MAS grill design philosophy works. No unwanted reflections to blur the sound.
After the required breakin, the Viotti One exhibited a very refined, musical quality. The speaker offers lots of detail but always at the service of a balanced musical fabric. Nothing sticks out, no frequency shouts, nothing blurts. It’s exceedingly well behaved.
Cymbals and other percussion have bite, and bass at 40 Hz was solid in my fairly small listening room. The opening of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben was rich and redolent leaving me very impressed with not only the bass performance but its resolution. And just like the midrange and the treble, it was coherent with each tessitura.
At 88.5 dB efficiency, the speakers can be driven quite easily and reacted beautifully to my Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier.
Voices, especially of the powerhouse operatic soprano variety, were handled with ease. Birgit Nilsson on Solti’s seminal Ring was splendid. Nothing her resplendent chest tones threw at the speakers stopped them from producing the difficult Wagnerian sounds effortlessly. Simply, gorgeous. And Wagner’s huge orchestra, and we’re talking Trump huuuuuge here, was also in perfect focus. Rocking out seems a little indelicate with these very gentlemanly speakers, but technically, it’ll be no bother.
Stylistically, Mark Fenlon and the team of designers have created a loudspeaker that accurately replicates what it is fed. Unlike other loudspeakers with plasma or beryllium tweeters, Mylar strips, electrostats, and the myriad of other driver technologies that have a specific musical stamp, the Viotti Ones remain Zelig-like. They blend into the musical society in which they find themselves. Instrumental timbre is accurate, imaging is good, and, firing straight out, they threw a very wide soundstage. Nothing jars, nothing shocks. They’ll blend into any music room decor and give much musical pleasure.
Certainly, the Viotti One is a very refined design. If you want the very best monitor loudspeakers, you’re going to have to pay very big bucks (my Raidho XT-1s are 9K with stands, the magical Magico Q1s, 25 large). Yet, for less than three grand with a cast iron 30 day home trial, money back guarantee, you’ll get a hefty slice of the very best. Highly recommended.