Sonus Faber Pryma 0/1 – darkly fashionable

Pros:  Quality build, unusual look, rich sound with a smooth and velvety midrange and warm, enveloping bass, decent layering

Cons: Can sound veiled / rolled off in the treble compared to other over-ears in the same price range, slightly closed in soundstage

Price: £399.00 (PRYMA)

Acknowledgment

I acquired these over-ears in a trade deal with a Head-Fi member (@Danivi) – I was looking to try something a little different from my usual in-ear fare, so agreed a trade with a pair of IEMs to see if the Pryma fitted my sonic preferences.

Introduction

Having been a music fan for pretty much my whole life but a card-carrying “audiophile” for only the last few years, I must admit to not having heard of Sonus Faber before coming across these headphones in the For Sale ads. A quick bit of research dug up some interesting facts – Sonus Faber are an Italian manufacturer of very high end floor-standing speaker systems, with a reputation for building gear that looks as beautiful as it sounds. Reading a little further around, the Pryma is their first foray into personal audio, and is designed to be a fashion statement with true audiophile pedigree to back up the undeniable good looks. The company even went as far as to launch the headphone to a crowd of fashion writers, rather than the usual hi-fi industry journalists and bloggers, reasoning that their target audience are more likely to be found flicking through the pages of Vogue than What Hi-Fi. So, will the Pryma 0/1 be a case of style over substance, or will it be a good looking and great sounding thoroughbred? Let’s find out…

About me: newly convert to audiophilia but a long time music fan and aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer. Listen to at least 2 hours of music a day – prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently converted my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it. My ideal tuning for most IEMs and headphones tends towards a musical and slightly dark presentation, although I am not treble sensitive in general. Please take all views expressed below with a pinch of salt – all my reviews are a work in progress based on my own perceptions and personal preferences, and your own ears may tell you a different story.

Look and feel

The Pryma is a headphone that definitely pays equal consideration to form as well as function, with a unique and very stylish design that looks just a little different to its competitors in the highly competitive over-ear “fashion headphone” bracket, and shows some very unusual touches. From the adjustable clasps system on the headband to the fully deconstructable nature of the headphone, this is a piece of gear that screams physical design as much as it does audio.

Usually, headphones are quite a predictable game. If you had to take one guess at the country of origin of most of the major over-ear players in the market, you probably wouldn’t stick a pin too far from the home country of manufacture in most cases. Sturdy, functional and made of grey metal – step forward the lovely German chaps from Beyerdynamic.  Expensive looking but cheap feeling plastic and large logos everywhere – hello to the Doctor and his US based but Far East made marketing machine. Looking at the Pryma evokes the feeling of looking at something old and beautiful, with the sleek racing lines of a Ferrari, and the little black dress elegance of something from Versace. Make no bones about it, this is a gorgeous looking headphone, with the coffin shaped earpieces and the lacquered shells feeling solid and beautifully crafted, not cheap and mass-produced. The hand stitched leather headband and unusual buckling system to adjust the size looks like a fashion statement on steroids but actually feels perfectly practical in everyday use, making me wonder why no other manufacturer has considered something like this.

Quite simply, this is a headphone that deserves to be looked at as much as listened to, bringing a good old fashioned dash of elan to the more prosaic build and design of the modern headphone landscape. High quality materials and a carefully selected aesthetic has really allowed Sonus Faber to stake a claim as one of the best looking set of cans on the market at the moment, which is at least half the battle with their proclaimed target audience.

Comfort

Style obviously counts for little if it is unusable, but the Pryma are actually quite a comfortable set of cans for long term wearing sessions. They have a decent but not bone-bending clamping force and a nice fit that sits just outside the over-ear bracket like some sort of puffed up cruiserweight taking a shot at the heavyweight title. After a couple of hours, the pressure can start to build slightly on the outer edge of larger ears (like mine), but overall, these are a very solid and comfortable fit, staying firmly in place when moving around outside or within the confines of your living room. The weight of the ‘phones is also just on the right side of the comfort equation, showing just enough to keep the earpieces in place and solidly anchored but feeling as light as some of the supermodels they are aiming for in their target audience compared to other competitors. Overall, a very comfortable wear.

Audio quality

So, we have covered the style, now time for the substance – what do these Italian mean machines actually sound like? On first listen, the floor-standing speaker heritage of the brand definitely shines through, with a smooth and velvety sound purring out of the earcups and filling the head of the listener. There is plenty of bass (a given for most mainstream consumer styled headphones), but where the tuning differs from expected is in the midrange, with the Pryma presenting a more forward and intimate presentation than the usual “V” styled presentation popular with most mainstream brands. The tuning reminds me in some ways of the Campfire Audio Lyra II, with a XXx style of pronounced bass, forward mids and shelved off treble that helps keep things smooth and seductive rather than crisp and defined. This is definitely a headphone built more for comfort than speed, but given enough time, can produce a very enjoyable afternoon’s listening.

Bass

The bass is certainly the star of the show in terms of the tuning of this headphone, with a warm tilt and higher than neutral presence that can add a decent sense of heft to some tracks. It certainly isn’t the tightest or cleanest bass I’ve ever heard, with quite a languid sense of presentation and a little wooliness in more emphasised or frantic tracks, but overall still manages to colour the sound quite nicely.

Moving through my test repertoire, “High Note” from Mavis Staples’ most recent album has a pleasant fuzz to the bassline, rumbling along underneath her silky voice with an infectious presence, and the kick drum adding a subtle but noticeable thud to the quieter sections to help keep the song bobbing along nicely.

“Dubai Blues” by Chickenfoot is another song that benefits from the thick bass presence, with the skiffle-style driven kick-drum and ghost-beats on the snare that make up the intro grabbing the listener by the ears and sucking them into the driving rhythm of the Satriani/Hagar composition. The sound feels pleasantly thick and weighted, giving off some of the feeling of standing in front of a good gig venue sound system with the presence and solidity of the low end.

Looking for some tracks with some more emphasis in the very lowest register, “Ship Goes Down” by Walking On Cars starts up with a solid foundation of sub-bass, not rumbling so heavily you have to check the carpet for signs of your missing fillings but definitely providing a little tickle to the inner-ear as the song kicks into gear. It sounds almost diffuse as it fills the soundscape, lazily rolling from one lick to the next to provide a very pleasant landscape for the jangling guitars and piano refrain to build the song on top of. “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic shows the real beauty of the bass presentation, with a bassline that hits low and smooth, filling out the velvet tones of the King with a buttery blend of bass and low strings that give a real sweep to the track. Again, smooth and rounded are the order of the day over crisp and textured, with a thick sound and fatness that suits slower styles of music very well. This again gives off the impression of the sort of bass you get from a nice set of speakers in a music venue (or your living room, if you are lucky), with a sense of warmth and physical body that carries you along effortlessly.

Switching to more electronic fare, the likes of “Heaven” by Emile Sande and “Go” by The Chemical Brothers are handled with the right amount of rumble and sub-bass texture to be enjoyable, although the comparative lack of speed in the presentation can leave things feeling a little relaxed in more uptempo tracks. This is definitely a “bigger picture” type of headphone, with details being presented in the body of the sound rather than hitting you between the eyes with micro-details and subtle texture.

Overall, the sound is thick without feeling overly wooly, and gives a good warmth to the musical landscape. Being critical, this can lack a little in punch and definition compared to crisper sounding rigs like the Meze 99, but if you are after a nice Sunday afternoon listening headphone, the smooth and soft around the edges nature of the bass presentation is excellent for relaxing into.

Mids

Moving up to the midrange, the Pryma retains some of the thickness and richness from the bass (probably aided in small part by a little bleed from the higher mid-bass into the lower mids), presenting a thick and creamy sound with decent (if slightly supressed) levels of detail and a very engaging tonality.

Staring with some more acoustic fare, “Coco” by Foy Vance sounds excellent, with the acoustic guitar refrain coming across clearly and convincingly, making it easy for the listener to pick out the subtle guitar scuffs in the intro. While the detail is present, it never feels emphasised, almost as if the information is pressed into the background surface of the sound by the omnipresent weight of the bass rather than standing in starker relief. Moving back to some Mavis Staples, “High Note” highlights the smooth vocal capabilities of the Pryma, with Staples’ voice sounding like brushed velvet as she flits between the octaves on the song. The multiple voices of the gospel style chorus and bridge sound rich and musical, with a surprisingly good sense of separation and definition in the wall of sound.

Kicking it up a notch, “Different Devil” by Chickenfoot is a good tester of the good and bad bits to this headphone: the jangling guitars that kick the song off sound crisp enough, but as Hagar’s gravelly voice kicks in, it seems a little blunter than it should be, with the Red Rocker’s trademark wail wearing a layer of veil that wouldn’t look out of place in an 18th century wedding and that just isn’t present on similar headphones like the Meze 99. Once you have adjusted to the sound, it isn’t a massive negative, but it can sometimes leave you wanting that slight bump in clarity for higher-pitched voices. This veil can also darken more electric guitar based music, with the chugging riff that makes up the Audioslave song “Cochise” sounding less like its usual finely-grained sandpapery self and more like the audio equivalent of a gravel road instead. When you dig deep enough into the sound, the detail is still there in the main, but it becomes more of an effort to hear it. This is definitely a mid-range tuned for more sedate and velvety sounds.

Going looking for detail and sibilance, Blackberry Smoke provide the former, with the multi-layered opening guitar intro of “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” showing good but not great separation and clarity, with the acoustic guitar lick that kicks in around the 20 second mark blending slightly into the thicker background riff. This is one of the areas that can highlight a slight bass bleed into the lower midrange, with the thickness of the lower edge of the electric guitar notes not allowing the listener to pick out the competing sounds quite as easily as on some other headphones I have heard.

Switching to my sibilance testers, I come to the conclusion that it would be easier to find Lord Lucan having a pint and a peanut butter jelly sandwich with Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster than it would be to find a track that makes these cans wail. “Whiskey And You” sounds magnificently smooth around the edges, with Stapleton’s voice rasping nicely but without cutting through the honey to do any damage to your eardrums. I think this serves as a parable of the mid-range tuning as a whole – smooth, silky and lacking in any sharp edges, which make it excellent for smoother fare but can leave it feeling a little blunted when pushing some hard-riffing heavy rock or particularly crunchy guitar music through the 40mm drivers.

Treble

If there is a weakness to these headphones, it is the treble. Or more precisely, the comparative lack of treble. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of dark and moody sound tunings with the best of them, and the velvety tone of the treble ranges does have its good points, but there is just a little too much smoothing and roll off in the main audible frequencies for me to find this truly satisfying. There is a reasonable sense of clarity here, but in terms of air, these are definitely a good example of a closed back can.

Firing up my usual testers for treble, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy is handled reasonably well, with the dissonant guitar intro and the high pitched vocals both passing by my ears without any discomfort. Unfortunately, they also pass without some of the trademark excitement that this song can convey, with the muted presentation failing to really capture the higher half of the song with any conviction. Sticking with rock music, “Architects” by Rise Against kicks through with energy, but the jangling guitars and driving drums feel slightly muted in comparison to my other gear, and the cymbal crashes are merely pebbles thrown into a puddle, splashing for a split second and then fading out rather than rippling through the sound with any authority.

“Go” by The Chemical Brothers fares slightly better, with the hi-hats feeling a little more present above the thumping bassline. Building up the soaring chorus, it hits with weight in the high ranges, but again, the lack of sharpness is notable in direct comparison to the Meze 99, leading to a slightly diffuse sound. While this works well for the all-encompassing bass presentation, here it leads the sound to feel a little veiled, and seems to rob the tracks of a little air in the higher parts of the soundstage.

Soundstage and power requirements

The staging on the Pryma is a dense affair, with the boundaries of the sound feeling quite contained around the ears of the listener. There is a feeling of solidity to the presentation which adds to the velvety texture (think rich and dark slabs of sound), but there is definitely no massive out of head experience to be had here. In terms of the stage shape there isn’t a huge amount of depth on the Z-axis, with sound being presented with minimal depth but a decent height.

In terms of power, the Pryma is a reasonably sensitive ‘phone for on the go use, being able to hit maximum headroom off most of my sources without the need for any further amplification. Throwing a bit more power into the mix also didn’t make any appreciable difference for me in terms of scalability, so I don’t consider these to be a headphone that NEEDS any more amping than the average portable DAP or decent mobile phone can provide.

Comparisons

Meze 99 – the build quality between both is very similar, with the Pryma feeling more solid and looking slightly better, but feeling a little less comfy than the pillow-like Mezes for extended wear. The sound of the Mezes is quite a contrast to the thick and smooth sound of the Sonus Faber, with a sharper focus on the top part of the “V” in the treble, a slightly more spacious presentation and a greater perception of detail. That is slightly misleading, as the Pryma do represent detail quite well, just bury it behind the overall denseness of the wall of sound, with the Meze feeling slightly thinner but far better defined to my ears as a result. The mids are a good example, with the Pryma feeling more forward and exhibiting more body, but the Meze breezing through the dual guitar into of “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” and keeping both parts crisply defined in comparison to the far more blended and opaque rendition of the Pryma.

In terms of bass, honours are reasonably even, with the Meze’s extending a little further down into sub-bass in terms of extension, but the presence feeling roughly similar between the pair. Sound leakage is higher with the wooden cups of the Meze, with the Pryma keeping more of the sound in, and isolating slightly better as well. Overall, the Meze are a more fun and engaging listen for me, with a better sense of clarity and more of a “pick up and play” tuning compared to the lazy Sunday afternoon style of the Pryma, which requires more investment to get comfortable with.

Audioquest Nighthawks – with build, the Nighthawk feel the more comfortable and ergonomic of the two, with the feather light build and superlative comfort trumping the comfortable but more solid Pryma for me. In terms of tuning, the Nighthawk quite simply aces the Pryma across the board for my preference, able to hold its own in terms of bass, and providing a clarity to the mids and treble that the more forward but muted Pryma just can’t match. In some ways, the tunings seem a little similar, but when your ears adjust to the sound of the Nighthawk, the layers of detail and tone contained within are a level up from the rich and smooth Sonus Faber, carrying you deeper into the sound. Stage size is also an easy win for the AQ pair, with the semi-open design giving a sense of spaciousness and air to the music that the Pryma can’t get close to. Overall, despite the price difference, this is an easy win for the Nighthawks for me.

Specifications

Specifications
Drivers 40mm dynamic driver with oversize OFC voice coil
Impedance 32 Ohms @ 1 KHz
Frequency Range 10-25000 Hz
Distortion 0.1% @ 90 dB SPL
Rated input power 120mW (short term max power)
Sensitivity 118dB SPL at 1 KHz with 1mW

Conclusions

Sometimes, having no expectations of a piece of audio gear can make writing it up a very interesting process, with differing opinions flitting across the back and front of your mind as you try and work out exactly where they sit. For the Prymas, this was very much the case – on initial look, I almost dismissed these as Beats for the Armani suit-wearing brigade, with the fashionable looks and unusual design features lending it an air of a piece of eye candy. Once you get into the sound, the richness and velvety smooth sound can be seductive, and certainly doesn’t suffer from the overcooked bassiness of the early Beats/fashion phone range, even though it is definitely a headphone for lovers of a fatter bottom end. Once adjusted to the sound, my opinions changed again, finding the detail hidden in the thickness and paradoxically wanting to hear MORE of the finer grains of sonic landscape the drivers are obviously capable of outputting. This is a headphone for people who like their music meaty, dark and in your face, with a closed in soundscape and physical presence to the forward sounding midrange that plays well with acoustica and more relaxed music but can feel a little congested and stuffy with more complex passages. For those who want something that looks unique, and just as good sitting on a £250 mahogany headphone stand as they do wrapped around your ears, the Pryma offer something a little unique, providing enough sonic refinement to trade blows with other more audiophile cans in this price bracket, while having the looks to consign most of them to the bargain bin in direct comparison.

For those looking for the clearest, most defined sound in this price bracket, this isn’t the headphone for them, lacking a little in terms of space and detailing to edge out far more resolving sounding cans like the Meze 99 or Audioquest Nighthawks. This is a bold statement of intent from Sonus Faber – for any future models, if they can retain the delicious body to the sound and open the taps just a little more on the treble tuning to let some more air and definition into the overall sound, that would tip this over the edge from an interesting option to a compelling recommendation.

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