SONOR PHONIC D-515, D-516 REISSUE SNARE DRUMS
A Sonormuseum Hands-On Report - May 30, 2009
Some three months ago I was offered the chance to test drive one of the elusive Phonic Reissue snares that appear from time to time on eBay (and always for big $$$). These rare birds wouldn't exist at all were it not for the Japanese collector community. Some time around Sonor's 125th anniversary the decision was made to market a small number of NEW Phonic wood snares using the tried and true beech shell and giving the customer a choice of rosewood in and out or red mahogany - but ONLY in Japan.
Had it not been for the eagle eye of one of our members, John Boudreau, back then, we wouldn't have known a thing about them here in the USA. The snares were pictured almost as an afterthought in a 2001 Japanese Sonor catalog among S-Class Pro and Force 3001 snares. Slowly but surely, eager collectors with deep pockets found out and imported a very few directly from Japan. I obtained my mahogany finished D-516 from one of those early adopters.
For those who can remember way back when, Sonor made two different wood Phonic snares in the 1979 to 1982 era - the 5.75x14 D-515 and the 6.5x14 D-516. These signalled the restart of wood shelled snare production from Aue. For a period of several years the only high end snares you could buy from Sonor were metal shelled. I imagine the introduction of the Signature series and a change in consumer tastes collided to make the wood Phonic snares a reality.
One fine sunny day, the UPS man (whom I've been on a first name basis with for the past decade) brought a rather ordinary looking box... Notice the 7-28-2007 "Born On" date...
Containing one of the prettiest drums I've seen in quite awhile.
But let's get to the meat and potatoes shall we? These are very nearly the same Phonic snares we old timers grew up with. The shell on this Rosewood finished D-515 has 12 plies. It's hard to count and believe me, I used every Photoshop trick I can think of to help sharpen and give contrast: I count 10 plies of beech, with the inner and outer decorative plies of rosewood counting as the final two of the total twelve. (see below)
The familiar Sonor "Bowtie" lugs are just as they were in the late 1980's complete with Snap-Loc. No flat-sided tension rods, though they are slotted. The rosewood veneers used are as good as or better than the original from 30 years ago.
The D-516 on the other hand has a 9-ply shell and is finished in red- stained mahogany on the outside only - the same as their ancestors some 25 years earlier.
The shell appears to have a layup of 6 "thick" beech plies with an outer 3-ply sandwich of something else - probably mahogany/beech/mahogany judging by the coloration. (see below)
The overall fit and finish of both is up to the expected impeccable Sonor quality standards. In fact, the only real differences between the old and new are the Hella made die cast hoops that lack large snare gates, the Designer era throwoff and non adjustable butt and the inculsion of white plastic tension rod washers.
These snares are meaty both in weight and in sound. As a matter of fact the D-516 has been my go to snare for the past several months. I welcomed the chance to test drive the D-515 and compare the two. Whereas the 516 is an old friend and as comfortable as a well worn pair of tennis shoes, the 515 felt inexplicably foreign. Out of the box the sound was thin - almost brittle. I attribute that to the fact that the snare had been on the shelf for close to 2 years and that the batter head is from the Remo production of at least two years back.
A few turns of the drum key and I was able to get the drum into an "acceptable " state of tune, though not optimal to my ears. Your milage may vary. After some tweaking the drum still sounded thinner than what I expected only a 3/4" depth difference would acount for. I think it might be the thicker shell and rosewood inner ply that the D-516 lacks. There was an abundance of mid-high frequencies. I am sure swapping out the stock batter head for something along the lines of an Aquarian TC, a piece of moongel or perhaps a 2 ply head (sacrilege!) would cure the "problem".
As far as the road test was concerned, my group does a variety of material ranging from light jazz, to standards to country and 60's-70's rock and Motown. Occasionally a ballroom dance waltz, rhumba or cha-cha thrown in for good measure. The reissue Phonic snares excel at all of these styles quite literally. The drums can be played at a whisper and still give full sensitivity to the lightest buzz rolls and brush technique, yet 2 minutes later they can roar with a voice that seems like it came from a totally different drum. Simply amazing.
From a sonic standpoint, I would heartily recommend either of these drums be added to the working drummer's arsenal.On the left below is a 1980 vintage D-515, to the right it's modern reissued counterpart. You can see the old has an adjustable butt whereas the new has the simpler to make non-adjustable one.
I can only see two drawbacks to these reissue drums - the main one being the cost - the MSRP on the Rosewiood D-515 reissue is a whopping $1995 USD. To be fair the stret price is much less, but still in the $1200 area on average. One of the main factors for this is not corporate greed, but the fact that the US Dollar has taken a nosedive verus the Euro in recent years. On average it takes $1.30 to buy just 1 Euro - a 30% price disadvantage. If you are especially dilligent, you can occasionally find these in the high $900 to $1000 area.
The other shortcoming is in usability. The Designer throwoff is not a good match for these drums in my opinion. Most drummers leave their snares on all the time and it is not an issue at all, but players like me need to have the ability to quickly and effortlesly engage and disengage the wires. In that department, the Designer throw gets a C-minus when istalled on this drum. The throwoff is small. The lever is smaller and presents a hard target to find in the dark without looking and worst of all, it is balky. The small lever does not give a whole lot of leverage, thus, it does not smoothly (or quietly) engage the wires. If I continue to use my D-516 for gigging I will either find an older Phonic style throw - which though it is bigger, it is easier to find without looking and it also operates smoothly. Aditionally, the larger lever does give more leverage. It's either that choice or the aftermarket throw made by Dunnett will work without drilling. A Dunnett would just look wrong on thse drums though.
I hope that after the economy picks back up, that Sonor can see their way clear to giving us a better, bigger throwoff for the larger drums. I have heard rumors that one is in the works. For years I had discounted others grumbling about this throw as I have several other drums with it installed - but on this drum it simply does not fit well. Just to make sure I wasn't imagining things, I used my Designer 4x14 piccolo on the job last night. The throw is PERFECT for that depth drum - mainly because the lever is up high where one can find it easily. That one also operated a lot more smoothly - even when I really cranked the tension. It really is an ergonomic issue more than anything else.
All of that aside - these drums are everything they are cracked up to be - German engineering at its finest, retro looks, impeccable build quality - all the things we not only hope for but expect from Sonor. If you see one and can afford it, buy it. You won't be disappointed.