Emerald Physics CS2.3 Mk II Loudspeaker

Genuine Bargain

Equipment report
Emerald Physics CS2.3 Mk II
Emerald Physics CS2.3 Mk II Loudspeaker

As far as setup goes, the 2.3’s manual makes a point of getting the speakers out from the wall behind them. As with, say, Quads and other dipoles or bipoles, one meter is a minimum, and much more is preferred. Being dipole over half their range, the farther the 2.3s are out from the wall the more the first reflection is delayed and thus the more precise the presentation. I set up mine pretty much where my Quads go and even with the assist of measurements couldn’t much improve upon the location. While they don’t need to inscribe an equilateral triangle between yourself and them, each array must be the same distance from your listening position and their axes should be aimed either directly at your head or intersecting slightly in front or slightly behind it. The manual suggests toeing them in a bit. Disregard that “a bit”—I am reliably informed that “a bit” was just obeisance to inexperienced audiophiles who’ve been led astray by the soundstaging über alles crowd. The truth is, you want to sit on axis because that is where the tonal balance is the most accurate, and, make no mistake, the tonal balance of this speaker is among the most musically natural of any speaker I’ve heard regardless of price or design type. It exhibits some anomalies, which I’ll come to later, but far fewer than most speakers I’ve listened to, including the vast majority of those costing tens of thousands of dollars and more.

To Direct Or Not To Direct
Perhaps no other aspect of speaker design excites as much debate among audiophiles and designers as the issue of directivity, that is, wide-versus-restricted dispersion. It is beyond question that, all else being equal, the most accurate reproduction of the source is to be gained from speakers that restrict the dispersion—lateral dispersion in particular—because such restriction tends to involve less of the sound of the room than wider dispersion. But there are many audiophiles who like the illusion of sound coming from beyond the boundaries of the speakers, even though, if you stop to think about it, this cannot be accurate, however pleasing it may be.

There is a tendency among both audio reviewers and audiophiles to treat the terms “soundstage” and “imaging” as if they’re the same thing, but although they are related, they are quite different. When we speak of a soundstage we are talking principally about the apparent width and depth of an aural presentation, how convincingly it seems to present the gestalt of a performing ensemble of whatever size or makeup. I am referring here to music-making for which there is a live reference, not to electronically generated studio recordings as such. Long before Harry Pearson in the early days of The Absolute Sound made the concept of soundstaging a central preoccupation in audio commentary and design, it was obvious that many audiophiles wanted reproduction with a greater sense of spaciousness and size, something that extended beyond the confines of both the box that contained most speakers and the boundaries set by the stereo pair itself. (I should point out that Harry himself did not favor bouncing sound off the walls—on the contrary, though he liked the spacious effect of recordings miked like the old Mercuries, he was quite clear that these were best heard when speakers were placed out of doors. He had a point: no room reflections.) This could be seen in the popularity of such controversial speakers as the Sonab, the Bose 901, and even the Hegeman. And it persists in the practice of many audiophiles who set up their speaker systems so that the drivers fire straight ahead, the idea being to generate more prominent reflections off the side walls, the better to increase the apparent size of the soundstage. For my tastes, this is precisely the wrong approach. The only reason for listening to a speaker well off its axis is if its frequency response is so poorly controlled that that is the only way you’ll hear a reasonably smooth, tonally accurate response. But it is absolutely the wrong way to go about getting precise imaging.

Imaging refers to the ability of a speaker to resolve spatial cues within the soundstage and to locate voices and instruments precisely. When Consumer Reports famously observed of the Bose 901 that it had a tendency for the image to wander about the room—or words to that effect, I don’t recall the quotation exactly—it resulted in a lawsuit from the manufacturer (which, fortunately, it lost). I seriously question the accuracy of CR’s description—even from the poorest speaker I’ve ever heard, I’ve never felt that the image wandered around the room (assuming the stereo pair is connected in polarity)—but the idea behind the criticism was and is a valid one: namely, that the more you draw the reflected sound of a room into the reproduction, the vaguer and less precise the image-resolving characteristics of a speaker are going to be. It is not for nothing the original Quad ESL, almost sixty years after its introduction, or the Quad 63 and its descendants, thirty years after the introduction of the original, still leave most listeners slack-jawed by their imaging precision. Set these things up correctly, seat yourself equidistant from them, and the only way in which you will more precisely located musicians in a soundstage is with binaural recordings over headphones.

But there is a price to paid, or, rather, two prices: one actual, the other psychological. The actual is that the listening window is limited. Please disregard the “head-in-the-vise” metaphor that is often trotted out. I’ve owned Quads and other speakers that require a restricted listening window for years and the vise metaphor is a demonstrable canard. But the window is undeniably very narrow. The psychological loss is of course the “kick” many audiophiles get from hearing images from beyond the boundaries of the speaker system. This always amuses me, because it’s plainly something of a hat trick, an artifact that depends for its full effect upon one’s not being fully involved with the music that is playing. In other words, the effect depends upon one’s being aware of the place of the speakers in the room and of the sound emanating from beyond their boundaries. Moreover, because this effect depends upon side wall reflections that are obviously mixed into the reproduction, there cannot be an accurate replication of the acoustic space of the recording venue. This is another thing that amazes so many listeners about Quads and other speakers of restricted dispersion: how uncannily they render both the acoustical atmosphere and the physical space of the recording venue or concert hall. Again, there’s no mystery about this: what you’re hearing is more of what is on the recording and less of the contribution of your own room.

There is obviously no way to resolve this debate to everyone’s satisfaction, satisfaction itself being a subjective matter. If you happen to have a very pleasing room, you probably enjoy having some of its sound mixed into that of the recording and reinforcing it. Then, too, unlike, say, Peter Walker, you may not want your sound system to be a window onto the concert hall— you might want something more dramatic or interventionist to make up for the lack of the visual component of music making. “Realism,” after all, is not reality; it is merely a construct that expresses an impression of reality. A bad recording accurately reproduced will sound like a bad recording; but a bad recording can be inaccurately reproduced and perhaps sound not so bad or even good, according to one’s taste. Another way of saying this might be that speakers which image precisely almost always render the soundstage accurately as well, that is, according to what has been captured by the microphones and recorded, but they don’t aggrandize it in any way. As in so many things in audio, you pays your money. . . .

The Sound
I don’t believe it’s necessary for me to run through the usual litany of recordings to describe the sound of this speaker. Let me refer you, once again, to the description from my show report with which I opened this review and suggest that, depending on what you’re used to listening to, fairly little in your experience may prepare you for the CS2.3 II’s extraordinary imaging capabilities. All kind and manner of orchestral, choral, opera, and other big material is reproduced with a thrilling sense of ease, authority, and truthfulness. As I’m writing this I am listening to the splendid recent recording of Otello by Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The spectacular opening in a thunderstorm through the drinking song that becomes a violent brawl conjures the whole world of Shakespeare’s tragedy as expressed in Verdi’s brilliant score. A universe and sensibility away from this are the quartets of Beethoven as essayed by the Tokyo Quartet in its second complete cycle, which I reviewed during the evaluation period. As with large orchestras, the impression of the four musicians palpably, holographically present, is all but peerless, instrumental timbre true and the tonal balance convincingly real. The Christmas Revels, a pageant staged for recording and based on a live presentation, was brought fully to life in my room, so viscerally you could sense the size of the venue, diagram the movements of the many performers, and hear the hall.