Part of the reason behind this impression of life and lifelikeness is the open-baffle configuration. There is no boxiness to the presentation because there isn’t any enclosure. The baffle that holds all the drivers is wide enough at the bottom to provide the necessary reinforcement for the bass so that the presentation sounds realistically full. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of this speaker that I like most: the rich lower midrange and full mid-to-upper bass, precisely the spectrum from which orchestras and jazz ensembles derive much of their strength and power. This is one speaker that can render music not just loud but powerful in the way you actually hear it in a good concert hall. I remarked in my show report that—much to my wife’s great pleasure—Sinatra actually sounds like the baritone he is, not the tenor wanna-be that we get from so many speakers, especially those narrow-baffled floorstanders with their bass drivers raised off the floor. I get so tired of the current trend in speakers toward a sucked-out upper bass/lower midrange in combination with a projected presence region and a rising top end that makes everything sound unnaturally crisp, overly articulated, and—well, why use a lesser word?—unbeautiful.
Nor is it just male singers who benefit from an accurate presentation in this region. Put on Ella Fitzgerald in her prime and you realize that while hers is a light voice it’s also got some real body and weight to it. Yet saying that, really light voices, such as the young Barbara Cook on the fabulous original-cast of Candide, are presented that way. Or try Mary Costa on the original soundtrack of Disney’s animated feature Sleeping Beauty for a clear, crystalline voice.
Several musician friends of mine who’ve listened to this speaker have absolutely fallen in love with its sound the way they typically do when they hear Quad ESLs, Harbeths, LS3/5as, Gradients, early Spendors, and a small handful of other brands known for natural, musical tonal balances. (As I’ve had occasion to observe before in these pages, when music lovers buy speakers like these, they keep them for a long time—often a lifetime.) In addition to the other virtues I’ve cited, one big reason my musician friends like these new Emeralds is the top end, which is smooth, sweet, and very natural, but very much not à la the current mode. At first listen, you might even think it a bit dim sounding, but to this I have two responses. First, listen again and then recall what, say, a triangle really sounded like the last time you were at an orchestral concert. One of my listeners—a seasoned audio professional listening to the famous Royal Ballet anthology from Harry Pearson’s Super Discs list—made a special point of noting this when he heard these speakers. One recording I made sure I listened to was Boulez’s DG performance of his Pli Selon Pli with all its high percussion, which the CS2.3 reproduced excellently and very persuasively. (Boulez the composer is not to everyone tastes, to put it mildly, but this piece is a very appealing mid-century classic and often very beautiful in a kind of aural equivalent to Paul Klee-Picasso-like way.) Second, make sure you’re listening on axis. If you’re not, then the top will sound very dim indeed (more of this further on).
Lest I give the impression the CS2.3 II is perfect, it isn’t. Nothing is. So let’s start with that tweeter. The lens loading has the desired and desirable effect of directing the response so that you don’t get much sidewall reflection. But this also results in a considerably less than uniform power response. In other words, if you sit much off the axis, the extreme highs fall off precipitously and in places can seem to disappear entirely (especially if your room is well upholstered). Then, too, lens loading affects the radiation pattern in other ways. You can hear this most clearly on spoken word. There are two speeches by John Wayne on the soundtrack from The Alamo that were recorded outdoors and that are good tests for coloration. The CS2.3 II does not pass these with flying colors, sounding a little closed in and curiously “hooded.” This effect is easily heard by contrast with, say, Quads, which famously exhibit none of it: Wayne’s voice sounds literally as free and open and present as if in the room or, rather, as if you were transported to where he is. Other recordings that demonstrate this effect are Derek Cooke’s voice in analysis of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and almost any test record with an announcer on it. When I queried Mark Schifter, Emerald’s Engineering and Design Consultant, about this, he remarked, with a candor that is genuinely refreshing, “Yes, that’s true. We can’t duplicate Quads in this regard.” It’s hardly necessary to add that most other speakers can’t either.
I am at a loss to explain why these effects don’t show up on music, including solo voice, but they don’t, or at least not nearly to the same degree, whereas they do so clearly on speaking voices, especially speaking voices outside of musical contexts. Probably it has to do with all the emotional and psychological associations we bring to the experience of music, which is one reason among several why Alan Shaw of Harbeth does not use music when it comes to the final voicing of his speakers—neither did Peter Walker of Quad—but instead recordings of people, typically family members, with whose voices he is intimately familiar. Then, too, there are the differing radiation patterns of the 12" midrange and the 1" tweeter, plus the fact that the tweeter is monopole, the midrange and woofers dipole. Whatever the case, you will not hear these speakers at anything approaching what they are capable of if you listen much off axis.
I said that my show-report observation about “subterranean bass” was overstated. This is true. The bass from these speakers is impressive down into the thirties, and it can be very powerful. But much below that and all you get is a sense of foundation but little in the way of definition and clarity. This is to be expected. As one speaker designer put it—he shall go nameless—“Dipole bass may be very good, but the trouble is, there isn’t very much of it.” Hence Emerald’s heroic measures: two 15-inch woofers per side plus judicious equalization and DSP room correction and separate amplification. Schifter told me that one of his customers, an industry professional who likes to listen to hard-driving rock, is crazy about the speaker but wondered if there was anything to be done to improve the very-deep-bass situation. The candor of Schifter’s reply was again refreshing: “Not without otherwise ruining the speaker. Our advice is that you buy yourself a REL.” This was offered in all seriousness: the people at Emerald are great enthusiasts for REL subwoofers. Mate the CS2.3 II with a REL (or a pair) and you’ll have a true full-range speaker system that for sheer bass extension virtually nothing on the market can touch.
Finally, one last caveat, inasmuch as I am making comparisons on the highest possible scale: while the CS2.3 II is very accurate, revealing, and lifelike in its presentation, I would not recommend it to the detail-is-everything contingent. Nor does it exhibit the last several degrees of see-through transparency of Quads, some other electrostatics, and a very few of the finest dynamic systems. Saying this, let me add that it is in no way deficient in these areas—indeed, is quite superb—but if that chair squeak in the back row is more important to you than the correct timbre of a violin or a trombone, then you might want to look elsewhere. Otherwise, nothing, regardless of price, is state of the art in every aspect and particular of performance. (I must add here that the vast majority of dynamic speakers, including most of the super-expensive ones, with transparency that approaches Quads, also have a tipped-up tonal balance that I personally find antipathetic.) This speaker excels in so many areas, including those that are central for the truthful reproduction of music in the home, that they warrant the highest recommendation. When you factor in their price—$4800 a pair in the current configuration (but see sidebar)—then their value is quite off the charts. And even if you’re not in the market for speakers, I’d advise you try to audition a correctly set-up pair just to hear what truly precise imaging in its holographic sense really is all about.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way, four-driver, active dynamic loudspeaker
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 97dB 2.83V at 1m (midrange/tweeter); 90dB (woofers)
Frequency Response: 20Hz–22kHz -3dB (with DSP correction) to target curve
Dimensions: 8" x 51" x 2.75"
Weight: 78 lbs.