Another rewarding aspect of the bass was the way the Eminence didn’t sound “heavy” when playing music with little lower-octave content. When a bass instrument came in, there was a sense of surprise at the way it appeared out of nowhere. The excessive bass weight and overhang of many speakers serve as constant reminders that you’re sitting in front of big woofers.
Throughout my audition, a defining character of the Eminence was the way it communicated music’s rhythmic flow, timing, dynamic expression, and vibrance. It had a sense of agility and precision that made rhythmically complex music more intelligible. The speaker powerfully conveyed how the musicians locked into a groove, played off each other, and used dynamic inflections to sharpen rhythm. The Eminence revealed the tight precision of a great band in a way that was thrilling. This was as true on rock rhythms with heavy snare beats on two and four as on a hard-swinging band like the Duke Ellington Quartet (Ellington, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Shelley Mann) on Duke’s Big Four.
The overall tonal balance was flat and smooth, but with what I’d call a “top down” balance, to borrow an expression from speaker designer Michael Børresen via Jonathan Valin. That term, the antithesis of “bottom up,” describes a presentation that is lighter in weight and with greater focus on the midrange and treble than on the bottom-end foundation. The Eminence’s tonal balance leaned toward the light side, with a slightly greater emphasis on upper harmonics rather than on fundamentals and lower harmonics. The Eminence sounded light and airy the way a full-range electrostatic speaker sounds light and airy. Instrumental timbre, though extremely resolved and vividly portrayed, was a little less weighty on instrumental body, density of tone color, and harmonic richness. Jonathan Valin’s evocative description of the sound of Audio Research electronics comes to mind: “illuminated from within.” To use a wine analogy, the Eminence is like a white varietal with citrus notes rather than a full-bodied red. This effervescent character contributed to the sense of the Eminence’s transparency and of getting out of the music’s way, but some may prefer greater weight and timbral saturation through the upper bass and lower midrange.
Although many loudspeakers have very flat frequency response, the Eminence went a step further by combining tonal neutrality with a colorlessness that served as a blank canvas upon which instrumental timbre could be portrayed with sensational realism and vividness. The speaker didn’t impose its own tincture on tone colors that would have diluted their vibrance. Not only did instrumental and vocal timbres sound more “alive”; they were also differentiated from each other more clearly. The result was that each instrument in an ensemble was its own entity, more vividly present. It was like looking at a multi-hued photograph printed on pure white, rather than slightly grey, paper. This impression was heightened by a stunning sense of openness through the midrange and top octaves. There was a gossamer-like sense of the music existing independently of the speakers, unencumbered, and with the impression that a lid had been removed from the top octave.
The midrange had an electrostat-like directness and immediacy that were sensational. Brass and woodwinds were reproduced with an unfettered dynamic life and visceral presence. Trumpets had a full measure of high-frequency energy without sounding hard, brittle, or metallic. Freddie Hubbard’s instrument on his composition “Byrdlike” from the George Cables album Cables’ Vision was richly portrayed, with just the right balance of immediacy and liquidity. Piano was particularly well-served by the Eminence’s freedom from dynamic constraints, the purity and clarity of its midband, and its exquisite resolution of lower registers. I particularly enjoyed how the Eminence conveyed the way pianist Brad Mehldau’s left hand creates counterpoint with his right, weaving in melodic developments with equal facility in his right and left hands (and sometimes simultaneously) and in the process seemingly improvising an entirely new composition. The colorlessness of the midrange was apparent on vocals, rendering them with outstanding clarity. The Eminence’s reproduction of vocals was a bit understated spatially compared with many other speakers, presenting voices along the loudspeaker plane rather than projecting them forward. It was a more subtle and sophisticated perspective that tended to draw me in.
The Eminence’s tweeter is a superb transducer. It produces a treble that is smoother and more liquid than that of most hard domes, lacking the touch of metallic glare that can plague titanium and even beryllium domes. At the same time, the Eminence’s tweeter gives up nothing in resolution and speed. The result is a top end that is richly detailed and alive, yet not etched or overbearing. The treble was beautifully integrated with the rest of the spectrum, with no hint of it being a separate component riding on top of the music, rather than an extension of the same sonic fabric. Cymbals were gorgeously rendered, with just the right balance of energy and smoothness. The top end was very clean and free from grain and glare. In addition, the tweeter was extremely adept at resolving the long decays of cymbals, richly portraying their timbre and inner detail at very low levels. This quality was no doubt aided by an inert enclosure that doesn’t obscure low-level cues by radiating energy of its own. Long listening sessions didn’t produce the usual feeling of aural fatigue, and the Eminence encouraged high playback levels.
Soundstaging was literally wall-to-wall, with no indication as to the source of the sound. The Eminence disappeared quite easily and without a fussy setup, a quality that can likely be attributed in part to its narrow baffle. The soundstage projected a vividness, not from images being pushed forward but by virtue of the colorlessness of the Eminence’s timbre as well as its transient fidelity. How can the correct reproduction of dynamics contribute to soundstaging? By accurately rendering the individual dynamic envelopes of each instrument, those instruments are better differentiated from other instruments, and thus appear as more vivid and tangible objects in space.
In fact, the overall spatial perspective of the Eminence was slightly laid-back, much like a mid-hall perspective. It was a very natural, rather than hyped, rendering. Image outlines were well defined, and the Eminence’s resolution of very fine detail revealed the air and bloom around those outlines. Again, the Eminence’s lack of enclosure resonance paid dividends in revealing very low-level spatial cues.
At the start of this review I wrote that, with one caveat, the Eminence is in many ways the least colored and lowest distortion speaker I’ve heard. That one caveat is this: The Eminence doesn’t reproduce high-level, low-frequency impacts such as the bass drum whacks on some orchestral recordings. In fact, the bass drum can cause audible distortion as the drivers are overloaded (most likely the midrange driver, which as you’ll recall is run full-range with no crossover, is the limiting factor). Concomitantly, the bottom two octaves, while highly resolved, lack the muscularity, power, weight, ability to pressurize the room, and sheer physicality of some other contenders at this price. The Eminence’s bass was satisfyingly full, but not the last word in delivering a visceral whole-body experience.
This is neither a design flaw nor a failure of the execution to realize design goals. Rather, it’s clear to me that the Eminence’s designer prioritized transient speed, dynamic coherence, and resolution of pitch and texture in the bottom end over the last measure of bass extension and weight. But what are the real-world implications of these design choices? For 99% of the music I listen to, I was unaware of the Eminence’s bass-impact limitations. For example, I could play rock with strong bass lines and a dynamic bottom end such as Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues (MQA via Tidal) at any playback level with no sense of strain. (Incidentally, the Eminence’s stunning ability to accurately convey music’s timing was particularly rewarding on this album’s precise and intricate rhythms.) The very high levels of very low bass on a Hammond B-3’s bass pedals from the previously mentioned Joey DeFrancesco album didn’t perturb the Eminence. It was only certain bass drum whacks in certain orchestral recordings, played at a loud but not unreasonable level, that revealed the Eminence’s limitations with very low-frequency, high-level impacts. Whether that limitation is acceptable is something that you’ll have to decide for yourself. For me, it wasn’t a deal-breaker. The decision to run the midrange driver full-range with no crossover components in the signal path sets the limit on the Eminence’s bottom-octave transient performance, but that’s also what gives you the gloriously transparent midrange with its startling immediacy, along with resolution of bass texture and dynamics that is simply without peer. To use an automotive analogy, is it fair to criticize a Ferrari because it’s not luxurious enough? Or a Bentley because it doesn’t handle well? That’s the beauty of the rich diversity of flagship speakers in the market—you can match your priorities and expectations to the product.
The Wilson Benesch Eminence is a different kind of speaker. Its engineering is unique; its appearance is idiosyncratic; and it sounds unlike other world-class loudspeakers. In the ability to convey music’s dynamic expression, rhythmic flow, and timing, the Eminence is simply unequaled. These are important, and often overlooked, qualities of musical realism. Hearing music’s transient nature reproduced accurately is startling, and drives home the fact that virtually all other dynamic loudspeakers act like a dynamic filter between you and the music. Moreover, the way the Eminence resolves pitch, texture, and transient information in the bottom end is nothing short of revelatory. The price, however, for the Eminence’s transient fidelity and sensational bottom-end resolution is an overall presentation that isn’t the last word in bass weight, impact, and visceral muscularity.
But it’s not just the transient performance and unparalleled bass resolution that make the Eminence a world-class reference. The Eminence’s stunning openness and transparency through the midrange and treble foster a powerful impression of the speaker disappearing—of hearing the music unadulterated by the loudspeaker’s colorations. The best way to describe the Eminence is that it’s like listening to music through an open window rather than through an electro-mechanical device.
One way to judge an audio component or system is how quickly and easily you drop into “the zone,” or the feeling of total musical immersion. Another is how strongly you are compelled to listen to music, or how much you look forward to the next listening session. Or how difficult it is to turn off the system for the night. Or how much you think about exactly what music you’re going to listen to during the next session. The Eminence is one of those speakers that does all of those things—in spades. Significantly, the longer I lived with the Eminence, the greater was my appreciation for its singular virtues.
If you are looking for a reference-class loudspeaker that is based on original and innovative thinking, one that goes beyond the status quo, and one that brings a sensational verve and life to music, the Wilson Benesch Eminence should be on your short list.
To circle back to the question that started this review “What does that speaker sound like?” I would have to answer that the Eminence
Specs & Pricing
Two-and-a-half-way, ten-driver, floorstanding loudspeaker
Frequency response: 24Hz–30kHz +/-2dB on-axis
Impedance: 4.5 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 89dB at 1m, 2.83V input
Minimum amplifier power: 100Wpc
Driver array: 1x 1" WB Fibonacci Hybrid Silk-Carbon tweeter; 2x 7" WB Tactic 3.0 bass high; 1x 7" WB Tactic 3.0 midrange; 2x 7" WB Tactic 3.0 bass low; 4x 7" WB Isobaric Drive System bass low
Enclosure: Carbon composite A.C.T. 3ZERO monocoque
Loading: Sealed (isobaric drive system is ported)
Dimensions: 11" x 78" x 27"
Weight: 320 pounds each, net
WILSON BENESCH LTD
Limestone Cottage Lane
Sheffield S6 1NJ UK England
+44(0) 1142 852656
AAUDIO IMPORTS (North American Distributor)
4871 Raintree Dr.
Parker, CO 80134
Analog source: Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable with SuperArm 12.5 tonearm; Air Tight Opus cartridge; Moon 810LP phonostage
Digital sources: Aurender W20 server, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 MQA DAC; Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-AES/EBU converter; Audience Au24 USB cable; AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU cable
Amplification: Constellation Altair 2 preamplifier; Constellation Hercules 2 monoblock power amplifiers
AC power: Shunyata Research Triton V3, Typhon QR, Sigma power cords; Shunyata AC outlets, five dedicated 20A lines wired with 10AWG
Support: Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment racks and Olympus amplifier stands; CenterStage2 isolation
Cables: Shunyata Research Sigma interconnects and loudspeaker cables; AudioQuest WEL Signature interconnects
Acoustics: Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 12, Studio 3D isolation door
Room: Acoustic Sciences Corporation Iso-Wall System