May 2003Wilson Benesch Discovery Loudspeakers
by Jason Thorpe
Plato was on to something when he suggested that there exists, in potential, the essence of a thing -- the Platonic Conception. I doubt he had speakers in mind when he raised this idea, but it works well anyway. The perfect speaker's form would follow its function to the nth degree, and that form would be an elegant extension of its need. Such a speaker wouldn't be any larger than it needed to be. It would be uncolored, with deep bass that belied its size. Its cabinet would contribute nothing to its sound. It would be audibly invisible. And, man, would it be beautiful, because you have to look at it and sculpture is part of any visible object's purpose.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion
When it comes to epitomizing true speakerness, the Wilson Benesch Discovery, the subject of this review, comes exceptionally close. These beautifully made $8200 USD black and silver (wood finishes are available) British speakers have a visual presence about them that verges on unsettling. Theres a barely restrained malevolence about their carbon-fiber and aluminum monococque chassis that is both exciting and smoothly sophisticated at the same time. I half expect to see them gliding across the floor in an attempt to herd me into the disintegration chamber that I foolishly had installed. Am I anthropomorphizing? Maybe, but however you look at it, the Discoveries stand out visually.
Wilson Benesch is a British company that made its name by specializing in the use and integration of aluminum and carbon fiber in audio products. While they first surfaced on the audiophile radar with their analog products -- the ACT 1 turntable and matching tonearm -- they soon turned their attention toward building speakers. With the Discovery loudspeaker, Wilson Benesch has managed to build a transducer exclusively from synthetic materials -- the product literature supplied with the Discoveries described alloy stock and various resins coming in one door of the factory, and finished speakers coming out the other.
The three-way Discovery certainly is a striking speaker, but a close inspection shows that theres very little about it thats done solely for appearances sake. The complex cabinet design, characterized by its curved flanks and downward-tilted forehead, results in an enclosure without a single parallel surface. The carbon-fiber side panels are very stiff, and their gently curved flanks exhibit very little vibration, while the immaculate, high-gloss finish shows off the weave of this high-tech material to great effect. Optional finishes include glossy stained red cherry; birds-eye maple or burr walnut; and satin cherry, maple or oak. At first the carbon fiber seems like an extravagance until you consider how much thicker (and hence larger) the cabinet would need to be if made of, say, MDF and still retain the same stiffness.
Although the Discovery has the initial appearance of a stand-mounted minimonitor, you should realize that the "stand" is actually an integral, non-removable part of the speaker. The aluminum beam that runs down the back of the speaker and forms its spine is solid enough that, when combined with the thick base plate, the Discovery shows no play or wobble. There are two practical reasons why the speakers supporting aluminum beam is at its rear. First off, since the stand doesnt protrude from the bottom of the baffle, theres no chance of any possible diffraction -- in essence, its like hanging the speaker from the ceiling by a chain. Secondly, the Discovery utilizes a unique bass-driver technology. Tactic is Wilson Beneschs name for what is essentially an isobaric system, with two bottom-mounted drivers facing each other in a clamshell configuration. Bass is radiated both from inside the cabinet by way of two unequal-length ports, and from the inverted driver, which protrudes from the bottom of the cabinet. This is what precludes the use of any stand attached to the bottom of the speaker -- the lower woofer would be in the way.
Isobaric loading generally enables a system to play lower than with one driver -- and in a smaller box -- but at the expense of sensitivity. Its a clever, expensive, and thoughtful way of getting a small speaker to generate the bass that youd expect to come from one that's much larger. The Discovery's isobaric woofers cross over at 500Hz with a 6dB slope and overlap the front-firing woofer/midrange, which plays full range through the bass and rolls off 6dB at 5kHz. The three 7" drivers are identical units manufactured by Wilson Benesch. The 1" tweeter has a silk dome, and it crosses over from the woofer at 5kHz at 12dB. Sensitivity is given as 88dB, and impedance as 6 ohms nominal and 4 ohms minimum. The quoted frequency response is 42Hz and 25kHz +/-3dB. The Discovery measures 43 3/8"H x 9"W x 14 1/2"D and weighs 77 pounds.
The Discoveries come with exceptionally high-quality binding posts that are set up for biwiring, and Wilson Benesch includes a wrench (spanner, in Britspeak) with which to tighten the posts. On the bottom of the speaker, Wilson Benesch has fitted possibly the most lethal spikes in all of hi-fi. These long, pointy, and very sharp tempered-steel weapons command instant respect.
Finest quality, superior workmanship
Setup of the Discoveries was a fairly painless process. When I first received them, I placed them in my larger room about three feet in from the front wall and two feet from the side walls. This meant that each speaker ended up eight feet apart and nine feet from my listening position. After listening for a while, I pushed them back about six inches in order to add a touch more bass reinforcement. I also toed them in slightly.
I initially drove the Discoveries with an Orpheus Labs Three solid-state amplifier, but this combination proved slightly dry and uninvolving for my tastes, so I swapped that out for my EAR 509 tube monoblocks, which provided some welcome lushness. For the duration of the review, cabling was Acoustic Zen Matrix to the speakers and Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval between the Meitner Bidat (which has a volume control) and the amps. An Analysis Plus Digital Oval cable connected my Rotel RCD-975 CD player (used as a transport) to the Meitner. AC was fed directly from the wall.
When I moved the Discoveries down to my smaller room, the source was my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog setup. This fed my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamplifier by way of a Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. I also used a Musical Fidelity A3 CD player. The EAR 509s followed behind the speakers from the other room; a Musical Fidelity A3cr was also in use. Cables here were Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 to the speakers and Solo Crystal Oval interconnects.
Not fish. Snake.
My initial impression of the Discoveries was that they present every inflection of every note with almost holographic delineation. From the leading-edge transients of electric guitar to the percussive attack of drums, these British speakers helped me see into the music and laid its meaning out in front of me.
Lately Ive been on a John Zorn kick; the contrast between his rich, soothing nuevo Klezmer tapestry and the nasty, pornographic album liners never ceases to amaze me. The Gift [Tzadik TZ7732] is a blend of surfin guitar licks and traditional Jewish folk music that ends up working better than youd imagine from my description. Its a beautiful, introspective album, and I repeatedly returned to it during my time with these British speakers, as the music showed how carefully the Discoveries can craft a musical landscape. The speakers portrayed the interplay between the electric guitar and the drums on "Makahaa" in a delicate manner, with each note clearly articulated both tonally and spatially. Although the transients on this track had plenty of snap, there was no sense of thinness and no lack of harmonic body. On the contrary, the upper bass through the lower treble had a slight sense of weight that added body to instruments and voices.
In order to get the best from the Discoveries, though, I found that they do need to be cranked up. At low volumes they sound rather flat and uninvolving, with a lack of dynamics that definitely dont do them justice. But goose the throttle just a touch past the background-listening level and they truly do blossom and come alive. At extremely low levels, the bass sounds muffled and indistinct, but in the same way as with the midrange, it tightens up and gains definition once the volume is raised. I dont view this as much of a liability, as these are high-performance loudspeakers and using them for background listening is like using a Lamborghini V12 to power a log splitter.
While the bass does open up with increased volume, it retains a distinctive, poised character that reminds me in some ways of an electrostatic or planar speaker's low end. With many dynamic loudspeakers, the impact of instruments such as kick drum has a feeling of force that strikes you in the chest. Perhaps due to the downward-firing woofers, the Discoverys bass has more of a diffuse, room-filling sound. But mark my words -- its still steel-trap tight. Low bass in a bookshelf-sized speaker is usually a tradeoff. You can either have extension or volume from a small box, but rarely both. The Tactic driver system in the Discovery is a very good compromise. Other than with organ and synthesizer notes, I never lacked for bass extension, and within reason I could listen as loud as I wanted without the low-end giving up the ghost.
So even at party levels, the bass remained tight and accurate, and didnt bottom out or distort. Judging by the small size of the Discoveries, you wouldnt think that they could rock out at high volumes. But youd be sorely mistaken. When I was placing Pink Floyds The Wall [Sony 4OAP 1750-1] onto the turntable, I felt vaguely guilty, as if playing a rock album on these sophisticated transducers was akin to yelling out a request for "Zeppelin!" at a Cecilia Bartoli recital. But the speakers didnt flinch. On "Run Like Hell," the Discoveries lashed out with plenty of tight, quick, deep bass. The kick drum that starts the song off did lack just that last bit of visceral impact, but considering the size of their cabinets, these speakers work miracles down low. And keep in mind that this was in a 14' x 32' room, which is likely larger than optimum for these fairly small speakers. When I put on a naturally recorded album, the Discoveries portrayed instruments such as acoustic bass with all the depth and definition that I could ask for. On Herbie Hancocks Gershwins World [Verve 314 557 797-2], the bass on "The Man I Love" was completely believable, with a large, physical body and a rich, woody overtone.
At first I was under the impression that these British speakers were rolled off in the upper treble, but I slowly realized that the treble extension is all there -- its just missing any additive coloration, grit or hash. Whats left is the pure tone without any clue that its emanating from a box. This isnt sweet or analytical treble; its personality is as close to non-existent as Ive yet found in a speaker. I came to this realization while I was listening to Stereolabs Dots and Loops [Drag City DC-140] and trying to find a way to describe this characteristic. The notes were all there -- the cymbals floated free in space and were portrayed as neither too hot nor even slightly recessed. Without calling attention to itself, the Wilson Benesch tweeter portrayed only what was there, but without stabbing out in a hi-fi manner.
A major benefit of the Discoverys unforced high frequencies was that I didnt find myself avoiding poor-sounding albums. Im not implying that the speakers homogenized recordings -- not in the least; instead a screechy album still sounded screechy, but the trait wasnt exacerbated, and the music could still be enjoyed. But feed the Discoveries a well-recorded album and they extract every nuance of the information coming to them.
While listening to Debussys Iberia from the Classic Records reissue of the same name [Classic/RCA LSC-2222], I was drawn to the layered, uncolored depths of the Discoverys imaging. Theres a lot going on in this recording, and the Discoveries sorted out the dense, multifaceted images without thrusting them out in a showy manner. Theres nothing muddy or even remotely smeared about the way these speakers portray images, and I get the distinct feeling that the cabinets themselves contribute nothing to the sound. Music emanates from a pitch-black, velvety silence, and sparse instrumental music shows this off to great effect. Filmworks, another John Zorn project, is a prime example of this. This British speaker dealt out the atmospheric and lyrical melodies on Filmworks III [Tzadik TZ7309] with a scalpel-like precision. I must emphasize here that the precise nature of the Discoverys imaging is not achieved in any way by an aggressive or abrasive edge to the midrange or treble. Instead, the speaker is simply exceptionally competent, capable and clear, and has an invisible nature that leaves only the music front and center.
The Discoverys midrange integrates seamlessly with its bass and treble. I was never aware of a crossover point either at the low or the high end of the midrange. The speakers remained composed at all times through this region. The lack of any brightness or glare might at first make this speaker seem boring, but if you listen without expectation, the Discoveries can take you by surprise.
But on some recordings, the lower midrange could sound just a bit overly rich, such as on Cassandra Wilson and Jackie Terrasons Rendezvous [Blue Note 7243 8 55484 20]. Wilsons voice is rather smoky to begin with, and this recording is already a touch opaque, but the Wilson Benesch speakers added just the smallest hint of additional darkness. Leonard Cohens subterranean baritone on Best of Leonard Cohen [Columbia CK 68636] was completely realistic and believable, but it did have just a tiny amount of extra chest surrounding it. To tell the truth, I found this a pleasing characteristic, as its never overdone. The midrange never comes close to becoming thick, and a change over to a different amplifier, such as the Musical Fidelity A3cr, almost completely eradicated this trait, albeit with a loss of some lushness.
My friends are toys. I make them. It's a hobby.
While the Discoveries are essentially a monitor speaker, they can easily stand comparison to a full-size floorstander such as my Hales Transcendence Fives. While the Hales speakers do ultimately have more deep bass, as should be expected from their larger cabinets and bass drivers, when it comes to pretty much any form of acoustic music, there isnt much of a significant quantitative difference between the Hales' and Discoveries' bottom-end performance.
Qualitatively, though, the Hales bass is significantly dryer than that of the Discoveries. This doesnt mean that the Wilson Benesch speakers are sloppy in any way. Instead, the bass that the British speaker delivers is more organic and realistic, and the impression that its coming from a speaker is minimized. Take "Philipino Box Spring Hog" from Tom Waits Mule Variations [Anti/Epitaph 86547-1]. On this track, the Hales speakers thrust the bass at you, and although its down in the omnidirectional range, theres no doubt that its coming from a 10" woofer thats inside a box. The Discoveries, on the other hand, simply fill the room with bass thats more in line with what youd hear from a real instrument.
Up in the midrange, its the same story. Tonally the Hales are slightly leaner, but thats not what stands out as the real nut to be cracked here. What is important is how theres no sense of a speaker with the Discoveries, and although the Hales Fives are no slouches through the midrange, they are still audible in comparison. Higher up in frequency, the Hales speakers are somewhat brighter, but not in a way that detracts from the music. Still, when compared to the Discoveries, the Hales speakers have a slightly coarse edge that is lacking in the British speakers.
While the Hales Transcendence Fives project a beautiful center image thats completely independent from the speakers, they sound hi-fi-ish in comparison to the Discoveries. The Discoveries float their images in a natural manner thats both self-effacing and realistic at the same time. Images hang free in all planes and are realistically placed in space, rather than clustered between the speakers as with the Hales.
The only area in which the Hales speakers come out on top is in the pace-and-rhythm department. Perhaps due to the tight grip on their drivers and the almost complete lack of cabinet resonances, the Discoveries can lack a bit of emotion at times. The Hales speakers, on the other hand, get your foot tapping to the music. However, my instincts tell me that the Discoveries are the more accurate speaker, and that the rhythmic talents of the Hales Transcendence Fives are an addition to whats on the actual recording.
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
While there are other speakers out there that will immediately grab your attention with audio pyrotechnics, there are few in my experience that are as subtly accurate, tonally right, and visually arresting as the Wilson Benesch Discoveries. Their combination of a rich yet defined bass along with an articulate midrange and relaxed and detailed treble makes for a speaker that will provide listening pleasure and musical insight long after the initial glow of a more flowery speaker has worn off. If you want party speakers thatll make you dance, there are plenty of them out there to choose from. If you want to unearth every nuance on every recording you own, the Wilson Benesch Discoveries will dig them out, place them in real space and time, and give you access to the meaning contained within.
Although the Discoveries are expensive -- given that they are essentially a large monitor speaker with integral stand -- theres a lot of engineering and high-tech materials wrapped up in their design. Wilson Benesch has made its design choices carefully and by doing so have created a speaker that sounds as good as it looks.
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