The Emerald Physics CS3 Loudspeakers, Wyred 4 Sound mINT, and REL T7 Sub-Bass System
The Emerald Physics CS3 Loudspeakers, Wyred 4 Sound mINT, and REL T7 Sub-Bass System
A Seestem-atic review
Walter Liederman of Underwood HiFi can get excited. In the years I’ve known him though, (read: circa 15 or 20 telephone conversations during breaks at work over the course of the past 10 years—never met the man in person), I’ve never heard him more excited – more dogmatic – more crazed about any product than he was about the Emerald Physics speaker line. The man was on a tear.
“See David, what we’re trying to do is bring a product to market here with these Emerald Physics speakers that corrects the major problems most box speakers have—and that starts with – the box. Most of the manufacturing costs speaker companies outlay go toward the box; design, construction—what-have-you.” He cited a recent advertisement in Stereophile showing an exploded diagram of a really expensive speaker with a super-rigid, complex box for emphasis.
Without coming up for air, he then proceeds to launch into the research findings of the Canadian Audio Research Lab and why people like or don’t like speakers and how amazing—I mean friggin’amazing — Clayton Shaw’s Emerald Physics design is and how many people converted to Druidism and began worshipping trees after they heard them and so forth.
‘Okay,’ I thought. “I got nothing pending— I’ll give ‘em a go. Besides—I’ve been losing my religion lately. Maybe these could help. “
Life begins at… Conception
Clayton Shaw designed these speakers. “I love his amps!” I told Walter, trying to demonstrate my audiophile cred. Wrong Clayton. This is Clayton Shaw; noted speaker guru and all-around audio engineering maven, formerly of Evett and Shaw (a previously well-known audio brand), and now apparently a behind-the-scenes force of for all that is good and right in sundry audio ventures; chief among them, Emerald Physics. Clayton’s apparently got a particular penchant and/or knack for digitally taming room acoustics and the loudspeakers that inhabit them, and to this end, while it would be inaccurate to say that any one characteristic of Clayton’s Emerald Physics digitally crossed over and EQ’d speakers represents revelatory thinking, taken en masse, the EP products do indeed represent a revelatory integration of disparate audio grails.
To wit, they are an open baffle, high efficiency, controlled directivity, digitally crossed-over and EQ’d, horn-loaded, time-coherent pair of loudspeakers. Now, we’ve had all manner of open baffle speakers and all manner of horn and high-sensitivity speakers since time immemorial. We’ve even had DSP’d speakers in one guise or other (usually pricey as hell, ala Meridian) and we’ve also had controlled directivity speakers for some time (Gradient comes to mind).
But likely we’ve never really had a speaker that combines in equal measure the virtues of controlled directivity (less sonic room interaction), high-sensitivity (ease of drive), high power handling (go deaf with 5 watts/low distortion), boxless-ness (no box) and digital driver integration (sonic seamlessness) in one cheery package. Tack on utter ease of placement (as long as it’s at least two feet out from the front wall) and a price just shy of 3 G’s for the starter set under review here, and you see why this is one innovative, integrative product. Say that three times fast. If you were digitally corrected – you could!
Clayton’s design impetus for the EP’s was based on an old school audiophile saw—namely, (and I’m paraphrasing Mother Hubbard here), that the biggest problem with most loudspeakers ain’t theloud or the speaker—it’s the room they’re in. I know you’ve heard this before. And yeah- we’ve all tried our hand at putting up a few acoustic panels or a fancy pillow or two; maybe even a mysterious upside down Magic Bowl Wall Resonator or what have you. I myself have heard some seriously positive effects from some of these acoustic treatments in my own rooms of yore. (Haven’t heard the Magic Bowl Resonators as yet—I’m told they really do the trick. Yes; pun intended, I should think).
Trouble is—unless it’s a dedicated listening room for you and the cat, those pads n’ pillows and bowls look hateful and only succeed for the most part in shaving off a few dB from a few peaks here or smoothing out a bass notch there. Unless, of course, you have a whole LOT of them—and there’s a name for people like you. Wait for it… SINGLE!
In other words, in the lion’s share of cases, the pillows and bowls aren’t really a ‘fix’—just a waterproof-band-aid for the roughest spots, and an ugly one at that.
However, by designing your transducer such that it radiates sound in a controlled arc (60 degrees in the case of the CS3’s), you hear more of the direct sound from the speaker as compared with the reflected sound off, say, that sliding glass door to your right. Okay, to MY right. This is good because presumably you didn’t spend three grand on speakers so you could hear your sliding glass door’s take on the Schubert string quintet. At least I didn’t.
So now that we have you listening to more of the directed sound of the speaker as opposed to the reflected sound of your imperfect room, how do we make sure it’s a sound resembling the one the artists and their recording engineers intended you to hear? In other words, where’s the ‘Fi’ in this ‘HiFi?’
Here’s how: we use a digital crossover to generate slopes not possible with an analogue crossover and EQ the hell out of the speaker’s frequency response so that it’s flat to (at pre-selected in-room positions) within 0.5dB from 200Hz to light speed. Did I mention we’re also gonna use professional grade studio drivers which can handle, in the case of the tweeter, SPL’s pushing 140dB without calling it’s mommy to pick it up? That’s hot enough to melt the wine glass after the soprano’s high note shatters it.
The tweeter itself is housed in a rather heavy industrial steel cylinder, and the two tweeters actually come packed separately in the box. As such, you need to ‘assemble’ the EP’s co-axial drivers prior to use of the speakers. This is accomplished simply by screwing a threaded cylindrical tweeter—that’s what she said—into the back of each of the 12” mid-range drivers.
Then you simply connect the solder-less little red and black wire connectors to their respective terminals, bolt the speakers to their stands, and you’re off.
After you’ve screwed your metal driver into your 12 inch woofer, it’s…
(Magic) Bowls to the wall
The Emerald Physics loudspeakers should not work. In fact the design concept cannot work without a digital crossover and digital EQ of the response curve. Without the guidance algorithms of a digital crossover/EQ, there’s no way you’d produce anything but disjointed noise, what with a big ol’ 12” coaxial woofer/tweeter hanging there in a thin wooden board.
Some conventional speakers may be made better by digital EQ’ing and digital crossovers—but these things make Emerald Physics speakers possible. That’s a big distinction.
I’m put in mind of a cutting edge jet like the Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22 Raptor or any of the stealth planes or drones the US does or does not have. Those planes should NOT be able to fly. Hell—if this were 30 years ago or so — you’d be booted out of the board room at Grumman for conceiving of anything so aerodynamically unstable as the Joint Strike Fighter. Today though, computerized corrections hundreds or thousands of times per second of flight control surfaces (aileron, elevators etc) have made the previously impossible possible.
Similarly, as a result of the Behringer DCX2496 EQ/crossover, the drivers in the CS3 not only play well together, they in fact evidence beautiful integration and consequently, terrifically flat in room response is achievable—in YOUR room—not just Clayton Shaw’s.
Yeah, M.I.T.? It’s Dave again. I got a question
I confess, sight unseen, set up of the Emerald Physics speakers/Wyred 4 Sound mINT/Rel system seemed daunting. During our initial phone call, when Walter was going on about DSP EQ’ing of the signal and pre-sets for speaker positioning and pre-amp connections and fixed and variable outs etc. etc., I was getting the sinking feeling CS3 set-up was bound to involve careful study of a several hundred page online-manual for the Behringer digital crossover, numerous phone calls (to my therapist), a bottle of single-malt, and a few TIVO’d episodes of The Big Bang Theory (in order to give me something to watch on TV after I got thoroughly pissed off and gave up on the speaker set-up). I was wrong on all accounts (okay—I had a bit of Glenfiddich 18).
Basically, you connect your preamp to the Behringer crossover, connect the Behringer to your amp, and then your amp to your speakers. If you weren’t using a sub, you’d be done. You don’t absolutely need one, as the CS3’s go down to about 50Hz by themselves. In fact, without a sub, Walter refers to the standalone CS3’s as “mini-monitors on steroids.”
Ah, but this is a ‘seestem’ review and Walter graciously sent me the Rel T7 ‘sub bass system’ (as Rel prefers you call it) as well as the spanking new Wyred mINT 100 watt ICEpower integrated amplifier/DAC. Using the Rel simply meant I needed one additional long run of coax (provided me with the seestem) run from the Behringer to the 1/LFE coax input on the T7. Done — and surprisingly painlessly actually.
Connections complete, speaker positioning with a digital crossover like the Behringer is similarly an unadulterated joy. Since this little magic box takes care of main driver integration as well as subwoofer integration, and EQ’s the speakers frequency response curve such that the CS3’s sound as flat as possible at several pre-programmed listener selected distances from the front and side walls, all you need do is pick a speaker location at least two feet from the front wall (I put mine three feet out), dial in that preset on the Behringer digital crossover’s menu, spread them about 6 to 10 feet apart (the speakers), give ‘em a bit o’ toe-in and then— (everyone now)— ‘set it and forget it!’
One thing about the EP set up I especially loved was the way the Behringer frees you from the usual tedium of having to make tiny subwoofer crossover adjustments to ensure a sub like the Rel mates seamlessly with your front speakers. With the Behringer doing that kind of work for you, you need only position the sub well, then twiddle your subs volume control to taste. Easy! In point of fact, all told, it took longer to unpack and ‘assemble’ the CS3’s than to set up the entire system under review.
So what!? So…. let’s dance!!
Sometimes, putting lots of different technologies together in one product results in a hodge podge of strengths balanced in good measure by an equally proportioned hodge podge of weaknesses. This emphatically, was not one of those times.
Immediately upon hook up without the sub turned on as yet—and with Walter still on the phone walking me through the set up process—I could hear the speed of the CS3’s. It’s eye opening—kinda like someone oiled the drivers and the sound was just spilling slickly out of them. I had some sort of string quartet on and I was tapping my feet to the rhythm, finding it tough to keep the conversation going with Wally about, well… whatever he was on about; crossover slopes or something. Then I got Walter off the phone somehow and settled into the spot of sweetness for my first night with the CS3/mINT/REL system.
Immediately following any transition from your current transducer du jour to any good planar speaker, you’re struck by what I’ll call the ‘Open Baffle Effect’ or O.B.E. Scientifically defined, the O.B.E. is that sudden feeling you get when switching to a decent planar of any kind that your current box speakers by way of comparison, actually suck, and suck hard. Read: they sound like boxes.
Like the Maggies, Quads, Logans and Soundlabs I’ve owned before, the CS3s sounded utterly open and well… box-less. The soundstage was expansive and populated precisely—remarkably so. It also swelled and contracted and billowed all around the speakers—which looked at times like stoic onlookers whom just happened to be standing there absentmindedly while music was playing. Expansive symphonic works such as the Rattle-conducted Brahms second (from his Brahms set on EMI), were massive, un-boxed and unrestrained. And choral pieces like Handel’s Messiah were set free of their usual earthly speaker bounds, while soloists remained well-localized.
In fact, much of the time I spent listening to the CS3’s I spent marveling at how much of that time was spent NOT paying attention to the speakers. I mean—as big as they are (and yes—I’ve spoken with Walter about how I’m less than thrilled with their current aesthetic)—you really cannot hear them out as sources of sound! It’s actually freaky at times. It’s just so liberating to sit down for a change, and feel like music is happening somewhere up there on a stage, and that those wooden panels are just kind of standing there for no apparent reason- because the sound doesn’t seem to be emanating from them. In this regard, it really is like listening to a ‘mini-monitor on steroids’- but without the artificial ‘laser pinpoint’ thing I find artifactual and distracting. Rather, even well-localized images are dimensional and physical—bigger and more realistic.
By way of comparison, my superb value-for-money EPOS Epic 5’s—a terrific 1500 dollar a pair floorstander—immediately sounded a bit boxy, hooded, and frankly, somewhat dynamically muted. I never thought I’d say this about the Epic 5’s, which I feel yield a wonderfully tonally saturated and pacey sound akin to a budget Daedalus Audio speaker, if such a thing were available, but the CS3’s forced my hand. They were simply more open and less physically present as sources of sound. They were also (much!) more dynamic, and not just than the Epic 5’s- than pretty much than anything I’ve ever had in-house!
I’ve definitely heard EP-like openness and depth before from the panels I’ve owned in the past (Soundlab Dynastats, Martin Logan’s, Maggies, Quad 63’s etc), but none of these speakers were doing the open ‘n airy dipole thing whilst serving up so much dynamic verve – carrying as big a set of Bowls– as the CS3s. In this regard, the CS3s were revelatory.
Stereophile bad boy come Home Theater preppy, Corey Greenberg used to hate Quads for this reason. He felt you couldn’t play ‘real music’ on them because their sound essentially amounted to a pretty picture with no edge or jump. I wouldn’t go that far, but playing the first disc from John Lee Hooker’s The Ultimate Collection; 1948-1990 on the EP’s was scary real. When he pops those guitar strings—even with a 30 watt amp at lowish levels, man—this ain’t no Quad! On tracks like ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’ and ‘Boom Boom’ John Lee sounded exactly like I imagine he would if I were sitting right in front of the man in some dive club I’d never actually go to cause I’d be scared of being shanked. The growl and gravel of his voice and the punch of the bass is raw and heavy. You ain’t listing to no prettified picture, son—it sounds real. So much so, the CS3’s can actually scare you at times—I mean, physically startle you with a ‘lectric guitar entrance or a trumpet solo or a snare drum snap. Can your mini boxes do that?
Again, the speaker’s ability to hide in plain sight added to the ‘virtual reality’ of the experience. And I’m not even TOUCHING the volume! It’s a respectable dogs ‘n children ‘n conservative accountants and their mistresses type apartment complex, for god sakes.
What I’m saying is, in terms of macro and micro dynamics the EP CS3s are more or less unrivaled in my experience. In fact, I came to think of them less as fragile ‘audiophile’ speakers and more as pro audio devices that tell it like it is, and are unbreakable in the process.
This is likely down to the combination of 95dB efficiency and large radiating driver area as well as the fact that the drivers can handle such huge power that you are mostly working them at like an extremely small fraction of their loudness potential. In my apartment, this means that John Lee Hooker at (briefly) near life-like levels isn’t even stirring their coffee. As such, distortion is quite low. It’s effortless for them and it sounds it.
The middle-of-the-line REL T7 added deep, clean underpinnings to the dynamic proceedings going on up top, and the T7/CS3 combo certainly gave the most ‘full range’ sound I have ever had in my place. I had to be careful with everything fromCafé Blue to Calexico (cool band- check ‘em out!) cause the bass depth and punch could unexpectedly cause me to become anxious about unsettling my downstairs neighbors. The CS3/REL combo also gave me the most realistic semblance of a drum set playing in my living room I’ve ever heard; this from one of my classic Bill Evans CDs that’s pretty well recorded, but definitely not hi-res state of the art.
The T7/CS3 blend was absolutely superb—really seamless. I didn’t even have to get up off the couch 9000 times to micro-adjust the crossover to get it that way. It just was. In essence, you get all the punch and depth your sub of choice is capable of, without the greatest downside of sub ownership—integration with the mains. (Note: WAF is second when it comes to subwoofer downsides).
I do think, by way of comparison both with my EPOS Epic 5’s as well as with other superb, more conventional speakers I have owned previously, there was a bit less tonal purity and richness of timbre on offer, especially as regards the tweeter. The tweeter in the CS3 did not sound ‘bright’ or grainy per se – rather, if you listen to a well implemented top-line fabric dome tweeter like an Esotar or a Scan-Speak Revelator, you’ll hear a certain fluidity or silkiness to the tone. I think in this regard, the CS3 tweeter, an industrial metal done, was not quite there. Of course, a Maggie ribbon is an even purer device still than the lot of them.
Similarly, the midrange tonality and purity of my Epic 5’s, and certainly of my more exalted (and expensive) paper-coned prior references, the Daedalus DA-RMa’s, somewhat surpassed the CS3 midrange in that single regard. It is not here a matter of distortion of timber or tone; the CS3’s are spot on there. I am speaking here only really of tonal purity and perhaps the breadth of the ‘palate’ of tonal timbre. For example, on Decca’s King of the High C’s, a recording I know very well, Pavarotti’s voice slanted slightly more toward the metallic ringing overtones than the warmer, more tonally complex sound that comes through via a Daedalus speaker or via my Sennheiser 600’s. I’m pretty sure this is down to driver material and construction, rather than implementation.
To be fair, the CS3 is EP’s least expensive offering and the up-rated speakers in the line use pricier drivers. Also, this commentary is more applicable when listening to the CS3’s via the W4S mINT which, while a great product in its own right, is after all a 1500 dollar integrated amplifier, ESS Sabre DAC included. Switching from it to my Burson HA-160D used as a pre/DAC with my Red Wine Audio amp improved the CS3’s tonal purity, though it still fell short of the best I have heard in that regard.
Where it most certainly did not fall short was on the ‘reality’ factor. Purer of tone though some transducers may be, I have never heard some of my recordings sound more real—less like a recording—than with the CS3’s—and I’m not just saying that. With a well recorded vocalist or jazz trio – man—it really is like being there. And sometimes, as in life—it ain’t pretty. The breathing—the phlegm in the guy’s voice—Glenn Gould’s infernal humming—it’s all there.
This is not a fragile, pretty sound. Though blissfully capable of such, it’s potentially ballsy and edgy and powerful. In short, at times, it’s a lot like being there.
But wait—There’s more…
Got so carried away by the CS3’s, forgot for a sec this was supposed to be a seestem review. The new Wyred 4 Sound mINT that came paired with the CS3’s is a thing that likely would not have been possible say, ten years ago. While a decent preamp, power amp and DAC were of course all individually possible, integrating these technologies while preserving their individual abilities to function at this level would have been unprecedented at this price point. It may still be…
A product like the mINT flies in the face of the ‘separatists’ in our midst whom staunchly cling to old notions that integrateds like the mINT are fine for the ‘casual’ listener, but ‘true’ Hi FI requires separates. If the mINT integrated amp does nothing else other than exist and make some people happy, it may go some incremental distance toward finally putting that archaic notion to rest.
The mINT (short for “mini integrated”) is a virtuoso when it comes to versatility, combing a preamp which utilizes a transparent resistive-ladder design, an ESS Sabre DAC (also available separately as the W4S DAC) with an asynchronous USB input as well as s/PDIF and all manner of other input styles, along with a 100 watt per side ASX2 latest-generation ICEpower amplifier. You can be versatile and creative with regard to shelf placement as well, as the mINT is a half-width product that runs relatively cool and fits relatively anywhere. It’s also got fixed and variable outs and home theater bypass as well as a headphone jack that wasn’t an afterthought. It’s also ummm… cute.
Sonically, the little mINT evidences all the goodness I’ve come to expect from ICE amps with neither of their major downsides; namely, a tendency to roll off the top and make things too nicey nice, and a tendency to cost a MINT for a tiny box with an ICE board or two and a switch mode power supply.
Via either my EPOS’s or the EP CS3’s under review alongside it, the mINT was punchy and pacey and powerful, excelling most notably in two areas; soundstaging and bass. The mINT produced some of the deepest, tightest bass I’ve gotten from my system, surpassing my Red Wine Audio 30.2 LFE amp in this regard. Similarly, the mINT “out-staged” the Red Wine by just a hint, producing more clearly defined images on a slightly wider and deeper stage. Images were more separate and distinct from one another than with my reference amp.
Via my Burson HA-160D as preamp though, the 2500 dollar Red Wine I felt surpassed the mINT in that it had a certain fluidity and ease about its presentation and perhaps a tad less “clinical” way with tone color that allowed it to maintain its place as my “reference” amp. But damn—the mINT gave good sonics!
I did come to feel that the preamp circuit and DAC in the mINT tended to come down on the “straight no chaser” side of things, in that their tone was less dense, less weighty and a bit more sterile than the Burson’s (used as pre-amp/DAC). The ESS Sabre DAC in the mINT isn’t thin or ‘hot’ sounding in any way—it’s just a detailed and matter of fact device in the manner of the cEntrance DACmini I recently reviewed. The mINT’s pre, while transparent, was also certainly not as fluid and continuous sounding as Wyred’s own 2000 buck STP SE preamp (now on loan for review).
I was thinking perhaps the straight-laced nature of the mINT’s pre circuit and DAC are the reason the mINT, used as an integrated, doesn’t evidence much roll-off up top. Or perhaps the re-worked ICE ASX2 boards can take some part of the credit for that as well, as I had only previously heard the first generation ICE amp boards.
In any case, the W4S mINT is a mini amp that sounds like a maxi amp. It’s got a powerful, punchy sound with minimal if any audible ICEpower roll-off up top and it stages and does deep and powerful bass like a bruiser. It also resolves beautifully and I felt no immediate urge to replace it in my system with my usual bed-fellows for weeks at a time. As such, the Wyred 4 Sound mINT really does amount to one smokingly integrative deal that plays well and truly beyond a bunch o’ cheap separates you cobbled together on Audiogon because, well, you want separates.
The End of Separation
It’s like this: if you were a drummer and I played you a drum solo from Bill Evans’Sunday at The Village Vanguard at anywhere near decent volume over the CS3’s, you’d look at me and go—“yah, those are drums.” If I played you the same drum solo over most any other speaker I’ve had in house you’d turn to me and go ‘These speakers sound really nice, David. How long have you been into this high-end audio thing?” See what I mean?
So if that’s what you’re in this for (and some of you really aren’t), the Emerald Physics CS3’s, either in combination with the mighty mINT, or with mo’ pricier fare like Wyred’s own upscale amps and preamps, have your number.
In sum, I’d say I’ve heard some speakers do some things better than the CS3, but I’ve never heard a speaker do so many things so very well—and for so relatively paltry a sum. That last part’s pretty much unprecedented.
Here we have a high-efficiency dipole with balls to the wall micro and macro dynamics, spooky imaging, fuss free positioning/subwoofer integration and a flat in-room frequency response in YOUR room, which works and plays well with all manner of amplifiers.
What’s that kinda integration worth to you? How ‘bout $2,995.00 for the speakers and crossover ala carte, or $4,995.00 all in for the soup-to-nuts seestem? Done deal.
CS3 PRICE: Standard Wood Finish DCX2496 Processor….. $2995
Black Oak Veneer
Optional Wood Finish DCX2496 Processor….. $3450
Mahogany, Cherry Veneers
* Type: 2-Way, Passive, Dynamic Loudspeaker
* Dipole below 900 Hz, Monopole above 900Hz
* Controlled directivity design, DSP controlled
* Concentric midrange/treble driver assembly
* Impedance: 8 Ohms
* Treble Driver: One 1 inch (25mm) exit professional compression driver
* Bass / Mid Driver One 12 inch (300mm) diameter Coaxial professional driver
* Sensitivity: 95 dB 2.83V @1M @ 1kHz
* Crossover: Mid/Treble: 900Hz – Internal Passive network
* Amp Configuration: Single stereo amplifier ( amplifiers not included)
* Signal Processing: Outboard 2 channel DSP (digital signal processing) unit Emerald Physics proprietary software pre-loaded
* Frequency Response: 40Hz – 22kHz -3dB (with DSP correction)
* Amplitude Linearity: 100Hz-20kHz +/- 0.5dB
Height: 41 inches (1041mm)
Width: 16 inches (406mm)
Depth: 1.75 inches (44.5mm) Baffle
8 inches (203mm) Total Depth
Net Weight: 40 lbs (18.15kg) each
Shipping Weight: 100 lbs (45.4kg) 2 in carton
Stereo Times Masthead
Frank Alles, Mike Girardi, Key Kim, Russell Lichter, Terry London, Moreno Mitchell, Paul Szabady, Bill Wells, Mike Wright, Stephen Yan, and Rob Dockery
David Abramson, Tim Barrall, Dave Allison, Ron Cook, Lewis Dardick, Dan Secula, Don Shaulis, Greg Simmons, Eric Teh, Greg Voth, Richard Willie, Ed Van Winkle, and Rob Dockery
Carlos Sanchez, John Jonczyk, John Sprung and Russell Lichter
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