Wilson Benesch Square One Series 2 loudspeaker
My comments on the A.C.T. One ran in the August/September 1999 TAS, issue 119. I praised it to the skies; even Harry Pearson himself had to admit that, had he not listened to the A.C.T. One (which at the time cost ca $10,000/pair), he would not have been able to "put his finger on" what was not quite right in the midrange of a ca $80,000/pair speaker prominently featured in that issue.
Of all the audio equipment I've heard in my three decades as an audio writer, the A.C.T. One and darTZeel's NHB-108 stereo power amplifier tie for first place in terms of my regret at not having bought them. Enlightened Audio Designs' Ultradisc 2000 CD player is in second place. It's telling that A.C.T. Ones rarely seem to come up for sale on eBay or Audiogon.
In 2000 I moved from TAS to Stereophile, and in September 2004 I wrote of the A.C.T. One's successor, the ACT, "The hallmarks of Wilson Benesch's 'house sound' are extremely low distortion, seamless coherence, unfussy easefulness, rounded liquidity of tone, articulate dynamics, and seductively natural imaging and soundstaging." For what many might perceive as American tastes, I also had to note that WB's house sound favored elegant bass quality over bass quantity, and further, that the combination of high tech and high style meant that WB speakers, tier by tier, cost more than those of their built-in-the-US competition.
So, despite a small but committed fan base, a sprinkling of committed dealers, lots of respect, and some great reviews, Wilson Benesch's presence in the US market has not been uninterrupted. In 2014, WB reconnected with Steve Daniels of The Sound Organisation, importers of Rega Research and other brands. Together, they've been rebuilding WB's US dealer base, starting with the Series II edition of WB's entry-level speaker, the petite, rectilinear, noncarbon-fiber Square One.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with Wilson Benesch's owners, Christina and Craig Milnes, who believe that their company offers to audio-enthusiast music lovers a unique combination of values and benefits. First, their speakers embody 25 years of fundamental research in materials science, much of it funded by Her Majesty's Government. They have in-house control over the complete manufacturing process. Then there's WB's design aesthetic, revolutionary 20 years ago but since picked up by others. Finally, they offer a sound quality they feel is different from that of any other speaker company. "Voicing a loudspeaker is a very personal thing, I think," Craig told me.
Craig Milnes stated that the Square One is the least-expensive speaker WB can make without deviating from their technical, aesthetic, and sound-design heritagethat it is, in fact, at $3800/pair, something of a loss leader. That said, he thinks that the Square Five ($17,000/pair) is their highest-value product, in that all of its technology is borrowed from WB's flagship model, the Cardinal ($115,000/pair). The Cardinal has sold even better than was hoped, especially in Germany, about which the Milneses pronounce themselves "more than happy." Christina noted that the entry-level Square One boasts the Cardinal's quality of veneer, from the same supplier.
Wilson Benesch's Series II Square One is a stand-mounted, dynamic loudspeaker measuring 12.8" high by 8" wide by 11.2" deep and having an internal volume of 10 liters. A vented two-way design, it has a 1" soft-dome tweeter, a 7" mid/woofer, and, on the rear panel, a 7" Assisted Bass Radiator (ABR or passive radiator). Unusually, both ports vent through the bottom panel. Therefore, the speaker enclosure has, at the four corners of its base, metal standoffs. These can be covered with small, compliant, self-adhesive hemispheres (supplied) for installation on a bookshelf or sideboard. Alternatively, the standoffs accept the supplied hefty machine screws, installed upward through holes in the dedicated, all-metal stands. The stands cost $1395/pair, for a total system cost of $5195/pair.
Securely locking a loudspeaker to its stand is a concept I heartily endorse. One doesn't want toddlers to pull speakers down on top of themselves by their cables. Nor does one want an adult guest to inadvertently hip-check one's speaker onto the floor.
In addition to the unusual combination of bottom ports and ABR, the Square One's design includes "critical mass damping pads." A Square One on its own weighs 22 lbs; each hefty spiked stand (available only in black, front spikes permanently attached) weighs 26 lbs. The standard finishes are Natural Cherry Stain; or, in Gloss, Black, White, Birds Eye, Red Birds Eye, Red Tulip, Walnut, Burr Walnut, Ebonized Walnut, and Zebrano; or, in Satin, Maple and Oak. The review pair was in Ebonized Walnut Gloss, which looked almost black, except in full daylight.
The fit and finish were second to none. The Square Ones came with the most purposeful steel-framed grilles I have ever beheld. I admired them once, then left them in the shipping cartons. The four speaker-cable terminals are machined in-house from rhodium-plated copper alloy; high-quality jumper wires are supplied for single wiring.
Wilson Benesch's specifications for the Square One include: a sensitivity of 87dB/2.83V/m, on axis; impedances of 6 ohms nominal, 4 ohms minimum; a crossover frequency of 5kHz (first-order bass rolloff, second-order tweeter crossover); a frequency range of 45Hz24kHz; and a power-handling capacity of "200W, peak unclipped program."
I checked the bass-extension claim by listening to the "Full Glide Tone" from Ayre Acoustics' Irrational, But Efficacious! System Enhancement Disc, Version 1.2. At the moment in the tone's sweep upwardit starts at 4Hzwhen I believed that the Square One's woofer was actually producing "tone" and not just fecklessly flopping, I hit Pause on the Parasound Halo CD 1's remote control, noted the elapsed time on the CD 1's display, and, using the Amadeus Pro II app, opened the "Full Glide Tone" digital-audio .wav file, and captured a small sample that included about one second to either side of the indicated time. From the "Analyze" pull-down menu I selected "Spectrum." The spectrum I obtained was centered on 44.1Hz. Keeping in mind unavoidable experimental error, I find WB's claim of 45Hz credibleand very impressive for a speaker with an internal volume of only 10 liters.
My review samples of the Square Ones had come from a dealer's showroom floor. Even so, they required a certain amount of break-in (or re-break-in). The rear-mounted ABR's inverted surround was very stiff. Even very loud music with significant bass content didn't cause large excursions.
Wilson Benesch does not state a minimum recommended amplifier power, but, with its ABR and claimed 87dB sensitivityand its characteristic WB trait of favoring bass quality over bass quantity (or extension)I'd say that 50W would be the bare minimum, and that the amplifier should have great current drive and exemplary damping factor. Doubtless a safer bet would be 100Wpc. Luxman's M-600A (30Wpc) just could not deliver the goods to the Square Ones. But when I switched to the slightly more "modern"-sounding M-700u (120Wpc; see my June 2015 column), what I heard sounded almost like another full octave of bass extension.
In among all that, I experimented with positioning. I moved the Square Ones closer to the front wall than I've placed most speakers in my room, which firmed up the bass without causing any bothersome side effects. I ended up with the Square Ones completely toed in to the listening position, and with the center of each rear panel 12" from the wall behind it. Placing each speaker a third of the way along the front wall made the distance between the centers of the front panels about 5.5', and resulted in the speakers and listening position describing a slightly elongated isosceles triangle.
The opening movement, Trauermarsch, of Mahler's Symphony 5, from Eliahu Inbal's underrated (I think) recording with the Frankfurt RSO (CD, Denon CO79737), had startling dynamics and amazing depth of soundstage, the brasses and percussion sounding surprisingly powerful for a speaker of so small a footprint. That said, while there was a suggestion of bass impact, there wasn't much slam. (One workaround would be to partner the Square Ones with Wilson Benesch's Torus, a passive subwoofer with vertically firing, 18" driver: $6730.)
Standard audio reference recordings of female voiceseg, Jennifer Warnes on her Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (CD, Attic ACD-1227), and Margo Timmins in "To Love Is to Bury," from the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session (CD, RCA/Classic RTHCD8568)were as plangent and as emotionally engaging as I have ever heard them, with, again, remarkable depth of soundstage.
A rare find indeed is an almost-unknown French-Swiss recording of a Tommy Flanagan New York City studio date from 1993, Lady Be Good . . . For Ella, with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash (CD, Groovin' High 521 617-2). Flanagan spent many years as Fitzgerald's music director, and all of the songs here are associated with or at least reminiscent of her. For what it isa multimiked studio recording with an arbitrary stereo perspectiveit's a fabulous recording. The playing is soulful, in places elegiac. It took me a while to figure out that Flanagan's slow solo-piano intro to the first of two iterations of "Oh, Lady Be Good!" fit the words to the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." A message in a bottle, perhaps?
The Square Ones were the perfect match for this music. Their soundstaging abilities made the studio's sound larger and freer, while the music's bass demands didn't outrun the speakers' bass capabilities. The clarity of the sound of Flanagan's piano was exemplary. While the Square One didn't sound "analytical," it also didn't sound like a traditional British BBC-heritage loudspeaker, by which I mean a tailored frequency response with midrange warmth on almost all recordings.
Back to Mahler, this time Des Knaben Wunderhorn, for mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly's luminous, nearly heartbreaking "Urlicht" in the recording by Philippe Herreweghe directing the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (CD, Harmonia Mundi 901920). Yes, the Historically Informed Performance Practices crowd has caught up with Mahler (though despite the claim of period instruments, A is here 440Hz, not 432Hz). Fear notit's a stupendous performance. It sounded stunning through the Square Ones, in part because this is the Gustav Mahler of dimly remembered Lutheran chorales played by brass choirs, without any huge side-drum thwacks. Given the Square One's rather high crossover frequency of 5kHzan octave higher than the normI kept listening for some discontinuity between midrange and treble, but heard none. In my estimate, Connolly's performance is as treasurable as Anne Sophie von Otter's. And what a way to end a listening session!
The Square Ones are a premium-priced product, to be sure. However, they have much of the same technology and the same build quality as Wilson Benesch's more expensive models, and provide a smaller-scaled version of WB's house sound: "extremely low distortion, seamless coherence, unfussy easefulness, rounded liquidity of tone, articulate dynamics, and seductively natural imaging and soundstaging." The price tier of ca $5000/pair (including stands) is crowded and competitive, but the Square One is a standout performer that I think absolutely deserves a very high Class B (Restricted LF) rating in our "Recommended Components." It very well may be over the line into Class A (Restricted Extreme LF) . . . but John Atkinson will have to decide that after I have sent them to him for measurement.