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B&W emphasis on design

The most striking feature of B&W’s Emphasis speakers was the unanimous approval and genuine pleasure shown by all females to.whom they were introduced. Reactions varied from a simple “way cool!” to a longing glance into the drawing room, where they’d have looked ravishing in place of the resident Castle Harlechs. It all fits in with the rumour that Madonna is one happy customer, of all the most extraordinary looking hi-fi speaker on the planet.

£6,500 is probably just a day’s royalties to Ms Ciccone. Sadly, it’s way over my drawing room hifi budget, so I shan’t be joining the smart set. But if finding enough money simply to pay the bills isn’t a major preoccupation and your balance of payments is comfortably in aurplus, a pair of Emphasis would look very well in the drawing room, the boudoir, the conservatory, or maybe in the lounge.

Emphasis is not so much a loudspeaker, altogether more a work of art. It’s priced that way, has to be judged that way, and I wouldn’t presume to choose a picture for your wall or a sculpture for your hallway. Neutral it’s not, but only you can say certainly whether Emphasis will enhance or clash with your particular style.

As an exercise in pure form it’s exquisitely delicate and slender. The appropriately musical influence is a bass saxophone or unravelled tuba. But the way it sprouts up from the base and bursts into a flower at the top also gives the impression of a giant lily. Add in superb standards of finish and exquiste detailing and you’re well on the way to explaining both pricetag and female appeal.

Something that looks this good can’t possibly make sense sonically too – or can it? You don’t get six and a half grand of serious speaker engineering here its true, and styling does take precedence over pwrformance, but much of.the shape and form here actually makes very good acoustic sense. In a very real sense, form does follow function.

Emphasis was first conceived by designer Moreton V. Warren some ten years ago when he was still a design student. He runs his own successful design practice, Native and has done other work for B&W, including the Solid models, but Emphasis started out as a pure design study, which B&W engineers helped him turn into a practical reality. Practical that is, inasmuch as it works pretty well – it’s never going to he easy or cheap to build, especially to impeccable standards demanded of such a product.

The curiously convoluted large tube is much more than mere decoration. It not only supports the drives units and keeps them well off the floor, it also provides the loading conditions for the main driver – a quarter -wave tapered column, teflex-ported at one end. (Despite appearances, this is not a horn loaded design.)

It’s good to get the drivers off the port away from the ground, to keep the sound sources well clear of the reflective surfaces; likewise, both drivers are both sited away from the irregular enclosure. The heavy cast iron base ensures that the potentially top-heavy structure remains impressively stable. The whole thing is close coupled to the floor on relatively friendly but effective cones, with a measure of worthwhile decoupling at subsonic frequinces.

Ultimately, the small diameter of the main driver has bound to be a limiting factor in the performance. It’s a classy kevlar-cone affair, but the cone itself is only about 115mm diameter, and while the port-loading is well aligned to give worthwhile bass assistance and some excursion control, serious grunt and welly are never going to be on the agenda here.

Another limiting factor is likely to be the enclosure’s fibreglass construction, which according to my fingertips is not too good at handling structural vibrations generated by a thumping beat. Another consequence is that the stalk-mounted tweeter isn’t held as rigidly as one might suppose. Emphasis may use fibreglass like B&W’s much more expensive Nautilus, but it has less internal damping, and the loops of the column are kept separate – good for styling, but not helping the mechanical integrity. 

The pair are elegant ‘mirror-imaged’, and I soon discovered they work best with the tweeters on the inside. The first impression is of a delightfully open and airy sound with generous soundstaging and a surprisingly deep bottom end.

At modest sound levels and with undemanding material, it’s all very pleasant, with an open spaciousness that’s very beguiling. The balance is a little rich in the midband, and rather laid-back and conservative towards the top end, presumably to avoid causing offense when driven by modest quality sources and amps, but the overall trend is quite smooth and well ordered.

It’s when the going gets tough that the Emphasis starts to lose the some of the plot, with some loss of poise and only modest dynamic capabilities. In the overall scheme of things, tje smallish main driver doesn’t offer any more dynamic contrast capabilities. In the overall scheme of things, the smallish main driver doesn’t offer and more dynamic grip, authority and power than a typical bookshelf two-way. And while the bass is commendably dry, even quite deep and free from obvious boom, it isn’t the cleanest around. There’s a slightly ‘thuddy’ quality and lack of crispness to the bass which comes across as a bit of an afterthought, hanging on in thete rather than grabbing the music by the scruff of the neck and driving it along.

In the final analysis, the inspirational design aesthetics do take some priority over the hifi performance here. Yet despite masquerading as a gorgeously baroque object de vertu, the Emphasis is still capable of doing justice to a decent hifi system, which is am an achievement in itslef. It’s no challenger for state of the art honours, true, but it is sensibly and cautiously balanced well with any components and delivers a beautifully open and spacious sound to go with those million dollar looks.