This is the full version of our interview with Craig and Christina Milne, the owners of Wilson Benesch, which accompanied our review of the new Precision P1.0 loudspeaker in Audio Esoterica magazine, shortly after the UK company celebrated its 30th anniversary. We began by asking about the company’s beginnings and development.
owners of Wilson Benesch
AUDIO ESOTERICA: Congratulations on your 30th anniversary! Can you take us back to the beginning? What were you both doing prior to Wilson Benesch, and what led to the company being formed?
Christina Milne: Thank you! Reaching such a milestone and looking back upon it and reflecting, we realise it is quite some achievement in any industry. We are very proud of the company we have created and all the team of people within the organisation that have made it possible to reach this milestone.
Craig Milne: Looking back to the time before the foundation of the company, from my personal perspective I wouldn’t say there was one thing that fuelled the idea to create Wilson Benesch, but some of the more inspirational and formative experiences in my life would include, my uncle's high-end system based upon Gilbert Briggs design home built loudspeakers. The fact my father played trumpet every day of his life and performed in a number of bands professionally both before, during and subsequent to the war.
But I suppose the real catalyst for the start up of the company from my perspective, was my passion for design and material science and the naïve notion that I could do something better. I had started an apprenticeship at British Steel Corporation after leaving school, then after two years of theory in Electrical Engineering I left to pursue a four-year Honours degree in Fine Art. I taught Design and Technology for 10 years, during which time work began on the Turntable A.C.T. One tonearm and A.C.T. One loudspeaker. Having read in a number of high-end audio magazines in the late 1980s that “analogue is dead and CD is the future”, we actually created a business plan to secure research funding to develop a radical new turntable presenting the idea that analogue would not die, and in fact would not only continue but also become more exotic and retain its reference status.
Christina: I also had a great passion for music, having grown up within an extended family of Irish musicians, and my parents also had their own business. Craig and I come from very different professional backgrounds, but we recognised that our skills and experience combined would be complementary in creating and driving the business forward — I had my four-year graduate Management training and experience in the commercial sector, alongside setting up of a recruitment/training company, and this for me was the driving force and motivation to be involved in investing and developing our own business. However, like any business start-up, the first years are always more demanding financially, so for a short period of time I also continued to develop the recruitment business, which helped support our young family and the newly-formed Wilson Benesch.
Craig: My focus at this time was to seek out collaborative partners for the development objectives. The technologies identified were cutting edge and without experts in the field there would be little to no chance of realising anything of commercial value. Once the company was at a stage that could support both of us, Christina and I continued working together on a full-time basis to build the business ascCo-owners and Directors, Christina taking on the role of Managing Director and myself as Design Director.
AE: Why ‘Wilson Benesch’? Where did the name come from?
Christina: Wilson is my maiden name. Benesch was the maiden name of the wife of one of the original Directors. Craig and I became sole owners/Directors of Wilson Benesch early in 2000.
AE: Your first product was a turntable — but this in 1989, when the CD was firmly in ascent. Were there doubters, and was it immediately successful? Did you sell more vinyl equipment then or now?
Craig: The whole premise of our first business plan was the development of a turntable built from advanced engineering materials and the concept that analogue would remain as the reference high fidelity medium. And yes some of the first journalists who covered our products and wrote about our company were in a word, a little sceptical! One influential journalist at the time suggested in his report that “someone should send these guys a calendar, because the turntable’s days are numbered". The original Wilson Benesch turntable went on to collect awards across the globe and in the biggest markets. Its success solidified the foundations of what would grow into a very different company, although the core values remain the same. There were a lot of challenges to overcome on this journey.
AE: We love the fact that back then, the only UK companies using carbon fibre were Lotus Racing, two defence suppliers and you! How did you know about it, get it and implement it? Was Sheffield’s engineering history helpful?
Craig: I have an engineering background — my entire family either worked in or have links into British Steel Corporation. Carbon fibre was at the time an extremely exotic material that, as you rightly point out, only an extremely select few were using in engineering. McLaren had transformed the sport of Formula One that decade with the introduction of the first carbon-fibre monocoque in the sport. The advantages that this material gave an engineer in terms of stiffness, weight and the control of energy within the structures created from it were very clear to me. So the original business plan identified that this material would enhance the performance of the turntable through a tapered-tubular single-piece tonearm and a Nomex-Carbon composite sub-platter.
AE: An ambitious plan?
Craig: It was — we had a meeting with two engineers who worked on the development of the Rolls Royce RB-211 Carbon Composite fan blades, and in that meeting one engineer basically turned to us and said, ‘you can’t afford to be sitting in that chair’. But the other engineer recognised the potential in our concept and he supported our research and development purely because he was interested in what we were doing.
In terms of carbon composites, Derby was and remains a major centre. Sheffield at that time was heavily skewed towards metal technologies and is still a global centre of excellence today in metal science and engineering.
AE: What were the biggest challenges when designing your first loudspeaker, the A.C.T. One? And how do they compare with the biggest challenges in speaker design today?
Craig: The A.C.T. One was designed according to function, and the materials selected on the same basis. The problems were solved as to how to actually make it afterwards. In retrospect this approach could be described as over-ambitious, even absurd — it could have ended badly. However, Sheffield had everything that we had not already found.
After a fantastic response we were suddenly in the loudspeaker business as well. The huge success of the A.C.T. One provided sufficient capital to not only buy the CNC Machines that were making our components, but also the fantastic engineers who were making the parts. We went from an assembly company to a manufacturing company practically overnight with one decision.
Since then we have continually re-invested and have recently put in place a plan to invest almost a quarter of a million over the next six months in additional manufacturing plant. It’s this manufacturing capability that delivers unique componentry and design that is outside the scope of most companies. Certainly in terms of advanced composites Wilson Benesch is recognised as one of the world's leading exponents of this technology, with a level of expertise that is world class, and this this capability enables the cost-performance ratio to be extremely aggressive. We believe this combination of unique technologies cannot be found in any other product in the world.
Wilson Benesch designs are aimed at discerning customers who have extremely high expectations not only in terms of sound reproduction, but also in terms of the engineering basis of a product and its build quality. Today of course, the longevity and lineage of Wilson Benesch design and the brand adds another intangible but nonetheless valuable element to being a Wilson Benesch owner. You don’t have to put a badge on a Wilson Benesch to recognise that it is a Wilson Benesch. Similarly you don’t have to be told that it is a Wilson Benesch when you hear it. The distinctive characteristics that define the sound field that a Wilson Benesch generates is unique and inimitable.
Our biggest challenge is not from outside the company but within. We have completed a vast body of research and development that underpins a multitude of future product developments. The biggest challenge is delivering the finished product. When the quality and execution of every product is so high, the development cycle is inevitably quite long.
AE: Wilson Benesch has both its infrasonic generator and supertweeter-equipped speakers — do you consider wide-band reproduction important to musicality?
Craig: During the development of the Torus [pictureed above] and in turn the Sphere Supertweeter [below] that we originally fitted to our Wide Bandwidth Collection, our research and listening tests validated that there was a change in the presentation of a recorded piece when both infrasonic and ultrasonic frequency bands were reproduced. This R&D was conducted at a time when SACD was first being introduced to the market, and therefore these frequency bands were being more commonly replayed by a much larger number of consumers.
While we know that these frequency bands are certainly not perceptible, even by the healthiest human ear, we nonetheless know from experience that they do change how recorded music feels in a listening space. The Torus is a remarkable product for many reasons, but what I believe many people perhaps don’t appreciate are the effects that this ‘subwoofer’ has upon the sense of space, timing and other cues within the music that ultimately totally change the emotional connection one has to the music. It is about so much more than simply low frequency impact.
In much the same way, the Semisphere and Fibonacci tweeters that we use in our reference line and flagship respectively communicate depth, space and timing cues that simply disappear when these tweeters are replaced. Of course it is somewhat nuanced and subtle, but isn’t that what music is about? It is often the small details that communicate character and something very personal to you about your favourite musicians.
AE: Which is more rewarding to work on — a no-holds-barred design, or a trickle-down value proposition like the Precision range?
Craig: Ever since I was a small child I have been constantly drawing or making something. When you have been involved in focused thought like that for such a long time the process becomes a part of you, and as such you don’t ever really stop, it’s a bit like breathing. With regards to the rewards of working on different products, it does not matter what it is, one will inevitably be challenged by oneself to arrive at a solution that is original, and that adds something to the world that did not exist before. Sometimes it’s like the solution was always there — you just had to do the work to find it. Sometimes you work with others to develop it. Sometimes it keeps you awake all night. They are all rewarding examples of why the process is so enjoyable.
AE: How hard has it been to maintain your position as a UK company against a changing world? (We won’t mention Brexit…) Which country is your biggest market? Do you distribute your products in China? If so, are you seeing growth in sales in that country?
Christina: Since 2010 we have become very much a family company, as our son Luke Milnes joined Wilson Benesch and now acts as our International Sales and Marketing Director, a key role in the every changing world of audio. We continue to be extremely proud of the British heritage of our company, and Wilson Benesch could not exist anywhere other than Sheffield, due to the manufacturing excellence that has been fostered within the city, especially in the field of materials science. We have always worked in a collaborative manner with universities, centres of engineering excellence and other companies that lead the way in their respective fields. And many of those organisations are based in Sheffield.
Craig: The principles that guide the work that we do are fundamental principles that apply wherever you are in the world. Maths, physics, geometry, and of course the commercial rules of how a business stays in business, and how people work well together as a team towards the same goal etc, etc., — they are the same everywhere. I think that this is one of the reasons why we established a strong global market virtually overnight. To our credit Wilson Benesch has always maintained a vigilant eye on its trading partner relationships and position within this market. For 30 years we have curated it in pursuit of stability and longevity. Our son is building upon these strong foundations, and we are confident that the patient approach that we have adopted will bring him equal stability and longevity in the future no matter how fragmented the world market becomes.
Christina: To answer your question regarding China, Wilson Benesch has been imported into Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for more than 28 years, so our brand is very well established in Asia. We currently work with a company who represent our brand in both Hong Kong and mainland China. They have dedicated Experience Centres in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and they are one of the leading importers in the Chinese market. The scale of the exhibits in mainland China and the vast number of new audio enthusiasts is unlike anything that this industry as experienced in the past. The industry has and continues to see growth despite the challenging economic and political climate a substantial growth in this market.
AE: A little tech — are the chassis of the Tactic drivers die-cast or CNC routed?
Christina: The original baskets for the Bishop were machined from a solid billet. At that time the CNC we had was based upon a punched tape machine. It took tens of hundreds of metres of tape to machine the turned part. The exact same geometry was transferred to a die cast tool when demand grew. All the baskets today are now die-cast.
AE: What material do you use as a surround suspension for your unique isotactic polypropylene cones?
Craig: The basic material is polyisoprene, however there are numerous additives added to this to create the unique blend that Wilson Benesch require.
AE: We’re told that you manufacture an amazing 90% of your products in-house. Does this include the magnets used in your drivers?
Christina: We are a vertically aligned design and manufacturing company running a CNC-suite and carbon-fibre composites production unit, so that is correct. We bring in raw materials and we create the vast majority of our components on these machines. The drawings used by the machines are created using the very latest software from the leading 3D CAD package, SolidWorks. Being in control over these processes is a key element to our success. It is critical to the process of innovative engineering and we are engaged in advanced manufacturing in every sense.
Craig: With regards to the rare-earth magnetic material that we use in our magnetic assemblies, there is currently only one source on the planet. I like to think that we were the first to realise a commercially successful drive unit based upon NdFeB, but I know that could be challenged on this.
OUR REVIEW OF THE WILSON BENESCH PRECISION SERIES P1.0 (ABOVE) APPEARS IN THE 2019-#2 ISSUE OF AUDIO ESOTERICA. WHEN THIS REVIEW APPEARS ONLINE WE WILL POST THE LINK HERE.
For more information, visit Wilson Benesch.
For enquiries in Australia, visit Absolute HiEnd