WILSON AUDIO: An encounter in London with a $0.35m USD audio system including the Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeakers

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Summary:

I started out by musing on a working title; ‘Higher-end redefined?’ I knew within moments it only had to be adjusted slightly to ‘Higher-end redefined!’

A magnificent achievement. As engaging, thrilling and inspiring a performance as I've yet heard in the UK. There may be other combinations up there, Magico for example, Martin Logan and a handful of others but … I suspect they only offer shades of difference rather than wholesale superiority.

In the UK right now, quite possibly this is as good as it gets.

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An invitation to listen to true state-of-the-art higher-end audio in unhurried, relaxed and convivial surroundings is, frankly, a privilege. For many, such an opportunity rarely exists to get to hear such a system and those that do usually have to confront (as indeed do the makers) the hurdles posed by hotel rooms at exhibitions.

I looked forward to visiting KJ West One in London last Friday ostensibly to listen and observe the launch of the Wilson Audio Alexx.

Those of an inverted snobbery stance, please look away now.

Unashamedly out of reach for any other than a handful of buyers, the invitation stated, actually shouted the £105k price tag, just for the speakers.

What follows here is not a review in the traditional sense. By this I mean I couldn’t make direct comparisons because nothing in the demonstration system was familiar to me. That said I'll tell you upfront, these speakers deserve to be heard, but not necessarily for just the usual reasons.

I and a fortunate few had around 90 minutes to experience ‘the experience’ and although I could have stayed on later for the follow-on session purely for self-indulgence, it wasn’t necessary. My impressions were formed within moments, refined during the experience and edited in the commuting hours that followed. But first, before entering the comparatively opaque world of subjectivism, I'll start with the facts.

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The system:

  • Preamplifier: Dan D’Agostino Momentum Preamplifier
  • Phono stage: Audio Research Reference Phono 2SE
  • Power amplifiers: Dan D’Agostino Momentum M400 monoblock (x2)
  • DAC: dCS Vivaldi
  • Turntable: Vertere Record Player RG-1 with Koetsu Jade cartridge (on hand but not used in this session)
  • Transparent Opus interconnects and speaker cables

The playlist

Peter McGrath, the genial but highly professional brand ambassador for Wilson played a number of classical pieces that he engineered himself, but not all of these are commercially available. Also we heard:

  • "Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” / Renée Fleming (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Harry Bicket)
  • “Electrified” / Boris Blank
  • “The Robots” / Kraftwerk
  • “Roxanne” / Police in Dub album by DubXanne.
  • Haydn / Lord Nelson Mass
  • “Azure” / Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell, on ECM Records.

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Product highlights as per the press release

  • Replaces the MAXX in Wilson Audio’s range, slotting in between the Alexia and the flagship £200,000-per-pair Alexandria XLF
  • Incorporates the legendary American loudspeaker company’s latest techniques and technologies, with a form factor derived from Wilson’s continual pursuit of the perfect time-coherent modular array
  • Five drive units per speaker: two bass drivers (10.5-inch and 12.5-inch), two midrange drivers (5.75-inch and 7-inch) and the latest version of the Wilson Convergent Synergy Tweeter
  • Redesigned MTM (Midrange-Tweeter-Midrange) geometry, with the two midrange drivers flanking the tweeter vertically in separate modules
  • Midrange and tweeter modules are independently adjustable – this is Wilson’s unique Aspherical Propagation Delay, giving precise driver positioning for optimal dispersion
  • Exceptionally sophisticated crossover network – a Wilson Audio specialty – ensures the drive units work in perfect unison
  • Bass enclosure’s Cross Load Firing port system (derived from the Alexandria XLF) allows front-firing or rear-firing configurations according to the requirements of the customer’s listening room
  • Enclosures made from exceptionally strong, hard, vibration-resistant composites that Wilson calls ‘X-material’, ’S-material’ and new ‘W-material'
  • Hand-build in Utah, USA, and finished in Wilson Audio’s automotive-class paint facility to each customer’s specific colour requirements
  • The net result is an astonishingly crisp, clear and dynamic sounding loudspeaker with tremendous sonic scale that engages the listener like few others. These awesome American transducers deliver a sound so thrillingly realistic, you’ll swear your favorite musicians have dropped by for a private performance!

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Price and availability

The Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeaker is now available to order. UK retail price is £105,000 per pair (inc. VAT).

Absolute Sounds – sole UK distributor of Wilson Audio loudspeakers

Web: www.absolutesounds.com

Tel: 020 8971 3909

Now what?

Here are impressions, my background thinking, nostalgia and more.

The reputation of a brand precedes it, be it good or bad or merely indifferent. Wilson Audio’s brand values are as high as any in the industry and arguably set a benchmark which others aspire to. Consequently it’s hard, given this background knowledge, not to start the review process in advance of even sitting down.

Awareness of this though helps and yes of course I knew in advance I was going to hear an astonishing system; the suite of ancillary brands guaranteed this. However … would I like it, could I envisage that even if I had around £250k for the system to invest, would I choose to do so?

To set the scene, as those that follow my writing know, being ‘impressive’ doesn’t guarantee I'll be impressed. I can admire and indeed do admire many state-of-the-art technologies, supercars, watches at six-figure prices and more. The thing is though ….. that personal taste does come into it and try as I may, it’s difficult to fully marginalise its impact. Or put differently, I am striving to be as thoroughly objective as I can in an environment ‘infested’ with subjectivism.

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Initial thoughts

As you’d expect, the opening bars of the carefully controlled and brief play list (any considerations of bringing along one’s own music in the hope of it being played would be naive) pretty much told the whole story, or as much as an experienced listener would need to know. All and anything that followed during that afternoon, was – in equipment performance terms – merely a variation on a theme.

Now then, merely looking at the system prior to Peter McGrath’s cogent and engaging account of the design process suggested a headline for this piece; ‘Higher-end redefined?’ Note the question mark. I'll return to that heading later.

Even though I was in exalted company in terms of brand, Absolute Sounds’ Ricardo Franassovici and higher profile press peers, a healthy degree of skepticism was required I felt.

The time machine and unashamed nostalgia

It’s a strange fact that many of the finest sounding loudspeakers of all time are no longer in production. Sometimes the makers don’t exist either. Apogee and Beveridge to name two. Speakers such as the Apogee Diva and Beveridge 2SW are landmarks as indeed is the Infinity IRS system, the giant Sound Labs, the Magnepan Tympani IV and so on. Classics in the fullest and appropriate sense of the word. It’s no coincidence that all of these were introduced into the UK by Absolute Sounds. Only fitting then that today – as indeed they have done for many years – AS represent Wilson Audio.

The point being that some of us, having been exposed to the work of these designer titans hanker after recapturing the visceral excitement of music through these classic designs. Truth be told that those of us who care about these things, and are perplexed about the curiously slow pace of speaker technology evolution in these 30 or so years, would like somehow to either be transported to back then, or discover a design that in today’s world conveys that magic.

Well, for me, last Friday, in that room with that system, I got some of that. Quite a lot of it actually.

Defective memories

It’s an unfortunate fact that the passage of time manipulates and distorts memory. I'm not talking of dementia here but the fact that memories are seen through age-related prisms. Maybe, just maybe all of the above historic reference speakers weren’t quite as magical as I recall. It’s possible. That said though, I think the accuracy of those memories are sufficient (and I won’t go further than that) for me to continue.

The set-up

The KJ room is modern, comfortable, inert to the extent that demo rooms can be and probably as good as you’ll find anywhere in the UK. That said, and I'm sure they’ll agree, extreme bass requires a longer room bearing in mind the stated bass-end response of +/- 3 dB @ 20 Hz. Also these speakers would I'm sure ‘breath’ more easily in a room with a higher ceiling, perhaps 12’ or more.

Given the room dimensions and this impressive bass spec (all the other published specs are equally impressive) I strongly suspect that the Absolute Sound crew led by Pedro Jorge Luis spent quite a few hours fine-tuning the system. The result was the tightest, deepest and most articulate bass I have heard in many, many years. I congratulate those behind the scenes who made this possible in less than acoustically ideal surroundings.

A memorable quote

We were invited to ask questions. Mine centered on ‘appropriate’ amplification, having heard other Wilson speakers around the World driven by Audio Research, Ayre, Spectral and Krell. Peter McGrath’s response was that Wilson speakers are ‘amplifier agnostic’ by which he meant (or so I believe) that while many amplifier and cable makers use Wilson speakers for R&D, Wilson favor no amplifier brands in particular.

It seemed churlish to ask what amps were used in R&D on the Alexx, and so I didn’t.

My impression of the sound; part #1

  • Superb high end, with razor-sharp detail and no fatigue; not even a little bit
  • Very slightly on the bright side (on that day, in that room), but with what I think was a barely perceptible dip in the range around 1kHz, which tended to back things off a bit and to slightly heavy-up the sounds of some instruments. This might well be the room though, being only about 10’ tall.
  • Outstanding low end, deep and tautly under control.
  • All Wilson speakers I heard are champions at dynamic contrasts probably because they are very fast and make use of extremely powerful magnets. The Alexx, albeit less explosive than the flagship £200,000-per-pair Alexandria XLF are no exception.
  • Stereo imaging slightly less well-defined than from some systems I have heard, but possibly due to the close (8') proximity of a rear reflective wall.
  • Stereo height as good as I've ever heard other than the Infinity IRS and Martin Logan Statement
  • Overall: Extraordinary cleanness and detail throughout the entire audio range with the capability of producing very high listening levels (circa 110dB I guess) without strain.

The sound; part #2

Midrange, Arguably the Alexx strongest hand is their midrange. Unsurprisingly perhaps, since theirs spans a greater range than most other designs, so almost producing the sound of most instruments and vocals seemingly entirely in one driver despite the fact there are two. The Alexx midrange was extremely lifelike and natural. It's also uncolored and neutral, but was not thin or threadbare nor metallic and certainly didn’t shout.

The dynamic range was spectacular: Voices were tracked with lightning speed, being mellow and intimate when appropriate and full-on storm level when required but never did the midrange harden up.

Voices were wholly convincing while offering much of the exciting live-feeling that I experienced with the Vandersteen Model 7. The timbre was spot on, which is on par as best I can recall with the Magnepan MG3.6, That's just how superbly natural the Wilson’s are. They make other speakers sound colored and uneven.

All full range Wilson speakers really are something special. Most incredible is their bass performance: at once deep, full, dynamic and fast. While in that ‘difficult’ room on that day they didn’t sound so full and weighty as say the Vandersteen 7 I heard in Colorado (Audio Alternative) they do go very deep and pack incredible power. Hey, no subs!

Despite the aforementioned room constrictions and unfamiliar materiel, these are very, very neutral and natural but for all their honesty, they are never clinical or threadbare. Their unusual midrange configuration (1 x 7” + 1 x 5.75”), really delivers. I'm talking electrostatic vocal purity, minus the dynamic restraint of most electrostatics.

The highly sophisticated 1” silk dome tweeter must help as well, bringing the Alexx sound closer to the treble performance of the Magnepan MG3.6R. However, the Maggies' treble is still (from memory) airier and also a little bit more refined but that said, I heard those in a room over 12’ in height. So that previous comment is an observation rather than a statement of fact! On other accounts though the MG3.6R is really is no comparison. In my view the Alexx will easily win from any current Magnepan (their long discontinued Tympani IV might achieve a closer match though) bake off, and most importantly, they are very, very pure and honest.

I suspect they’ll handle all kinds of music well. They are definitely revealing but I'm wondering if they’d punish you for listening to badly recorded music. I've no idea because none was played during the demo.

A cautionary note

It is important to note that Wilson speakers don't sound particularly good if you don't take considerable care setting them up. The supplier will need to invest plenty of time tweaking them (and adjusting your system to them), finding the exact spot in the room, matching electronics and so on.

We were told that Alexx reward with better sound when tweaked with care.

This is an issue for consumers buying pre-owned from auction houses or non franchised retailers lacking this vital specialist set-up knowledge. That said, I can’t envisage a pair of Alexx appearing on eBay anytime soon – if ever.

To release the full dynamic range I guess they’ll they need good healthy power amps. The specification states a minimum amplifier power of 50 RMS per channel. Note though that while the nominal impedance is 4 ohms, it dips to 1.5 ohms at 2850 Hz.

From thinking carefully about what was said, what wasn’t said and reading all the available materiel on the Alexx, you must be sure to match with the appropriate ancillaries and then treat them with love and care and lots of patience. Do this and I suspect you'll end up with speakers that are very, very hard to beat.

At this rarified level, compromising on dealer advice, trying to mix and match on a DIY basis and indulging in the rest of a well-intentioned albeit fruitless amateur approach is a financial lottery with the odds very much stacked against you. Simple as that.

Why these speakers; this system or something very much like it needs to be heard

All the arguments, the debates and clichés re value for money, audiophile insanity and so on have been heard and in this context are being ignored by me. I suggest, that if you aren’t an inverted snob, you do likewise please.

At this level, the £0.25m system is on the one hand an absurdity and on the other, an inspirational masterpiece. These extremes define a continuum.

That said, if you the reader seek a reference point, a touchstone of excellence, a technological benchmark and a (possibly the) musical ride of your life then seize any opportunity – if only for a few minutes – to hear these at the next higher-end audio show.

In short it’s aspirational and the intensity of yours is of course down to you.

Epilogue

I started out by musing on a working title; ‘Higher-end redefined?’ I knew within moments it only had to be adjusted slightly to ‘Higher-end redefined!’

A magnificent achievement. As engaging, thrilling and inspiring a performance as I've yet heard in the UK. There may be other combinations up there, Magico for example, Martin Logan and a handful of others but … I suspect they only offer shades of difference rather than wholesale superiority.

In the UK right now, quite possibly this is as good as it gets.

PRESS RELEASE ­ Wilson Audio Alexx

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