Few audio designers are so grand that a meeting with them suffers an ambience of ‘an audience with’. Usually, the ones who do inspire that reaction are conceited tossers whose ego rather than achievement creates the impression of being in the presence of royalty. Dave Wilson comes from the other end of the scale: truly a boffin, a propeller-headed, crazed enthusiast whose very enthusiasm is as infectious as a smile from a three-year-old.
He’s a veritable Duracell Bunny of an audiophile: wind him up and he’ll talk about torsional strength and impedance curves and adhesives and how the specification of an F-15 fighter relates to his loudspeakers. And he’ll do it with a delicious mix of humility and authority such as I’ve witnessed only from the likes of Peter Walker and Alastair Robertson-Aikman. And yet, with all three, meeting them has an air of ‘audience’ not because they demand it, but because
• Read a review of the Wilson Audio Sophia speakers from HomeTheaterReview.com.
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I tell you this because I’ve known Dave Wilson for nearly 20 years, been to his home, his factory, used his products, eaten his M&Ms at CES. And still I’m always slightly awed that he would waste his time with a subjective reviewer who thinks that a ‘slide rule’ has something to do with the legality of a child’s ride at the playground. He puts on neither airs nor graces, grins like a kid when faced with a cool new toy and is as happy to eat a Pizza Hut ‘Filled Crust’ pizza as the finest dim sum. And now, with a company that would fit in B&W’s or Bose’s staff canteen, he’s produced what just may be the greatest loudspeaker on the planet. Bar none. And I mean a production speaker, not a demented one-off that appears at a hi-fi show, never to be seen (nor heard) again.
Like Peter Walker, who spent 18 years before he was happy with the ESL-63, Wilson has taken his time – nearly a decade – with the Alexandria, or X-2. It had to do two things…with neither task to be taken lightly. The first is to replace the WAMM, the venerable flagship that Wilson saw through, what? Seven incarnations? Impractical, expensive, dependent on hard-to-find ingredients, requiring DW to set them up himself regardless of the location – the WAMM has been officially out of production for a few years, and Wilson was aware of the gaping hole this created.
Even though the WAMM was never a ‘production’ speaker, being entirely made to order, it provided well-heeled audiophiles with something unlikely to be found in their mates’ homes. Alas, Wilson made the task of creating a WAMM replacement that much more difficult, because, for the past nine years, the just-below-WAMM flagship has been the incredibly successful and highly-respected X-1 Grand SLAMM. Thus, the second task: coming in above an established near-masterpiece.
This exceptional design has been a reference product for most of its life, and is the wellspring from which most of the post-1994 Wilson products have derived their technology, DW firmly believing in the trickle-down approach. Most notable was the development of ‘X’ material, which found its way into every Wilson product, to one degree or another.
Wilson designs his cabinets using a range of high-density materials, including what looks like a type of ply made from layers of MDF (the so-called ‘M’ material). This is used in the speakers’ carcasses, and was chosen over conventional MDF because it can be worked to much tighter tolerances, it provides superior hardness, uniform density and dimensional stability, and can be made to accept the high-gloss, automotive-grade paint finishes that are one of Wilson’s signature details. Yes, it costs more and is harder to use, but it does ‘what it says on the box’, so to speak: create a superior cabinet. Go on: rap on the side of and then lift a Puppy. Then tell me that you believe that the majority of the panels are fashioned from a variant of MDF.
But it’s the Wilson-developed ‘X’ material that the X-1 showcased, a high density phenolic material that DW describes as, ‘…the best, most non-resonant material we have ever encountered. It has almost no ringing at all, and does not alter the pitch or tonal character of music.’ Not only is it heavy and expensive, it’s a monster to work: each panel used in the X-2 takes eight hours to machine via CNC, which explains why Wilson can only make two pairs of X-2 per month, maybe ramping up to four.
As for the F-15 mentioned above? A slab of X-material will support a stack of ’em.
Additionally, the X-1 was the first installer-friendly implementation of Wilson’s patented, trade-marked Group Delay technology. An evolutionary by-product of the WAMM’s modular construction, Group Delay is a combination of proprietary crossover design, about which DW is close-lipped, and the ability to adjust all of the individual drivers in the time domain. In the X-1, each driver module – midrange and treble – is precisely positioned during the set-up procedure ‘to create a seamless coherency throughout the frequency range’, while optimising the sound for the primary listening position. To appreciate it another way, the ’tiltable’ top section of the WATT Puppy, the WATT module itself, is the most basic application of Group Delay.
But back to the X-2. This speaker takes the Group Delay facility a stage further, with even greater flexibility, such that DW said, straight-faced, that he could make a pair of these leviathans work even in my 12x18ft room. Moreover, the added flexibility of the ‘head’ units means that the height can vary by degrees; that 72in specification is its nominal height. While the same materials are used in X-2 as in X-1, just about everything else has changed, as detailed in the sidebar, with every driver a new one bar the main tweeter.
Without going into detail, DW has been a victim of unscrupulous rivals in the past, so he’s understandably cagey about certain aspects of the X-2’s design. Just as photographs were forbidden at the Las Vegas showing of the prototype, so, too, will Dave not discuss crossover details until the X-2 has been around for a while. Even the aesthetic details, such as smaller gaps around the modules, and the ‘slashes’ in the sides, are topics about which Dave will not elucidate, at least, not beyond, ‘Notice how the cabinet sides differ in thickness above and below the slashes?’ Which caused me to ask, ‘In there a sonic benefit?’ Dave responded with nowt but an enigmatic smile.
To facilitate a review, I visited the Wilson home in Provo, Utah, where DW had set up a unique demonstration. Because the speakers wouldn’t be shipping until July, it seems that any reviews will be undertaken at the Wilson home; it just isn’t practical to send out review pairs at this stage. So why was I, through
Now, before any of you get ‘het up’ about me reviewing the speakers Chez Wilson, doubting worth or validity because it wasn’t undertaken in my own room, please note the following ripostes. Firstly, I’d enjoyed a long and unforgettable session in the Wilson listening room once before, and found it to be as neutral a venue as one could imagine, right up there with the SME room. Thus, I believe that
Secondly, the review system consisted entirely of components familiar to me: McIntosh MC2000 ‘Anniversary’ power amplifier, Audio Research’s Reference 2 Mk II pre-amplifier, the Audio Research CD-3 CD player, Transparent cables, a Basis Turntable with Air Tangent arm and Lyra Helikon cartridge. [Also auditioned briefly, due to possible concerns about headroom, were the Mark Levinson N° 33 mono amplifiers. Although they produced tighter bass, the sound was more forward than I prefer. Besides, DW had no reason to suspect that, unlike most reviewers, I prefer
To assess the Alexandria, I supplied the review material, while DW made sure that every part of the chain was familiar to me. And I pretty much ran the session for four hours or so, to – no doubt – the great anguish of others (Sheryl Lee Wilson, John Giolas and Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, and Deedra Allison of
Before being let loose with my own CDs, Dave demonstrated the X-1 and X-2 side-by-side. It proved to be one of the most disconcerting experiences I have ever be subjected to as a reviewer. Using recordings from the Persuasions, Diana Krall and others, we listened to the X-1. It was sublime. I sat there wondering what on earth could the X-2 do that I wasn’t already hearing. Using a switch box fashioned by Wilson, I A/B’d the two. To the shock of all present – the Wilson household is not where one uses salty language – I blurted out, after a mere three seconds, a loud ‘Bloody hell!’
It was like this: I had been shocked into a situation familiar to all scribes who wish to maintain a sense of proportion, and I was let off the hook by one thing only: the price difference between X-1 and X-2 is on the order of approximately 45 percent. When that 45 percent is $40,000, the differential makes the speakers non-combatants in my book. But I must also add that one industry observer told me not to feel too much relief. He said, ‘Don’t kid yourself. The kind of people who can afford $85,000 for speakers can probably afford $125,000. We’re not talking about normal people, who have to think twice about a $1250 purchase instead of $850.’
Fat help that was, then. Because the X-2 so clearly bettered the X-1 in so many ways, it could ONLY be the price that would cause one to choose the X-1, which stays in production to fill the huge gap between MAXX and X-2. Instantly, the X-2 revealed itself to be capable of less congestion in the upper midband, and it was more open overall. The bass was less aggressive, there was finer image specificity, and even a smoother left-to-right spread. The sound was more homogeneous, with better pin-point precision. And, more than anything, X-2 made the X-1 seem positively nasal in comparison.
Without any frame of reference, i.e. the two speakers side-by-side, only the most fanatical of Wilson-spotters can tell a Grand SLAMM X-1 from an Alexandria X-2. And yet the only part they have in common is the main tweeter. Here, for easy reference, is a point by point list of the ways they differ.