Wisdom Audio is one of the specialty audio/video industry’s great turn-around stories. More than a decade ago, the company was known for making stand-alone audiophile speakers – very expensive, audiophile-only speakers – that today would have competed with the likes of Wilson Audio, YG Acoustics, or Magico. About five years ago, powered by a team of ex-Harman (Madrigal, to be exact) executives, Wisdom Audio was reborn as an audiophile speaker company designed for the real world. This meant in-wall and on-wall speakers that could hang with a Wilson or 800 Series Bowers & Wilkins, but didn’t inspire a wife to make that first call to a divorce attorney. Wisdom stayed true to its roots with very elaborate trade- and consumer-show demonstrations that wowed. In-walls and on-walls aren’t supposed to sound that good, people said. What also wowed was the price tag of products like Wisdom Audio’s LS4 or Sage Series, which started in the low $10,000s and could top out at over $100,000 for larger, more robust systems. Therefore, you needed Magico money to buy into the Wisdom line. That is, until now.
In 2012, Wisdom Audio dropped the price of admission with the introduction of the Insight line of speakers. The P2i speakers we are reviewing are the smallest speakers in the lineup, as well as the least expensive at $1,550 each. The Insight Series differs from the other Wisdom Audio lines in that these speakers use traditional passive crossovers (instead of the active crossovers in the step-up speakers) that allow for one channel of amplification per speaker, and they do not require the use of Wisdom Audio’s proprietary controller system. This change in system design allows the listener to utilize a traditional home theater processor and amplification, or even a higher-end receiver-based system, to drive the Insight speakers, which eliminates the cost of the Wisdom Audio controller and extra channels of amplification.
The P2i has some pretty impressive features that have made the Wisdom Audio speakers so successful in recent years. The speaker is a hybrid design with a planar magnetic tweeter flanked by a pair of oval-shaped woofers. Planar magnetic driver technology is similar to that of a ribbon driver with many of the same sonic benefits, including the ability to render the smallest details due to the low mass, while at the same time being much less susceptible to compression when faced with more dynamic signals. The Wisdom Audio website has a clear and easy-to-follow explanation of the driver technology for those who are interested in the technical details.
Hybrid designs such as the P2i can be tricky for speaker designers, as the transition between planar drivers and the traditional cone drivers can lead to sonic discontinuities if not handled carefully. The crossovers in the P2i utilize a 650Hz crossover point, which is below the ear’s most sensitive range of 1 kHz to 3 kHz. The crossovers are acoustically symmetrical and phase coherent. The combination of the crossovers and the acoustical centers of the drivers being within one inch of each other (depth-wise) results in a time-aligned speaker, which helps top-to-bottom coherence. Despite the carefully designed crossovers, the non-planar drivers need to be quick enough to keep up with the planar drivers, or the listener will hear a difference in clarity between them. Wisdom Audio addresses this by using multiple smaller drivers that are well-damped. The enclosure is effectively an infinite baffle type, so the damping and control of the woofer comes from the driver’s motor and surround, allowing it to be tuned for optimal performance. The smaller woofers limit the low-frequency extension, but the P2i speakers are designed to be utilized with a subwoofer and an 80Hz crossover point. This transition is assisted by eliminating the mid-bass bump that many smaller speakers utilize to create a false sense of bass extension. The elimination of this bump allows for a smoother transition between the P2i speakers and a subwoofer.
The P2i speakers were sent to me for review, along with enclosures that were provided by Wisdom Audio, so I did not need to cut holes in my walls. Each enclosure was the size of a small tower speaker and reportedly has an interior volume area similar to a typical stud bay of an interior wall. Each enclosure came with the cutout and wiring already in place. Otherwise, my installation was the same as what you would experience when mounting the P2i in your walls. The speaker module is easily removed from the Uni-Grip frame by unscrewing it. The frame itself is made out of relatively thick metal and has long clamping rails running vertically down each side. The clamping rails are shaped like a squared-off “U,” with an extension coming off the top of one arm at a 90-degree angle. The portion of the frame that extends into the wall cavity is surrounded by the channel of the clamping rail, with the extension of the rail to the outside making it available to clamp the backside of the drywall against the front baffle of the frame. This provides a large clamping area and can accommodate thicknesses up to 1.25 inches, so two layers of 5/8-inch drywall will work if desired. To continue installation, remove one screw and loosen the other to the point where the screws only have a few turns of thread left. Then insert the frame into the wall opening with the drywall between the Uni-Grip rail and the frame, and then tighten the rail to where it is snug but still movable. I then took the rail that I had removed earlier, slid it into place on the frame, and tightened that rail. Both rails can be snugged down once you ensure that the frame is installed level. This large clamping area provides a rigid base for the speaker module, which is then reinserted. This is where another pair of hands can come in handy. Have one person hold the module close to the opening, while the other connects the speaker cables. The module can then be attached to the frame with the screws. The entire assembly is covered by a perforated metal grille that can be painted to match your wall. The grille extends only 2mm from the wall surface and is very unobtrusive.
You may have noticed that I referred to crossovers in the plural above. This is because the P2i speakers feature two sets of crossovers. Looking at the bottom of the speaker baffle, you will see a switch with “Flat” and “Target” positions; each has its own crossovers. Wisdom recommends that you run your processor’s room correction with the speaker set to the Flat position and then move the switch to the Target position. Wisdom advises that the Flat position will measure flat but sound bright, and that utilizing the Target position will result in a more balanced-sounding presentation.
I connected the speakers to a Marantz AV8801 processor (review forthcoming) with Kimber’s 8TC speaker cables. The first subwoofer I used was Paradigm’s SUB 15, but I later switched to the SUB 25, as it was better able to keep up with the speed of the Wisdom speakers.
During the setup process, I had a long conversation with Jon Herron, Wisdom Audio’s Vice President of Sales. Jon was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the speakers. After explaining a lot of the technical details, he advised that I set up the speakers a few feet away from the walls. This seemed counterintuitive to me for testing in-wall speakers. Jon explained that he had demonstrated the Wisdom speakers many times utilizing enclosures similar to the ones I was using, and had conducted many measurements while doing so. He advised that moving the enclosure a few feet away from the wall provides measurements much more similar to an in-wall installation than if the enclosures are placed against the wall. Jon also brought up the Wisdom SCS subwoofer, which uses a regenerative transmission line for speed and articulation that allows it to more easily integrate with the in-wall speakers. That would be for a different review, but it’s good to know that it’s out there.
Read about the performance of the Insight P2i in-wall speakers on Page 2.
I let the speakers run in the background for a few days with the CD player set to repeat before sitting down to listen. I began with “Blackbird” by Bernadette Peters from the album I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Angel Records). The song starts with Peters’ singing unaccompanied; this allowed me to easily focus on her voice, which was solidly anchored and three-dimensional. With Peters’ vocals, the P2i speakers were captivating in their ability to reproduce her voice with levels of detail and accuracy that reminded me of my MartinLogan Summit electrostatic speakers. The P2i speakers did just as well reproducing the texture and tonal balance of the acoustic guitar that joins Peters’ vocals. The horizontal positioning of the soundstage was similar to what I have heard through many good free-standing speaker systems, but the depth of soundstage was slightly compressed. It was still three-dimensional, but not as deep as I have heard with B&W 800s or 805s.
The P2i speakers performed similarly with Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” from the Acoustic Live album (Capitol, CD). Before listening to this album, I was concerned that the lower range of male vocals might prove to be more challenging for hybrid Wisdoms, but there was no need whatsoever for worry. The P2i speakers were able to reproduce male vocals (again with acoustic guitar) with the same pleasing sense of detail and realism.
It didn’t take long to determine that the Wisdom speakers were very detailed and natural-sounding with solo vocals and guitars. A choral group backed by piano would push them a little more, particularly with the rich piano notes and reproduction of space that come with multiple vocals. I listened to the cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers on their self-titled album (Atco). The P2i speakers continued to portray female vocals with a good blend of detail and natural tonal balance. The choir was spread across the soundstage with solidity through the center and extending slightly beyond the outer edges of the Wisdoms. There was more soundstage depth with this track (this actually applies to the entire album) than with the Peters and Lofgren pieces, but still less than with my reference speakers. There was sufficient detail to make out the different voices, and the piano was well-balanced in relation to the voices.
Listening to a more complex piece such as “Fallen Angel” off of Robbie Robertson’s self titled album (Geffen) – with both Robertson and Peter Gabriel on vocals, along with a full band backing them – I found the Wisdom Audio P2i speakers to be more than up to the task. This album was well-recorded, and it was easy to pick out the individual instruments and vocals. The planar tweeter’s capabilities were demonstrated beautifully with the cymbals, as they were so clean and dynamic that they captured the energy and texture of a live performance.
Wisdom touts the lack of compression as one of the benefits to the planar design, so I cranked up a couple of hard-hitting torture tests, specifically “Killing in the Name” from Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album (Epic) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Telarc, SACD/CD). “Killing in the Name” is a slamming rock track with aggressive vocals and electric guitars. I was able to play this piece at sound levels bordering on uncomfortably loud with literally no signs of compression or tonal character change, even when using a mid-level AV receiver. I did note that the presentation was a little less forward and energetic than with my reference speakers. I believe that this may be the way the Audyssey system equalized the speakers in my room, as I did not notice any lack of detail that often accompanies truly laid-back speakers. With “Carmina Burana,” I was able to push the limits of a musical crescendo in ways that I never thought an in-wall speaker would take. Choral chants, booming tympani drums, and vivid yet never fatiguing highs made for an impressive, high-volume demo.
I appreciate the “faux wall” enclosures that Wisdom Audio provided, as they gave me the opportunity to experience installing the P2i speakers. While most Wisdom Insight speakers will be installed by a custom AV installation firm, I do think the speakers deserve attention from the enthusiast audience that might take a shot at installing them as a DIY project. The Uni-Grip system combined with the heavy frame provides a solid anchor for the speaker module. However, I would have loved to see the mounting system add a flange on the bottom of the speaker module. This would make it easier for one person to install the speaker module. As the system is now, it was a bit of a challenge to hold the heavy module in place with one hand while securing the screws with the other. Some may be concerned that the Insight Series speakers do not come with back boxes but, after discussing this with Jon Herron, I do not feel that this will impact the sound quality of the speakers. However, if sound isolation from adjacent rooms is a concern, you may want to apply some sound-deadening material to the backside of the adjacent room’s drywall when you have the wall cut open. There are all sorts of isolation products out there. Quiet Rock is one that works well, as it’s an industrial, soundproof type of sheetrock that keeps the sound isolated.
The Wisdom Audio P2i speakers are quite good, not just for in-walls but for any speaker type. They are designed to be mated with a subwoofer. If you want a little more meat in the lower-midrange/upper-mid-bass region, you might want to consider investing more to get into the Wisdom Audio P4i or P6i speakers, as you will get more lower-register punch. The depth of the soundstage was better than most in-wall speakers I have heard, with the exception of the higher-end Wisdoms.
Competition and Comparison
The Wisdom Audio P2i is a game-changer for music and movie lovers who need and desire better sound in places that only accommodate in-wall speakers. By no means is the P2i speaker the only player in the higher-end in-wall market, as nearly every good speaker manufacturer makes a respectable, high-performance in-wall speaker, including but not limited to Paradigm, Bowers & Wilkins, Meridian, RBH, MartinLogan, and so many others.
One of the closest comparisons for the Wisdom P2i comes from Sonance. Sonance pretty much flipped the in-wall speaker world on its head when the company launched “frameless” in-wall speakers, which are similar to the Wisdom Audios. By frameless, we are referring to the idea that, unlike old-school in-wall speakers, these new designs are truly flush to the wall. It seems like a simple design task, but it’s really not. The look of frameless speakers in a room, especially a modern room, is notably better. Sonically, Sonance makes very good in-wall speakers, too. You’d really like to hear them both in an A-B comparison in the same wall, with the same electronics and so on, to know which is better for your needs.
Another player in the high-performance in-wall speaker world comes in the form of Noble Fidelity. This audiophile-centric in-wall speaker company has a new line of much more affordable, frameless speakers (review pending) that come more from the Bowers & Wilkins “Kevlar driver” school of speaker design, but for a fraction of the price.
Wisdom Audio has sonically changed the rules of in-wall speakers. The P2i is not cheap by any standard, but Wisdom Audio was able to engineer a speaker that meets its exceedingly high audiophile standard for about $3,000 per pair, which represents a pretty solid value. You can spend more for the P4i or P6i, and there is reason to do this if your budget allows. However, if you pair the P2i speakers with a solid AV receiver and a good subwoofer, you can reproduce audio in ways that, up until now, you needed audiophile bookshelf speakers to accomplish. Sonically, I punished the Wisdom Audio P2i speakers to see if they would give up the ghost like most other in-walls do. They never failed. They never sounded compressed. Consider them as good as a great pair of $3,000 bookshelf speakers, but in a form factor that goes into a wall.