“Since the advent of the CD, listeners have been deprived of the full experience of listening.” – Neil Young PonoPlayers...
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Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending the weekend with Peter McGrath and John Giolas of Wilson Audio as we swapped out the Alexandria X-2, Series 2 loudspeakers for Wilson’s new flagship Alexandria XLFs in the Ralston Listening Room at The University of the South. It was a transformative experience which you can read about here. John was good enough to invite me to Provo to tour the Wilson factory, and to audition – and review – Wilson’s newest Alexia loudspeaker ($48,500/pair) prior to its debut at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, an invitation I immediately accepted.
It was a gorgeous morning in Provo – clear skies and brisk temperatures. I met John at Wilson Audio’s 40,000 square foot facility just outside of town. For the next several hours, John guided me through the process of hand-crafting a Wilson loudspeaker from raw sheets of proprietary X and S materials to the final buffing and polishing of the ne plus ultra enclosures and installation of crossovers and drivers. It was fascinating. I’ll have much more to say about my factory visit in an upcoming article.
Following the tour and a quick lunch, we headed over to Dave’s home and my introduction to the Alexia. We were met at the door by Daryl, Dave’s son and New Products Manager of Wilson Audio. Dave arrived a few minutes later and I was ushered into Dave’s listening room. And what a listening room it is! It is a beautifully furnished and very quiet 30′ x 40′ space with 16′ cathedral ceilings. All of the electronics with the exception of the amplifiers are located on the sidewall. The Alexias had pride of place in the front of the room. Two Thor’s Hammer’s were discretely located in the front corners. A pair of XLFs were relegated to the rear near the grand piano.
The Alexias are a deceivingly small loudspeaker compared to the MAXX 3s, the Alexandria X-2s and the Alexandria XLFs. They have virtually the same footprint as the Sashas, being the same depth and just 1 1/4″ wider to accommodate an 8″ and 10″ woofer. In contrast, the Sashas have a pair of 8″ woofers. The Alexias are, however, 10″ taller, most of which height is dedicated to the bass enclosure, constructed entirely of X-material, which is 18% larger than the Sasha. In other words, you can move up to the Alexias from the Sashas without making any alterations to your listening area to accommodate larger speakers. You would of course need to fine-tune the speaker locations, but based on my experience moving from the X-2s to the XLFs, the adjustment is likely to being in the range of inches rather than feet. The fact that the rear port of the Alexia is in the same location as in the Sasha helps in that regard.
By now you are probably thinking that the Alexia is the Sasha’s big brother. I believe that would be a mischaracterization as, except for its footprint, the Alexia has much more in common with its larger siblings than it does the Sasha. Take for example its woofer configuration. As mentioned above, the Alexia has an 8″ and a 10″ woofer. The two-sized woofer approach is the same approach used in the MAXX 3, the X-2s and the XLFs. Each woofer handles a slightly different frequency range and has a slightly different resonant frequency. Together, they provide greater low-frequency extension as well as excellent upper-bass detail, without sacrificing dynamic speed and contrast. Though taller than the Sasha, the Alexia retains all of its considerable style. Subtle main cabinet flares and angles, a tapered midrange enclosure, and gently curved wings supporting the tweeter enclosure, all reminiscent of the XLF, makes the loudspeaker instantly recognizable and aesthetically welcoming. Your significant other will flip for them.
Unlike the Sasha, which has both the midrange and tweeter mounted on the same baffle, and only four adjustment points for angling the midrange/tweeter enclosure to account for distance to the listening position, like the MAXX 3, the X-2s and the XLFs, Alexia’s midrange and tweeter drivers are housed in separate, adjustable enclosures, giving them hundreds of different positioning combinations for finer control of time and phase alignment – what Wilson calls Aspherical Propogation Delay. This flexibility means that the leading edge of waveforms from each driver can be optimized for any position in the room with much greater accuracy.
Dave conducted the listening session. The first piece was Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn featuring renowned baritone Thomas Hampson accompanied on piano by Geoffrey Parsons. This is lovely, quiet, emotionally engaging music. The lieder recording was made in a small studio space giving it an intimate feel, as if the recital was being given in your home. The sound emanated from well behind the speakers. Given such close proximity, the sound of the piano was enveloping, without the piano seeming unnaturally large. You could hear extraordinary detail, including the mechanisms of the keys and pedals. However, such details were not obtrusive; they were simply a natural extension of the process of playing the piano. The tone of the piano was remarkably dynamic, both in the macro and micro sense, with sustained notes decaying slowly rather than abruptly to silence, The piano has an extremely wide frequency range – from approximately 27.5Hz to 4200hz, meaning all three drivers are in play for fundamentals as well as harmonics. The speaker drivers were seamlessly integrated and the crossovers completely transparent. They spoke with one voice. Thompson’s voice was rich and sonorous, yet immediate and expressive. Again, the close miking meant that you could hear breathing, but more importantly you could hear the notes emerging from chest and throat. It was extraordinarily life-like.
We moved next to a recording of Debussy’s Violin Sonata, which Dave recorded in the late 1980′s, featuring David Able on violin and Julie Steinberg on piano. Dave likes to use spaced omni’s which give his recordings a fantastic sense of the ambiance of the venue, in this case a small recital hall. At the same time, omni’s do not give you the same sense of pinpoint imaging you get with directional microphones. Accordingly, the piano was a somewhat amorphous wash in contrast to the preceding Mahler piece, yet it laid down a solid low frequency foundation and was very dynamic. The string tone of the violin was sweet, with no tendency to stridency in the highest notes, which can occur when the violin is played aggressively. I attribute this lack of glare to the new Convergent Synergy silk dome tweeter, a slight variation of the tweeter debuted in the XLF. I am fairly certain it would not have been handled as well with the inverted dome titanium tweeter found in the Sasha. However, the move to the silk dome tweeter has not resulted in the loss of any high frequency extension or air.
The next piece was very colorful and textured ethnic music performed by an international group of musicians on a CD from the Alpha label, Songs of the Earth, featuring, among other instruments, bass, drums, and bells. The imaging was pinpoint. Each instrument occupied its own unique space, not only left to right, but front to back, with the soundstage appearing between the speakers. The recording was remarkable both for its prodigious bass as well as the crystalline clarity of the percussion. Afterwords, I asked Dave if the two Thor’s Hammer subwoofers were playing. I was quite surprised to hear that they were not connected. Specified at -3db at 20 Hz, the Alexia is indeed a full-range speaker, with bass you feel in the chest.
Dave played another of his recordings, this time Ralph Vaughan-William’s Six Studies in English Folksongs featuring Roger Drinkall on cello and his wife Dian Baker on piano. The recording was issued on both LP and CD on the Wilson Audiophile label. You could immediately tell this recording was made in a larger venue than the previous recordings. The soundstage was huge, extending well outside the speakers. My son is a cellist and I am intimately familiar with its sound, having heard him play every day for 15 years. The rich, woody timbre of the cello was captured and reproduced with great fidelity. Yes, you thought the cellist was in the room giving you a private concert.
Dave next cued up a most remarkable recording of the second movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Gilbert Kaplan, a Mahler specialist, from the original score. The Vienna Philharmonic is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily prolific, orchestra, playing over 200 concerts a year, perhaps twice as many as other major orchestras. Their intimate familiarity with one another results, for example, in the first violins literally playing as if they were one instrument. The string tone was lush as befits Mahler, a late Romantic composer. The double basses clearly separated themselves from the cellos, with a deep growl as the bows bit into the strings. Their pizzicati passages were extremely dynamic, almost startling. Woodwinds emerged from time to time from exactly where your would expect them in the orchestral soundfield. In fact, my eyes darted from place to place as different instruments were played. This was not a recording, but live music.
We closed the listening session with a light and lively rendition of Take the “A” Train from a Duke Ellington tribute LP done by Bill Berry and the Ellington All Stars. The cornet, alto saxophone, and drums each got a solo. The cornet was brash, the alto sax was reedy, and the drums were snappy. The strike of the drum stick on the cymbal emitted a clear ringing tone with extended decay. Again, I keep coming back to the astonishing macro- and micro-dynamics of the Alexia, rendering it a frighteningly life-like transducer.
The Alexia is a most remarkable loudspeaker, with seamless coherence from top to bottom. Low frequency extension is palpable and high frequency extension goes on forever without being clinical. The midrange is full, but not overly warm. Like the XLFs, the Alexias completely disappear. The Alexia gives you a more than proportional taste of the XLFs in a form factor that is friendly to normal size listening rooms. The Alexia also gives the Sophia 3 or Sasha owner a way to move up the performance ladder without sacrificing the aesthetics of his domestic space. Over 80 pairs have been pre-ordered, and will begin shipping very soon. Make a special effort to seek out a Wilson dealer for an audition, even if it is only to hear what can be accomplished with a state of the art loudspeaker. The Alexias simply make music. I have already begun considering ways to get a pair into my listening room – permanently. I mean, do I really need my car? Which would give me more pleasure? Questions like that are inevitable once you have heard these loudspeakers.
- Frank Berryman
Analog Source: Basis Inspiration turntable and Vector 4 tonearm, Lyra Olympos; Audio Research Reference 2 Phono
Digital Source: Audio Research Reference CD8, Audio Research DAC8
Preamplifier: Audio Research Reference 40th Anniversary
Power Amplifier: VTL Siegfried Series II Reference
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia
Cables: Transparent Opus MM