I wrote at length about the William Ralston Listening Library and Archive at the University of the South in my review of the VPI Scout turntable. If you have not yet read my review, I encourage you to do so. For those in a hurry, the Ralston facility is comprised of a state of the art listening room housing over 15,000 classical LPs and an additional 15,000 classical CDs, a student headphone listening room with both analog and digital playback, and an extensive collection of music scores and other performance materials. It features Ayre/Bauer and VPI Classic turntables, Koetsu and Miyajima cartridges, an Ayre KR-X preamplifier, MR-X monoblocks, and DX-5 universal disc player, a Weiss INT202 Firewire to S/PDIF converter and Bricasti Design M1 DAC, Wilson Alexandria X-2, Series II loudspeakers, and Ayre and Cardas Clear interconnects and speaker cables.
I conduct classical music listening sessions at the Ralston Listening Room once a week during the school year. It is my ultimate reference system. I have never heard a better system in a better listening space. Frankly, I didn’t think it could improved, so I was surprised (actually floored) when Tam Carlson, Professor of English, closest friend of Father Ralston, and the moving force behind the realization of this entirely unique project for nearly a decade, mentioned that he was considering upgrading to the XLFs. I could be of no help as I had not heard the XLFs and didn’t know the magnitude of the benefits they would bring. Tam ultimately decided to move forward. Michael Fremer paid a visit to the Ralston Listening Room a few week-ends ago, and was singing the praises of the XLFs which he had in-house for review (and has since made his reference), reassuring us that the right decision had been made.
The fun started when I picked up Peter McGrath late Thursday afternoon. Peter had just returned from the Top Audio Show in Milan where he demoed the XLFs and had stories to tell. Upon arriving on the Mountain, we dropped off our bags at The Sommer House and headed out to Tam’s cabin on the bluff for drinks, dinner and conversation. The sunset and views were spectacular, as was the company. Chris, Tam’s wife, outdid herself as she always does.
John Giolas, Wilson Audio’s Director of Sales and Marketing, who also does all the photography for Wilson, and Brian Capener, an independent cinematographer who does all the video work for Wilson, were to have arrived late Thursday night. Unfortunately their flight was delayed and did not arrive until after midnight. They elected to stay in Nashville overnight and drive to Sewanee on Friday morning, delaying our start until mid-morning.
The XLFs, carefully packed in nine wooden crates, had been delivered prior to our arrival, and were being stored in the student headphone listening room. After listening at length to the existing system to establish a baseline, the first task was to completely disassemble the Alexandria X-2s, wrap them in protective plastic sheathing, and line them up on the far wall for later packing. Next was uncrating and assembling the XLFs. It was a straight-forward, but painstaking process. Even removing the frisk which protected the Black Kirsch finish, took over an hour with several of us pitching in to help. Each of the three adjustable modules (midrange, tweeter, midrange) which sit atop the woofer cabinet had to be set for the precise angle and distance to the listening position through a series of titanium bolts in stainless steel grooves. Once accomplished, we placed the XLFs in the same position as the Alexandria X-2s as a starting point for the following day’s work. The entire process was captured by Brian in time-lapse photography. We called it a day at 7:00 p.m. More merriment at the cabin followed.
Saturday began with an early morning still and video shoot of the campus, and then the real work began. The first step was to determine whether the XLFs should be set up with the bass reflex port firing forward or to the rear. It was no contest: for the Ralston Listening Room, the rear firing set up provided more, better articulated, bass. Peter then taped two measuring tapes to the floor, and we moved the XLF’s forward and backward over an 18” grid in ½” increments. At each location, Peter played his setup music tracks and graded the sound quality. It is absolutely amazing the difference ½” can make. Certain locations were identified where the speakers integrated with the room particularly well. More listening tests ensued, and through the process of elimination, the best front-back location was determined. A similar process was then performed to locate the speakers optimally with respect to the side wall. The process took a good four hours. After a break for lunch, for the remainder of the afternoon Brian videoed John’s interviews of Tam, Peter, Chris Huston (the designer of the room), and several university students who also conduct listening sessions in the room.
Sunday morning saw John and Brian off for an early morning flight out of Nashville. Tam, Peter and I were at the listening room bright and early, and spent the next five hours listening to the masters of Peter’s most recent live recordings of New World Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas, the Miami International Piano Festival, prodigiously talented pianist Jorge Luis Prats, viola de gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall and his early music group Hespèrion XXI, and others. I can honestly say that during the entire time I never once thought about how the speakers sounded. They completely disappeared, and we focused exclusively on what were in every respect live performances of music. It’s not as if the system with the Alexandria X-2s was not phenomenal, it was that the system with the XLFs was breathtaking.
There are two areas where the XLFs better the Alexandrias X-2s. First, as alluded to above, the bass extension has been improved. The bass cabinet has been increased in size by 14%. In addition, the Alexandria X-2s, with their front-firing bass reflex ports, couple with some rooms better than others. In a number of rooms, it has been observed that the rear-firing MAXX 3s appear to have better bass than the Alexandria X-2s, even though the low frequency driver complement would lead you to the opposite conclusion. The XLFs, therefore, give you a choice between a front-firing or rear-firing configuration, simply by changing the location of the Cross Load Firing port insert. The improvement of the bass in the Ralston listening room with rear firing ports was immediately apparent. It is a matter of synergy with the room.
The second area of improvement has been the shift from an inverted-dome titanium tweeter to the new Convergence Synergy silk dome tweeter. The silk dome tweeter has a more powerful magnet structure and provides not only greater frequency bandwidth but greater power handling capacity. This has allowed Dave Wilson to lower the crossover point between the midrange and the tweeter for improved dynamic contrast and harmonic resolution. When set up properly, group delay has been further minimized, leading to an absolutely seamless soundfield from top to bottom. You simply do not hear the individual drivers. This results in a frighteningly life-like presentation that is absolutely addicting. My and others’ observations are that certain CDs have a tendency to sound somewhat harsh with the Alexandria X-2s. The new tweeter eliminates that problem completely. CDs now sound as enjoyable (though still different) as vinyl. It is an important consideration when you have a collection of 15,000 CDs.
We had to break up about 2:00 p.m. so I could get Peter back to the airport, and then myself back home. I didn’t bother to listen to any music on my system that evening. I was exhausted, yet exhilarated, and didn’t want to break the spell.
I’ll be heading off to Provo, Utah to tour Wilson Audio’s facilities next week. I can’t wait. I’ll let you know how it goes.
- Frank Berryman