Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF loudspeaker
Can a loudspeaker possibly be worth that much? Add $10,000 for speaker cables, and that's what I paid for my first home in 1992. Today, the average American home costs around $272,000, which is likely less than the cost of an audio system built around a pair of Alexandra XLFs.
Think no one spends that kind of money on a music system? Don't kid yourself. Many people can afford it, and many spend itthough not as many as should. We need to educate those people! Anyone want to fly me to Monaco on a goodwill mission?
The real question is this: Is the XLF's sound worth that expense?
I know a pair of speakers can be worth at least $158,000: I've heard the XLF's predecessor, the Alexandria X-2 Series 2, in a few systems over the past few years, including the one in the living room of recording engineer Roy Halee, driven by a pair of big Boulder amplifiers. I sat there for an enjoyable afternoon, mesmerized by, among other things, the X-2s' exceptional transient and microdynamic delicacy, massive macrodynamic scale, bass precision, and top-to-bottom coherence. It's a sound that demands respect: This speaker performs at a level only a few others can manage.
I also know that a pair of speakers can be worth $65,000: At home, I listen contentedly and with great appreciation to a pair of Wilson MAXX 3s. Not an evening of listening goes by that I don't remind myself how lucky I was to be able to buy these speakers, which are part of a system I never imagined I'd be able to own.
Well, actually, I did imagine it years ago, as I lived vicariously through the writings of J. Gordon Holt, Harry Pearson, and others, when the total cost of my audio system was only a few thousand dollars: Denon direct-drive turntable with AC motor, Lustre GST-1 tonearm, Dynavector Ruby cartridge, Marcoff PPA-1 head amp, Hafler DH101 preamplifier and DH200 power-amp kits, and Spica TC-50 speakers. And back then, I felt lucky to own that system.
While the Alexandria XLF superficially resembles its predecessor, the Alexandria X-2 Series 2 ($158,000), the XLF does not replace the X-2, which will continue to be available. The XLF is larger, and at 655 lbs is 50 lbs heavier, than the already massive X-2; it also incorporates numerous changes and refinements.
The volume of the XLF's bass enclosure is 14% greater than the X-2's. The cabinet walls are thicker, and inside, a newly developed bracing geometry better deals with the XLF's greater production of low-frequency energy. The bass drive-units, though, are the same as in the X-2: 13" and 15" woofers made by Focal. The cones are of Focal's proprietary W material: two layers of woven glass tissue separated by and bonded to a core of aeronautical foam, the mass of which can be precisely varied to match the needs of the particular driver design. The W material is ultra-stiff, ultra-lightweight, and said to be extremely low in coloration. It's also 10 times more expensive to make than the high-quality paper Focal uses for its less expensive subwoofer cones, including the ones used in the MAXX 3. (A few years ago, at Focal's facility in St. Etienne, France, I watched W cones being made by developmentally challenged people, who had been taught to operate the machines as part of a government program to create meaningful employment for them.)
The Alexandria XLF features Wilson's unique, room-optimizing, Cross Load Firing (XLF) porting system. With this latest refinement in owner-designer Dave Wilson's attempt to produce speakers that can be optimized to work well in a wide variety of rooms, you can easily switch between front and rear porting by unscrewing a few bolts and swapping the locations of some parts.
The Alexandria series' rigid "wings" that bracket the midrange and tweeter modules, made of cross-braced sections of Wilson's X material (a proprietary phenolic composite), has been substantially strengthened and thickened. Wilson's composite S material was first used in the Sasha W/P, which replaced the WATT/Puppy. Here, in combination with the X material, it replaces the M4 material used in the Alexandria X-2's midrange baffle, and is claimed to audibly and measurably reduce midrange noise and coloration. Wilson's strategy has long been one of relatively large midrange drivers that cover almost the entire midrange without being interrupted by the crossover. However, to avoid high-frequency beaming, this necessitates the two 7" carbon-fiber/paper-cone midrange units handing off to the tweeter at the unusually low frequency of about 1kHz. This is why one of the most significant upgrades in the XLF is its new Convergent Synergy silk-dome tweeter, made for Wilson by Scan-Speak. This replaces the inverted titanium dome used in the X-2 and is built to Wilson's specifications by Focal, variations of which have long been used throughout much of the Wilson line.
While the new tweeter superficially resembles versions used by other manufacturers, Wilson's specific requirements took three years of development to achieve the high power handling, low distortion, and wide bandwidth required by Wilson's crossover strategyall of which the inverted titanium dome had successfully achieved. The new silk dome meets the goals of low distortion and high power handling while surpassing the titanium dome's overall linearity and HF extension. Another silk dome, a variant of the Convergent Synergy, acts as a supertweeter and fires to the rear from the top of the upper midrange module.
Living like the 99%, listening like the 1%
Had Wilson Audio Specialties been looking for a space in which to demonstrate the efficacy of Dave Wilson's group-delay technology, in particular the Aspherical Group Delay adjustability (see below) implemented in the Alexandria X-2 and the new Alexandria XLF, they couldn't have found one more challenging than my listening room, which measures only 15' by 21' by 8'.
The room itself is not the challenge. In fact, its acoustics have been measured and found to be reasonably linear, and particularly excellent in terms of decay, which one acoustician described as "ideal," thanks to my walls of LPs. Even when not being played, vinyl sounds good. Nor was the challenge one of shoehorning into a ground-floor room two speakers, each one 5' 10" tall, 19" wide, 28" deep, and weighing 655 lbs. Like all of Wilson's large speakers, the XLFs ship in pieces, the massive woofer cabinets rolling out of their crates on casters. The total shipping weight per pair is just under a ton: 1910 lbs. And let's leave aside for the moment the not-insignificant problem of taming the combined output of two enormous woofer boxes placed just a few feet from the room's corners.
The seemingly insoluble dilemma was how to create a coherent soundfield from two tall stacks of drivers sitting just 94" from the listening position. And yet, as unlikely as it seemed, particularly to me, Wilson's Peter McGrath was convinced that the XLFs would, in my room, work as well as if not better than the MAXX 3s. But then, I'd been convinced the MAXX 2s and 3s wouldn't work here, and they didthe 3s better than the 2s, because of the 3s' increased driver adjustability.
An audiophile friend helped me unbox the Alexandria XLFs' many crates, remarking as we went on Wilson's fanatical attention to detail and the precise fit'n'finish of all partseven the ones owners are unlikely to ever see once the speaker is assembled.