The Fifth Element #72 Page 2
Like all Wilson speakers, the Duette is available only in spray-painted automotive finishesno wood veneers. The standard colors are nonmetallic black and three metallic shades: a very dark gray, silver, and what I call champagne. Wilson calls these: Diamond Black, Dark Titanium, Desert Silver, and Argento Silver Twelve. "Upgrade Colors" are available by special order. Four of these are what I call Rich Guy Famous Italian Car Colors (nonmetallic red, yellow, blue, and white), but I think the others look much better. I've seen Macadamia, a rich brown with gold metallic flecks, on a pair of Alexandria 2s. It's a lot subtler than you might thinkquite handsome. Black Kirsch looks interesting, as do Ghillies Green and Oxford Gray. Luck of the draw, the review pair came in Carmon Red, a very deep burgundy.
For an additional upcharge, Wilson Audio can paint the Duette (or any Wilson speaker) in any of the thousands of colors in the library of the automotive paint system they use. How about 1957 Mercedes Gullwing Strawberry Red Metallic? How about 1960 Citroën DS Tortoiseshell Blonde? They can also match almost any color sample you provide.
The Duette comes with a fabric grille on a heavy composite frame; I didn't use the grilles. The Duette's front baffle includes a rounded arch in bas-relief that, to a degree, lessens the impression of bulk. The grille follows that curve, which means that the color of the cabinet is exposed in the upper front corners, even with the grille in place.
Wilson Audio insists that its 50 or so US dealers deliver and set up its speakers in buyers' homes. In my case, Wilson shipped the Duettes first, the stands a couple of weeks later; Wilson's Peter McGrath then arrived to ensure that the setup was satisfactory. I placed the Duettes and stands on garden pavers 8' apart, as measured from the baffles' center , completely toed in to the listening position, and with my listening chair at an apex of a nearly equilateral triangle. There were 3.5' of free space between the Duettes' rear panels and the wall behind them, and I sat 10' back from a centerline drawn between the speakers, my back to a large opening to the front hall.
Contrary to the manual's advice to use the shortest spikes all around, I used the tallest spikes between the Duette's front and its stand, and one of the shortest spikes at the rear. This provided a slight tilt-backnot all that much, perhaps 5°; the difference in spike heights was less than half an inch. McGrath had no problem with it.
Two important preliminary observations: First, the Duettes needed lots of industrial-strength break-in, including many applications of the "Full Glide Tone" on Ayre Acoustics' Irrational! But Efficacious System Enhancement CD. Second, setting the Duettes on their dedicated stands (rather than an inexpensive pair of stands intended for typical 12-lb British minimonitors) made a substantial improvement in the sound, which seemed both to "calm down" and to snap into focus. The improvement was so substantial that I'm robustly confident that, were you to buy Duettes for use in free space, not also buying Wilson's stands would be a false and self-defeating economy. The conundrum, of course, is that the $1795/pair price of those standswhich are very well made; you can see where the money wentputs the Duette within putting distance of the Sophia 3, in terms of cost. Wilson claims that the Sophia 3 gives you 10Hz more bass extension, from 30 down to 20Hz.
After brief listens to some of his reference tracks, McGrath said that the setup was fine; after that, we listened for pleasure. (A new discovery Peter was mightily impressed with was Clifford Brown with Strings, CD, Universal Distribution 9525).
The associated equipment was primarily Luxman's C-600f solid-state preamplifier, MQ-88 tubed power amplifier, and D-05 SACD/CD player, with Bricasti Design's M1 DAC D/A converter. The Bricasti was fed a digital signal either from my Apple iMac running Amarra's music-server software via a Musical Fidelity V-Link, or a Denon DN-961-FA CD player (retired from a radio station) as an AES/EBU transport, later replaced by a Musical Fidelity CDT transport. I also used Parasound's Halo JC 2 preamplifier and Halo JC 1 solid-state, 400W monoblocks. Connecting it all were Cardas Clear interconnects and speaker cables, Cardas AES/EBU digital cable, Markertek USB and S/PDIF cables, and a Shunyata Research wall outlet and Hydra power conditioner.
The first tracks I played were the "Channel Identification" and "Channel Phasing" tests from Stereophile's Test CD 2 (Stereophile STPH004-2). JA's electric bass sounded gutsy, and the differences between in and out of phase were as great as I have ever heard.
Three umbrella observations: 1) The Duette did not sound like a small loudspeaker. 2) The essential sounds of the Duette and the Vivid speakers I've heard here over the past two years are more similar than different, although of course there were clear distinctions. It's not a matter of comparing two good chardonnays, but of comparing a good chardonnay to a good pinot gris.) I could live with a pair of Duettes. It might be the smallest and least expensive speaker Wilson Audio makes, but its sound was not compromised by being designed to meet its price point.
My first impression, and the one shared by most listeners who passed through, was that the Duette had an amazing ability to retrieve or uncover fine detail. One example that brought me up short came as I listened to Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737), which I've heard at least 100 times over the past few years. I was admiring London's sassy way with the classic kept-woman song "Daddy" ("Hey Daddy / I want a brand-new car / Champagne; caviar . . .") when, in the instrumental bridge (at 1:16), I heard her quietly clear her throat. Yikes! Of course, now that the Duettes have pointed that little sonic artifact out to me, I'm sure I'll be able to hear it through lesser speakersas I just did through my iMac's. Auditory perception is a complicated thing, as JA discussed in his Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture at last year's AES Convention. Another startlingly detailed playback experience was of the Bill Evans Trio's boxed set Live at the Village Vanguard (CD). The patrons' chatter and the musicians' asides were unprecedentedly intelligible.
I think that the Duette's detail was a product of the speaker's speed rather than of any tonal shaping. My subjective impressions were that the Duette didn't actually extend as far into the high treble as does the Vivid B-1, and that the Duette's treble was a trifle on the cool side without being actually cold. Again, this was a minor difference between the Duette and the Vivid B-1, not an issue of night vs daythe Duette did not sound rolled off.
The Wilson Duette did have a very present sound, overall. I think that this impression is related to both its dynamic capabilities and its limited dispersion. Certainly, a woofer as wide as the Duette's will be increasingly directional as it nears the top of its passband. When we listened to McGrath's favorite setup track, "So Do I," from Christy Moore's This Is the Day (CD, Columbia Sony Music 5-3225.2), the instrumental backing sounded a bit busier and more front-and-center than through any of the Vivids.
The Duette did not sound like a small loudspeaker. It had basketsful of dynamics and was not bass-shy. I often found, when I began playing a track or a CD, that the volume was too highI'd underestimated the Duette's dynamic capabilities. I played three guilty-pleasure tracks at what are extreme levels for me: Alannah Myles's "Black Velvet," Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat," and Jamshied Sharifi's "Tariqat." All very satisfying, especially the sense of (artificial) scale in the synth-heavy Sharifi.
For these and many other tracks I switched over to the combination of Parasound's Halo JC 2 preamplifier and Halo JC 1 solid-state, 400W monoblocks, both of which have been amply praised in the past nine years by various Stereophile writers. I enthusiastically second all the nice things all of them have said, including, in "Recommended Components," the star for longevity and the "$$$" for exceptional value.
I found the Parasound combination to be just as Michael Fremer described the amplifier in the February 2003 issue: refined and smooth, and "actually on the subtly warm and rich side of the sonic spectrumbut not at the expense of transient speed and resolution of detail."
With 400Wpc on tap, sonic pleasures got a great workout, and not just the guilty onesKeith Jarrett's new solo-piano set, Rio (2 CDs, ECM 2198/99), sounded wonderful. I'm not going to claim that an additional octave of bass magically appeared, but bass extension was noticeably increased, as was dynamic slam. The Parasounds and Duettes proved a remarkably synergistic combination.
Relying on my aural memory, I think that Wilson Audio's Duette is even more detailed and revealing than was their Sophia 2 (I haven't yet heard the Sophia 3). Although, from what AD wrote about the Sophia 3, it might be the better buy for most listeners, the Duette is an extremely accomplished loudspeaker.
I imagine that, for tonal consistency from top to bottom of the audioband, the Duette would be easier than the Sophia 3 to set up in many smaller listening rooms, especially rooms that are not open-plan. And if you must put your speakers in a suboptimal situation, I know of no other "bookshelf" model with the Duette's dynamics and bass.
Tony Faulkner is entirely right about the Duette's virtues: Very well done! Do try to hear it.