Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF loudspeaker Page 2
We rolled the woofer cabinets into their approximate positions, then laid on the carpet the four wings and the six upper driver modules. McGrath arrived the next day, and within a few hours these positively enormous speakers, had been positioned, voiced, and spiked, and their ports set to fire to the rear.
Not surprisingly, the XLFs ended up within a few inches of where the MAXX 3s had stoodand, also as with the MAXX 3s, when I sat down just under 8' away, the upper woofers were where the tweeters would be in a speaker of more appropriate size for the space. The XLFs' midrange-tweeter-midrange (MTM) arrays towered well above, even farther up into the ozone than the MAXX 3s' MTMs.
So how did it sound?
The main challenge in using such tall speakers in so cramped a room is getting them to reproduce a convincing sense of space. Wilson's setup charts indicate that 9' is as close as you can sit and still get the focus and coherence they promise. The drivers can't be aimed any lower and it isn't possible for me to move listening chair farther away.
Playing even a primitive mono recording, such as The Who Sell Out (LP, Decca DL 4950), an original copy of which I found a few weeks ago for a buck at a garage sale, plainly revealed much of what was spatially astonishing about the XLFs, though I didn't at first play it to discover anything about the speakersI just wanted to hear a totally different mix for this album that I'd been told was full of surprises. I wasn't disappointed. Pedal steel guitar on "Our Love Was"? Gettouttahere!
Floating at ear height between the XLFs, completely independent of the double stack of drivers producing the sound, appeared a preternaturally solid, well-focused, tonally and texturally coherent, large-scale, reach-out-and-touch-it image. The image never budged, not even when I shifted my head to left or rightit remained stable, focused, and assured. It also contained textural and tonal fireworks. The percussion was hard, appropriately metallic, and focused with pinpoint precision; the bass was elastic, incredibly deep and powerful, perfectly focused, and distortedbut that was the overloaded recording, not the speakers. As an accurate re-creation of tape saturation, it couldn't be beat.
This was the sort of good mono presentation that a stereo pair of well-designed speakers should generally offer in a properly treated roombut coming from these big driver stacks 8' away? The MAXX 3s do this well, too, though not quite as seamlessly or as solidly, or with such a variety of textures and tonal colors. I listened to many mono recordings, from both analog and digital sources, and they produced as convincing a demonstration as can be imagined of the ability of Wilson's Aspherical Group Delay to delicately focus an imagebut the imaging and soundstaging of stereo recordings produced more impressive physicality.
Joseph Audio's compact, two-way Pulsar speaker, which I reviewed in the June 2012 issue, produced degrees of intense focus and image solidity that big speakers, including the Wilson MAXX 3s, generally can't achieve. Still, the Josephs could do this only at the cost of sheer physical and dynamic scale and low-frequency extension. In my relatively small room, the XLFs produced both the spatial solidity and intense focus of a small, well-designed two-way like the Joseph Pulsar, as well as the grand scale that only so large a system can manage. At the same time, the speakers seemed to totally disappear as the sources of soundmuch as the old and much smaller Audio Physic Virgo IIs did. The Alexandria XLFs could effortlessly reproduce the sensation of being in an enormous spaceor a very small and intimate one.
One of the first stereo recordings I played was Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. I'd been comparing the original UK Island pressing, mastered at Sterling Sound by Lee Hulko in 1974, with the 1983 Masterdisk remastering on Carthage, and the new LP from Wax Cathedral, sourced from the master tape but cut from a 24-bit/96kHz file by Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service. I'd played these records numerous times through the MAXX 3s, and all had sounded fineafter all, the original recording, made by John Wood at the very small Sound Techniques studio in London, was so intimate and directthough of course the sounds of the different masterings differed.
First up was the Carthage. The first cut, "When I Get to the Border," took the recording to places I'd never heard it go in almost 40 years of listening to it. But the next one, the creepy "The Calvary Cross," with its massive tambourine shakes, monstrous power chords, depth-charge bass, and haunting background singers, had me exclaiming, to no one in particular, "Wow!"followed by laughter and a string of expletives. The speed, precision, and clarity of that tambourine, the delineation of each of its metal spinnerets, the metallicness of the metal, the skin-ness of the skin, and the woodiness of what could be heard of the woodnot to mention the eerie way in which the instrument just hung there, focused in three-dimensional space against the blackest of backdrops, 100% free and clear of the speaker bafflesproduced an intensity of verisimilitude that so far surpassed how I've previously heard this very familiar recording that . . . well, what else was there to do but laugh? I've heard the background singers (more like droners) on this track hundreds of times, always as undifferentiated space-fillers. Never before was each so cleanly delineated and easily separated from the foreground din, each voice's individual texture and timbre clearly yet subtly defined.
Of necessity, familiar phrases like holographic imaging and precision soundstaging are useful because they're familiar, but they can't quite convey the degree to which the Alexandrias achieved image solidity, three-dimensionality, well-defined spatiality, and layers of information, and did so effortlessly across the re-creation of an apparently limitless expanse of space before, behind, and to the sides of their actual physical locations. And the XLFs produced these results with me sitting less than 9' away. I'm sure the illusion of space would be even more impressive in a larger room.
After raving in the September 2009 issue about the MAXX 3's reproduction of harmonic, textural, and spatial qualities, and wanting to avoid superlatives here, I'm left with little wiggle room. I'll just say that the XLF's tonal, textural, and transient presentations were easily and demonstrably superior to the MAXX 3's already convincing and very satisfying performance in those areas, mostly because of a notable lessening of artifacts that were so subtle to begin with that I noticed them only when they weren't there.
Wilson's new Convergent Synergy silk-dome tweeter had an airy effortlessness in comparison with the MAXX 3's titanium dome. The Alexandria XLFs' presentation of well-recorded violin concertos left little to be desired in terms of orchestral weight, color, imagery, and size. The soloist appeared onstage well in front of the orchestra and believably focused: neither too well defined and "etchy" nor too diffuse. Well-recorded violins were reproduced with a pleasingly natural harmonic structure, airy sheen, and grit where appropriate. With the right recording played at the appropriate level (usually considerably lower than many of us listen at home!), I could almost convince myself I was in Row 20 of Avery Fisher Falleven when the performance had been recorded elsewhere. The speakers produced that kind of physical scale and dynamic contrasts.
When I played a reissue of Bruch's Scottish Fantasia and Hindemith's Violin Concerto, with soloist David Oistrakh, the London Symphony, and conductors Jascha Horenstein and Paul Hindemith (45rpm "Blueback" LP, London CS 6667/ORG 107), the XLFs took the familiar sound of these performances into an unfamiliar realm of greater orchestral weight and focus, improved delineation of hall acoustics, and a violin image that had a solidity, transparency, tonal and textural complexity, andespeciallyan ethereal delicacy that surpassed anything I'd ever heard at home.
The XLFs' bottom-end performance, even in a confined space with their rear panels only 17" from the front wall and their side panels even closer to the sidewalls, was far superior to the MAXX 3s' already impressive bass output, and noticeably lower in coloration, even though the Alexandria's extension was deeper and the sound more powerful. So well controlled was the bass that, whatever any excess bass that might have been caused by the room boundaries (and which will probably show up in John Atkinson's measurements) might look like, I never heard it as such. Male voices, even baritones, never sounded "chesty," and the lower end of the acoustic piano was never overstated. Kick drums were fast, clean, precisely drawn, and texturally convincing. Timpani were powerful and compact.
Bass performancetonally, texturally, and especially dynamicallyis one area in which Wilson speakers, at their various price points, outperform most of the competition. It's not easy to produce the extension, the dynamics, and especially the low coloration and low distortion that Wilson manages.