Wilson Audio Specialties Alexia loudspeaker Page 2
Enough of test tones. Fittingly, the first musical work I played through the Alexias was Beethoven's Violin Sonata 10 in G, Op.96 No.1, performed by violinist David Abel and pianist Julie Steinberg (24-bit/192kHz needle drop from LP, Wilson Audio W-8315). David Wilson, founder and president of Wilson Audio, had recorded this LP 30 years ago using a modified ReVox A77 tape deck with a pair of Schoeps omnidirectional microphones and a modified Audio Research preamplifier. In a February 1984 review, J. Gordon Holt described this recording as having "sound so completely and disarmingly natural that after 30 seconds you're unaware it's reproduced." Through the Alexias, the balance of the instruments was intimate yet unforced. They were reproduced with faithful tone colorsI heard no colorationsand the imaging was such that the musicians seemed to be in my room.
Next up was bluegrass virtuoso Chris Thile's performance of his transcriptions for mandolin of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. John Marks had sent me a YouTube link to Thile performing the Preludio from the Partita 3 in E; even with YouTube sound quality, Thile's musicianship was so convincing that I purchased the complete set (24/44.1 ALAC files, Nonesuch/HDtracks). I was right to do so. Thile gets the essence of these very violinistic works right. Yes, the mandolin's four courses of doubled strings are tuned the same as the violin's four strings, but that in itself does not guarantee that the transcriptions will work. However, Thile's light and shade in his phrasing is so empathetic that he almost convinces the listener that Bach had the mandolin in mind. The image of his instrument hung between and behind the Alexias, uncolored and well defined, with just the occasional plectrum stroke splashing off the walls of the dry recording venue.
Some big speakers sound big all the time. By contrast, the Alexia, though by no means a small speaker, was a chameleon. When the music demanded it, as with the Chris Thile album, the Alexia was a minimonitor. When the music was of larger scale, as with a 1987 recording of Fauré's Requiem with Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus (CD, Telarc 80135), the Alexias grew to accommodate the recorded sound, but without individual objects within the soundstage becoming exaggerated.
This was one of the strengths of the Alexias: stereo images weren't bloated. With naturally captured recordings, everything was to the right scale. The image of the solo violin in the Sanctus of Fauré's Requiem, for example, was appropriately tiny. Similarly with the solo violin backed by a string choir that introduces the mezzo-soprano aria "Erbarme dich, mein Gott," from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (24/88.2 Studio Master download, Linn CKD 313P): Instrumental images were the right size at all frequencies. The original 1924 acoustic recording of the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra performing Rhapsody in Blue, with Gershwin himself on piano (an MP3 transcribed from 78s), was reproduced as a nearly dimensionless sphere of sound midway between the speakers. The piano had good body to its tone, and despite the mono recording, the music was well differentiated from the background shellac noise.
After a few weeks, I began to feel that some recordings were lacking in top-octave air. For example, the jingles of the tambourine in "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," from Brian Wilson's Reimagines Gershwin (ALAC files ripped from CD, Walt Disney), a delightful arrangement with bass harmonica echoing the signature of Pet Sounds, were a little suppressed. I asked Wilson Audio for a different set of resistors that would increase the tweeter level a little.
As you can see from the "Measurements" sidebar, the new resistors raised the tweeter's sensitivity by about 1dB. This might not seem a lot, but it turned out to be very audiblenot surprising when you consider the tweeter's wide passband. (A speaker I reviewed several years ago had 0.5dB tweeter-level adjustments; the optimal setting turned out to be between two of these steps.) The 1dB boost was a little too much with the Classé CTM-600 monoblocks, but was perfect for the softer-toned Pass Labs XA-60.5 amplifiers. The Alexia's bass needed the Classés' firm control, howeverthis speaker needs a tight fist on its low frequencies. The bass guitar in the Levon Helm Band's live performance of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," from MerleFest Ramble: MerleFest, NC 4/26/08 (26/96 Apple Lossless file transcoded from FLAC, FestivalLink.net), sounded just too tubby with any of the amplifiers I had to hand, other than the Classés.
But with less overcooked recordings, the Alexia's low frequencies spoke with clarity and authority. The tone of my fretless Carvin bass, played through a PJB Bass Briefcase with an auxiliary Hartke 2x10 cabineta sound I know very wellin a live recording I made of George Gershwin's "Summertime," accompanying Bob Reina on Rhodes piano and Mark Flynn on drums, and using a crossed pair of DPA cardioids and my Nagra-D recorder, was as natural as I have heard. And the ambience of the outdoor, poolside venueincluding the ringing of someone's cell phonewas almost fetishistic in its resolution of fine detail.
I had played with Bob on another live recording of "Summertime," this time at the Chicago Experience during the 1993 Summer CES. I was playing my Fender Precision through an Ampeg SVT 8x10 cabinet, and Bob was using a Hammond organ stop on his electronic keyboard. Unfortunately, the tessitura of his left-hand register neatly overlapped the bass guitar's, and through most speakers the two bass lines, as they underlie guitarist Frank Doris's killer solo lines, blur into mud. Not through the Alexias.
Piano was well served by the Alexias. My favorite performance of Brahms's Piano Concerto 2 is by Emil Gilels with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Eugen Jochum (Apple Lossless files ripped from CD, Deutsche Grammophon). The low notes of the piano's entrance following the lonely horn motif at the start literally growled out of the Alexias. Yes, the orchestral sound on this 1972 recording is a little on the dry side, and the orchestra tends to peer over the shoulders of the solo instrument, but the piano was muscular on the Wilsons.
With the increase in tweeter level, Keith Jarrett's piano on The Köln Concert had a vivid, vibrant sound (24/96 FLAC files, ECM/HDtracks)perhaps a touch too vibrant. However, the high frequencies of Art Lande's equally closely miked Steinway on his While She Sleeps (SACD, Blue Coast BCRSA 2012a) sounded perfectly in balance with the midrange.
What the Alexias did better than almost any other speaker I've had in my listening room was to preserve differentiations among singers. In close harmony, the characters of individual voices didn't run together, yet ensemble blends were not diluted. This is very much what you hear in real life. For example, in 2007 I recorded Cantus's While You Are Alive (CD, Cantus CTS-1208), the album of contemporary choral music that included Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque, mentioned earlier (footnote 2). That album takes its title from a line in the lyric of A Sound Like This, settings of poems by Kabir (translated by Robert Bly) commissioned by Cantus from Minnesotan composer Edie Hill. Hill wrote the piece with each of the nine singers featured on this recording in mind, specifically tailoring the tessituras and harmonies for their voices. In an aleatoric section in the penultimate movement, each singer enters in turn, singing the same lyric but with a different pitch and timing. Very rapidly, what was originally the pure tone of one singer is transformed into pitchless chaos. The high-resolution file postpones that onset of chaotic sound a little compared with the CDyet such was the resolving power of the Alexias, especially when driven by the Lamm M1.2 monoblocks, that that breakdown of pitch was postponed even longer.
And in the fourth movement, Thinkers Listen, spoken dialogue is accompanied by hand claps, knee and chest slaps, and stamping feet, all of which, via the Alexias, lit up the acoustic of Goshen College's Sauder Hall like photographic flashes.
Peter McGrath's use of a Christy Moore track to fine-tune the Alexias' positions reminded me that Moore had once played with Irish band Moving Hearts. Though their 1985 instrumental album, The Storm (LP, Tara 1304), doesn't include Moore, it was in heavy rotation in my system in the days before I joined Stereophile. This album mixes traditional Irish melodies and instruments with synthesizer, electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, saxophones, bouzouki, and rock drums. The day before the Alexias were to be returned to Wilson, I ripped The Storm to 24/192 AIFF files using the Ayre Acoustics QA-9 A/D converter.
The needle drop demonstrated all of the Alexia's strengths: The speaker's superbly clear low frequencies kept separate the similarly pitched sounds of the bodhran and tom toms, and allowed the bass guitar to remain clearly differentiated in the mix from the kick drum; the clean, uncolored treble allowed Davy Spillane's uilleann pipes to wail convincingly; the unrestrained dynamic range revealed the layering of musical dynamics that Spillane achieves by increasing the complexity of his ornamentation at climaxes as his pipes are doubled by other melody instruments; the speaker's superb clarity allowed the subtle ambience surrounding Spillane's low whistle and Eoghan O'Neill's fretless bass in the final track, "May Morning Dew," to be readily resolved; but most important, as with While You Are Alive, the Wilson speakers allowed the integrity of the music making to shine, unencumbered by artifice.
I have now listened on several occasions to Wilson Audio's Alexandria XLF speakers in Michael Fremer's listening room, as well as in David Wilson's own listening room and at retailers Definitive Audio (Seattle) and Innovative Audio (Manhattan). As impressed as I have been by Wilson's flagship loudspeaker, bear in mind that the XLF costs a mind-blowing $200,000/pair. I am actually more impressed by the Alexia, which, at one-fourth the XLF's price, gets remarkably close to its bigger sibling in terms of musical satisfaction.
Yes, $48,500/pair makes the Alexia still an expensive loudspeaker. But its clarity, its uncolored, full-range balance, its flexibility in setup and optimization, and most of all its sheer musicality, are, if not unrivaled, rare. If I were to retire tomorrow, the Wilson Alexia would be the speaker I would buy to provide the musical accompaniment to that retirement.
Footnote 2: Though no longer available from the shop at Stereophile.com, this CD can be purchased at www.cantussings.org/buy-music/.