Wilson Audio Specialties CUB loudspeaker Page 2
Once more, with feeling...
For the present review I felt it appropriate to supplement my earlier two-channel, music-room listening impressions with further auditioning. After all, 90% of my time with the CUB in that prior review was spent in the home-theater system—much more, if you count casual listening rather than "review mode."
Accordingly, the CUBs were again positioned in the listening room. This time, however, I tried a rather different setup. The CUBs were pulled farther out into the room—to the one-third point (the long dimension). They were positioned about 9' apart, 4–5' from the sidewalls. The seating position was about the same distance back as before: just over 9'. Initially, I used almost no toe-in (footnote 1)
When I experiment with loudspeaker positioning, I listen for two things: a solid soundstage with good depth, and good low-frequency definition and extension. It's not always possible to accomplish both of these without compromise, and any attempt to add criteria to the mix before you've optimized the others is doomed to drive you to the funny farm. With the Wilsons, this first choice proved to be spot on. The soundstage was big and open—huge, actually—with crisp lateral imaging and impressive depth. There was no fizz or annoying brightness. On the flip side, the sound had a little less upper-octave air and openness than I prefer.
The quality of the mid- and upper bass in this location was such that I had no desire to experiment further. There was a notable lack of bass boom or energized room resonances. This will undoubtedly recommend the CUB to a lot of readers with small rooms and/or rooms with bass problems (which is more of us than we care to admit!). Nevertheless, the Wilson really did not produce any useful deep bass. Instruments with a lot of activity in the bottom octave and a half—pipe organ, bass drum, synth—lacked real foundation. There was not a lot of excitement going on here below about 50Hz. But it was a tribute to the quality of the bass above that point that I seldom missed the deep bass. The CUB never sounded in any way thin or lean. Still, real bass freaks will want to consider adding one or more subwoofers.
In the midrange, I continued to hear occasional "cupped-hands" colorations. There was also a tendency to brightness in the lower treble, but the latter raised its head only at high listening levels.
At this point I decided to toe-in the loudspeakers a little more—roughly midway between straight-ahead and aimed straight at me. The main axis of the CUBs then intersected about 2' behind me. The inner sides of their cabinets were clearly visible from the main seating area.
The improvement resulting from this simple change was significant. The sound retained its immediate, front-and-center quality, with the soundstage more often than not centered on a plane in front of the loudspeakers. The midrange coloration I commented on above was significantly reduced—and only rarely called attention to itself. The more on-axis listening position also opened up the top end, and while I still wished for a little more air, I was definitely happier with the result. Even the bass seemed better defined, though this certainly was due to improved definition in the higher overtones of the bass rather than to any change caused by the slightly altered positioning of the woofers.
Toeing in the loudspeakers even farther, however, did not result in further improvement. In fact, it actually degraded the sound slightly, adding a little unwelcome brightness to the low treble.
The bottom line to all of this discussion is that it took care to fine-tune the CUB for its best sound, care that was amply rewarded. Properly set up, the CUB was a genuinely exciting loudspeaker. The top end was natural-sounding, and sibilants were clean, without spit or sizzle. Yes, a little more air would have been welcome, but the tradeoff for this minor shortcoming was a canny one: the top octaves were there, but never called attention to themselves. I still heard some low-treble brightness at high volume, but it was not often a factor.
The response through the bass region—within the loudspeaker's range—was tight, with plenty of drive and a dynamic, punchy quality. The drums that punctuate "Einon," from the MCA Dragonheart soundtrack CD reminded me strongly of what I heard from the same recording at HI-FI '97 from Wilson's big X-1/Grand SLAMMs. Not quite the same, of course, but a potent reminder nonetheless. And I was unable to push the CUB's woofers to bottoming, even at reasonably high levels with my all-time favorite torture test, the drumset falling to the floor on Däfos (Reference Recordings RR-12CD). This makes me suspect that there may perhaps be some protection in the woofer circuit to prevent just such overloading.
The CUB's midrange also had an in-the-room presence more suggestive of a lion than of the junior member of the species. This was very definitely not your father's laid-back audiophile loudspeaker. Yet it didn't go over the top. It was much like a stereoscopic photo of those big Wilson X-1s: it offered a strong taste of the latter's qualities, but without quite the reality of the X-1's huge dynamic range, gripping bottom end, or sheer soundstage size. Still, at less than a tenth the price...
Nor can the CUBs' soundstage be sneezed at. It spread wide, with uncanny center imaging. Its rendition of depth was excellent—all the more remarkable considering its immediacy on solo vocals and instruments. (It's unusual for a loudspeaker to do both well.) The sound on the Rutter Requiem (Reference RR-57CD) sounded exceptional on the CUBs, with the chorus spread wide and deep before me. And the soundstage on Dead Can Dance's The Serpent's Egg (4AD 45576-2, CD) was also remarkable, with excellent inner detail and imaging spread beyond the loudspeaker positions (not a common event in my room).
With its exceptional sensitivity, the CUB did not really need the sort of power provided by the Aragon 8008 ST amplifier to get it to jump to attention. Near the end of my listening tests, I substituted two channels of the Krell KAV-500 5-channel amplifier (the same amplifier I used for reviewing the CUB in the home-theater test). The result was rewarding. The Aragon tends to have a little more sparkle at the top of the range than the Krell, but the latter is more lively and immediate a little lower down. The fact that the Krell added a welcome shot of openness to the sound of the CUB suggests that the slight darkness I heard in the CUB (which was not totally tamed by the Krell, but was helped significantly) was a little lower down in frequency than I might have suspected. As with any good loudspeaker, the proper choice of amplifier will pay dividends with the CUB.
Shortly after finishing my audition of the CUB, I set up the very same pair of Aerial Acoustics 8s recently reviewed for Stereophile by Michael Fremer (January 1998). This loudspeaker will cost you approximately $1000/pair less than the Wilson, depending on finish and the price of the stands you choose for the CUB.
The Aerial is a little more open-sounding on top, with a less vivid overall balance than the CUB. I never heard any recognizable midrange coloration from it. It goes very deep in the bass—compared with the limited extreme low-frequency response of the CUB, it isn't even a contest. You're unlikely to consider adding subwoofers to the Aerial.
But the Aerial definitely sounds a little warm and soft through the midbass. I was not at all bothered by this in my large listening room (in contrast to MF's reaction in his room). But the CUB definitely did have superior clarity through the midbass. And while I would definitely not describe the Aerial as polite or uninvolving, it's not as dynamically vibrant as the Wilson. It also requires far more power than the CUB to truly sing. But sing it will. It's sweeter-sounding than the CUB, and will never turn edgy, as the CUB still occasionally does. My preference? I'd have to lean a bit to the Aerial because of its bass extension and generally smoother, more linear response. But the Wilson's strengths—its punchy immediacy, drive, and generally alive sound—definitely attracted me, and may swing the balance for many of you.
No real deep bass, some midrange coloration and low-treble brightness, and not quite enough top-end sparkle—if you wanted to write a case for the negative on the Wilson Audio CUB, you could begin and end it there.
But that's only a small fraction of the story. The CUB is a Wilson loudspeaker from the glue in its joints to the lacquer on its surface. That implies certain qualities, and the CUB delivers: A fast, open, full-of-life quality. Excellent soundstaging. Impressive dynamics. Superb mid- and upper-bass definition. And a build quality that lesser loudspeakers can only dream about. If this is your kind of sound, the CUB could well be your kind of loudspeaker.
Footnote 1: In my experience, loudspeakers pointed straight ahead often appear to be angled outward from the listening seat. I find this distracting. A very slight toe-in eliminates this optical illusion.