Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX2 loudspeaker Paul Bolin, July 2006
A funny thing happened at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show. Michael Fremer and I independently approached, respectively, Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath and John Giolas, and both of us indicated our interest in reviewing the recently introduced MAXX Series 2 loudspeaker ($44,900/pair). Neither Michael nor I knew the other had requested the speakers, and neither McGrath nor Giolas initially knew that the other man had agreed to supply a pair of MAXX 2s to their respective contacts. John Atkinson resolved the crossed connections with his usual diplomacy: both Mikey and I would receive the MAXX 2, with him doing the initial review and yours truly doing a Follow-Up. JA's impeccable reasoning—that a speaker of this magnitude deserved looks from multiple angles—and Wilson's generosity in providing two pairs of MAXX 2s to Stereophile left everyone happy.
And so, late last November, a semi pulled up to deliver nearly 1200 lbs of MAXX 2 to my garage. The next day, the piano movers relocated the three huge crates to my listening room, and an hour later, Wilson's John Giolas and Trent Workman arrived to set up the speakers (footnote 1) Watching Giolas perform Wilson's trademark "voweling-in" process to determine my room's neutral zones was fascinating and highly educational. When he located the precise spots, they were as obvious as buffalos in Times Square, and the MAXX 2s wound up within less than 2" of the locations of the Wilson Sophias they replaced. Several hours later, Giolas pronounced that I was in possession of "excellent MAXX sound," and vowed that, based on his final tweaks to the speakers' positions, he would sleep well that night. He also noted that this isn't always the case.
The MAXX 2s were connected to my long-term analog rig—SOTA Cosmos Series III turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, Dynavector XV-1S cartridge, and Manley Steelhead phono preamplifier—and a Plinius CD-101 CD player, Audio Research's stunning Reference 3 preamplifier, and my reference Lamm M1.2 Reference power amplifiers (footnote 2) I also used the usual tweaks and accessories—see May p.120.
The cabling was, at first, Acoustic Zen Silver Reference interconnects and Shunyata Orion speaker cables. I say "at first" because, a couple of weeks into the auditioning process, on a whim I replaced the excellent Shunyata Orions with Cardas' Golden Reference cables. Though I've always enjoyed the Cardas cables' natural timbres and unforced sound, I sometimes find them a bit closed-in on the top octave. So I was startled to hear that the MAXX 2s sounded not only more round and fleshed out, but also more open and airy with the Golden References between them and my Lamm M1.2 monoblocks. The Cardas speaker cables remained in the system for the rest of my auditioning, and Golden Reference interconnects began making their way into the front end, with equally fine results.
With purposeful perversity, I began my MAXX 2 experience not with a sonic blockbuster, but with John Martyn's collection So Far, So Good (UK LP, Island ILPS 9484). "Bless the Weather" and "Head and Heart" showed perfect image scaling and placement as well as an enveloping intimacy. Martyn's voice and each instrument bloomed with breathtaking naturalness into a space defined by the recording, not the equipment, and seemingly heedless of my room. This was an auspicious start, but the power music soon followed.
For sheer power, the MAXX 2 has no equal that I've heard. Its bass was in a different class from virtually the entire world's collection of statement speakers. I have no doubt that I was getting usable response down into the mid-twenties with the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister's The K&D Sessions (EU CD, K7 K7073). But, as MF pointed out in his review last August, what sets the MAXX 2's bass apart from the crowd is its continuousness and control. The timbral quality of the midrange—superbly differentiated, holistic, and never, ever strained—extended waaay down into the subbasement. It's the same performance, in style and quality, no matter how low the deep bass extends.
Much of this can be attributed to the heroic and costly lengths Dave Wilson and his engineers have gone to in designing the MAXX 2's profoundly inert cabinetry, particularly the bass bin. This huge box adds no discernible coloration of its own and provides the physical foundation for the woofers to work against. In that sense, it's as if the woofers have been set into the side of a stone skyscraper. The upshot is that the MAXX 2's woofers start and stop with planar-like alacrity, but pressurize the room as only great cone drivers can. This underpinning of bass clarity in the rendering of attacks, decays, and reverberation times allows the MAXX 2 as a whole to speak with stunning and revelatory articulation. Add to that its singular midbass authority, and the speaker lays a unique foundation for all that happens in the top cabinet. You may correctly conclude from this that the Wilson's dynamic capabilities set a new standard.
But power was only a part of the story the MAXX 2 had to tell. For all its well-deserved reputation as a superb speaker for power music, its excellence was broad as well as deep, as proved by my experience with the John Martyn album and many others. The MAXX 2 got image sizes right—not some of the time, but all of the time. Despite its size and complexity, the big Wilson was capable of "vanishing" as an apparent source of sound to an almost minimonitor-like degree. I was placed before a fully dimensional hologram.
Wilson Audio's enormous exertion of research, design, engineering, and manufacturing effort in the field of cabinetry yields as many benefits in the area of resolution as in timbral coherence and resonance control. Deviations in the midrange can render irrelevant whatever other strengths a speaker system may have. An inadequate midrange means an inadequate loudspeaker. The Wilson's mids were superb and then some.
Marvin Gaye's magnificent What's Goin' On (LP, Tamla TS310) is as good as old-school soul gets. Via the MAXX 2s, Gaye's voice on the title track floated out into my room like a gentle mist—so silky and supple, so breathy yet impeccably and solidly present. It was as if he'd been conjured up in my listening room. James Jamerson's rock-solid Fender Precision bass grounded the proceedings, and the orchestral arrangement's distant presence provided a backdrop of satin gauze to the foreground proceedings. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Peter Hammill's harsh, tormented voice on Van Der Graaf Generator's "The Sleepwalkers," from Godbluff (Canadian LP, Charisma SRM1-1069), was terrifying in its intensity and absolutely spot-on timbrally. Heaven was heavenly, hell hellish.
Other than the human voice, strings are the acid test of midrange quality. Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony's ancient but wonderful recording of Beethoven's Symphony 8 (LP, Columbia M2S 608) has gorgeous string sound. The MAXX 2 gave it sheen and body strikingly akin to the characteristic sound massed strings have live. The speaker's freakishly low resolution floor let inner voices assume their precisely proper place in the ensemble in all sorts of music, but particularly in symphonic works. The tiniest reverberations and ambient sounds on recordings were knit seamlessly into the picture; at times, I found the resulting increase in spatial resolution shocking.
The soundstaging I got from the MAXX 2s reflected nothing more than what was on the recording. Suffice it to say that, when the source material provided it, I heard a naturally broader, deeper, taller stage than most speakers can dream of delivering. The live, orchestrated version of Ryuichi Sakamoto's "My Love Wears Forbidden Colors," conducted by the composer from the piano on Cinemage (CD, Sony Classical SK 60780), was vast, each instrument having sufficient elbow room to be a unique individual. Franois Kevorkian's brain-twisting remix of Fela Kuti's "Sorry Sorry," from Hotel Costes: La Suite (French CD, Pschent 543 361 2), uses phase effects to make it seem as if the music is coming out of your ears rather than into them. The Wilsons let me hear it all to the, um, max.
Michael Fremer and I are in agreement about the MAXX 2's top octave. I've heard more extension from dynamic tweeters, most notably Focal's extraordinary beryllium model. While the Focal Tioxid tweeter used in the MAXX 2—remanufactured in-house by Wilson—was very good, it was ever so slightly soft. I have nothing to add to Mikey's well-considered comments on the MAXX 2's treble other than to note that the speaker's treble dynamics were exceptional within the tweeter's response limits.
Perhaps the hardest characteristic of the MAXX 2 to adequately describe was the total sense of ease it projected in every aspect of performance. Hearing a piece of audio equipment bang up against its limitations by clipping or overloading is never pretty—when things get even close to that point, there is inevitably a raggedness and loss of composure. But the MAXX 2 never seemed to be working hard at all, regardless of the demands I placed on it. It loafed effortlessly along through challenges that would break the backs of lesser speakers. The MAXX 2's limits were simply beyond those of any other speaker system I've heard; few amplification devices have such a broad and continuous performance envelope.
From top to bottom, the MAXX 2 sounded more of a piece—spatially, timbrally, dynamically—than any other speaker I have auditioned. One of the most useful terms coined in the early LP/CD wars was information density. The argument was that LPs contained much more information than a 16-bit/44.1kHz–sampled CD ever could. I shared that opinion then, somewhat less so now. However, information density aptly describes the MAXX 2's sound. It had the highest, most continuously integrated information density I have heard, as well as the best-defined, most palpable images. Every change I made in my system was revealed immediately and effortlessly by the Wilson, and whether it was an improvement or merely a difference was instantly clear.
I do not write the following paragraphs lightly. It's easy for a reviewer, even an experienced one, to fall too hard for an excellent product that lands in his listening room, and that is a danger every conscientious reviewer must be aware of. To live with the Wilson MAXX 2 was not to come to love it despite any quirks or minor shortcomings. I found it a complete and polished product—there were no such things I had to learn to overlook. To live with the MAXX 2 was to take a long look, by way of recorded music, down a deep well of unalloyed excellence, and to recognize in that well qualities that never failed to illuminate and stimulate—a greatness that also entertained and delighted on a grand scale.
For all the complexity of its design, engineering, and execution, and its imposing, high-tech physical presence, there is something about the MAXX 2 that is mellow and deeply welcoming when it is doing what it was designed to do: reproduce recorded music. I have lived with some extraordinarily good speakers during my ten years in audio journalism, and the MAXX 2 is easily the finest all-around speaker system that I have heard at length (though I have yet to hear Wilson's X-2 Alexandria). It does everything superbly and consistently, and has bass—deep, powerful, perfectly pitched, superbly controlled bass—that is superior to that of any speaker I have ever heard, regardless of cost or design.
No single loudspeaker (or other audio component) will be everyone's first choice. But here and now, to my tastes, the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 2 stands alone at the summit of overall sonic performance. Given the number of audio critics—and, perhaps more tellingly, audio manufacturers—who use the MAXX 2 as their in-house evaluative reference, I know I am not alone in that judgment. The MAXX 2 really is that good.—Paul Bolin
Footnote 1: Paul Bolin was not singled out for special treatment in this regard; Wilson Audio insists that its dealers install the MAXX 2s in the customer's home.—John Atkinson
Footnote 2: I also borrowed from a friend, for one weekend each, Audio Research's PH7 phono stage and Reference 7 CD player. Reviews of the Plinius CD-101 and ARC Reference 3 are in the works.—Paul Bolin