Is there a country that, per capita, has produced more major loudspeaker brands than Great Britain? The British brands that immediately come to mind are Tannoy, KEF, Bowers & Wilkins, Quad, Rogers, Spendor, Harbeth, Castle, Acoustic Energy, ProAc, Monitor Audio, Epos, Celestion, Lowther, PMCand Wharfedale.
Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Two years ago, I was drawn to the Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2then as now, the company's entry-level floorstanderby its good reputation among lovers of low-power tube amplifiers. "Forget the specs," they said. "Sophia is the one to hear." In fact, with its 89dB sensitivity (slightly lower than most of Wilson's other domestic loudspeakers) and mildly challenging impedance curve (less daunting than those of its stablemates, but not by a lot), the Sophia seemed, on paper, no better than average for use with flea-watt amps. But when I tried a pair at home with my 25W Shindo Corton-Charlemagne mono amps, I was impressed: The Sophia Series 2 was, as I suggested in my "Listening" column in the February 2010 issue, the product that will forever mark Wilson Audio's progress toward not merely excellent sound but beautiful sound.
The Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandra XLF costs $200,000/pair. So does a Ferrari. Perhaps if Wilson Audio Specialties sold as many pairs of XLFs as Ferrari sells cars, the price might drop. For now, $200,000 is what you pay.
Can a loudspeaker possibly be worth that much? Add $10,000 for speaker cables, and that's what I paid for my first home in 1992. Today, the average American home costs around $272,000, which is likely less than the cost of an audio system built around a pair of Alexandra XLFs.
With the help of 20:20 hindsight, it looks as if I made a decision when I joined Stereophile: to review a loudspeaker from Wilson Audio Specialties every 11 years. In June 1991, I reported on Wilson's WATT 3/Puppy 2 combination, which cost $12,740/pair in an automotive gloss-paint finish. This was followed in July 2002 by my review of the Wilson Sophia ($11,700/pair). And now, in December 2013, I am writing about the Wilson Alexia, which costs a not-inconsiderable $48,500/pair.
It's been five years since David Wilson's X-1/Grand SLAMM speaker system invaded our audio consciousness with its 500W power capacity and very high (95dB/W) sensitivity (footnote 1). Capable of an earsplitting 123dB at 1m, with a bandwidth to match, this was one speaker system that refused to be ignored. The X-1 has since evolved to $70,000/pair Mk.II form. It now provides some flexibility of tonal balance for different room acoustics, and is distinguished by greater subtlety in its differentiation of timbre. Beneath the X-1 in Wilson's range comes the WATT/Puppy ensemble, now in its 5.1 iteration (footnote 2). The WATT/Puppy has survived for over 10 years, and sets a benchmark for the Wilson line at its $17,270 system price.
Though taller, narrower, deeper, more gracefully sculpted, and even more mantis-like than the MAXX Series 2 that I reviewed in the August 2005 Stereophile, at first glance the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3 seems little more than a minor reworking of its predecessor with a major increase in price: from $44,900 to $68,000 per pair. But first looks can be deceiving. Take a closer, longer gazeor, better yet, spend some time listening (especially if you've spent time with the MAXX 2)and you'll quickly realize that while the familiar Wilson design concepts remain in play, the MAXX 3 is far more than a minor reworking of an older model.
When Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath offered me a pair of MAXX2 loudspeakers to review, I reminded him of just how small (15' by 21' by 8') my room is, and how close I sit to any speakers in it.
Of the small number of times I have been totally swept away by listening to recorded music, a significant proportion have involved loudspeakers from Wilson Audio Specialties. It was my experience of their X-1/Grand SLAMM in the listening rooms of reviewer Martin Colloms, then-retailer Peter McGrath, designer Dan D'Agostino of Krell, and manufacturer Madrigal Audio Labs, that led me to name it my "Editor's Choice" for 1995 and join my vote with those of the Stereophile scribes to make it the magazine's "Loudspeaker of the Year." I wrote in my December 2001 "As We See It" about how a cross-country road trip had begun with a listen to the Cantus CD on the Wilson WAMMs in their designer's Utah listening room. And, as I wrote in my April column, auditioning Peter McGrath's 24-bit Nagra-D master tapes on Wilson MAXXes in the Halcro room was, for me, the highlight of the 2002 CES.
When I interviewed recording engineer Roy Halee (Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful, etc.) at his home in Connecticut back in 1991, he pointed to his pair of monolithic Infinity IRS loudspeakers and said, "When I want to listen for pleasure, I listen to those." He then pointed to a pair of early-edition Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppys in a second system set up in the corner of his large listening room. "When I want to hear what's on a recording I've made, I listen to those." It was obvious: Halee respected the Wilsons, but he loved the Infinitys. Not surprising, since Dave Wilson designed the WATT section to be a highly accurate portable monitor, and monitors are designed for respect, not love.
"Where do you want 'em?" Doug'n'David (of Stereophile's shipping and receiving, not your favorite morning drive-time talk radio co-hosts) had just wrestled over 500 lbs of cocooned Wilson WITT loudspeakers onto the floor of my garage. Like the Thiel CS7s I had parted with just a few weeks earlier, the WITTs came packed in solid, heavy wooden crates. The pained expressions on Doug'n'David's faces indicated that it was time for me to start reviewing minimonitors! The unpacking went more smoothly than I expected, but this is clearly a pair of loudspeakers that demand to be delivered, uncrated, and set up by a dealer.
How can a reviewer possibly put a value on a loudspeaker as costly as the Wilson Audio Specialties X-1/Grand SLAMM? When he reviewed Wilson's WATT 3/Puppy 2 system ($12,900-$16,000/pair, depending on finish) a few years back (footnote 1), John Atkinson said that it was "one of the more expensive loudspeakers around." The Grand SLAMM costs almost five times as much!
Some products are destined never to be seen for what they are. Instead, they exist as avatars, the very embodiment of their ages or concepts. The Wilson Audio WATT (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot) and its nigh-unto-ubiquitous subwoofer, the Puppy, have achieved this legendary status—no, have manifested it almost from their creation 10 years ago—to such a degree that they've come to stand for the entire class of no-holds-barred-monitor loudspeaker. They serve as the focus for a whole realm of the industry; indeed, to show any customer an expensive speaker possessing a modest footprint and not to invoke the incantation "better than a WATT" seems to abjure any pretense of serious sales strategy. At the same time, this speaker system has polarized the industry and its followers, strongly praised by some for its staggering accuracy, and equally dismissed by others for having little soul (musicality, to the initiated).
"No pain; no gain." Thus goes the June 1991 offering from the Cliché-of-the-Month Club(800) MOT-JUSTa saying that seems particularly appropriate for audiophiles with aspirations. High-performance loudspeakers fall into two categories. First are those exasperating thoroughbreds requiring endless Tender Loving Care and fussy attention to system detail to work at all. Take the Avalon Eclipse or the Infinity IRS Beta, for example: when everything is just fine, you put on record after record, trying to get through as much music as possible before the system goes off song again. On the other hand, speakers like the Vandersteens, Magnepans, B&W 801 Matrix, and KEF R107/2 appear to sound excellent even as you unpack them, before you've even put them in what you think might be the optimum positions in your listening room.
The question is: Are such unfussy designs really high-end? I mean, if they were truly high-performance speakers, shouldn't the owner have to suffer even just a little to reach musical nirvana? "A little pain; some sonic gain!" goes that other familiar saying.
You all know where you stand on this vitally important question. Me, I prefer to sit and construct the following graphical analogy. Draw a vertical axis and mark it "Absolute Performance." (The units are "gb," footnote 1) Now draw a horizontal axis and label it "Setup." (The units are "dU" for "deci-Ungers," footnote 2) Okay, sketch out an inverted V-shape. This curve, something like an engine's torque vs RPM curve, represents the manner in which a system's or component's performance changes according to how it is set up.