Wilson Audio Specialties Duette Series 2 loudspeaker

I've seen how most manufacturers work. They start out by making products they believe in—products consumers are likely to love. But after a while they begin listening to their dealers and distributors and marketing consultants, most of whom are inclined to say things like: "You need to make a six-figure turntable, to compete with all the other six-figure turntables." "You need to make a $1500 amplifier, to fill that price gap in your product line." "You need to make a small, stand-mounted loudspeaker."

It's my impression that Wilson Audio Specialties doesn't work that way. I think they set out to make the speakers they wish to make. Those products tend to look and sound the way they do and sell for the prices they do as simple consequences of the company's apparently irrepressible perfectionism.

Nonetheless, I asked company founder David Wilson, a man known for his generously sized floorstanding loudspeaker systems, why, in 2006, he went to the trouble of designing and building the Duette: a model so small and so well suited for placement against a wall that it restored to the otherwise antiquated phrase bookshelf speaker some measure of truth. The first four words out of his mouth were: "Because space is valuable."

Which makes sense—especially to a New Yorker. Wilson Audio, after all, makes loudspeakers whose average price is $69,325/pair (footnote 1). Consequently, one can fairly assume that almost all owners of Wilson speakers are people of above-average means. Thus, if we consider that many well-to-do audiophiles are also city dwellers, and that we bear in mind the kind of money that changes hands for even the smallest apartments in the largest US cities, the scale of the space problem becomes apparent.

Let's say an apartment dweller is impressed with the performance of Wilson's entry-level floorstanding speaker, the Sophia Series 3 ($22,500/pair), which I reviewed in the February 2011 issue. Like most Wilson models, the Sophia 3 is a freestanding design; each speaker requires at least 16 square feet of floor space—a conservative estimate that surely applies to the Sophia's competitors. If an audio enthusiast lives in San Francisco or Chicago or New York, the amount of space—air and bare floor—required by a pair of those loudspeakers is worth considerably more than those expensive speakers themselves. Ouch.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that first Duette loudspeaker met with success (footnote 2). No more surprising is that Wilson has now introduced a revised version: the Duette Series 2 ($22,500/pair in standard finishes, with integral stands).

To make clear what's special about the Duette Series 2, a few words are in order about Dave Wilson's original stand-mounted design—which was not exclusively a stand-mount. As Wilson explained to me, he set out to design a small speaker that would work in virtually any domestic setting: "It would seem obvious to non-audiophiles that speakers should fit wherever you need them to: [They] should just work. I wanted to design a loudspeaker that would work in what we call a hostile environment. We even designed it so that, if you wanted to, you could put it inside a bookcase or a cabinet. I assumed a worst-case scenario."

The original Duette could indeed be placed almost anywhere in the listener's room. For those who wished to use it on a bookshelf or within a wall unit, and to offer the flexibility of being able to orient the speaker's enclosure vertically or horizontally, the Duette was built with flat, parallel sides. Embedded within those sides and within the enclosure's bottom panel were Magnepods—magnetic inserts that could hold in place three small, metal alignment cones per panel, while leaving all of the remaining surfaces cosmetically undisturbed.

Because the Duette's enclosure didn't contain a crossover network, also included was the Novel—an outboard housing the size of a large book. Linked to its Duette by an umbilical cable supplied by Wilson, the Novel could sit next to or near its speaker when the latter was mounted on a shelf. The Novel could also be snugged into a recess in the Duette's optional dedicated stand.

Used with those stands, the original Duette could also be used in open space—and therein lies a key part of the story of its revision. As Dave Wilson explained, "We had the benefit, when designing Series 2, to look at how Series 1 was used. And we decided that Series 2 would [always] go against the wall." Dave's son Daryl Wilson, who led the revision effort, elaborated: "Even though the Duette is so comprehensive, we found that [Series 1] was being used primarily on stands: Not many people used it any other way. We found the market really wanted a stand-mounted two-way."

Thus came a course correction for the Duette: While it remains possible to buy the Duette Series 2 and Novel crossover without the matching stands ($20,000/pair), Wilson Audio doesn't expect to ship many that way—and they've dispensed with the Magnepods in favor of threaded inserts on the bottom panel, with no provision for horizontal mounting. Consequent to these and other changes discussed below, the Duette Series 2 is intended solely for use near room boundaries. "What we recommend is that, if a person has the space, use a Sophia," said Daryl—who took advantage of the opportunity to redesign the Duette's stand, opting for a more sculpted appearance, with a structure that conceals the cables and crossover. And a new, more secure mounting arrangement means that "vibrations are drained down from the enclosure and through the stand, into the floor, more effectively," according to Daryl.

After reworking the stands, Daryl busied himself with the redesign of the speaker itself. (Dave gave feedback at the conclusion of the project.) Relieved of having to make an enclosure that could be laid flat on one side, he gave the side panels the sort of sculpted appearance and enhanced rigidity found in other, more expensive Wilson models. At the same time, he changed from a plumb front baffle to one that's slightly angled, for physical time alignment of the drivers.

Speaking of drivers: Dave Wilson says that, after freeing the Duette from the ironic constraint of having to function without boundaries, he wanted a tweeter "with narrow off-band dispersion." His quest led to a convex soft-dome driver of his own design, manufactured by Scan-Speak and modified by Wilson in-house. This new tweeter is a distant variation on the Convergent Synergy tweeter Dave Wilson designed for his top speaker model, the Alexandria XLF: a driver "designed with the goal, particularly, to lower the high-frequency noise floor through the enhanced control of back-wave reflections." The bass driver uses an 8" pulp cone, and is also made by Scan-Speak.

The enclosure of the Duette Series 2 is made from machined sheets of two different quasi-phenolic laminates: Wilson's proprietary S material (which they describe as "a highly rigid, epoxy-based material") for the front baffle, and their X material for all other surfaces, including the upright portion of the companion stand. The top and bottom plates of the stand are made of aircraft-grade aluminum. The X and S panels are constructed with a cross-linked, thermosetting adhesive that Wilson says was chosen for its strength, stability, and vibrational characteristics. Most of the front baffle is covered with carefully shaped pads of wool felt, and on the rear panel is a reflex port about 3" in diameter and 6.25" long, lined with machined aluminum. Removable fabric grilles with frames of X material are supplied.

Installation and setup
Despite being significantly smaller and lighter than most of its stablemates, each Duette Series 2 is shipped in a foam-lined wooden crate of generous size, as is each stand. Although two people are required to lift each crate out of the freight truck—they're too big for regular UPS service—and through the front door, it's just possible for one person to unpack the contents and reassemble the crates for storage. Apartment dwellers may have to bribe their building superintendents to find somewhere to store the empties.

The quality of the Duettes' packing and support materials—the latter include a selection of good-quality tools and setup accessories, and the most comprehensive owner's manual I have ever seen—was superb. In what I've come to regard as typical Wilson Audio fashion, every element exuded precision and sturdiness. The metallic blue paint of my review loaners was, as far as I could see, flawless. To echo a simile found in any number of reviews of other Wilson models: Their products are the Ferraris of our industry.

Having emptied and stored the crates, I found the Duette 2s' installation and setup easy: I let someone else do it. So will virtually anyone else who takes possession of speakers made by Wilson Audio, whose dealers are trained in the task. As with my past reviews of Wilson products, the setup man was the company's sales manager, Peter McGrath, recordist extraordinaire and co-founder of Audiofon Records. It was McGrath who torqued each Duette to its stand, trimmed their treble response by installing on the backs of the crossovers the correct tweeter-level resistors, and, after an hour of so of listening and making notes, settled on the best spots for them in my room: Each speaker ended up 13" from its sidewall and 4.5" from the wall behind it, both distances measured from the portion of the enclosure nearest the wall. I joined McGrath for the final half-hour or so of fine tuning, in which we decided that the most natural balance was achieved with the loudspeakers toed-in to point almost but not quite directly at the centermost listening seat. I dispensed with the grilles for serious listening.

The Duettes spent most of their time in my dedicated listening room (19' long by 12' wide by 8' high), at the end of my usual system, in which phono sources and tube electronics predominate. My amplifiers of choice were Shindo Corton-Charlemagne monoblocks (25Wpc) whose output-transformer secondaries I'd reconfigured for a 4-ohm load. (Most contemporary Shindo amps have output transformers with only a single secondary, optimized for 16 ohms. The version of the Corton-Charlemagnes that I own use Hammond transformers, wiring diagrams for which are readily available on the Internet.) The Wilsons also spent a brief time in my living room (27' by 21' by 8'), driven by a Croft Phono Integrated amplifier, which I reviewed for Stereophile in October 2013 and subsequently purchased. I'd hoped to at least try the Wilsons on an actual bookshelf in the larger room—before I learned that the review samples' crossovers can't be separated from their stands.

Because the Duette Series 2 is voiced to be installed within a few inches of the wall behind it, it's natural to ask if a pair of Wilson's smallest speakers can deliver the same spatial sophistication—in terms of imaging precision, the creation of an illusion of front-to-back depth, and so on—as the company's open-space designs. And because it's so small, some might also ask if the Duette 2 is capable of anything near the bass performance of its bigger siblings, all of which have far greater enclosure volume and bass-driver radiating area. Those questions turned out to be easy to answer.

Footnote 1: This is the average of the US retail prices of the standard-color versions of the six models that comprise Wilson's line of two-channel speakers. If one takes into account special finishes, etc., the average price is slightly higher.

Footnote 2: John Marks reviewed the original Duette in May 2012.

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606
(801) 377-2233

dalethorn's picture

I like to see products like this, where the manufacturer isn't cutting corners in an attempt to broaden their market. There are a few people who have more money than interior space, and this is a good solution.

RightQuestion's picture

These look like an update on the Ruark Equinox from the mid-90's. They are an absolute audiophile bargain if you can find someone to part with their pair.