Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX loudspeaker Page 4

Complementing the transparency were finely developed perspectives. Rarely does a loudspeaker at any price manage to hold all the strands and harmonic sounds of an orchestra in such a well-judged balance that focus is retained right into the far depth planes. Amazingly deep stereo images were possible, and it was rare that the physical location of the speakers intruded on the outstanding image performance. That image was certainly presented higher than usual—the performers were standing rather than sitting—while in the case of an orchestra, the performers were up on stage rather than down in the pit.

This speaker was by no means perfectly uncolored. In fact, it sounded less analytically neutral than a Mk.2 X-1/Grand SLAMM, never mind a top-of-the-line Thiel. On first listening I could hear a trace of the drivers' mechanical origins; for example, the carbon/resin matrix diaphragms of the midrange units. There was a softened, rounded, near-boxy character that I judged a coloration, and that would be foreign to a BBC monitor or a fine electrostatic.

Yet, mysteriously, the MAXX did not suffer in consequence. I've never heard this choice of driver sound so well-behaved, so transparent, so self-effacing, so easy on the ears as it did in this system alignment. There was no roughness or congestion associated with the midrange, where it played so smoothly that the mild coloration signature was quickly forgotten in normal use. Analytical discussion is important when things go wrong; when all goes well, analytical niceties are of passing interest only.

Notwithstanding, there was a trace of coloration in the upper bass, probably associated with the enclosure's bass-reflex design—a whiff of "inside the cabinet" sound emerged from the port. But, again, this was nowhere near high enough in level to disturb the overall blend or the overall attainment. Once again, this aspect of the speaker's presentation was soon forgotten as the system and I became better acquainted.

In other incarnations, this choice of tweeter can sound a little abrasive in its last half octave of audible bandwidth. Potentially merciless on inferior or grainy program and sources, its overall performance, particularly in terms of transparency and dynamics, still marks it as the high-frequency driver of choice for many high-end designers. But, remarkably, I heard almost no trace of that familiar if subtle Focal zing in the MAXX's highest treble. The MAXX had the nicest treble alignment yet of David Wilson's designs.

The MAXX was happy with a very wide range of music. Despite its powerful, extended bass, it was free of chestiness or bloom on vocals, and showed outstanding resolution and articulation on solo and choral sections, from grand opera and great symphonies to intimate rock or folk ballads.

With such a wide bandwidth, the sense of pace was understandably more measured than with smaller models, though the music's "timebase" was remarkably steady. Rhythm was conveyed well; tracks swung with the correct syncopation, while subtleties of percussion and syncopation were beautifully brought out. Dynamics were finely scaled, with no sudden rush to aggression as the system was driven hard. Dynamics sounded a little more restrained—some might say more "relaxed"—than the SLAMM's. In practice, it was easy to get used to the MAXX's particular blend of pace and dynamics, but ultimately I'd have to say that it suited classical and jazz a bit better than frenetic rock.

Early Joni Mitchell sounded remarkable. Blue (Reprise 2038-2) was reproduced with great expression and near-perfect piano accompaniment, while Mingus (Asylum 505-2) was delivered with convincing atmosphere and startlingly natural dynamics. Rickie Lee Jones' "Coolsville," from her eponymous first album (Warner Bros. 3296-2), was more than a track—it was a music performance in its own right, of renewed power and involvement.

Cathedral organ was almost more than impressive. The MAXX could growl and roar with assured authority in the bass, but it also had no problem at all with theme and counterpoint, or with complex textures in the midband. Some speakers warp the timbres of the smaller organ pipes, rendering them too reedy. Not so the MAXX, which held onto that sweeter, more airy sound so characteristic of the live instrument. Complex organ scores frequently sound congested, a trait avoided by the MAXX. It had an almost uncanny knack of holding on to fine detail and distinct instrumental lines, no matter how rough the going.

In my experience, few speakers can play a major symphony in its entirety without some questionable moments. Sometimes, the use of sufficiently high volume levels to get good clarity in the quiet sections results in an obvious strain in the later tutti passages—or, worse still, mechanical overload in a flat-out climax. Such concerns can add unwanted tension to the replay. The MAXX's delivery was so capable that it inspired confidence and trust. I simply stopped worrying and let composer and orchestra take the strain.

That confidence allowed my auditioning of the MAXX to transform itself from a commissioned task into one of sheer musical pleasure. The magnificent staging of two-channel stereo, the rewarding clarity, and the exceptional bandwidth and purity all helped to give me hundreds of hours of fatigue-free aural reward.

Living with the Wilson Audio MAXX was an experience I wouldn't have missed. I can't say that it represents perfection or is totally accurate, but it certainly presented a convincing approach to musical performance on a thrilling scale. Mahler's Symphony 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand," really justified its nickname when replayed on the MAXX.

This speaker works almost by understatement, without any "hi-fi" artificiality or exaggeration. For this, it is all the more remarkable. Devoid of hardness, constant in character and quality at virtually any listening level, the MAXX breathes control, authority, linearity, and stability. Stereo images are sumptuous, wondrously deep, velvet-textured, spacious, broad, and finely focused. Dynamics sounded wholly natural; string quartet and solo piano could hold their own with jazz and rock bands. The sound was self-evidently one of purity and low distortion, and the measurements bear this out.

The measurements were generally very good to excellent: the averaged and off-axis responses, the very wide frequency range, the low distortion and high power capacity. And the build quality is superb. I recommend detaching the upper grilles (at least) for critical listening, and hope that Wilson will supply alternative, open-cell foam slabs for those who want them.

Installation in my room proved problematical in terms of successfully dealing with what the measurements subsequently quantified as significant lift in the midbass. The advice of a skilled dealer, and perhaps a room-acoustics analyst, should be sought concerning the MAXX's suitability for certain locations. Compatibility is an important issue. It became abundantly clear that, for the best results, you'll need lusty amplification and heavy-duty audiophile speaker cable, which will add to the cost. Tube amps are ruled out.

But when properly installed and run, the Wilson Audio MAXX represents one of those great experiences in music reproduction. Its sound quality is truly satisfying—I never tired of it throughout 150 hours of critical listening. I wish it could have been more, but copy deadlines intervened!

Notwithstanding some minor reservations, the MAXX is a remarkable achievement—a musical instrument in its own right. Buying a pair of MAXXes will be more like choosing a fine piano than a hi-fi component. It is wholeheartedly recommended. For those who care about such things: In my view, my suggested classification of the MAXX as "Class A (Full-Range)" in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" will not endure much dissent.

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