Wilson Audio Specialties Sabrina loudspeaker Page 3

Having recently upgraded my phono system, I've been playing LPs more frequently. As a kind of tribute, one of the first recordings I played through the Sabrinas was Concert, Dave Wilson's first recording of a pipe organ (Wilson H-1-77). I started with Johann Gottfried Walter's Concerto 3, played by James Welch on a tracker-action organ. There was a great sense of space, the sound of the organ filling the venue in a manner both powerful and delicate. I think of the pipe organ as a "slow" instrument, with no real transients—compared to, say, a piano—but with this recording played through the Sabrinas, the organ sounded unusually "quick," with a lot of dynamic variation.

Further listening revealed that one of the Sabrina's strengths was its ability to faithfully reproduce dynamic variations. Piano recordings demonstrated this particularly well. Sonata, pianist Robert Silverman's recording of solo works by Liszt (CD, Stereophile STPH008-2), engineered by John Atkinson and Robert Harley, has a wide dynamic range: The sound of Silverman's piano goes from whisper quiet to blow-the-house-down loud, with everything in between. Just for the fun of it—don't try this at home—I first played the recording at what would be for me a normal volume for this sort of music, and then at a volume two clicks higher on the CAT preamp's volume control—an increase of about 3dB.

The peak volume, measured with the iPhone 6 AudioTools Analog SPL meter app (C weighting, high microphone level, low-pass filter disabled) was 95.7dB. This SPL measurement is not calibrated to professional standards, but it gives at least some measured indication of the level. To my ears, it was very loud: Other than to demonstrate a speaker's dynamic capability, I wouldn't want to listen at this level. The Sabrinas—for this test, driven by the Theta Prometheus—took it all in stride, with no audible distortion. Reproduction of dynamic contrasts is one of the strengths of horn-based speakers such as my Avantgarde Uno Nanos; the Sabrinas came closer to the Avantgardes in this respect than any other speaker I've reviewed.

And the bass? Well, that Wilson pipe-organ recording has lots of it, including several pedal low Cs (32Hz). I expected a speaker of the Sabrina's size, with just a single 8" woofer, to merely hint at these notes, or present them only as harmonics. But no, there they were: clean, and at levels that, while not quite room-shaking, were certainly more than enough to provide a solid musical foundation. The Avantgarde Uno Nano, which has a powered subwoofer section with twin 10" drivers, and the GoldenEar Technology Triton One, with its powered DSP-controlled subwoofers and passive radiators, go even lower, but the Sabrina was not far behind. The bass was tuneful, and transients, such as those in recordings of bass drums or timpani, had appropriately quick onset and very little overhang. Wilson identifies its woofer as having been first used in the Alexia and modified for use in the Sabrina. Whatever those modifications were, the effect is that the driver now provides greater extension and power-handling capability while retaining the quickness of a normal 8" driver. Quite a feat.

Furthermore, the crossover from woofer to midrange—often a difficult area—sounded seamless. This was evident in the reproduction of such instruments as cello, double bass, and bass guitar, and in recordings of male voices. I've heard some otherwise-fine speakers that made baritones sound more tenorish than I know those singers sound in real life, with less chest resonance. A recording I've played quite a bit lately—and that I chose as one of my 2016 Records to Die For—is Frank Sinatra's Ultimate Sinatra collection (4 CDs, Universal B00224360-02), which chronicles Old Blue Eyes' career. In his early days as a band singer, Sinatra's voice was decidedly lighter—he took some high notes that could have come from a tenor, but there was still a chest resonance. The Sabrina reproduced this very faithfully.

In fact, the reproduction of voices, male or female, was another of the Sabrina's strengths. As a standard for a recording of a woman's voice, I always go back to Sylvia McNair's Sure Thing: The Jerome Kern Songbook (CD, Philips 442 129-2), which also serves as a test of a speaker's reproduction of the midrange and treble. The midrange-tweeter crossover had a smoothness similar to that of the woofer-midrange blend, and the Sabrina's treble was revealing without being exaggerated, which would have shown up as "spitty" sibilants. Sibilants sounded overemphasized only when they'd been recorded that way. (The highs were sweeter with the McIntosh MC275LE than with the Theta Prometheus, but I happily listened to the Wilsons with each amplifier for long periods, without having the urge to switch to the other amp.)

The soundstage thrown by the Sabrinas was wide and deep, with images on it precisely defined. The deepest soundstage and most precisely defined images I've heard from a pair of speakers under review were with Fujitsu Ten's Eclipse TD712 Mk.2, which I reviewed in January 2007. The spatial definition produced by that single-driver speaker was uncanny—but the Eclipse couldn't match the Sabrina (or any number of high-quality, multi-driver speakers) in maximum loudness capability and bass extension. Compared to other multi-driver speakers, the Sabrinas' imaging was excellent. When I played the "Depth of Image" tracks from The Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests, Vol.2 (CD, Chesky JD68), the Sabrina's reproduction of them was comparable to that of the GoldenEar Triton One—and the GoldenEars did better on this test than any other multi-driver speaker I've heard in my listening room.

Colorations from the Sabrina's cabinet? There weren't any—at least, not that I could hear. John Atkinson may be able to pick up something with his accelerometer, but the Sabrina had the most sonically inert cabinet of any floorstanding speaker of my experience, surpassing even the otherwise admirable—and, of course, much cheaper—GoldenEar Triton One.

My dedicated listening room began life as one of our house's three upstairs bedrooms. When reviewing a speaker, I go to considerable lengths to set them up just right, but much of my listening is not actually done in that room. Instead, it involves what's been called the Listening In Another Room (LIAR) test. Right now, having listened to the first track of Sure Thing in the listening room, I'm sitting on a loveseat in our living room, down on the main floor, my laptop on a small table in front of me as I work on this review, keeping an ear out for Sylvia McNair. She seems to be upstairs, singing. The extent to which this illusion is maintained is, for me, one of the tests of speaker performance. I wouldn't want to judge a speaker solely on the basis of how it sounds outside the listening room, but the LIAR test does have the advantage of eliminating the effects of minor variations in the positions of speakers and listener. The Avantgarde Uno Nano, whatever its shortcomings, performs very well on the LIAR test, and the Sabrina was very much in the same class. A variation on the basic LIAR test is to consider whether listening downstairs makes me want to go upstairs. And now, if you'll excuse me . . .

Who will buy?
From the start, beginning with the WAMM and the WATT/Puppy, Wilson Audio Specialties has been driven more by technology than by marketing—with technology applied in the service of music. One assumes their speakers have never been designed to hit specific price points, but to reach certain levels of performance, upon which they're priced according to their design and manufacturing costs, with an eye to economic survival and continued technological development. Wilson's expectation was apparently that consumers would appreciate what the speakers had to offer, and would be willing to pay the price—and in that Wilson has been extraordinarily successful.

Did the development of the Sabrina mark a departure? Did they set out to design a full-range speaker that has the essence of the Wilson sound, at a significantly lower price? If so, Wilson has succeeded spectacularly in producing a speaker that, while of relatively modest size, indeed has all the hallmarks of the Wilson sound: wide frequency range, high resolution, real bass, a striking absence of cabinet colorations, and a particular adeptness in communicating the dynamic contrasts of live music.

Who will buy the Sabrina? Adrian Low, the owner of Audio Excellence, told me that a number of his customers who own larger Wilson speakers have moved to smaller homes and found that their Wilsons are now too big for them. Downsizing to the much smaller Sabrina would involve few or no compromises in sound quality. Another group of potential buyers are audiophiles who have long admired Wilson speakers but never been able to afford them. Finally, there are those who didn't consider themselves to be in the speaker market at all but who, on hearing the Sabrinas, said, "I've got to have these speakers!"

I'm inclining toward membership in that last group myself.

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

Allen Fant's picture

An excellent review and article- RD.
I have enjoyed the Sophia and Sasha models. The Sabrina is next on my short-list.

Allen Fant's picture

2nd Note:
it is interesting that Nordost cabling was used. Transparent is a hallmark and sonic match for Wilson speakers.

Ali's picture

Its almost unusual for an audio magazine reviewer to take a picture of his room and include it in his review; In this very rare occasion Robert did, excellent! reader of an article always has to simulate in his/her mind how the reviewer has setup the equipments or if he has a very especial room with lots of room treatment objects around or not, but putting a picture, can give people immediate view of how the equipments under review, has been placed and listened to. Plus, lots of hints for how he has been set up, say, a speaker in his room. And that, even a listening room belongs to a Stereophile Magazine reviewer, can be so cosy, comfortable and ordinary-looking home-made room instead of drastic professionally acoustically treated room with negative WEF( wife expectancy factor)! Thanks for review but more thanks for your room picture; Its a nice one by the way! I hope we see more pictures of whats going on during setup and listening in this magazine( not private ones of course!)

Robert Deutsch's picture

Thanks! There is more information about my listening room at http://www.stereophile.com/content/focal-aria-936-loudspeaker-confounding-cables-and-room-acoustics#lfe0BxbthAtMUTdg.97

RobertSlavin's picture

Let me first admit I have not heard this epeaker. But I have heard the even more expensive Wilson speakers, the Sophia and Sasha and I am completely unimpressed with them, particularly given their quite high prices. They have a somewhat elevated bass. At their price point this isn't forgivable. And I don't hear the level of resolution and detail I would expect given their price.

Now here is the Sabrina at $17,000 (or $18,000 if you have them painted white or red -- must be very expensive paint!!).

I would say the Revel Performa3 F208 has got to be a much better choice for someone considering the Sabrina. It is a large three way speaker like the Wilson. But it must sound better, as it sounds better than the Sophia and Sasha!!

It has similar efficiency but unlike with the Sabrina you can adjust its low and high frequencies for room conditions. It also is at ease playing loudly. And at $5,000, I believe, it costs less than a third as much!!

In this light I cannot see why the Sabrina should have been given such a positive review.


doak's picture

Why not???
For example, you recently reviewed the Golden Ear Triton 1. How might this speaker "compare" to what you heard from the Wilson Sabrina?? IMO it's a natural question to ask and also the "elephant in the room." So, let's have it. Inquiring minds ....

Sure Wilson is kind of a "sacred cow" in some respects, no doubt, but that's exactly why your readership needs this type of info. Stereophile's credibility is in the balance.

Robert Deutsch's picture

It's a natural question, but comparing a speaker being reviewed with previously-reviewed speakers is problematic, unless all of these speakers are on hand for direct comparisons. The GoldenEar Triton Ones--and various other speakers I've reviewed that are potential candidates for comparisons--are long gone, and it's simply not practical to try to get them back. So any such comparison involves the memory of what those speakers sounded like--not a very good basis for evaluation. Add the fact that some of the system components have changed from earlier reviews, and you have a situation that involves potental confounding.
Having said that, on Page 3 of the review I make two references to comparisons between the Sabrinas and the Triton Ones (paragraphs 4 and 5), and paragraph 7 makes reference to the Fujitsu Ten Eclipse.

Anon2's picture

Thanks for sharing your speaker set up picture in your listening room. It looks like you have dealt well with a room much like my own. What is that material hanging on the wall behind your chair? I, too, am constrained to have wall right behind me. Please advise.

Amendment: I followed your link. I found the information for Vicoustic. Thanks for sharing what I am sure is a successful set up with speakers along what seems to be the long-wall in front.

eriks's picture

Hi Guys,

Very nice review. I noticed something and went back and briefly checked. I was wondering where the close-mic tweeter measurements for the Sabrina were. It seems based on very few samples, that Stereophile is not publishing close-mic data for the tweeter and mids for Wilson speakers that are normally published for other makers. For instance the original Vandersteen model seven review.

I'm just wondering if there's a technical or other issue that makes you choose when to include these measurements. It's OK with me if there's even an agreement with the vendor not to share some data, but if so I would expect it to be part of the measurement data. "We've agreed with Wilson not to share close-mic tweeter data..." or something like that. Maybe it was in a previous review or I needed to read the review more closely.

Thanks for the clarifications,


John Atkinson's picture
eriks wrote:
Very nice review.

Thank you.

eriks wrote:
I was wondering where the close-mic tweeter measurements for the Sabrina were. It seems based on very few samples, that Stereophile is not publishing close-mic data for the tweeter and mids for Wilson speakers that are normally published for other makers.

You have me puzzled, as I don't measure tweeters with the microphone close for any review. The only measurement I didn't perform for the Sabrina review was the spatially averaged in-room response, which was not logistically possible.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

eriks's picture

Sorry, then I'm clearly using the wrong terminology.

Looking at the original review for the Vandersteen model Seven for instance (Stereophile March 2010, Measurements Figure 4) there are "nearfield" responses for each driver but the closest Sabrina measurement (Figure 3) only includes such detail in the lower bass. Maybe I've been reading too long and didn't notice when the practice changed of when choices are made to measure them or not.



John Atkinson's picture
eriks wrote:
Looking at the original review for the Vandersteen model Seven for instance (Stereophile March 2010, Measurements Figure 4) there are "nearfield" responses for each driver but the closest Sabrina measurement (Figure 3) only includes such detail in the lower bass.

The nearfield measurements are only used for lower-frequency drive-units, always for woofers and ports and sometimes for midrange units when their output extends sufficiently low in frequency. But never for tweeters.

Note that the summed nearfield low-frequency response in fig.3 (black trace) does include the contribution of the Sabrina's midrange unit.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

briandx11's picture

After admiring Wilson Audio since 1982 but never having the financial resources to even consider a purchase, my wife and I are traveling to Maryland to listen to the Sabrina's.

After being mostly a Home Theater enthusiast for the last 20 years only recently have I gravitated back to the world of analog stereo. This should be interesting!