WILSON AUDIO

Stereophile 05/2017

EQUIPMENT REPORT
Wilson Audio Specialties Alexx Loudspeaker

Michael Fremer, Stereophile 4/2017 - for the original text, clickHERE


Having discontinued the MAXX3 loudspeaker ($68,000/pair in 2009, when I reviewed it1), Wilson Audio needed to plug the resulting gaping hole between the Alexia ($48,500/pair) and the Alexandria XLF ($210,000/pair). Company founder Dave Wilson was busy with the limited-edition WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeaker ($685,000/pair2), so son Daryl Wilson set about creating a speaker with a retail price of about $100,000/pair. The result, the Alexx, finally came in at $109,000/pair.

The Alexx shares with the Alexandria XLF Wilson’s Aspherical Group Delay technology, whereby the positions of its individually enclosed midrange and treble drivers can be adjusted, precisely, to recreate a time-correct waveform at the listening position.3 The Alexx is thus easily recognizable as a Wilson Audio design. Incidentally, Daryl didn’t design it alone: He managed a team that included Vern Credille, Wilson Audio’s chief acoustical and electrical engineer, whom I met when I toured the Wilson factory in fall 2016 (footnote 1).

The Alexx looks like a smaller Alexandria XLF. Still, at 62.3" high by 15.75" wide by 26.75" deep; and weighing 452 lbs, this is a big, heavy speaker. And, like the Alexandria’s, the Alexx’s tall, rectangular, ported bass enclosure houses two woofers: an 10.5" and a 12.5", vs the bigger speaker’s 13" and 15" cones. The smaller, upper woofer’s radiation pattern at the top of its frequency range is claimed to produce a better blend with the lower limit of the lower and larger midrange driver’s response (see below). The newly designed drivers with their cones of hard paper pulp replace the Alexandria’s Focal-sourced “W”-material woofers. The new woofers were evolved from those developed for the Alexia, which in turn were originally designed for the WAMM.

Like the Alexandria’s bass bin, the Alexx’s is made from Wilson’s X-Material, a proprietary, mineral-infused, phenolic- composite resin that’s very stiff and difficult to machine. Its angled front baffle is claimed to produce better integration of the drivers’ outputs in the time domain, and its sides gently taper toward the top, for a more graceful transition to the stack of tweeter and midrange housings above.

Unlike the Alexandra’s midrange-tweetermidrange (MTM) configuration, in which two 7" midrange drivers each cover the same range of frequencies, the Alexx’s four-way design divides the midband between two drive-units, a 5.75" and a 7", each driver covering a different bandwidth.

While Wilson doesn’t specify the Alexx’s crossover frequencies, the 7" midrange driver—the same composite pulp/fiber cone used in the Alexandria—covers the lower midrange; the 5.75" paper/pulp cone, originally used as the midrange driver of the Sabrina, covers the upper midrange. This configuration preserves the dynamic benefits of the larger midrange driver, with its robust half-roll rubber surround, while slightly extending the upper-midrange response, which relieves the tweeter of some of its former upper-midrange duties. That tweeter is a 1" Convergent Synergy dome unit of doped silk, built by Scan-Speak to Wilson’s specifications; Convergent Synergy variants are now used throughout Wilson’s product line.

As in the Alexandria XLF, each of the three MTM drivers occupies its own enclosure: the 7" and 5.75" midranges respectively at bottom and top, and the 1" tweeter between them (the midrange enclosures are vented). Each enclosure can be slid forward or back, and/or tilted, relative to the woofer bin. The goal, as suggested earlier, is to position the drivers for precisely simultaneous arrival at the listening position of all frequencies, and to improve frequency-domain driver integration. Protruding from the base of each midrange enclosure are three spikes— two in front, one at the rear—that sit on an aluminum step; the angle, or rake, of the enclosure, can be adjusted with spikes of various lengths. The Alexx is the first Wilson speaker with two of these steps.

The fore-and-aft position of each upper enclosure is determined and secured by where in each of two dimpled tracks the enclosure’s front spikes are placed. Its rake is set with a rear spike, after which it’s locked rigidly in place with large-diameter bolts. The tweeter enclosure sits on its spikes atop the housing of the 7" midrange, occupying the space within that enclosure’s L shape (as viewed from the side).

Vern Credille did the complex math that determined each baffle’s fore-and-aft position and rake angle, based on the listener’s distance from the speakers and the height of his or her ears when seated. In the manual, Wilson supplies charts of figures that eliminate guesswork and make possible foolproof installation by the dealer.

Otherwise, the Alexx is another example of Wilson Audio’s meticulous build quality: robustly braced, nonresonant enclosures of Wilson’s X-Material (S-Material is used for the front baffles of the midrange enclosures); overbuilt, potted crossover networks, the wiring looms of which comprise twisted pairs, each of a specific construction, length, and twist ratio (Transparent Audio manufactures all of the Alexx’s internal wiring to Wilson’s specifications); and even the grille frames, which are not injection molded but machined of X-Material.

The single pair of binding posts for connecting the entire Alexx to a power amplifier—three other pairs of binding posts, for the midrange and treble drivers, accept the spade lugs with which the crossover’s wiring looms are terminated— are low on the bass bin’s rear panel, but higher than on the Alexandria XLF, where they’re too close to the floor for the comfort of thick, bulky speaker cables. Sometimes I wonder if speaker and amplifier makers even try to hook up their products in real-world situations.

Pairs of resistors mounted on a massive heatsink, to protect and “level tune” the tweeter and midrange drivers, are found on many Wilson speakers. On the Alexx they’re conveniently placed behind a transparent panel, on a beveled surface at the back.

Wilson Audio Alexx

Setup

Wilson Audio’s Peter Mc- Grath set up the Alexxes. The speakers ended up close to where the Alexandria XLFs and other speakers have sat here, but closer than the XLFs to the front wall. McGrath did his final tuning by listening to “So Do I,” from Christy Moore’s This Is the Day (CD, Sony 5032552)—the same track he used to set up the Alexias in John Atkinson’s listening room.5 Just plunked down in the approximately correct positions and still on their casters, the Alexxes’ nimble sound perked up my ears. But then, McGrath’s small changes in positioning produced larger-than-expected changes in Moore’s voice, and in the nimbleness and clarity of the double bass.

Once McGrath was satisfied, we used the supplied floor jack to swap casters for spikes, then experimented with the Alexx’s Cross-load Flow Port System, aka XLF and borrowed from the Alexandria. This allows the port to fire from the speaker’s rear or front. As with the Alexandrias in my room, having the Alexxes’ ports fire to the rear produced more and better bass, despite the speakers’ nearness to the wall behind them.

Sound: half the price, half as good?

What did I expect from a speaker costing about half as much as the Alexandria XLF—which, before Wilson developed the WAMM Master Chronosonic, had been the company’s flagship model? With the Alexx’s lack of the Alexandria’s rear-firing, top-mounted supertweeter, I expected a somewhat smaller soundstage, especially in the vertical dimension, and that’s what I heard. Nonetheless, the Alexxes’ stage still went higher than that of many other speakers. Otherwise, I didn’t know what to expect.

Going from the MAXX 3 ($68,000/pair in 2009) to the much larger, far more costly Alexandria XLF ($210,000/pair) brought with it high expectations, all of which were met. The Alexandria was an improvement in every way—especially on top, where it sounded airier, sweeter, more relaxed, and yet more detailed. Most impressive was that such a tall stack of drivers could produce a 100% coherent, three-dimensional picture from less than 8' away, while managing to sound small or grand, depending on the recording.
Time alignment of the drivers’ outputs is not the end-all and be-all of speaker design, but in my experience, once you’ve grown accustomed to the sort of minimal-baffle, time-aligned driver arrays produced by Wilson and Vandersteen Audio, when you then hear a flat slab speaker, you hear a flat slab, especially in nearfield listening environments like mine.

Even with the music on Peter McGrath’s unfamiliar setup CD, it was immediately apparent—and very surprising—to me that the Alexx significantly outperformed the Alexandria XLF in some key areas. Going from Alexandria to Alexx was like pushing a high-performance car’s electronicsuspension button and going from Comfort to Sport mode. From top to bottom, the Alexx’s sound was nimbler and surprisingly more transparent, particularly in the midrange, where the Alexandria can be too generous. The bottom octaves were fully developed, yet fast and precise in ways I didn’t think my room could support.

As I wrote in my review of Marten’s Coltrane 3 ($100,000/pair),6 in my room the Martens produced deeper, tighter bass than the Alexandria XLFs—or, for that matter, than any Wilson speaker I’ve owned. So did the Vandersteen 7s—though a speaker with a powered woofer section is a different animal.

In my room, the Alexx’s bottom end was far superior to the Alexandria’s: deeper, faster, tighter, and, interestingly, more organically and tunefully delivered. With recordings that include deep bass, that deep bass was just there—it didn’t sound as if it was being pumped into the room by a loudspeaker. In that regard, the Alexx was remarkable.

That visceral but tuneful, well-controlled bass was ideally damped: sounding neither too tight nor mechanical nor in any way “porty.” I’ll be interested to compare John Atkin- son’s measurements of the Alexx’s in-room frequency response with those of the Alexandria XLF—or of any other speaker he’s measured in my room.

But it was clear, based on how high the peak-power meters on my darTZeel monoblocks went, that the Alexx was somewhat less sensitive than the Alexandria, which is specified at 94dB. The Alexx’s sensitivity spec is a still-high 91dB, though at 2850Hz its impedance drops to a low 1.5 ohm, and the minimum recommended amplifier power is 50W, compared to the Alexandria’s 7W!

When the Alexxes were installed, I still had no idea that their paper-cone woofers were developed for and are used in the new WAMMs, though in a different alignment in a far larger enclosure. It got me thinking about the fetishized, over-exotic cone and dome substances that some believe must be better than old-school materials. Here were new woofers made of an old standby, paper pulp, that creamed the Alexandria XLF’s larger drivers of Focal’s “W” material. Now, that’s not 100% fair—no doubt Wilson has also made advances in port implementation and tuning. And this was an in-room observation. Still, these new paper woofers—and dome tweeters of silk, which Wilson now uses instead of such exotic diaphragm materials as titanium, beryllium, or diamond—should give pause to those who insist that exotics must produce better sound. When I visited Wilson Audio, I was shown tweeter prototypes made of various exotic materials; in the end, silk won out because, to the Wilson team, it sounded and performed better.

Recently, I stood in AIR Studios’ big room in London for a direct-to-disc recording session for the audiophile label Chasing the Dragon. The National Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Chabrier’s tone poem España, on part of which Al Hoffmann and Dick Manning based their “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom),” which was a hit for Perry Como in 1956. From where I stood, the SPLs hit well into the 90dB range, and the sound was surprisingly bright, in a good way.

The score included some big bass-drum thwacks; as the drum was struck, I paid attention to the attack, which wasn’t as sharp as I was expecting (granted, the percussion section was behind a large divider so that its sounds wouldn’t bleed into the rest of the room); and to the sustain, which was more generous than I often hear reproduced by an audio system. The decays hovered in the air longer than I expected, before cleanly and quickly evaporating.

For the actual recording, we guests had to sit in the control room. While tonally reasonably neutral, the sound from this room’s built-in monitor system, compared to the live sound of the orchestra in the studio, was sadly lacking in texture, color, and transparency. Especially, attacks were sluggish, sustains blunted, and decays too fast: the usefully dry, dead sound of studio monitors.

When I got home, I played Atalfo Argenta and the London Symphony’s famous original recording of the Chabrier (Decca SXL 2020) on the Alexxes, and it sounded more convincingly alive than what I heard in the control room— but, based on a double DSD binaural head version I heard the next day, I’m sure the Chasing the Dragon LP will also sound spectacularly live!

Wilson Audio Alexx

The familiar bass-drum thwacks on that record, and the monstrous ones heard in John Williams’s Liberty Fanfare, from Winds of War and Peace, performed by Lowell Graham and the National Symphonic Winds (LP, Wilson Audio/ Analogue Productions APC 8823), were reproduced by the Alexxes more “perfectly,” convincingly, and especially effortlessly, than I’d ever heard them from any speaker in this room. The Alexx’s bottom end was positively addictive.

I surrounded “perfectly” with quotes because I’ve heard audiophiles and non-audiophiles alike blurt out that a given speaker’s bass was perfect—a word I haven’t used to describe the Alexandria XLF’s bass, or the bass of any other speaker in my room. But until the arrival of the Marten Coltrane 3s, I’d thought my room couldn’t support gut-pulverizing bass—the kind that pressurizes but doesn’t overwhelm a space. The Alexxes, too, produced such bass—but to my ears, somewhat more transparently and more ideally damped.

Recently, when I interviewed veteran recording engineer and producer Roy Halee,7 he suggested I find a copy of Tayi Bebba (LP, Black Acre ACRELP006), an album by the Italian producer and DJ Cristiano Crisci, who records under the name Clap! Clap! Halee told me that Paul Simon’s son had recommended it during preparations for Simon’s Stranger to Stranger (LP, Concord CRE 39781-1), and that Simon and Halee had fallen under its fanciful spell. The bottom end of this record is insane. The Alexxes were installed before the record arrived, but I don’t need the Alexandria XLFs back in place to know that Tayi Bebba’s bass will not be as tight, extended, and “perfect” through them as it now is through the Alexxes.

You know how it goes with a great new component: You start pulling out familiar recordings with particular attributes, to hear them anew. To again test the bottom end, I played Iver Kleive and Knut Reiersrud’s monumental Himmelskip (CD, Kirkelig Kulturveksted FXCD163). This atmospheric album of electric guitar and pipe organ was recorded, in a church, on a Studer A810 analog tape deck. As expected, the lower organ notes were more robust, better defined, and less “in the box,” but the improvement in transparency was surprising. The guitar’s image, immersed in the church’s cavernous acoustic, was clarified and focused without exaggeration. Despite their size and close proximity to my listening position, the Alexandria XLFs “disappeared.” The Alexxes went them one better by revealing more of the sanctuary and letting me “see” much deeper into it. This album needs a vinyl release!

The Alexx was notably more transparent than the Alexandria in the midrange: faster, cleaner, better focused, more resolving—and, to my ear, flatter. Central images were more reach-out-and-touch-it transparent—more like what electrostats deliver, but with all the dynamic slam and ability to play loud for which Wilson speakers are famous.

The Alexx also produced a more relaxing and resolved yet faster top end than the Alexandrias. This wasn’t surprising, given the change from a three-way to a four-way design, in which the tweeter takes over at a higher frequency and is thus relieved of the burden of reproducing the uppermidrange frequencies. Achieving seamless driver integration, particularly in the midrange, could not have been easy to achieve, but it has been in the Alexx. The integration of the outputs of the Alexx’s drivers sounds even more seamless than in the Alexandria.

All of this adds up to a $109,000/pair speaker that, in almost every way, and especially in a moderate-size room like mine, is better than the $210,000 Alexandria XLF. The Alexandria is still a superb speaker, and still is everything I said it was in the review that led the Bank of America to buy a pair for me. (Had to pay them back. Finally did.) The Alexandria is still a better choice for a larger room, and even in mine, a pair of them produces bigger—and especially taller—sound pictures than did the Alexxes. While the Alexandria’s bass is neither as extended nor as fast and tight, its overall seamless sound makes it clear that its tuning is correct. Had the bass been any faster, it would have left the higher frequencies behind.

Otherwise, the Alexxes retained all of Wilson speakers’ most desirable attributes, including dynamic slam, image specificity, and, especially, the ability to produce a sound that was big or small or in between, as required by the music and the recording.

A well-produced recording of solo acoustic guitar, such as Laurindo Almeida’s Capitol monos, put a tonally believable, well-focused, three-dimensional guitar of convincing size between the speakers about as well as did small stand-mounts like the Joseph Audio Pulsar,8 but with the more expansive spatial context that only a larger speaker can produce.

Big as they were, the Alexxes “disappeared” as physical objects from my room even as they hung solid images in three-dimensional space better than any speakers I’ve had here or in my former listening room—and those speakers included the Audio Physic Virgo II, which was an astonishing re-creator of the illusion of space, regardless of price.

Wilson Audio Alexx

Conclusions

Wilson Audio’s demonstrations of the Alexx at audio shows in 2016 didn’t prepare me for what I heard at home—then again, neither had the demos of the Alexandria XLF. But in both cases, those demos dropped hints of what might be possible.

From the bottom to the top, Wilson Audio’s Alexx was as enjoyable to listen to at low volumes as when cranked to club and concert SPLs. It never sounded strained at high volume, or soft and indistinct at low. In my experience, that’s a quality shared by all Wilson speakers, along with dynamic authority and top-to-bottom coherence—even if that’s not always evident at hi-fi shows.

Their last few generations of models have added some things to Wilson’s attractive mix of sonic characteristics: airy, open highs, as well as transparent and silky-smooth mids. The Alexx exhibited all of these desirable qualities, each of them done better, and with greater top-to-bottom coherence, than I’ve heard from any other Wilson speaker here.

If you’re fortunate enough to own these $109,000 speakers and if you’re fortunate enough to own a copy of the stunning 1964 Decca recording of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, UK Decca SXL 6110), play it through the Alexxes after returning home from a live concert. This work, aka Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, is an exercise in orchestral fireworks. The woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings—especially the “basement” strings—are reproduced well enough for you to suspend tonal and textural disbelief as Britten, family by family and instrument by instrument, introduces each element of the orchestra, which you’ll then “see” before you as convincingly and naturally as if you were hearing the piece live.

The Alexxes cleared away the Alexandrias’ slight bit of midrange fog to reveal delicate, solid, well-focused, three-dimensional images on a well-defined, transparent, stable soundstage. The xylophone, castanets, bass drum, and triangle had never sounded so convincing. And then, in the fugue, as Britten reassembles the orchestra, instrument by instrument, until all are again playing together—you may find yourself laughing in unexpected pleasure. I did.

The very-limited-edition WAMM Master Chronosonic aside, the Alexx is easily the best big speaker Wilson Audio Specialties has produced.


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