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Little BeautyWilson Audio has come up with a bookshelf design in its new Duette. In a
world exclusive test Ken Kessler marvels at a Wilson he thinks hasn't been hit
with the'ugly stick'.
Every manufacturer would like you to think that evevry product its makes is a
milestone in its history, something of earth-shattering importance. Some
products will mean a lot more in the greater scheme of things. But it’s doubtful
that Wilson Audio has issued anything of as great consequence to its catalogue
as the Duette. But why so?
Clearly, the Duette was conceived from the outset to broaden Wilson’s appeal,
through both its price and size. While hardly cheap – Dave Wilson has stated
empathically many times, that he cannot make budget speakers because of the
materials he insists on using – the Duette is the company’s new entry-level
speaker. As for size, well who can kvetch about an enclosure measuring 9.125 x
18.4 x 13.75 in (whd)? This is seriously small. Which brings us to the next
crucial element of the design – one that may be its most importatnt feature.
Further to increase the appeal of the Duette, Wilson felt that dowsizing and
downcosting weren’t enough. The product had to be more room-friendly than any of
the exisiting models. So, with deft tweaking of the crossover, with due
attention to the wiring, the rear port, the voicing, Wilson has produced a model
that actually excels in many ways when used against boundaries. More importantly,
the Duette is almost insouciant regarding positioning.
And anothet thing: it’s the first Wilson speaker ever that wasn’t hit with with
the ugly stick. It’s actually pretty rather than merely another excercise in
form following fuction. The sculpted front panel that minimizes diffraction, the
‘cathedral’ grille, the breathtaking, automotive-grade gloss finishes – you’d be
forgiven for thinking Wilson hired some Italian designer to handle the
Back to the painless positioning though. Dave proved this at the speaker's debut
in Las Vegas this past January, at th Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Any of
you who are familiar with Wilson products either as owners or simply having
experienced them at shows or vicariously through reviews, are aware that
anally-retentive set-up regimes are as much a part of the Wilson experience as
the gloss paint. You've heard about installers whipping out tape measures to
position the speakers to the milimetre. But at CES, Dave slapped’em on a rack
straight out of a budget furnishings catalogue – zero rigidity, anathema to
audiophiles – and with no attention paid to toe-in, relative height or any other
concerns. Still they sang: full-blooded, massive soundstage, enough impact to
humiliate systems twice their size.
Now here’s where I court some dissent, possibly antagonising Dave Wilson,
because I emphatically prefer them on their optional stands, away from the walls,
sacrificing some boundary-enhanced bass for greater three-dimensionality and air.
This is classics, textbook stuff about near-boundary effects: no mystery here. I
just find the slight loss of augmented lower registers to be inconsequential,
compared to the freedom the sound gains by eliminating any sort of congestion.
But whether personal taste or domestic issues dictate either position in your
listetning room, you’ll be listening to a proper Wilson. It’s just not huge,
ornery nor bank-breaking expensive.
Wilson describes the Duette as ‘… the first loudspeaker in audio history to be
equally at home on a bookshelf, architecturally integrated into a cabinet, or
mounted on a speaker stand’. Before the mail floods in - you can start with
Wharfedale Diamonds, assorted vintage ARs or Dynacos,
if jou want to contradict that bold
claim – let’s just regard it as a mission statement with a frisson of hyperbole.
What's undeniable is the conscious effort Wilson has made for achieving what
they rightly call a 'paradoxical feat.' Succintly, they described the project
thusly: Instead of taking a loudspeaker designed and voiced for optimal room
placement, with plenty of air behind and beside the speaker, and then trying to
force it into a “bookshelf” mode, our engineers did the opposite: they designed
Duette from the ground up as a “hostile environments” loudspeaker'. ‘Hostile
environments’ - I like that. It describes 99% of the listening rooms on this
planet. And now there's something that might suit the majority of them.
Although in reductio the Duette is simply a two-way speaker with a rear port, to
dismiss it as such is to ignore some of the most complex manoeuvring I've seen
in a small box since the Sonus faber Extrema. At the very least, the Duette is a two-chassis speaker in
that it employs an outboard crossover for many reasons. Dubbed the ‘Novel
ccssover module’, probably because it's the size of a fat book, it stands
vertically and it will sit nicely on a shelf below the Duette itself.
The Novel is adjustable externally via resistors mounted on its rear plate. In
keeping with established Wilsonian practice, these adjustments address group
delay and the tonal effects of near-boundary placement, and - as Dave will
inevitably experiment with them through the speaker's life - one suspects that
over the years, there will be even more resistor combinations on offer for
differing circumstances, possibly even to address specific amps or cables. The
flexibility this imparts is almost limitless.
Two sets of resistors are supplied with the Duettes, one for near-wall set-ups
and one for freestanding mode. This is the only lapse in build behaviour: the
resistors are loose and unpotted, with fiddly bare wire connections to the
terminals on the back of the Novel. A speaker of this calibre deserves a nicely
finished plug-in block.
Tuning details don't stop there: the connection between the Novel and the Duette
is through supplied umbilical cables, one set each for near-wall and free-space,
carefully configured for length. Again, they are dedicated to the
requirements of the two positions, and you will hear detrimental effects if you
try the wrong ones.
Other benefits occur by making the crossover an outboard component. It allows
Wilson to keep Duette relatively small, while benefiting the midrange/bass
driver with the extra internal volume regained by removing the crossover from
the cabinet. Another upside is that the Novel crossover module's remote location
removes it from proximity to the magnetic fields generated by the drive units.
Wilson points out that the Novel crossover can therefore use: ‘Alexandria-sized,
Alexandria-quality inductors and crossover components. The outcome of this
approach is bass extension, dynamic impact, and a sense of scale normally
associated with much larger loudspeakers. Additionally, the crossover is
unaffected by any resonances within the enclosure, so distortion is reduced and
Two new drivers were designed for Duette, including an 8in woofer that appears
to employ classic paper cones. Those who have always preferred this will revel
in the scarily fast bass - probably the most surprising characteristic of the
Duette, as it exhibits none of the whoofling of ported speakers. If you didn't
know better, you'd swear it was a sealed box; it's that tight and crisp. The
driver is also a long throw type, so the Duette goes deeper and louder than
you'd ever demand of a speaker this size.
An all-new tweeter unique to Wilson was also developed for the Duette, a 1 in
cloth soft dome to give generous off-axis behaviour. Remember: Wilson didn't
want the Duette to exhibit classic sweet spot behaviour. In the real world,
speakers need to satisfy audiences not locked into hot seat positioning. A
number of superlative tweeters were tried, but none gave as wide a window.
While I maintain that the open-air performance is superior, I couldn't fault the
off-axis behaviour when I had the Duettes close to the walls. You can sit
anywhere you like with the Duette, because the sweet spot is the antithesis of,
say, the original WATT/Puppy's onanistic listening zone.
Housed in a gorgeous box fashioned from Wilson's proprietary cabinet materials,
the drivers provide a clarity and focus that is, effectively, the Wilson
signature. But Dave managed to respect all of his obsessions - three-dimensional
sound, retrieval of low-level detail, phase coherence, ultra-transparency -
without cursing the Duette with the kind of dictatorial attitude associated with
his larger loudspeakers.
SIT UP AND LISTEN
Martinets to a fault, most Wilson speakers grab you and make you listen. They're
like the sort of high-performance sports cars in which you can't really relax:
TVRs, Porsche GTs, anything Italian. The Duette is more like a Mercedes SL or a
Lexus GS: tootle along when you want, in comfy saloon mode, or kick it into
'Sport' and start shifting those gears.
Which is not to say that this is a lunatic-free zone. Because a speaker selling
for £8900 per pair (with an extra £1800 if you go the stand-mount route] must be
set up by the dealer, the owner will never see the little feet/cone arrangement
developed by Wilson. To fine-tune the Duette's Group Delay for specific
listening distances and heights, a set of spikes in three sizes magnetically
attach to the side or bottom of Duette. These rest in dimples in brass discs
that fit into indents on the top of the stands, or between speaker and shelf.
Fiddly, but they work.
Mere seconds into listening to the Duette, I had confirmed everything I learned
at CES. You can take the most miserable, joyless, selfish Bitch-Wife From Hell
and dare her to object to this speaker, which is almost so conveniently
room-friendly as to qualify as an in-wall.
Note that the Duette is easy to drive. But, because it's so revealing, don't
think of wasting the speaker's potential with cheap amplifiers. What seem like
subtle differences between CD players, or LP pressings, suddenly become vivid -
it's a retailer and reviewer's dream, because the Duette lets the listener hear
everything. But at the same time, it's not so in-your-face as to be oppressive.
And here's where Wilson succeeded in making the Duette pretty darn close to ‘all
things to all people’: If you want to rock, it will tear the roof off. If you
want smooth, it will pour Dino's drink. I played material from Katrina & the
Waves power pop to the sheer silk of Art Garfunkel to the cheesy mono original
of ‘Volare’, every song handled deftly and with respect to its genre.
Already mentioned are scale and transparency. What mustn't be overlooked,
though, are warmth, texture and tonal accuracy, all of which add to the
suggestion that the musician is in the room. Even with the heavily treated
vocals of Garfunkel's lush ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ - a studio creation if
ever I heard one - there's still a frisson of realism that can only be put down
to an utter lack of artifice. No cabinet colorations intrude; nothing suggests
an onset of listener fatigue even over long sessions. With that track, you will
understand the notion of ‘liquidity’ in sound, and you will marvel at the
coherence, despite the mix of instruments and textures.
Most of all the speakers impress because they seem to vanish in the manner of a
great dipole. This really is a ‘Quad-In-A-Box’. But Dave has respected the
Wilson pecking order: you have to consider a Sophia or WATT/Puppy if you want
the sort of levels that inflict hearing damage, or the bass that causes
subsidence. Then again, one doesn't expect Wilson to re-write the laws of
HI-FI NEWS VERDICT
If the Duette is as important as I suspect it to be, then the implications go
beyond the coffers of Wilson Audio. Like the Sonus Faber Guarneri, we have here
a milestone in high-end, small box speaker design. The fact that it's painless
in every way (except its price) will win it legions of fans: it's neither
power-hungry nor room fussy, it delivers the sort of performance you'd expect of
a much larger speaker, and it is unlikely ever to be obsolete, given Wilson's
evolutionary practices. Aside from some brain-dead Eminem fan requiring more
bass or higher maximum SPLs, I can't think of a better way to fill a room under
25 x 15ft.