The Audio Beat 08/2017
by Marc Mickelson | August 25, 2017
". . . the Alexx is its own aspiration and provides its own rewards."
To those with knowledge of Wilson Audio speakers, the ancestry of the Alexx seems immediately understood. It combines the names of two of the company’s best-known speakers: the large floorstanding MAXX and the even larger Alexandria. But this union raises a question: is the Alexx a MAXX-influenced Alexandria or an Alexandria shrunken to the size of the MAXX? In stature, the Alexx resembles the MAXX 3, which was the final speaker in that lineage, but its upper modules are discrete, each driver self-contained, like those of the Alexandria.
There is actually a different truth at work here. The Alexx is most closely related to another Wilson speaker, the WAMM Master Chronosonic ($685,000/pair), which debuted late last year and began shipping in March. The WAMM MC and Alexx are the equivalent of childhood playmates who grew up as neighbors and came into adulthood together. The two speakers were developed in parallel: Dave Wilson focused on the WAMM MC, and his son, Daryl, Wilson Audio’s new CEO, focused on the Alexx. Daryl was responsible for all design decisions for the Alexx, and he conducted all testing and listening, but, because the Alexx spent time in Dave Wilson’s massive purpose-built listening room during its development, Dave also did important listening and gave some feedback during crossover blending. Interestingly, as Wilson Audio’s marketing director, John Giolas, pointed out, "It’s also true in reverse for the WAMM -- Daryl gave Dave feedback on his work. The WAMM sat on the right side of the room, across from the Alexx on the left."
Consider that for a moment. Two speakers, one the company’s true flagship and the other designed as though it could be the flagship, in joint development, sharing all manner of design work, drivers, crossover choices and, not least of all, sonic fingerprints. I heard the WAMM MC in Dave Wilson’s listening room shortly after the Alexx was set up in my room, and the two speakers certainly share a sonic personality.
Both speakers use Wilson Audio’s Convergent Synergy tweeter, a 1" silk-dome driver designed at Wilson Audio and partially manufactured at Scan-Speak. "Partially" means that Scan-Speak manufactures the dome, magnet and flange to Wilson Audio's specs, while Wilson manufactures all of the rear elements of the driver. This tweeter has now propagated across the company’s entire speaker lineup, with modifications based on the particular application -- i.e., the speaker in which it's used.
In many ways, this tweeter symbolizes the way in which Wilson Audio designs speakers. The company rejects the current a priori fashion of exotic dome materials, which Wilson Audio fully investigated, and instead developed its tweeter to embody characteristics important to Dave Wilson's design goals, including high sensitivity (which increased the driver's ability to convey dynamic contrasts) and a lower roll-off point (which improved its ability to transition to Wilson Audio's midrange drivers).
However, none of these things would have mattered one whit had the tweeter not sounded correct to Dave Wilson, who conducted extensive listening tests. You can measure all manner of driver parameters, but what do they matter if what you hear doesn’t suspend disbelief? Seems elementary, but listening is an overlooked part of the design process, though not at Wilson Audio.
The Alexx’s midrange and bass regions employ a technique that’s unique to Wilson speakers: the use of dual drivers of different sizes. The midrange takes this idea one step further, using drivers with different cones as well. The Alexx's 7" midrange was first used in the Alexandria 2, its cone a composite of fibrous materials -- "a pretty complex blend of stuff," John Giolas told me years ago, when I reviewed the Alexandria 2. In this arrangement, the 5 3/4" uppermost midrange, which debuted in the Sabrina, must remain linear at higher frequencies, in order to transition to the tweeter. Its cone is also a composite of fibrous materials, but as looks tell, it has a coating that the larger midrange does not have. The pair of different-sized woofers -- 10" and 12" -- are new, having been developed for the WAMM MC. They are mounted together in their own dedicated enclosure, which is also the platform for the support structure of the other drivers.
I asked John Giolas why we don’t see this approach used for other speakers -- why it’s unique to Wilson Audio. His answer was direct and logical: "Because it’s really hard to do."
I’ve always been curious about Wilson Audio’s use of these disparate woofers (and now midranges), so I asked John Giolas why we don’t see this approach used for other speakers -- why it’s unique to Wilson Audio. His answer was direct and logical: "Because it’s really hard to do." It’s difficult enough to blend tweeters, midranges and woofers which by their very nature cover different frequency ranges. The Alexx's woofers double up for their entire range. This presents extraordinary challenges in terms of cabinet and crossover tuning, as well as choosing the optimal cabinet volume for the two woofers. Vern Credille designs this portion of all Wilson products, and has developed algorithms for this purpose. Dave and/or Daryl complete the final voicing and crossover tuning from there.
The Alexx’s cabinet is fashioned mostly from Wilson’s steel-hard X material, with S material used for the baffles of the midrange enclosures. Both are advanced composites used strategically for their sonic properties -- their ability to not hinder the work of the drivers. Debuting in the Alexx is a new composite material used for the junction point between the midrange modules and the structure that holds them. A plate of this material, named W material, after the WAMM for which it was developed, is precision machined and fits into a recess, where it dissipates unwanted resonance. The Alexx borrows the Cross-Load Firing port system from the Alexandria XLF, where it debuted. This allows either front or rear output of the port, depending on room characteristics and determined when the speakers are set up in the listening room.
As with all other Wilson speakers, the Alexx’s cabinet is constructed without screws or metal fasteners of any kind. The various panels are bonded with advanced adhesives that are cured to produce a joint that's stronger than the solid material around it. Then the entire cabinet is gel-coated -- sealed -- and sanded by hand before it's painted. The Alexx’s cabinet is a multipiece affair. There are four separate driver enclosures along with a structure to hold the midrange and tweeter modules. Add in many machined metal parts, including the mechanisms for time alignment, a carbon-fiber substrate for the resistors used for fine-tuning the drivers’ output, a glass hatch that covers the carbon fiber and resistors, and you begin to understand why this speaker has a six-figure price tag. There’s nothing casual, perfunctory or "good enough" about the Alexx -- or any Wilson speaker, for that matter. Each is a scrupulously designed and manufactured speaker system, a finished, unified whole. Each is the work of people who truly believe that no detail is insignificant.
In every sense, the Alexx is a very large speaker; to non-audiophiles, like some of the people who saw the pair in my house, it is an absolutely gargantuan speaker -- bigger by far than any speaker they’ve ever seen. Yet, there are subtle aesthetic touches --the curve of the structure supporting the tweeter and midrange modules flowing into the bass cabinet, the soft facets of those upper modules, the flared front profile of the bass cabinet -- that, while not reducing the perception of mass, do give the Alexx a sculptural profile. Wilson’s impeccable glossy finish also imparts an artist’s touch.
As he has done in the past, John Giolas set up the Alexxes in my listening room, where he has set up almost as many speakers as I have. If this would have been a from-scratch install, John would have gone through Wilson Audio’s complete "voweling-in" ceremony, in which he would traverse the room while speaking aloud in order to identify the "zone of neutrality" for the speakers: the exact spots in which the room has the least effect on the sonic output. But as John showed me, he has an extensive file of documents that not only indicate where the speakers should roughly go in my room, but also give estimates of their toe-in and module orientation, everything meant to maximize the speaker’s performance at the listening position, especially in the time domain.
When I visited Wilson Audio late last year, the importance of the time domain was driven home by the WAMM MC, which is adjustable to a degree that can reveal the time deficiencies of electronics and even cables. The frequency domain has received the lion’s share of attention from speaker designers, but, given Wilson Audio’s decades of time-domain research and, moreover, its overall market success, it seems more obvious than ever that the audio industry and the audio press may have been chasing a ghost, a theory that’s built on measurements, and the easy quantification they allow, at the expense of qualities that actually matter to listeners of music. This is not to say that Wilson Audio ignores matters of frequency response, but rather that the company’s approach to designing and building loudspeakers is truly multi-faceted, with time-domain accuracy being a particular area of emphasis.
And it’s difficult to argue with that emphasis when you hear a properly set up pair of Alexxes. The standard set of Wilson Audio sonic traits is present and accounted for. Bass weight, power and slam were absolutely state of the art, lending not just a thrilling foundation to recordings that could show it off but also a well-resolved rhythmic underpinning to everything I played -- and I played more music with the Alexx than I have with any review product in recent memory. "Words of Wonder" from Keith Richards’ Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499], which I’ve heard on every Wilson Audio speaker I’ve reviewed, displayed crushing heft and punch, but it was recordings like Bruce Barth’s Live at the Village Vanguard [MaxJazz MXJ 205], some tasty on-location piano jazz, that took greatest advantage of the Alexx’s low-end detail. Along with this was wide dynamic range, from very quiet -- a particular focus for the company, given the heroic lengths to which the engineers and craftspeople go to create inert cabinets -- to nearly live SPLs, along with deft dynamic scaling and shading. Coherence, the expert blending of the drivers, especially through the midrange, was singular, and not just for a large, multi-driver speaker, those pairs of different drivers creating a continuous whole.
Bass, dynamics and coherence: this is a serious trio of qualities for a loudspeaker to possess, but they are literally the starting point for the Alexx, the canvas on which much more is revealed. I now include soundstaging as a distinct strength of Wilson speakers, and for an aspect in which so many other speakers are lacking: height. First the Alexia and then the Sabrina -- which is downright diminutive for a Wilson speaker -- pulled off this feat (it’s definitely not a trick, because it changes with each recording, so the information is there to be heard), but the Alexx takes it another step up the ladder, so to speak. It casts properly scaled, truly life-sized images. I was regularly astonished at not only the height of singers but also all of the other musicians.
Two recordings that demanded rapt attention were the 24-bit/196kHz versions of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s classic Verve albums -- both on a single Blu-ray Disc [Verve 00602537349807]. As I was listening, I guessed Ella Fitzgerald’s height as 5’ 6"; a quick Yahoo search indicated that she was actually 5’ 5". Louis Armstrong was 5’ 6" and his trumpet came from nearly the same place as Fitzgerald’s honeyed voice, although from about an inch or two above -- no kidding.
I didn’t play this recording with either the Alexia or Sabrina, but I would be surprised if they displayed the same sort of vertical precision, even as surprising as they are in this way. I have written a couple of times about the test I do for height: close your eyes, point to where the sound is coming from, then open your eyes. You will continually astounded by where you're pointing with the Alexia and Sabrina -- perhaps even more so, given how much shorter they are than the Alexx. However, the Alexx simply reveals another level of this spatial information -- true specificity -- that was obviously captured during the recording sessions but so many speakers simply don’t convey.
Depth and width are also functions of the recording, but once again the Alexx seemed to push these boundaries, the soundstage being not just wider and deeper, but filled to its boundaries and irregularly shaped. There’s a great cut for discerning this: "Russian Roulette" from Michelle Shocked’s Captain Swing CD [Mighty Sound 820692100525]. Shocked traverses the stage from right to left, plugs her electric guitar into the amp, then launches into the song. Her clomping footsteps define the space in which the recording was made, seeming a bit less deep on the left than the right. Or perhaps it's that her path was more diagonal from right to left, not straight from one side to the other. Of course, this is a novelty, like recordings of trains or cars from the early days of stereo, not actual music, but the Alexx doesn’t know the difference. Suffice it to say, if some spatial effect -- or novelty -- is captured on a recording, the Alexx will make it plain, even if was previously unheard.
Like every Wilson Audio speaker I’ve reviewed, the Alexx has a fundamental music-centric nature. It is devoid of the ruthlessness that so many speakers lazily labeled as "accurate" or designed first and foremost for flattest frequency response display as a matter of course. This is not a euphemistic way of saying the Alexx sounds dark, soft or "musical." Instead, it’s actually an admission of what draws me in to listening to reproduced music to begin with: the sense that I’m hearing humans make music, not merely recorded media spinning in a disc player or on a turntable. But once again the Alexx builds on this. At first, it seemed as though its tonal balance from low to high was different -- that was the easiest way for me to sum it up. But, with further listening, it really was something different, an improved nimbleness and suppleness, a greater sense of speed and a more natural rendering of instrumental detail. Even with its low-end weight and power, the Alexx sounds light -- illuminated, not insubstantial -- which helps explain the way it reveals every millimeter of the soundstage. But there was also a sense about the Alexx that it was something special, signaling a new course for Wilson Audio speakers.
While I could cite any number of recordings here, a hardware comparison is more apt. The dCS Vivaldi 2.0 digital system -- what can I say about it that my review omits? It simply provides the best digital playback I’ve heard, and by a wide margin. However, when I had the Vivaldi 2.0 stack in my system, it wasn’t the only digital rig in the house. I’ve also been using an old-school trio of products: CES TL 1 transport, Genesis Digital Lens data buffer and jitter eliminator, and Timbre TT-1 DAC. This two-decade-old digital system still makes music in a way that can be appreciated in 2017, even if it’s not the equal of the dCS rig in essentially any way. While the dCS system sounds impossibly high resolving yet still musically consonant, a deft melding of an athlete and a ballerina, the CEC/Genesis/Timbre is more about the message, the grace and beauty that are, I would argue, the reason all of this hardware exists in the first place. The Alexx doesn’t just make the differences keenly obvious, but also honors them, revels in them even. Not only did I hear the best from both digital rigs, but I easily understood why they were both valid, even if I would choose the dCS in a heartbeat. It’s almost as though the Alexx possesses some rare new sonic admixture -- the high resolution to uncover differences while intensifying their musical validity. Some audio components must be used in systems that take advantage of their inherent qualities. The Alexx is another kind: all-encompassing, universal.
I’m not sure what more we should want from audio equipment than the nearly uncontrollable urge to use it.
And this brings me to a final, personal point about the Alexxes: I simply, unapologetically loved listening to them -- with any and all music. They caused me to raid my CDs and LPs in search of recordings I just wanted to hear with them. I’m not sure what more we should want from audio equipment than the nearly uncontrollable urge to use it. So you've been warned: a pair of Alexxes may require physical space and demand space in your life.
Two natural questions, given the stature of the Alexx, are how it currently fits into Wilson Audio’s speaker hierarchy and especially how it compares to the Alexandria XLF ($210,000/pair), which was TAB's Product of the Year for 2012. It is still considered a current product, but its days definitely seem to be numbered, bookended as it now is by the Alexx and WAMM MC. As I’ve already outlined, there are many similarities between the Alexx and Alexandria XLF, including the drivers, the cabinet construction and configuration, the front-or-rear port alignment, and the overall form factor -- both speakers being large and visually commanding in the listening room. The Alexandria XLF is actually taller and heavier than the Alexx, and by Wilson Audio’s own specs, it also has slightly wider bandwidth (19Hz to 33kHz for the Alexandria XLF, 20Hz to 31kHz +/- 3dB for the Alexx) and slightly greater sensitivity (93.5db versus 91dB). When I had the XLFs in my listening room, I drove them with a few different amps, including Lamm’s ML2.2 single-ended monoblocks, and I can attest that the big XLFs handled all music with aplomb when driven by the mere 18 watts of the Lamm amps.
While sonic memory is unreliable (I haven't heard the Alexandria XLFs in nearly five years), my sense is that the Alexx wouldn’t fare quite as well with so little power, the XLFs’ sensitivity being obvious in the massive dynamics they produced, even with the Lamm SET amps. Perhaps not coincidentally, I also think the Alexandria XLFs may produce the power and especially the mass of an orchestra at full throttle more realistically. Where the Alexx will more than hold its own -- and possibly eclipse the XLF -- is in reproducing the particulars of each recording, carving out a sense of space that's unique and populating it with well-resolved, full-sized performers. I also suspect that the Alexx will tell more about the equipment in front of it, from phono cartridges to amplifiers (within that speaker's impedance and sensitivity requirements, that is).
But that doesn't answer the question: which is better? I'm afraid that someone who has more recent familiarity with the Alexandria XLF will have to weigh in. Yes, I'm equivocating, but that's not just a matter of fickle memory. It's one of respect for both of these speakers. However, it’s also a trivial question leading to a moot point. The Alexx has clear ambitions to exceed the Alexandria XLF's musical performance, and it is certainly in that discussion. But the real achievement of the Alexx is that the price of such performance has been cut in half, not to mention that it signals the arrival of another Wilson to the first rank of audio designers.
My experience with Wilson Audio speakers goes back over twenty years, beginning with the first time I heard a pair of WATT/Puppy 5.1s, along with a WHOW subwoofer, in a dealer showroom, through the WATT/Puppy 6 (the first Wilson speaker I reviewed) and various other versions of the WATT/Puppy, the MAXX, the Sophia, the Sasha W/P, the Alexandria, the Sabrina and now the Alexx. As expected, the performance has been refined over the years, such that, for me at least, the speakers have turned from being obviously pro-oriented -- the WATT, remember, was conceived as a location monitor -- in the company's early days, to the thoroughly musical transducers they became and continue to be. The speaker that changed my perception of the company was the WATT/Puppy 6 -- where the microscopic resolution of earlier versions of the classic WATT/Puppy became only part of a more mature, and complete, sonic presentation. For me, the WATT/Puppy 6 represented a turning point for Wilson Audio, followed many years later by the Alexandria XLF, which was the first Wilson speaker to incorporate the current silk-dome tweeter. In between, each of the distinct speaker models and iterations pushed the sonic stone further and further toward what has become Wilson Audio’s house sound: high resolution paired with massive bass power, wide dynamic range, expert coherence and an utterly engaging tonal balance.
All of the Wilson speakers I’ve heard in my system and subsequently reviewed have begun with that collection of traits and progressed from there. This remains true of the Alexx, but more so: like the WATT/Puppy 6 and Alexandria XLF, it represents another leap forward for Wilson Audio, not just for its general sonic magnificence but also its price. Daryl Wilson has worked on over half of Wilson Audio’s products since the company’s inception, and with the Alexx he has created an immediate classic, while also obviously creating a comparison between his father’s work and his own. I suspect this doesn’t overly concern Daryl, whom I’ve chit-chatted with a number of times, because in so many ways he has been in training for such a role much of his life. However, if I were in his shoes, such a comparison would cause me more than a little anxiety, reflection and lost sleep. His dad is, after all, a first-ballot audio hall of famer.
The market for a speaker like the Alexx is necessarily limited -- there aren’t multitudes of people with the resources to own it. However, for audiophiles who can spend six figures on speakers, the Alexx has to be considered something of a bargain: designed in parallel with Dave Wilson's magnum opus but costing a small fraction of its price. If you aren’t among the well-heeled cohort of WAMM MC owners, the Alexx is its own aspiration and provides its own rewards.
The Wilson Way
No, this sidebar is not another summary of Wilson Audio’s design principles. Instead, the Wilson Way is an actual product, and a clever one at that. If you’ve ever needed to move heavy speakers that are on spikes which couple them to the floor beneath, you have had only two options: try to "walk" each speaker into place by tilting it corner by corner, or replacing the spikes with casters, moving the speakers, and then putting them back on the spikes. Neither of these methods is ideal if you’re trying to fine-tune speaker placement in fractions of an inch.
The Wilson Ways ($800 per eight), a set of durable high-tech sliders, solve this problem. Each has a smooth anodized bottom and a deep hole on top. You put one Way under each spike, so the point fits directly into the hole, locking it in position, so the slider won’t disengage. You can then shove the speaker, with its spikes, over carpet and even tile or wood floors with the included "socks" that allow movement on hard surfaces. Perpendicular lines on each Way provide absolute anchor points for measurement from walls, allowing you to set in-room position and toe-in with great precision. Each Wilson Alexx weighs nearly 500 pounds, and even they are relatively easy to move fractions of an inch on their spikes with a set of Ways underneath.
Even if you don’t own Wilson Audio speakers, you should consider giving in to the Wilson Way, because a set of eight will make your audio life, and setting up heavy speakers, much easier. You can order directly from Wilson Audio’s online parts store
. - Marc Mickelson