TESTED: Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 Series 2

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Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2
TESTED: Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 Series 2

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 loudspeaker—and this is a loudspeaker that is remarkable in many ways—is its sense of musical intimacy.

That might seem an odd statement about a 6'-tall, six-driver-per-side, 1500-pound pair of loudspeakers. Mega-speakers have traditionally excelled at bass extension, dynamics, scale, and power, but have tended to sound “big” even on small-scale music. The consequence of this phenomenon is a trade-off that favored the visceral thrill-ride of large-scale orchestral music at the expense of connection, subtlety, and intimacy with solo instruments, duets, and small ensembles.

But the X-2 defies the paradigm; this new Wilson is chameleon-like in its ability to sound big and forceful when the music demands—an area in which it is unparalleled—and then to seemingly shrink to the size of a mini-monitor when reproducing solo classical guitar. It’s not just the physical size of instrumental images that the X-2 gets right; it also resolves fine information in a gentle and understated way, conveying to the listener a heightened degree of musical expression.

We’ll return to this and other aspects of the X-2’s sound, but let’s first consider the loudspeaker itself. The Alexandria X-2 is so named because it represents designer David Wilson’s accumulated knowledge of loudspeaker design, just as the great library at Alexandria was the repository of all knowledge in the ancient world. This is Wilson Audio’s statement product—the best loudspeaker it knows how to build without regard to cost. And that cost is a considerable $148,000 per pair, a staggering sum for a loudspeaker of any kind. However, the design, build-quality, execution, and finish are commensurately staggering; they don’t get any better than this. I’ve looked closely at several other speakers costing north of a hundred large and discovered that they’re often simply larger versions of the company’s lesser speakers. That is, they are scaled up in cabinet size and driver count, but not in technology, design innovation, or build-quality.

This X-2 under review is the new Series 2, a re-engineered version of the original X-2. The Series 2 benefits from a new midrange driver, a new tweeter, and a re-tuned crossover network. The enclosure is the same (except for the back’s visual appearance), allowing Series 1 owners to upgrade. David Wilson talks about the inspiration behind this re-design in my accompanying interview with him. To summarize, Wilson heard a certain beauty in live performances at Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall that was not conveyed by any of his loudspeakers, including the original X-2. He set out to discover the underlying acoustical phenomenon, and then to build a speaker that reproduced those acoustical properties, bringing the listener closer to what he had heard in the Musikverein.

The X-2 is heavy and massive, yet surprisingly manageable from a user’s point of view. As mega-speakers go, it is relatively easy to incorporate into a room. Its footprint is actually smaller than most six-figure “statement” speakers. Moreover, the X-2’s shape, aided by the subtly sculpted side panels, seems to minimize its formidable size. Although my listening room is only 14.5' x 21' x 9', the X-2 never seemed imposing and had less of physical presence than rectangular box speakers of similar size.

The X-2 is available in a huge range of colors, all applied with “WilsonGloss” finish. The paint quality, and the smoothness of the underlying surface, must be seen to be appreciated. (See the “Technology” sidebar for design and construction details.)

The Sound

In describing a loudspeaker that excels in so many different areas, it’s hard to know where to start, so we’ll begin with the obvious—the ability to portray the sheer size and scale of big orchestral music with no compression of transients, no sense of strain on peaks, and no change in soundstage dimensions or timbral purity as a function of sound-pressure level—all accompanied by an exhilarating feeling of seemingly limitless dynamics. You simply can’t achieve these qualities in a small loudspeaker.

Much of the X-2’s considerable size and cost are devoted to delivering this unshakable solidity on orchestral climaxes. Even many large loudspeakers exhibit a touch of hardness on peaks, or a congealing of the soundstage during loud and complex passages. These limitations, although brief in duration, greatly detract from the listening experience, since we tend to “tighten up” in anticipation of the sound becoming unpleasant just at the moments of the most intense musical excitement. We’re momentarily pulled out of a “willing suspension of disbelief” as our attention is drawn away from the music to the reality of the electromechanical nature of its reproduction. The X-2 was unassailable in this regard, whether reproducing an orchestra at full-tilt (“The Great Gate at Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition), a big band going all-out (XXL by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band on 96/24 DVD-A), or high-energy, metal-influenced progressive rock (Dream Theater’s Metropolis).

This dynamic ease is partly attributable to the X-2’s massive size and driver array, but also to the lack of cabinet vibration. Changes in timbre on peaks and the sense of confusion during complex passages are often the result of enclosure resonances. The acoustic output of a vibrating object is a function of the excursion (how far the object moves) and the object’s surface area. Large enclosures don’t need to move very much to color the sound. The X-2’s construction from “X” Material and the extraordinary attention that has been paid to minimizing resonances must play a large role in the speaker’s complete freedom from volume- or dynamics-related artifacts.

Another contributing factor to this quality is undoubtedly the X-2’s very high sensitivity of 95dB. The X-2 presents a very easy load to an amplifier; high sound pressure levels are realized with the power amplifier running well below its dynamic limits. Remember that every 3dB decrease in sensitivity requires double the amplifier power to achieve the same sound-pressure level. For example, driving the X-2 with a 50W amplifier will produce the same SPLs as driving a speaker of 86dB sensitivity with a 400W amplifier. (I drove the X-2 satisfactorily with the 50Wpc Naim Nait 5i integrated amplifier. Others have used low-powered single-ended-triode amplifiers such as the Lamm ML1.3 with outstanding results.) 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the X-2 (at least in my room) was its ability to deliver the bass extension and power of its 15" and 13" woofers in one instant, and then to make those woofers seemingly disappear when the music doesn’t need them. Consequently, I wasn’t constantly reminded that I was listening to a big speaker. This quality is a result of the X-2’s extraordinary transient fidelity in the bass—a phenomenon I described at length in my review of the Wilson MAXX 2 in Issue 155. I spent so much of that review on this aspect of the sound because I hadn’t heard it before from any loudspeaker. What so impressed me about the MAXX 2 was that the entire frequency range had the same dynamic characteristics. Typically, the bass lags behind the rest of the spectrum on a transient’s leading edge, and then hangs on after the transient has finished. An analogy that came to mind is driving a lightweight sports car on a winding mountain road carrying a boulder in the trunk. The boulder’s inertia ruins the car’s dynamic performance, just as large woofers typically diminish the sense of the loudspeaker speaking with one voice on musical transients.

The X-2 takes the bass agility and top-to-bottom transient fidelity I first heard in the MAXX Series 2 to an entirely new level. The X-2 goes lower in the bass and has greater authority, yet, astonishingly, is even quicker and more nimble than the MAXX 2. The X-2 has the dynamic reflexes of a two-way mini-monitor coupled with the ability to deliver massive, unfettered bass impact. I can assure you that it’s a combination that instantly becomes addictive.

In addition, the X-2’s articulation in the bass and midbass was staggering. Every nuance of pitch and every dynamic shading were fully revealed with a clarity one associates with the midrange, not the bass. This quality was revelatory on double bass and the lower registers of cello, whether solo or massed. Listen, for example to the raw and savage bass lines on the strangely beautiful Concerto Nicolò by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings). The X-2 made other speakers sound smeared, thick, and confused. I had the impression throughout the auditioning that the X-2 rendered bass as less of a continuously undifferentiated sound and more like instruments making music.

I don’t know whether it was the X-2 itself or the setup in my room, but the entire bass region—particularly the midbass—was extremely smooth and linear. The system sounded like it had been DSP-corrected, but without the problems introduced by digital signal processing. The bass seems to integrate into, and work with, the room rather than fight it. The bottom end was totally devoid of bloat, despite the speakers being located nearly in the room’s corners. The system not only had the deepest and most powerful bass presentation I’ve had in my room; it had the cleanest, smoothest, most linear, and best integrated bottom end I’ve heard from any system. (For photos of installation and setup, go to the Forum on avguide.com. Click on “Speakers,” and then the thread “X-2 Installation in RH’s House.”)

I had the opportunity to hear the X-2 Series 1 side-by-side with the X-2 Series 2 under very good listening conditions. The Series 2 was starkly different sounding in the midrange, with vastly improved clarity, transparency, resolution of timbre, resolution of space, and presence. The differences seemed to include not just an improvement in quality, but in tonal balance that put greater emphasis on the midrange. It turns out that the Series 1 and Series 2 have similarly flat frequency responses; the difference is qualitative rather than quantitative.

That improvement in the midband is not only the core of the Series 2’s advance over the Series 1, but also a defining characteristic of the loudspeaker. The X-2 had a resolution and clarity that were immediately apparent (as they are with some other outstanding loudspeakers), but also a resolution and clarity that showed themselves only in the most subtle ways. The X-2, particularly when driven by an all-Spectral system and MIT cabling, was capable of a kind of micro-resolution that revealed ultra-fine detail in an instrument’s tone color, and, particularly, in the space surrounding the instrument. The gold standard in capturing the spatial aspects of an acoustic, and of the musicians within that space, is Rutter’s Requiem, recorded by Keith Johnson on the Reference Recordings label. I’ve used this disc when evaluating every product I’ve reviewed since the recording was released 15 years ago. In the “Agnus Dei” the soloist’s voice not only had a bell-like clarity, but her position in the hall and her spatial relationship vis-à-vis the choir were laid out with stunning precision. She also sounded more “human” than I’ve heard when I’ve played this recording through any other loudspeaker. There was just a vivid sense of a human presence in the act of musical expression. The X-2 dug down into that lowermost level of micro-fine information that transformed her performance from merely wonderful to ineffably beautiful.

The X-2 was not only revelatory in resolving very fine gradations of space, but also in presenting the macro aspects of a soundstage. It occurred to me that perhaps the macro aspects of a soundstage—such as the sheer sense of depth and width, and the presentation of instrumental images along a continuum of depth rather than in discrete layers—are actually contained within the micro-detail that the X-2 is so adept at resolving. Whatever the reason, the X-2 presented a tremendous sense of a huge, transparent space that gave me the ability to hear clearly the musical contribution of instruments at the very back of the hall. In multi-track mixes, this quality was apparent as a separation of instrumental lines, along with the resolution of very fine detail, such as percussion, at the back of the mix.

The X-2’s resolution of low-level information also infused timbres with a sense of life, vibrancy, and realism, but not in a hyped or Technicolored way. In fact, the effect was extremely subtle sonically, but vivid musically. Tone colors were richly saturated and palpable in their naturalness. The treble was perfectly balanced, well integrated with the midrange, and cleaner than that of the MAXX 2. The top end had greater purity, heard as an extremely low level of grain on violins and a lack of grunge on cymbals.

Conclusion

The Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 is hands-down the best loudspeaker I’ve had in my listening room in nearly 20 years of full-time reviewing. It possesses a remarkable combination of sheer explosive power and seemingly unlimited dynamics with a sublime delicacy, refinement, and subtlety. This is a speaker that “disappears” in the sense that its presentation—from the size and power of the climax of a symphony’s fourth movement to an intimate guitar and vocal performance—is determined purely by the recording.

I began this review by commenting on the X-2’s extraordinary sense of musical intimacy. At the end of the day, this is why we pursue musical realism in the home through high-performance audio equipment—to feel the composer or performer speaking directly to us. The X-2 achieves this illusive ideal better than any loudspeaker I know of.

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