Directing my full attention to the Series 2, I first considered how the speaker fared with imaging and soundstaging from their intended position near room boundaries. A couple of classical recordings with small groups of musicians physically removed from a larger ensemble were helpful here. A Gimell audio-only Blu-ray of the Tallis Scholars performing Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere has a solo vocal quartet located many meters behind the main group of singers. Through the Duette Series 2s, these four voices were heard to illuminate the same acoustic space as the rest of the choral ensemble—but from a more distant location. No mean feat in stereo. Likewise, the beginning of Tristan und Isolde’s second act (on Marek Janowski’s 2012 release for PentaTone) features off-stage hunting calls played by six French horns that via the Duettes were heard, quite believably, to originate from a space other than the main hall of the Berlin Philharmonie. A recording of traditionally deployed orchestral forces, an early Channel Classics effort with Peter Wispelwey playing works for cello and orchestra, manifested impressive front-to-back layering—the soloist in front without any artificial spotlighting, strings behind him, and winds behind the strings. This layering was also naturally continuous.
Imaging? I tried one of my favorites, an all-Stravinsky PentaTone SACD with Paavo Järvi leading a small German orchestra in Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece, L’histoire du soldat, scored for seven seemingly disparate instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin, and string bass. Recorded on the capacious stage of the empty Großer Sendesaal at Radio Bremen, each instrument was precisely localized in space, correctly scaled, and three-dimensional via the Duette Series 2s. The sense of a performance occurring in real time with interacting musicians was uncanny. In sum, Wilson has delivered on its promise of a world-class spatial presentation from speakers set up close to a wall.
The tonal reproduction of the Duettes was rich and truthful. The two most realistic chamber music recordings I know of are a pair of violin and piano recitals taped by David Wilson in the 1980s. (They are both currently available as DSD downloads from the Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez site.) On these recordings Julie Steinberg plays a Hamburg Steinway, and the consistency of tone across all registers that many aficionados hear as a particular distinction of Steinways manufactured in Hamburg was quite apparent via the Series 2s. The warmly expressive sound of David Abel’s 1719 Guarnerius violin was fully audible as well, with the Duettes sensitive to changes in bow pressure and speed.
While it’s true that Wilson speakers don’t favor any one kind of music, you don’t frequently hear reproduction of the human voice singled out as particularly notable. However, the representation of singers is a conspicuous virtue of the Series 2. One indication is how faithfully the speaker reveals changes to famous voices over time. Georg Solti’s Decca Ring cycle was a seismic event (the greatest classical recording of all time, according to a BBC Music readers’ poll). But hardcore Wagnerians will tell you there were some serious vocal deficiencies that Solti’s incendiary conducting and the glorious sonics couldn’t entirely make up for. For instance, Hans Hotter, holding down the critical role of Wotan for two of the dramas, was well past his prime, especially in Die Walküre, the last of the operas to be recorded, in 1965. Hotter sounds stressed and tired in his famous aria (“Leb wohl”) at the end of the work, as though he just wants it to be over. His once-plush bass is fraying, with a wide wobble. Compare this to Hotter’s performance of the same music ten years earlier at Bayreuth on a Ring cycle first released in 2008 on the Testament label. There, Hotter’s voice is commanding, fully under control to serve the opera’s dramatic ends. The Duettes told me, definitely, that this was the same singer on both recordings, but one with very different resources at two points in time. Along the same lines, I could hear Alison Krauss mature from a naïve teen in 1987 to a mature woman in 1994 by comparing two songs—“Sleep On” and “When You Say Nothing at All”—on the SACD collection Now That I’ve Found You. The artist’s delivery and technique hadn’t changed much; it’s her physiology that evolved, and I could hear it with the Duettes.
When it comes to dynamics and bass reproduction, choices of amplification and the use of a subwoofer come into play. On very demanding recordings, I ran the Duettes through their paces full-range—they have a low-frequency cutoff point of 33Hz +/-3dB—and also crossed over at 50Hz to the WATCH Dog. It was surprising to me how well the new Duettes did without the assistance of the sub on “Mars” from The Planets (John Eliot Gardiner leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in a DG recording). The bass drum and timpani detonation occurring about halfway through the movement and the loud organ chords that Holst uses strategically for dramatic effect were far from wimpy. On Songs of the Police, recorded by Bill Schnee in 2000, and recently remastered for a JVC XRCD, singer Kevyn Lettau covers The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” backed by a crack group of L.A. studio musicians. Jerry Watts, Jr. is clearly using a five-string electric bass, with the additional low string tuned to B. When Watts lands on that open string (which is frequently—the song is in B minor), there’s a center-of-the-earth solidity that is soul satisfying, even without the subwoofer. But though the Pass monoblocks are wonderful amps, they are not brutes in the power department. When I replaced the Aleph 0s with a Parasound 23A stereo amplifier, rated at 200 watts into 4 ohms, bass slam and dynamic headroom in general improved significantly on both the Holst and Kevyn Lettau recordings. Best of all was the combination of the Duettes and WATCH Dog with the Aleph 0 monoblocks driving the main speakers and the Parasound, bridged to mono, powering the sub. The lesson here is this: If you’re going to run the Duette Series 2 speakers full-range without a subwoofer, use a beefy solid-state amplifier, especially if your tastes run to dynamically challenging music with important low-bass information. Dave Wilson told me that he and Daryl had recently installed Duettes in the home of a world-famous conductor, someone who knows a thing or two about the sound of a symphony orchestra up close, and he was quite happy without a subwoofer. But lovers of organ music, synthesizer bass, and rock ’n’ roll reproduced at neighbor-enraging levels may find the integration of a good sub mandatory.
Now to the culmination, for me, of this consideration of the Wilson Duette Series 2s: the application of these loudspeakers in a five-channel, surround-sound system optimized for music. I own around 1700 high-resolution multichannel recordings—SACDs, DVD-As, music-only Blu-rays, rips, downloads—and I hungrily revisited many of my favorites. PentaTone’s RQR Series resurrected quadraphonic recordings from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, offering dozens of programs by major classical artists of the time. None surpasses Neville Marriner’s album of Rossini overtures, performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in Brent Town Hall in London. Through the Duettes there was a powerful sense of sitting close to the ensemble with a large, empty room behind me, the extent of which was illuminated by an orchestral tutti followed by a pause. It was a command performance; the ASMF was playing just for me. The most immersive sort of multichannel recording, such as those from the Norwegian 2L label, were exhilarating in their participatory feel—the Trondheimsolistene charging through Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, for instance. The most challenging recording spaces were captured convincingly. Telarc’s The Sound of Glory presents the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, accompanied by orchestra and organ, in a program of hymns that is as awe-inspiring as intended, especially when the huge chorus sings full out, energizing the vast space of the church. Moving from a grandiose scale to an intimate one, a holographic rendering of the Mandelring Quartet playing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8—a suicide note that, thankfully, wasn’t fulfilled—never seemed more edge-of-your-seat intense.
Multichannel productions of rock, pop, jazz, and other genres were just as absorbing. Listen to the way those notorious perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put together the intricate, interlocking parts of a song like “Gaslighting Abbie” from Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature to see what I mean. Or experience the electric sense of occasion generated by a concert recording like Alison Krauss + Union Station: Live. How about the mind-blowing percussion edifices created by one of the Grateful Dead’s drummers on a DVD-A, The Best of Mickey Hart? Or the ungimmicky but highly involving surround mix of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks? Or Frank Zappa’s experimental but accomplished QuAUDIOPHILIAc 4-channel recordings, produced in Zappa’s basement studio in the 1970s, so ahead of their time, as was often the case with that artist? I could go on and on. Which I did.
As I was working on this review, Wilson’s updated 2015 retail price sheet became available and, interestingly enough, the Duette Series 2 and Sophia Series 3 speakers are now priced identically, at $22,500 per pair. These two products should not, as Daryl Wilson put it, “cannibalize each other’s sales”—the two speakers are designed for different functions. If you can place your speakers out into the room, get Sophias (they do have better bass extension). If you need to have your speakers near a wall, the Duettes, with or without a subwoofer, should be your choice. The Duette is indeed, in the younger Wilson’s words, “a serious problem-solver.”
Will I be a Wilson customer for the rest of my life? I hope I’m too young and too healthy to answer that question. More to the point, Wilson Audio has real competition these days at the stratospheric end of the high-end-loudspeaker market, from marques including Raidho, Magico, and MBL. And the next David Wilson could emerge at any time—smart, creative, and ambitious, with new ideas that could change the landscape. That’s what makes the audiophile pursuit as thrilling a ride as we enthusiasts find it to be. For now, I’m gladly remaining in the Wilson Audio fold. I’ve moved down from Sashas. I’ve moved up to Duettes.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, ported stand-mount loudspeaker
Driver complement: 1” doped silk fabric tweeter, 8” paper pulp mid/bass driver
Frequency response: 33Hz–21kHz (with port contribution)
Impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended minimum amplifier power: 20 watts
Dimensions: Duette, 18.5" x 10.5" x 16.2"; stand, 21" x 11.9" x 18.75"
Weight: Duette, 45 lbs.; stand, 65 lbs.
Type: Front-ported passive subwoofer
Driver: 12.5" dual spider
Frequency response: 17–40Hz
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended minimum amplifier power: 150 watts
Dimensions: 26.9" x 25.2" x 18"
Weight: 211 lbs.
Wilson Audio Specialties, Inc.
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606