When an audio manufacturer offers a “line” of components, is a more expensive model necessarily better than a less costly one? Not always. The speaker you purchase should be determined less by the heft of your bank account and more by your room requirements, listening style, and taste in music. Taking these things into consideration, I can report that Wilson Audio’s next-to-the-bottom-of-the-line loudspeaker, the Duette Series 2 ($22,500 the pair), was just what I was after. And I’m telling you this as someone who has owned bigger Wilson speakers—three iterations of the venerable WATT/Puppy system, to be exact.
I bought WATT/Puppy 2/3s over 20 years ago, subsequently replacing them with 6s and, about four years ago, with Sashas. Along the way, I developed an interest in multichannel music that became a driving force in the development of my audio system. At first I complemented the W/Ps with other quality brands for the center speaker and surrounds; eventually I acquired three of the original Duettes for those channels. This all-Wilson configuration did pretty well with the best discrete multichannel recordings, but it wasn’t ideal for my room.
At 15′ x 15′, my listening space is fairly small, and my devotion to multichannel necessitates a listening position that isn’t too close to the rearwall (and the surround speakers). As a result, I had to sit rather close to the front plane of the Sashas, which need to be positioned at least a few feet away from room boundaries—a location that could make the sound too immediate.
I’ve often wondered if there might be spatial enhancements to be had with both two-channel and surround material if the main speakers could be situated further away and farther apart. Since I had heard that the redesigned Duette was optimized for placement near a wall, when Robert Harley asked if I’d like to review the newer Duettes, I said, “Sure—have them send five.”
David Wilson, who has been manufacturing consumer loudspeakers for four decades, is now 70. He’s in good health and continues to design speakers and run his company. In the words of Peter McGrath, who is the company’s national sales manager and has known Wilson since the early 1970s, “He still drives the bus.” But “succession” is something that has long been discussed in this family business, and Dave and Sheryl Lee’s son Daryl has emerged as the heir apparent.
“I’ve grown up with Wilson Audio,” Daryl told me. “I twisted cable in my parents’ garage back when I was just a little kid, swept parking lots, cleaned the fab shop, answered phones…Wilson Audio is a part of me and it courses through my blood. I want not only to sustain Wilson Audio, but to continue to develop products that are state of the art.” In fact, of the 50 or so speakers that Wilson Audio has offered over its history, Daryl has worked on 27 of them. Although he is quick to emphasize the team approach to R&D at the company and to gently play down his relative youth, the Duette Series 2 is largely Daryl Wilson’s design. “There are a handful of products that I worked on from beginning to end, and my dad just signed off on. The Duette 2 is a special one for me.”
The Series 2 differs in a number of significant ways from the original Duette, which was first marketed a decade ago. That speaker was designed for maximum versatility—for use near walls or away from walls, on stands or on a bookshelf, even oriented horizontally. This need for versatile placement drove many design features and made certain compromises necessary. The sides of the enclosure, for instance, had to be flat for bookshelf mounting, while the system for attaching the speaker to a stand (which involved magnets, metal tiptoes, brass discs, and putty) was not only acoustically sub-optimal but also perilous—an enthusiastic pet or five-year-old could easily send a Duette crashing to the floor. Again, due to the need for flexibile placement, the front baffle had to be perpendicular to the floor, greatly complicating things when it came to driver alignment in this two-way design.
Daryl and others considered actual customer utilization in redesigning the speaker. They discovered that people were mostly using the Duettes on stands, and definitely were not laying them on their sides. So, although you can still buy Duettes with a free-standing Novel crossover that connects to the speaker via an umbilical cord (at a savings of $2500), the usual implementation is with a newly designed stand that has the crossover hidden inside it, as well as a pair of threaded bolts to securely bond the speaker to that stand. The most profound advances with the Series 2 probably derive from the decision to always have the speaker oriented vertically. The vertical orientation allowed for variation in the thickness of the walls of the enclosure, which is fashioned from a phenolic-resin-based composite, Wilson’s extremely rigid “X Material.” This variability in wall thickness has the effect of breaking up persistent resonances identified via Wilson’s sophisticated laser-vibrometry technology. The internal bracing has also been reconfigured accordingly, again using X Material.
The front baffle now has a ten-degree slope that results in better sonic integration of the tweeter and the mid/woofer. The Series 2 tweeter, explains Daryl Wilson, is “a modified version of the original Duette tweeter. We learned a lot from the development of the Alexia, and the modifications for the Alexia’s Convergent Synergy tweeter. The Duette Series 2 tweeter is not a Convergent Synergy tweeter and has the same motor as the original Duette. But the rear-wave control system we developed for the Alexia is utilized with the Duette Series 2 tweeter.” This tweeter is a narrow-dispersion driver, in which dispersion characteristics are further improved by the new sloped front baffle. Wilson does supply alternative resistors that allow the user to either boost or attenuate the tweeters’ outputs by 1dB (this surgery is easily performed on the Duette’s back panel, using a supplied Allen wrench). The mid/woofer in the Series 2 and the internal volume of the box are identical to those of the original Duette—but bass performance is considerably improved thanks to changes in the construction of the enclosure, and revisions to the crossover.
Two other aspects of the Duette Series 2’s redesign deserve comment. The first is ergonomic. The binding posts for the connection of amplifiers are located near the bottom of the stand—which, by the way, is also fabricated from X material, with the top and bottom plates machined from aircraft-grade aluminum—and are on a tilted surface that makes attaching speaker cables near a wall much easier, with less chance of kinking wires. The terminals themselves are clearly labeled with large, white “plus” or “minus” symbols. (The binding posts accept spades only, Wilson having long since rejected other designs for sonic reasons.) Also, as was the case with the original Duette, the user must connect the crossover to the tweeter and mid/woofer driver via supplied cables and sets of terminals on the speaker itself. The wires travel through the stand, emerging from a slot close to the top plinth. Since connecting the cables incorrectly can damage the drivers, the wires in the Series 2 are color-coded, making connections pretty much impossible to screw up. (This was not the case with the original Duette.)
The second aspect of the redesign that struck me is aesthetic. Although beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder, I find the new Duette to be the most visually appealing speaker Wilson has ever produced. Because of the sloped front baffle—which allows the drivers to be aimed slightly upward—the stands are shorter, with the form factor of a perfectly proportioned lectern. In addition to not being box-shaped, the speakers manifest a subtle triangularity on their side panels (a functional reflection of the variable panel-thickness described earlier) that lends an understated elegance to the Duette’s appearance.
The Duettes arrived by truck in ten substantial wooden crates. Because of my familiarity with Wilson products, I undertook to uncrate them and roughly position them in advance of Peter McGrath’s customary visit, made to ensure that a reviewer has a Wilson product sounding its best. The outcome was remarkable on two counts. First, I suffered no injury more serious than a few splinters from manipulating the crates. Second, to my immense pride, McGrath didn’t find the need to move the five Duettes at all. (Although Wilson provides step-by-step instructions for the setup of all its speakers, it also requires its dealers to install speakers—something they’ve been trained to do. Some dealers charge for this service and some don’t. It might be an item for negotiation with a purchase of this magnitude.) In fact, there was an eleventh crate sent from Utah, this one a real monster containing a WATCH Dog passive subwoofer. Dialing the sub in, utilizing Wilson’s WATCH Controller, took McGrath an hour or so.
As noted above, my room is 15′ x 15′, though that symmetry isn’t nearly as problematic as you might think. A hall opens up close to the right main channel and the wall behind the front speakers is mostly covered, floor to ceiling, with discs of various kinds. The ceiling is high, ranging from 11 to 13 feet. The room has carpet over an acoustically isolating foam/vinyl pad (to protect my downstairs neighbors from Mahler and Mayall), and there’s a concrete slab below that. (The spikes on the Duettes and WATCH Dog make it down to the concrete.) You’ll find no sound-absorbing pillows, reflectors, or diffusers in my room. Instead, I depend on the software in my Anthem D2v processor to apply room correction all the way out to 20kHz. My usual amplification is four Pass Labs components: a pair of Aleph 0 monoblocks for the main front channels, a 60.8 monoblock for the center, and an Aleph 0s stereo amplifier for the surrounds. A Parasound A23 amplifier, bridged to mono to produce 400 watts, powers the passive WATCH Dog. CDs, SACDs, DVD-As, and Blu-rays are played on an Oppo 93 that functions as a transport; D-to-A conversion is done via the Anthem. Digital files, both downloaded and ripped from physical media, are managed and played by a Baetis Revolution II media computer.
Initially I plopped the five Duettes down in an approximation of the standard ITU configuration. Preliminary listening revealed a hole-in-the-middle effect that was cured by moving each main speaker about six inches closer to the center. When all was said and done, my ears were ten feet from the right and left front speakers, which were themselves ten feet apart, nine feet from the center channel, and six to seven feet from the surround Duettes.
I assessed the Duette Series 2s as a stereo pair, with and without subwoofer, and in a multichannel system with the WATCH Dog. The first order of business, however, was to compare the Duette Series 2 to the original version of the speaker. I set up both pairs of speakers near each other, with the earlier versions a few feet out into the room and closer together. Levels were matched by ear—the Series 2s have a sensitivity of 92dB whereas that specification for the original Duette is 88dB.
Succinctly put, the Series 2 is a better speaker than its predecessor: It plays louder and lower, and with less of a sense of stress on demanding source material. With a favorite choral recording, Stile Antico singing Thomas Campion’s “Never weather-beaten sail” from Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, there was superior resolution of individual voices when the Series 2s were in service, resulting in less homogenization of the ensemble sonority. A recording of Dvorák’s New World Symphony under Iván Fischer on the Channel Classics label was more representative of the glorious Italian Institute in Budapest through the newer Duettes. Electric bass and drums on well-recorded rock and pop recordings were faster and better fleshed-out. I won’t belabor the point. I gave the older speakers a fond farewell, crated them, and exiled them to the basement.
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
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