High-end audio companies face a particular challenge when their founder retires or passes away. More than in other industries, such firms are often built around the singular vision and talent of their founder. The company’s customers buy into that founder’s aesthetic in a deeply personal way that just doesn’t exist with anonymously designed products.
Does any company better exemplify this model than Wilson Audio, and its founder, David Wilson? As many of you know, David Wilson passed away last year at the age of 73. It was a tragic loss for his family, the industry, and for the tens of thousands of people who have enjoyed Wilson loudspeakers over the past 45 years.
But David and his wife Sheryl Lee, with whom he co-founded Wilson Audio, have ensured that Wilson Audio will continue long after their participation in the company ceases. First, they built a formidable loudspeaker development and manufacturing infrastructure driven by a culture of uncompromised quality. Although Wilson products have always been a reflection of David’s vision, he has put in place an engineering team of like-minded individuals who share that vision. On the manufacturing side, the company has very low employee turnover because of the generous wages and benefits Wilson Audio offers. Second, Sheryl Lee’s business acumen continues to drive the company. Third, and perhaps most important, David mentored his youngest son Daryl in loudspeaker design from the time Daryl was old enough to hold a soldering iron.
Daryl has had a hand in many Wilson products over the years, but the Alexx reviewed here is the first “big” speaker that he can claim to have authored. (Daryl designed the single-enclosure Sabrina just before the Alexx.) Consequently, the Alexx speaks volumes about Wilson Audio’s future under now-CEO Daryl Wilson. After spending six months with the Alexx, I can say that this speaker doesn’t just preserve the sonic standards and integrity of the brand; it also advances them. It does this by maintaining Wilson’s classic virtues while steering the overall sound in a new direction. The Alexx isn’t simply an updated version of what came before; rather, it represents a different musical aesthetic.
Daryl had a bit of an advantage in creating the Alexx; it was designed alongside the $685,000 WAMM Master Chronosonic, during the latter part of the development work on David’s magnum opus. Consequently, some of Alexx’s parts and technologies were taken directly from the WAMM.
The $109,000-per-pair Alexx sits in the Wilson line above the Duette Series 2, Sabrina, Yvette, Sasha DAW (another successful Daryl Wilson design), and the Alexia Series 2, but below the Alexandra XLF and, of course, the mighty WAMM Master Chronosonic. The Alexx is a five-driver, four-way system with dual woofers (one 12.5″, one 10.5″), dual midranges, and a single silk dome tweeter. The reflex-loaded woofers can be ported out the front or the back thanks to Wilson’s XLF port—you simply cover either the front- or rear-firing rectangular opening with a panel to best suit the speaker’s placement in your room. The Alexx comprises four enclosures, one for the dual woofers along with three smaller cabinets housing the midrange drivers and tweeter, respectively. Sensitivity is a highish 91dB, with minimum amplifier power specified at 50Wpc. The nominal impedance is 4 ohms, with an impedance minimum of 1.5 ohms at 2850Hz. As with all Wilson products, the Alexx is available in a wide range of automotive paint colors. My review samples were finished in Macadamia Nut, a Porsche color.
The Alexx is the point of entry in the Wilson line for the midrange-tweeter-midrange (MTM) arrangement, each driver in its own enclosure. These three enclosures can be moved in two axes to realize time alignment between drivers as well as optimal dispersion from each at the listening position (more on this later). Typical MTM arrangements feature a pair of identical midrange drivers operated in parallel over the same frequency band. In the Alexx, however, the 5.75″ midrange above the tweeter handles the upper midrange, and the 7″ driver below the tweeter reproduces the lower midrange. Together, the two cover a wider bandwidth than would be possible with a single midrange driver, or with a pair of identical drivers. Dual drivers allow each cone to be optimized for the specific frequency band it reproduces. In addition, the enclosure and the driver loading can be tailored specifically for the driver’s frequency band. (In fact, the upper midrange is vented to the rear, the lower midrange to the front.) This dual-midrange technique is right out of the WAMM playbook, another example of how the Alexx benefited from its big brother.
When I visited the Wilson factory several years ago for the launch of the WAMM I saw perhaps two dozen different tweeters sitting on a table. They ran the gamut of technologies and materials, including beryllium, diamond, titanium, soft dome, doped fabrics, and many others. These were the tweeters considered, and rejected, for the WAMM. Wilson eventually settled on a silk dome diaphragm, incorporated into the Convergent Symmetry Tweeter now deployed in the WAMM and in a slightly different form in the Alexx. The dilemma for loudspeaker designers is that soft domes are not as stiff as hard domes and are thus prone to flexing. On the other hand, hard domes—including beryllium—tend to ring. Wilson believes that it has realized in its tweeter the stiffness necessary to prevent non-pistonic movement, but without the ringing, and the attendant hardness and glare, often heard in metallic domes.
The 12.5″ woofer and 10.5″ woofer are entirely new “blank-sheet” designs, developed for the WAMM specifically to work together in the same enclosure. Again, the Alexx benefits from parallel development with the WAMM; both speakers employ the identical woofer pair, although the WAMM enclosure is much bigger. I can’t imagine that Wilson could have included these two new woofers in the Alexx without sharing them in the WAMM, much the way automakers amortize development costs across different cars built on the same platform.
The enclosure also benefits from development work on the WAMM; the Alexx’s cabinet supporting the upper-midrange module features one section of “W-Material,” which was developed specifically for the WAMM. This is a phenolic resin in which thin sheets of a titanium-aluminum alloy are embedded in the resin an eighth of an inch apart. The WAMM makes extensive use of this exotic material; in the Alexx it appears in the adjustment track-bed for the upper-midrange driver. This plate of W-Material is painted silver no matter what color cabinet you choose (it’s only visible from the back). The majority of the enclosures, including the woofer cabinet and the supporting structure for the midrange and tweeter enclosures, are made from the third-generation of Wilson’s X-Material. A third material, “S-Material,” is used in the midrange baffles. Wilson has found that the different densities and stiffnesses of the various materials perform best in specific locations. All the materials are extremely solid and heavy, and all combine stiffness with damping properties. Incidentally, these materials are very time-consuming to machine because of their density; the cutting bits must move very slowly, and be replaced frequently.
The Alexx’s two midrange and single tweeter enclosures can be adjusted in two axes to realize perfect time alignment at the listening position—a technology Wilson calls Aspherical Propagation Delay. That is, the outputs from each of the drive units combine into a coherent waveform, arriving together at the listener’s ears. A very precisely engineered and executed mechanism, mostly made from machined aluminum parts, realizes this adjustment. Each of the three upper drivers can be moved back and forth, as well as rotated. The back-and-forth movement adjusts the driver’s arrival time at the listening seat relative to the other drivers. The rotation optimizes each driver’s dispersion for a particular listening distance and listening height. A detailed chart in the owner’s manual precisely defines each of the settings for your installation. The time-alignment resolution in the Alexx is about 15 microseconds; in the WAMM it is 5 microseconds. Much of the WAMM’s cost is in the extremely fine mechanisms required to realize this precision.
Wilson believes very strongly that time alignment is critical to fidelity. In fact, the original WAMM from 1981 was built around this concept. It required that David Wilson himself set up every pair of WAMMs to dial-in the time alignment. Wilson has long since developed the designs and techniques I’ve just described so that anyone can calibrate the speaker using Wilson’s charts.
Looking at the Alexx, it’s apparent that a lot of engineering effort and expense went into the separate midrange and tweeter enclosures along with the mechanisms for adjusting their time alignment. If time alignment is so important, why is Wilson the only loudspeaker company pursuing this path? One explanation is that the challenge of designing and building such structures and mechanisms, on a production basis, is simply too daunting. It’s not just the mechanisms themselves that are challenging, so is coupling a movable enclosure to another enclosure without compromising the system’s structural rigidity and resistance to vibration. When you look closely at the design and parts needed to realize movable sub-enclosures with such precision, you realize that time alignment is much easier said than done.
After Wilson Audio’s John Giolas and Peter McGrath finished setting up and calibrating the Alexx in my room and we’d listened for about two hours, they intentionally misaligned the tweeter by moving it back about a millimeter so that I could hear what happens when the tweeter’s output isn’t perfectly coincident with the output from the midrange drivers. The change was immediately obvious; with the tweeter correctly aligned the midrange and treble sounded more correct (realistic) in timbre, and the sound had a greater focus and coherence through the midband.
Finally, I must comment on the owner’s manual. The Alexx manual is a model of clarity, comprehensiveness, writing/photographic quality, and beautiful printing on super-premium paper. It pains me to see shoddy owner’s manuals for expensive products. They reflect badly on the products and on the industry as a whole. The customer is paying for a premium component, and every aspect of the presentation should be commensurate with the work that went into that component.
It almost goes without saying after all these years that the Alexx’s execution, fit ’n’ finish, and build-quality are simply impeccable. This is as good as it gets, with the stunning paintwork and the meticulous way all the parts fit together. While on a tour of the Wilson factory a few years ago I happened to see a cabinet that had been rejected for a paint imperfection. I looked closely but couldn’t see the flaw. It was pointed out to me, and I still couldn’t see it. After a few minutes I finally noticed a barely perceptible ripple in the painted surface—and it was on the bottom of the cabinet! David Wilson once explained to me that any deviation from the standard of perfection dilutes the culture and would ultimately compromise the brand. That’s the same reason you don’t see a budget line of Wilson speakers with relaxed build and finish standards—cutting corners here and there can be a slippery slope. Every product, from TuneTot to WAMM, is built to the same standard.
While I was working on this review the next-generation Corvette was unveiled to great fanfare. This new ’Vette is strikingly different in styling and design from previous models over the car’s 66-year history. For starters, the new model is based on a mid-engine platform, an architecture previously found only in six-figure supercars. By necessity, the new model looks very different from its predecessors. An automotive journalist wrote about the styling: “The overall effect is one that instantly says both ‘Corvette!’ and ‘This is something different.’”
That observation of how the new Corvette looks mirrored my view of how the Alexx sounds; the speaker embodies the classic Wilson attributes yet immediately establishes itself as something new and different. It’s clearly a Wilson, but an evolved Wilson.
One of those classic Wilson qualities is bottom-end weight, dynamic impact, and solidity—anchoring the music with a powerful foundation. In this regard, the Alexx is characteristic Wilson, with a strong “bottom-up” presentation. But the Alexx takes these previous Wilson hallmarks to a new level of performance, with more sudden dynamic impact and faster decay, resulting in a tighter sound with greater low-frequency pitch definition and resolution. The speaker is also more dynamically agile and “light on its feet” than previous Wilsons. The Alexx deftly combines weight and authority with speed and precision, resulting in a very satisfying bottom end. This muscular and powerful bass is as adept at portraying the body, size, and power of an orchestra’s bass section as it is at accurately reproducing kick drum and electric bass. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s spectacular rendition of the Hendrix classic “Voodoo Chile” [Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Analogue Productions 45rpm vinyl] opens with just Stevie’s guitar and the kick drum, with the latter instrument reproduced by the Alexx with deep extension, effortless transient impact, and a resolution of detail that conveyed the impression of a drumhead being struck and the body of the drum resonating. When a drum is reproduced in a way that is much more detailed than just a low-frequency thump, the mind’s eye conjures up a more vivid impression of the drummer playing the kit.
Turning to jazz, Ray Brown’s amazingly recorded bass on his album Soular Energy had a tremendous sense of body, presence, and power, along with superb transient attack that beautifully conveyed his swinging style. In addition, the Alexx’s bottom end was simply unflappable, with no change in character with listening level. Try the MQA version of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues for a sense of how effortlessly the speaker reproduces very low frequencies at very high levels while maintaining its composure. This new combination of two woofers of unequal size (10.5″ and 12.5″) appears to be a good approach. Remember, these are the identical woofers developed specifically for the cost-no-object WAMM.
Although the Alexx’s generous bottom end is very much in the Wilson tradition, the midband and treble are a departure. In a word, the Alexx is a much more intimate loudspeaker than classic Wilsons, favoring midrange warmth, textural richness, harmonic beauty, and tone-color density. The Alexx’s midrange is subtle, refined, somewhat laid-back, gentle, and almost self-effacing. It’s also very smooth, with low coloration. Consequently, the Alexx doesn’t call attention to itself as a loudspeaker. I must admit that it took some time for me to warm up to this sound, particularly having just come off the very different Wilson Benesch Eminence. That speaker had a much lighter-weight bottom end, and a significantly more forward and illuminated midrange. But the longer I listened to the Alexx, the more I came to appreciate the way it is musically vivid without being sonically vivid. It presents a rich panorama of expression, but in a way that made me “lean in” toward the music. The result was a relaxation that fostered an intimacy that just doesn’t occur with speakers that are overly forward in their pursuit of resolution. Many loudspeakers that are more extroverted through the midrange sound exciting and detailed, but their forwardness is a barrier to total relaxation and musical immersion. The Alexx isn’t a speaker that dazzles during a brief listen, but one that only fully reveals itself over time. It just offers a more subtle, refined, and sophisticated presentation than any previous Wilson.
Two other sonic qualities contributed to the Alexx’s remarkable midrange performance. The first is a complete lack of glare, grain, and hardness. This is a very smooth and liquid-sounding speaker through the mids. If you’ve ever experienced your ears tightening up from a piercing midrange—or from timbres that emphasize the upper harmonics at the expense of fundamental richness—you’ll appreciate how the Alexx conveys musical expression by fostering a receptivity and openness to the music through its gentler presentation.
The Alexx doesn’t hype the leading edges of transients, which can leave the impression that it is a bit dark or muted in the upper mids. It simply doesn’t have an artificial edge on transients—a shortcoming of many speakers, and the leading culprit in creating listening fatigue and a sense of relief when the music is turned down or off. For example, the rapid-fire flamenco guitar work on Paco de Lucia’s Live in America was fully articulated, but without the piercing transients that emphasize string attacks rather than the bodies of the guitars. Similarly, the zapateo (percussive footwork) on this album conveyed the transient attacks, but those transients were full-bodied rather than sounding threadbare and skeletal. This smoothness encourages long listening sessions and, when called for, high playback levels.
From this description one might think that the Alexx pays for this ease and intimacy with a lack of presence. But that’s not the case. The Alexx has a very strong sense of presence and immediacy, but not from thrusting instruments forward in the soundstage. Rather, the presence springs from tremendous coherence, alacrity, and focus, along with smoothness of timbre. In addition, the Alexx has the most transparent and lowest coloration midrange of any Wilson I’ve heard (except the WAMM). It all adds up to a palpability and directness of expression that, combined with the speaker’s relaxed ease, is immensely communicative. The instrumental break in the tune “Harpo’s Blues” from Phoebe Snow’s self-titled debut album (Analogue Productions 45rpm) is a good example. The instrumentation, arrangement, and performances couldn’t be more delicate; yet there’s an uncanny feeling of hearing the instruments themselves and not an artificial reproduction. The sound is very relaxed and gentle, yet the perception of real instruments is palpable. This quality is heightened by the utter silence of the background, which allows the Alexx to reveal the most delicate of cues. It’s quite a trick to combine a relaxed sound with vivid transparency, but that’s what the Alexx delivers.
Soundstaging was also superb, with the Alexx throwing a good sense of size and scale on orchestral music, but also shifting gears and presenting smaller ensembles with the appropriate scale. The speaker has the ability to portray the size and dimensions of a large recording venue, such as the gorgeous acoustic on the stunning Vivaldi in Venice LP [Chasing the Dragon]. Yet switch to a small trio such as Norah Jones’ Day Breaks, and the Alexx suddenly sounds like a much smaller speaker, with mini-monitor-like focus. The Alexx was also able to portray very fine gradations of left/right placement, with no sense of blurring or confusion. This tight image focus was particularly apparent on tom-tom fills, each tom presented across the soundstage with precise location.
The Alexx is a milestone loudspeaker for Wilson Audio in many ways. Absent any context, it is simply a superb transducer. But when viewed as a reflection of Daryl Wilson’s design talents and musical aesthetic, the Alexx also makes a bold statement about the direction and future of this iconic brand.
It would have been safer and easier to simply make minor changes to existing products, and to pursue the sonic qualities that have endeared so many to Wilson Audio’s products over the past 45 years. But the Alexx doesn’t take the safe route, and in the process breaks new ground for Wilson Audio in midrange smoothness, liquidity, low coloration, transparency, and the feeling of musical communication and intimacy those qualities engender. Moreover, the Alexx is the best Wilson yet in the bass, combining greater speed and transient fidelity with tremendous power, weight, and extension.
The torch has been passed.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Four-way, five-driver dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: 12.5″ woofer, 10.5″ woofer, 7″ lower midrange, 5.75“ upper midrange, 1″ silk dome tweeter
Loading: XLF port, adjustable rear or front
Frequency response: 20Hz–31kHz ±3dB
Sensitivity: 91dB 1W/1m
Impedance: 4 ohms (1.5 ohms minimum at 2850Hz)
Minimum amplifier power: 50W
Dimensions: 15.75″ x 62.25″ x 26.75″
Weight: 452 lbs. each, net
WILSON AUDIO SPECIALTIES
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606
Analog source: Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable with SuperArm 12.5 tonearm; Air Tight Opus cartridge; Moon 810LP phonostage
Digital source: Aurender W20 server, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 DAC; Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-AES/EBU converter; Shunyata Research Sigma USB cable; AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU cable, T+A SDV 3100HV DAC and PDT 3100HV CD/SACD transport
Amplification: Constellation Altair 2 preamplifier; Constellation Hercules 2 monoblock power amplifiers
AC Power: Shunyata Research Triton V3, Typhon QR, Sigma power cords; Shunyata AC outlets, five dedicated 20A lines wired with 10AWG
Support: Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment racks and Olympus amplifier stands; CenterStage2 isolation
Cables: Shunyata Research Sigma interconnects and loudspeaker cables; AudioQuest WEL Signature interconnects and Dragon Zero loudspeaker cables
Acoustics: Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 12
Room: Acoustic Sciences Corporation Iso-Wall System
LP Cleaning: Klaudio KD-CLN-LP200, Levin Design record brush
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor
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