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Wilson Audio Specialties Chronosonic XVX Loudspeaker, Subsonic Subwoofer, and ActivXO Crossover

Wilson Audio’s new flagship speaker

Whenever I’ve experienced a new standard in loudspeaker performance throughout the years, it’s usually been a case of the new speaker achieving an incremental improvement in a few or several areas of sonic performance that outweigh that new speaker’s shortcomings in other areas. For me, judging a loudspeaker that aspires to the state of the art involves weighing tradeoffs and then perhaps concluding that, on balance, the new speaker is the best I’ve heard.

This wasn’t the case with the Chronosonic XVX; it is markedly superior to any other speaker I’ve heard in many, many specific areas and, most importantly, in musical realism and expression. That musical expression is the synergistic combination of its myriad sonic attributes that infuse reproduced music with a sense of life and realism. These attributes include dynamic contrast, transient resolution and coherence, transient weight, bass power and articulation, midrange beauty, soundstaging, timbral resolution, and clarity of instrumental line.

I customarily begin this part of the review by describing the product’s most salient virtue. But the XVX has so many outstanding performance qualities that choosing just one to begin with is difficult. Nonetheless, I’ll start with the XVX’s reproduction of transients and dynamic contrasts, and the sense of realism and life this transient fidelity brings to music reproduction.

The XVX delivered a physically startling sense of suddenness on transient attacks. Compared with the real thing, reproduced music typically suffers from a diminution of the initial transient, in both speed and impact. Horn speakers and electrostatics can have lifelike leading-edge transient reproduction, but horns are to my ears often tonally colored, and electrostats lack weight and impact behind the transient. The XVX has the speed of a horn speaker or an electrostatic, but without the respective shortcomings of those two technologies. The XVX managed to combine tremendous transient speed with a hard-hitting physical power and force that is nothing short of thrilling. The drum kit as reproduced through the XVX was absolutely revelatory, with a visceral verve and lifelike suddenness. The way that each drum strike pops out of the music, the way a live kit sounds, is one of the defining aspects of the XVX’s sense of realism. This quality brought a new level of rhythmic expression to familiar music.

Although some speakers sound fast, the XVX stands alone in its ability to convey great weight and energy along with speed. There’s a sense of massive power to transients, particularly those that have low-frequency energy, such as low-tuned toms, congas, and kettle drums. I had the impression that all the energy in the transient is delivered instantaneously rather than smeared over time, and with equal speed and decay across a very wide frequency band. There was no sense of the low-frequency component lagging behind the rest of the spectrum, either on attacks or decays. The track “Armando’s Rhumba” from Chick Corea’s Spanish Heart Band album Antidote [Tidal MQA] features an extended percussion break with low-tuned congas, timbales, and other Latin percussion instruments. I could hear and feel the low-frequency resonance of the congas’ wooden body (with superb pitch definition, I should add) coupled with the sharp attack of hands on the skins. The exuberantly played timbales during this break were reproduced with the startling force of the stick hitting the head, and accompanied by the unmistakable sound of the metal drum resonating. The XVX sounded as though it had virtually unlimited dynamic range; peaks were reproduced in their full expression, with no compression. Concomitantly, decays were equally fast, without smearing or overhang. The XVX seemed to have a very fast settling time, swinging from loud peaks to deep silence instantaneously. It was like hearing music without a compressor in the signal path.

It’s impossible to overstate the effect of this transient fidelity on the sense of realism, and of conveying the life, vitality, and energy in the music. This speed, weight behind the transients, and lack of overhang were amplified by the XVX’s ability to extend this performance into the bottom octaves. It wasn’t just fast and powerful through the mids and treble, but also down to the very lowest frequencies, and without any bloat or bass artifacts that called attention to themselves. The resulting sense of physicality was unlike anything I’ve heard from any other loudspeaker. To say that the XVX is hard-hitting is an understatement. It is whole-body thrilling, from orchestral climaxes to propulsive grooves. The XVX reveals the absolutely perfect lockstep between the kick drum and bass guitar on Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues [Tidal MQA], for example. This music demands this level of dynamic agility and bass precision to fully convey the musicans’ intent.

But the XVX wasn’t only about bombast. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the XVX was equally adept at portraying very fine transient information such as gentle shakers toward the back of the mix. Low-level information was rendered with tremendous clarity, making instruments sound like distinct objects in space rather than undifferentiated sounds buried within the musical fabric. I greatly enjoyed the way the XVX revealed a wealth of subtle nuances in the most delicate cymbal work. I’ve appreciated drummer Billy Higgins’ work on many records (he was the house drummer for Blue Note for many years, and appeared on more than 500 albums), but the XVX’s transient fidelity and low-level resolution revealed the full extent of his artistry. I heard newfound expression through the XVX, such as the way Higgins maintains a shimmering rhythmic pulse on the riveted ride cymbal, snare accents that surprise and delight, subtle modulations of the volume of kickdrum beats, and rhythmic interplay with a soloist. Listen to the track “Second Balcony Jump” from Dexter Gordon’s album Go [Music Matters LP reissue] and marvel at how adeptly he shifts from the oddly syncopated head to a full-on swing when Dexter launches into his soaring solo. (Incidentally, there’s a funny story in Sophisticated Giant, Maxine’s Gordon’s biography of her late husband, about how this piece was named.) This kind of connection with a musician’s expression is the raison d’être of high-end audio, and the XVX delivers like no other speaker I’ve heard. It wasn’t just Higgins’ drumming that I came to appreciate more; I had the same experience with many other drummers. The XVX’s lifelike rendering of the drum kit, from its transient impact to subtleties of dynamics, brought to the fore the playing of my favorite drummers, including Peter Erskine, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and Leon Chancler.

The XVX’s dynamic agility paid dividends not just on percussive sounds, but on virtually all instruments. The entrance of a brass or woodwind instrument or section, for example, had a similar kind of physical immediacy. The way the XVX portrayed the initial attack, followed by the sense of expanding air around the instrument, was sensational. The XVX presents a powerful sense of presence and immediacy; a vocal entrance momentarily startles the brain’s primitive response into thinking another human has suddenly appeared in the room. I heard this quality, uniquely before hearing the XVX, during a 90-minute audition of the WAMM MC at its introduction several years ago.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around the XVX’s tonal balance. On one hand, it is extremely flat, smooth, and neutral in character, all the way down to the bottom octave. When playing music without much energy in the mid-to-upper bass, the XVX’s bottom-end is world class in pitch definition and clarity, but doesn’t sound qualitatively different from other reference-class loudspeakers. But when asked to reproduce instruments with a lot of energy in the lower registers, the XVX takes on an entirely different character. Suddenly, it’s as though there’s another level of weight, richness of tone color, solidity, and visceral power. The XVX, unlike any other speaker I’ve heard, fully reproduces the solidity, density, and weight of low-frequency-rich instruments such as an orchestra’s doublebass section, or brass instruments when playing in their lower registers. This is the classic “power range” of the orchestra, and heard through the XVX it is thrilling. Listen, for example, to the Dallas Winds brass section on the spectacular Keith Johnson recording John Williams at the Movies on Reference Recordings (176/24 downloaded from Reference). The big brass-section tuttis will lift you out of your seat with their force. Not only that, but the timbre of the instruments is fully fleshed out, without the common affliction of low-frequency-rich instruments sounding thinned in tone color and robbed of their weight.

I began the previous paragraph by saying that the XVX’s tonal balance was an enigma. The puzzlement is this: The XVX has a huge bottom end with seemingly limitless weight, extension, dynamics, and sheer ability to move air. Yet, at the same time, it’s fast, light, agile, and completely free from any thickness, bloat, or boom. The tonal balance is lean and light on music without much low-frequency energy, yet extremely dense, rich, and full when the music calls for it. The XVX’s preternatural ability to seemingly change its tonal balance based on the music’s energy distribution is unique in my experience. I was amazed by how much bass energy the XVX could put into the room without a trace of boom, as well as its ability to maintain an unflappable sense of precision and control at the lowest frequencies, even when reproduced at high listening levels. This is a combination that I’ve not heard in any other speaker, and one that takes reproduced music to the next level of realism. This sense of tight control was revealed in the XVX’s superb definition of the pitch and articulation of each note. I heard detail in bass lines that I’d never heard before, each note clearly distinct in timbre, pitch, and dynamics. This combination of clarity, massive weight, and unlimited dynamics, with those qualities maintained down to the very bottom octave, was viscerally thrilling. This was true of the XVX without the Subsonic subwoofers, but the pair of subs extended this remarkable performance to the infrasonic range—the subs are flat to an astonishing 10Hz.

I should add a caveat here; my only experience with the XVX is in my listening room—I haven’t heard it at a show, the factory, or in a dealer’s showroom. My listening room is atypical, designed from scratch with good dimensional ratios for smooth distribution of room-resonant modes. It was built with the ASC IsoWall technique whose primary virtue is the room’s ability to be driven hard by low-frequency energy and not overload or cause the building structure to store and later release energy (“wall shudder’). I don’t know how the XVX will behave in a conventional room, but can say that the XVX’s bass and dynamic performance in this room were uniquely spectacular.

We’ve all had the experience of walking down a street and upon hearing music, knowing instantly that it’s live. The XVX has that similar quality of presence and immediacy through the midrange. The mids are simply sensational in lifelike presence and vividness. This vividness isn’t the result of sounding forward or analytical, but rather from the sheer sense of realism, that impression of the instrument right there, in front of you. The XVX has a gorgeous and lifelike rendering of timbre that combines warmth and richness with very high resolution—often mutually exclusive qualities. There’s an organic, relaxed beauty to the sound, yet at the same time the midband is extraordinarily revealing of very fine textural, spatial, and dynamic cues. The result is an almost spooky sense of presence that makes it easy to forget that you’re listening to a reproduction. In addition, the XVX portrays instrumental timbre with a weight and density without sounding dark or closed in. The common affliction in reproduced music of thinning tone color and upper harmonics overlaid with a whitish patina was completely absent in the XVX. The sound of the violin (Hillary Hahn’s Retrospective on DG, direct-to-disc) was particularly revealing of the XVX’s unique combination of harmonic warmth with resolution of very fine detail. Her instrument was rich, full-bodied, and densely textured in the fundamentals and lower-order harmonics along with a sweetness in the upper harmonics that simply made the reproduction sound closer to the real thing. The sound was ravishingly beautiful in timbre and in the full measure of her expression. The trumpet is another example; the XVX conveys a tremendous amount of high-frequency detail and power yet without a hard, whitish edge. Consequently, I could listen to music at very high levels, when appropriate, without my ears closing down on peaks, and without listening fatigue. The XVX is a speaker you can listen to for very long sessions at high levels and not feel tired.

This realism may be the result of the XVX’s resolution of the very fine microstructure in instrumental timbre. For example, woodwind instruments don’t produce a purely steady-state tone on held notes, but rather a rapid series of micro-transients created by the reed moving back and forth. It could be that the XVX’s transient fidelity extends into this micro-realm, correctly reproducing the temporal microstructure that provides the brain with cues that trigger the impression of timbral realism.

The sense of ease through the midrange carried over to the treble, which was utterly without metallic hardness, grain, or excessive brightness. The silk dome tweeter never called attention to itself, instead blending seamlessly into the sound. The top end was natural and relaxed; the treble never sounded like a separate component riding on top of the music. Vocal sibilance was noticeably smoother and more natural, blending perfectly into the sound of the voice rather than sounding like an artifact riding on top of it. Cymbals seemed to float in air, their decays richly textured and resolved way down into deep silence. The treble openness contributed to the XVX’s sense of live air and space in a hall, no doubt aided by the upward-firing tweeter.

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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.

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