by Marc Mickelson | November 16, 2012
© www.theaudiobeat.comDo you listen to music or sound? This might seem like a trick question, but it's not. It underscores a chasm that exists within the audiophile experience -- between practice and theory, the end and the means -- and the audiophile's desire to bridge it. We audiophiles know the wonders of great recorded music and how they're intensified when they're the product of realistic sound. For us, sonic realism makes for greater enjoyment of and involvement with the music, and this is a sign of an audio system's ability to suspend disbelief, to convince us that the boundaries between live and recorded music have been diminished to a point of being inconsequential, out of the realm of persistent thought.
An audio system can do that, accomplishing it through the sound it produces. But this simple fact has led to some distorted beliefs about what causes it. There are audiophiles for whom an audio system is purely a technical entity whose aim is to fulfill a mental construct of what sound should look like. It's all about frequency-response and impedance plots, not to mention power output, distortion and sensitivity figures. The flatter the plots, the better the numbers, the "better" the sound. It seems so simple, but any experienced listener knows that it's not, because the correlation between measurements and sound quality is, to be generous, a work-in-progress. The best audio electronics and speakers -- those that produce the most realistic sound -- are the products of technically savvy individuals who listen, not an army of engineers who design by the numbers. There is no question that measurements reveal important information, and they are especially useful during development, when products are being roughed out. But they are not predictors of success for any audio product, and they can seriously mislead those who make judgments -- and buying decisions -- based on them.
Better than any person I know, David Wilson has successfully integrated the technical and experiential halves of the audiophile character, this coming from his own character as well as his deep, wide experience within the audio industry. He was a recording engineer, audio tinkerer and audio writer when he launched his company nearly 40 years ago, his first products being a revised version of the classic AR turntable and a roster of finely wrought recordings that audiophiles continue to covet. His first speaker, the original WAMM, was introduced in 1981; in 1985 came the first WATT, the Puppy following three years later. With them, David Wilson literally invented an important and enduring loudspeaker platform.
Over the next quarter-century, Wilson and his growing crew of engineers and craftsmen created a number of new speakers, updating them incrementally but meaningfully along the way. But it's something I've heard him say more than once that I find most telling about him, his company and his design process: "I make speakers I like, and I'm fortunate that others like them too." While Wilson Audio certainly has a well-defined technological framework underpinning its speakers, including multipiece cabinet design, the use of advanced proprietary materials, and adjustable propagation delay, at the heart of every Wilson Audio speaker is something much simpler: listening. David Wilson literally travels the world listening in renowned venues, and this provides background for the design work he does back at the factory. One of his preferred listening spots -- almost a remote laboratory -- is the Musikverein in Vienna, and it was here that he honed some of the fine points of Wilson Audio's recent offerings, among them the Wilson-designed midrange driver, whose cone is a composite of fibrous materials including paper and carbon fiber.
Even newer and more significant is the tweeter that makes its debut with the Alexandria XLF, Wilson Audio's current flagship speaker and the most massive speaker Wilson Audio has ever produced. This driver came about because David Wilson wanted to improve upon the performance of the Focal inverted-dome tweeter, which Wilson Audio had used for many years, in two important areas: dynamic contrast and harmonic expression, both understood and expressed through his close listening to live music. David Wilson had to consider measurable characteristics, including sensitivity (which affected the driver's ability to convey dynamic contrast) and frequency response at the bottom end of the tweeter's range (which affected its ability to transition to Wilson Audio's 6 1/2" midrange driver). But these were easy to identify, in contrast to the sonic properties he sought, which required time and experience to discover.
Not able to find an existing tweeter that met his criteria, even ones that boasted of exotic dome materials and impressive specifications, Wilson decided to begin the beguine, so to speak. He and Vern Credille, Wilson Audio's in-house driver expert, set about designing a new driver that would achieve what Dave wanted in sonic terms while also working with Wilson Audio's other chosen drivers. The Alexandria XLF uses this driver -- a 1" silk-dome tweeter designed by Wilson Audio and partially manufactured by Scan-Speak. "Partially" means that Scan-Speak manufactures the dome, magnet and flange to Wilson Audio's specs, while Wilson Audio manufactures all of the rear elements of the driver.
There was also the desire to rethink the bass output -- to discover a way for the speaker to reproduce very deep, very powerful low frequencies in a wider variety of rooms. The Alexandria X-2 was front ported, while other Wilson Audio speakers have rear-firing ports. The Alexandria XLF's Cross-Load Firing system allows either front or rear configuration of the port, depending on room characteristics. As with the speaker's adjustable driver modules, the port orientation is determined when the speakers are set up in the listening room. All of these things together make the Alexandria XLF one of the most adaptable and room-friendly large speakers in existence.
The XLF's cabinet continues to be machined from Wilson Audio's X and S materials. X is a phenolic-resin composite in its second generation. Wilson Audio has used it most often for bass cabinets, because of its very dense, very hard physical properties, but for the XLF it's used everywhere except the midrange and tweeter baffles, which are S material. This was named for the Sasha, whose cabinet was the first to use it. What makes it ideal for its application is that it's nearly as rigid as X material, but its midrange-frequency energy dispersion is more optimal -- "optimal" meaning it successfully evacuates midrange energy, as measured by laser vibrometer.
The 13" and 15" woofers are the same as those used for the Alexandria X-2 Series 2, which remains in the Wilson Audio product lineup, although the handwriting seems to be on the wall. The difference in price between the two speakers -- about $30,000 -- puts them too close together in a relative sense, and while the X-2 is slightly more sensitive, this alone is not enough to cause a potential customer buy it over the XLF. After hearing the two side by side almost a year ago, I surely wouldn't, although I would say that I'd be ecstatic to own either speaker.
It's easy to forget about the ambience tweeter on the top-rear surface of the XLF -- you have to be an NBA center to see it. It is one of those exotic tweeters -- a 1" Scan-Speak ring radiator -- and it was best for this application, although, as Wilson Audio is quick to point out, not for use as the speaker's main tweeter.
Care and feeding (and feeding and feeding)
As has been the case many times in the past, John Giolas and Trent Workman from Wilson Audio did the setup honors for the XLFs in my large listening room. I've written in the past about this process, one that begins with a routine called "voweling in," which gives the men of Wilson an understanding of the room's acoustic properties and helps them identify the best spots for the speakers. After this, the distance to the listening seat is measured, along with the listener's ear height, and this information indicates the fore-aft placement and rake angle of the speaker's midrange and tweeter modules. The speaker is assembled, and tape is put down on the floor, this used to help in the fine-tuning of the placement and toe-in. A handful of tracks provide the musical fodder for the process, each helping with some aspect of optimizing the setup. Nudges of fractions of an inch forward or back, right or left, in or out, make things better or worse -- sometimes dramatically so. These small movements are important to the setup process.
For the pair of Alexandria XLFs set up in my room, which John and Trent know well, having set up multiple pairs of speakers there, this process took the better part of a day, with final listening and adjustments happening the next morning. I was reminded how important this process is to the sonic outcome when, a couple of months after the speakers were set up (and I had thankfully finished my listening for this review), my wife decided it was time to recarpet our entire house, which meant clearing my listening room of everything, including the speakers -- no easy task, given their size and weight. After the work was done, I put the speakers back where they were -- or as close to this as I could -- and while the sound was there, the magic was gone. Expert setup is part of what you're paying for with the price of Wilson Audio speakers, and it's vital to getting the most out of them. Accept no substitute.
Among the XLF's impressive specs are its 92dB sensitivity and 3.2 minimum impedance, both of which would indicate that it's easy to drive. And that was the case, at least from my experience, as I used about as diverse a collection of amps as could be assembled. Lamm ML2.2 monoblocks and a Blue Circle NSL stereo amp were on the low end in terms of power, but their respective 18 and 28 robust watts presented no issues, not even an isolated bout of clipping. Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 OTL monoblocks were unperturbed by the XLFs' load, as were Lamm M1.2 Reference and Audio Research Reference 250 monoblocks -- no surprise there. Each of these amps made a case for itself in sonic terms, their differences being more distinct on the blank canvas the speakers presented.
But the two winners in this sweepstakes also happened to be the most powerful amps in the survey: Analog Domain Artemis monoblocks, with their 1 kilowatt of power into 8 ohms, and VTL Siegfried Series IIs, with their mere 600 watts. With both of these amps, power was never an issue, nor was it with the speakers, which 20 watts could comfortably drive. Rather, the ways in which these muscle amps uniquely controlled the speakers, and the way the speakers submitted to them, made for a more all-encompassing presentation. Massive dynamic range? Check. Low-end solidity and power? Check. Midrange expression? Check. The ability to differentiate each recording? Check. Delicacy and contrast? Check. Time and time again, I had the impression that the amps were matching the speakers' gargantuan capabilities step for step, not producing an identical soundscape, but two distinct presentations that were nonetheless broadly similar. This is the best way I can put it. I personally consider the VTL Siegfried IIs as best of the best here, for all of the reasons I've revealed above and many others as well, but suffice it to say that the Alexandria XLFs are not fussy when it comes to amplification, and they respond like no other speakers I've had in my room.
Much of what I've just said about the combination of the Alexandria XLFs and various amps applies to Wilson Audio speakers in general, although in varying degrees. For instance, I have written in the past that the Sasha W/Ps and MAXX 3s were dynamic, powerful, expressive and delicate. What the Alexandria XLFs achieve is not so much more of any one of these things, but rather a wider range of them individually and, when considered together, in totality. This is a way of saying that the XLFs revealed more about the equipment upstream and especially the music played through them than any speakers I've heard -- than any piece of audio equipment I've heard. When set up properly, they are like wide-angle microscopes, presenting scale and detail with unequaled aptitude, shape-shifting with each recording, allowing the qualities of the electronics and recordings to emerge fully. This is exalted rhetoric, but the Alexandria XLFs live up to it.
Immediately after the speakers were set up, I began listening to tracks I know well, many stored on the various CD-R samplers I take with me to shows (they're the easiest way to find all of this music quickly). I then switched gears and listened to some mono LPs, and they were even more telling. With the demo cuts, the massive soundscape and solid physical presence the speakers conjured were obvious, and they were combined with spatial differentiation that made each recording sound more distinct than it ever had. With the mono cuts -- everything from Thelonious Monk to Bob Dylan to Duke Ellington -- it was the speakers that were differentiated, morphing into a pair of two-way minimonitors when the music was small and tightly packed, then, with a different recording, expanding the soundstage in all dimensions, sounding un-mono-like in terms of lateral spread and as tall as the recordings allowed. The speakers went wherever the recordings took them, but this was never a purely sonic exercise. There was an expressive midrange, lively and variegated treble, and powerful, impactful bass, but none of these existed in isolation. They flowed one into another, aiding the system's ability to suspend disbelief, to bridge the chasm between impressive sound and convincing music -- just what a great speaker should do.
There is a physical reality at the heart of the Alexandria XLF's performance, a combination of sheer resolving power and image density that gives every instrument and voice substance. But along with this is an inherent self-effacing quality, the way the speakers, even with their great bulk, not only disappear as a source of the sound but scale with the music, sometimes to a startling degree. A greatly underappreciated Mobile Fidelity release is R.L. Burnside's First Recordings [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2026], a mono SACD whose immediacy -- "spooky" is what I've called it several times in the past -- has to be heard to be believed. The conjuring of Burnside with his guitar is spooky, especially if you listen late at night with the lights out. There he was right between the XLFs, which I couldn't see or audibly detect through any phase incoherence or sonic clumsiness. Roseanne Cash's Ten Song Demo [Capitol 112364] has a different kind of immediacy, one that's defined by the fine textural touches that emerge from the serenity of her music and its themes. Here, the right-left spread was majestic in its size and the specificity with which instruments were placed in space, including Cash's voice. She stood where Burnside sat, and the XLFs made the difference plain. Yes, they are tall speakers, but they don't use their height to raise the soundfield. As with everything else, it happens when it's on the recording.
My sense is that this ability to transform is a byproduct of the careful, proper setup that's standard with Wilson Audio speakers; as the speakers are adjusted, even in fractions of an inch, their nearness to or distance from optimal is rather obvious. And when it all comes together, as it surely will, you experience an audiophile cliche: hearing things in familiar recordings you hadn't before. But what was important about this, once again, was not the thrill of it, but rather the way it completed the musical picture. I've owned the XRCD of Quiet Kenny [JVCXR-0049-2], the great Kenny Dorham session that includes the transcendent rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, for almost fifteen years. I've heard this recording on dozens of speakers, and never has the texture of Dorham's trumpet been as vivid, its blat and breath discrete yet also part and parcel of each other. This was Kenny Dorham at his most focused and elemental, and the speakers matched it, underscoring the album's title. It was the speakers' quiet, beginning with the inert launching pad the heroic cabinet provided for the drivers, that made all of the fine detail possible. The XLFs are a true speaker system, about as far from a mere collection of drivers housed within a box as can be.
I ceded the title of "best bass from a loudspeaker" to the Vivid G1 Giyas, whose speed, resolution and impact defined a bass region with unmatched pitch definition. Well, the Alexandria XLFs matched it in overall quality, adding a sense of weight the Giyas didn't possess, impressing from the listening seat and even from the next room, where the purr of the acoustic bass lines on Greg Brown's Further In [Red House Records RHR CD 88] was almost as spooky as R.L. Burnside with his guitar, so lucidly and effortlessly was it rendered. In terms of chronology of the discoveries I made about the XLFs, this was actually the first, discerned while the speakers were being set up and I was answering e-mail in an adjacent room. Right from the start the bass region sounded special -- supple, muscular and again so varied -- but such performance can take away more than it gives. The bass of more than a few big speakers overshadows what happens above, creating a sense of discontinuity that simply can't be fixed with any combination of upstream electronics. The Alexandria XLFs were too cannily voiced for this to happen, too coherent throughout their range. Again, I am convinced that setup plays an important role here, with the position of the port -- firing forward or back -- comprising the way in which the XLFs can be made to work in most rooms. In my large space, the port fired backward, but where room dimensions and the listening position won't allow, a front-firing port helps the speakers work with, not against, the space.
Even more defining in terms of the XLF's adaptable design than the port position is Wilson Audio's new soft-dome tweeter. First, I will confess that I have a soft spot for soft-domes, which, when skillfully implemented, sound more natural, more real, than aluminum-dome and even ribbon tweeters. But skill is sometimes lacking, in which case the treble region can sound reticent, rolled off or lacking in focus. I'm sure David Wilson's choice of what seems like an old-school driver for his new flagship speaker was greeted by some with skepticism, but the XLFs plough this under, retaining all that's beneficial about soft-dome tweeters and adding a sense of speed and airiness that ribbons are so good at conveying. Roseanne Cash's crystalline voice is not kind to tweeters, but the XLF's handled Cash's pellucid overtones literally with ease. The same is true of the XLF's composite midrange, which has proved itself a wondrous driver and fully the equal of the tweeter in terms of sheer resolving power and, for lack of a better way to put it, humanness. If the new tweeter would have achieved nothing more than simply acting as a tighter unit with the midrange, it would have been a worthy replacement to Wilson Audio's inverted-dome driver. But it does this while representing a major step forward in the evolution of Wilson Audio speakers.
And to the point of conveying what's on each recording, the XLF reveals all deftly, without aggression or smoothing over. Another Cash album, this time from Roseanne's dad, was unraveled and laid bare, giving insight into its making. I picked up a copy of Orange Blossom Special [Columbia CL 2309] at a thrift store, and it's a rather typical country recording from the mid-1960s, which means it's multitracked, overdubbed and laced with reverb. The Man in Black covers, among others, a pair of Dylan songs that were surely in vogue at the time, "It Ain't Me Babe" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." The covers are interesting, which is not easy to achieve with Dylan songs, but Cash's voice is thick and unfocused, while the guitar work is literally a step ahead of it in terms of space and overall clarity. The XLFs unraveled the method of the recording while never making muck out of the music. Mid-'60s Johnny Cash, even an album such as this, which is purely a studio creation, is still good music, even if Cash lacks his usual charisma, and the XLFs expose it, warts and all, never turning the listening into a purely sonic exercise.
Evaluation of a speaker can come down to this -- a purely sonic exercise based on a checklist of particulars. But nothing happens in isolation with live music or well-reproduced recordings. Music succeeds together or falls apart alone. The XLFs are unifying forces, their resolving powers never becoming parsing powers, their coherence in both the frequency and spatial realms defining them.
As anyone who has read my reviews knows, my reference speakers have been Wilson MAXX 3s, which, at $68,500 per pair, are the same price now that they were when they were introduced over three and a half years ago. Sensitivity and bass depth notwithstanding, I said at the time the "the MAXX 3 is every bit the speaker of the X-2 Series 2," citing both speakers' color, dynamic abilities, sense of authority -- in short, all of the things they both do exceptionally well. "Is it wise to create your own competition?" I questioned, positing the notion that X-2 buyers just might consider MAXX 3s, for sonic as well as financial reasons.
I actually have an even better idea of where the XLF fits in the pecking order. Long before the speakers arrived, I was in Provo, Utah, hearing the XLFs and X-2 Series 2s in a side-by-side demo, during which I could switch between them at will. This, along with hearing the XLFs and MAXX 3s in my listening room, showed the latter to once again represent notable value, even at their price, while also providing concrete proof that the XLFs are significantly more evolved -- and better -- in several specific ways, most notably in their ability to melt into whatever soundscape the recordings present, the ease and vividness of their treble, and their low-end agility and power. But a point I've made throughout this review is that the real strength of the XLF comes not from individual characteristics but rather from the performance they combine seamlessly to create. And in this way, they can make the MAXX 3s sound somewhat crude, even though they are one of the most coherent multi-driver speakers I've heard.
It's just that the XLFs are that much better, perhaps because of the newer drivers (the MAXX 3s use the Focal inverted-dome tweeter) and more skillful tailoring of the crossover, perhaps through these things and many others that David Wilson would rather keep to himself. I suspect the frequency range of the two speakers would be similar (taking most rooms into consideration), as would sensitivity, the divergence coming down to the XLF's more refined, systemic approach, everything coalescing just that much better. The MAXX 3 remains a true reference speaker, one whose musical insight I'll continue to value. But it is equally true that the Alexandria XLF betters it in obvious and meaningful fashion, and I couldn't say that about the X-2 Series 2.
The sound of music
It is literally impossible to sit in front of a pair of Alexandria XLFs without some amount of anticipation -- the enormous size of these speakers does that. But when the music begins to play, and one cut becomes another and then another, the anticipation melts away, as these massive speakers do all of the little things -- and the big things -- to hinder analysis, to dissolve so much of the connectivity between physical media and the equipment required to play it. While this might not be the sexiest way to say the Alexandria XLFs are great speakers, it is the best way I know to make this point while also describing what they do -- and achieve for listeners who are ready for it. Yes, the Alexandria XLFs offer wide bandwidth, high sensitivity, a gorgeous midrange and natural highs, but it's how all of these manifest themselves in the music while divulging the fine points of the recordings that make them special. This is a sign of true refinement. Going lower or playing louder say a great deal about the sound but nothing about the music, and the XLFs are all about the music.
And this brings me back to the question with which the review began. Sound or music: which is it for you? If it's the latter (and I suspect for most audiophiles it is), then the Alexandria XLFs are the deepest, most complete expression of it.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable; Graham B-44 Phantom Series II Supreme and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Audio-Technica AT33EV, Denon DL-103R and Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) cartridges; Nordost Odin and Frey 2 phono cables; Allnic Audio H-3000V, Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE and Lamm Industries LP2 Deluxe phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics DX-5 "A/V Engine," Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD player, Halide Design DAC HD, Toshiba Satellite laptop.
Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference Anniversary, VTL TL-7.5 Series III.
Power amplifiers: Analog Domain Artemis, Audio Research Reference 250, Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference and ML2.2, and VTL Siegfried Series II monoblocks; Blue Circle Audio NSL stereo amp.
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio MAXX 3.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Nordost Frey 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra and Anaconda.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Nordost Frey 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra and Anaconda.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Quantum QB4 and QB8, Quantum Qx4, Shunyata Research Hydra Triton and Typhon.
Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference and MusicCord-Pro ES, Nordost Frey 2 and Heimdall 2, Shunyata Research Zi-Tron Cobra and Anaconda.
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus² platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases.