Wilson Audio Specialties • Sasha W/P Loudspeakers

by Paul Bolin | January 16, 2010

© www.theaudiobeat.com

It is never easy to replace an iconic product that has been in existence for what are, commercially speaking, eons. It is even more difficult to redesign it from the ground up while maintaining its essence and unique identity. Though David Wilson is a Ferrari guy to the bone, the challenge he took on in replacing the eighth-generation WATT/Puppy (mull that one over for a while; how many consumer products of any kind survive for eight generations?) with an entirely new speaker was not unlike that faced by Porsche, when the gnomes of Zuffenhausen finally conceded that the air-cooled 911 had at long last run its course.

Like the WATT/Puppy, the original 911 long ago ascended to legendary status. Its adherents, like those of the WATT/Puppy, were numerous, dedicated and, one might rightly say, fanatical. The "new" 911 had to be both a fresh design that maximized performance in modern-world terms yet remained recognizably a 911 in look and character. For Wilson, the next generation of the long-familiar platform had to conform to both the expectations of the hardcore enthusiasts of the marque and satisfy its creator’s restless desire to improve and refine, while at the same time broaden its commercial appeal.

A little history, personal and otherwise

I was not one of the early adherents of Wilson Audio speakers. I have never heard the almost mythical WAMM, but, to be frank, my relationship with the initial generations of the WATT/Puppy left me with a combination of deep respect for the speaker’s execution and cordial loathing of its sound. The speaker always had wildly impressive dynamics and far deeper, tighter and more extended bass response than anything its size deserved to have. To my ears, however, the speaker screamed and shouted in the upper midrange and lower treble, never let me relax into the music, and was brutally aggressive-sounding, with all the subtlety of a flying mallet. WATT 3/Puppy 2s and WATT/Puppy 5s drove me out of more than one room at audio shows over the years, especially when paired, as they so often were, with the powerful, fashionable, and hard-sounding [cough, Krell] solid-state amplification of the day. My conception of those early WATT/Puppies was that they were a more sophisticated version of the mid-1970s JBL L100 that had taken a Barry Bonds-sized shot of steroids and been sent to finishing school for a (rocky) semester. Superficially impressive? Yes. Musically pleasing? Um, not so much. Dave Wilson went to enormous lengths to refine the speaker over the years, but I found it easier to respect even the WATT/Puppy 8 than to love it, despite its undeniable virtues.

My relationship with Wilson’s house sound (few builders have a more distinctive and recognizable sound common to every speaker they build) underwent a profound change when I heard the first-generation Sophia at the 2002 CES. This was the scene of one of Dave Wilson’s most famous and amusing pranks on the audio press. In Wilson’s penthouse suite at the Mirage, one would see a pair of Sophias upon entering and an ostentatiously displayed array of stupendously expensive Spectral electronics in the immediate vicinity. Music was played to wonderful effect, Dave gave a brief talk, and a truly splendid time was had by all in attendance. For the finale, Dave revealed that the Sophias were, in fact, being driven by quite modestly priced Parasound electronics. Boo on you!

The Sophias seduced me from the first note I heard through them, sounding far more refined and harmonious than the then-current version of the WATT/Puppy, and I subsequently did a follow-up to John Atkinson’s Sophia review in Stereophile. From mid-2004 to mid-2007, I lived with the Sophia and then the MAXX Series 2, and I heard the Sophia Series 2 at length. I was smitten by them all. Clearly something had changed at Wilson Audio.

A new box to think outside of and the things that live within it

While the Sasha W/P descends from the general architecture of the WATT/Puppy, it is a completely new design from the ground up. The Sasha shares no parts with the last WATT/Puppy inside or out. Only the woofers are similar, but they have been augmented with beefier magnets and a more solid framework. The midrange driver and tweeter are first-generation descendants of the groundbreaking (and mind-boggling) units developed for the Alexandria X-2 Series 2.

The Sasha is built almost entirely of Wilson Audio’s proprietary X material, a mineral-filled resin compound now in its second generation of development. X material cannot be machined with conventional tools because of its hardness and density. Therefore, every panel and brace that goes into a Sasha must be cut with carbide-tipped steel bits on Wilson Audio’s million-dollar milling machine. The result is a cabinet that is, for all intents and purposes, completely inert. The baffle of the Sasha’s head unit is made of a new compound that Wilson Audio informally calls S material. No one with the company would tell me much about this proprietary stuff other than that it is less resonant and better damped in the midrange than X material and ludicrously expensive.

The Sasha W/P is appreciably larger internally than any WATT/Puppy, the bass bin being some 20% bigger than its predecessor's and the head unit more than 40% bigger. The aesthetics remain true to type, but the Sasha has a muscular, beveled elegance that the kind-of-wimpy-looking WATT/Puppy lacked in comparison. It does not dominate even medium-sized rooms, but it draws the eye with its sleek, exquisitely finished contours and impeccable automotive finish. My review pair arrived in desert silver, which miraculously changes from a deep silver glow to a glittering light champagne gold depending on how the light hits it. Overhaulin’s Chip Foose would love this finish.

One of the most important things about the evolution of the WATT/Puppy 8 to the Sasha is easily overlooked. The WATT/Puppy 8’s crossover had two separate modules, one located in the base of the woofer cabinet and the other in the WATT, which was itself a fully operational speaker. The Sasha’s crossover also has two modules, but they are both in the woofer cabinet. Ask anyone at Wilson Audio what the slopes and orders are and you get the Mona Lisa smile. Those who know ain’t tellin’.

Sasha speaks

In late August, a pair Sashas showed up at my apartment, followed by Wilson Audio's sales and marketing director, John Giolas, who did the setup and placement. Wilson Audio had thoughtfully put about a hundred hours on the pair prior to sending them to me, and John opined that the speakers would need another hundred hours or so until the drivers were loosened up and the crossover burned in. He was correct. There was a forwardness in the upper-mid/lower-treble crossover region to the fresh-out-of-the-crate Sashas that was more than slightly reminiscent of the WATT/Puppy. It sounded as if that range stood forward from the speakers’ cabinets, though within a couple of weeks of casual listening it began to recede slowly. Right on Giolas’s timeline, the aggressiveness had completely disappeared and the Sasha began to sing with a holistic oneness. And how. I didn’t realize it for a couple of days, but Giolas set the speakers up asymmetrically in my room. The left cabinet was tilted in rather more than the right, possibly because it sits farther away from the nearest side wall than the right, which is positioned close to a corner.

Prolonged listening to Sasha establishes that the new, Alexandria-derived midrange driver will go down as one of David Wilson’s greatest contributions to speaker design. The story behind the driver is itself quite interesting. Several years ago, the Wilsons were visiting Europe and spent an extended period attending concerts and rehearsals of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The VPO’s home hall is the famous Musikverein, considered by most of the musical universe to be the finest-sounding concert hall in the world. During a performance, Dave was struck by how early and late hall reflections combined with the direct sound of the orchestra in a way he had never previously heard from any loudspeaker. This realization led to an intensive design process focused on creating a driver capable of replicating what he had heard in the Musikverein. My interpretation of this is that the goals for the new driver were a much lower noise floor and an enhanced ability to start and stop in response to very low-level signals.

The clarity and precision of the Sasha were superbly demonstrated with the Second Brandenburg Concerto from Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra’s LP set of Bach’s orchestral music [Archiv 2722 033-11]. The brilliance of the trumpet part and the plangency of the violin were simply and beautifully right. The transparency of Bach’s textures can only be realized when each instrument is defined cleanly but remains surrounded by the air of the venue and the vital sense of the ensemble. The kind of resolution necessary to the presentation of such a picture still remains accompanied in too many cases by a slightly bleached and insubstantial sound. This happens most often when a loudspeaker lacks balance and places the presentation of the individual players before the whole.

Wilson speakers have always had a wonderful way with power music, be it unamplified or electric. The Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East [LP, Capricorn SD2-802] is a stone classic and a superb recording. The Sasha nailed Berry Oakley’s thundering, agile bass guitar and the subtle tonal differences between Dickey Betts’ and Duane Allman’s soaring lead-guitar flights. The dual drum kits of Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks were extraordinarily solid and distinct. Most important, the sense of togetherness -- the musicians’ unity of purpose and complex mutual interactions -- was present to a unusually compelling degree.

Fairport Convention’s 1969 masterpiece Liege and Lief [LP, Dischi Ricordi ORI 8080] was the first great flowering of English folk-rock, showcasing Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny at the initial peak of their creative powers. Denny’s fluid alto and Thompson’s stinging Stratocaster were perfect foils, and adding Dave Swarbrick’s electric fiddle to the mix took the traditional English folk song to places it had never been before. The trailblazing music was perfectly complemented by Joe Boyd’s minimalist and musically sensitive production. I daresay this is probably one of my ten favorite albums of all time. I have heard this record on every speaker system that has been in my home for the last 35 years, and it has never sounded more involving than via the Sasha W/P.

Over its long life, the WATT/Puppy was always a standout in the lowest frequencies. The Sasha has added a massiveness befitting big bass to the previous platform’s excellent performance. The air being moved by the stupendous bass-drum detonations on Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s "Berecuse and Finale" from Stravinsky’s The Firebird [CD, Reference Recordings RR-906] quite literally shook the floor of my apartment when played at lifelike levels. The Sasha’s bass also had a tautness and pitch definition that put it, if not in a class by itself, in a class where it doesn’t take very long to call the roll.

There was a gravitas and groundedness to the Sasha that accommodated music that is not merely powerful, but majestic. The scope and scale of the great Bruno Walter’s Meistersinger prelude with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra [LP, Columbia CS 6149] is pure widescreen gorgeousness. Ideally, Wagner is sumptuous both spatially and timbrally. With the Sashas, all of those things were there. String sections sounded like string sections, not merely like a bunch of musicians playing at the same time. Brass had a spot-on combination of blat, heft and tonal richness that was immensely rewarding. Imaging had a tingly sort of dimensionality, and every recording presented a unique soundstage. Audio types have generally agreed that a component’s ability to make every recording sound, for want of a better way to say it, maximally individualized is a leading indicator of essential neutrality, and the Sasha was a champ at it.

[Offstage voice] "What about the Andras?"

Marc Mickelson let me know that he has received e-mail asking what I thought about the Sasha vis-à-vis the EgglestonWorks Andra IIs ($18,900/pair when still available), which have served as one of my primary reference speakers for a good share of the last ten years. First, in fairness, it must be said that the Andra II debuted in 2002 and the Sasha is as new and fresh as a fine spring day. I have not seen, much less heard, the Andra III, and these remarks apply only to its now-replaced sister. As the late, great classical organist Virgil Fox might have put it, "Now away we go!"

Both speakers have wonderfully inert cabinets and are spectacularly finished, the Sasha being ever so slightly more so. It is in the bass region where the Sasha scores a decisive victory that verged on being a vicious beatdown. The Andra II’s bass is very good, as far as it goes, which is to somewhere in the lower 30s in my current room. This room does not provide the assistive loading of the room in which I reviewed the Andra II back in 2002. The Sasha provided noticeably better definition and tautness and took that superiority into the very low 20s with consummate ease and shattering, floor-shaking power when called upon to do so. Here it was no contest: Sasha in a convincing TKO.

Through the mids, it was very nearly a push, with the Sasha inching a bit ahead. The Sasha's new midrange driver is truly special. As noted above, this unprepossessing-looking unit achieves a level of nuance and detail retrieval that has heretofore been the exclusive provenance of planar and electrostatic drivers. The Andra II’s midrange is, and remains, striking and exemplary in its honesty, and it took the Sasha to better it. The improvement is there, though it is marginal, but at these levels of performance (and cost) being marginally better is more significant than it is with lesser components. Slight advantage to Sasha.

In terms of the highs, the Andra II’s Dynaudio Esotar is perhaps my all-time favorite dome tweeter. Its airiness, precision and delicacy still remain at the top of the mark. Wilson Audio has worked wonders with its new version of the Focal Tioxid tweeter, to be sure. The Sasha W/P had definition and subtlety that were lacking from even the MAXX 2. The tweeter integrates better with its companion midrange driver(s) than any previous Wilson tweeter and provides musically excellent overall sonics, but it is not the last word in any one quality one desires from a tweeter, acquitting itself well across the board instead. Here, the Andra II wins by a head’s length.

The Sasha consistently threw a bigger and more clearly defined soundstage and provided dynamics both great and small that few speakers anywhere can match. Overall, the Sasha was the better speaker in nearly every meaningful way. And well it should be. It is a much newer design, is made of highly exotic materials, and costs more, even considering the overall inflation of prices of high-end gear over the last seven-plus years. This does not mean that the Andra II isn’t a marvelously musical and enjoyable speaker. It always has been and remains so. If you have Andra IIs and you find them satisfying, there is no rational reason to take out a second mortgage and rush out to replace them with Sasha W/Ps unless you are a deep-bass fanatic. Horses for courses and all that.

And in conclusion...

With the Sasha W/P, David Wilson and his crew have done something that is nearly impossible. They have replaced a longstanding legend with something that is not merely a worthy successor to its fabled forerunner, but one that is better in every way. The Sasha speaks as one from top to bottom. It plays an extraordinary dynamic range with no discernable effort and has a tonal balance that manages to replicate my perception of live music as closely as the limits of technology allow. It remains, like every other human endeavor, imperfect, yet it sings like no other speaker I have heard, with a voice of clarity, unity and singular purpose.

The Sasha won’t fit every room and everyone’s taste. If you believe that a speaker from Focal, Magico, YG Acoustics or whomever else fits your idea of what live music sounds like better than the Sasha, please buy that speaker. I have no more right to tell any reader of The Audio Beat what speaker he should buy than I have to tell him with whom to fall in love. All I can tell you is what works best for my ears, associated gear, room, and brain, and that can be taken within the well-established context of my writing -- for whatever worth, if any, you may find therein.

Within that context, I am not going to equivocate. The Wilson Audio Sasha W/P is the most musically complete and rewarding speaker I have heard in my home to date, regardless of size or price -- and, yes, that includes the MAXX 2. During a recent trip to Utah to visit Wilson Audio, I heard the MAXX 3 in John Giolas’s room and the Alexandria X-2 Series 2 (paired with stereo Thor’s Hammer subwoofers) in David and Sheryl Lee Wilson’s huge, elegant, one-of-a-kind home listening salon. The bigger beasts provided more of the same sound that the Sashas give, but the essential characteristics of the three speakers are in every pertinent way identical, and their genealogy is unmistakable.

Is it a coincidence, therefore, that Dave and Sheryl Lee Wilson own a huge (and very sweet) German shepherd named Sasha, or that Sasha is the Russian-language diminutive for Alexandr[i]a? When I asked Dave Wilson about this, he smiled and said, "Maybe it’s a little of both."

Price: $26,950/pair
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
(801) 377-2233

Associated Equipment

Analog: SOTA Cosmos Series III turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, Dynavector XV-1s phono cartridge, Hovland Music Groove phono cable, Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage.

Digital: Audio Research CD5 CD player, Esoteric X-01 D2 CD/SACD player.

Preamplifiers: Aesthetix Calypso, BAT VK-51SE.

Power amplifiers: Classé Audio CAM-350 and Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: EgglestonWorks Andra II, Wilson Audio Specialties Sasha W/P.

Interconnects: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference 2, Cardas Golden Reference, Nordost Valhalla.

Speaker cables: Shunyata Research Antares.

Power conditioners: Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8 (front-end) and Shunyata Research Hydra Model-2 (power amps).

Power cords: Shunyata Research Anaconda Alpha, Anaconda Helix Alpha and Anaconda Helix Vx; Nordost Valhalla.

Accessories: Grand Prix Audio Monaco stands and two F1 carbon-fiber shelves, Ultra Resolution Technologies Bedrock stand, Ganymede isolation footers, Nordost Titanium Pulsar Points, Shun Mook Iso-Qubes, Caig Labs Pro Gold, Ayre/Cardas IBE system-enhancement CD, Argent Room Lenses, Disc Doctor and LAST record-care products.

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