Roald Dahl (1916-1990) wrote more than two dozen books and collections of short stories, the most famous of which is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of Charlie Bucket's visit to Willy Wonka's kaleidoscopic candy workshop and a classic of children's literature. My fifth-grade teacher read the book to our class, and I remember being mesmerized by the story, hoping with every word that Wonka would finally see Charlie's inherent goodness. We all hoped for this.
But Dahl is almost as well known for a few lines he wrote on the subject of writing -- Google and Yahoo searches bring up pages and pages of references to it. He wrote: "Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this." The implied messages here are many, including the toil involved in good writing and the time that real improvement requires.
I am a great believer in rewriting, even if I am unable to do as much of it as I'd like. Deadlines have conditioned me to simply let go of reviews in favor of the next one I have to produce. I find it very difficult to read my own reviews after they have been published. My instinct is to touch them up -- or make wholesale changes -- improving the narrative flow here, solidifying the point of a paragraph there. When it comes to my writing, I mistrust the sense that I'm ever finished, a sentiment with which Dahl would agree. He prefaced his comments with: "By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed."
Once an audio reviewer, David Wilson is certainly familiar with the toil of rewriting, the goal of which he has brought to his speakers. Look at Wilson Audio's lineup and you'll see speakers whose current state is the product of perhaps hundreds of revisions both large and small. Yet a speaker like the Alexandria X-2, which proudly wears its "no compromise" tag, seems especially difficult to improve. Indeed, when I wrote about it back in the summer of 2005, I called it "the best of the best, the benchmark for loudspeaker design here and now." I came to this conclusion through a great deal of listening, and I worked my way back from there in an attempt to discover how the X-2 achieved its sound. Preconceived notions on how "proper" speakers are built are often dashed when the finished product starts to make music and it simply sounds bad. The X-2s, in contrast, sounded magnificent -- possessing impossibly wide bandwidth, acute spectral balance, utter coherence, crushing dynamic agility, and absolute beauty. The summer of 2005 was one of the best I've spent as an audio reviewer.
I suspect that even then, David Wilson and the engineers at his company were working on ways to improve their very best speaker, a process that came to fruition a while later. As he sat in the Musikverein in Vienna, considered among the best concert halls in the world, Wilson realized that his speakers didn't fully capture the Musikverein's personality: its unique ambient signature, transient liveliness, and harmonic complexity -- all characteristics of the live event. While some speaker designers sit at the drawing board and conceptualize what they would like their speakers to do sonically, David Wilson sat at the Musikverein and heard what he wanted the X-2 to accomplish musically. I don't know about you, but I know which approach I trust.
Central, almost literally, to the Series 2 enhancements to the Alexandria X-2 is the speaker's new midrange driver, which replaces the Tymphany-sourced midrange used for the previous version of the speaker. "The new driver is not made by Scan-Speak," John Giolas, Wilson Audio's director of sales and marketing, told me. The press materials for the X-2 Series 2 reveal that the new X-2 midrange is the product of "a new driver manufacturer run by engineers that developed the current WATT/Puppy and MAXX midrange driver." What's special about the driver is the cone -- a composite of fibrous materials including paper and carbon fiber. "It's a pretty complex blend of stuff," was Giolas's take.
There is also a new main tweeter with ties to the WATT/Puppy and MAXX, whose own tweeters prompted the change. The primary goal here was to better address the driver's back-wave reflections, which reportedly affect the speaker's time coherence in negative ways. The tweeter continues to be sourced from Focal and is still disassembled and reassembled at the Wilson Audio factory in order to achieve its working parameters. The Scan-Speak ambience tweeter mounted on top of the speaker and firing to the rear remains unchanged, as does the speaker's adjustability: The three upper modules can move forward and back, and they rotate, allowing for precise fine-tuning of their relationship to each other and the listening position.
Two other changes aren't seen from the front of the speaker. First, there is a new back cover, with its window on the speaker's Aspherical Propagation Delay hardware -- the binding posts and resistor arrays that tailor the drivers' output. The panel is held in place with the same pins and inserts used for the speakers' grilles, and it finishes off the back in a way that draws "oooh's" and "ahhh's" from those who see it, slightly increasing the rigidity of the speaker in the process. Finally, there are completely new crossovers, which mount near the bottom of the rear panel. The crossovers are not only better tailored to the new midrange and tweeter, they are said to reduce distortion further, including the time-domain distortion that Wilson Audio calls "crossover jitter." In terms of the crossover points, Wilson Audio is extremely protective of this information, so there's nothing I can tell you about them other than that they exist.
Wilson Audio's speaker cabinets are still strategic combinations of the company's X and M materials in thicknesses of up to 4", each part precision machined. As a rule of thumb, M material is used wherever there are tweeter or midrange drivers, while X material is used for the woofer enclosure and bracing. However, with the X-2 Series 2, M material is used only for the midrange baffle and X material is used everywhere else, including the tweeter baffle. Liberal use of X material is greatly responsible for the X-2 Series 2's 700-pound weight. The speaker still stands 70 9/16" high, 18 13/16" wide and 25 3/4" deep. So the X-2 Series 2 is a massive speaker, able to dominate a room visually. Most buyers will want to choose a color that matches well with surroundings. Wilson Audio's 12-step painting and finishing process ensures a speaker that looks glossy and stunning.
The price of the X-2 has risen by $23,000, to $158,000 USD per pair. Owners of Series 1 X-2s can have their speakers upgraded for $25,000, a procedure that has to be performed at the Wilson Audio factory. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that part of this work includes a going-over to address any cosmetic issues. I saw this taking place with updated Sophias, so I'm sure it happens with X-2s as well.
As with all Wilson Audio speakers, a pair of X-2 Series 2s will be set up by the dealer from which they are purchased. In my case, the review pair was assembled, muscled into place and positioned by John Giolas and Trent Workman, Wilson Audio's overseas sales manager. John and Trent have been to my house a number of times, and they know my 20' x 29' listening room well. John has paperwork on it and has deemed it one of the very best in which he's set up speakers, a sentiment that has been echoed by others who have heard their equipment here. Thus, in some ways it's easy to set up speakers here -- they usually sound good no matter where they're placed -- but getting the most out of them requires a profusion of fine-tuning. John and Trent spent parts of two days doing just this. The huge performance capabilities of the X-2 Series 2 demand the extra effort.
The week before the speakers arrived, a pair of Lamm ML3 Signature amps had shown up, and I alternated these with Lamm M1.2 and Luxman B-1000f monoblocks and an Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp. Preamps were an Audio Research Reference 3, a Luxman C-1000f, a Zanden Model 3000, and an Aurum Acoustics CDP, which is also a full-function CD player. Other digital sources were the Zanden Model 2000P/5000S transport/DAC combo or an Ayre C-5xe universal player. Analog sources were a TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable with Graham Phantom B-44 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms. Dynavector XV-1S stereo and mono cartridges spent time on both 'arms. Phono stages were an Audio Research PH7, a Lamm LP2 Deluxe and the internal phono stage for the Aurum Acoustics CDP.
The Lamm amps were used on Silent Running Audio isolation platforms, while the preamps, phono stages, Ayre universal player and turntable rested on a Silent Running Audio Craz 4 Reference equipment rack, which is a beautiful thing to behold. Harmonic Resolution Systems platforms worked their magic under the Zanden digital separates.
Interconnects and speaker cables were from AudioQuest (William E. Low Signature with a couple of pairs of Sky mixed in) or Shunyata Research (the new Aeros-series Aurora-IC and Aurora-SP). Power cords were Essential Sound Products the Essence Reference or Shunyata Research Anaconda Helix and Python Helix, both Alpha and Vx variations. An ESP Essence Reference power distributor or Shunyata Hydra V-Ray distributed and cleansed AC from the wall.
As I discovered with the original X-2s, the Series 2 speakers need break-in, even though Wilson Audio pulverizes the drivers before they are mounted in the cabinet. Perhaps because of this, the speakers sound better -- less stiff and strident -- in short order, and with a mere dozen hours of play time, they loosened up greatly and their endearing liquidity -- along with everything else -- became apparent.
Big speakers sound big, and small speakers sound small: This simple aphorism is more often right than wrong, with coffin-sized boxes making even solo instruments sound enormous and shoebox-sized speakers never able to transcend their modest dimensions. So it is especially surprising to hear the X-2 Series 2s seemingly morph from some of the largest speakers extant to minimonitors when reproducing a solo guitar, and then fill every inch of the room when a full orchestra lets loose. Scale, a recording's often unique display of gradation in size, is one of the things the X-2 Series 2 does in a startling way. This speaker not only changes its stature with different kinds of music, it does so with each recording, scaling realistically with the music itself.
Freddie Hubbard's Here to Stay (Blue Note/Music Matters ST-84135) is one of the most recent Music Matters Blue Note reissues, and it can sound both stunningly intimate and as big as any speaker is able to portray it. When the entire veteran quintet -- Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on sax, Cedar Walter on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums -- plays together, the X-2 Series 2s produced a panoramic spread that preserved both the individual musicians and their playing as a group. As is the convention with classic Blue Note recordings, the horns occupied opposite channels, and they had presence that belied the age of the recording, which was laid to tape in 1961. Yet their playing fused together along with the support of the piano and rhythm section, everything sounding big and differentiated. Other very good speakers can pull this off to some degree, but none does it nearly as well as the X-2 Series 2, which, even with its enormous bulk, removes itself sonically from consideration.
Dynamic limitations are also removed from consideration with the X-2 Series 2. This is one speaker that can truly take all of the power you can throw at it and bring out the very best in low-power amps. The Luxman B-1000f monoblocks are reportedly capable of delivering 2000 watts into a 1-ohm load, and with the X-2 Series 2s, which are said to be 95db/W/m sensitive, they could literally deliver PA-like SPLs, only taxing the power-delivery capabilities of my house's wiring. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, the speakers sounded nearly as authoritative with the Lamm ML3 Signature amps, whose full output is just 32 watts -- 32 glorious watts. In fact, it was with these amps that the X-2 Series 2s sounded their very best, never truncating large- or small-scale dynamics and bringing out the best in the amps' wonderfully animated midrange. It was here that the differences between the first and second versions of the speakers were most obvious, the Series 2 X-2s more readily conveying the fine detail, texture and dynamic shadings of the Lamm amps -- and the music, of course.
The intelligent, often challenging jazz on the ECM label made all of this plain, the speakers and amps balancing presence and space, detail and liquidity. Here again the X-2 Series 2s bridged the gap between apparent sonic opposites. Nik Bartsch's Ronin is a rather unusual jazz quintet. Comprising piano, sax, bass, drums and other percussion, this group seems conventional, but the music is an atmospheric mixture of jazz, new age and rock sensibilities that sounds utterly unique. Holon (ECM 2049), the ensemble's latest release, is a deft combination of dense instruments in ambience-rich space. The X-2 Series 2s' ability to disappear sonically made for hugely satisfying listening with this recording, the music and the unique spatial signature of the recording venue (Studios la Buissone in Southern France) sounding a little dry, very open and able to let each note resound. I closed my eyes while listening to Holon and found that becoming lost in the music was not only easy but a state impossible not to achieve. I connected with these speakers -- and these amplifiers -- completely, perhaps because I have been using Wilson Audio speakers for many years, perhaps because the X-2 Series 2s simply pulled off the illusion of real instruments in real space more readily and thoroughly than any other speakers I've heard.
In tonal terms, compared to the signature of other extreme speakers, the X-2 Series 2s sound colorful and sweet. A ragged treble, harsh upper midrange and overall analytical character are simply not present, the speakers being easy on the ears at all volume levels. David Wilson has said many times that he makes speakers he likes and he feels fortunate that other people like them as well. The X-2 Series 2s may be his easiest speaker to like yet, and that's saying something with the MAXX 2 (now replaced with the MAXX Series 3) and Sophia 2 in the same line. You will still know that poor recordings are poor with the X-2 Series 2s -- their resolving power is just too great to ignore this -- but you won't be forced to play only your very best-sounding recordings with them, their extreme resolution coming in a graceful, and likeable, form.
The bandwidth of the X-2 Series 2s is wider than that of any speaker I've heard except for the first version of the X-2. I don't hear any additional bass or treble extension from the Series 2, and what's there can deliver the full power and delicacy of the music and upstream equipment. The power of the X-2 Series 2's low frequencies is majestic, heavy-handed bass-drum whacks played at high volumes going right through your torso, and cymbals trailing off like wisps of smoke in the wind. Still, it's what happens in between, that supremely exuberant midrange, that makes this speaker unique and special. And when you hear how this fits into the speaker's ability to portray scale and disappear in the process, you will know why the Alexandria X-2 has become a prized possession of its owners -- nearly 400 of which exist worldwide -- and a coveted piece of audio hardware for those of us who own other Wilson Audio speakers. It's one big, expensive speaker that, when properly set up, seems incapable of disappointing.
Another speaker that seems incapable of disappointing
I have been living with Wilson Audio MAXX Series 2 speakers ($48,900 per pair when still available) since my review of them in August 2004. Many speakers have come and gone from my listening room during those four years, so the MAXX 2s have been wheeled into and out of the room several times. Each time I hear them after a hiatus, I recall instantly what I admire about them: their wide bandwidth and dynamic prowess, their high resolution and musical grace.
This also describes the X-2 Series 2 -- there are many points of similarity between these two large floorstanding speakers, including all of the things I mentioned above. However, they represent two different generations of Wilson Audio speakers, so there are some important differences as well. First and foremost is the X-2 Series 2's enhanced midrange, which simply presents greater information density than that of the MAXX 2. It's not so much that anything is missing with the MAXX 2, but rather that important musical and spatial cues, things that help the music sound real, are more apparent with the X-2 Series 2. The larger and more expensive speaker is also more accomplished down low -- quite a feat given the MAXX 2's bass acuity -- and it casts a bigger and more spacious soundstage, including additional height information. The MAXX 2s sound a touch laid-back in comparison, the X-2 Series 2s being a little more prominent throughout the midrange, though "prominent" doesn't capture the full measure of the difference in this most important sonic region. It's all about quality, not quantity.
I am still convinced that if another company made the MAXX 2s, they would be touted as competition for the X-2s, and such a comparison wouldn't be considered absurd. However, when you listen to one right after the other, it's clear that the X-2 Series 2 not only equals the MAXX 2's towering performance across the entire musical spectrum, its midrange resolution is superior as well.
"I am positive of this"
Central to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the Golden Ticket, which ensures each child's entry into Wonka's factory. Charlie is the last to get one, finding it clinging to the wrapper of a chocolate bar, and it is this event that sets the rest of the story in motion.
Well, it's not a stretch to think of the Series 2 upgrades to the Alexandria X-2 speakers as a Golden Ticket: an entry into midrange goodies that are as unique and exotic as the edible treats inside the Wonka factory. The speakers convey midrange detail and texture in a more complete way, along with spatial information that is important to unfolding a realistic rendering of the musicians and wherever they were recorded. All of this is significant, not a mere change in personality or lateral upgrade -- or something that X-2 owners will have to strain to hear. Yet everything for which the X-2s are known, including the way these big speakers disappear and leave only the music behind, and the incredibly wide bandwidth and dynamic range, are left completely intact, so there's no pain to go along with the gain of the upgrades -- other than the $25,000 price, that is.
But it is the entire speaker, not just the upgrades, that deserves the praise here, the X-2 Series 2 earning its exalted place at the top of Wilson Audio's speaker line and its implied status as a true reference product. I don't have the Golden Tickets required to buy a pair, but I sure wish I did!
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