Actress Ruth Warrick, who played Emily in Citizen Kane, once told a story about the pressure director Orson Welles was under after signing to make movies at RKO. Welles's first film was supposed to be based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, a project that fell through after much discussion and whose place was eventually taken by Citizen Kane. As Welles was shooting Warrick's screen test, a pack of RKO executives visited the set. They came to congratulate him on beginning his first movie. After a round of hand-shaking and back-patting, they called in a dump truck that deposited, in Warrick's words, "a ton of rank flowers on the floor." They apologized for the flowers' condition, but, they explained, they were fresh months before when Heart of Darkness had been announced. Everyone laughed at this subtle dig, but then the RKO execs grew stern and said, "OK, genius, show us. Start filming. Be a genius."
In the context of a review of Wilson Audio's Alexandria X-2 speakers, the moral of this anecdote is this: preconceived notions exist no matter how hard you try to clear your mind of them. Based on their pedigree, technology, looks, and price, the big Alexandrias create enormous expectations, just as big mountains create their own weather.
Fortunately, I was about as well prepared for this -- and the speakers themselves -- as a reviewer could be. I had heard the Alexandrias twice at Wilson Audio, and I lived with MAXX 2s, which resemble the Alexandrias sonically to an uncanny degree. This is no accident. The MAXX 2 followed the Alexandria in Wilson Audio's development cycle and benefited from much of the work done for it. Both speakers use heavily modified drivers, including Focal tweeters and woofers, and Scan-Speak midranges. Both use X and M materials strategically as the basis for cabinets that are heroically inert. Both are surprisingly easy to drive with low-power amps and are able to reach levels of power and grandeur that very few speakers approach. Both sound poised, articulate, dynamic, and true.
But not at first. After the Alexandrias were lugged piece by piece into my listening room, after John Giolas and Trent Workman were finished assembling and positioning them, the speakers sounded somewhat stiff and closed in, especially through the midrange, which couldn't fully convey the bloom on certain recordings. During assembly, Wilson Audio puts time only on the Alexandria's individual drivers, but this wasn't enough to allow the speakers to open up during initial listening.
So I played music through them, determined to give them at least double-digit hours of playing time before I began to listen closely and judge. What a difference! Some speaker makers demand hundreds of hours of play before their products are deemed "broken in," which makes me wonder if the speaker or its owner is really what is breaking in. This is not the case with the Alexandrias, which after a mere 20 hours opened up to a degree that made it clear they had arrived.
Often in reviews of significant audio products writers will discuss the complexity of a certain component's sound -- its tonal fluency or inner-transient expressiveness -- in pseudo-philosophical terms. I understand why audio reviewers do this, and I've done it a time or two myself. It's an attempt at explaining something new and seemingly inexplicable, which may indeed be complex.
But it doesn't apply to the Alexandrias' performance. Their sound is not really complex at all -- understanding it requires no radical new theories or complicated explanations. It is a more realized version of what we audiophiles are used to hearing from well-reproduced music, but laced with a few things that reproduction achieves only with the Alexandrias. If you are a careful listener, you will know what I am talking about when you hear a pair of Alexandrias. Their sound takes no work to appreciate.
One of the ways the MAXX 2s excelled was at conveying low-level detail, not only the minutiae that gets buried in each recording but also when the speakers are simply played at low volumes. The Alexandrias are even better, likely due to their greater sensitivity (by Wilson Audio's calculations, 92dB for the MAXX 2s and 95dB for the Alexandrias). Such easy resolution! The Alexandrias untangled the most complicated music, from classical to pop, with no unnecessary effort -- no leading-edge emphasis, no spotlighting, no artificial crispness -- but their sound was never merely analytical. They resolve in an effortless way, laying out everything from full symphony to solo piano with all the fine detail and musical flow intact. They get the nature of each note right -- the attack, sustain and decay -- without prominence or veiling. I'm tempted to say that the Alexandrias' best quality is their balance, which is better than I've heard from any product of any kind and made more astounding by their extreme bandwidth. They convey more music and do so with greater fidelity than any speaker I've heard.
The bass slam of these speakers can go right through you -- as I heard from the Kodo drums in David Wilson's listening room. Such low-end weight and power will be a function of your amplifier, as the speakers can handle whatever is thrown at them, but even with the Lamm ML2.1s, which are 18W SET amps, the bass is astonishing. John Giolas likes to prove this point by playing Beck's groove-heavy "Go It Alone," from Guero [Interscope Records B0003481-02]. Even with the ML2.1s, the Alexandrias capture this cut's growling low-frequency din as easily as they do the delicate highs and ambience of Shawn Colvin's Cover Girl [Columbia CK57875], proving that not all music is a product of the midrange. I suspect that the Alexandrias' top-mounted super tweeter, which is crossed over at around 12kHz and extends to 45kHz, pays dividends here. It's one thing to sound balanced over a narrow frequency band, but another to widen the musical playing field beyond any other speaker's capabilities and still capture all the music with consummate grace and articulation, as the Alexandrias do. I am confident in saying that you will hear things you never have before with the Alexandrias.
Another area in which the MAXX 2s stand out is their dynamic range, which is several steps beyond the capabilities of any dynamic speakers I've heard -- except the Alexandrias, which set an almost impossible standard. Both at very high and very low volumes, the Alexandrias keep the music in proper proportion, never ceding detail to their own noise floor or swelling it to the point that the music loses its composure. I remember vividly how much of an improvement the WATT/Puppy 7 was to its immediate predecessor in terms of its own noise. Well, the MAXX 2 is an immense leap ahead of the WATT/Puppy 7, and the Alexandria is the pinnacle in this regard. This is the product of many things -- everything, really -- but I can't help but think that the Alexandria's cabinet deserves special praise. Once expertly set up, these large speakers disappear like minimonitors, but they do not compress the soundstage, maintaining a truly realistic sense of width, depth and especially height. The music sounds absolutely free of the cabinets, the speakers not so much pushing out the music as releasing it, like a helium balloon to the air. The MAXX 2s approach this, but don't achieve it so effortlessly.
This freedom, this total lack of encumbrance, is unique to the Alexandrias and revolutionary in the realm of reproduced sound, and it is from this, I believe, that all of the Alexandria's considerable performance flows. Live music has dimension, which is a product of proper proportion. When proportion is skewed, another kind of distortion is revealed. The Wilson Audio brain-trust began the Alexandria project with a blank sheet and designed the speaker from a starting point of reducing distortion of all kinds, and this has its obvious manifestations in the sound.
In the end, the Alexandrias' greatest achievement is that they don't sound like speakers at all. They are physically massive, but they cast the illusion that they are not sonically present. Why shouldn't a speaker utterly disappear? Why shouldn't it sound absolutely balanced and complete? Why should there be any performance bottlenecks? I suspect the engineers at Wilson Audio asked these same questions. I'm also sure that they are already at work on technologies that will someday improve the Alexandria, but doing so will be exceedingly difficult, given where this speaker is now. Anything that doesn't further reduce distortion in all its forms and preserve the authenticity of the signal won't be an improvement, and may be a step backward.
One of my favorite moments in Citizen Kane has only a peripheral connection to the rosebud mystery at the center of the movie. In it, Bernstein, Charles Foster Kane's assistant and manager, ponders the nature of memories:
Bernstein's reminiscence captures how I'll think about my time with the Alexandria X-2s. As speakers come and go, amidst some terrific sound, I won't forget what the Alexandrias accomplish. They're the best of the best, the benchmark for loudspeaker design here and now.
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