Ideal world – perfect loudspeakers in a perfect room

June 15, 2023
6 mins read
Start

GARY STEEL revisits a story that was originally published in 2006 in which he  experienced the high end of the high end speaker market.

Picture for a moment an audio connoisseur’s Garden Of Eden: the ultimate sound from the ultimate speakers, matched with the ultimate supporting gear in the ultimate room.

Imagine the sheer magic of hearing this system, my ass placed on a comfy chair right in the sweet spot where the stereo imaging meets in sweet harmony with the listener’s own stereo apparatus, my ears.

It’s a dream that perhaps too few who appreciate the finer points of sound reproduction allow themselves to have, simply because they can’t imagine finding the cash to turn their dream into reality.

For me, the dream was but a brief glimpse and a trial-by-fire audition, a few hours in the Brisbane sound-room of Simon Kern, MD of Genesis Corp and Australasian agent of Wilson Audio speakers.

 

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Chances are, I’ll never be able to afford a pair of Wilson Audio speakers, which are so top-end they go off the meter. The Alexandria X-2’s, which I listened to on my all-too-brief stopover, retail at $250,000. Add an appropriate room, and gear of equivalent quality, and you’re looking at the best part of a million dollars.

It doesn’t stop me from dreaming though, now that I’ve experienced first-hand the difference between entry-level hi-fi, high-end hi-fi, and the rarefied world of Wilson Audio.

To describe the audio experience, I’ll have to draw your attention to my humble domestic hi-fi system. I really like my system, I really do. It consists primarily of a 20-year-old 200 watt Perreaux mosfet amplifier and a pair of 10-year-old bookshelf B&W speakers (with sub) and I get a warm, comforting, altogether pleasing sound.

Listening to the Alexandria’s, on the other hand, was totally captivating. I was right in the auditorium with the orchestra, or underneath the guitar strings, or – depending on the intention of the recording engineers – inside the sounds or riding rapids with them.

In short, listening to the Alexandria’s is an experience: totally involving, it made me want to really listen, such was the life-like fidelity, the exciting dynamic, the resolution of each note and the textural information constantly on tap. I never wanted it to stop, and my humble stereo, by comparison, sounded about as exciting as the kind of speaker system you might encounter in an elevator.

SIMON Kern should know a little about audio. He starting writing hi-fi reviews for Popular Hi-fi at the age of 14, ended up working for Linn (the famous turntable company), culminating in his 10 year history with Utah-based speaker company Wilson Audio.

“Nobody makes much money in high end audio”, says Kern, and he’s probably right. Wilson Audio is still a relatively small company, despite winning numerous awards, and David Wilson – who has kept the company speaker-dedicated since its formation in the mid-‘80s – still prefers prospective agents auditioning the speakers in his own sound room.

It’s the kind of business that thrives on almost mad scientist levels of obsessive research and development, and the market for such esoteric speakers – until the world becomes a much wealthier place – will necessarily always be small.

Kern’s (and by association Wilson Audio’s) pitch is rather different to that of most hi-fi dealers.

“It annoys a lot of dealers”, he says, “but the single largest issue is that if you have a poor room, you can spend millions of dollars on gear and you’ll get nowhere. You must get the room right.”

When a client expresses interest in Wilson Audio speakers, Kern encourages the client to modify the intended room… extensively if necessary. This often requires literally building a room around the hi-fi, or subtly altering by trial and error over a period of time.

In Kern’s case, his sound room (an open plan room with a glass door/window at one end and a kitchen at the other) required two years’ worth of alteration and modification: special rugs for bass capture, panels on the walls, a special material built into the window end of the room (“made from fibre glass and steel mesh with holes cut into the steel of various sizes to provide some degree of reflection and some degree of absorption”), a non-reflective coating on the window and a special blind, and a panel blocking off the kitchen. And that’s just for starters. An acoustical engineer was hired to do all the scientific sound equations, then the human ear was put to use in gauging tweakage issues like exact speaker placement.

“Most people don’t realise that a difference of five millimetres can be massive,” says Kern, “so it’s very important that you place things correctly. But we start off by measuring the room acoustically, then it goes into the computer and shows you the frequency response of the room.”

Having a scientifically reproducible method in setting up speakers correctly is essential. “You’ve got about three quarters of a million dollars of equipment sitting here, and all that goes to waste if you can’t get these right.” In other words, it needs to sound like a million bucks!

“A LOT of people say ‘how can we justify spending so much money and time on something like this? How can you tell the difference?’” says Kern. “But our ears are linked directly to our fight and flight instinct, so when we hear a sound in the forest, we don’t question our ability to tell the difference.

“We have clients who have five luxury cars that they drive sporadically and holiday homes all over the place that they rarely visit. You use your speakers every day, so…”

Ultimately, through a canny combo of demonstrable science and tenacious tweakage, “the idea is to build an image so you can’t hear the individual loudspeakers… so that you’ve literally got a sound stage and three-dimensional depth.”

Kern admits that Wilson Audio speakers aren’t the typical option for a loaded lifestyler looking for a quick sound fix. Even if you have the cash, these speakers require commitment… it’s a sound-based relationship with problem-solving and issue-based management, but one that should last a lifetime.

“These speakers are designed to focus on you,” says Kern, so it can be a lonely hobby. Our customers are serious music-philes; they know a lot about music, and in many cases they play it or have studied it.”

Once someone has made the commitment to a pair of Wilson Audio speakers, they have to think about more than the room they’re housing them in. The speaker cable Kern recommends is worth $56,000 all on its own. Then there are genuine high-end turntables, CD players, pre-amps, amps, analogue-to-digital converters and dedicated 1000-watt amps for each speaker. And it doesn’t stop there.

Just to show you how serious Kern is about hi-fi, the cartridge on his custom-made turntable alone is worth over $16,000. Here’s a guy with serious dependency issues, and I can understand why!

Ultimately, Kern says, “you simply hear more” with Wilson Audio speakers. “It’s a bigger screen, a higher resolution. It helps you to listen to a piece of music and really ‘get it’, and more often than not I find I’m able to actually understand what people are singing!”

 

The Alexandria’s

The Alexandria X-2 speakers are rather large monoliths with a height of six foot. Available in bright red or black, they’re made out of an extremely rigid synthetic composite material to provide a structure that’s as inert as possible. Weighing 500 kilos each, the speaker cabinets allow each tweeter to be individually adjusted for height and distance of the listener. We could write pages about what goes into these awesome speakers, but here are just a few details to give you some idea. In the stack there’s a 15” and a 13” bass speaker, with its lowest range reaching 19.5Hz at 3dB. Next are three separate cabinets containing two bass-reflex type back vented ports and a 7” midrange unit. The third is an inverted dome metal tweeter with placement between the midranges. Sensitivity is rated at 95dB, and one little detail that blew our tiny little minds was that Wilson Audio had invented a special glue just to secure the acoustic fabric on the grilles so that they always have the same tension!

Hearing Is Believing

Disappointingly there wasn’t time to audition any of my own reference discs on the Alexandria’s, but I got to hear a range of discs, including a $US120, 200-gram vinyl classical audiophile edition (which literally gave me chills in the dramatic passages); an old Dusty Springfield cut which sounded as fresh and juicy as the day it was cut back in the ‘60s; a reference master of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ with Herbie Flowers’ woody walking bassline just jumping out at me; some dynamic big band charts from a duo date between Count Basie and Duke Ellington; and old perennial Dark Side Of The Moon amongst others. Simply astonishing across the board.

Those Cheeky Kiwis

“One recent client, who is one of New Zealand’s richest men, said, ‘You would lose this sale for $1? You won’t give me $1 off?’ And I said ‘that’s right’. We don’t discount. We don’t charge for years of attentive after-sales service, so if we started discounting, that would all get eroded.”

+ Check out Gary’s 2023 Wilson Audio experience in Auckland here.

 

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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