The day we heard the best speakers on the planet

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GARY STEEL reports on a trip to listen to reputedly the finest speaker brand on earth and to meet its CEO.

Sparrow’s fart in rural Northland. Horses mooch slowly around snorting in the gloom. A bloom of cotton-wool fog hovers over the valleys. An explosion of pink/orange sky peeks over the hilltops. And three men, having driven from points North and West, arrive at an obscure farm down an unsealed road early on Saturday morning.

This covert operation isn’t a drug deal or a purchase of contraband. It’s all legal if slightly eccentric: simply three hi-fi freaks heading South in a VW ute, excited about a rare event taking place in Auckland later that morning.

It’s no exaggeration that Wilson Audio speakers have a reputation for being “simply the best”, as the late Tina Turner exclaimed. And today, at a domestic address in Orakei, we would not only get a chance to audition the legendary loudspeaker brand, but also to meet its CEO, Daryl Wilson.

 

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As we navigated around the many potholes on the two-and-a-half hour drive to Auckland, I listened with curiosity as my travel pals Mark Loveridge (of the popular audiophile Facebook page HiFi Downunder) and his good friend Mike talked non-stop about their adventures in hi-fi over the years. Because I’m primarily a mad music fan on a quest to hear my favourite records sound their very best while also being completely useless at the technicalities of audio gear, it’s always a revelation to hear experts talk with real knowledge on the subject.

Hosted by New Zealand Wilson Audio agent John Tom of Paul Money Hifi (a well-known store in Mt Eden), the event took place at a stunning house and happily, the sun was shining so that between bouts of listening, the lucky attendees could relax on the deck drinking espresso (or wine) and eating delicious muffins. And of course, chat.

Based in Provo, Utah in the United States, Wilson Audio was kicked into life by the late David A. Wilson in 1974, which makes the celebrated brand just shy of 50 years old. It’s fair to say that most common or garden music fans would blanche at spending the kind of money a pair of Wilson Audio speakers commands, but these are indisputably premium products for those who have both the cash and the desire for a domestic loudspeaker that is arguably the best on the market.

The top-of-the-line Wilson Audio speakers – the WAMM Master Chronosonic Towers – retail for about a million dollars, while the bronze Alexia V taking pride of place in the lounge today can be bought for around $150K, and the smaller Sabrina X positioned in the adjoining room goes for around $70K in New Zealand. For most of us, Wilson Audio loudspeakers remain aspirational. I’ve had to cobble together my hi-fi system over the years, searching for bargains as I go. But the reality is, if I was independently wealthy, a pair of Wilson Audio speakers would definitely be on my radar. Like so many, all I can do is dream… or titillate my senses by attending a presentation like today’s!

There are as many skeptics amongst the hi-fi listening fraternity as there are modern-day snake-oil salesmen in the manufacture and retailing of hi-fi gear, but Wilson Audio’s long track record and the respect with which the company is regarded suggest that the product is everything it claims to be. And it was great to be able to meet the current CEO, Daryl Wilson. Many audio gear manufacturers have a spiel that sounds impressive but ultimately falls flat. In contrast, Daryl comes across as a genuinely friendly, open individual with nothing to prove. Very tall and looking for all the world like a modern-day Amish, Daryl describes himself as an introvert and says that he’s a person who needs to spend time in nature. Accordingly, he’s fascinated by New Zealand’s natural environment and long, almost deserted beaches.

He explains that he grew up watching his dad and early on developed a passion for hi-fi. David Wilson instructed his son to get to know every aspect of the company, and Daryl explains how he would repeatedly watch David tune the crossovers by ear while playing the same short passage of music over and over, eventually gaining the listening and tweaking skills to do this all-important job himself. Ultimately, Daryl decided that what he wanted was to succeed his dad (who died in 2018) and he’s now the CEO of this legacy company.

Daryl seemingly nurtures a sense of curiosity – the opposite of the tunnel-vision that often comes with the territory – and he wants to know about the three men who came all the way from up North and what it’s like where we live, and after I’ve had a good listen to his speakers, he wants to know what my perceptions are about what I’ve just heard. When I tell him that the statement that comes to mind is “it’s all there” and that there’s an almost “live” quality to the sound, he tells me that getting a semblance of the audible excitement of a live concert in an auditorium is something that he aspires to. And he says how he’s looking forward to the next leg of his trip Downunder, where he will check out the famed acoustics of the Sydney Opera House.

So, what did the Alexia’s and the Sabrina X sound like on the day? Most of the chosen music – streamed through Tidal – was of the sophisticated audiophile variety, with a preponderance of mentholated female vocals and acoustic instrumentation, and a smattering of old hi-fi standards like Dire Straits and Steely Dan. There were a few electronic tunes by the likes of Yello and I selected the pounding Tool tune ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’ from the 2019 album, Fear Inoculum for its room-shaking percussion workout. Words fail me, except to say that experiencing the Wilson Audio musical delivery you realise just how flabby most so-called hi-fi speakers really are.

When I wrote “it’s all there” what I really meant was that I got the feeling that the speakers had extracted every ounce of sonic juice out of the music, with no imbalance in the sound spectrum and loads of energy: almost like a PA speaker but sans the “transisterised, equalized” horribleness that image connotes. There’s so much more, but I’ll stick to the facets that were most obvious to me. The bass response was astounding, which is unusual because quite commonly, audiophiles are not fans of bass. The timing was incredible. Now I know I don’t have any way to measure this statement, except to say that the way everything clicked together rhythmically was spectacular, where it’s fair to say that with the majority of domestic stereo systems, there’s perceptible “drag”. There were moments where the speakers simply took my breath away, and that’s rare.

I should point out that to get the most out of Wilson Audio loudspeakers – as with any speakers – they really deserve to be carefully set up and placed in an acoustically excellent room, and fed the very best-sounding music source through the very best components, from streamer (or server or CD or LP) through to amplification. Today’s exposition was by necessity less than perfect in this regard, and while the speakers looked great in this posh environment they’d been brought in for a one-time event. I found the bass response from the Alexia’s overwhelming at times, but could tell that this wasn’t the fault of these ported speakers: they just needed a bit more room to move: a better-shaped room, moved out more from the wall, perhaps some bass traps on the walls.

Happily, however, the sound was still incredible and for the first time I could get a real sense of just why the Wilson Audio brand has such an amazing reputation. As the editor of the late (and possibly unlamented) NZ hi-fi magazine TONE, I had attended a couple of Wilson Audio demos in the distant past. The first was held at a swanky hotel on Auckland’s waterfront but the speakers were placed in an immense conference room, which did them no favours. My one clear memory of that day was that some wag put on his CD of Aussie hard rock group AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ to the bemusement of most of the assembled gathering of hi-fi nerds. The second time was when a chap in Brisbane took on the distributorship and flew me over to hear the speakers, which he’d set up in his apartment. They sounded great but he had them blasting towards the kitchen and the sweet spot was very, very small. They were going for $250K and I remember him saying that what the Wilson Audio owner really needed to do was to build a room around them to spec, and feed them with appropriate gear. The tonearm on his turntable alone was worth $60K.

While in the States Wilson Audio has impressed with its solidity – family owned, handmade, using incredibly rigid cabinetry and super-duper space-age materials – the price barrier has meant that to date, the individuals who have taken on the brand down here have been up against it with our small market base. I was impressed talking to Paul Money Hifi owner John Tom at his determination in making Wilson Audio available here and getting the word out about the brand. He assured me that his store, dealing with the Sydney based Wilson Audio importers, were in it for the long haul and would offer superlative installation and after-sale service on the speakers.

If the Alexia’s were a knock-out experience, the smaller red Sabrina’s were also surprisingly arresting. Because of their comparatively diminutive size I expected their sonics to be swallowed up by the room, but instead, found myself stuck to the seat with my ears happily entranced by the ease with which they pumped out whatever was fed into them.

At the conclusion of our session I wanted to stick around to drink more espresso – or quaff more of the wonderful Waiheke Island Poderi Crisci wine that John had selected – but mostly I was drawn back repeatedly to listen to these wonderful, exacting speakers. Alas, we had to head back up North.

One of the frustrations with hearing a brand like Wilson Audio is the disappointment that I feel when I next play music through my own system. And yeah, that’s always a bit depressing. While it is definitely possible with care and experimentation to build a system that rivals the sound of the Wilson Audio speakers, it’s only restless tinkerers like Mark who are willing to try this, try that and try the other thing until they find a combination of gear that really sings…and even then, it all comes at a price. I can certainly see the appeal of Wilson Audio, which is kind of like the Rolls Royce of the audio world.

+ Wilson Audio loudspeakers available at Paul Money Hifi.

 

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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