Friday, August 19, 2005

Wilson Audio MAXX Series 2 loudspeakers

Source: The Absolute Sound August/September, Stereophile August 2005, Soundstage August 2004

Robert Harley / TAS, Michael Fremer / Stereophile and Marc Mickelson / Soundstage, all respective reviewers of high-end components - and all salivating over latest MAXXs. Harley: "... produced the best sound I've had in my listening room over the past 16 ears as a fulltime reviewer." Fremer: "In my space, the Wilson MAXX2 was easily the best overall loudspeaker I have ever heard, though others may have bested it in specific performance parameters." Mickelson: "Would I buy MAXX 2s? Absolutely. They are the most significant product I've written about in my eight years as an audio reviewer."

I think you got the picture, no need to quote listening notes regarding resolution or imaging. There are some issues, however, which attracted my attention. To start with, Harley and Fremer have almost identical size listening rooms: 4.5m (w) x 6.4m (l) x 2.5m (h), i.e. relatively smaller than most environments in which the MAXX is likely to be used. One expects that such a large, full-range speaker would definitely overload these smallish rooms, and yet both reviewers highlighted and focused on sub 200Hz performance of MAXX. Harley stated that there are very few components which have caused him to reevaluate what's possible in music reproduction: "To that select list I can now add ... MAXX Series 2 loudspeaker. The aspect of music reproduction that the MAXX redefines, in my experience, is the bottom end, where it combines huge bass power and dynamics with ultra-precise control, coherence, and resolution. More than any other loudspeaker I've heard, the MAXX integrates the bass into the musical fabric, both dynamically and tonally, in a way that makes me forget I'm listening to a mechanical reproduction of music rather than to music itself."

Fremer: "... delivered the deepest, tighest, most pitch-precise bass I've ever heard in my room."

Mickelson: "... bass is deeper and more powerful than that of any speaker I've used. The lowest and most powerful sounds -- electric bass, bass drum -- simply appear, and just as you get ready for at least a little slop or overhang, they disappear with realistic speed."

All three gents wowed the immense dynamic capabilities of MAXXs, combined with accurate and properly proportioned imaging. Although the MAXXs are large speakers by any account, reviews noted that one of their most striking quality is their ability to disappear and to sound believable with large-scale orchestral music and with the most intimate recordings. Lastly, both Fremer and Mickelson noted that the MAXX 2 is a speaker for late-night listening, i.e. they are able to sound open, balanced and articulated even with low volume levels. For me all this can be best described as dynamic consistency, in other words, MAXXs seem to be speakers that perform over a wide volume range, and at any given volume can play consistently music that covers a wide dynamic range.

Viewpoint: I've stated earlier the following:

i) One of the more frustrating uncertainties facing high performance audio is determining the ultimate capabilities of a component. Being able to identify a component as excellent is easy enough. Knowing exactly just how excellent is rather more ambiguous. Since any component will only be audible when placed in a system, judging its ultimate limits requires that one knows the ultimate prowess of each component in the system, each of which in turn faces the same dilemma. Upgrading an individual component becomes a shot in the dark: will the upgrade bring a genuine improvement in system sound and will the rest of the system be capable of resolving the difference?

ii) The purpose of audio reviews is not to make choice for a reader. It is rather to help potential buyer to know what products merit a visit to a dealer showroom - or more preferably, leads into home trial within listener's own system.

But consider the MAXX2s. At $45.000 they represent for most audiophiles the ultimate purchase in terms of price, or should I say, a choice between a new car or new speakers. But before committing to the purchase, can an audiophile have a home trial? Nope (shipping weight is 500kg plus they require a time-consuming set-up by a dealer). How about listening in a dealer's showroom with your choice of components? Hmm, I suspect you are happy if you can locate a dealer within some hundreds of kilometers, and be equally lucky to have in a dealer's showroom anything resembling equipments you have at home. In real life (and at least in Europe), these are the speakers you'll buy with limited first-hand knowledge or experience, and in order to achieve the best results you might have to upgrade substantial part of your HE-gear to reveal the magic and hear their full potential.

Would I buy? If money were no issue, most probably. Have once spent a good hour listening in Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s driven by full Nagra gear (source was nothing less than Nagra SNST-R tape recorder) and I was sold. There are audiophiles who have strong opinion about Wilson house sound, but at least for me the latest Wilson offerings are something special.

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