Part One - Finding Out What Really Counts.
Part Two - Enter the Wilson Alexandria Series 2.
Part Three - Add in the Ayre Line and it Takes Off.
Part Four - Who Could Have Guessed...
So let's start with part 1:
Let's start at college. I had no sound system. I grew up with live performances as opera at the Met in NYC. I just could not listen to classical music on anybodies system that I personally knew. It was not good enough. Then I got married and my wife had a decent system of her own. It was a 35 W (I think) Pioneer receiver with the largest Bose floor standing speakers. I do not remember the turntable but it was a good one.
Then I graduated and joined the work force. The compact disc arrived and I bought some based on review articles. I did not even have a player yet as I was waiting for a really good one. I got what was a highly rated Denon player and started to listen to music finally, at home. The room acoustics were taylored for some optimization. I also used a trick I read about in Stereophile. That was to put some weights on your speakers to steady them and use thick cables, not 22 ga. Radio Shack speaker cables.
The next upgrade was to the $5,000 B&W 801 original speakers. The dealer, still mine today, said they would not sound good until I also purchased the Adcom preamp and amps. Only able to spend once at the time I went for the speakers first. WOW. I was not prepared for what I heard. It was awful and stayed that way. I should have listened. The last thing you should upgrade is the speakers, the first thing is the electronics. It was a good lesson.
After I purchased the Adcom electronics I felt that I arrived and joined the audiophile level. Still, you do not know what you are missing until you actually move further up the ladder. I got a top end AR preamp and there was another big leap in sound. Next I took possession of the Mark Levinson No. 30 DAC while still using my Denon CD player as just a CD deck. I remember this being a significant upgrade. But what blew me away was the arrival of the No. 31 Levinson CD deck. I fell off my seat when I plugged it into the No. 30 DAC. Every aspect of the music improved beyond belief. In the interest of time I will keep moving on here.
The Infinity IRS speaker system was the next upgrade with high current Threshold amplifiers. I believe Nelson Pass still ran the place at the time. These I remember needed some break in time. This was the first time I experienced this. Maybe this was evident because the rest of the system was top notch and this played into the factoring. Anyway, another huge improvement was the addition of the high end (I forgot the exact model number) Levinson preamp. I fell off my seat a second time right off the bat, no waiting. But again, there was improvement with further use. I felt that I had really arrived at the top now.
Over the next decade I had upgrades / tweaks to the IRS speaker system and upgraded the Levinson stuff such as the 30.5 DAC revision and new preamps every 5 years. Each time less of an upgrade in sound but still an improvement. The cost to benefit ratio has been going down as time progressed but I had the money.
Oh, did I mention the cable upgrades over time, yes, at first the differences were big but as time went on the cost went up and the improvements were not as obvious. Part of the problem is that equipment seemed to need to be used some before the sonics maxed out. This issue gets more evident every year, at least at my level.
I reprinted this review below to save having to jump to an old post and adjusted it somewhat.
But first a comment on interim speakers. After the departure of the Infinity IRS speakers there were a few weeks void. I put in a set of very small floor standing B&W bookshelf sized speakers just for fun and for some background music for a get together with some of our neighbors. I was very impressed at the excellent reproduction and even the unstrained high volume those little boxes were able to put out. It just goes to show you that you should upgrade the speakers last.
The old Wilson, revised review:
This is a non-professional review of the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 series 2 speakers that were just installed at my house. The previous speakers were Infinity IRS Betas of 12 years ago that were modified several times over the years. The foam on the rim of the eight 12 inch woofers recently fell apart so I thought this was my signal to upgrade.
First, the conclusion: I have been in many high end rooms, several CES shows and a host of dealership demos. I demand a lot from my system as I listen almost exclusively to opera. While I most often listen at realistic levels I do occasionally listen at low levels. My wife is strictly a low level person. I feel that my system is the best I have heard at any level and several critics have said it is better than being there, if that is possible. Also, as with most speaker systems, you cannot listen to these with the grill in place. They must be removed. Now for the details on how was this achieved.
The remainder of the system was unchanged for the most part. We have the Levinson No. 31 CD deck, the 30.6 DAC and the 320S pre-amp. Threshold SA10/e Stasis 175 watt mono amps drive the speakers.
It started with the delivery of 7 wooden crates off an 18-wheeler. The shipping weight was over 2,000 lbs. After a long 3 weeks Randy Cribb from Audio Advice in Raleigh NC and Peter McGrath from Miami arrived. Peter of course is one of the principals of Wilson Audio and a professional recording engineer. A few days before I uncrated everything. Moving the lower bass units into the house was a 450 lb engineering experience, scary actually. Do not attempt this by yourself. Then I played music (without listening) for a few days, while outside or away from the house to break in the speakers.
The speakers sounded like the drivers were broken at first, there was a vibrating, grinding metallic sound. The bass was muted and muddy. Only the mid-range sounded somewhat listenable.
Two days of positioning and tuning followed. One thing I learned was that a quarter inch of movement can make a big difference in the sound quality. The room is large, 22 ft wide, 16 feet high and 40 or so feet deep. I have sudo-Tube Traps in the corners behind the speakers whose front grills are about 7 ft from the back wall and 14 feet apart. The walls are block on 2 sides and 2 x 6 walls on the other. The floor is a slab with wall to wall carpet. This is typical Florida stuff.
The remainder of the story is just to show what things make differences in your playback capabilities. Go back to your room and move everything around in 1/4 inch increments. Tilt or straighten things, and certainly change cables.
It was interesting how Peter got the speakers into an optimum position. He also felt that no resistor changes had to be done to compensate for room acoustics. One of the great things about these speakers is that you can change things electrically to better adapt to your room acoustics. This is not possible with most other speakers.
One thing we did was set the speakers up for my listening position. That is about 19 - 20 feet in front of them and I stand up and conduct rather than sit and listen. When I am done listening I need a shower. The speakers were aimed to listen at a maximum height of 48 inches at 20 feet. I later tilted them back a fair amount on the adjustable spikes to tune it to 60 inches high. This sounded better.
Another change I made after the installers left was to straighten the speakers. They was leaning in towards each other a tiny bit. After straightening them just a tad the soundstage collapsed. I had to put the wheels back on and move them. My wife wanted them a little further back if possible so I did some additional re-tuning while they were back on the wheels. Peter McGrath has a scientific way to do this very rapidly and with great accuracy. They then sounded even better then when originally installed.
Let me again say that one can change the response some by changing the resistors in the back. These also act as fuses so one is less likely to blow a driver. Incidently, I have destroyed many drivers at audio dealerships trying to sell me speakers that can take opera at realistic levels. There is nothing more demanding than a few closely miked singers giving it all they got. I have replaced drivers several times in my old Betas. They also fatigue over time and break easier I believe.
Anyway, I was playing a section that was actually painful to our ears and I asked Peter McGrath how much louder they can safely go. He stated at least 6dB more with ease. That was a shocker to me.
Now back to the roller casters and spikes. When I had the speakers in the final position the floor underneath was still a little uneven. I overcorrected knowing that straightening afterwards moved the drivers ever so little to the sidewalls. I listened to the speakers at this slightly overcorrected position before spiking them. It sounded good from a soundstage point but there was no bass. I went ahead and spiked them, still leaning inwards though and still no bass. Then I straightened them up thus moving the upper drivers slightly apart. Boom, the bass was back and better than when on the casters. This makes sense of course. But still, the tilt was barely noticeable and yet the bass went from zero to appropriate.
After all my toying around I clearly had an improvement over that from the original setup by my experts. I widened the soundstage a little (good for my listening style) and may have increased the bass response. This is more of a room thing but it just shows how much you have to experiment. Others who have obtained good systems will tell you it takes a month to get speakers in the absolute best spot in the room. Using Peter's methodology can knock that down to a few days however.
What is kind of interesting in my room is that anything behind my listening line is a fun spot to listen from. Sure, the sweat spot (a very wide one) is best but a crowd can equally enjoy the music and be wholly impressed.
Let's talk about cables. I know they make a difference but I was not prepared. These were attended to just after the speakers were originally positioned by the team. I had some very good XLR Transparent Audio interconnect cables that were say 8 years old and the speaker cables were MIT shotgun hoses. Thanks to the people from Transparent we had a huge box of cables to audition. First we put in the mid-priced interconnect and speaker cables. I was not prepared. Mud turned to music. Wow. I was very much satisfied with this improvement. Nothing else needed to be done it seemed.
Then there were those other cable boxes and heck we had nothing else to do. But I was not going to spend the greenbacks on the other, higher end Transparent cables, the ones just below the Opus set. So why even plug them in? Just for fun, just to prove they do nothing much else - let's do it.
Wow again. I could not believe my ears. Needless to say these are still plugged in, they were not returned. I think these are the ones that Peter McGrath actually uses in his system. I only took two steps after dropping in the test Opera CD to notice the huge improvement in sound and then the separation in the soundstage. Performers were pinpoint in location. Bass was tighter. And the system was louder at the same volume setting. How this is possible is beyond me. I have a complete electronic shop and like many think I know it all. This just makes no sense.
Wait, I am not done. We have not talked about power supply. My house is in an areas with buried utility lines. The feeding transformer is very close but does not hum or vibrate. A few years ago the whole area was re-wired throughout the streets. I have 600 amp service lines coming into my house. I built it that way. When I designed the house I put in dedicated 30 amp lines to the amplifier locations. I have several large high end MOVs on the panels for the house and the garage.
Testing my own lines proves them to be clean and modern appliances are generally quiet anyway. But hey, why not do all that can be done? For this department we auditioned the Shunyata Hydra 8 II with an Anaconda cable and Python CX cables were placed on the Threshold amps. Older Diamondback cables were used on the front end items where possible. For a real thrill just get your hands on these highest end of cables.
These made the least difference on MY system. What I got was a tiny bit of improvement in separation and a little bit of background noise reduction. I did not think I had any noise until I heard the reduction. If you can swing it you need these too, especially if you have any internal house noise or even noise from your lines or the neighbors house. I can see how there could be significant improvements in some cases.
Final comments: I have re-discovered older CD's that my wife has been listening to. What I thought were just OK recordings have turned to gold. It seems that even recordings from the 1980's, if done well, can be amazing when played on a system as this one. And if you want to hurt your ears turn up the volume. They play without strain and this is rarely possible for opera.
Measurements: While not entirely scientific I did find some things worth noting. At my listening spot I set up pink noise to a level of 94dB with an analytical mike. This one is 0 - 40kHz and up to 140dB. The speakers ate up 0.5 amps at 2.4 volts. That is 1.2 watts going into the speakers. The efficiency is 97dB according to Peter McGrath. This in part must be why these speakers perform so well. No energy is wasted. It is hard to believe that drivers and speakers so big can run off such a small energy level. It is hard to understand how such a large speaker can play at such a low volume and sound so good and then hurt your eardrums when you turn it up.
Fit and finish: This is first rate. We (the wife) chose the color Topaz with grey grills. With all the shapes and all the parts and fittings that have to be perfectly lined up one can only be amazed by the QC. The tools supplied and the jack to lift the speakers for spiking are first rate. The instructions for assembly are well written but a word to the wise. Do not try to assemble these by yourself. Over tightening will break things and the weight of parts is daunting. There were no mishaps at this location but I see the potential for problems.
High efficiency, the best of sound, highly adjustable to YOUR environment and durable, why buy anything else.
The actual review with comments is here:
The Threshold amps depart and the Ayre MX-R amps arrive. I remember being somewhat disappointed when I first plugged them in as they sounded no better than my Threshold amps that I just sold. The Ayre amps were not cheap!
But I do recall the exact day when it seemed, all of a sudden, that I turned on the system and played one of my favorite operas, and again fell off my seat. It has been a while since that has happened. Why does it take so long?
An opera is revealing of a system. When you have better channel separation you can better distinguish the location of singers side to side and front to back. Now I can tell how tall they are and the stage is bigger. You seem to be sitting closer and hearing more information. It consumes you and you cannot stop listening.
Now the Levinson DAC and preamp and CD players have sold. Ayre lends me a used CX-7e CD player and I buy their KX-R preamp. Boy is the wife disappointed. She wants to know why WE have to break in a component that costs so much. She has a point. It was awful. I mean you could not listen to it. It was scratchy, distant, had no depth, no bass, nothing. We left the system on and ran it while we were out of the house just to get it broken in faster. We did not listen to it at all while we were there. It was that bad.
It took probably 2 weeks to be able to listen to non-critical stuff. It slowly improved. I would say that it was 2 months later that it seemed to stabilize. I then felt that I had arrived again anew. We were clearly at a new level with what seemed like no need nor room for improvement. I could see everybody on stage. I could touch them. I could sit in the back row of the theater and listen quietly from afar or move up to the stage and feel the vibration of every instrument and vocal cord. I wondered whether anything in the room might self destruct from the music one could clearly feel now. You could touch it.
Once again we waited. I had deeper bass upon plugging it in but there was otherwise no initial improvement over the Ayre CX-7e. It was no worse nor better other than the bass.
...I have had it a couple of weeks now and it just keeps getting better. I really do wonder what it will sound like in a few months.
What we have now is the ability to hear individual instruments as the first violin. Is this possible? One comment a friend had was that the system now sounded like vinyl instead of digital, even with the old CD's from the 1980's. I cannot understand how there is even more music on those old discs. The information was there but we could not hear it? It is better than before. There IS more music on those old CD's.
The newest recordings on SACD's sounded noticeably better than when played on the CX-7e but the real improvement was with the older Redbook CD's. Again, a WOW is in order. There is music there I have not heard before, more notes being played. The music is robust but at the same time laid back, easier to listen to. You do not have to listen to it. Instead it permeates you. You want to step forewards and join in and sing with the performers. Grab a triangle, a tambourine as they wave you onstage.
An interesting aside is that I feel that the music is nearly as good from just about anywhere in the room. Proper room placement of the Wilson speakers initially lead to a great room response. Now it is even better. I cannot explain this aspect. As with speaker cables and AC line conditioners, there is no obvious reason as to why they work so well. In the past the better equipment actually narrowed the sweat spot, but not this time around. It is larger and almost all other locations are nearly as good. You explain it if you can.
...Another day gone by and it is even better again. I noticed today that I can play the music louder and longer without (me) getting tired or fatigued. Then I turned the volume very low and I was able to enjoy it just as much. Previously I could not listen and enjoy low level playing after first using realistic sound levels.
My wife, who only listens at low levels, put in one of her CD's. She said the new player is clearly better than before with more bass content, a fuller sound overall with new notes filling in the spaces now. She actually asked how it was possible to sound so much better after such a small amount of break in time. I did not let her listen to the system before this date as I did not want to hear her complain about having to put up with break in. She did comment just now that it reminded her of when we first plugged in the Levinson No. 31 CD player some years ago. You did not have to A-B anything. It was obviously better in a BIG way. What else can I say?
In a nutshell - I can now say I am experiencing a performance that is, for me, better than being there. Yes, you can actually pick out a single person in the chorus and listen just to them. Music is present in the entire stage, left ot right, front to back top to bottom and then some. There is no fatigue. You can listen at a very low level and still hear all the notes. This in particular is a difficult task.
For me I love the music at realistic levels that is now surrounding me. I can listen critically to a single performer or a single instrument. And...the wife is happy. Is it a particular component or the entire package that counts? You make the call!
at least you are happy
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The lows are deeper, lower and crisper. If you do not like a lot of bass you will want to pass on my system. It will knock you off your sox.
The highs I will describe as higher, crisper and yet in a way more delicate. The triangle just pleases me like never before.
The midrange is more full. That is all I can say. Maybe this is a poor description but I am at a loss of words.
I find it difficult to stop listening to my old Redbook CD's. I cannot turn off the system.
We had a Christmas in July party here Saturday. We played the DVD of the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker (Opus Arte) and a few people who go every year to the Met in NYC to see it said it was better here than going there. Although the video was only through a RP TV the audio was spectacular.
Another find was the video/DVD performance of La Cenerentola (Decca B0013374-09). I am a Cinderella fan. This was the best audio performance I have heard and you can turn on the video if you wish. The depth and the width of the stage here were the best I have ever experienced.
I could say more but I am going to turn it on...
Wow. Just wow. I wish I had money to throw away like you! For a fraction of the cost I was able to do the same thing as you. I can close my eyes with my system and get the sensation I am there. I don't buy into the cable and high end electronics like you. I have heard systems that cost 6 digits and I really wasn't impressed. The owner of them was, but I guess I would have to be spending that kind of money.
at least you are happy
It's good that you are happy with your system and feel that it replicates the live event (no sarcasm intended). I'm equally sure that there are plenty of high-dollar systems out there that sound like cr*p. [I still have this sneaking suspicion that by the time I reach retirement age all of the bright-sounding speakers that I have heard will start sounding merely "energetic".] However, you really shouldn't knock anything unless you've tried it for yourself, in your own system.
Of course it can get expensive if you try something new in your system that makes it sound significantly better.
Case in point (Re: don't knock it): I recently decided to try running my PS3 audio out through the optical jack, into a cheap DAC, and into a stereo preamp instead of using HDMI into my Onkyo receiver. This reduces the sampling rate of the digital information to CD quality (44kHz vs. 192kHz upsampled from the PS3). I expected this would reduce sound quality--there's less information there, right? Well, the result was a better approximation of hearing live music. You might want to check out the thread on aehaas' new Blu-Ray player where the Ayre designer talks about why this happens: http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=1181755. I found it highly enlightening, and I have no plans to spend $10k on a Blu-Ray player.
Thanks to the OP for an interesting read. I would love to hear your system, although maybe not so much playing opera. I don't have those kind of funds, but I can appreciate the discovery process. And whenever you decide to sell the DX-5, PM me!