Wilson, Fidelity, Magnepan, B&W Review

staxguy -- Wed, 03/02/2011 - 15:25

I did some listening over the snowy weekend to some speakers at a local hi-fi salon: Fidelity Acoustics, Wilson and Magnepan. The first was the Fidelity Acoustics RFM-3 ($7850) a quite small two-way D'Apolito design with I believe first-order crossover, on all-Naim electronics. At low volumes as I prefer, it was bass shy, yet natural. Certain recordings just sounded "terrible", because I could hear all the "techniques" I adhore on most multi-miked "studio" recordings: I prefered in intros to such songs, when one or at most two intstruments were present: the sound was at least natural. When a good recording took hold, the speakers did it true justice, sounding better than live (less PA distortion, room noise, etc.), and really stood out on sonic virtue. Turning up the volume would reveal more bass in the recording, but I prefered the sound before: relaxed and capable, if bass-shy compared to my regular monitors. 

The next switchover proved quite interesting: the Wilson Sophia Series 3. It looked better than the website photos in a nice grey, and yet, when even the first speaker began to be switched: I began to grit my teeth. Compared to the Fideltiy RFM-3, the sound was harsh, and almost unpalettable in comparison: like switching from a fine red wine, to one more approaching something partly vinager: I wanted to go back! It sounded ugly, top-to-bottom, in terms of tonality. And yet, as seconds grew, I began to tap my feet, and get involved in the music. My memory of the previous good sound faded, and I could hear the whole room filled with sound. There was more bass, for one, but also more spacious engergy. Before, the image was between the speakers, now it was all along the wall, and extruding into the room: sort of like going into one of those mostly open-air monestaries where you can hear a pin-drop: if there was more "fideltity" in these Wilsons Sophia's, and more true "tonality" I would have thought: hey, here's "my" speaker. Instead, the top was hot, as was the bass: sort of like the EQ you would have on a 10-band home party system, or a roudy nightclub: perhaps good for suitably recorded music, but not so, for purist hi-fi, or well-recorded sound. The bass cabinet in the new Sophia was suprisingly bigger than I would have thought suitable for a single 10-inch driver, making the cabinet quite deep. Impresive looking, and imersive / toe-tapping, overall, despite the tonaity: perhaps a great "party" speaker, much better than those that would be sold out of the back of a white van. Enjoyable, and fun, yet not very "high-resolution!"
Note re: the Wilson vs the Fidelity, the Wilsons were placed far wider in the auditioning room, and turned in, perhaps accounting for the widely different soundstage, perhaps those positions were "ideal" for both speakers: I did not ask for them to be changed, but would try experimenting with the RFM-3 placement to give it a wider image: the cabinets are quite narrow.

Next was the Magnepan 1.7. I asked about the 3.7 and 20.1, but it was the 1.7 that they had already set-up, so that is what I listened to. Immediately, I felt let down by the sound I heard. The image was "tall" as were the speakers, yet they were placed far too narrowly. When back in the day I wanted to build a house just for multiple hi-fi rigs, I figured I would want a room at least 32 feet deep, for bass notes, and a nice correspondingly high ceiling and wide width, in my large monitor listening room. When I felt too lazy to build it from scratch, I just worked with a real estate agent to find suitable houses which would have similar rooms as a basement den, or entertainment room, etc. Sorry for that rant, but despite the man's assurances that the 1.7's were wide enough apart as they were, I would of wanted to hear them under more ideal conditions, despite their nice electronics stack. As they were setup, the soundstage was much more narrow than the other speakers in the store, and seemed even visually that they were much too close together, for jazz. Rim-shots, though: wow! What an impulse response, and guitar strums: I have never heard guitar strums sound so good, so it is clear that the Magnepan have some oustanding characteristics, I just would need to audition them more fairly, and hopefully more than the far-too-affordable (and in today's market unbelievably old-price afforable) model, the 1.7. If not for the imaging here, I would of stayed longer to audition the Magnepan: hopefully on another visit.

Then it was back to Wilsons: this time in a much nicer room than the previous two: a good two-stories high, and nicely furnish, with a Meridian Soloos-active speaker system sharing the room with a very expensive looking all-Naim stack driving the new Wilson Sasha W/P. At first, I though that they had quad-amped the Wilson's, but after asking, it tuned out it was in face only the old Naim trick of giving everything from the pre-amp to the cd-player to the stereo-amplifier, a separate and nicely boxed power supply. Apparently, at least, it is now possible to connect Naim to non-Naim gear easily, say to a hi-res source like a PC/dac system. When the first disk was spun, I was transfixed: the sound was unaccountably nice: not at all like I had heard at first with the Wilson Sophia's. It was only when the volume was turned up to regular, and then typical hi-fi levels, that I was left less than impressed: the initial "resolution" of the recording vanished, and I was left listening to typical Sony-Panisonic 16bit 44KHz audio, in a very hi-fi manner, with all the typical studio recording recording tricks that are fun, if you make them, but less so, if you are the end-listener: panning and delay can only go so far in attracting interest: musicality should win the honour. This is no disparagement to the large Naim stack or the Wilson Sasha W/P: they sounded meticiously desireably visually and a very low-level: turn the thing up, and they sounded no better than the recording you might buy at Wall Mart (don't shop there, though I imagine they sell mass-marked audio CD's). This is a lesson for those selling high-fi: despite your wish that your systems sound better or equal in your customers homes than they do in your own listening salon's, be it resolved to demo the best material you can get your hands on, if you wish to woo the been-there, heard-that "s..." hi-fi customers. Something like the newest Korg double SACD-speed recorder as a source, with master-"tapes" on spinning-disk, or a very, very nice turntable: something particularly worthy of the gear you are hoping to sell: a poor commercial recording with sound perhps better on a Bose radio than it will on a set of large Wilsons, if all the WIlsons reveal is how limiting the recording you are choosing to demo, is... oh well.
After these two Wilsons, one Magnepan, and one Fidelity Acoustics setup, I was eager to continue my search for a locally sourceable upgrade to my BGM rigs (bedroom and living room), so I was brought back into the theatre room, much filled with B&W and Classe. On my previous visits, years ago, they had Nautilus 801's, and later Signature 800's? with a nice finish there (in their front room they have a rotating original Nautilus), but now they had what I imagine are the new Diamond 803's hooked up to some BRD player, a Classe CT-SSP and two 600W Classe CT-M600's. I was interested in new amps to go with the new speakers, so why not? Something was terribly wrong with the sound, however: I expected the Classe to be decent, at least similar to the old Krell KSA's I liked as a young man, or the Mark Levinson 33's that were typically mated to Wilson X1's, locally, however the 803 - Classe system was completely "unlistenable." Part of it might have been the combination of the BRD player, and the CT-SSP, though I can't imagine such a thing would have poor sounding DAC's compared to yesteryear, or that jitter or read-errors might be the issue. Certainly the new 803's looked hideously ugly, by design, and tres cheap, compared to it's 800-series siblings, but I was confounded as to why it sounded so ridiculously poor. Part of the problem was surely the "$100,000" projector, purring away, which would not shut-down it's fans as requested - you'd need a bigger room than this, to use such a beast, and yet the room itself was good, and I had heard previous versions of the 800 series sound good in this room with Classe CT Delta series electronics.
After that, and some glances into other rooms, it was upstairs to admirably look at the new 802's, which seems visually just cherry. Another customer had just picked up the accompanying Delta Series components, but this was the first room in the salon that had been clearly designed for hi-fi, with various room acoustic treatments, fitting a hi-fi rig. The 802's looked so good on silent display, that I wanted to come back when they were mated to the associated Classe electronics, and I would also hope to hear the Magnepan's, under more-ideal conditions.

Staxguy - Canada

SundayNiagara -- Thu, 03/03/2011 - 10:28

Sounds like you need some home trials.

Cam -- Fri, 03/04/2011 - 21:47

second the notion of a home trial. i heard the Sopia 3s a couple times at the dealer and had the same impression you did - a little hot in the treble which compensated for a deep bass. when i brought them home for a trial on my equipment (Simaudio Moon Evolution i-7 integrated, Marantz 11s1SACD player, Cardas Golden Refernce Cable), everything sounded a lot more neutral and natural. my audition of the Revel Ultima Studio 2s in my home were also notably different in my home - much better bass impact in my living room than in the big showroom on Levinson Gear. highly recommend a home trial before purchase!

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