The great conductor Bruno Walter loved to recount the tale of an orchestra player’s first chance to conduct a concert. “How did it go?” the musician was asked the next day by the orchestra’s regular conductor. “Very well indeed,” he replied. “And do you know, Maestro, this business of conducting is really very simple.” After pretending to look alarmed, the conductor raised an admonishing finger and whispered, “I beg you: Don’t give us away.”
It’s often hard to avoid the sense that this anecdote applies with equal force to sophisticated audio equipment. Why does company X’s amplifier, the skeptics like to ask, have to cost so much? Put aside the hocus-pocus, and the business of making one is really very simple; an amplifier only consists of wires, transistors or tubes, and a transformer or two. When it comes to loudspeakers, these doubts can multiply. In the end, loudspeakers usually consist of a box, some capacitors, maybe a vent at the bottom, and a few holes cut in front for mounting several drivers. Why, then, is company Y charging such steep tariffs for its loudspeakers?
Enter David Wilson. When I recently met Wilson at his factory in Provo, Utah, he himself raised the issue of expensive wares in a sagging economy without any prompting from me. Sitting at his desk and peering at me excitedly through his spectacles, he began reading aloud from an essay by the editor of Fortune. The essay made a fundamental distinction between luxury, on the one hand, and opulence, on the other. As Wilson explained it, luxury, unlike opulence, offers both elegance and real value, but it doesn’t come cheap.
Certainly Wilson’s factory epitomizes his commitment to both his products and music. With its lined walls of photographs of eminences such as Ricardo Muti praising Wilson, to its CNC router and its special automotive paint shop with downdraft chambers, this sophisticated operation is apt to leave even the most jaded audiophile quivering with admiration. No outsourcing to China here; everything in a Wilson loudspeaker is fashioned specially for it in America, down to the binding posts. Crossovers are hand-soldered at the factory—no boards with traces. Fit ’n’ finish, as usual with a Wilson, is impeccable. Even the ports are specially machined. Wilson attaches great importance to achieving as much uniformity as possible with a pair of loudspeakers. I almost wouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon a team of seamstresses ensconced in a corner sewing the speaker grilles.
Wilson’s own office, which is filled with model airplanes and rockets as well as an original manual for the Saturn V, is emblematic of his fascination with technical issues. The factory also contains several auditioning chambers, one with panels that can be pulled into the room so as to simulate an acoustically treacherous environment. At bottom, Wilson simply can’t help himself: Upon meeting me, he started quizzing me about my room—reviewing the reviewer, so to speak. After I told him the dimensions, he disappeared and a few hours later handed me a paper sketching out my room and where any nodes might be. He suggested that there might be a bit more bass in the right hand rear corner. He was dead-on right.
But all of this attention to detail and fussing over the dimensions and appearance of his loudspeakers would be superfluous if they were unable to deliver the musical goods. As a longtime Magnepan fan, I’ve had a bit of a hankering to go over and experience the other side of the sound spectrum. Moving-coil designs almost always provide more slam and dynamics than planar ones, and none more so than Wilson. What it would be like, then, to experience the company’s spanking new—and second from the top-of-the-line—MAXX 3 loudspeaker? The Alexandria, which retails for $158,000, is a cost no-object design. Its younger sibling, by contrast, lists for $68,000. But is the MAXX 3 a pale shadow of its big brother? Or does it deliver even more relative value and listening pleasure?
The MAXX 3 represents an attempt to trickle-down in somewhat more compact form many of the features that Wilson introduced in the new version of the Alexandria, which, among other things, features a redesigned, more efficient midrange driver which I had the opportunity to hear at length a year ago at the Brooks Berdan store outside of Los Angeles. Powered by VTL Siegfried amplifiers, the Alexandria delivered gobsmackingly thunderous dynamics coupled with startling speed in the bass region, which is quite a feat, one that TAS editor Robert Harley has explored in his review of the Alexandria. Wilson himself has said that he decided to alter the Alexandria after extensive listening sessions at Vienna’s Musikverein, where he was able to listen to the Vienna Philharmonic rehearsing, among other things, Mahler’s glorious Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), conducted by Seiji Ozawa. They had no fewer than eight bass players playing that day (and one of them, says Wilson, actually owns a pair of Sophias). The Musikverein has the best acoustics of any hall I have ever heard. In fact, it contains two halls, one in the form of a large shoebox for orchestral and other large-scale performances as well as a more intimate one for chamber music.