HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



March
2001

Reviewed by
Jeff Fritz
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2001




Wilson Audio Specialties
Home-Theater
Speaker System


Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: X-1 Grand SLAMM Series III speakers
Price: $79,900 USD pair
Dimensions: 72"H x 16.5"W x 25.25"D
Weight: 600 pounds each

Model: Cub II speakers
Price: $7500 USD per pair
Dimensions: 22"H x 9.5"W x 19.5"D
Weight: 80 pounds each

Model: WATCH Center center-channel speaker
Price: $5200 USD
Dimensions: 12.5"H x 20"W x 16"D
Weight: 75 pounds

Model: XS
Price: $18,500 USD
Dimensions: 84"H x 26"W x 28"D
Weight: 700 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor


Features
  • High-density phenolic and methacrylic/ceramic cabinets
  • Phase Delay Correction (X-1 and WATCH Center)
  • Potted crossovers
  • Anodized aluminum hardware
  • Parts tolerances held to within +/- .1%
  • Single wiring only
  • "Wilsongloss" finish
  • Wide range of colors including Diamond Black, Metallic Black, Ferrari Yellow, Ferrari Blue, Candy Apple Red, Royal Indigo, Cashmere Beige, Titanium, Dark Titanium, Vermont Green, and Mercedes Silver (custom color matching is also available)

I’ve owned a pair of Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMMs for the past three years. They have acted as both my reference speakers for SoundStage! reviews and as a means to personal enjoyment of both music and movies. The SLAMMs have been upgraded along the way -- they're now at Series III status. I also added the XS subwoofer to my personal system, which really isn’t needed, but it does extend an X-1-based system to the outer limits of performance.

When I decided to audition surround speakers to create a full 5.1 system, I naturally chose to explore my options with Wilson Audio to round out the array. Luckily, I was greeted with the introduction of the WATCH (Wilson Audio Theater Comes Home) series, which was designed to fill out the line and address a Wilson owner's desire to have a fully matched surround system. I imagine many Wilson owners will be curious as to how the WATCH speakers will integrate into their existing systems. I will explore this in depth, but it is also important to examine just what you get with a "super system" from Wilson Audio Specialties.

The new additions

The WATCH center-channel speaker was designed to mate well with the entire Wilson line. It is Wilson’s speaker of choice for this duty, as it possesses dispersion characteristics that enhance the center channel for several seated listeners. It also incorporates Phase Delay Correction to optimize performance based on the listening position’s distance from the speaker as well as ear height. This is similar to the adjustment on the new Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 and the X-1s the WATCH is mated to for this review.

In the WATCH, the tweeter module is fitted into a pair of aluminum tracks recessed into the enclosure. Two bolts loosen and allow for the module to slide back and forth per pre-measured markings. This is very straightforward and a snap to complete. I used the speaker not on its dedicated stand, but instead on a granite shelf placed below my monitor. The WATCH Center has the adjustability to be angled up through the use of spacers added to the floor spikes. This is intended to accurately address the listening position regardless of placement below the monitor. With my monitor’s orientation, this worked better than the stand.

The WATCH series includes a dedicated surround speaker, which was going to be part of this review system. Unfortunately, with my room’s arrangement at the time, I was unable to accommodate these, as they require wall mounting. In place of the WATCH Surround, I chose the Cub II, which could be more flexibly placed. The Cub II is a redesign of the original model, though with some significant improvements. The entire baffle area is now machined from Wilson X material, which is used in various other Wilson speakers. Before the baffle was only partially constructed of the ubiquitous substance through the use of bolted-on plates over MDF. This two-way speaker also has the added benefit of being somewhat larger than the WATCH Surrounds and therefore capable of slightly more output. I placed the Cub IIs on stands behind the listening position and slightly above ear height.

Both the Cub II and the WATCH Center share some familiar characteristics with each other and the rest of the Wilson line. Each uses a version of the inverted Focal tweeter and 6.5" midbass units. They are exquisitely finished, mine in black, to a degree that exudes quality. And finally, each has the new grille design standard on all Wilson speakers, a decided aesthetic improvement.

I won’t go into great detail with respect to the X-1 and the XS. You can read about the design and general sound quality of both in my previous SoundStage! reviews. There are some significant sonic improvements between the Series II and III X-1, however, which I will note below. The XS is now used in a dual role: it augments the X-1 stereo speakers, which run full range, and reproduces the LFE track on 5.1 movies when in cinema mode.

Overall performance

The primary objective when retrofitting speakers to an existing system is timbre matching for a seamless, cohesive soundfield. I was a bit worried going into the review because the X-1s operate at a very high level and would be tough to keep up with. Although the Wilson line uses similar parts and construction techniques, I was still concerned. I began the review by listening to the Watch Center with the X-1s sans surrounds, using DTS Neo:6 and Shawn Mullins’ CD Soul’s Core [Columbia CK 69637], among others. This configuration allowed me to examine how well the WATCH Center blended with the X-1s. I was immediately impressed with the speed, agility, and all-important tonal match. It was as seamless as I would have hoped for in all these departments.

There was one area where I had to make some adjustments, however. The X-1 places vocalists at about six feet on center. This is the proper height for realistic vocal presentation and is roughly equal with the top of my monitor. The WATCH Center, as I originally had it adjusted, placed the vocalist at the bottom edge of my monitor. Although subtle, this did make for a discontinuousness that was audible (visually audible, if that makes sense) with some material, such as the Shawn Mullins disc. I had the maximum degree of angle set on the WATCH, so I had to raise the speaker another six inches or so to compensate. Presto! It has been my experience that Wilson speakers are more setup dependent than almost any other speaker family I’ve experienced. But when you do finally get the right location, they lock in with a precision that is unmistakable in its accuracy. This was the case here. The midrange became crystal clear, fully life-size, and projected into the room from dead center with uncanny realism. Moving on to a movie soundtrack, Russell Crowe’s voice in the opening scene from Gladiator was portrayed with the power and intensity he surely had, but there was also the subtlety that is present in any voice. All in all, the WATCH presented a vivid midrange reproduction that was locked into a wide, deep soundstage. This was as convincing as any three-channel array I’ve heard.

The Cub IIs were added only after testing them in stereo mode first. I listened to the new version of these, the least expensive speaker in the Wilson stereo lineup, by themselves to establish proper placement. Stereo performance is critical when using direct radiators as surround speakers. Proper imaging needs to be achieved for convincing and accurate rear effects. The Cubs imaged precisely, with a clear, bell-like character that promised good surround performance. They seemed fast, agile and surprisingly dynamic with music such as the title track from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo [Warner bros. 9 26562-2] from Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. The soundstage was quite large, although not to lifelike scale that the larger, much more expensive X-1s can achieve. Bass was solid and tight with good impact. I heard no muddiness or cabinet coloration at all. The extension was good, probably better than what I would expect from a stand-mounted speaker, but certainly not earth-shaking the way the lows from their larger brethren are. Treble detail was incisive but not etched, which suggests excellent performance in surround duty since the speakers are relatively close to the listener’s head. I’m holding the Cub II to a pretty high standard here as it is still quite an expensive speaker, but since it passes muster in stereo mode, home-theater performance should be outstanding.

Integration of the Cub IIs into the system was even quicker than with the WATCH Center. This is partly due to the fact that integrating a surround speaker is somewhat easier than a center-channel due to the primary responsibility of the center to reproduce dialogue. The Cub IIs share a similar voice with the other speakers in the bunch; therefore seamlessness was achieved in short order.

I mentioned the upgrade from X-1 Series II to III, which is substantial. It involves a redesign of the upper module, both internal and external, as well as a main tweeter and resistor replacement. It definitely takes an already superior product to the outer reaches of performance in several areas that would prove important in my theater-and-sound system. The treble region has been improved substantially, now achieving a smoothness and level of clarity that I’ve simply not heard from any other speaker. It possesses far more detail than you typically hear in soundtracks and reproduced music, but with an absolute crystalline character devoid of harshness. The new tweeter seems a star here, but the reshaping of the upper-midrange cabinet is also a contributor, I surmise. I say this because the imaging capabilities of the speaker, in the upper reaches, have improved across the board as well. The system seems smaller in the sense that when soundtracks or music demand, the speakers are less intrusive. It's amazing that the 600-pound X-1 Grand SLAMM Series III can actually sound like a minimonitor when the need calls for it to do so. Overall, I would summarize the upgrade as an enhancement of imaging capabilities with greatly improved detail and delicacy in the treble.

Movies!

I watched numerous movies with the Wilson speaker system. The list included Pitch Black, The Cell, X-Men, Magnolia, and The Patriot. I also watched select scenes from some of my reference movies, which include U-571, Mission: Impossible 2, and Gladiator. I noticed several areas that over the course of this extensive evaluation convinced me that the Wilsons were improving upon the best I’d heard a home theater sound. First, start-and-stop, gut-wrenching impact was just amazing. It is not the ability to play loud that is impressive here (which, of course, is a given with this system), but the ability to increase the scale of sounds in relation to their onscreen source. For example, with explosions like the ones in U-571 and Mission: Impossible 2, the sound seemed to increase in a linear fashion to make the explosions not just miniaturized simulations in comparison with what you would think the original sounded like, but what you would think an explosion is really capable of. Listening to less-capable systems then gave me the sense of severe dynamic compression and distortion when pushed to realistic levels. It was like the volume was increasing, but only in certain frequency bands. The Wilson system, however, could move the requisite amount of air up and down the spectrum, and by comparison, it sounded extremely effortless and lifelike. This system magnified the whole picture, not just certain aspects.

The other area that captured my attention immediately was the sheer clarity of sound. Voices achieved a remarkable level of realism, with excellent pitch definition and proper tone. This gave the most convincing dialogue reproduction I have heard, and greatly enhanced dramatic verbal exchanges. Tires screeching, arrows whistling, and water rushing all had an incisive character without becoming harsh or distorted. This meant good treble performance at all volume levels and, again, realistic portrayal of the scene I was watching. Mixing the combination of impact and clarity, the opening scene in Gladiator is always a test for speaker systems in for review. I can honestly say that I was startled when the fireballs hit the trees around the Germanian barbarians. It was a rush that intensified the scene immensely. Bass response was purely physical, while remaining agile. The difference between a midbass punch that hits you in the chest and a welling-up of super deep bass below the floors was clearly delineated and seemed to have no limitations. My house and walls gave up first.

Comparison

As of late, I have examined a continuum of price points with respect to home-theater speakers, looking at what you get when you move up the scale. The Silverline Audio home-theater speaker system is a good example of an ensemble that is capable of terrific performance in the $5k-$10k range. It is with this clear disparity in price that this next comparison is made. The Wilson ensemble retails for a mind-boggling $111,100 -- 15 times the price of the Silverlines. It is well above what one would consider expensive, pricing at the edge of the high end in clearly what is to be considered super-system status. It is also, though, a system that you can actually house in a very large room. I can picture systems that I have seen at electronics shows that would be ridiculous in a domestic setting. I don’t consider five X-1s, for example, to be even a super system. It's just beyond the scope of consumer reality (well, at least for this consumer).

So what do you get when you buy a Wilson super system, in comparison to a more typical arrangement? Virtually unlimited performance to start. From the very highest highs to the depths of the most extreme bass (with the XS), the sounds of music and movies simply appear in lifelike scale. The sound can be subtle or precise if you choose, or can be immensely powerful and foreboding when called upon. Movies are presented in an utterly neutral way, with the soundtrack seemingly the limiting factor in what appears in your room. It is hard to break down the sound of a system like this in terms of midrange, treble, etc., other than to say that if it is present, you hear it. The Silverline system has a good midrange, for example; it's slightly warm and full bodied, which is very appealing. The Wilsons defy pigeonholing like this, though, because although the midrange is clear and natural, it doesn’t sound warm, bright, hard, or forward. It is simply present and accounted for. The output capability of the Wilson array is astounding. It will play much louder than you will ever want to listen. You can find the Silverlines limits, by comparison. What is really interesting with the Wilsons, though, is that as the speakers get louder, the system appears to remain sonically linear. No one area seems to be lagging behind, each aspect simply keeping pace with everything else in the spectrum. The Silverlines, and virtually every other system I have listened to, will lose its touch in one area or another as the volume is raised or lowered. It’s kind of like turning up the power on a microscope, amplifying everything in view. In summary, the Wilsons give you far more output capability, a clarity of sound that is unmatched, and truly lifelike scale as compared to Silverline Audio’s review system, and products I’ve experienced within its respective price point.

Conclusion

The Wilson system as configured here achieves the epitome of ultimate home-theater performance. It does everything you would want a super system to do and then some: It is equal in both its ability to reproduce music and movies and changes character based on the signal fed it. It can create a seamless surround-sound field whether the goal is the impact and rage of a battlefield or the ambiance and subtlety of a concert hall. I have no reservations recommending this setup for the ultimate sound machine to transport listeners out of the real world and into fantasy.

Current Wilson owners will be happy to know these speakers will integrate with their current speakers. In addition to this, you will also have an exquisitely built, finished, and packaged system that will not disappoint in any given area. It is expensive, but someone looking to get the ultimate in performance, pride of ownership, and a great conversation piece at parties will find nothing to disappoint in the Wilson home theater configured here. It's a Reviewers' Choice as the ultimate in a cost-no-object home theater.  

Review System
Receiver/Processor - Denon AVR-5800
Amplifier - Citation 7.1
Source - Pioneer DV606D DVD player
Cables - JPS Labs speaker cables, Apature interconnects, Audio Alchemy digital cable
Monitor - Sony WEGA FD Trinitron direct-view
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
Phone: (801) 377-2233
Fax: (801) 377-2282

E-mail: was@wilsonaudio.com
Website: www.wilsonaudio.com  

 


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