A quick weekend post. Here’s a recurring question I get over the years:
“Jay, you’ve heard hundreds of systems. What exactly are you paying for when moving from a $10,000 speaker to say, something beyond $100,000?”
I’ve asked myself the same question on numerous occasions. And I think I’ve found some answers.
More Expensive = Better Sound?
Let’s make this clear: Just because you pay more, doesn’t mean it’ll sound better…to you. In fact, there’s a good probability you’ll prefer a much more affordable system. Case in point, I enjoyed listening to the LSA speakers ($3,500) over many of the five and even six-figure systems at a show.
That’s because what I value most is a more organic midrange. For me, it’s more emotionally engaging when the voices have more blood flowing through them.
So although the pricier systems may have “quicker transients, better separation, and more soundstage” – those characteristics take a backseat over tonal color…for me.
That said, as you scale up, there are common traits (for the better) that many of these higher-priced speakers exhibit. This is mostly possible through extraordinary engineering – and listening tests.
Without a doubt, one of the most reputable high-end speaker manufacturers is Wilson Audio. They make some of the most innovative and natural-sounding speakers on the planet. Which includes the $685,000 WAMM Master Chronosonic.
Recently, the awesome guys at Audio Salon in Santa Monica hosted a Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX Premiere event. Giving the public a chance to hear what this state-of-the-art loudspeaker is capable of. The price of these speakers? A cool $329,000 a pair.
The format of the flagship loudspeaker fits Daryl Wilson’s attitudes and convictions perfectly. He is extraordinarily compromise-adverse. Removing any constraints of price or practicality within the design equation felt liberating to him. If Daryl had one advantage his father, Dave Wilson, lacked, it was the WAMM itself.
Some of the technology developed for the WAMM now resides in the Chronosonic XVX in a simpler form. More than in any other previous loudspeaker, Wilson will introduce more technology, features, and manufacturing processes in the Chronosonic XVX. Short of the WAMM itself, no other loudspeaker reproduces music as realistically or communicates the emotional power of the artists so eloquently.
So what does $329,000 buy you?
I’ll cut to the chase. This is what you get when you spend “condo money” (or half of a condo in Los Angeles) on a pair of speakers. Although speakers do have their “signatures”, these are qualities, I believe, that set it apart from the “relatively inexpensive” speakers. Those speakers will usually do very well with a couple of these attributes – but rarely all of them.
It comes down to six important elements.
#1: Congealed Realism
- Upon the first few seconds of listening, this is the most obvious characteristic. This means there are zero tradeoffs in resolution, smoothness, or tonal density. Out of the box, music is textured, coherent, detailed, harmonically gapless, and organically fleshed out. The illusion is never broken – even with digital music (MQA in this case).
- The pieces of music are seamless – yet naturally individualized. Unlike “lesser” speakers, there isn’t the notion of separation or “outlining.” There’s always just a believable sense of acoustic space around each performer.
- Great speakers are able to solidify and isolate as well – but the best speakers are able to do this at a much more granular level. It’s able to glue and bend much more accurately.
- On the flip side, “cheaper” speakers tend to have more obvious flaws that we accept as tradeoffs. This includes edge, grain, less-than-perfect coherence, tonal shifts, or a few deficiencies in one more of the previously mentioned attributes. It does a few things well and compromises on everything else. There are more “rough patches” in the sound.
- Taller speakers offer a larger projection of sound, especially in regards to height. But there’s a difference in having huge scale and gorgeous scale. The latter is more intricate and precise in not just size but with infinite layers of depth – and aural flow. There’s still a sense of gravity and tangibility intertwined within the atmosphere.
- In contrast, typical speakers simply don’t have nearly this amount of gradations in scale. They have more of a generic blast of sound, rather than a more refined and nuanced one. They also usually come off thinner in air and decay.
- As far as dynamics, the Chronosonic XVX is deeply scary. Especially when it comes to orchestral pieces. It has no issues with the simultaneous mixing of calm woodwinds and aggressive percussions. It’s able to soothe and punch without a hint of confusion or strain. “Lesser” speakers are more disjoint and could do one or the other – but rarely at the same time. Especially at this magnitude.
- In regards to the Chronosonic XVX, the careful distribution of power within the music is simply astounding. Instruments are distinct and modular in how they extrude and breathe. They carry the appropriate amount of weight, air, and presence. In contrast, relatively inexpensive speakers allocate a generic amount of density across the entire recording.
- In combination with its prowess in scale, this imparts an aural perspective that is otherworldly. Everything sounds like they’re spaced appropriately. On the other hand, the relatively more inexpensive speakers take on a more general approach of imparting this information. As a result, it’s flatter and less engaging.
#4: Ultra-low Noise Floor
- Typically, with a pitch-black background, the compromise is usually in tonal balance. It’ll usually sound unnaturally tighter and more absolute – and thus a bit contrived. Essentially, it’s more of a “special effect” that blankets all recordings. Which usually isn’t a good thing.
- With the Chronosonic XVX, it’s doesn’t sound artificially quiet. It does an amazing job of leaving only the music. Most importantly, the darkness lifts and settles appropriately when called for. What’s interesting is that this is adjusted according to the specific recording at hand. As a result, it takes a more bespoke approach in revealing artistic intent.
#5: Flawless Timing
- This element is a very critical one. And one that the Chronosonic XVX is exceptional at reproducing. It’s also something most speakers have extreme difficulty with.
- When sound is in phase and time-aligned, that’s what contributes to the feeling that “they’re there” in front of you. So even when you’re listening with your eyes open – you still swear they’re playing in the room.
- The impact of timing is compelling. It’s not about speed, but how the sound is manifested. The complexities of the pieces are combined (at your ears) in a far more naturalistic and tangible manner. There’s more weight, more micro-textures, more collectiveness. This results in something that is faithful to being physically present at the recording.
#6: Tonal Gradations
- This is also another characteristic that seems to be very difficult for lesser speakers to achieve. Most speakers seem to have an underlying “base color” with very few variants in their palette. In contrast, the Chronosonic XVX makes most speaker systems sound like they run on 8-bit color – whereas it’s at 24-bit.
- The Chronosonic XVX is able to use multiple tonal brushes – with a seemingly limitless amount of “colors.” All at the same time…and with no effort. This is something that is extremely difficult to achieve in speaker design.
- For example, the piano and cello will consistently preserve their own material essence and grace. While the presentation of double bass and violins is distinct in the screech and scratch of their lines. Essentially, the Chronosonic XVX is able to “multi-task” these important nuances, resulting in immaculate timbre.
Generally, when you’re dropping this much cash on a pair of speakers. You’re going to have more difficulty noticing flaws. Which are relatively more plentiful, and apparent, in the more inexpensive speakers. You’re essentially paying for much fewer tradeoffs in performance. This just results in a more convincing listening experience. Which in turn sounds more real.
At the end of the session, Peter played a piece by a Russian pianist (the name escapes me). If there were a moment where many of the qualities of the Chronosonic XVX were on display, this was it. The dynamic reproduction of her performance on the Steinway was absolutely stunning. You were even able to hear the difference in strength she used to hit each note. Alongside delicacy and beautiful tonal fluttering – it was played beautifully on the Chronosonic XVX.
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of why an audiophile would take out a mortgage to buy speakers. A huge thank you to Maier Shadi of Audio Salon and Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio for showing me around.
|London Symphony Orchestra||Third Symphony – IV. Molto deliberato – Fanfare; Allegro risoluto|
|The Rolling Stones||Love in Vain|
|Stray Cats||Rock This Town|
|Ray Brown||Mondscheinsonate / Around About Midnight|
|Duke Ellington||Mood Indigo|
|Royal Philharmonic Orchestra||The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Act:2 :XIV.e Variation 2 – Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.|
|Jordi Savall||D’Apres Le Mss. Flores de Muusica, 1357-60, Madrid Bibl. Nacional (1706-1709) (Marin y Coll)|