Music: Wilson Audio
photography Aimee Brodeur
Above: An Alexandria 2 towering over Layla, the family dog.
A tension tugs at the rim of your hearing. Startling at first, then astonishingly soothing, the prickle spreads deep into the inner ear, tracing tunnels in your head that feel impossibly vast. As if at the beach on the first day of summer, your pores pop open all over your body, turning the hair on your arms, your neck, even your brows turn into antennae. Eyes close. Limbs loosen and decompress into the chair beneath you; thoughts become giddy children splashing in a hydrant of streaming opiates. But relaxed as you are, you don’t fall asleep—a second wave of drugs, this time adrenaline, is kicking in and blood flushes through you like a runner’s high.
Your eyes snap open. You remember where you are and why you’re here. Several feet ahead, a pair of angular objects the size of baby dinosaurs or sports cars tipped on their tails peers down at you. They seem, despite their inanimated-ness, to chuckle at your rosy cheeks and widened eyes. They are a pair of Wilson Audio Alexandria 2 dynamic loudspeakers, and the sounds beaming out of them have just smacked you right between the ears and made your day.
When I was a teenager, my dad squeezed the last of our savings—and of our living space in a tiny Manhattan apartment—to make a pair of much smaller Wilson Audios a part of our life. Those speakers were so much a part of it, in fact, that they practically ate dinner with us every night. The two black, coffin-shaped WITTs (or “Darth Vaders,” as I’d refer to them grudgingly at the time) had to be nestled right up against the dining table to cast the right sonic spread on the sofa a few feet away. This arrangement still didn’t meet the minimum distance criteria for optimal listening, but, short of counter-levering himself out of the window, that was the best my father could do at the time. To my mom’s credit, she backed him up all the way, understanding, even when it put a strain on her own day-to-day struggles, that some crazy joys are worth the mundane aches and pains.
My father’s career took off a few years later, providing the means and the map to the “playback promised land.” He upgraded to the Alexandria 2 monsters, and they claim a 26-foot-long brownstone living room all for themselves. Sometimes I wonder if all this dedicated space doesn’t make them—or my dad—a little lonely. But then I’ll sit with him and listen to a record, and realize that, if anything, Wilson Audio is the antidote to loneliness. Perhaps the company’s greatest achievement lies not in its holographic recreation of music per se, but in its supernatural channeling of the people behind it—the breath, the imagination, the magnetism of each musician and composer who enters the room through those alien portals.
Above: The Wilson Audio WITT at the dinner table.
For all their metaphysical impact, the Alexandria 2s are overwhelmingly real. The heftiest in the Wilson Audio catalog, they are a looming 6’ 1” and 1,210 pounds of Sotsass-esque superarchitecture. A pair will set you back almost two hundred grand—that’s without the custom automobile paint job. (The speaker shown in the photo, for instance, is painted a Rolls Royce signature Cornish White. Luxury car makers like Rolls Royce and Ferrari have become so accustomed to these leftfield requests for their car paint, that they’re likely to cut you off with a curt, “This is for Wilson Audio, right?” before you even have a chance to explain.)
And then there’s Dave Wilson himself, the classic American inventor—just a regular guy in his 60s, with an aw shucksy demeanor and vehemently down-to-earth attitude, accented by a genius the quality of which puts him squarely into whatever quality claimed Steve Jobs. He’s broken boundaries and set new frontiers not only in the kinds of results his speakers get, but in the revolution that his innovations have spurred in the audio industry as a whole. And the connection between the two uber entrepreneurs goes beyond mere comparison: Steve Jobs was a known audiophile and owned a pair of Alexandria speakers. It’s rumored that at one point, a single Wilson Audio speaker hung unplugged, like a work of art, from the lobby ceiling of Apple’s headquarters—a design icon setting the standard for the computer company’s own soon-to-be-iconic aesthetics.
What makes these giant gadgets so equivocally heralded by people as cranky and contrarian as audiophiles tend to be? From inception, Wilson Audio’s DNA included one quality that’s continued to set it apart: authenticity. Dave Wilson’s speakers weren’t even for sale when he first started building them; he’d designed them for his own use, to function as monitors in his earlier career as a recording studio engineer. Wilson only began making them commercially after a Consumer Electronics trade show in 1986, during which he had been selling recordings he’d engineered of music from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack. People liked the recording, but they went nuts for the speakers, and a company was born.
There were the requisite garage-workshop beginnings, the whole family rolling up its sleeves and chipping in with customer service, assembling parts, making runs to the post office. And that was when building speakers was still the side gig. Wilson had studied biology and zoology, and was set on a career path in clinical research. He had worked as an engineer building equipment for cancer research before switching to sound engineering. It wasn’t until his speaker hobby started to “metastasize,” as Wilson’s wife Sheryl puts it, that she insisted he turn it into their main business. Sheryl, a professional singer, is also Dave Wilson’s muse, business partner and source of visionary advice. It was Sheryl who had predicted that the monitors her husband had been building for his recording studio would be a success commercially, and encouraged him, despite his skepticism, to take the leap of faith which would eventually lead to the founding of Wilson Audio.
The company philosophy reads like a throwback to another America, when the country was still a leader in both innovation and manufacturing. The Wilson Audio culture includes a focus on conservative business practices (Wilson Audio products are made completely in the U.S. and epitomize the ideals of quality American craftsmanship), an uncompromising design integrity (Dave designs for himself, first and last, never for the market), self-reliance (he taught himself audio engineering from books by British loudspeaker engineer Gilbert A. Briggs of Wharfedale Wireless Works) and an insistence on radical innovation, based on a relentless pursuit of empirical, verifiable results—an approach that keeps the rest of the audio industry honest and on its toes.
But what sets the Wilson Audio speakers apart in terms of technology—no small feat, in the highly competitive, incredibly complex market of high-end audio —can be summed up in one word: balance.
As Dave Wilson has put it himself: “I’ve listened to all of these [other speaker manufacturers’] designs and I’ve acknowledged the strengths of all of them. But what is needed for one of my products is a balance of strengths.” Speaker designers can be good at mastering the technical aspect of their device, ensuring that the dynamic contrast (the speed with which a speaker can move sound from silence to the peak “crest” height of its range) is optimal. They can, on the other hand, succeed in the aesthetics—or the harmonic expression—of their speakers’ results. Usually there is a trade off between one or the other of the criteria. Very few speakers can be strong in both.
“I want our speakers to possess that quality that [loudspeaker designer and critic] Martin Colloms referred to as ‘even-tempered,’” Wilson says, his mild, approachable voice personifying the concept. “I want the speaker to be so versatile that you can listen to any kind of music that you desire and the Wilson audio speakers will always do a good job, for any kind of music.”
The ultimate goal of high-end audio equipment is not to create great technology, says Wilson, but to create a great music-listening experience. That experience is enhanced as the gap between live music expression and recorded music expression is decreased. The dream of the audiophile is to have nothing between them and the music—a state coined the “playback promised land” by the famous (and famously surprising) audiophile Henry Rollins of legendary punk band Black Flag.
Rollins acknowledges that in the world of audio geekdom, it’s easy to bury the point of all this effort under heaps of consumerist fetishism. (Rollins himself reached his playback nirvana with the recent addition of a pair of Wilson Audio Alexandrias.) He’ll be the first to tell you that the point of fancy components is for us to forget they even exist, and to help us imagine that we are present at a live, singular performance. This requires pulling off a masterful technical trick on the body and mind, creating an audio experience so visceral and emotional that it is capable of suspending our awareness of the distance—whether of decades, continents or cultures—between ourselves and the source event.
And yet even Rollins takes a moment to admonish those who might be too quick to judge the astronomically pricey habits of audiophiles. “One could fairly wonder if the obsession with ultimate playback could be seen as a cart leading a musical horse,” he says in a column in Audiophile Magazine, the venerated audio bible, “that one is more interested in the mechanics than in the actual music itself.” But his final word on the subject is nothing short of a pro-audio manifesto. “To that I say, spare me your cynicism. When you think of what some of these artists sacrificed to put this music across, what trends they pushed against, all those nights in the middle of nowhere, bringing it to the stage, what incredible misery and misfortune they too often encountered, just because they were burdened with a staggering talent and the courage to share it with the world, the least you can do besides buying their records is pay the respect due them by giving their music the best possible means to fill the air. Feel free to use that one any time.”
Perhaps this story should be read as a cautionary tale, after all. If you come across a pair of these creatures lurking in the corner of someone’s living room, you might want to run for it. Sometimes it’s safer not to know what you’re missing.