What is a bookshelf speaker? A non-audiophile might respond in the most elementary way: It's a speaker designed to be placed on a bookshelf. We audiophiles smile knowingly and explain that such speakers should properly be called "minimonitors" and that only the unenlightened would dare put them on a bookshelf. As we know, most high-performance speakers can't give their best when placed in small rooms, very close to boundaries, or on a bookshelf.
However, the Wilson Audio Duette ($12,500 USD per pair) was designed specifically for placement in such sonically challenging environments, along with conventional freefield placement -- out into the room and atop stands, not against the wall. The Duette's dual personality is accessed by changing a resistor on the external crossover and connecting said crossover to the speaker with a different set of cables.
Measuring 18 1/2"H x 9 1/8"W x 13 3/4"D and weighing 40 pounds each, the Duette stretches the definition of a minimonitor. I might be more inclined to call it a macromonitor. Seated atop its stand, the Duette measures 43" high -- two inches taller than the Wilson Sophia 2 floorstanding speaker. Such a bulky speaker on top of its stand is an imposing sight. Fortunately, the Duette is one of the most attractive speakers I've seen. The drivers are set in a Gothic arch of a dark, spongy material that absorbs off-axis emissions. The speaker falls away to either side of the arch's top, keeping the drivers well forward of the rest of the enclosure. Somehow the design manages to exude modernity and yet still remind me of a 1920s-vintage table radio. Grilles are provided, but, apart from interfering with the sound, they diminish the striking appearance of the speaker. With their grilles attached, the Duettes simply blended into their surroundings.
The Duette is constructed to the same standards as all other Wilson Audio speakers and employs the same materials. The front baffle is machined from a 3"-thick piece of M material, while the rest of the cabinet is the more rigid X material. Internal bracing is a combination of X material and heavy-grade MDF. As with any Wilson Audio speaker, the finishing is nothing short of perfection. The review pair was in desert silver -- a color that seems to cast back the warm tones of the surrounding environment. On the back of the speaker you'll find a machined aluminum port, and two sets of beefy binding posts. The Duette is, however, not biwirable. Those two sets of posts connect the two drivers to the external crossover, which is single-wirable only.
The crossover, nicknamed the Novel, measures 9"H x 4 1/2"W x 10"D and weighs 20 pounds. I think that it should be available with an optional leather binding to be even more at home on a bookshelf. There are two reasons for keeping the crossover external to the driver enclosure. Wilson Audio crossovers are quite a bit larger than most, so moving it to a separate enclosure maximizes the internal volume of the cabinet to the drivers' benefit. The second advantage is that the crossover is no longer subject to the tremendous vibrational energy generated by the drivers.
On the back of the Novel are four sets of binding posts. One set accepts the speaker cables from your amplifier, two more accommodate the cables running to the Duette's drivers, and the fourth is for a resistor that tailors the response of the system. Two resistors are supplied -- one for placement near a boundary and the other for placement out in the room. By changing between these resistors, and the two sets of supplied connecting cables, you can adapt the Duette to either location.
Both of the drivers were co-developed by Wilson Audio and Scan-Speak. The tweeter uses a 1" synthetic-silk dome whose dispersion characteristics are particularly engineered for near-boundary placement. The midrange/woofer uses an 8" hard-paper cone. Together, these drivers cover the frequency range from 36Hz-32.5kHZ (+0, -3dB with port contribution). Sensitivity is claimed to be 89dB/W/m, with a nominal impedance of 4 ohms and a minimum impedance of 3 ohms. No crossover points are specified.
Wilson Audio recommends a minimum amplifier power of 7Wpc. While not impossible, it would be the rare SET amplifier that would give satisfactory results with this speaker. Most other circuit topologies should work just fine, as long as the amplifier can handle a 4-ohm load.
Having no bookshelves in my listening room, and wishing to put the Duettes on equal footing with all other speakers that I have auditioned, I did the vast majority of my listening with them configured for the freefield and atop their dedicated stands. The stands consist of top and bottom plates of aluminum with a central column of X material finished in the same color as the speakers. Their standard height is 24", but they are available in any reasonable height upon request. At $1795 per pair, the stands cost more than a number of very good minimonitors, which may seem ludicrous to some. They are, however, not the most expensive dedicated stands I've encountered.
Even though other stands may work, there are good reasons, besides aesthetics, for choosing the Duette dedicated stands. The speakers are designed to couple to whatever is supporting them by means of three metal cones, which attach magnetically to the bottom (or to the side if this orientation is preferred). Those cones fit, in turn, into three discs. The top plate of the Duette's stand has the same dimensions as the speaker, and has notches to accept the coupling discs. I'm not aware of any off-the-shelf stands that have a sufficiently large top plate to use this coupling system. You could place the Duettes on regular stands, attached with a bit of Blu-Tack, but when I tried this approach, the sonic results were noticeably inferior to those achieved with the dedicated stands.
As with any Wilson Audio speaker, your dealer will set up a pair of Duettes. For me, Peter McGrath, Wilson Audio's sales manager, made the trip into the hinterlands. Once the speakers had been unpacked from their wooden shipping crates and placed atop their stands, Peter began sliding the combination around the room. All the while he was listening to the track "So Do I" from Christy Moore's This is the Day [Sony 503255.2]. Moore's baritone voice is interesting in that it has elements of chestiness and nasality -- whether heard through the Duettes, my Amphion Argon2s, or headphones. As Peter slid the speakers back toward the wall behind them, Moore's voice developed a cupped-hands coloration. As he brought the speakers forward, that characteristic diminished, but Moore's nasality increased. The final position of the Duettes -- 20 3/4" from the front wall -- exhibited neither of these colorations. I've never heard a speaker change so dramatically with such a small amount of movement. When Peter was finally finished, the speakers were about 8 1/2' from the listening position and about 9' apart. We spiked the stands, which tightened up the bass, and spent the rest of the day listening to music.
The Duette may be Wilson Audio's smallest speaker, but there is nothing small about its sound. This two-way minimonitor handles dynamics better than a good many floorstanders. Yes, a pair of Duettes can play loud -- incredibly so -- but, more important, they can handle the dynamic swings in large orchestral works with seeming ease. Nearly any such recording will demonstrate the dynamic prowess of these speakers, but I always test dynamics with a recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, from a CD with the same title [BIS 300500]. There is a point, a few minutes into the first movement, wherein a single high note of the solo violin is followed by a quick crescendo-sforzando in the brass. I've yet to hear the speaker that can approach the way such a passage sounds live, but the Duette came closer than any other stand-mounted speaker I've heard. Its only betters in this respect are far larger. Although they lack the absolute scale of larger speakers, the Duettes are a match for the very best of them in terms of the effortlessness with which they handle dynamic contrasts. I know that the dynamic peaks must be somewhat compressed, but I never heard any evidence of that compression. In my 14' x 15' listening room, any further dynamic headroom would just go to waste.
If a speaker can handle the dynamic intensity of a full orchestra, then a rock band is child's play. Whether it was Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, or Nirvana, the Duettes didn't flinch at being driven hard, communicating all the raw energy of these recordings. Such recordings make up only a small portion of my musical diet, but when I play them, they still need to be brought to life. The Duettes thoroughly satisfied me in terms of drive and sheer volume.
Another way in which the Duettes belie their modest dimensions is in the depth and weight of their bass. Although they are only rated to go 4Hz below my own Amphion Argon2s, they gave the impression of going substantially deeper. Using a disc of test tones, I verified that the Duettes are nearly flat down to about 35Hz in my room and fall off steeply thereafter. The 30Hz tone was clearly audible, but much diminished in level. While the Duettes don't quite reach down to the lowest notes on a piano, I had trouble finding recordings that even tested their lowest bass limits. Alas, pipe-organ fans still won't be satisfied, but, for the vast majority of recordings, the Duettes had all the extension I could want.
And their bass was not only audibly extended, but had real physical presence as well. On Poems of Thunder [Naxos World 76002-2] -- a collection of Chinese percussion pieces -- I could feel the impact of each drum stroke in my chest. Bass-drum rolls didn't shake the walls, but they did shake objects in my listening room. While such bass power is not always necessary for musical enjoyment, it certainly is impressive, and does more closely approximate the experience of a live performance.
Although the Duettes have a big, bold presentation, they can also handle musical delicacy. On the Royal Concertgebow Orchestra's recent recording of Mahler's Symphony No.4 [RCO Live 07003], the second movement begins with a few strikes of the bass drum that show off the speaker's low-end extension, but even more impressive are the notes that follow from the triangle. Each light stroke shimmers in the air above the orchestra, then decays in as natural a manner as I've heard from any speaker. The Duettes maintain their high-frequency composure in more complex passages as well. The fourth movement of the same Mahler symphony begins with a lyrical section, then changes abruptly to a relentless rhythmic section. The introduction of the rhythmic section is eight quarter notes played by the entire orchestra. At the top of this pyramid of sound are the jingle bells -- their sound just as clean and clear as the triangle in the sparsely orchestrated second movement.
One area of audio reproduction that is more important to me than it seems to be to many fellow reviewers and audiophiles is the speed of transients. Most speakers seem to round the leading edge of each note in a manner that is often pleasing but not representative of live music. One of the reasons why I haven't been tempted to trade in my Amphion Argon2s is that I've found very few speakers to match their transient speed and clarity. The Duettes, however, surpass them. From the bottom to the top of their frequency range, the Duettes are startlingly fast. That speed translates into recovery of the finest details and nuance of music. On the Poems of Thunder CD, I could clearly hear the stick striking the skin on each stroke. I could also hear when it was a finger rather than a stick.
Piano is also a percussive instrument, and that is why most speakers fail to reproduce it accurately. On Lera Auerbach's 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano [BIS CD-1242], the piano could be weighty or soft, but it always had a distinct beginning to each note. This recording also has a smattering of pizzicato notes in the violin. The Duettes rendered each of these as the percussive events that they are, leading into a tone that naturally decayed.
The Duettes also cast an expansive and believable soundstage, which is typically a strong point of two-way minimonitors. In the Mahler recording, the orchestra was spread beyond the speakers to the edges of my listening room, and the hall extended quite a way behind the front wall. I've heard a little better image specificity from some other speakers, but I didn't find the Duettes lacking. I could easily point to individual musicians left to right, and had a good impression of their positions front to back. With the right recordings -- such as Juaneke's Linaje [Harmonia Mundi HME 987031] -- the business end of my listening room just disappeared into the performance venue in a way that was almost spooky. Some speakers give you a crystal-clear window onto a recording; the Duettes merge your room into the recording's own space. These are different approaches, but equally valid.
One way in which I believe the Duettes deviate from strict neutrality is in their treble response. They seem slightly pushed in the mid-treble, giving voices in particular added presence that works well with many recordings. The effect is subtle but noticeable when moving from a dead-neutral speaker like the Amphion Argon2. This characteristic can be a liability if partnered with particularly bright electronics, or when playing recordings that are a little hot. Most pop recordings that sound bad on any high-performance speakers are rendered almost unlistenable on the Duettes. Many of the RCA Living Stereo recordings can produce similarly unpleasant results -- turning their steely strings into razor blades. The Duettes did not, however, make unpleasant any recordings that I've regarded as good when heard through other speakers.
I've owned my current reference, the Amphion Argon2, for about four years. Over that time, I've heard many other speakers at many different price points, and I have always found the Amphions to provide me a good vantage point from which to evaluate these other designs. At their current price of just over $2000 per pair, my Argon2s cost about a sixth as much as the Duettes. Given this price disparity, one could hardly consider the two speakers competition for each other, but the tonal neutrality of the Amphion speakers does make for a good comparison with the sound of the Duettes.
The Amphion speakers are a no-nonsense design that does not employ any special materials or particularly exotic drivers. They have a beautiful furniture-grade wood finish, but they don't draw attention, or fingerprints, in the same way as a WilsonGloss finish does. In short, the Wilson speakers are much more expensive to produce, and this, in part, warrants their much loftier price. Wilson Audio speakers are luxury products in every detail -- from the finish, to the wooden packing crates, to the personal attention you will receive from your dealer. Not all speakers costing as much can make the same claim.
The sound of the Wilson Audio speakers and my own Amphions is similar in a few ways. Both speakers are very open and airy, though neither is extremely so. Both speakers are also very fast in their response to transients, but the Wilson speakers are faster by a noticeable degree. My Amphions sound larger than one might expect from their dimensions, but they do not have bass depth or weight to rival the Duettes. While I don't tend to listen to my music at very high volume, it was still apparent to me that the Duettes outclassed the Argon2s in terms of dynamic range. Most minimonitors will tend to shout when driven very hard. The Duettes never sounded strained, even with the volume knob cranked further than I've ever done with the Argon2s.
The Argon2s can produce slightly more precise images than the Duettes in both the lateral and depth dimensions, but the Duettes produce a somewhat larger soundstage. Probably due to their better low-end extension, the Duettes also convey more of the acoustic venue -- if, indeed, it is on the recording -- than do the Argon2s. Either speaker allows me to evaluate a recording's spatiality easily, but the Duettes do a more convincing job of bringing me into the recording space. While some might argue that this is not necessary for musical enjoyment, I find the more immersive environment very appealing.
The Argon2 is the more neutral performer in the frequency domain. Although it doesn't extend quite as low or reach quite as high as the Duette, it has a flatter response over its range. The slight mid-treble boost of the Duette can either be an asset or a liability. When a recording has been made to have a flat response -- as most good orchestral recordings are -- the Duette adds a bit more life and presence to the reproduction. If a recording already has a presence boost -- as with much commercial pop -- the results, as described above, are not always an improvement.
In the time domain, the Duette is the better performer. In delivering faster transients than the Argon2, it also allows for the body of the note and the decay to be heard more cleanly. The tempo block (sometimes called a wood block, though it isn't always made of wood) on "Stay" from Alison Krauss's Forget About It [Diverse Records DIV 002] can sound like an imperfection in the vinyl through many speakers. Through the Argon2, you can hear that a percussion instrument is being played. Through the Duette, not only is the instrument clearly a tempo block, but one even has some impression of its size and the hardness of the stick with which it is being hit. That sort of resolution is quite incredible and rare at any price.
For audiophiles who like big-speaker sound but are limited in terms of space or placement options, the Wilson Audio Duettes should be on their short audition list. Their flexibility also makes the Duettes an ideal choice for the audiophile who may move from time to time and doesn't wish to abandon well-loved speakers. Not only can they work in a small room, but they are also easily able to fill even a medium-sized listening room with superb sound. Beyond their impressive bandwidth and remarkable resolution, the Duettes made listening to music exciting and enjoyable. I looked forward every day to coming home to listen to discs -- both new and old.
Ultimately live music is the standard by which audio components must be judged. The Wilson Audio Duette comes closer to bringing the speed, weight, and energy of live music into a listening room than any other similarly sized speaker I've heard. That's high praise indeed.
...S. Andrea Sundaram
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