Last week I ventured out of Minneapolis for the first time in 2020. It felt strange to pack my bags, to jump on a plane, and to exit LAX into sunshine and palm trees, while snow was falling at home. Even more strange was seeing my good friends for the first time in nearly a year, but it felt wonderful. I spent three days at The Audio Salon in Santa Monica helping with a photo shoot, setting up a NAS, configuring a network, and listening to my favorite music on an amazing audio system. Given the nice weather, I also enjoyed some fabulous food sitting outside at my favorite restaurants. Overall it was a great trip, but nothing is cemented more in my mind than the memories we made listening to music into the late evening hours.
As Real As It Gets
Listening to music is often a solo activity, whether on a HiFi system or through headphones. When the opportunity for listening with friends presents itself, I highly recommend embracing it. Sharing the experience of listening to great music through a great HiFi system is one of life's luxuries that I wish more people could enjoy. It nourishes the soul, sets the mind at ease, and transports one away from the rigors of the real world, while offering a human connection with friends or loved ones. Such was the case on my first night in Santa Monica, CA.
The Audio Salon's Maier Shadi and I sat down for a listening session through an absolutely amazing audio system. In the Audio Salon's second listening room, Maier has put together and masterfully setup what I consider a memory making machine. This audio system is so realistic and unforgettable that the only thing missing is a smoke machine to simulate the real concert experience.
I sat in the center listening position with the remote and an iPad in hand, and played a couple warm up tracks. I like to warm up my ears, as strange as that sounds. Perhaps it's just me getting into the right headspace. I immediately noticed the sound of these very familiar tracks was quite different than what I've heard in my own Wilson system. I mentioned to Maier that the system sounded like a pair of tube amps was driving the XVX loudspeakers. As wonderful as that sound may be for many listeners, it wasn't in my wheelhouse and wasn't the sound I've come to know and love from my own HiFi system.
Maier told me right away that the XVX's micrometer system had been used to adjust the modules in the speaker array and a resistor had been changed, tailoring the sound to a previous listener's taste. Maier had recently demonstrated the system and adjusted it to the customer's taste so well that the customer purchased the XVX. Maier offered to undo the adjustments, bringing the speakers back to the Wilson default, one item at a time, so I could hear the differences and understand the impact of each change. I eagerly took him up on the offer, as it was a unique experience unavailable to me anywhere else.
Above all, the main sonic attribute I thought needed adjusting was transient reproduction. In the initial configuration, the XVX system ever so slightly rounded the edges of transients compared to my much smaller Alexia based system at home. Given that the micrometer system adjusts the speaker modules in the time domain, I had a high degree of confidence that resetting these modules would be the key for me. I've heard similar adjustment in my own system and even seen the adjustments impact my in-room measurements.
Once the changes were made, it took roughly one minute per speaker, the sound of the system was 95% there. The final change was replacing a resistor on the rear panel of each speaker that brought the tweeter output back to its default setting from -1dB. This change also took roughly one minute per speaker, putting the ease with which these speakers can be adjusted on full display. The XVX system went from one listener's gold standard to my gold standard in less than five minutes.
With the adjustments made and the resistor changed, the sound I heard made me giggle to myself. I was in a state of disbelief and at the same time thrilled that I was fortunate enough to be at the helm of such an incredible system. Many albums and tracks were played this first night, but none were as memorable as the May 24, 1976 album from Larry Karush, streamed at 24/96 from Qobuz.
The opening track on this album is "Untitled" and features a wonderful piano performance with great tone and terrific transients with stunning attack, release, sustain, and decay. Listening through this masterfully setup system, I was in awe from the first to the last note. Hearing the delicate piano notes with such incredible detail while also being jarred by hammer strikes, is the stuff of which memories are made. I could hear and virtually see the piano sitting between the towering XVX loudspeakers as Larry Karush worked from left to right or high to low notes.
Soon after track two started, Maier said to me, "This may be THE track. It's better than the first one!" Glen Moore's double bass reproduced through the Wilson Audio Subsonic subwoofers and the XVX, was palpable. The rich texture of his double bass was absolutely fantastic juxtaposed to Karush's marvelous piano. I still can't decide if I agree with Maier's assessment of the second track being THE track, but the cool thing is that I don't have to. I can play both of them, and enjoy every minute. In addition, using the Wilson Active XO dual subwoofer active crossover, both Maier and I had our own preferred settings. One of us likes a little more bass while the other prefers the subwoofers to disappear. This is the beauty of a configurable system.
This album influenced us for the rest of my visit to Santa Monica. Whenever we made a change to the system or when we put the new Wilson SabrinaX speakers in for a demo, we used the first two tracks to see if the magic was present.
Note 1: The SabrinaX loudspeakers are excellent. In the limited time I spent with them, I was surprised at the punch they delivered in a very large listening room. Of course the delicacy and detail was there, but the punch of such a small speaker was excellent. The SabrinaX could no doubt fill my own listening room with ease.
Note 2: Maier pulled out his ATR102 tape machine for a listening session on one of the nights. We played Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus from The Tape Project. I don't want to go too off into the weeds, other than to say the listening was smooth and sublime. I could've listened all night.
The second night spent listening at The Audio Salon was the stuff of legend. We listened for so long that we missed dinner. By the time we were ready to stop listening, the only thing open was a Del Taco on the way to my hotel.
After the first night full of finesse, it was time to break out several Van Halen albums and push this entire system to its limits. We started with some Sammy Hagar era Van Halen, playing 5160 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Both album are full of fantastic music that's as good today as it was upon release.
The last three tracks on Carnal Knowledge are a rollercoaster of sonic bliss. From the anthemic Right Now, to the relaxed guitar solo of 316, and finishing with Top of the World. It was a blast to queue these tracks up and sit back for a mini concert.
We listened to almost every track on 5150, with several repeats of Why Can't This Be love. My favorite track of the night off the album was Summer Nights. The guitar on this track sounded so dang real through this system and Alex Van Halen's drums were clear and present. This track took me back to 1986 when I first heard 5150 on a dubbed cassette in my brother's room. It blew my mind then and through the XVX system, it blew my mind again.
By far the most memorable time of the night and perhaps 2020, came while listening to Van Halen's 1984. I opened the decibel meter app on my iPhone and measured peaks over 100 dB and an average of over 95 dB. It was like a concert in listening room two at The Audio Salon.
Sure the standards from this album were fun. Jump and Panama were golden. The opening drums on Hot For Teacher were unforgettable. But, the track and experience that I'll never forget was track 7, I'll wait. This track has it all, but the keyboard and drums were legendary through this HiFi system. The opening keyboard sequence is mouth watering because one knows what's coming. At nearly 100 dB, when the drums kick in through the XVX and Subsonic, it's absolutely amazing. The audio is as clear as can be while simultaneously pounding one in the chest and borderline assaulting one's ears. I saw Van Halen live once, and must say the experiences weren't that dissimilar. I may have had more fun at The Audio Salon with the remote in hand, a perfect view, a perfect seat, and great friend experiencing the same performance, than at a crowded Van Halen venue.
I can't imagine that I'll top this audio experience in 2020 or anytime soon. The stars aligned, I was able to visit friends, and the music sounded legendary. This is what life is all about. Enjoying oneself with friends and family. The crazy thing is that with an incredible home audio system and one's favorite music, it can be done at anytime. Sign me up for another experience like this. What a great time I'll never forget.
How the Memories Were Made
Lary Karush, May 24, 1976 - Untitled 24/96 Qobuz
Van Halen, 1984 - I'll Wait 24/96 Qobuz
Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX (Pur Sang Rouge color)
Wilson Audio Subsonic (Pur Sang Rouge color)
Four Dan D'Agostino Momentum M400 monoblocks
Dan D'Agostino Momentum HD preamplifier
Wilson Audio Activ XO, dual active crossover
dCS Vivaldi Upsampler
dCS Vivaldi DAC
dCS Vivaldi Master Clock
dCS Vivaldi transport
Transparent Opus speaker cable (XVX)
Transparent Reference XL speaker cable (Subsonic)
Transparent Opus balanced interconnects (analog)
Transparent Opus AES/EBU (digital)
512 Engineering Transformer