David Price auditions an exotic compact floorstander with a pedigree to die for…
SabrinaX Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Those paying the asking price of the Wilson Audio SabrinaX expect more than just loudspeakers. At this rarefied level of hi-fi, it’s about purchasing an experience rather than a utilitarian object designed to do a job – what CEO Daryl Wilson calls, “sonic and industrial art that provides the listener with experiences only found where microphones are placed.” There’s something special, intangible and really rather hard to define that marks out true high-end from merely high-quality hi-fi. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but rather like falling in love I suppose, you know when it happens to you…
Whilst the SabrinaX is a mere Bagatelle compared to the company’s flagship Chronosonic XVX floorstander, it can’t hide behind its family name or siblings. It costs a lot of money, and on the surface at least promises nothing especially eye-catching or gimmicky; there’s no radical transducer technology, fancy ribbon tweeters or trick cone material straight out of the laboratory. Instead, this compact floorstander relies on speaker design best practice – high-quality components blended expertly to do the job. “With the SabrinaX form factor refined from the start, we focused on the “refiner’s fire” and how to incorporate innovations that have been developed over the last five years”, Daryl told me.
The brief was to deliver a loudspeaker possessing supreme musicality, in around a year. No pressure there then! The existing Sabrina was thoroughly reimagined, despite being an already highly capable compact floorstander. The start point was the cabinet, surely the ultimate arbiter of whether a speaker succeeds or fails; Wilson Audio’s bespoke X-Material was used for the entire outer part of the cabinet for this new version, whereas it had previously been in only the front baffle and lower spike place. The reasoning was that it gave the speaker a much less resonant frame into which the company’s respected drive units could be fitted. Additional bracing was added, and some aesthetic tweaks made – and the result is a fairly compact 960x305x390mm box that weighs an epic 50.8kg.
The respected Convergent Synergy MK5 25mm doped silk fabric dome tweeter is fitted – trickled down from the company’s flagship Chronosonic XVX. This marries up to a 146mm doped paper pulp midrange driver and the 200mm paper pulp woofer also seen in the Sasha DAW. These are knitted together by a bespoke crossover using Wilson’s own AudioCapX-WA capacitors, now also made on-site in the Provo, Utah factory. This connects to the company’s own binding post block, which also features banana plug connectivity. Raw Transparent cable, hand-twisted and custom-built to Wilson’s specifications, connects everything up.
The speaker is a nice enough thing to look at and available in what the company calls automotive-class paint finishes, with three standard colour options – carbon, galaxy grey and quartz – plus three additional WilsonGloss colours, crimson, ivory and diamond black, bumping the price up to £22,998. Such was the smoothness and the lustre of the paint that I’d say it’s better than automotive class – or at least most cars. Still, what I liked about this loudspeaker is its generally unimposing look. Especially in the ivory finish, the SabrinaX blends into the decor very well and certainly isn’t a “look at me” sort of prima donna. It doesn’t scream its high-end credentials at anyone whose eye it catches; instead, it’s only when you go up close and touch it – and/or try to move it – that you realise it is something out of the ordinary.
On the face of it, the quoted 87dB (1W/1m/1kHz) sensitivity is pretty standard stuff, so this speaker should go loud enough with even relatively low powered amplifiers. However, Wilson Audio specifies its nominal impedance at 4 ohms, dropping down to 2.6 at 135Hz; this means you’ll need a power amp made of stern stuff – although given the SabrinaX’s not inconsiderable retail price, the chances are that you can afford such a thing. Given that it’s a reflex ported design with a vented midrange driver, the likelihood is that the designer has gone for bass extension at the expense of sensitivity and/or ease-of-drive. And so it transpires, when you look at the very wide band 31Hz to 23kHz (+/- 3 dB) quoted frequency response. Wilson says you’ll need an amplifier of at least 50W RMS per channel, which is fair. Still, this doesn’t preclude you using it with a tube amp; there are thermionic valve-powered designs with lots of watts and 4 ohm speaker taps around – and I suspect a good few purchasers may go this way.
By the standards of many high-end loudspeakers, the wee Wilson is surprisingly easy to position. Normal rules of engagement apply as far as closeness to boundary walls go, meaning that it will need a good 75cm from the back wall to let its rear-firing bass port breathe, but it’s less fussy than many all the same. It certainly benefits from some subtle toeing in, although the angle depends on the dimensions of your listening room, of course. My review system comprised a Continuum Caliburn turntable with Cobra tonearm and Koetsu Urushi cartridge, Constellation Audio Andromeda phono stage, dCS Vivaldi CD/SACD transport, DAC, Upsampler and Master Clock, Dan D’Agostino Momentum HD preamplifier and Constellation Taurus power amps.
How do you gauge a high-end loudspeaker? By what measure(s) should it be judged? Do you expect it to have a prodigious bass, or an ultra-extended and rarefied treble? Should it have enormous resolving capability, or the capacity to generate a vast three-dimensional soundstage? In the end, Wilson has achieved none of these singular goals completely – the SabrinaX is not a one-trick pony, a specialist in one respect to the detriment of the others. Rather, the designer has reached for strength-in-depth in all the aforementioned areas, plus a uniquely open, engaging and lyrical midband.
If you were keeping a checklist, you could award this loudspeaker something close to ‘A’ in most respects, but as for its ability to communicate the natural ‘flavour’ of a recording, as well as the tonal purity of vocals and authentic instrumental timbre, the SabrinaX gets an ‘A+’. The essence of this speaker then is wonderful transparency and fluidity in the midband – whilst not putting a foot wrong anywhere else. There are bigger boxes you can buy for the money, ones capable of moving more air or hitting lower lows, but the SabrinaX’s standout attribute is great all-round ability – with something extra special saved for the midband.
Importantly, it fits the average home – or indeed that of most of the world bar the USA, where they tend to have larger listening rooms. In other words, this speaker delivers exceptional performance in a real-world setting – it’s not an esoteric electrostatic or a vast horn design, that needs a film star’s mansion in which to work. Instead, it delivers all its many talents in a sensibly sized space.
Let’s start with the bass. Given that this is a compact floorstander with a modest cabinet volume, someone has forgotten to send the SabrinaX that memo on the laws of physics. I didn’t hear it go down to the very lowest notes, but this speaker still gets pretty subterranean – and does so with complete decorum. With Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm, I was struck by its control of the thumping synth bass line, and apparent lack of fatigue and compression even at seriously high volumes. Pretty much every other speaker I’ve ever reviewed of this size simply does not perform like this. As well as moving serious amounts of air around the room, it showed an effortlessness and ease that bordered on nonchalance. It wasn’t fussed and showed great grace under pressure.
At the other end of the scale, again the SabrinaX confounded my expectations. Everything that I’ve heard over the years teaches me that dome tweeters shouldn’t sound this good. I’ve come across electrostatics and ribbon designs – plus other exotic types that are few and far better – which arguably sound slightly more subtle or finely etched and/or extended. Yet I’m really struggling to think what there is to criticise about this speaker’s high-frequency performance. For example, the hi-hat cymbal work on Rick Springfield’s dynamic and energetic Jesse’s Girl often gets submerged or smeared through other loudspeakers, thanks to the wall of cranked-up electric guitars, pounding drums and powerful lead vocals. Yet here, even on crescendos, it was there sparkling like a star in the night sky, with an exquisitely delicate touch.
This is partly thanks to the midband’s resolution. This isn’t a bright loudspeaker – indeed I’d say it’s a little less ‘stark’ than some Wilsons I’ve heard in previous years – yet there’s a clean beam of daylight shone on the recording by the SabrinaX. It’s not dazzling snow-white, but rather just the right hue to let you pick out the precise nature of the original acoustic. For example, the Rick Springfield track was ultra-clean, tight and taut and dry in a way that late nineteen seventies and early eighties UK and US rock recordings so often are. ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’, on the other hand, sounded substantially warmer, softer and more vague. In other words, this floorstander can starkly signpost the difference between different recordings, telling you what was going on in the studio and in the mastering suite.
This, to me, is the essence of a great loudspeaker. Of course, no two recording studios sound the same, as the music I used in this review spanned the US and the UK over the space of sixty years, it would be totally wrong to have a speaker giving a ‘one size fits all’ performance. The SabrinaX doesn’t have a particular character of its own, no more than a perfectly clean window does, anyway. Instead, you get the original recording, warts and all. The ZZ Top track was a joy; the Wilson honed in on vocals and the crunchy, effects-laden guitar work. It sounded wonderfully rough and tough, while the thumping, visceral bass and snare drum work kept things honest. I could hear the fact that this recording wasn’t great, but it never intruded on my connection with the song on a musical level.
For me, the greatest gauge of a serious speaker is how it handles classic programme material. Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans comes from 1962, the harvest years of modern jazz. It’s a delicious piece of music but has primitive recording techniques compared to today, lacking a truly wideband, high definition sound. Yet the SabrinaX wasn’t in the least bit phased by this; it’s not an audiophile speaker that needs an audiophile recording to deliver. Rather, it set up a deliciously louche, lackadaisical groove; the rhythm just sashayed along, creating a magical vibe. This loudspeaker lost itself – and those present listening – in the music and completely forgot it was supposed to be an inanimate object. What followed was a wonderfully touching and emotional rendition of this jazz standard, with a delicacy that you have to experience to understand.
That’s another excellent facet of this speaker then – its handling of rhythms. It’s superb in the time domain but doesn’t manifest this by an ultra snappy, in-your-face sound and/or excessive tonal brightness. Rather, it’s just a case of the drive units having extremely low colouration and the cabinet all-but disappearing. The great thing is that this magic works with pretty much any type of programme material you feed it; Nat King Cole’s Harlem Blues precedes the Bill Evans masterpiece by just four years but sounds a decade older still. Again it was lovely, the Wilson doing its thing by carrying the phrasing of the vocals in an arrestingly expressive way.
I was also struck by the excellent soundstaging; the SabrinaX isn’t quite in the large planar electrostatic league but images wildly well for something of its box design and modest size. Inside the expansive recorded acoustic it sets up, stereo images are reproduced with laser-etched precision, and the sense of depth is profound. Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Blue Suede Shoes was real wide-angle stuff; the air and space of the recording was a strong contrast to so many of today’s airless, hermetically sealed affairs. Once again, this speaker performed its magic trick of reinventing itself as a completely different sounding thing, as I jumped from one recording to another.
I personally haven’t been Wilson Audio’s greatest fan over the years. Yet I came to the SabrinaX afresh, having heard few of the company’s recent designs – and this stunned me. It’s a brilliant do-it-all compact floorstander that may look relatively conventional, but delivers performance that’s miles away from run-of-the-mill. It’s super able in every respect, but what really sets it apart is that it has immense fun making music. It’s a small floorstander that smiles at the world, and the world smiles back at it. In my experience, that’s less common in high-end circles than you might think.