Most audiophiles know of the unwavering commitment to accuracy and groundbreaking industrial design baked into the DNA of every Wilson Audio product (website), and the new Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers are no exception. This was first evident in Dave Wilson’s original assault on the state of the art with his WAMM design circa 1981, and other loudspeaker systems followed over the years. Along with advancements in materials science and simple but visually striking industrial design aesthetics, each loudspeaker system has a unique raison d’etre rather than simply various scaled-down models at different price points.
Words and photos by Dave McNair
Dave Wilson practically devoted his life to designing a speaker that would precisely reproduce what his ears (and mics) heard on his extraordinary recordings. His recording approach was a simple, purist style used to record musicians playing in natural acoustic spaces. It might seem simple, but there is nothing easy about this kind of approach. So it naturally follows that faithfully reproducing the recording of that event in a home listening room was his ideal.
Today, Daryl Wilson and the rest of the great crew at Wilson Audio have maintained those same ideals and goals while simultaneously refining, improving, and advancing the product line.
Inside the Wilson Audio SabrinaX Loudspeakers
The Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers are a new, refined version of the original Sabrina. The Sabrina has been the most successful speaker sales-wise since the WATT/Puppy series (in all its various versions) rewrote the audiophile speaker playbook. Consisting of a 3-way, rear-ported system, the SabrinaX features the same fabulous sounding Convergent Synergy MK5 tweeter used in the flagship WAMM Master Chronosonic and Chronosonic XVX speaker systems. The smooth yet ultra-detailed highs were, as it turned out, one of the things I enjoyed most about the SabrinaX.
The same 8” woofer used in the Sasha DAW ($37,900) is also used in the Wilson Audio SabrinaX. The 5.75” midrange driver is operated over a reasonably wide range to integrate smoothly into the sonic picture. The three drivers are fitted on a sloped front baffle incorporated into the cabinet geometry. The entire outer cabinet of the SabrinaX is constructed from Wilson’s proprietary X Material instead of only the front baffle and bottom spike plate of the original Sabrina.
Wilson’s X Material, now in its third iteration, is a proprietary blend of resins valued for a unique combination of rigidity, non-resonance, and manufacturing workability. But don’t get the idea that X Material is easy to work with! Far from it. The finishing processes required to machine X Material resins are still quite demanding, so Wilson Audio must feel it’s sonically worth all the manufacturing fuss.
After acquiring Reliable Capacitors in 2020, Wilson Audio can now design and manufacture custom multi-wound capacitors (AudioCapX) for use in their crossovers. The crossover in the Chronosonic XVX was the first to benefit from that acquisition, and now the SabrinaX takes advantage of these proprietary in-house capacitor designs.
At the ground level, the SabrinaX shares the same specially designed floor spike/mechanical diode assembly used in the Chronosonic XVX. This assembly decouples the speaker cabinet from the floor more effectively. It also makes the setup and leveling of the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers a breeze.
The most astute Wilson Audio fans may notice the Sabrina (original and X) cabinet shape as being different from the other models in the line. It strikes me that the other models have a heritage to the original WATT/Puppy or WAMM concept in visual look, whereas the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers have two graceful slants to the entire length of the front baffles and an attractive compound angle on the top half of the sides. I’m guessing that accurate time alignment, along with Daryl Wilson’s artful sense of aesthetics, played a part in this.
The Yin And Yang Of Audio Life
Being exposed to high-end home audio at an early age has informed my attitude throughout my professional audio production career as a recording, mixing, and mastering engineer.
I’ve wanted the recordings I work on to sound equally impressive on an average system AND a mega-buck audiophile system. For me, the way to accomplish this is to juice up whatever project I’m mixing or mastering to the point where the music sounds big and exciting on a typical, low-resolution system but not too hyped and over-processed sounding when played on a big-buck audiophile system. This sensibility also informs my choice of what floats my boat in a Hi-Fi system. My term for this concept is the accuracy/listenability matrix.
On one end, a system may be quite a pleasurable listen on many varieties of recordings. However, in exchange for this wider listenability, the most natural recordings won’t sound as strikingly realistic as on a very accurate system. Daryl Wilson told me his Dad used to say, “Beware the speaker that makes everything sound good.”
On the other end, we have speakers designed to be as precise and free of virtually any distortion or anomalies that would get in the way of accurate reproduction. But what does Led Zep’s Physical Graffiti sound like on these speakers?
My listening room acoustics and personal listening biases determine where on the accuracy/listenability matrix I find myself for any component I’m reviewing. I like it clean, tonally neutral (to a point), dynamic, and dimensional, but I also want just a smidgen of Instagram-filtered reality on my love interest. Bear with me, and this will hopefully make sense later.
I’ve Got Electric Light And Second Sight
After a lengthy three or four-hundred-hour break-in period (after-hours in my mastering studio), I was finally ready to put the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers into my home system.
Hmmm. I was NOT feelin’ it. A shouty upper mid and a strange absence of bass. Well, there was bass, but it sounded weird to me. Imaging was meh. The top end was pretty nice, I’ll give ‘em that.
“Maybe I need some different amps.”
My two reference amps, a pair of Pass Labs XA-60.8s and an Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200II, weren’t cuttin’ it for different reasons. The tubed Qualiton was bass light, very forward, and edgy sounding. The XA-60.8s sounded better and seemed to like the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers, but I had increasingly noticed a mismatch to the left and right amps. They needed a checkup from the amp doctor.
Eventually, through Pass Labs’ kindness, I was able to get a pair of the phenomenal sounding XA-200.8 monoblocks. Now we’re cookin’ with gas!
Still, things were not quite right in my little slice of audio paradise. I tested the speakers to find out if something had been broken or incorrectly wired. Nope, all good. Then, after much room position experimentation, I got them to sound okay but not great. I thought, “Hey, everybody raves about these. What’s the deal?” At this point, I was not entirely sure I wanted to review them, but there was a little voice that kept whispering: “C’mon, this is undoubtedly a great design; you just need to figure out how to get them to sing.”
Under normal conditions, Peter McGrath or Bill Peugh from Wilson Audio would have been here from the beginning to do the rigorous and exacting setup. Proper setup techniques acquired through extensive dealer training are a built-in service for any Wilson customer. An extension of Wilson Audio’s hallmark world-class service includes setup for reviewers. Covid-19 made that a chancy endeavor that neither Wilson nor I were willing to tempt fate. The very wise and affable Mr. McGrath said, “Stop listening to them, take ‘em out of the system, and we’ll figure this out.”
Six weeks or so later, after I got vaccinated for Covid19 and my partner Linda left for her PNW crib, Bill Peugh and I were finally able to get the party started properly. When Bill arrived, we masked up and put the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers back in the system after they had been patiently waiting in my dining room for their turn to dance.
Watching Bill do his thing was fascinating and educational. After almost four hours of methodically moving, listening, switching absolute phase, listening, moving, reversing channels, listening, leveling, listening and consulting his inner Ouiji board, Bill declared victory. Bam!
Things sounded great now. Whuuuuut? How could a few inches (ok, more like three or four inches) from my best try at placement make such a huge difference? But boy, did it ever. Now I could get down to business and enjoy doing some deep listening to probe these beauty’s subtle mysteries. As my Mom used to say, wonders never cease.
That night was my first proper taste of the Wilson elixir. Like a fine single-malt Scotch, it immediately hit me as impressive, but I had to educate my sonic taste buds further to become a true devotee.
Spinning Brittany Howard’s solo album Jaime was the indoctrination I needed. The sheer slam of the low end was unlike anything I’d heard in my room. It wasn’t a gregarious, warm, living, breathing thing I was used to but something entirely different. The size and weight from bass drums and electric basses were there in a massive feel-it-in-your-body manner but vanished so quickly my subconscious thought, “Wait, what was that?” The low end on the Jaime vinyl usually makes me feel like I’m swimming in deep but slightly murky waters. I don’t mind it taking over the room a bit, either.
The Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers didn’t do that. They presented a big, deep, and incredibly defined bass in a manner that sounded like I was hearing the mix playing on some big ATCs in a professionally designed and treated studio control room. How can my largely untreated living room sound this tight and solid, I thought? I listened to all of side one. Twice. Dayum.
More Listening with Wilson Audio SabrinaX Loudspeakers
Image specificity, size, and depth were excellent. The Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers do that arc-of-sound thing that I love. On recordings with the right dimensional info, it’s where the center stuff is clearly centered, AND that phantom center info is projected outward towards my listening spot. All the other instrument locations seem to be placed in a horizontal arc from the forward center info and spreading back to either speaker location.
Additionally, when playing music containing phase tricks used in mixing to create instruments that seem to be super wide and disembodied from other parts of the mix (and the speakers), the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers reproduced those sounds perfectly AND placed the non-affected elements of the mix in the soundstage with fantastic precision. Unlike some speakers with intangible sorcery for making the speakers disappear, in my room the SabrinaX only reproduced what was on the recording without any extra dose of subtle image enhancement. I listened to a fair amount of recordings that I’ve mixed or mastered and know very well to be sure of this point. Faithful to the spatial info in the recording. Fair enough.
Next up was Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories. I’ve been on a severe Prog-Rock jag lately. On this record, the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers most definitely did not disappoint. Super clean highs and cracking drums were the order of the day when I played this one. Side one contains one 12:10 song, “Luminal.” The sheer smack of the snare drum and the punch of the kick drum was stunning. The low end was again big, yet more cleanly defined than previous listens. While not heavily featured in this style, vocals sounded great except for being a bit forward in the upper midrange.
Then we have my tried and true, the brilliant Thud from Kevin Gilbert. Playing Thud off vinyl, Kevin’s voice on “Goodness Gracious” had what I felt to be the proper amount of lower midrange body (which is tricky for some speakers/rooms), but there was also a striking clarity to his airy high frequencies that seemed brand new to me. Not harsh, not silky, but clean. The wide, stereo-panned acoustic guitar mic’d into a Leslie rotating organ speaker was cleaner sounding than ever.
Playing this record, I realized some cuts felt too brash in the 2.4K to 4.5K area and relatively thin in the 150hz region. Others were perfect and had a meaty low end. I usually consider the entire record practically flawless and consistent in its sound. Still, the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers proved to me that every cut has more of a unique tonal profile than I realized.
Ok, that’s about enough prog (for now). Of course, you KNOW I played DSOTM, duh.
Switching gears, it was time for some REAL audiophile jams. Since reading Marc Phillips’ numerous (and rightly so) references to Dean Martin’s Dream With Dean, I had to get me a copy. A few seconds after I dropped the needle, Dean’s voice was so close to me I wanted to put my Covid (double) mask on. Realistic seems like a petty way to describe what I heard coming out of the speakers, and daaaang was it good.
I also streamed lots of stuff. Some music sounded incredible. Some sucked big time. Some days, the sucking bothered me. That changed a bit later on.
In the incredible category were a few Me’Shell Ndegiocello albums such as Peace Beyond Passion and some of her more recent jams like her covers album Ventriloquism. OMG, there’s that low end again similar to Brittany Howard, HUGE and mega-controlled and now even punchier! Vocals were smooth, fleshed out, and with the perfect amount of presence.
Another super satisfier was The Punch Brothers’ Phosphorescent Blues. Great tunes, great sounds, and exciting production for what might be termed alternative bluegrass. Producer T-Bone Burnette and engineer Mike Piersante brought their A-game to this one.
In the no cigar category was Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Peter Gabriel’s So. I love the tunes on both these albums, but the sound was just too glassy and grating for my ears.
You’ll Never Hear Surf Music Again, or How I Learned to Love Accuracy
The funny thing is, when I played very familiar tunes for the first time on the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers, I couldn’t seem to predict whether I’d love the sound or not.
“Wind Cries Mary” (and most of the other songs) off Jimi’s epic Are You Experienced? album was one where I was kind of shocked at how good things sounded. Not just in the extraction of detail or sheer cleanliness to the sound (in a not very clean recording), but more of the whole listening experience. Wow. Although I love Jimi’s music, I usually associate a lot of Hendrix as being too screechy sounding on a typical audiophile system. Somehow it all worked on the SabrinaX. This was a turning point for me.
It became clear that my usual arrogant thinking based on my experience recording, mixing, and mastering thousands of projects over 40+ years was not serving me well. During my time with the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers, this took on three distinct phases: condescendence, then acceptance, and finally equanimity.
As a result of repeated listening sessions, I realized the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers were simply doing their job to reveal every aspect of a recording down to the molecular level. Good and bad. The SabrinaX do that in a manner that is closer to the reality of sources that I played than any other loudspeaker I’ve heard in my listening room, while in some ways being the most unforgiving speaker I’ve yet heard. I can hear the SabrinaX tell me, “Treat me with respect and I’ll show you the stars, but shake your finger and look down your nose at me and you’re on your own, pal.”
At first, I thought, how arrogant of this speaker to cull the herd of my music collection down to a smaller group that satisfied my ears. Then as my listening process continued, I heard more and more recordings spring forth from the Wilson Audio SabrinaXs loudspeakers that hit me in a delightful place. A lot of music sounded incredible. And the stuff that didn’t work as well for me no longer felt like some crazy personal affront to MY idea of what it should sound like.
Was my brain rewiring itself to accommodate this new reality? Maybe, but it was more like I had to let go of being right in order to let in all that the SabrinaX had to offer. The final process in my journey resulted in a feeling of tranquility and enjoyment of practically anything I played, “good” recording or bad. I had my listening biases intact, but now I was deeply in the Enjoyment Zone. And verily, it felt good. I wonder if other audio reviewers ever go through this?
The Crux Of The Biscuit Is The Apostrophe
For the vast majority of the music I listen to, the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers will not show me the artist’s and production team’s original intent. Whuuut? Sacrilege! That’s because most recordings (indeed, most of the ones I work on and listen to) are not an event recorded with minimalist mic’ing in a natural acoustic space. And they are mixed and mastered on speakers that don’t have much in common with the Wilson sound. So why should I expect a speaker designed for perfectly reproducing purist recordings to work with anything else? Could I get my classic rock or contemporary electronic-based jams on? Early on, I didn’t expect to, but after careful setup and an ear-opening education, I most certainly DID.
The Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers compelled me to listen with a new sensibility. After hearing so many recordings that sounded amazing, I began to trust that what the SabrinaX was telling me was the truth. On less than outstanding recordings, I could still get into the music, aided by an almost voyeuristic mindset: hearing what had never been truly revealed to the artists and production team.
So what IS the absolute truth? Is it the sound in the mix room from huge Alan Sides’ custom-built double 15s with horns? Or maybe the semi ubiquitous Genelec line of studio monitors? What about Bernie Grundman Mastering’s custom modded dual concentric Tannoys? Or is it the virtually colorless, brutally honest midrange and highs, zero cabinet resonance artifacts, coupled to a critically damped low-end of a pair of Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers?
This was what nagged at me early on in the process until it hit me. Both are true. Both are equally valid. It’s all in the individual’s unique perception and the local field of the observer.
It’s a strange world if you look at things deeply enough. “Welcome to Quantum Mechanics Tours. Please take a seat by the particle accelerator window. The speaker cable test will start in 5 minutes.”
Wilson Audio SabrinaX Loudspeakers, In Summary
Clearly, the Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers are not merely Wilson Audio entry-level loudspeakers, but rather a carefully crafted design that packs an enormous amount of the tech and sound reproduction embodied in its far more expensive siblings. At $18,500 per pair, I’d have to say it redefines what’s available in this price range for those seeking ultra-faithful-to-the-source performance.
My personal preference for a more liquid feeling, less damped low end, and a smoother-than-reality upper-midrange did not ultimately diminish how much fun I had listening to these beauties. Proper setup and system matching (like any high-performance thoroughbred speaker system) are vital. The Wilson Audio SabrinaX doesn’t demand that you spend Audio Research or D’Agostino level cash on electronics to get the most out of them, but I wouldn’t advise using amps with a tendency toward any upper midrange glare or lacking in circuit topology to handle the low impedance swings this speaker exhibits.
If hearing deeply into a recording with a mission-critical level of accuracy is your happy place, look no further. And the best part is, for fans of Wilson Audio’s unique approach to that aim, if you don’t have $329,000 for a pair of Chronosonic XVXs, a massive helping of that performance is packed into the SabrinaX. My partner, Linda, also said they might be the most attractive speakers I’ve had the pleasure to review.
Do yourself a favor and go hear a pair. Better bring a checkbook while you’re at it.
Sensitivity: 87 dB @ 1W @ 1m @ 1 kHz
Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms / 2.60 ohms minimum @ 135 Hz
Minimum Amplifier Power: 50 Watts per channel
Frequency Response: 31 Hz – 23 kHz: +/- 3 dB: Room Average Response (RAR)
Height: 38 inches (96.46 cm), with spikes 40 5/16 inches (102.34 cm)
Width: 12 inches (30.48 cm)
Depth: 15 5/16 inches (38.96 cm)
System Weight Per Channel: 112 lb (50.80 kg)
System Shipping Weight (approx.): 290 lbs (131.54 kg)