HiFi Advice 04/2013

Wilson Audio Sabrina Loudspeaker


The Absolute Sound 10/2015 - Neil Gader

At some point, every high-end company begins to assess its legacy. For the most part, these reflections concentrate on the designer’s boldest, most sweeping projects. Certainly for an iconic company like Wilson Audio, and its visionary founder Dave Wilson, this will mean honoring revolutionary designs such as the WAMM or WATT via current flagships such as the XLF or the upcoming, next-gen WAMM system. As grand as these no-holds-barred products are, I would argue that another measure of greatness lies where hard limitations have been imposed on the designer. I’d refer to them as projects conceived for the small canvas. Unlike the flagships, where every ounce of tech and sonic alchemy is at the designer’s disposal, these more modest efforts step up to the scratch pad with two strikes against them, usually limitations in size and budget. Turning to Wilson Audio’s latest, the Sabrina, its size and entry-level status would normally fit this category, except for one silly little thing—performance that is in every way pure Wilson through and through. The Sabrina connects with both the head and the heart in ways that have “legacy” written all over it.

The Sabrina, a three-way floorstander in a bass-reflex enclosure, is the smallest and least expensive floorstander in the Wilson line. How small is the Sabrina? One perspective would be: nearly the same size as the revered WATT/Puppy—a speaker many are already comparing it to. In contemporary terms, its 40" height places it a couple of inches shorter than Sophia 3, and in weight it is a good seventy pounds lighter. Internal volume is also 44 percent smaller than the Sophia. Its lines are reserved but precise, with a fixed-slope front baffle that time-aligns the drivers—a classic illustration of form following function. The driver complement includes a doped silk-dome tweeter that’s a modified version of the unit found in the XLF. The midrange is adapted from the Alida, Wilson’s wall-mount product. The 8" paper cone woofer is similar to the Alexia unit. Minimum recommended power is 50Wpc. As with all Wilsons, it’s the quality of the power amp rather than the size that counts. Nominal impedance is 4 ohms, but with a drop to 2.53 ohms at 139Hz, you’ll want to make sure that your amp has enough current to satisfy the Sabrina’s demands.

Naturally, in order to keep costs in line, some restrictions were necessary, mostly pertaining to cabinet materials and build-complexity. Construction is predominately HDF, a superior-quality high-density fiberboard. Wilson Audio’s famed X-material (a high-pressure composite of mineral, polymer, carbon, and paper) is used sparingly in the Sabrina but is carefully employed where it can do the most good—the front baffle and bottom plate. It’s also a single-stage cabinet rather than two distinct boxes like the Sasha which means less CNC time and thus lower cost. The tweeter is isolated internally from the midrange and woofer drivers with the latter two transducers sharing the same internal volume. Wilson Audio notes that in this configuration any potential for intermodulation distortion is minimized by prudent driver selection and precise porting of the enclosure.

The Sabrina may be entry-level Wilson, but there are no observable shortcuts in quality. Crossover components are exactly the same as those in every Wilson in the catalog. The point-to-point hand-wiring is handled by the same dedicated crew of folks responsible for every Wilson speaker, from the Alida to the Olympian-scaled XLF. Finally, fit and finish are identical with every Wilson product I’ve ever examined—superb in every detail from the deep, mirror-like reflection of the painted surfaces, to the craftsman-level joinery.

Honey I Shrunk the XLF!

The sonic character of the Sabrina is marked by a commanding and linear top-to-bottom energy. It’s a ripe sound—a relaxed sound with a slightly warmer signature. It’s a Wilson, of course, so it’s animated by remarkable dynamic headroom, extreme low-level resolution, and a sense that it willfully wants to drive music forward rather than let it passively lay back. But the words that most often came to mind during my listening sessions with the Sabrina were balance and unity. The Sabrina speaks with a richly emotive and continuous voice thanks to unwavering inter-driver coherence and lack of localization. There are no aberrant points of sonic light emitted by the individual transducers—those attention-grabbing beacons that split the sonic tableau into jagged segments forcing the ear to “key” on specific drivers. Listening to the Sabrina is experiencing how music can simply flow across a complete canvas of sound. Choose any random sample of great female pop vocalists who possess a wide range, such as Linda Ronstadt, Eva Cassidy, or Joni Mitchell, and you won’t know whether there are two drivers or twenty.

In tonal balance, the Sabrina is smooth and neutral—each octave seamlessly merging with the other. For those sensitized to “rogue” tweeters promoting a tipped-up treble response, the Sabrina soft-dome will be a sweet tonic. It has a slightly rounder, shaded quality in the mid-to-upper treble that calls to mind the conservatism of the British school of loudspeakers—a segment of which I’m particularly fond. Thus, for me, there’s more than enough top-end extension, but without any obvious treble peaks, gaps, or gritty edges. Of greater relevance is the critical sibilance range between 6–10kHz which is fast, clean, and articulate. A naturalistic embodiment of the real thing.

The tweeter and midrange have a connection to one another that can only be described as sensually synergistic. Their collective range of expression, color, and dynamics is superb and of a piece. Indeed, there’s transient speed to burn but without the perception that speed is all these drivers are about. The leading-edge texture of the rosin off the bow of a bass-viol during Appalachian Journey, or the crisp pluck of a cluster of harp strings during The Wasps Overture are fully followed by firm fundamentals and rich harmonics—elements whose presence acts as a resilient cushion that illuminates perspective and dimensionality. If a rock mix calls for an aggressive pinpoint metal signature, then that’s what you’ll get. Listen to the cowbell mirroring the hi-hat during Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” and you’ll know what I mean. But its natural inclination is to allow harmonics and air to open and bloom, and for cymbals to shimmer in a golden autumnal glow. As I listened to the Elton John track “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from the SACD (playback courtesy of the superb Esoteric X-03x CD player), I marveled at the transient explosiveness and decay of the cymbal crashes and the fully fleshed-out impact of the snare, from its rattles right down through its metal shell.

The Sabrina’s midbass to lower midrange region is potent, and dynamically explosive with no evidence of energy-dimming suck-outs. This is a difficult-to-manage transitional region that is crucial if the full foundation of music is to be realized. In its absence, an instrument such as the cello, for instance, gets the “lean cuisine” treatment, losing its acoustic and darkly resonant timbre and becoming a bloodless X-ray of itself. When I hear familiar percussion or bass cues—whether they’re orchestral, as in Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, or rock, as in Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road”—I’m not listening for a papery representation; I expect an exquisitely dark impact that feels hurled from some unexplored, cavernous place. While full-range extension to 20Hz slips from its grasp, the Sabrina still manages a respectable and vigorous low-to-mid-30Hz range (in-room), which if you haven’t experienced it lately is more than satisfying. The Sabrina generates a great deal of low-frequency energy, even summoning the near-seismic, batten-down-the-hatches shudder in the pipe organ’s lowest octave during the tracks from the Rutter Requiem. But it does have limits; the deepest dives of an organ or the energy of an orchestral bass drum during Copland’s Fanfare are dynamically softened slightly and lose some pitch integrity.

Turning to output and dynamics, the Sabrina is designed like all Wilson speakers with an eye to the rigors of the recording studio. It doesn’t turn weak-kneed when the SPLs start rising. Crank it, and there’s no retreat. In fact, it actually seems further emboldened. My most unexpected surprise was the way the Sabrina combined low-level resolution and the most delicate bass dynamics, a region where most loudspeakers lose grip and control. There’s a sequence during the Rossini La Boutique Fantasque [The Royal Ballet, Ansermet, RCA] where the bass viols enter beneath the main theme as delicately as a mouse in bedroom slippers. Each deeply resonant note was not only cleanly articulated, but could be heard resonating into the hall’s acoustics, intensifying the ambience. Unprepared for what I was hearing, I have to admit that I repeated this track at least three times for confirmation. On a more global level, the Sabrina’s wide-ranging dynamic sensitivity can cut both ways. On the one hand, it can open up familiar uncompressed recordings to a far greater extent. Direct-to-disc LPs, for example, reveal even more subtle volume shifts between instruments. And yet, on the other hand, I started reevaluating other recordings with a more finicky ear, attuned to compression artifacts that hadn’t been nearly as troubling with other loudspeakers. That’s what wide-open and unadulterated dynamics will do for you.

Image specificity is very good, although it can’t quite match the best two-way mini-monitors—or the eminent three-way, stand-mount TAD CR1. Housing one of audio’s great transducers—an all-beryllium coincident unit—the CR1 is uncanny in its ability to clarify complex images. The Sabrina’s approach is a bit looser but arguably just as persuasive, in that it handily balances specific imaging cues and boundaries—string section layering, for example—with an overall immersion within a soundstage. In other words, it slightly favors the performance “macro” over the more individual “micro.” I understand that listeners are apt to be biased in either direction, but to my mind the particulars of imaging cannot be separated from the broader acoustic envelope. With the Sabrina they play off one another in an elegant dance that integrates each image rather than isolates it.

Since the WATT/Puppy and the Sabrina represent entry-level models of their respective eras, comparisons were not unexpected. Without dispute, the WATT was a revolutionary speaker. The Sabrina is more evolutionary, a natural extension of current Wilson thinking. And there are significant sonic differences. The original WATT hewed more closely to Dave Wilson’s music engineering roots. The need for a portable nearfield monitor of the highest resolution and transparency made the WATT a terrific tool for the recording engineer, though for some audiophiles it was an acquired taste. It was utterly detailed and specific in its imaging but it also leaned toward the drier and more clinical end of the spectrum. The later addition of the Puppy dual-woofer module gave the WATT not only a platform to stand on, but also created a full-range, truly modular system that paved the way for the Sasha some twenty years later. The Sabrina has a warmer, more subdued, more inviting and romantic character than that of its vaunted predecessor. Its resolution is high but it still favors sheer musicality over the WATT/Puppy’s cooler, keener analysis. But in one crucial respect, they share the description that the late Harry Pearson made in his Issue 125 review of the Watt/Puppy 6: Both have the ability to “extract the drama of the music.” (And I should add, in all fondness, that if anyone understood drama, it was HP.)

I’d be remiss for failing to mention a subplot to this story—it’s what happens when a speaker and room meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. I can’t recall another floorstander that performed as well in my room as the Sabrina, including standouts such as the TAD Evolution 1, the Kharma Elegance S7 Signature, the Magico V2, and even Wilson’s own Sophia 3. Call it pure serendipity—and the careful setup ministrations of Wilson Audio’s all-knowing Peter McGrath—but the Sabrina simply became one with the environment. In fact, the other speakers mentioned might well have bested the Sabrina in various ways, but in this instance, the synergy between the room and the speaker was pitch-perfect—and once again underscores how critical the room/speaker interface is.

„Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady”

The Sabrina caught me off guard. I expected a level of excellence commensurate with Wilson’s reputation; yet, on paper at least, the very idea of greatness seemed like a stretch. Turns out it wasn’t. The Sabrina provided some of the finest listening sessions I’ve ever had, and to top it off, it’s incredibly well priced. If nearly sixteen grand ever represented a buy, this is it. As I size up the competition, the Sabrina is unsurpassed in the medium-to-smaller listening space. I consider this sweetheart (pound for pound) the best Wilson Audio loudspeaker available today.

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