Brian Berdan, owner of Audio Element in Pasadena California grew up in a household filled with music, his late father was a well known hi-fi dealer, so I can suspect that he had some killer vintage gear to play around with. Brian’s first pair of Wilson Audio Speakers were a pair of Wilson Watt 2/Puppy 1 loudspeakers that began his Wilson journey and which he still owns today. As Brian and his wife Jennifer geared up to celebrate Audio Element’s 5th anniversary this month, it couldn’t have been better timing with a debut of the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW speakers.
I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Pasadena to check out Audio Element and give the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW as well as the dCS Bartók DAC a close listen. I was expecting amazing things from the gear, but what I wasn’t ready for was a different kind of hi-fi store. The stereotypical hi-fi stop around the US usually has the same pattern. Typically in these stores you see lots of fancy rooms, everything is pristine like a museum, look but don’t touch- no fingerprints, and you are so overwhelmed you don’t know where to start. If someone from behind the counter doesn’t come to save you, you quickly turn around and exit.
What if you took an approach where you blended an old-fashioned record store with an Apple Store feel where the environment encourages you to pickup and play and mix in high-end audio? Brian has figured out the recipe on how to pull that hybrid together.
As you enter Audio Element in Pasadena, it’s bright, fun, inviting and feels like a candy store for a music lover. As you enter the front door from the street, you are greeted with a headphone bar at every price point starting at under $100 and work their way all the way up. They encourage you to pick them up, put them on, and pick some music from the tablet on the table.
Most people will next flow right as they pass the headphone bar, as you do, you are presented with a large wall of records arranged in bins like your old favorite LP store attracting you to flip and explore.
Remember when you could try before you buy in the music store? Pick up your LP and walk over to the most exciting thing I have every experienced in a HiFi Shop.. a triple-decker Turntable Bar. Three banks of turntables each sporting four tables, to make a total of 12 inviting you in.
Each of the three banks has a selector knob to select the table you want to use. They are all connected, powered and ready to drop a needle. I saw customers all day long dropping down an LP and enjoying some tunes. The knobs are actually vintage knobs from old VTL gear. Each of the 3 banks feed an input on a Musical Surroundings SuperNova III Phono Pre-amp that is built into the 3rd bank. The SuperNova III provides three phono inputs with one dedicated to each bank. Flowing out from the Super Nova is a feed via its two outputs to two systems that book end the bar.
It’s common for folks who aren’t deep in this crazy hobby to think that they will not hear a difference between gear. But the bar allows customers to quickly try different configurations by simply dropping down an LP and turning the selector knob. A customer who may come in looking for Rega P2, could easily switch over to Rega P3 or Rega P6 for example and compare.
Late in the afternoon a customer brought in a Rega P2 that was damaged by a ladder that had fallen on it. It was deemed not repairable. After experimenting with a few tables on the bar, he decided to purchase a new Rega P6 and Hana EL cartridge which employee Sean-Paul Williams began to assemble.. it was fun to watch this happen in the peanut gallery.
You get the vibe… this place is somewhere that invites you to come, experience music and play.
Audio Element Listening Room
At the back of the store is their single dedicated listening room. Brian designed the room and had a hand in the actual construction.
Brian maintains very detailed documentation for the room including a floor grid. This allows store employees to quickly swap out any speaker in the store for listening pleasure. Just outside the room you could see a pairs of Wilson Audio Alexia Series-2, Sabrina and Yvette’s all ready to rock driven by either VTL MB450 or VTL Siegfried amplifiers. The left side of the room sported two equipment racks with VTL TL7.5 Reference Pre-amplifier, VTL TP6.5 Phono Pre-amplifier, a custom blue AMG Giro (only five were made in blue) with 9inch Turbo arm and Koetsu Black, a Grand Prix Audio Parabolica with a Lyra Delos, and a dCS Rossini DAC and clock. Pulling it all together was Transparent Audio Ref XL Gen 5 and Cardas Clear Beyond cabling.
Wilson Audio Sasha DAW
I was a little early for the party, so I had a chance to participate in the voicing of the Sasha DAW as they settled into the room. Bill Peugh of Wilson Audio explained that the speaker should not be pronounced “DAW” as one word. It is read as D A W as separate letters. This dates back to many years ago, when David Andrew Wilson used to write reviews for the Absolute Sound Magazine. He would sign the bottom of these reviews D A W. If anyone has copies of these in their archives, I’d love to give them a read.
I did have to tease Brian for ordering these beauties in Desert Silver when there are so many fun colors available from Wilson.
As I teased Brian, he reminded me that for many customers, having them blend in is important. Desert Silver is like a chameleon that takes on the colors from the room. My personal taste is to have my speakers as a piece or art that I want to scream out in bright Karrussel Orange (glossy with extra flake added of course!).
Sasha DAW Changes
Let’s quickly review the changes in the design of the Sasha DAW before we dig into how it sounds. Additional details about the design of the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW can be found in my earlier post.
Basically when you compare a Sasha Series-2 to the new Sasha DAW, you quickly see that every component has been changed.. Bill Peugh pointed that out, but we know that there are a few things that are the same such as:. the fabric on the grills, the paint, that X and S material that Wilson uses in most of their speakers etc.
Let’s start with the Woofer Cabinet change. The key design changes are:
1. New 8 inch woofer. (taken from the Alexia Series-2)
2. More rigid with additional bracing a new 6 sided enclosure design. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
3. 13.3% more volume, gained by removing the wiring chamber on the back. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
4. Supersize spikes and diodes under the speaker. (consistent with Alexia Series-2 & Alexx)
5. Cabinet is tilted back 3 degrees to improve time alignment. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
6. Clear cover for the resistors on the back. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
7. Centered bass port that improves performance and eases placement. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
8. Black screws for the drivers (NEW – Only on the DAW – I want them)
9. Cut-outs on wings at the top of the woofer cabinet. I originally thought these were just cosmetic, but they also provide a performance improvement by reliving pressure between the upper and lower cabinets. (NEW – Only on the DAW)
10. New binding posts for speaker cable connection (NEW – Only the DAW)
Tweeter / Mid-range Cabinet
Moving up to the Tweeter / Mid-range Cabinet the key design changes are:
1. New Wilson Synergy MK5 tweeter (Same tweeter used in the Alexia Series-2 and WAMM)
2. New Wilson Mid-range driver (Same mid-range used in the Alexia Series-2 and WAMM)
3. 10.2% more volume, gained by removing the wiring chamber on the back. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
4. New hardware that that allows you to more easily set the time alignment without needing a wrench
5. Centered port that improves air flow and tuning (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
6. Black screws for the drivers (NEW – Only on the DAW – I want them)
7. New cut-outs inside the cabinet to reduce standing wave / better diffraction inside the cabinet. (consistent with Alexia Series-2)
Bill Peugh explained that in some rooms, you will be able to get the time alignment on the DAW as accurate as the Alexia Series-2. Specifically to a 8 microseconds.
As part of the voicing during the installation, it is interesting how much the smallest adjustment made with the time-alignment settings on the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW. For Brian’s room there were two possible settings based on their position that could have been used. The upper cabinet could have either rested on step seven or eight on the alignment block. It took less then 3 beats of a test track to tell that using step seven was perfect and step eight tossed away the goodness we were hearing. Taking the time to setup these speakers with extra care will pay dividends.
I was itching to drop the needle and listen. I had to wait a little longer as Brian and Bill struggled to get the speakers level on the thick carpet / underpaid in the Audio Element listening room. But after a little messing around, and some jokes about speaker “azimuth” we were ready to roll.
My listening broke down into two sessions. The official presentation and then my quiet time listening that I did the following day with my own test tracks.
Manufacturers Official Presentation
Bill Peugh kicked off the demo. I guess he hasn’t jumped on the streaming bandwagon and came equipped with a bunch of CDs and SACDs. Fortunately Brian had a dCS Scarlatti Transport lying around that was used that sent its feed over dual AES cables from Transparent Cable to a new shiny dCS Bartók DAC.
Bill kicked off the evening with a J.S. Bach played by a trio Yo Yo Ma (Cello), Edgar Meyer (Bass), Chris Thile (Mandolin). The system demonstrated natural tonality across the instruments and precision placement of each of the trio. You don’t expect to a hear a mandolin but was perfectly placed just like you were sitting in that beautiful hall. Although played from a CD during the demo, I later discovered it is available as well on TIDAL Masters. Give it a listen.
Later in the demo, in usual Wilson style, we listened to some dynamic chamber music from Paavo Jarvi playing Stravinsky (Le Histoire du Soldat). The piece has some extreme dynamics, demonstrating the systems ability to keep all of the instruments in place… just the way we want.
Bill closed out his demonstration with Dean Martin from the “Dream with Dean” album playing “If you Were the only Girl (In the World)”. No matter if you love or hate the track, the romantic reproduction of Dean’s voice painted on a black background, whisked you away.
Luke Manley continued and dropped the needle on some tasty LPs through an all VTL gear system that followed the Giro AMG turntable.
My favorite was a special pressing of Myung-Whun Chung. If you can find it, I highly recommend it. I am happy to report that I purchased the last copy that I could find available on discogs.com 10 minutes after Luke’s demo. No its not for sale…
Listening Part 2 – Mohammed Quiet Time with Wilson Audio Sasha DAW and Bartók
The prepared demo was great as always. But as impressive as it can be, its hard to know JUST how good the Sasha DAW / dCS Bartók / VTL sounds until you can get in quality time with music & tracks that you know. On Saturday morning, I managed to arrive early prior to experience about 2 hours of listening before the mad dash.
Since I didn’t bring any LPs with me, my session was 100% digital using Roon / TIDAL all played through the dCS Bartók DAC.
For dCS aficionados, the dCS Bartók was set to use Filter 3 for everything I was listening to, and Filter 5 for DSD / DXD, since that is what I personally prefer and what I am used to listening to in my room.
My game plan for my two-hour window was the following, to try to see how much the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW was like its big sister the Alexia Series-2. Did it have the same sonic signature? Does it have the same DNA? This is a tough task just listening the DAW, but I had two things going for me to allow me to come up with some initial insights. First the Alexia Series-2 + dCS Vivaldi combination is imprinted in my head beautifully as I listen to it daily. Luckily at Audio Element, the room was a very similar setup. Instead of Alexia Series-2, I was using its smaller sibling Sasha DAW. Similarly instead of the reference dCS Vivaldi DAC, we were using its youngest sibling the dCS Bartók DAC. The cabling in Brian’s room was also similar to mine with Transparent Reference XL Gen 5 or higher. It was fascinating to compare the two combos.
I’ve selected a few tracks that demonstrate what I heard and some insights.
One of the my favorite qualities of the Alexia Series-2 is its ability to deliver silky smooth integration between the various drivers and mid-range that deliver’s male vocal in ways that is difficult to deliver. If not done right, you get this unpleasant chestiness for the male vocal. The Alexia Series-2 just nails this.
A test track I love is the acapella “Die Easy” By Rag ‘n’ Bone Man on the “Human” album. On most systems, it sounds fine but is not super engaging. When played on the Alexia Series-2, his voice sends a shiver through your body. Every once of emotion coming from deep within him comes crashing through.
When played on the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW + dCS Bartók DAC combo streaming from TIDAL the experience was similar, just as engaging. Did it dig as deep? no. Would you ever notice if you had never heard the Alexia Series-2? no. Would you want to listen to this on repeat? YES!
I discovered a great artist Sevdaliza while at the B&W room at CEDIA 2018. I love the track “Human” from the Ison album.
I’ve tried this track many times, and when it isn’t right everything is stuck together. When a system can nail it, you can hear the layers across the electronic mix. Sevdaliza’s voice should just ride over the top like it is floating in air. When kicked through the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW + dCS Bartók DAC combo, it was hypnotic. My finger was jamming on the VTL volume + to push the system harder and harder. Employees attracted by the sound kept popping into the room asking, “What track is that???”.
The experience was similar to the big rig that I was remembering in my head – Alexia Series-2 + Vivaldi, and that is an incredible achievement. But the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW + dCS Bartók had a slightly smaller soundstage and once again it didn’t dig as deep. Really, its an unfair comparison. The Alexia Series-2 has significantly more volume in the bass cabinet and a combination of an 8inch and 10inch woofer that work together in harmony. The fact that it got as close as it did was marvelous.
My experience listening to “Mercy Street” from Peter Gabriel’s album “So” was familiar. Luckily Brian had the same DSD version that I have at home.
The mix was perfect, and Peter’s smoky voice rides over the instruments and Tony’s bass. The sonic signature was just as a remembered on the larger Alexia Series-2 + dCS Vivaldi combination. Less detail and dynamics then Alexia Series-2 + dCS Vivaldi, but just as engaging.
I have a longtime love for Natalie Merchant. Although crazy Audiophiles swarm over her album Tigerlily, I have a fond love for her album “Ophelia”. I wish it was available in hi-resolution or vinyl, but was never released in those formats.
For me, this hobby is about taking you back in time. Taking you to that moment where the music was recorded. You feel like you were there. The dynamics, tonality, and sense of space all come to together to create…. simply music.
When that happens, my brain relaxes, and every ounce of emotion is transmitted through the music. You remember memories, you think of friends and family, you get goose bumps (on the odd occasion). I consider myself a sensitive guy, and try to never tear up anywhere except the privacy of my listening room. It’s rare but it happens to all of us.
As I pressed play on “Frozen Charlotte”, I was pulled in. It was perfect, just like I had heard it on the best of systems. As a tear formed. Enough said, DAW + Bartok wins…
Summary and Closing Thoughts
I firmly believe the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW will become an important part of Wilson Audio history as it is the first speaker that was created after the passing of David Wilson. It could be considered a book end on his career. Wilson’s rise to fame began with the original Watt Puppy loudspeaker developed by him. The Sasha DAW is an evolution (or more like a revolution!) of that original design and form factor. On the other book end of the spectrum, the Sasha DAW takes endless leanings from the WAMM and brings them closer to the DAW.
It not only looks good on paper inheriting numerous components and technology from the Alexia Series-2, Alexx and WAMM speaker, but it delivers a sound that I am sure would bring a smile to David’s face if he was still with us.
After many hours of listening in Pasadena, it is absolutely clear to me. The Wilson Audio Sasha DAW is no longer a Sasha, it is 100% a small Alexia Series-2 inheriting its DNA and sonic signature. The improved time alignment and integration across the drivers that makes the Alexia Series-2 a speaker that we love, can be seen in the Sasha DAW.
For many customers, I believe the Sasha DAW will be a speaker they fall in love with. Moving up to the Alexia Series-2 would be suited to customers who: have larger rooms, who want additional adjust-ability to get the most accurate time alignment, who want even larger dynamics that dig deep. Would I trade my Alexia Series-2 for a Sasha DAW, absolutely not. Would I consider buying a Sasha DAW for my room if I was starting over, absolutely yes, since you are getting a crazy amount of Alexia for a much lower price.
The other surprise for me during my listening was the quality of digital playback made possible by the dCS Bartok. I’m a vinyl snob, and my bar for digital is high. I want to get that analog feeling that is engaging when I listen to digital. There are far and few DACs that I would love to listen to all day. The dCS Bartok took me by surprise. It wasn’t a dCS Vivaldi by any means, but for the price, I would be happy to own one and listen to it everyday. It’s so good, that I think dCS customers may re-consider the more expensive dCS Rossini. dCS has a v2.0 software upgrade coming to kick it up, but for now, the dCS Bartok is chomping on its heels.
Both the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW and dCS Bartok get my highest recommendation.
If you are ever in Los Angeles, go visit Brian and Jennifer at Audio Element. Budget time since you will want to play, settle in and listen to some great music.
Enclosure Type Upper Module: Rear Vented Midrange, X&S-Material
Enclosure Type Woofer Module: Rear Ported Woofer, X-Material
Woofers: Two – 8 inch (20.32 cm)
Midrange: One – 7 inch (17.78 cm)
Tweeter: One – 1 inch, Dome (2.54 cm)
Sensitivity: 91 dB (one watt at one meter at 1kHz)
Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms / minimum 2.48 ohms @ 85 Hz
Minimum Amplifier Power: 25 watts per channel
Frequency Response: 20 Hz –30 kHz +/- 3 dB room average response [RAR]
Height: 44 3/4 inches (113.67 cm)
Width: 14 1/2 inches (36.83 cm)
Depth: 22 15/16inches (58.26 cm)
Weight Per Channel: 236 lbs (107.05 kg)
System Shipping Weight (approx): 710 lbs (322.05 kg)
Full list of A-listers at the Audio Element – 5 year Anniversary!
You guys at Audio Element really put on a great party!