Some audiophile vernacular has become tainted: ’accuracy’ is one. It’s become a lazy way to describe a cold and oft-emotionless presentation. “You’re either with us or you’re with the the terrorists”, went the George W line. You’re either a fan of musicality or you’re a fan of accuracy; as if shades of grey had been erased from our descriptive palette. Some loudspeakers are seriously impressive in their accuracy – sounding as near as dammit to the original performance – but hold the listener at arm’s length. Watching a New Year’s firework show from behind the safety barrier is an exhilarating experience (“oooooh”, “aaaaah”), but what of proximity? What of intimacy? Labelling a loudspeaker as even slightly approaching accurate shoe-horns the door open for the “musicality” detractors to cast aspersions and – later – insidious doubt. If it’s not musical, it must be accurate (and therefore unlistenable) – right?
Electronic music thrives on accuracy. Audiophiles with a penchant for 90s electronica and techno – there aren’t many of us knocking about. The spacious minimalism of early Plastikman releases or the mechanised abstractions of Autechre. I live on this stuff. You’ve got Diana Krall – that woman’s everywhere at audiophile gatherings because she sounds good on even the most modest setup – I’ve got Moderat, which will accelerate with a speed wobble if something is even slightly amiss in the audio chain. You relax to some soft-jazz, I’m getting switched and baited by Nicolas Jaar’s album – as much installation as it is club record, it’s big on texture and tone as well as rhythm. A rare beast and perfect for that dreadful terminology: criticallistening (and its subsequent critical judgements).
“Hold the paper up to the light, some rays they pass right through.” – David Byrne. Sheer transparency is the most striking characteristic when greeting The WLM Stella (AU$2700) for the first time. It’s a shorter-than-average, slender floorstander from Austria. One for more modest (European) living spaces. Apartment dwellers like myself excepted, we folk down under generally inhabit larger rooms. The Stellas run full tilt would drown an average UK flat in seconds, but out in the larger planned spaces of suburban Australia room drive would still be palpable – I took them well beyond neighbour-troubling levels with ease.
A two and half inch paper tweeter from Visaton keeps the Stella’s sensitivity on the generous side: 90 db (for those scribbling furiously). Hannes Frick and Martin Schützenauer have been clever bastards in their resurrection an old concept that’s not so common nowadays: user attenuation of the tweeter’s db level. ’Round back and down low, a tweeter volume pot is scaled from one to six, four being close to neutral (0 db gain). It’s there to mitigate amplifiers and listening room and – if you’re sufficiently fussy – recording quality. Visaton also manufacture the five and half inch mid/woofer driver with the very same (doped) paper . All this for a loudspeaker that’s the mainstay of WLM’s “Basic Series” from a company that’s been kicking around the high-end scene since ’02. [Click herefor pictorial evidence of WLM's manufacturing process].
Spiked, minimal toe in and well clear of side boundaries; that’s the Stellas suited and booted. It took a lot of experimentation with placement to confirm what the Australian distributor Tony Schmidt had already told me: “John, only toe them in ever-so slightly or they won’t sound right”. He was correct. Secondary impressions showed their sound to be clean, upstanding and formal. Nothing too flashy or showy; tempered enthusiasm and room drive. Sound isn’t thrust (unwillingly) into the room, nor does it float in front of the speaker plane – it’s delivered carefully and with exactitude. The band play ‘right there’ – rather than under one’s chin – anchored by an unerring low frequency weight. Ordinarily, this would also be the moment where I unbox the predictable criticism about a floorstander’s inability to disappear as completely as a standmount. As I look out over R.E.M.’s Out Of TimeAmericana-tinged vista for the umpteenth time, I’m unable to discern any boxiness. Imaging on the baby WLM floorstander is impressive.
Let’s personify some loudspeakers to hand: the Hoyt Bedford (Type 1) is an environmentalist in khaki shorts; the Stellas are two young lawyers out for a gala dinner event. Their manners and posture expose their private school upbringing. They are eloquent and well-spoken and never draw attention to themselves with crude or lewd behaviour. They work the room with poise and charm without overt slickness or – worse – sleaziness. They know that cleanliness is next to godliness and have an irreproachable eye for detail (home theatre devotees will find much to like here).
Being a musicality-leaning fellow, I began my review period unmoved by the WLM call to accuracy arms. The burden of proof fell to the Austrians. Despite hearing fresh detail and feeling additional punch in the low end of Moderat’s spectacular 2009 collaboration (Modeselektor vs Apparat), I refused to pick up when they called. More so than other transducers, the Stellas provide a canvas on which to ink (to personal tastes). Not only can the sonic outcome be tweaked with the tweeter twizzles, but amplification flavours will matter. Cymbals and similar leading edge sonics don’t possess the Sunday morning fry-pan sizzle of a ProAc, nor are they are WYSIWYG of a Spendor. The Visaton paper tweeter’s silky, refined nature means we get accuracy without dryness or sterility. Picture the finest, smoothest, whitest sand. We’re on a tropical island. With the blank canvas of clear-blue-water midrange to hand, any given Stella user could return shades of grey to the musicality-accuracy spectrum with the right amplifier choice.
I re-imagined the more PRaT-centric amplifiers of months gone by. Consider a Naim Nait 5i: a simple and highly-regarded integrated amplifier, it has the power, the bounce, the grit, the sheer electrification to set these small floorstanders alight. Musing theoretically for a monent: if you like more pepper in your sauce, the Nait 5i might be the saucier for the job. Halving the amplifier spend again, the (also Serbian) Dayens Ampino would grit the treble with a hint of electric salt; it takes the smooth from ATC SCM 11 tweeter. Some loudspeakers require a salt lick and citrus suck to get them away from the safety haven of words like “classy” and/or “nice” and provide more of that tequila headrush. Who wants “nice”? Nice guys don’t the get the girl. The ATC SCM 11 are such a product – the Ampino airlifted them from Pleasantville. The WLM’s midrange cleanliness is easily the match of this Brit rival. The SCM series’ lack of top-end air is their only weakness – if only they shipped with a tweeter lemon twist.
An ME 240 integrated in pre-amplifier mode, feeding a pair of Virtue’s Class-D, tube-buffered Iceblocks overcooked the lower octaves of the big synth notes that propel “Nr. 22″. The ME 240 flying solo into the WLMs proved to a far more balanced proposition both tonally and rhythmically. It is often said that the difference between good speakers and outstanding speakers is that the former reproduce sounds whilst the latter reproduce instruments. This unexpected ME/WLM synergistic pairing was struck so early in the review period that I work through a range of other amplifiers to confirm it as such: the ME 240 brings an analogue liquid hood to the lively WLM higher frequencies and drew the tightest bass (by some margin) from the vertically challenged floorstanders.
Despite the 90 db sensitivity, single-ended sorcery betwixt WLM Stella and Trafomatic Experience Two 300B was rendered dead from the waist down; I plugged the ports, ran the Stellas as sealed boxes and enjoyed a diminished, drier drive. All a bit pointless though: if you wanted a standmount sound, you’d acquire a standmount loudspeaker. You don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself. You buy a floorstander because you want to dive below 50hz.
The power-rating-bass-tightness axis really matters with the Stellas. For the tightest of buns you will need grunt; there ain’t no fudging it. KT88 if tubes are your predilection, 80wpc+ of solid state if you’re a transistors-only kinda guy. The majestic high current control of the ME240 worked best for me – Peter Stein’s integrated is a unique Australian native whose talents really should be playing to larger audiences. Moreover, this is the pairing that brought me around to what the Stellas could do: precision withintimacy. (The REDGUM Sonofa’GUM shared some similarities with the ME but this pairing’s cleanliness is for those that want a hospital grade detergent mopping up after the show).
Radiohead’s “National Anthem” with the WLM Sonata EL34 integrated at the helm. This isn’t just the interlocking of fingers between WLM-branded speakers and amplifiers, this is a fusing of musical joints. System synergy where face meets palm: the coalescing of the best traits of the ME 240 and the Weston Acoustics Troubador combined. This is midrange with lush undergrowth; Radiohead’s complex horn blasts deconstructed with richtigkeit. Bass runs on the shortest of leashes – tight fisted and exceedingly articulate. It’s a jigsaw falling into place. It’s everything in its right place. To reach the Stella summit, you need this integrated. Not a predictable manufacturer’s pitch but the result of Trafomatic’s Sasa Cokic voicing the EL34 toplogy precisely to suit WLM loudspeaker modus operandi. With Sasa on amplifier commission duties, the close-to-transistor punch and blur-free transient edges come down to circuit design and diligent transformer windings. As Cokic might opine, it’s all in the iron.
Also present this week: a pair of Harbeth P3ESR (~AU$2500). Flipping the (theoretical) AU$200 instantaneous upgrade switch from Harbeth standmount to WLM floorstander caused a sudden leap of in-room SPL, a leap of the heart, of slam (but no loss of Harbeth-famed midrange clarity). A case could be made that the Austrian boxes are even more transparent around the middle. The Brit standmount is more reserved and lighter on downstairs (duh). The mainland Europeans hold the listener closer to their bosom. They hug tighter for their intimate moments. There’s more weight – a heftier bosom! A cleaner Harbeth with a faster pulse and flashier macro-dynamics is a reliable precis of that particular day’s WLM listening.
Dead set on going with Harbeth but aspire to more substantive payload down low? You’re in for another grand or so to get the C7 or the SHL-5 to your door. The Stella’s closest Brit rival – the baby floorstanding Spendor A5 – will run you AU$3600. The PMC GB1i now nudges AU$4k locally. It might be crass to make mere mention of dollars, but money weighs heavy in the buying decision. Sure, we’d like to tell ourselves that we should “buy once and buy well”, but buying once can sometimes mean spending big, spending more than you can truly afford. The Stella cake comes ready to eat.
These Austrians fellas know that pricing matters. The Stellas aren’t budget but they are affordable; ideal for those who’ve spent long enough with cheaper boxes and are seeking to up the class and refinement antes without throwing out the excitement factor. The Stellas are champagne and diamonds done right (on time and under budget). They are far beyond the cheapness of ‘bling and bubbles’ in both exemplary build quality and spotless sonics. Again: they display no obvious signs of a broken heel or a torn hem and their audible posture – right down to the lowest bass notes – shows impeccable poise. Offering a presentation that is both immaculate in its accuracy and devoid of inherent colour. BYO “musicality” with amplifier choice. Push-pull tubular bells will bring more tonal saturation, solid state power more Riverdance thump. The WLM Sonata brings the beyond-five-star shock and awe. Voiced to mesh with the WLM range just so, this EL34 integrated serves as a stark reminder that it’s perfectly OK to spend more on amplification than loudspeakers – forget what accepted wisdom imparts unto you and go your own way.
In considering the Stellas, we see WLM as a manufacturer shifting the spend ratio away from loudspeakers and towards amplification. The Stellas beg to be treated as such: save here and spend there. It all washes out the same in the end. Such a proposition makes it tough to bring down the hammer of judgement. Transparent to the nth degree, you will hear the results of every upstream change: amplifier switcheroo during my listening sessions was nothing short of dramatic each and every time. A two-way high fidelity sound that is (above all else) uncoloured and – wait for it – accurate. Ouch? Not likely. An adjective intended in the most complimentary manner. The Stellas are clean, classy and honest yet they retain sufficient intimacy for a thoroughly immersive listening experience – a smaller floorstander that lends each album spin a sense of regal occasion. Despite my reluctance and stubbornness, WLM’s talents with accuracy (read: transparency) are downright impossible to ignore. Audition them and you too will hear an odd, singular noise: the sound of the gauntlet hitting the floor. Beat that. WLM’s Stellas are a slender, dark horse from Austria that tread a paddock in which ‘musicality’ and ‘accuracy’ canter harmoniously.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Audio-gd Ref 7.1
- Weston Acoustics Troubadour
- Trafomatic Experience Two
- REDGUM Sonofa’GUM
- ME 240
- Virtue Iceblocks
- WLM Sonata
- Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (2011)
- VA – Radio Rothko mixed by Deadbeat (2010)
- Moderat – Moderat (2009)
- R.E.M. – Out Of Time (1991)
- Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
- Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
- Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)