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The Audiophile Voice:
Infinite Wisdom Grande Review

A Million Dollars can go pretty far these days! The only real difficulty is you need to go to Las Vegas to listen to this extraordinary sound system!

by Ross Wagner

Why bother to assemble a $1,000,000.00 audio system?

After all, less than a year ago, we heard a very pricey “State-of-the-Art” system at Stereophile’s Home Entertainment show in New York, and it was generally acknowledged to be less than impressive.

Now, in Las Vegas, we were confronted by a far more costly sound system.

Given the nature of audiophiles to carp unmercifully at the pretensions of having achieved the state of the art (S.O.T.A.), one cannot help but wonder why such savvy manufacturers as Wisdom Audio Corporation, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Synergistic Research and Accuphase Digital would stick their collective necks out… again.

Perhaps it’s the same reason that drives other people to climb Mount Everest or go to the moon.

Or perhaps, as Jeff Rowland simply put it, “We wanted to see if we could fill a large hall with quality sound without resorting to the use of horns.”

I’m happy to report that the trial was successful beyond the modest goals articulated by Mr. Rowland.

I’ll admit it helped that the Million Dollar System was not trumpeted as S.O.T.A. So by eschewing that designation, yet teasing us with the notion that it was possible to assemble a million dollars worth of equipment into just one system with only two channels, mind you, the presenters invited our curiosity without provoking our enmity.

Plans for the monumental effort had their genesis in the indefatigable Tom Bohlender of Wisdom Audio. Recall it was his Adrenaline speakers that were center-stage at the critically pooh-poohed S.O.T.A. demonstration at the Home Entertainment Show in New York last May.

Perhaps stung by the reception of the S.O.T.A. system, Bohlender and his staff began, only two months later, on July 4th, 2001, to plan the construction of a monumental multi-panel-array version of the Wisdom speaker. The “Infinite Wisdom Grande” speaker system would dwarf the 8-food high Anrenalines familiar to most audiophiles and establish world-class status for the Wisdom name.

It is probably not a surprise that a dream version of the Adrenalines had been simmering on the back burner of Bohlender’s mind for many years, and many of the design considerations had already been worked out. Yet his task ahead was daunting. There could be no compromise of quality. The same flawless mirror-finish would have to be maintained over the now-vast surfaces of the speaker.  (Internal bracing would have to be beefed up. The “Infinite Wisdom Grande” speaker system would make a statement to the industry, and would maintain jewelry-like quality despite massive size.

Only four months later, on Thanksgiving Day, 2001, the “Infinite Wisdom Grande” was ready for testing. Another month of tweaking readied the speaker for its premiere in Las Vegas this past January.

In conversations with Tom Bohlender, he revealed a tangible motivation for mounting such an ambitious demonstration of Wisdom technology. Ironically, a new market for high-end two-channel music systems is opening amount well-healed, non-audiophiles, who are encountering high quality music for the first time as they search for ultimate home theater systems to outfit their mansions. While the huge Infinite Wisdom Grands, with its $600,000 price tag, is not for everyone, the somewhat smaller $300,000 “Infinite Wisdom” fits more easily into more budgets. Look for Wisdom Audio ads in the flight magazine of the SST Concorde next time you speed to Europe. There, in a four-color glossy advertisement, is evidence of Bohlender’s marketing thrust.

To get a sense of the scale of the Infinite Wisdom Grande, conjure this image: The Adrenalines, already around 8-feet tall, bulked up by massive injections of pituitary hormones and steroids, now soaring to a height of 14 feet. Picture woofers, too, scaled proportionately. Add the weight of a Land Rover, decked out for a safari through the Serengeti. You are now looking at three tons (yep, 6,000 pounds) of speaker system with the height of a giraffe and the weight of a hippopotamus. Yet, amazingly, the elegant, almost svelte lines of the smaller Wisdom speakers are preserved.

The ribbons in the front columns are driven selectively be a phalanx of Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 10 mono-blocks. I lost count of the number of these amps piled up between the front columns, but there must have been at least 20 separate pieces. (The Model 10 has a separate power supply.) Then add two Model 8Ti Hi-Current Amplifiers to drive the woofers. (To gather this may amps for the show, Jeff Rowland needed to call back review samples from all over the country; the resultant sucking noise, as the afore-mentioned amps were wrested from the hands of weeping reviews, reached off-scale decibel levels.)

Rounding out the system were an Accuphase SACD DP-100 transport coupled to a DC-101 processor, a Rowland Coherence preamp, and what appeared to be miles of Synergistic Research active interconnects and speaker cable.

Planning for the Million Dollar System was a million dollar headache. The venue was originally set for a banquet hall at Rio Suites Hotel and Casino. When Mike Maloney pulled his T.H.E. EXPO out of Rio Suites only a month before the CES Show was to begin (Oh you don’t know that story? It reads like a chapter from “Wall Street”), the Bohlender/Rowland team had to look for new quarters. A frantic scramble around Las Vegas turned up a 400-seat amphitheater in the nearby Clark County library.

Although the hall was much larger space than was originally planned (particular concern to Jeff Rowland who would have provided much more amplification for the larger space), the new venue seemed to offer an unforeseen advantage over a conventional large space. In the amphitheater, it was possible to find a sweet spot in the vertical plane as well as the horizontal plane, because each successive row of seats was perhaps five inches higher than the one before it. When listening to 14-foot high speakers, being centered vertically as well as horizontally turned out to be an essential factor. The sweet spot(s) were in rows G and H, which put the listener about 50 feet from the stage where the Infinite Wisdom Grandes were holding forth. In those seats the listener sat opposite the vertical center of the front columns of the speaker system.

Skepticism turned into serendipity as this reviewer settled in for what became a two-hour listening session. The handlers (what else would you call the people who preside over systems of this size and grandeur?) were gracious and willing to play our favorite CDs as well as their own. From time to time, the folks from Synergistic Research would activate, then de-activate, their interconnects to illustrate the benefit of enhanced shielding. Other then that, Arnie Balgalvis, my listening buddy and known Golden Ear, and I were able to settle back for one of the most remarkable uninterrupted listening experiences of our audiophile lives.

How to describe what we heard? (Assume well-recorded material, a must).

We were thrilled by the lack of apparent overall effort. Huge dynamics were achieved (Rosewood soundtrack, Sony Classical SK63031) with ease of an Olympic runner out for a jog in the park. This, in spite of Jeff Rowland’s concern that the Infinite Wisdom Grande should have had more power at its disposal. On the same Rosewood CD, cut 10, low frequencies were plumbed and levels and depths to shake your soul, again without apparent effort. (Tom Bohlender commented that he detected some suck-out at 125 Hz in the hall; said he heard that the frequency just fine when he went under the wooden stage to inspect some wiring.)

Cut 2 of Rosewood features a chorus, beautifully rendered voice by voice on the Infinite Wisdom Grande, over the width and depth of the stage of the amphitheater and beyond. There was naturalness to those voices I have not heard before on any system. Finesse.

Moving to HeartSounds, a privately produced CD I discuss elsewhere in this issue, the harp, flute and vocalist might as well have been on the library’s stage. The sound was that right. The system was able to reproduce the appropriate scale of music, whether the forces were large or small.

And the sound never seemed to be contained in space, as it almost always is in a home system. Even the Nearfield PipeDreams, noted for their ability to disappear into their setting, can’t do in my living room what Bohlender’s Infinite Wisdom Grande was doing in that amphitheatre. Bigger is surely better with Wisdom speakers.

Notice that the CDs described above are not SACDs nor are they audiophile recordings. They are well-recorded off-the-shelf discs, and showed brilliantly. Lesser recordings, no surprise, did less well. The Million Dollar System could be said to function as and audiophile MRI. Both gold and dross are democratically revealed in exquisite detail.

I could go on with superlatives. But suffice it to say that a moment of magic was achieved in the Clark County library last January, and those of us who were there can bear witness.

Note: Rumors circulating around Las Vegas that the complete Infinite Wisdom Grande system was sold to a high-roller from Switzerland, who intends to install it in a vast chamber blasted out of solid granite at the base of the Matterhorn, have not been substantiated … nor have they been denied.