Home Entertainment: High-Performance Art

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David Wilson holds up a Leica M6, marveling at the camera’s timeless design and precision-tooled quality. It is the same reverence he displays as he carefully chooses his words to describe his Ferrari 355 Berlinetta and its classic engineering and style. And it is the same respect he wants his customers to have for the loudspeakers that bear his name. The designer of the $225,000-a-pair WAMMs, which for 20 years have fetched the highest price of any consumer loudspeaker, insists that a connoisseur appreciates the design and styling of a high-performance product, whether it is a Ferrari or a WAMM. He calls both “industrial art masterpieces” with a soft-spoken manner that is part professor, part clergyman.

Understated and controlled seem like dubious characteristics for the man responsible for reproducing loud, booming, and searing sound. In an industry full of showmen, Wilson maintains a measured, low-key style. He prefers to let his speakers imitate the original, keeping the musicians—rather than himself—in the spotlight. A friend jokes that Wilson, 57, does a great Cagney impression, referring to a buttoned-down demeanor that, while pleasant, is always in check.

The fact that Wilson owns a race car but does not race reveals his appreciation for how products are crafted rather than the thrills they deliver. Wilson has carefully selected and tweaked each component of his speakers, from the wiring to the cabinet finish. The mission of Wilson’s speakers is to reduce recorded music to its pure, original sound. His goal is not perfection, but accuracy, capturing the music’s true characteristics as it is recorded.

Standing in his Provo, Utah, office in front of candy-apple red WATT/Puppy speakers, over which hangs a framed photo of his Ferrari of the same color, he slips an Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong LP out of its sleeve. He carefully brushes it with a well-worn Decca record cleaner and places it on the turntable. He warns of the pops and hisses, sits back in his suit and tie, and quietly taps a toe. “The musicianship transcends all the recording flaws,” he says with respect.

Wilson’s appreciation for music goes back to his teens, but he did not start out in the speaker business. He earned a degree in zoology from Brigham Young University, then went on to a career in medical equipment design and patented several innovations for Cutter Labs (now Bayer), including an intravenous feeding system for chemotherapy patients. On the side, as an outlet for his love of music, he and his wife, Sheryl Lee, began recording church choirs in 1975. Two years later, they released a commercial LP of pipe organ music, launching the Wilson Recording label. Audiophiles who heard it were impressed by the quality, and the Wilsons were hired to record other choirs and chamber music groups. Neighbor Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead even asked them to record a few sessions, and in return they accepted backstage passes to Dead concerts. The couple is deeply religious and still chuckle about keeping a safe distance at the rear of the stage from the Dead Heads. “We were careful not to venture out into the purple haze,” recalls Sheryl Lee.

Making loudspeakers was not part of the plan. They merely wanted speakers to accurately re-create the sound they heard in church, so Wilson modified a commercial speaker to control time, timbre, orchestral balance, and vocal harmonics. He discovered a principle he later patented, called adjustability of the time domain. It enabled him to compensate for distance differences between the speakers and the listeners, and for the differences in listeners’ heights for any given room, by manipulating the placement of the speaker drivers. That premise became the foundation for the first Wilson Audio Modular Monitor speaker—the flagship of the Wilson line—and it remains the focus of WAMM loudspeakers today. The result is the installer’s ability to tailor the sound to the characteristics of the listener, improving the sound’s clarity.

As Wilson tweaked the WAMM design, their home became an ad hoc engineering laboratory. “He started hanging things from the ceiling with aircraft wire,” Sheryl Lee recalls of the electrostatic modules in the living room. “I was studying group delay,” he says in defense.

“He’s very scientific about how he designs loudspeakers,” says Elliot Fishkin, president of Innovative Audio, a high-end audio/video salon in Manhattan. “He’s not just sending out boxes, and that’s unusual in this industry,” says Fishkin, referring to Wilson’s revisiting and reworking product designs to make speakers better, rather than having an ego that dictates that the best has already been made. The result, according to Fishkin, is better products. “David is coldly objective,” he says. “And I mean that in the best way.”

When the Wilsons perfected the sound, they borrowed $17,000 and built a $28,000 speaker—the prototype WAMM. They sold two pairs in the first week of 1982, enough for Wilson to quit his pharmaceutical job. Over the next 20 years, the Wilsons would sell 54 more pairs.

Their promising start was short-lived. In 1983, the economy stalled, many music enthusiasts jettisoned LPs for CDs, and a retailer’s rumor that the fledgling company was difficult to deal with jeopardized the future of Wilson Audio. “We lost our home and everything we had worked for,” says Sheryl Lee, the company’s first business manager and now vice president. The couple moved their four children, two of whom would later join the business, into a rental home while still eking out a living making pipe organ and piano recordings. “Now we’re here and they’re out of business, so that’s gratifying.”

During “the dark period,” as Wilson calls those lean times, he had become frustrated with the sound of studio monitors, which, master tapes revealed, did not accurately reproduce the music’s sound. On an R&R trip to Mexico in 1985, David devised a studio monitor concept that eventually revitalized Wilson Audio. On an airplane napkin, he sketched out the specs for the WATT speaker (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot), a sub-$10,000-a-pair monitor speaker whose affordable price pleased his business manager. “I had said, ‘Couldn’t we sell something in between records and the WAMM?’ ” says Sheryl Lee. The product, sold alone and with the companion Puppy woofer modules ($10,600 a pair), secured Wilson’s position as one of the preeminent names in high-end audio.

Nevertheless, it is still the WAMM that sets Wilson apart. Series VIII, projected for later this year, could cost as much as $275,000. Because the WAMM is modular, you can upgrade your system with mid-bass driver technology advances that Series VIII offers. The Maryland homeowner who bought the first WAMM upgraded the speaker at half the cost of a new one. “You can’t do that with a Ferrari,” boasts Wilson.

WAMM owners receive a lifetime warranty on the system and a house call from the designer, who person-ally sets up the speakers. “I don’t do the heavy lifting, though,” Wilson says with a smile, but he makes certain the speakers are tuned exactly for the customers’ listening tastes and for each acoustical space.

“I always ask [WAMM clients] to pick five recordings they like and to position themselves as they would during a typical listening session,” says Wilson. “I listen to those recordings, and I already have an idea about their musical tastes, age, personality, and how long [he or she] listens to music in a day.” With that information, along with where they like to sit in a concert hall, he positions the modules to the listener’s “sweet spot” and recommends volume levels.

A few miles from their office, the Wilsons’ own home, a 9,000-square-foot French contemporary overlooking Provo, is a musical showcase. The 40-by-30 listening room doubles as the parlor, and couches and chairs are sandwiched between WAMMs on one end and Sophia loudspeakers flanking a Yamaha Disklavier player piano on the other. Acoustics, clearly, is the priority. The double doors are in the center of the wall opposite the fireplace to avoid bass leakage, and the ceiling slants upward from one end to the other to reduce the bass-canceling effects of standing waves. Sound diffusers, which look like ceiling sculptures, are above the piano. “This room has been chosen as one of the top 10 rooms in the country for listening,” says a prideful Wilson, referring to honors from professional audio trade magazines.

Late one October evening, Wilson devises a competition between his Sophia loudspeakers and comparably priced competitor’s speakers. He plays a passage from Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” on the Disklavier to establish the live sound. Then he plays an audiophile-grade Hyperion CD of the song on the Sophias, which produce a sound very close to the original. On what he likes to call the “opposing” speakers, however, the arpeggios sound a bit muddy and vague.

For the WAMM concert at the opposite end of the room, the 78-inch-tall main modules are angled toward the listening throne, and two refrigerator-size subwoofers stand in each corner. Nothing is quite like the overwhelming presence of the WAMM—both in size and sound. Close your eyes and you are in the recording studio with Guy Clark on “Stuff That Works” or in the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas for a resounding performance of John Rutter’s “Requiem.” The sense of space transports you as you marvel at the clarity, detail, and faithfulness of the sound. Listening is effortless, and the music is palpable.

Although Wilson’s dedication to faithful music reproduction is unquestionable, some critics say his speakers, though exceptionally accurate, “lack a musical soul” and the colorless reproduction can become fatiguing to the ears. At least one detractor has said his speakers are “hideously expensive.” Wilson maintains that customers get what they pay for, and defends the six-figure cost of his speakers by pointing to superior parts that ensure faithful musical reproduction and product longevity. He has a stack of textbooks flagged to charts and explanations outlining how each component contributes to accurate sound reproduction.

For example, many of the same premium materials for the $225,000 WAMMs go into the $7,500-a-pair CUBs, including the $7.50 film capacitors, even though other makers use 22-cent dielectric capacitors. The benefit, according to Wilson, is lower sound distortion. For the cabinets, he uses a $14-per-unit dense material rather than the 60-cent medium-density fiberboard that some of his competitors use. Then, every cabinet undergoes a 12-stage process, including a marine-grade gel coating to protect against humidity, four coats of color, a catalyzed acrylic clear coat, wet sanding, and a final polish, which creates a finish that is more automobile than audio.

“Every layer is examined in depth and executed at the highest possible level,” says Wilson, before veering into another Ferrari comparison. “I saw a magazine review several years ago comparing a Corvette C5 to a Ferrari 550 Maranello—a $40,000 car versus a $225,000 model. The editors’ conclusion was that the Corvette was almost as good as the Ferrari because they did zero to 60 within a fraction of a second of each other.” Wilson takes as much issue with that line of thinking as he does with an audio reviewer who puts a $319-per-pair speaker in the same category as his $11,700-a-pair Sophia loudspeakers.

Incidentally, the Sophia name marks a break from the Wilsons’ rather uninspired product names. “We can be self-deprecating about the names we’ve chosen for our other speakers,” he says, “but we decided that anyone spending this kind of money wants a name that’s more sophisticated, inviting, and real. And Sophia worked better than Sylvester.”

Rebecca Day is a contributing editor on high-end audio and home entertainment.