David Wilson, the man who pioneered the modern high-end speaker, wants to clear something up.
He’s not dead.
Really. The founder of Wilson Audio Specialties is not sick, either. In fact, standing five feet in front of me at a rare personal appearance in April at AXPONA 2016, he looked to be in what the British call “rude health.” To us Americans, that translates to fit, trim, glowing and bursting with energy.
“I guess people looked at this,” he said, rubbing his gleaming, shaved-bald head, “and that’s how the rumors started.”
Wilson breaks into a long, hearty laugh. As it turns out, not only is the speaker designer in great shape, the business he created in his garage 42 years ago is thriving as well.
Wilson’s visit to AXPONA ostensibly was to introduce his stunning new $109,000, 450-pound Alexx, which builds on the strengths of the company’s previous Maxx, but is different enough to warrant the new name.
One had to wonder, though, if his AXPONA appearance wasn’t possibly the beginning of a “farewell tour.” While his health is not an issue, time is. Wilson has been at this for a long while, and it just may be time to slow down a bit and enjoy the fruits of his labors.
“I’m 72,” he told me in an interview following a press listening session for the Alexx. “My son, Daryl, is 38. He has gradually taken on more and more of the company’s operations. In fact, he is the person most responsible for the design of the Alexx. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll turn over the CEO role to him. I’ll probably stay on as chairman, so I’ll still be involved.”
Before that day, however, David Wilson has one last project: to take everything he’s learned and create a new version of his vaunted cost-no-object, no-holds-bared “ultimate” transducer, the WAMM.
Wilson Audio probably is most famous for its WATT/Puppy, a compact floorstander that essentially placed a mini-monitor on top of a separate bass unit. The speaker, which cost a then-whopping $4,400 a pair when it debuted in the early 1980s — became renowned for its resolution, speed and accuracy, and went on to become one of the most popular premium speakers ever.
What many audiophiles may not know, however, is that the WAMM actually was the company’s first product. Wilson, long an audio hobbyist, had been frustrated for some time about the speakers available to home enthusiasts. So, he started experimenting — literally in his garage — with various ideas he had about how to create a truly wide-bandwidth, low-distortion sound that was faithful to the live music he loved.
Wilson started messing around with a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s. He hit on the unusual idea of supplementing a modified version of that speaker with an electrostatic upper-frequency panel and a separate mini-monitor made by Braun. Despite the Frankenstein’s-monster aesthetics, he liked what he heard, and soon began developing his own version of the prototype.
In this outlandish attempt to establish a new state of the art, Wilson came up with a system consisting of two towers for each channel. One handled lower bass, while the other contained two mid-bass drivers along with midrange/tweeter units above and below the electrostatic super-tweeter. He called it the Wilson Audio Modular Monitor, or WAMM.
Wilson demoed the speaker at a California retailer in 1981, and — despite a Robb Report-worthy price tag (at the time) of $32,000 — promptly sold two pairs. Suddenly, he was in the speaker business.
Some people may not have thought the result looked pretty, but beauty is in the eyes — and ears — of the beholder. WAMMs quickly became the stuff of legend. They were so rare, actually hearing a pair created stories that circulated for years in the audio community. Stereophile, for instance, famously reported on a WAMM demo at CES 1983 that shook several floors when the system’s formidable bass units were unleashed.
While the intimidating price kept Wilson from selling more than a few WAMM systems each year, talk about the speaker drove interest in the WATT/Puppy and other models to come.
Wilson went on to revise the WAMM a handful of times. By the middle of the last decade, the price of the WAMM had increased to $240,000. Aesthetics had improved somewhat, but the system still was a triumph of function over form.
A few years ago, Wilson introduced the Alexandria XLF — a tall, sleek floorstander — and “retired” the WAMM. But it seems the move likely was intended to give the new $210,000 flagship the opportunity to shine in the spotlight for a while. Meanwhile, Wilson was back in his workshop in Provo, Utah, facing the difficult question of how you top a legendary product.
More recently, there have been hints the new WAMM was getting close to release. At CES 2015, Wilson offered a very limited-attendance peek at the design in progress. To add to the already nail-biting anticipation, no photos were allowed.
The following summer, I asked Wilson sales manager Peter McGrath for an update. “The WAMM is still coming,” he told me. “David just wants to get it where he wants it.”
That brings us up to the present. Wilson Audio will be exhibiting with VTL at the upcoming T.H.E. Show, June 3-5 in Newport Beach, Calif. But Wilson marketing director John Golias told me the company will be showing the Alexx again.
“We’ve got a highly developed prototype of the new WAMM being tested now. It sounds mind-blowing,” he said. “But it’s not quite ready.”
Golias said his best guess is that Wilson might ship the first pair before the end of the year. The official roll-out likely will come in early 2017.
As David Wilson left his AXPONA room, I followed him to the elevator, doing my best pesky-reporter bit — and tried to pry loose a few more details about the WAMM. Among the crumbs dropped were hints that it would have a version of the silk-dome tweeter Wilson has been installing throughout its line lately, but no electrostatic panel this time. It also will sport brand-new midrange drivers.
“And what will it look like?” I asked.
“It’ll be the most beautiful speaker ever,” Wilson said, laughing again.
What will four decades of experience translate into as far as price, especially for a product that already was in the stratosphere?
“I don’t know,” McGrath told me, “But it’ll be up from the Alexandria — way up.”
Some jaded audiophiles may wonder why they should care about a speaker that costs more than some families earn in a decade. But Wilson has other models, include the new $15,000 Sabrina, for those whose job titles do not include “director of arbitrage” or “chief technology officer.”
No, what the WAMM is about is nothing short of aiming to be the best speaker in the world. Once that task is complete, David Wilson will be able to, if not bow out, at least step back knowing he’s pushed the bar even higher in the high-end. Plans include enjoying time with his wife, Sheryl Lee, who he said actually has been the brains of the company since day one.
“If it wasn’t for her, I’d be living in a trailer with my stereo,” he said.