Uh oh. Something was really off.
The Velvet Fog’s voice was all over the place. The sibilance was nasty.
Next I know, I am standing next to a finely made miniature metal hand crank. Dave Wilson is telling me, “okay, now we need to go from 24mm to 27.5mm”. I slowly and carefully turn the crank in a circle clock-wise until a very fine calibration hash mark moves between 27 and 28.
I go back to the listening chair. Dave cues up the Mel Torme track again.
Ahhh, the voice is focused and sound is again moving out in a cylindrical shape. Sibilance is at a natural level. The voice is right on and suspended right between the speakers in a completely and dead silent background. It is the most natural vocal reproduction I have ever heard.
What I had just heard were Dave Wilson’s flagship WAMM Master Chronosonic speakers getting adjusted to be perfectly calibrated in a way that gets rid of “time smear”. It was an audio science experiment of the highest order.
This listening session was really a lesson in physics by a man who has pursued speaker excellence since his days as a recording engineer in the 1970s. For me as an early-tenure audio journalist, it was an eye-opening experience of what is now possible in sound reproduction. It was the peak of a three-day trip to Provo, Utah where Wilson Audio’s 55,000 square foot factory is located. It was also in Dave and Sheryl Lee’s massive purpose-built music and listening room. I cracked a joke about the BYU football team using the space in the off-season for practice. It is a huge but very well thought out space intended by Dave to test speakers, often with his son Daryl, who now runs Wilson but also serve as a music room that hosts live performances.
Dave would go on to play many interesting tracks to demonstrate the HUGE dynamics of these HUGE tower speakers that ironically would be dead silent between notes and perfectly place instruments exactly where they should be with air around those instruments in a way that was so different from anything I have heard. At first, it was for me disquieting. The music was so natural and quiet between notes and so perfectly rendered, it did not sound like either analog or digital. It simply sounded real. It sounded like we were transported to the hall the event was recorded in no matter what we played. The soundstage was wide and deep but not stretched unnaturally so. The music just appeared. Timbre of instruments was spot on.
How did Dave create such a masterpiece? Why was the sound so much better than anything I had heard before? Why do these ginormous towers sell for $685,000? (No, I’m not kidding — and they are selling very well.)
I thought about this for a long time and came up with three primary reasons. First, I think Dave’s scientific background has imposed a programmatic and deeply intellectual way of designing and testing speakers. Second, I think that Dave has assembled a world-class team of engineers and craftsmen that build an incredibly tight cabinet and design state-of-the-art drivers and crossovers. Third, I think Dave and Sheryl Lee have created a professional business with a genuine and ingrained culture of excellence. This culture of excellence has led to a team composed of some of the top professionals in high-end audio, most with deep experience either in terms of tenure at the company or deep experience in high-end audio retail or engineering. All of these things have created a company that commands high prices but results in very well performing speakers backed up by excellence from manufacturing to dealer demos to final setup and enjoyment in a customer’s home.
Which brings us back to our gracious host, Dave Wilson. Dave started Wilson Audio in Novato, California before moving back to Provo. But before Wilson Audio, he was developing medical devices including the regulator that is common on IVs. The scientific method is strong with Dave and I saw much evidence that this scientific rigor flows through the company and has been passed onto his son. I believe this scientific approach has led Dave to develop and test hypotheses in a forty-year search for the ultimate reproduction of sound. There is a lot of emphasis on flat frequency response but time coincidence has been equally important. Before we listened to the WAMMs, Dave walked me through a research paper to ground me in the science behind this concept of time coincidence. In plain English, it boils down to this: our ears (and connected neural pathways in the brain) are incredibly time-sensitive instruments that can detect as little as 5 microseconds (!) of difference. Anything off from this single digit timing alignment creates time smear that causes us to hear hi-fi as, well, hi-fi and not a live, naturally unfolding event. Well okay, while not everything, it’s a very important factor. What this research had shown was that when applied to driver alignment, super precise adjustment eliminates this time smear. Coincidentally (no pun intended), Dave has been working for decades on really precise time alignment of drivers. But the story doesn’t stop with the speaker itself as different amplifiers have different signal transmission characteristics. That finely engineered driver alignment will vary with different amps. Dave and team have tested the top amplifiers and created a tear sheet of the correct Master Chronosonic driver settings for each amp. The Transparent Audio cable within the cabinet has meticulous geometry that preserves the correct timing as well.
Going back to the Mel Torme track, what had happened was we had started listening with the WAMMS powered by the D’Agostino Momentum amps. Then we switched to VTL Siegfried amps which had different timing characteristics. So when we played that track, the voice became a mess. So now Dave said it was time to adjust the drivers. Dave had essentially just demonstrated how important the temporal coherence was. My hosts John Giolas and Bill Peugh were on hand to help move drivers around and Bill was pushing on the lower front midrange driver to get the alignment right. Because of the VTL characteristics, we need to move the drivers ever so slightly back, varying the individual drivers by 3-10 mm or so. Tiny movements. But oh the impact on sound! Once you hear perfect temporal coherence you can’t go back. You have now driven the Ferrari. The Velvet Fog was back! Everything sounded so natural. Mel was on a stage in front of us. I wish my friend Bob Levi had been with us as he loves Mel Torme and has recommended several great Torme recordings over the years.
Mel Torme? I hear some of you in the back giggling. Of course, we also listened to more rocking stuff. As it turns out, Dave had gotten to know Mickey Hart while in Northern California. Now I was giggling. Mickey Hart is not a musician I would naturally think Dave Wilson would know but they were neighbors when the Wilsons lived in California. Mickey had sent Dave a CD of his work so the next track up was a Mickey Hart drum recording that Dave explained would have bass that “flows through you.” The WAMM has two huge bass units in the lower cabinet. In the corners of the listening room were the Master Subsonic subwoofers. Ginormous, precision machined fronts on them. Intimidating in fact. I wondered if the center listening chair I occupied might require some seatbelts for this track.
Dave cued up the track. Oh, a quick note on source electronics. As one would guess, Dave has a cost-no object set of supporting gear. In-wall shelves support a VTL 7.6 preamp which nicely complements the Siegfriends, an Audio Research Ref10 preamp and corresponding power supply for the phono stage, Wilson Audio Watch electronic crossovers for the subs, and a Basis Turntable with a vacuum pump to hold down the LP. On a heavy table next to the shelves is a table holding a macbook for computer playback, a full dCS Vivaldi stack, and next to the table, a Studio grade reel deck spooled up with one of Dave’s prized master tapes.
On each piece of gear I noticed a small post-it note or similar marking where Dave had made notes to precisely calibrated settings for different amps on the crossovers and suggested gain levels for each amp on the VTL. The level of critical listening and notation at the Wilson household is impressive. Again this is a company built on scientific method and experimentation and a meticulous man singularly focused on high standards and high performance. After adjusting the volume for the VTL, Dave let the Mickey Hart track fly. Sneaky guy that Mickey. It starts off with some soft toms ricocheting around between the two towers, a perfect image of a large, wide drum kit unfolded right in front of us. Soon the pace sped up and Mickey laid on some bass notes. You could feel them penetrate the body just like Dave described. It was a taut, natural bass. It felt like my internal organs were moving with the flow of the music. So realistic that I struggle for words. It was magnificent! Oh sorry, I’m a reviewer and need to be more objective here. No, really, it was just mind-blowing. I started to wonder what my Bob Ludwig cut of Led Zeppelin II would sound like. I wondered what Daryl’s favorite Pink Floyd tracks would sound like. This, my friends, is a full range system. The clarity is unusual in the amount of low-level detail that the system captures. Spooky good. The quickness in terms of dynamics unparalleled in my experience. The transient speed. Previously, we heard a Pentatone SACD of L’Histoire du Soldat. The timbre of the violins was spot on. Instrument placement was as perfect as I have heard.
I have never heard a system like this. It did so many things so well, I am at a loss for finding weaknesses to report on. What can I say? It’s super heavy so moving it around will be a challenge? Well that’s just an indicator of solid construction. It’s really expensive? Certainly for me but not for some. And can you fairly criticize price when the object is an all-out flagship and culmination of a scientist’s forty years of research and experimentation?
In this enormous music room, there is a beautiful deep crown molding that circles the rectangular shape. Mid-way back from the short wall where the amps, subwoofers, and WAMM towers reside are two bright lights shining on the speakers. This helps with placement of the speakers and hooking up the Transparent Opus cable that connects everything. Of course, I liked it because it nicely spot-lit the speakers for me to photograph. As you look at these speakers, you see things that remind you of a Swiss watch like a Rolex. There are two curved grills on the side that come off to reveal a metal frame that suspends drivers in a secure way and allows the fine back and forth adjustment. Like the Alexx and the Alexia 2, there are tilt mechanisms for adjusting the angle of the drivers although this adjust is only needed once. But the frame is amazing in the “guilloche” effect of the metal work. It is gorgeous and befitting such an ultra-luxury object. The finger crank I mentioned before is spectacularly engineered with smoothness in the turning and a handle that protrudes just into a beveled hole CNCed into the frame. For each adjustment there is a calibrated, millimeter marked rail that the driver assembly sits on. A black line on the foundation of the driver moves over these markings like a slide rule and the polished metal two-finger sized crank wheel moves the driver until the black line is perfectly to the precise setting. Dave creates charts which have a line drawing of the speaker from the side with dashed line to note perfect alignment for each of his top amps which are the VTL Siegfrieds, D’Agastino Momentums, and Nagra HDs. Setup of the speakers is a four-day event and you get such experts as Peter McGrath and Bill Peugh to get it done right. But my main point is the obvious craftsmanship which brings me to my point of excellence in manufacture. In Part 2 of my Wilson journey, I will take us on a factory tour and you will see the high levels of craftsmanship that go into creating the Wilson speakers. In Part 3 of my journey, I will explain how the WAMM Chronosonic technology has filtered down into the new Alexia 2 speakers.
And this brings me to Dave Wilson. On the day of my demo, Dave had undergone a painful medical procedure, yet somehow he spent nearly five hours with me explaining his philosophy and playing tracks. His incredible generosity and the stunning achievement of the WAMM Master Chronosonic deeply impressed me. Dave has created something really special here in both his character and his engineering legacy. Dave has truly pushed the envelope. And he has trained a son in Daryl who is designing great speakers like the Alexx and Alexia, in large part based on learning from this flagship loudspeaker. Finally, Dave has built a solid company with a global, loyal customer following.
This was a very special time in my audio journey as it showed me what is now possible with sound. Perhaps more importantly, it showed me what is possible with 40 years of hard work and good values. Thank you Dave for the “knocked my socks off” demo and for taking sound quality to the next level. I will never forget the experience. It’s not just another level above the best speakers I had heard to date, it was a genuine step change. I seriously doubt the WAMMs will be eclipsed anytime soon.
The WAMM Chronosonic is a precision instrument that simply creates the most realistic sound I have heard. As Ferris Buehler once famously said, “if you have the means, I highly recommend it.”