Authentic Excellence: My Trip to Wilson Audio
By Zach Born
A week prior to my official start date at The Sound Environment, I got a curious email from Bill Peugh at Wilson Audio. It stated that he, as well as the rest of the folks at Wilson Audio, were looking forward to welcoming me at Wilson Way training, taking place in just two weeks. At first I thought it was a mistake, or perhaps something that just got auto-emailed to everyone on their list. I sent an email to my bosses (Charlie and Eric) that basically said “uhhh, am I doing this?”. The answer was a resounding yes! 48 hours later I had a plane ticket booked, and a demo track picked out and sent off to Bill at Wilson Audio. So, one week into my new career in hi-fi and I’m on a plane to go visit one of the world’s best loudspeaker manufacturers.
Our group consisted of 7 people from all over the world: Poland, Switzerland, Dominican Republic, NYC, two Brazilian expats (who have set up shop in La Jolla) and myself. After a short jaunt from Salt Lake City to Provo the training could begin in earnest.
Training is perhaps a misnomer in this case, as it wasn’t so much a training as it was an exploration of the culture of Wilson Audio and (many) explanations as to why they believe they make the best loudspeakers in the world. After hearing nearly the whole line, from the $15,900 Sabrina all the way up through the jaw-dropping WAMM Master Chronosonic ($685,000) it’s hard to argue with them.
Dave Wilson, founder and now board member, started us off with a brief history of his company. It began, like many passion projects, in a garage in the early 70’s. Curiously enough the first two commercial products to come from the Wilson Audio brand were not speakers but a modified version of an Acoustic Research turntable in 197X and Wilson Audiophile Recordings in 1977. Dave is a lover of live music, and his guiding principle in speaker design is the ability for the speakers to reproduce the sound of live music. This also transferred to the way Dave chose to record the musicians for his recordings: minimally miked and with a lot of attention paid to the equipment that was being used to capture the live performance. He wanted the recordings to sound exactly the way they did when he was in the room listening to it be played live. Ultimately, he discovered that he was unable to achieve the sound he desired without the ability to move the drivers on the z-axis (closer or farther away to a person sitting in the listening position). And thus the idea and concept for the WAMM or Wilson Audio Modular Monitor, was born. The original WAMM was the first speaker Dave and his wife Sheryl Lee released commercially. From this original idea an entire line of award winning speakers sprang forth. It is now 43 years since that modified turntable first hit the market and Wilson has no sign of slowing down.
As of last November David’s son Daryl is now the CEO, while Dave and Sheryl Lee have taken spots on the Board of Directors, as well as helping to broadly define the direction of the company. Daryl has been formally employed since 2002 and has been heavily involved with the design of new products since around 2007. Like all of the Wilson’s, it is impressive to hear Daryl talk about loudspeaker design. He first spoke to our group regarding the changes that he made to the newly launched Alexia series II. It is important to note that no change occurs in the design of of a Wilson speaker unless it has a positive impact on the sound quality. This holds true from the drivers and enclosure design all the way down to the type of solder used on the crossovers and the types of screws used to hold the drivers (yes, they actually “listened” to different solders and screws to find the best ones).
Daryl’s explanation of the Alexia II lead nicely into the first main topic of the “training” which was entirely devoted to the discussion of materials. Blake Schmutz expertly walked us through what it takes to be a material used in the manufacture of a Wilson loudspeaker. Short answer: a lot. There are no less than 3 proprietary materials that are used throughout the line and all of them have a cost that is many times that of the humble MDF (medium-density fibreboard). These materials were not chosen simply because they were more expensive, they were meticulously selected, using a piezoelectric hammer and a laser that measures resonance. Basically they clamp a piece of material, shoot a very sensitive laser at it, and then smack it with a hammer that is connected to a computer. The computer then calculates the force in which you hit the material and the laser measures how much the material moved and spits out a graph that shows the resonance of the material you just whacked. Needless to say, when subjected to these tests MDF doesn’t fare too well, and thus it doesn’t appear in any Wilson speakers.
Throughout the first day when we were in between formal sessions we would adjourn to one of Wilson’s listening rooms to actually hear the fruits of their considerable labors. Peter McGrath started us off with the Sabrina, the smallest and most affordable floorstanding speaker that they make. We all made note of the Dan D’Agostino and VTL amplifiers that were along the back wall. The Sabrina puts out an absolutely lovely sound, easily capable of filling a room much larger than their humble size would suggest. After a few songs Peter revealed that he had played a bit of a trick on us, it was not the D’Agostino or the VTL that was feeding the speakers but a pair of components from Mytek that cost right around $4000 total. This made the Sabrina all the more impressive. The point, and one that I’ve witnessed for myself in our Sabrina room, is that you don’t need world class electronics to enjoy the speakers. They sound amazing with just about any amplification, and only get better as you increase the electronics and speaker cables.
Additionally we listened to the Yvette, Sasha and spent some extra time with the Alexia II, all while Peter played us some incredible tracks, many of which he recorded himself. Daryl had an eloquent metaphor for his line of speakers: the Sabrina is like getting a telescope that allows you to see the moon, it’s breathtaking and you can see things that you’ve never seen before. Moving up to the Yvette is like getting a bigger telescope, you can see even more detail on the moon but now you can also start seeing some definition on Mars and so on and so forth. This plays out in listening as well, every time you move up you get greater clarity, more definition and more refinement.
The first several hours of our second day was devoted to seeing all aspects of their production environment. This is a legit factory, not just some guys making speakers in their garage. Coming from a highly regulated production environment I was very impressed to see how they do things. It was also striking to see the tenure of all the employees, I think the average is around 13 years with quite a few people having been with the company 20+. It was very cool to see the entire journey of a speaker, from raw block of X-material all the way through to the final prep for shipping. The raw material begins its journey on a huge CNC machine which sets many of the initial angles (they are refined many times over by the hands of incredibly skilled craftsmen). The freshly cut pieces are then passed to a few guys who are responsible for adding the proper braces and creating the cabinets for whatever speaker it happens to be. The cabinets are braced and then sent to a heated room to cure for 72 hours. The rough edges are then sanded off in preparation for the lengthy paint process. First is a gel-coat which is applied, allowed to dry and then they take it to a separate sanding room, spray the whole thing with black spray paint and then sand it off. This seemed like an odd step but the purpose of the spray paint is to see if there are any pin holes in the cabinet or in the gel-coat. If any errors are found it is sent back to the appropriate stage in the process to be re-worked. Once this crew finishes sanding the black off the cabinets they are smooth as glass and a light beige color. At this point they are ready for the multi-step paint process. When the paint has dried they go to one more sanding/buffing station for the final polish. The grit of sandpaper used at this stage is crazy high, 800-1500. Basically, a Kleenex is rougher than these sandpapers. One slight miscalculation on an angle and you can burn right through the paint and it will have to be sent back to the gel-coat stage.
Once the cabinets are finished they move to the crossover room where the crossovers are assembled and installed. The crossover for each driver on each speaker is unique and has a proprietary number of twists to the wire. As with the other aspects of the speaker these twists have been developed over many years of listening and figuring out what sounds best. It is also impressive that there is absolutely no circuit boards in any of the crossovers, it is all point-to-point solder. The driver installation comes next and they select drivers from a room where a whole bunch are plugged in and burning in. The woofer drivers that were plugged in while we were there were barely making a noise but you could feel the pressure in the room.
The finished speaker then goes through a series of measurements and tests that will be stored in a file for that speaker forever. This is beneficial because should you ever have a failure with one of your drivers you can simply call Wilson up, give them the serial number and they will pull the file that they have and can make an exact replacement. Doesn’t matter if the speaker is 20 years old or 20 days old.
Before I discuss our experience that night with the WAMM Master Chronosonic, let me talk a little bit about what makes Wilson speakers unique from other speaker manufacturers. The knowledge that Dave gained in designing the original WAMM (the movable drivers) has had a ripple effect on every other product that they have made since. It all has to do with the time-domain, that is, making sure that the different wavelengths of sound hit your ears at exactly the same time. Since the soundwaves coming from the tweeter, midrange and woofer all have different lengths and travel times the only way to achieve this is by being able to move the drivers. Other manufacturers will attempt to address this by angling the baffle but no one takes it as far as Wilson. The Sasha is the first speaker in the lineup to allow for movement of the drivers, and every one above it takes it a little farther. Wilson has made it easy to figure out where to place the drivers by simply measuring the distance from your ears to the speakers as well as the height of your ears from the ground in the listening position. You plug that into their app and it spits out some numbers for where the drivers should be positioned. Of course, that only gets you in the ballpark and the final tuning must be done by a trained ear. If you’ll excuse another optical metaphor, Peter McGrath explained it thusly: other speaker manufacturers give you a great lens, but with no ability to focus it. When the stars align, occasionally you’ll take a great picture but not consistently. The ability to move the drivers is like adding a focus ring to your lens, it allows the image to be in focus all the time.
Finally, it was time for the moment we had all been waiting for: experiencing the WAMM Master Chronosonic at Dave and Sheryl Lee’s house. The Master Chronosonic is Dave Wilson’s masterpiece, the culmination of all his years of designing and building speakers. Standing nearly 7 feet tall and costing $685,000 the speakers make a statement, no doubt. They boast five moveable drivers that are controlled with a crank, which allows them to be adjusted to a much finer degree than the step based system on other models. To the surprise of no one, the speakers sounded as good as they looked. We split into even smaller groups so that everyone got to experience the WAMM from the center seat. Dave played us a selection of tracks and we each giddily awaited what song he would chose for our time in the hot seat. When it was my turn I got to hear a Wailin’ Jennys song that was just the three singers, acapella. It sounded like I was standing in front of them in the studio as they performed, every breath and articulation was reproduced with a clarity and naturalness that didn’t seem possible from speakers. It was literally breathtaking. Other selections included a Wilson Audiophile Recording classical track, a crazy electronic track that dipped down into the 10Hz range, and a Kodo drum track. The Kodo track was particularly cool as you could literally feel the sound that the drums were producing travel through your body, from where it first hits your knees through to where it smacks you in the chest. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or heard. After hearing the Master Chronosonic it was hard to believe that they cost only $685,000. It seems ludicrous that speakers that expensive could be a good value, but (were I able) I’d gladly pay much more than that for the musical enjoyment that the speakers provide.
Visiting Wilson Audio was an incredible way to begin my journey in hi-fi and a shining example of a Made in America product. Wilson really strives to treat everyone fairly and with respect, from their own employees to the dealer to the end user and it shows in everything they do. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to visit their facility and eagerly await the next release from Daryl and the rest of the folks at Wilson Audio!