Friday, May 2, 2008

Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker

Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Synecdoche is not a city in upstate New York but a rhetorical device in which a specific example stands in for a whole class of similar things: fifty sail for fifty ships, cutthroat for assassin, etc. When it comes to high-end audio, Wilson's WATT/Puppy speaker has symbolized the entire high-end ethos throughout at least the product's last four generations—perhaps (to labor a classical metaphor) since the original WATT sprang fully formed from David Wilson's brow.

To those who view the High End as an attempt to fleece gullible affluenza sufferers of their cash, the WATT/Puppy has always been emblematic of the High End's insane price structure. To audiophiles who believe that everything makes a difference, the WATT/Puppy has been the poster child for meticulous attention to detail. Love it or hate it, one thing's for sure: Everybody has heard about the WATT/Puppy—and whether or not they've heard it, most of 'em have an opinion about it.

My own history with the speaker goes back almost a quarter of a century, when, in rapid succession, I first heard about, then heard, a pair of Wilson Audio Tiny Tots with their 2pi steridian "Beard" extensions (this was before David Wilson developed the Puppy bass cabinet). The speakers then sold for a mind-boggling $4400/pair (the WATT/Puppy System 8 costs $27,900/pair) and were too bass-shy to be considered full-range—even for me, who owned Quad ESL-57s at the time. On the other hand, David Wilson has repeatedly said that he didn't build the WATT to sell, he built it because he couldn't buy anything like it to monitor his recording projects with. However, when people kept insisting on buying WATTs, who was he to say no?

The Puppy was invented for one purpose: to mate with the WATT and make it a full-range loudspeaker. Never a subwoofer, it has always been marketed as part of the WATT/Puppy loudspeaker system. The two are no longer even sold separately.

That the current iteration of the WATT/Puppy is the eighth in the series is proof that Wilson has continued to refine his basic concept. Still, a few W/P characteristics have remained constant. The speaker has always rendered detail to an astonishing degree, remaining true to its roots as a studio monitor, and the WATT and the Puppy have always lacked the top-to-bottom consistency that many of Wilson's other speakers have possessed.

I reviewed the WATT/Puppy 5 in the November 1995 Stereophile, and came pretty darn close to buying the review pair. What I found interesting about them was that the longer I stayed away from them, the worse they got—in my mind, anyway. When I would reinstall them in my system, the little niggles that had grown so large in retrospect seemed more like ripples than tsunamis. Ultimately, however, I decided the Puppy just wasn't my cup of tea.

Nor was it David Wilson's, evidently. In 1999, he introduced the WATT/Puppy System 6, which addressed many Puppy concerns, as did the System 7, which Michael Fremer reviewed in September 2003. So if Systems 6 and 7 addressed so many concerns, why do we need a System 8? The glib answer is also completely accurate: Because that's the kind of guy David Wilson is.

And that, too, is synecdoche for the whole High End.

The face that launched a thousand speakers
Speak to David Wilson and you'll quickly see that quality isn't just a concern, it's his obsession. Take the WATT's tuning port, for example. It's machined from a billet of solid aluminum. Many critics point to that as excessive, and suggest that the speaker's price could be made lower if Wilson didn't spec such extravagance into his design. That may or may not be true, but here's what I do know: Without that beyond-fanatical devotion to detail, it isn't a David Wilson design.

Buy the premise, buy the bit. If you don't—well, it's not that Wilson doesn't want to sell you a loudspeaker, it's that he doesn't want to sell you a speaker if it means he has to build it any way other than his.

Pour down thy weather
The big difference between the WATT/Puppy System 8 and its predecessors is "Energy storage and delayed release," said David Wilson. "Well, that's a simplistic way of putting it. Anything that has mass stores energy, and we've spent a lot of time trying to control the release of that stored energy—we can't eliminate it, of course, so we have to study it and work with it so that it affects the sound as little as possible."

The W/P8 retains a lot of the technology that went into the W/P7: The Puppy's two 8" woofers and the WATT's 7" midrange are carried over. The 1" titanium inverted-dome tweeter is new, developed from the tweeter used in Wilson's MAXX 2. "The tweeter's rigidity and low mass make it quieter and more linear than alternate designs—again benefiting from reduced kinetic storage and controlled release.

"The enclosure material for the WATT is another area where we benefit from what we've learned in those areas. We developed our M composite material to be as inert as possible, but we also used lead in the enclosure to add mass damping. The new European Union RoHS rules necessitated that we find an alternative in order to 'get the lead out.' As it turns out, that helped us address the energy-storage issue.

"Our X high-density, mineral-loaded, methacrylate-based composite material is so rigid we have never felt the need to improve it, but we've improved the M formulations three times—M4 has almost ideal settling times. In the new WATT cabinet, we use M4 for the baffle and X for just about everything else, including extensive internal bracing."

Wilson also credits the "anti-jitter" crossover circuit the company refined for the MAXX 2 with improving the W/P8.

"I'm not familiar with anti-jitter as a term used for crossovers," I said.

"It's not intuitive," said Wilson. "In addition to their capacitive and inductive reactance functions, crossovers are energy-storage media—and in storing energy, they release it less than perfectly, which results in distortion that you can measure. I began hearing this around the time we developed the WATT/Puppy 6, because that model's noise floor was so low. Once we heard it, we developed approaches to measure it and to reduce it. We're not the only people to take note of this, but I'd prefer not to go into a lot of detail about how we do it."

There are other small changes in the W/P8: both cabinets are sized ever so slightly differently from the W/P7's, and the grilles for both now attach with stainless-steel pins rather than Velcro. The diffraction padding for both baffles is now flush with the faมade rather than standing proud of it.

Take thy face hence
When you pay Wilson prices, you get white-glove treatment. In-home setup is part of the deal. "That's because setup is critical," said Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath when he came by to set up my pair of WATT/Puppy 8s. Statements like that cause a certain class of Stereophile reader severe agita—not the "setup is critical" part, but "when Peter McGrath came by to set up my pair."

Get over it. McGrath is a nice enough guy, but your dealer's setup guy is your slave. You can boss him around all you want—he won't leave till you're satisfied with the sound you're getting.

McGrath, on the other hand, was bossy. "You sit all the way back here? Are those the cables you normally use? You should listen at a louder volume." And, of course, when he saw where I'd placed the W/P8s to run in before he arrived—the same spots where I'd been successfully auditioning the Dynaudio Confidence C4s, which they were about to replace—he sucked in air and said, "No, no—that will never work." Two hours later, McGrath had parked the W/Ps about 6" nearer the wall than I'd initially placed 'em and declared himself satisfied. Who's yer daddy now?

So what goes on during all that placement song and dance? One part of it is establishing the relationship between the speakers and the room boundaries. Wilson refers to the location where the speakers interact "least" with the boundaries as "the zone of neutrality." Of course, where you sit within the room influences exactly where that zone will exist, so part of the setup procedure is to get you to sit in your sweet spot and help evaluate potential speaker locations.

McGrath did have me pull my listening chair about 5' closer to the speakers than I normally sit, but the W/P8s were closer to the sidewalls than I ordinarily place speakers—and in at least one of the acceptable positions, were much closer to the front wall than I would ever have tried them. The Wilsons' ability to get near the room boundaries may have something to do with their extremely damped cabinets, but it probably has just as much to do with the Wilson gang's preference for toeing their speakers in until you can't see the sidewalls—which, of course, keeps that first boundary reflection well apart from the drivers' launch. This placement/voicing strategy gets the speakers out of the room's prime real estate and creates an extremely wide soundstage—two real benefits, especially if your life partner feels you're commandeering what used to be shared space.

Once your installer has determined where the speakers will live, he or she can fine-tune them with the Puppy Paws and spikes. Each WATT employs two standard spikes in front, and one of several spikes of different heights for the rear. Once the installer has measured the distance from the speaker to your seat—and your ears' height from the floor—he or she chooses the rear spike height based on a "propagation delay table" included in the owner's manual (and attached to the top of each Puppy). The Puppy Paw is a multipart "mechanical diode" that couples the cabinet to the floor—and, because the Paw can accept one, two, or no spacers, it also determines the lower bass driver's first reflection point, allowing you to further fine-tune the Puppy to your room.

If all that sounds like a complicated procedure, it is, which is why you shouldn't have to do it. "Training our dealers to do this is the biggest part of my job," McGrath said. "And firing any dealer who sells speakers without doing this is my least favorite part—but a task I take very seriously." I took the procedure seriously, too—but I continued to tweak the speakers' placements after McGrath had left—without substantially improving on their performance.

A hungry stomach has no ears
The WATT/Puppy System 8 had less of the signature W/P sound than any other generation I've heard. I'd characterize that signature sound as being, most prominently, one of precision, if perhaps at the expense of ultimate coherence. On one hand, earlier W/Ps could "disappear" like few competitors, but I was always somewhat aware of there being three "bands" of sound, if you will: a detailed but perhaps overly crisp top end; a neutral, extremely fast midrange; and an extended but somewhat discontinuous bass. In the System 6 and 7 W/Ps, that sense of discontinuity diminished considerably, but I never felt the W/P had the degree of top-to-bottom tonal consistency exhibited by Wilson's MAXX, MAXX 2, or Sophia.

Nevertheless, the W/P System 8 is a giant step forward. Of course, that also means that it sounds quite different from earlier W/Ps, which means that admirers of the System 6 and 7 may not find the 8 to their taste—oddly enough, the 8 just might appeal more to those who have traditionally resisted the WATT/Puppy. Or not. No one ever accused us audiophiles of being consistent in our passions.

The W/P8s sounded big. Not immense in themselves—in fact, they "disappeared" so effectively and reproduced each recording's soundfield so impeccably that I was never aware of the speakers themselves—it was all about the music existing within its own acoustic.

Guitarist David Russell's performance of Albéniz's Malagueña, Op.165 No.3, on his Art of Guitar (CD, Telarc CD-80672), was fascinating. Although the W/P8s were widely spaced at 7' apart, they projected Russell's guitar solidly between them, enveloped by—no, suspended within—the reverberant acoustic of the recording venue. I'm not talking about a pinpoint guitar submerged within a big old cushion of warm decay, but a physical instrument—more soundboard than string—projecting into a supportive space that was rendered as solidly as was Russell himself.

The room acoustic of Toby Twining's Chrysalid Requiem (CD, Cantaloupe Music CA 21007) was far less immediately apparent, because the individual vocal lines are all separately (and closely) miked. What this recording shared with Art of the Guitar, however, was the W/P's astonishing transparency. Twining's Requiem is an hour-long exploration of the possibilities of vocal music, fusing the form of the Roman Catholic mass onto vocal techniques from around the world. Specifically modeled on the overtone structures of rung bells, the Requiem employs vocal techniques that range from interlocking hockets to overtone chanting to create intensely mystical music. There are also overtone clashes, phantom tones, stacked harmonics, warbles, and Leslie-style rotating sound—all produced naturally, without electronic manipulation. These effects aren't normally served particularly well by hi-fi systems, especially loudspeakers, because they require precise re-creation combined with an absence of masking imperfections. Heard live, phantom tones can be surprisingly loud and active suckers; most speakers swallow 'em or pin 'em to a single spot.

Not the WATT/Puppy 8s, oh my no. Was it the tweeter? The crossover? The new cabinet? Magic 8-Ball sez: Signs point to Yes.

The inner wind harmonies on Private Astronomy's "There Ain't No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears," by Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble (CD, Edge 028947458326), were delightfully delineated, creating cushiony contrast for Randy Sandke's piercing cornet and Martha Wainwright's brassy vocals. The soundstage was large but far from immense, and everything was spread across the space far more comfortably than when I saw the 13-piece band squeeze onto the stage at Joe's Pub in 2003. However, Jonathan Levine's baritone sax solo (which Muldaur boldly substituted for Joe Venuti's violin solo from Paul Whiteman's original) sounded perhaps a trifle too warm, as did Arnie Kinsella's kickdrum.

"Perhaps," "a trifle"—or was I finally hearing the recording accurately for the first time?

I certainly wasn't able to bring any preconceptions to Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), mostly because John Atkinson handed me a 24-bit/88.2kHz DVD-A of his preliminary mixes less than a week after the performance. I sure hadn't heard it on anything else—heck, other than JA, nobody had.

Merkin's lively acoustic was prominent, but it was the recording's dynamic range that pegged my ears back. The band sure could play loud, but it wasn't just that—Attention Screen employs changes in dynamics as easily as it rings melodic and harmonic changes. Drummer Mark Flynn uses the whole spectrum from total silence to explosive pounding—and the W/P8s kept him as big and loud as life.

At the concert, I felt Bob Reina's unamplified piano didn't project into the hall as well as I would have wished, especially in the tuttis. JA's rough mix actually improved on the event; Reina's impressionistic use of the Steinway's tonal color was revealed as the essential component that it actually had been.

The W/P8s came awfully close to capturing the all-out sonic assault of Attention Screen live. Their sound was huge, although the attack of Flynn's kick drum seemed less incisive than it had live. Still, few loudspeakers capture as much of the electricity of live music as the Wilsons did.

All hands on deck
I didn't have any speakers on hand in the rather exalted price range of the WATT/Puppy 8, but I did have the Dynaudio Confidence C4s ($18,000/pair, Class A in "Recommended Components"), which I'd written a Follow-Up on in March 2007. Maybe the two speakers didn't live on the same block, but they were certainly in the same neighborhood.

Although neither the Wilsons nor the Dynaudios ever taxed my Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks, the Wilsons got a lot more jump at the same loudness levels, so I was careful to level-match the comparisons. While matching levels puts speakers on a more equal footing, there's a reason the words acoustic and immense figure so prominently in my descriptions of the Wilsons' performance: Those properties are innate.

The C4s captured the phenomenal slam of Live at Merkin Hall, but the sound of the hall itself was more dominant through the W/P8s. The sense that the instruments both created and existed within the Merkin's soundfield was just stronger with the Wilsons.

I preferred that excitement, but that doesn't mean you will. There were times playing back the Attention Screen recording when I thought that that "excitement" might have been a tweeter artifact. It wasn't ringy and it wasn't bright, but a different pair of ears might have heard the Dynaudios' more laid-back presentation as more truthful.

Where I felt the C4 was unquestionably more accurate was in the bottom octave. Despite the difference in size, the smaller WATT/Puppy 8 probably generated deeper bass than the C4, but that bass also seemed warmer and ever-so-slightly smeared—especially in deep transient attacks. Yes, down low, the Dynaudio may have been a touch more laid-back, but its sins were those of omission. Perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder.

That sense of control might have worked against the C4s with Twining's Requiem. There's not much sense of space on that recording, but the Dynaudios just didn't create that jump sensation with all the overtone action up top.

I could have gone either way with Russell's Malagueña. The Wilsons were almost bigger than life. Well, not really—it was like hearing Russell in my own living room. The C4s placed him about 20' away—close enough, but not as right there as the W/P8s. And yes, there was a difference in perspective as well as in tonal balance. When speakers capture as much of that right here right now excitement as the Wilsons did, it's hard to resist.

There was a similar change of perspective with the Geoff Muldaur track, but again, I felt the Wilsons warmed up (and blunted) the bass drum and baritone sax enough to call attention to themselves—all the more because of how perfectly the W/P8s captured Martha Wainwright's breathy vocals. The C4s' top-to-bottom coherence got me closer to that 2003 night at Joe's Pub, even if they put me farther from the stage.

Paris is well worth a mass
There's no such thing as a perfect loudspeaker, even one as sophisticated and expensive as the Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8. I feel strange even having to say that, despite its being my job. David Wilson has been refining his WATT design for more than 20 years, and for the last decade it has been one of the proverbial speakers to beat if you wanted to even pretend to have a world-class contender.

Yet the WATT/Puppy has also been a lightning rod for controversy. The speakers aren't everyone's cup of tea—well, what is? They're unquestionably costly—kind of hard to deny that, what with a $27,900/pair price tag hanging off the System 8. All I can say to that is that every pot has its boiling point.

Here's what I can tell you: In my opinion, what was a very good speaker to begin with has gotten better. Your opinion may differ, especially if you own a pair of WATT/Puppy 6s or 7s. What I hear as changes for the better might strike fans as a change in character. Ironically, the closer the W/P8 gets to "perfect," the more its scant shortcomings seem to matter. Go figure.

The W/P8 appears to be a relatively easy load to drive. I even drove it with the 2.2Wpc Cayin HA-1A, not that any sane person would. Like all Wilson loudspeakers, it is meticulously constructed and finished. It produces an immense soundstage without dominating your listening room, and it captures the excitement of live music as do few loudspeakers I've heard.

You may not like the WATT/Puppy, but I'd bet the chances are greater that you'll love it. While acknowledging that it's not perfect, I'm a lot closer to "love" than to "like." But here's the thing: You do have to hear this loudspeaker—otherwise, no matter what speaker you choose, no matter how much you end up spending, you'll always wonder: Is this as good as a WATT/Puppy System 8?

Give David Wilson his props: He may have meant to build a monitor loudspeaker only for his own use. Instead, he built a benchmark.

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