David Wilson, 1944–2018

A Personal Remembrance by Robert Harley

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David Wilson, 1944–2018

The many tributes to loudspeaker designer David Wilson, who passed away on May 26 from cancer, will understandably focus on his outsized contribution to high-end audio. One of those tributes is my piece that accompanied his induction into The Absolute Sound’s High-End Hall of Fame in 2016, reproduced below. But you should also know about David Wilson the man.          

As great a speaker designer he was, and as skillful as he was at building one of the industry’s most iconic brands, he was an even better human being. Dave was always exceptionally gracious, humble, generous, and quick to share the credit for his achievements with others. For just one example, read our interview with Dave in Issue 276 in which he discusses his magnum opus, the WAMM Master Chronosonic. Rather than using that platform to boast about his accomplishment, or to hype the product, he talks about how the WAMM was made possible by the team of engineers and designers at Wilson Audio. But make no mistake; the WAMM Master Chronosonic is the physical embodiment of David Wilson’s ultimate vision.

When I think of David Wilson, the word “integrity” comes to mind. Everything he did was anchored in a foundation of honesty and truth. He never bad-mouthed competitors or attempted to put a positive spin on his products or company. He didn’t try to manipulate opinion or perceptions for his own advantage. Dave simply produced the best loudspeakers he knew how to make, and then let the products speak for themselves.

Ultimately, his success stemmed from an uncompromising ethos in the service of music; all else sprang from that foundation. Dave was driven not by ego or hubris, but by a genuine desire to hear music reproduced at the highest level of fidelity. Peter McGrath, Wilson Audio’s longtime representative and one of the world’s great recording engineers, recently told me about playing his latest recording for Dave just a few weeks before his passing. After listening to this magnificent recording over the WAMM, Dave looked at Peter and said “I’m sure glad that I built these.”

Dave Wilson has left the industry a great legacy not just in his products, but also in a model for how a company can continue in the absence of its larger-than-life founder. So many high-end companies, particularly those based around a single extraordinary designer, lose their values as well as their technical know-how when the founder is no longer at the helm. That’s a tragedy for the company as well as a diminution of the industry as a whole. Wilson Audio will suffer no such fate; son Daryl, who has been by his father’s side at the design bench and listening room since he was a toddler, has proved himself over the past few years to have the technical chops and business vision to build on the heritage his parents created. Listen, for example, to Wilson’s Alexx or Sabrina loudspeakers, which in my view are some of the best Wilson products ever created. They are both Daryl’s work. Wilson Audio couldn’t be in better hands.

I shall always remember David Wilson not just for his products, or for the iconic company he created, but also for the way in which he realized great success while exemplifying the highest ethical standards and personal integrity. Nice guys sometimes do finish first.

The Absolute Sound’s High-End Hall of Fame
David Wilson
Robert Harley

[First published in the December, 2016 issue of The Absolute Sound]

No individual has had a greater influence on high-end audio in the past 30 years than David Wilson. Today’s high-end industry has been indelibly shaped by his contributions in ways large and small. Wilson didn’t just create the world’s most successful and prestigious high-end loudspeaker company, he transformed the audio landscape during the high end’s formative years. Those transformations are felt today in every aspect of the industry, and not just in loudspeakers. Wilson defined a new aesthetic in performance, build quality, fit and finish, and the way in which high-end audio products are viewed, sold, and appreciated. Wilson Audio’s loudspeakers became the reference against which all other speakers were judged, and the company’s professionalism and success the benchmark to which other high-end companies aspired. Wilson Audio epitomized the industry’s maturation from enthusiast-driven but marketing-challenged operations to unprecedented mainstream legitimacy. He simply raised the quality standard—and the profile—of an entire industry.

David Wilson never set out to be a loudspeaker designer. He was a recording engineer (and part-time writer for The Absolute Sound) who was dissatisfied with the available speaker systems of the day and decided to build his own. That speaker was the massively ambitious WAMM (Wilson Audio Modular Monitor), created initially as a one-off for his own listening. The WAMM introduced the novel idea of drivers in separate enclosures that could be moved back and forth to realize perfect time-domain alignment at any listening distance. A high-end dealer who heard the speaker immediately wanted to buy two pairs. Buoyed by that reaction, Wilson quit his day job, got a bank loan, and went into the loudspeaker business.

But it wasn’t the cost-no-object flagship WAMM that propelled Wilson Audio to become the world’s most iconic loudspeaker brand. That distinction belongs to the Wilson Audio Tiny Tot (WATT), a small portable speaker served as a stand for the WATT, transformed the WATT into a full-range system. The WATT/Puppy realized spectacular success, becoming virtually synonymous with high-end audio. For nearly two decades it was the speaker most imitated and most compared to by other manufacturers (“Our new speaker is as good as the WATT/Puppy”)—ultimately, the most iconic speaker in the history of high-end audio. It remains to this day the best-selling loudspeaker over $10,000.

There was no shortage of speaker companies at this time, but none even approached the success of Wilson Audio. What made Wilson different?

First, because Wilson’s products were initially created purely for his own use he built speakers that he wanted to listen to. The idea of building to a price point, or to make a commercially acceptable product, was anathema. Second, Wilson’s designs were informed by his recording work. The reference of live music was, and remains, the foundation for all development projects. Although no longer an active recording engineer, Wilson regularly travels to concert halls all over the world to calibrate his ears. Third, Wilson introduced many innovative design concepts that are taken for granted today. For example, Wilson was the first manufacturer to recognize that speaker cabinets were a significant source of coloration. The original WATT featured lead ingots bolted to the inside surface of the Methacrylate enclosure panels. Since then, Wilson has pursued heroic measures to produce sonically inert enclosures, including the development of expensive and proprietary cabinet materials. The trend over the past 30 years toward more and more inert enclosures can trace its origins to the WATT. Fourth, Wilson Audio built speakers to an entirely new standard of fit and finish. Although a few other brands offered speakers with a luxurious and upscale appearance, Wilson Audio set a standard that was simply unmatched.

Finally, Wilson changed the industry by proving that a company can charge a premium price for a product provided that the product delivers premium performance, premium build, premium fit and finish, and a premium customer experience. Wilson Audio’s products, professionalism, and image inspired widespread customer confidence not just in Wilson’s loudspeakers, but also in the high-end audio industry in general.

The word “individual” in the first sentence of this piece isn’t quite accurate. Wilson Audio has always been a family endeavor, and never more so than today. From Day One, David’s wife, Sheryl Lee, has played an active part in the company, not to mention her initial support that allowed her husband to give up a promising career in medical-device instrumentation to pursue his dream of building loudspeakers. All four of the Wilson children—Dave Jr., Kevin, Debby, and Daryl have held positions at Wilson. Most significantly for the company’s future, son Daryl has assumed the role of Vice President of Product Development. He’s had a lifetime of apprenticeship next to his father and has begun to take the reins. Indeed, Daryl is the author of several of the most recent Wilson products, including the superb Sabrina (pound for pound the best Wilson speaker yet). Today’s Wilson Audio produces a wide range of loudspeakers that vary in size and price, but not in intent or build-quality.

By passing down his technical chops, aesthetic sensibilities,and perfectionist nature, David Wilson has assured that his rich legacy will extend well into the next generation.

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