Jonathan Valin on David Wilson

Jonathan Valin on David Wilson

The death of David Wilson hit me unusually hard. And this is odd because I didn’t really know the man, save for the occasional friendly “hellos” we exchanged at trade shows. My impression of him—and this is an impression that is shared by everyone—was that he was an extraordinarily decent and unassuming fellow, without a visible trace of the raging egotism and all-consuming jealousy that many of his competitors seem to express at every opportunity. Of course, David was the king of the high end and not one of its pretenders, so I suppose it was easier for him to be non-judgmental (though I do not for a moment think his modesty and decency were an “act”). The truth is he had nothing left to prove. Wilson Audio was, is, and remains the foremost high-end loudspeaker company in the world, and its success is owed entirely to David (and to his wife Sheryl Lee and, lately, his gifted son Daryl).

Now for a confession: I’ve never owned or reviewed a Wilson loudspeaker. This wasn’t for want of the occasional opportunity. It was more a matter of temperament—my temperament. The truth is I’m fundamentally a planar guy, and David Wilson’s loudspeakers (and everyone else’s dynamic speakers, for that matter) have always sounded comparatively “boxy” to my ear. Of course, I haven’t loved every iteration of Magnepan or Quad or Acoustat or MartinLogan or Sound Lab, either. Each one of them had its own, often profoundly annoying defects, And yet I was far more willing to live with what ’stats and planars didn’t have (bass and power range density of color; large-scale dynamic impact, frequency extension; superior image focus, etc.) because of what they did have. That boxless openness, crossoverless seamlessness, and midband liveliness, neutrality, and realism went a long, long way towards ameliorating obvious shortcomings. 

So why am I writing this brief epitaph for a man I didn’t really know and whose speakers I’ve never reviewed? Because in spite of my prejudice against box speakers, David Wilson changed my life as a listener (and later as a critic) as profoundly as Peter Walker and Jim Winey, two other giants, did. Until I heard David’s original WATT—way back when—I wouldn’t have considered buying a loudspeaker in an enclosure. After hearing David’s groundbreaking two-way monitor (in my dear friend Ray Andrews’ basement listening room), I changed my mind.

The original WATT was as much of a paradigm-shifter as that Maggie I-U I heard in Basil Gouletas’ living room a decade before—and for the same reasons. In spite of obvious shortcomings (no low bass, exceedingly bright treble, a reduction in image size, a load so difficult one of Ray’s ARC amplifiers eventually blew up), here for the first time was a cone loudspeaker that sounded as lifelike in the midband as a planar/’stat and, just as importantly, “disappeared” within the soundstage as completely as a planar/’stat. Here was a cone speaker that sounded not just “beautiful” or “thrilling” but real.

Though I’m not sure I could’ve lived with the original WATT for an extended period of time—that treble might’ve worn me down—that’s kinda beside the point I want to make. Hearing the WATT changed my listening biases. Since that groundbreaking first audition in Ray’s basement, I’ve kept much more of an open eye (and an open mind) when it comes to cone loudspeakers in boxes. Indeed, for the last decade or two I have been using select dynamics as references (though I haven’t given up my interest in planars/’stats). It was David Wilson who effected this change. 

I’m certainly not the only one who had his “Wilson epiphany.” After all, the WATT, WATT/Puppy, and its latter-day descendants were and remain the best-selling “expensive” loudspeakers in high-end audio history. David Wilson changed a lot of listening biases—and his success started a lot of “rival” companies out to de-throne him. For his profound improvement of dynamic drivers and the enclosures they reside in, for his remarkable ear (just listen to any of the marvelous recordings he engineered), for his continuous devotion to acoustic music and its reproduction (right down to his legacy project—the WAMM Chronosonic), and for the undeniable influence he has had on listeners world-wide, David Wilson was and remained until the end one of the truly towering figures in our business. It’s is for these accomplishments—and for his stature as a man—that I feel a genuine sense of loss at his passing. David Wilson literally “made” the high end as we now know it and, though his company is in very good hands, his loss marks the close of an era for those of us who grew up (and old) alongside him. May he rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that he touched, changed, and improved the lives of tens of thousands of fellow music lovers—mine included.