Jacob Heilbrunn on David Wilson

Jacob Heilbrunn on David Wilson

David Wilson, who died on Saturday at 73, devoted his life to reproducing live music. The culmination of his quest was the Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM) Master Chronosonic loudspeaker and WAMM Master Subsonic subwoofers. He produced great loudspeakers and was an even greater man.

Others have ably expounded upon his contributions to the audio industry, which were legion. There were Dave’s, as he was known to his friends, numerous recordings, a number of which appeared on the record label Wilson Audiophile Definitive Recordings and have been recently reissued by Acoustic Sounds. As the lofty title suggests, Dave did nothing by half measures. Hence the birth of the WAMM, a $28,000 four-tower behemoth, which sought to achieve time synchronicity at the listening position. It first appeared in 1981 and served as the foundation for Wilson Audio. Ken Kessler offered an unforgettable account of the evolution of the WAMM in 1984 in HiFi News: “The Wilsons are a gracious couple who seem far too normal to want to house a multi-array loudspeaker system straight out of Flash Gordon in the middle of their living room. You go in expecting, say, a pair of small ARs, and you walk straight into these massive constructs wearing electrostatic panels, KEF mid/bass drivers, teensy Braun boxes, and—just a bit behind them-towers housing woofers the size of Pirelli P7s.”

To my mind, however, there is another aspect to Dave that may get lost in the focus on his pioneering technical accomplishments. All along the technical aspects were never an end in themselves. Quite the contrary. They were a tool on the journey to musical enlightenment. Dave loved music. He would quiver with excitement when discussing the qualities of different organs. When I traipsed over to his spacious home in Provo, he would eagerly scan the CDs and LPs I had brought along, like a prospector sifting for gold. I had only to mention a choice recording on the Philips label by the famous violinist Arthur Grumiaux and Dave would inform me a few days later that he had snagged a copy on eBay. Ultimately, it was LPs that Dave really delighted in listening to along with a soft spot for tube gear. He was old school in the best sense of the word.

Another aspect of Dave that may not be fully appreciated is his playfulness. By that I don’t mean that he was silly but that he retained, and very much wanted to retain, a sense of wonderment about the world. He wanted to share his bounty. When my son Oscar was about nine years-old, we visited the Wilsons. Dave and Sheryl were wonderful hosts and had an intuitive feel for children. But this was one of the rare occasions when Dave underestimated his audience. He was floored when he asked Oscar what he would like to listen to and heard, “Duke Ellington.” He hurried back to the rear of his listening room, muttering to himself in disbelief as he excavated an Ellington album from his shelf of LPs. 

As much as Dave liked to listen to recorded music, he also saturated himself in the real thing. I’m grateful that I was able to attend a number of concerts with Dave, including in Palm Beach where the investor Jim Clark hosted a marvelous benefit for Itzhak Perlman’s summer camp for talented young musicians. Dave traveled often to Vienna, where he would spend several weeks listening to the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein, the temple of classical music. He was friends with conductors such as Franz Welser-Möst and singers like the great baritone Thomas Hampson. Dave had arrived. 

But he was never arrogant about his success. If anything, I think he was rather modest about his accomplishments. This is not to say that he didn’t bristle if someone tried to derogate his work unfairly. But Boswell tells us that Dr. Johnson, a fount of wisdom if there ever was one, distinguished between offensive and defensive pride, and I think that the latter—a sense of dignity and rectitude and propriety—is what Dave possessed in full measure. 

His wider interest in the world also translated to politics. We had many discussions about American foreign policy and economics. His keen intellect came home to me not simply in our conversations, but also when I happened to see the copious notes he had scribbled on an essay I’d written about foreign affairs. I was dumbfounded by the extent of his knowledge, down to writing the name Louis J. Halle in the margins, a famous scholar and diplomat in his day but now almost completely forgotten. In short, Dave was a man of parts.

None of this can do more than hint at the prodigious efforts that went into putting Wilson on the map. It was Sheryl Lee, Dave’s wife, who also played a vital role in propelling the company to the heights that it now occupies. It was Sheryl who identified Provo, Utah, as the ideal place to establish a factory. The tandem of Dave and Sheryl has created an audio powerhouse that their son Daryl can lead to new sonic triumphs. Dave’s own accomplishments rivaled those of legends such as Paul Klipsch and Edgar Villchur. Now he has joined these immortals. Truly, it can be said of David Wilson what the architect Sir Christopher Wren’s son inscribed to his father at St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”