When Robert Harley asked me if I was interested in reviewing Bill Watkins’ Gen Four loudspeaker I accepted in a nanosecond. You Gen Xers are probably unfamiliar with the Watkins-Infinity dual-drive woofer or the WE-1 loudspeaker that Gordon Holt fell in love with during the early 1980s and which I had the opportunity to audition in his listening room in Santa Fe. The WE-1 wasn’t perfect when it came to imaging and transient speed, and it was so large that its wife acceptance factor was practically nonexistent. But what it did really well was reproduce a mid-hall orchestral tonal balance with sufficient realism to more than satisfy a connoisseur of romantic classical music such as Gordon.
Fast-forward some 40 years and we arrive at the Gen Four, which is advertised as a book-shelf-sized design, though no self-respecting audiophile is likely to deploy it in that fashion. I would prefer to describe it as a “fun-sized” two-way design. That’s quite a creative arc, and I think Watkins would agree with me, that in many ways the Gen Four is his best design to date. Imaging prowess and transient speed are spectacular for any speaker, especially one at this price point of $1995 per pair, and its bass extension and control are unheard of in such a small package.
Prior to engaging the Gen Four I spent several weeks auditioning a wide-range open-baffle speaker, so the sensation or aural thrill, if you will, of a cohesive presentation was very fresh in my memory banks. The Gen Four scored high marks for cohesiveness. There was no audible discontinuity between the woofer and tweeter. And I couldn’t identify an alteration in voicing through the middle octaves where the drivers overlap. With most multiway speakers that sort of thrill is gone, the consequence of slicing and dicing the music via several crossover networks and expecting it to cohere acoustically. No wonder that the most commercially successful box speaker over the years has proven to be the simplest multiway—a two-way design. Such designs continue to dominate nearfield monitor design, a classic example being the BBC-spec LS3/5A, designed expressly for field applications. Unfortunately, audiophiles deployed it in the farfield when its imaging precision didn’t in my opinion make up for its limited dynamics and bass extension. If you’re even a bit nostalgic for the LS3/5A’s sort of pinpoint imaging, know that the Gen Four blows it out of the water on all sonic counts.
One of its key design elements is the operation of the woofer, a modified Peerless by Tymphany 6.5" unit, as a wide-range driver without a low-pass filter. It’s the woofer Watkins says he selected from nine candidate units he tested and worked with extensively, including measurements with a Polytech PDV-100 laser vibrometer. It had the best combination of damping and stiffness of any of them, and the smoothest high-frequency roll-off he had ever found in a 6.5" unit. As a bonus it also has the correct combination of magnetic-field strength, coil inductance, and moving mass to give a flat response in the piston band of 100Hz or so on out to where roll-off begins.
The tweeter is a SEAS H-1212 1" aluminum/magnesium alloy dome modified to Watkins’ specs. I would venture to say that most speaker designers have had a love-hate relationship with metal dome tweeters. They love the detail and transient speed but struggle with their aggressive nature and may eventually settle in favor of a soft dome. The attraction, of course, has to do with metal’s much higher stiffness-to-weight ratio and extended pistonic behavior. These are good qualities, but unfortunately due to lack of internal damping, a metal dome’s breakup resonances are pretty nasty. Not to worry: Bill Watkins came up with a solution for that. If you peer through the tweeter’s protective grille you will notice a small damping pad centered on the dome. I asked Watkins how he came up with that idea. He tells me that he tested and worked with eleven tweeters for two months before deciding to use the SEAS metal dome. He tried many ways of damping the tweeter’s 27kHz breakup peaks, and eventually came up with the center of the dome damper. He tried a variety of materials, including Scotch 33 tape, vinyl, and felt damping, in different sizes, shapes, and in different places on the dome. Not surprisingly, he managed to ruin quite a few domes in the process. His listening test protocol consisted of placing two different tweeters on thick carpet and switching between them on the fly. I asked Watkins about the sonic differences he observed with the modified tweeter. His short answer: far more musical. And these differences he says were amazingly easy to hear. Specifically, the modified tweeter possessed attributes such as natural shimmer and lack of splatter on cymbals, lack of unnatural edge on female voice, horns, and the higher violin strings, pinpoint imaging versus a vague location of an instrument, definition between instruments, and natural “air” and space between instruments.
The front baffle is angled backwards to time-align the drivers by placing the acoustic center of the tweeter behind that of the woofer. This also helps to match the sensitivity of the woofer (88dB) with that of the tweeter (91dB) without the use of a resistive pad. The tweeter is crossed over at 3kHz using a single capacitor, and that’s it; there are no other passive components in the signal path.
Setup was not particularly difficult, and should follow the general placement guidelines in the owner’s manual, since a correct setup is critical to the successful integration of any speaker into a listening environment. A key factor in this process turned out to be the degree of toe-in. It quickly became crystal clear that the Gen Four’s sound can become dominated by the tweeter. There was about 1 to 2dB of excess upper treble for my taste when listening on-axis. I found it essential to cross over the speaker axes about two feet in front of the listening seat to obtain the sort of tonal balance I am most comfortable with, in other words, a gently rolled-off treble response. Spacing from the rear wall turned out to be a bit of a tradeoff between soundstage depth and bass weight. Depth increased with distance from the wall at the expense of bass response, so that had to be fine-tuned, though my priority was for the most realistic tonal balance.