Wilson Audio Specialties TuneTot Loudspeaker

A No-compromise Compromise

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Wilson Audio Specialties TuneTot Loudspeaker

Real-world audiophiles understand that the pursuit of good sound, like most things in life, is ruled by compromise. The loudspeakers you can't live without inform your choice of amplifier; the size and shape of the room drive many decisions. Cost issues, appearance issues, reliability issues—all of these metrics are in play as an enthusiast moves toward his or her conception of audio nirvana. As much as any product I've encountered, the Wilson Audio Specialties TuneTot "ecosystem" (as the manufacturer grandly refers to the speaker plus the several à la carte options that can be purchased to accompany them) addresses the transactional nature of audiophilia—the deals we necessarily make with ourselves and those with whom we share our domestic space.

The TuneTot—in my opinion, the name trivializes the seriousness of Wilson's engineering and aesthetic design effort, but so be it—is a sculpted box measuring 14.83" in height, 8.61" in width, and 10.19" in depth. Each speaker weighs 29 pounds. The retail price is $9800 or $10,500 per pair, depending on the color selected. TuneTot's cabinet is fabricated from two of Wilson's proprietary composites, the X- and S-materials and the box is asymmetric, the behavior of internal reflections having been carefully considered. The speaker is a two-way design with a 1" doped silk fabric tweeter in a sealed subenclosure and a 5.75" paper pulp woofer that's vented to the rear with a slot-shaped port. The TuneTot is designed for placement on a bookshelf, a piece of furniture, or some other architectural element; stand mounting is strongly discouraged. (There's no such thing as a TuneTot stand, as there is a Duette stand.) Wilson anticipates that the recommended near-boundary placement in many applications could result in sub-optimal low frequency performance and foam port-plugs are supplied. When I set the speakers up on top of a substantial old oak china cabinet, the bass was boomy, diffuse, and dissociated from the rest of the frequency spectrum. However, inserting the foam plugs completely eliminated the problem.

Since his earliest days of designing the monitors that would ultimately become WATTs, David Wilson has focused on optimizing time-domain behavior in loudspeakers with multiple drivers. His son Daryl's TuneTot employs a system of long and short spikes that can be changed in position (front vs. rear) to vary their front-to-back tilt and thus address the possibility that these speakers could be placed on a surface a few feet above the floor, or considerably higher. Aluminum "spike pads" to receive the tips are provided to protect the surface upon which the TuneTot rests.

If the TuneTots are sited on a massive marble credenza, the above installation will do the job but I suspect most users will be placing the loudspeakers on a wooden shelf, desktop, or some other piece of furniture with significant resonant properties. To deal with these resonances, for $2100 per pair, Wilson has the ISOBase, a platform comprised of constrained layers of several materials. (ISO = Installation Surface Optimization.) The upper surface of the ISOBase has slots to receive the spikes attached to the bottom of the TuneTot. The top surface of my china cabinet is substantial, but the improvements in imaging, detail retrieval, and bass definition were immediately apparent with the ISOBase in place.

And now we enter the realm of aesthetics. When Wilson's promotional materials refer to the potentially "hostile environment" the TuneTot is intended for, the company is surely referring to the near-wall location and resonant surface placement just discussed. But "hostile" could also reflect the mindset of a non-audiophile partner facing the invasion of the living room by audio gear more typically optimized for sonic performance rather than appearance. Interior decorators, fear not. Buying a pair of TuneTots is a little like buying a sofa. Wilson dealers are supplied with a kit of color samples (there are five alternatives) and examples of the metal hardware (four options), and I'm sure that most would let a customer take the kit home, much as a furniture store permits one to borrow fabric swatches. Many audiophiles forgo speaker grills and if that's you, you save $300. If you're getting grilles, there are six choices of fabric color. Another opportunity for compromise: "He" feels grilles adversely impact sound quality whereas "She" finds naked drivers ugly. Available are aluminum rings that cover the woofers' mounting hardware, in four anodized colors. Ah, compromise.

It wouldn't be fair for me to say much about the TuneTot's sound, as I've only had them for six days as of this writing. As much as I've been playing them, I'm sure they're not close to being fully broken-in and I eventually plan to experiment with alternate locations, different electronics, cabling, and so on. What I did was to plunk the TuneTots down—where the modest Sound Dynamics speakers (once recommended by HP) have held forth on the china cabinet for the last 20 years—a mere three feet apart. They were driven by a Peachtree Nova 150 integrated amplifier via Audience OHNO Dragon Slayer cables; source material was strictly Red Book CD, spun on an Oppo 103. I was quite satisfied with the robust presentation of symphonic music and the punchy dynamics of well-recorded rock and big band jazz. With the best audiophile fare, I heard a good deal of the subtle venue information I get with my reference system. Time—a lot more time—will tell. But my early impression is that the TuneTots' shortcomings are sins of omission. It should surprise no one that the lifelike dynamics of a dance club or the low-frequency reproduction an organ music aficionado demands are beyond the capabilities of these diminutive loudspeakers. But what they do, they seem to do very well.

I can hear you all the way from Philadelphia. "$12,000 for a 15" tall speaker with a 6" woofer? For half as much, I can get speakers that will play louder and lower, and with as much finesse!" Possibly, that's true. That is, if you're operating in the context of a listening space where you can bring your floorstanding or stand-mounted loudspeakers out into the room and there isn't the issue of wondering if your silver, brown, or black monoliths will "work" with the Roche Bobois table and chairs in the living room. Then, you've got a lot more modestly priced alternatives that can effectively deliver large-scale musical content. However, if your situation is more "challenging"—to use another word that comes up a lot in Wilson's sales pieces—the TuneTot may be one of a very few high-performance loudspeakers around which to engage in the art of compromise.