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First Listen to the New Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM)

First Listen to the New Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM)

Jacob Heilbrunn and I traveled separately in mid-November to Provo, Utah to hear the new Wilson Audio Modular Monitor, the WAMM Master Chronosonic, one of the most ambitious loudspeaker systems ever created. The original WAMM, introduced in 1985, was a monumental effort at creating a true reference loudspeaker. It pioneered the concept of drivers in separate modular enclosures that could be moved independently to realize perfect time alignment at the listening position regardless of distance from the speaker or listening height. David Wilson was awarded a patent for this technique in 1984. The WAMM underwent several design upgrades over its life until the model was retired in 1997.

Now, more than thirty years later, David Wilson has returned to the WAMM. He has spent the past five years conceptualizing and designing the ultimate realization of the original model’s innovations. This time he has the formidable advantages of an additional 30 years of design experience, today’s advances in materials technology and driver design, and the current infrastructure, engineers, and craftspeople of the Wilson factory. Now that David Wilson has officially retired as Wilson Audio CEO (handing the reins to his son Daryl), it’s clear that this loudspeaker is his magnum opus. No stone was left unturned and no expense spared in the quest to build the speaker that would stand as David Wilson’s defining statement. The WAMM’s price reflects the epic nature of the project: a breathtaking $685,000 per pair.

Although the new WAMM is rooted in the fundamental concepts introduced in the original, these are now realized with an entirely new level of sophistication. The five-way, seven-driver system employs 12.5″ and 10.5″ woofers in the ported lower enclosure, with each of the two lower-midrange drivers, upper-midrange drivers, and tweeter in their own enclosure modules. A semi-open gantry-like structure houses and supports the five modules in addition to the complex mechanisms that fine-tune their positions and orientations. In all previous Wilson products with modules, which were also a key feature of the original WAMM, adjustments had been possible only in discrete steps. Now in the new WAMM, the adjustability of these driver modules has been vastly improved. Some of the modules are continuously adjustable with amazingly fine precision (I saw the mechanism in action) to achieve much more accurate time alignment. Wilson says that the new system can align the outputs of each driver to within 5 microseconds at the listening position, and he asserts that this degree of precision is a cornerstone of the WAMM’s performance. Interestingly, this new system’s positional resolution can compensate for variations in group delay at different frequencies exhibited by the upstream electronics.

A wide array of new materials and technologies were developed specifically for the WAMM. All the drivers are new. The upper gantry that houses the midrange and tweeter modules is now made from machined aluminum and a new Wilson-developed substance called “W-Material.” This new material is similar to Wilson’s phenolic resin X-Material, but is embedded with thin layers of titanium-reinforced aluminum spaced an eighth of an inch apart. This W-Material is deployed at critical junctions within the upper structure to dissipate vibration. The upper structure, which is designed to be a giant energy sink, is extensively cross-braced. At the factory I saw these substructures up close as they were being manufactured. After the factory tour we made the short trip to David Wilson’s home to listen to this culmination of his life’s work.           

So, what does a $685,000 speaker look and sound like? First, photographs don’t prepare you for the sheer physical presence of the WAMM. It is at once elegant and technical. With the side grilles covering the upper gantry, the WAMM is a study in graceful flowing curves. Without the grilles, the elaborate module-mounting structure and complex mechanisms for module adjustment are exposed, giving an impression akin to looking inside a high-end Swiss watch. From the listening position, the WAMM’s size is concealed behind the baffle, which is narrower than that of Wilson’s previous flagship, the XLF.

I listened to some tracks David Wilson had selected, along with some LPs, CDs, and SACDs I had brought that I know very well. I was also familiar with the analog and digital front-ends: a dCS Vivaldi 2.0 for disc playback and a Basis Inspiration turntable with a Lyra Etna SL cartridge for LPs. We also listened to the original analog mastertape of David Abel and Julie Steinberg, played back on the same John-Curl-modified tape machine used to make the recording. This piano and violin duet, recorded by David Wilson and released originally on LP and more recently on hi-res download, is well known as one of the best (perhaps the best) recording of these two instruments.

Starting with the Abel/Steinberg, I have to say that this was the most realistic reproduction of music I’ve heard in my life. Yes, it had the advantage of being sourced from the original mastertape, but that fact alone didn’t fully account for what I heard. The violin was reproduced with such tonal richness and detail, spatial precision, and above all, a startling presence. The piano’s transient attacks were vividly alive, just as you hear from the instrument in life. The clarity was striking. Significantly, the massive WAMM got the physical scale perfectly correct; many mega-speakers sound overblown and artificial with smaller-scale music. In short, the WAMM reproduced these two instruments with an “in the room” realism that I simply haven’t experienced before from recorded music.

 

Turning to my own LPs and SACDs, I found that the WAMM presented music with a seamless coherence that belied the large number of drivers spread out over the system’s stately 7′ height. In many ways the WAMM had the coherence of a single-driver speaker, but without the limitations of one—the system had extension at the frequency extremes and the ability to play loudly. In addition to this top-to-bottom tonal continuousness, the WAMM had a striking transient fidelity across the entire spectrum that was manifested as a sense of immediacy and realism. I’ve never heard drums reproduced with such speed, impact, and transient precision.

I had an unusual experience that highlights the WAMM’s almost spooky sense of lifelike realism. About a minute into a track of an a capella group singing in unison, one of the vocalists came in with a solo part in the center of the soundstage. So lifelike was her voice that I had an autonomic physical reaction from the reptilian part of my brain that startled me by the sudden and unexpected apparent manifestation of another human being near me.

The bass extension, power, and transient fidelity were also astonishing. The WAMM has the same output level at 23Hz as at 1kHz. It’s not rolled-off by 3dB at 23Hz, but absolutely flat to 23Hz. Wilson demonstrated the bass extension with a thunderous E. Power Biggs organ recording.


The WAMM’s spatial presentation was stunning. The large enclosures simply disappeared, replaced by a deep, richly layered, and intricately detailed representation of the instruments within an acoustic space. And the way that instruments and voices hung in three-dimensional space, separate from one another yet part of the coherent whole, was breathtaking.

As well-rounded and complete a loudspeaker as the WAMM is, I’m reluctant to single out any one aspect of its performance. But there was one area in which the WAMM so far exceeded any other loudspeaker I’ve heard—the clarity of individual instrumental lines, as if the WAMM had “de-homogenized” the music. For example, on the Sheffield direct-to-disc The King James Version, I had never heard the individual timbres of each instrument in the brass and woodwind section with such crystalline clarity. On every other speaker through which I’d heard this record reproduced, the baritone sax blended in with the other instruments while adding tonal warmth to the brass and woodwind section by virtue of its richness in lower-order harmonics. But through the WAMM, the baritone sax was a fully independent instrument rather than just another sound within a continuous sonic fabric. This precision with which the WAMM reproduces music was apparent on every piece of music I heard. Yet despite this massive resolving power, the sound was anything but analytical or clinical. Overall, my brief listen to the WAMM is one that will remain for me a landmark in my life of listening to and evaluating music-reproduction systems.

The WAMM will begin shipping in March. Incidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if elements of the WAMM become the basis of a new platform for several models of Wilson’s upper-end speakers in the future. Stay tuned.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn Listens to the New WAMM Master Chronosonic
Over the past year or so, David Wilson, one of the more sagacious fellows whom I’ve ever run into in a lifetime of running into contemporaries wiser than yours truly, has been making cryptic allusions to the WAMM project, indicating it was—to employ the language of the English literature professors—finally reaching parturition. Mind you, mere whispers of the word WAMM in the past had been enough to reduce me to a trembling jellyfish. It was a word of totemic significance, evoking images of a mythical past when it wasn’t enough just to produce a satisfying speaker but to create one that had to reach for the very heavens. The Valhalla of audio, if you will. I can only imagine the verbal flights of orotundity that the specter of a new WAMM would have inspired in HP, he of the felicitous mastery of describing a new era in audio, which, in a very real sense, the WAMM represents.
 

Just think of the very verbal connotation of the word WAMM—it’s onomatopoeic, like out of the old Batman TV series, when you would see words fly across the screen as Adam West landed a punch against some dastardly villain such as the Joker.
 

But the WAMM, friends, is no joke. It’s the real thing. No doubt I traipsed up to Wilson to hear it in an agnostic frame of mind. “How much better could it get?” and the usual litany of audio doubts formed the mental knapsack that I toted with me to Provo, Utah.


 

Still, the WAMM was supposed to represent the summit of David Wilson’s achievements. I had to know if Wilson’s new creation would surpass the company’s legendary heritage. It was a Lieutenant Kijé by Claudio Abbado recording on a Deutsche Grammophon LP that ultimately delivered the unequivocal, obliterating verdict. Two things stood out. First, the cavernous depth of the tuba; it was playing notes that I had not heard before with a wealth of air around it even as the rest of the orchestra played. Second, the pounding bass drum strokes way back in the hall, cleanly enunciated. That very evening the Wilsons took me to Abravanel Hall to hear a concert by the Utah Symphony. I can only testify that the bass drum whacks during the Prokofiev Symphony No. 3 that evening sounded uncannily familiar to what I had heard earlier that day in the Wilson’s capacious living room.
 

To be sure, none of this is for the faint of heart. But it isn’t simply that the WAMMs put out a prodigious amount of air. The refinement has to be heard to be believed. On an Anderson & Roe CD of Bach that I had brought along, there was a tactile feel to the sound that I had not previously experienced. And on a Maurice André Erato LP, it was disconcerting to discern an entire sonic refulgence in the midrange of the piccolo trumpet that I had not previously heard reproduced on any system.
 

Which brings me to the question of Wilson’s previous flagship, the XLF. The WAMM cleans its clock. Not that the XLF doesn’t sound superb in my room. But there is no way around it: The XLF simply doesn’t match the speed in the bass region, the transparency, and above all, the 3D character of the WAMM. The notes are plush and sumptuous and round—fully developed in space with the WAMM—to a degree that surpasses anything I’ve heard.
 

David Wilson, a man whose personal modesty is in inverse proportion to his immense talents, could have rested on his laurels. Instead he tempted fate and reached for the stars. Did he reach them? I think he has.
 

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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