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The Wilson Way: The Official History of Wilson Audio

Several high-end audio companies have commissioned lavish, large-format books chronicling the firm’s history (QUAD, McIntosh, Mark Levinson, etc.) but none is like The Wilson Way: The Official History of Wilson Audio. Written by Wilson’s long-time Director of Marketing John Giolas, The Wilson Way takes a much more personal approach to its subject. Giolas has been involved with Wilson Audio for more than 30 years, first as a dealer and later working for the company, and was given unprecedented access to David and Sheryl Lee Wilson in the dozens of taped and filmed interviews he conducted, along with full access to the archives of early design drawings, laboratory notes, and historical photos.

The book tells a very personal story because Wilson Audio is very much the product of the improbable journey of its founders, David and Sheryl Lee Wilson. Most audiophiles today take for granted Wilson Audio’s great success, but the book offers an unvarnished picture of how David and Sheryl Lee struggled to raise four young children while following David’s obsession for building loudspeakers—and Sheryl Lee’s unwavering determination to make a business out of Dave’s passion. 

As most audiophiles know, David Wilson never set out to create a speaker company. Rather, he was a recording engineer who built speakers for himself to better hear the recordings he released on the Wilson Audiophile label. While adding drivers to extend the performance of his Dahlquist DQ-10s, Dave discovered that the positions of those drivers relative to each other was crucial to fidelity. Thus began a long and exacting process of exploring, measuring, and quantifying the role of time alignment between drivers in a multiway loudspeaker. Wilson hung an RTR electrostatic supertweeter from the ceiling with airplane wire and rigged a system by which he could move the supertweeter back and forth with repeatable, calibrated precision, while taking detailed listening notes. Throughout this experimentation, Dave was motivated by the quest to recreate with a loudspeaker the sound he heard in the venues where he had made his tapes. He discovered that when the drivers were in a certain position relative to each other, the reproduction sounded closer to live music. That was the position where the wavefronts produced by each driver arrived at the listener’s ears at the same time. That early discovery, which later led to a patent on a mechanism for time-aligning drivers, would become a foundational technology for Wilson Audio. In fact, Wilson’s latest speaker, the Chronosonic XVX, can trace its lineage through every Wilson speaker all the way back to 1980—and Dave’s early research on the DQ-10 modifications.

With the DQ-10 transmogrified almost beyond recognition, Dave decided to build an ambitious speaker from scratch that incorporated his ideas on time alignment. That one-off speaker would be strictly for his own use. The speaker was an ungainly modular affair whose drivers could be moved back and forth to time-align their outputs for a particular listening distance and listening height. Sheryl Lee noted visitors’ reactions upon hearing the odd-looking speaker, and suggested to Dave that people might want to buy such a speaker—a thought that had never occurred to him. Sheryl Lee secured a bank loan for $17,000 that allowed Dave to build the prototype, which they called the Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM). Word spread about this esoteric and ultra-expensive speaker, and the Wilson home was soon transformed into a speaker factory. Dave and one helper built WAMMs in the garage while the Wilsons were running their record business and raising four children, with Dave still employed at his day job of designing medical instrumentation. The WAMM’s adjustable time alignment required that Dave personally install and calibrate each WAMM, which further taxed his time. Sheryl Lee suggested to Dave that he quit his job to pursue his passion. Dave was naturally risk-averse and reluctant to rely on what was essentially a hobby-turned-side-business to support his family, but Sheryl Lee prevailed.

WAMM sales later slowed, and the Wilsons went through a period of tremendous hardship, at one point losing their home. It was during this time that Dave built a small monitor to take with him on location recordings. At the next CES, the Wilsons had two exhibit rooms, one for the WAMM, run by Dave, and an adjacent room to demonstrate and sell records from Wilson Audiophile, run by Sheryl Lee. They set up the small location monitor in the second room purely to demonstrate their records. Many visitors who heard the system asked about the tiny speaker with the truncated-pyramid shape—how much it cost, what it was called, and when it would be available. The Wilsons had no answers because the monitor was never intended to be a commercial product—it would have to be priced at least twice the amount of the next most expensive small speaker (the Celestion SL600). But by the end of the show’s second day, Sheryl Lee convinced a skeptical Dave that they should offer his little speaker for sale. They left Las Vegas with orders for 30 pairs of what would eventually become the best-selling high-end speaker over $10,000 in audio history—the Wilson Audio Tiny Tot (WATT).

The WATT instantly and dramatically transformed the fledgling Wilson Audio. The speaker’s stunning and unlikely success (it had no low bass and was astronomically expensive for its size) provided the means for the Wilsons to move speaker manufacturing from their home into a commercial facility, and then to develop additional products such as the Puppy woofer that, with the WATT sitting atop it, became one of high-end audio’s most iconic products. After the WATT, there was no looking back.

The Wilson Way explores the creation of these and each subsequent Wilson product in rich detail, accompanied by many archival photographs and early design sketches. Giolas provides revealing insights into the genesis of every new product and upgrade, complete with technical details, from the first WAMM to today’s TuneTot, and every product in between. For each new product or upgrade, Dave and his team specified the product’s technical and sonic goals, which fueled research into the new materials, driver designs, testing protocols, and construction methods that have been developed over the years. Each of these innovations are interesting in their own right, but together they form a picture of a group of people obsessively striving for higher technical performance and better sound quality. Today’s Wilson loudspeaker is very much the culmination of the hundreds of incremental advances and major breakthroughs that have occurred over the past forty-plus years.

A large component of Wilson Audio’s success was the culture of perfectionism the Wilsons created. They strategically surrounded themselves with engineers, artists, and craftspeople who shared that culture. The Wilson Way rightly celebrates these individuals who have contributed their engineering chops, business skills, and shared commitment to the ideals on which Dave and Sheryl Lee based Wilson Audio. The Wilsons also had the foresight to create a succession plan to ensure that Wilson Audio, and the culture they created, would survive them. Their son Daryl committed himself to the company, working in nearly every position from the production line to ten years in R&D alongside his father. In 2016 Daryl succeeded his father as CEO. Wilson Audio’s latest products have been its best—Sabrina, Yvette, Alexx, Sasha DAW, and now the ambitious Chronosonic XVX—all of which are Daryl-led designs.

I had always known that Sheryl Lee played a large role in Wilson Audio, but didn’t realize the extent of her contribution until I read The Wilson Way. It’s been said that without Sheryl Lee, David Wilson would have been a guy who built a few pairs of speakers for himself and some friends. The Wilson Way makes that point abundantly clear. Through every setback and challenge, it was Sheryl Lee’s unwavering support, encouragement, business acumen, and total dedication to David’s vision that provided the foundation for Wilson Audio to succeed. Before the company became a success in the late 1980s, the Wilsons paid a high price for their dedication and commitment. Yet Sheryl Lee’s confidence that people would want to own the loudspeakers Dave created never flagged.

Although John Giolas is Wilson Audio’s Director of Marketing, the book doesn’t read like promotional material, nor does it descend into hagiography. Rather, The Wilson Way is an honest and comprehensive history of two people who, together, created high-end audio’s most iconic loudspeaker company. It’s an extraordinary story, extraordinarily told and presented. Giolas is a first-rate writer and natural storyteller with an engaging style and an encyclopedic knowledge of Wilson Audio products and history. His reverence for the culture of quality the Wilsons created underlies every chapter. Not surprisingly, no expense was spared on the paper and printing. The many photos and drawings benefit immensely from the presentation on premium stock. Creating The Wilson Way was clearly an act of devotion to the people, company, products, and culture of Wilson Audio that Giolas has been involved with since 1987 when he owned a retail store and became a Wilson dealer, and as Director of Marketing since 2000. He not only wrote the 135,000 words of text; he also designed and laid out the book, and created many of the world-class product photographs. 

The Wilson Way culminates with a detailed look at Dave’s magnum opus, the WAMM Master Chronosonic. That ambitious speaker—it has more than 1000 individual parts—is the realization of a lifetime’s single-minded pursuit of musical realism. During the 35 years that separated the first WAMM from the Master Chronosonic, Wilson Audio embodied the very highest ideals of high-end audio. The Wilson Way itself reflects these values, and is a fitting tribute to a company that has immeasurably contributed to high-quality music reproduction. 

Available at all Wilson Audio dealers, or at parts.wilsonaudio.com.

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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