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Watkins Stereo Generation Four Loudspeaker

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.

 

The Gen Four is nominally a bass-reflex design with a box tuning of 41Hz. However, the bass tuning referred to as dual-tuned, is patent-pending and unconventional. There are two internal chambers which are said to be damped differently with a proprietary method, proprietary connection, and special absorption material. The end result is a well damped bass range and in-room extension to nearly 41Hz, a remarkable accomplishment for a 6.5″ driver in a compact enclosure. I can’t recall another stand-mounted compact speaker in my experience that captured as much tonal authority as the Gen Four.

The bass range didn’t sound like that of a typical bass-reflex design. One of the first things you’re bound to notice about the Gen Four is that bass lines are uncommonly tight, and you’d be hard pressed to believe that it is actually a bass-reflex design. Bloated, tubby, plummy, and muddy are some of the pejorative adjectives that have been hurled at bass-reflex designs over the years. Well, none of them apply here. The bass range was precise and facilitated excellent pitch definition. Electric bass lines often lost in the mix were easily resolvable without any issues. Midbass dynamic punch was plenty adequate in my moderately sized listening room (13.5′  x 19′) though be forewarned that there are limits to what a 6.5″ woofer can dish out, and I would be concerned about pushing the woofer hard in a much larger room. The impedance magnitude is quite benign and should be an easy load for a tube amplifier; the Gen Four performed wonderfully with Linear Tube Audio’s ZOTL40 amplifier. However, bass definition was best with solid-state amplification, and quite remarkable with Merrill Audio’s Veritas monoblocks, which feature a damping factor of 1000.

To be honest, my initial expectations were rather modest considering the price point and smallish enclosure size. My jaw dropped when I was engulfed by a startlingly transparent and spacious presentation. An exceptionally wide and transparent soundstage coupled with transient speed, precise image focus, timbral accuracy, and an ability to retrieve low-level detail that is unheard of at this price, combined to make for a terrific first impression. Perceived distortion levels were low and harmonic textures flowed naturally without any glaring response peaks. So many twin-cone full-range drivers project a sense of immediacy via presence-region breakup peaks. That may sound spectacular for a while but the effect wears thin in the long run. In contrast, the Gen Four was easy to listen to for hours on end. And with each subsequent listening session I found it more difficult to quit listening. There was always time for one more album. When I had asked Watkins about the recommended break-in period, he must have chuckled, and I quote his response: “Like Gordon said about our WE-1’s, and separate from break-in, I’ve found the speakers ‘grow’ on you—the longer you listen the more you like them.” Well, that’s an accurate assessment of what happened to yours truly.

The Gen Four proved adept at capturing the rhythmic drive and verve of whatever program material I threw at it. That was partly a function of being able to retrieve dynamic nuances and capture much of the music’s emotional content. Neither did it shy away from reproducing macrodynamics with conviction. The range from soft to loud was accommodated with very little change in distortion levels.

Had I auditioned the Gen Four blind behind a curtain and had to judge its value in the hierarchy of high-end audio I would have been happy to recommend it even at a price tag of $7k. Its asking price at a fraction of that is partly due to the direct sales model—there is no dealer markup. It simply sounds like a much more expensive speaker. And I should add that the Gen Four felt comfortable in the company of far more expensive components in the price range of $15k and upward. At no time did I feel it was the weak link in the chain. Kudos to Bill Watkins for conjuring such a superb design, well within reach of the common man. Simply put, the Gen Four is one of audio’s compelling bargains, and a veritable treasure box of musical delights. It represents pretty much a mandatory audition if you’re in the market for a box speaker that is easy to drive and integrate into a domestic environment, all without breaking the bank.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Two-way dynamic, dual-tuned bass reflex
Frequency response: +/-2dB, 41Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 88dB 1W/1meter
Impedance: 8-ohm nominal (5.3 ohm minimum 20Hz–20kHz)
Recommended power: 30 to 150Wpc
Dimensions: 8.5″ x 14″ x 13.5″
Weight: 24 lbs.
Price: $1995

WATKINS STEREO, INC.
1019 East Center St.
Kingsport, TN 37660
watkinsstereo.com

Associated Equipment
Power amplifiers: Linear Tube Audio ZoTL40, Merrill Audio Veritas monoblocks
Analog source: Kuzma Reference turntable and Stogi Reference 313 VTA tonearm; Clearaudio da Vinci V2 mc
Digital sources: DiDit Audio 212se and April Music Eximus DP1 DACs; MacBook Pro laptop running Amarra V3.04 software; ModWright-modified Sony XA-5400ES SACD player
Preamplifiers: Lamm Audio L2.1 line preamp; Nouveau Flamingo (DIY) and Aural Thrills Audio phonostages
Cables: Acrotec, FMS Nexus-2, and Kimber Select interconnects; Acoustic Zen Hologram II speaker cable
A/C power: Monarchy Audio AC-Regenerator; Sound Application power line conditioners

By Dick Olsher

Although educated as a nuclear engineer at the University of Florida, I spent most of my career, 30 years to be exact, employed as a radiation physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, from which I retired in 2008.

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