David Wilson may not have invented the high-end speaker, but his designs did much to define the category.
Wilson’s Watt/Puppy, which began as a one-off project to help Wilson better monitor live recordings, became one of the most popular — and imitated — speakers in the hi-fi industry. Wilson went from a hobbyist tinkering in his garage to the owner of a Provo, Utah-based company, Wilson Audio Specialties, that today employs 50 people and sells a full line of speakers worldwide.
Part-Time Audiophile has learned Wilson, 73, died on May 26. He was diagnosed last year with a rare form of bone cancer.
The hi-fi pioneer was a perfectionist who would spend years honing new models before allowing them to go on sale, and then would update them frequently as new parts or processes became available. He was among the first designers to focus on minimizing cabinet vibrations, and developed several proprietary materials to replace the plywood commonly used. Wilson also believed strongly in time alignment, with many of his models allowing for adjustments of the various drivers.
The result was speakers that, especially in the early years, carried price tags that were significantly higher than many hobbyists were accustomed to seeing. A pair of Wilsons, though, also didn’t sound quite like anything else.
The amount of detail, speed and resolution a Wilson speaker produced, along with a generally neutral voicing that eschewed bass bumps or other tricks used in some competing speakers, enthralled many listeners and polarized others who were unaccustomed to such a presentation. But listeners who liked the sound tended to become lifelong, rabid Wilson customers. Wilson rewarded those loyal buyers with an innovative trade-in program that also allowed dealers to sell the older models as factory-refurbished and certified, an idea patterned after the pre-owned automobile market.
Wilson founded his company in 1973. After being the CEO and lead designer throughout the company’s history, Wilson 16 months ago turned the reigns over to his son, Daryl, and concentrated on putting the finishing touches on what he called his “swan song,” an update of his audacious WAMM Master Chronometer, a towering speaker that sought to redefine the state of the art. When Wilson finally began shipping the first few pairs of the revised WAMM models, they cost $685,000 a pair. Even so, customers lined up.
I last spoke with Wilson at the 2016 Audio Expo North America in Chicago. Wilson was on hand to help introduce the Alexx, a $109,000-a-pair baby brother to the WAMM — if you could call a 6-foot-tall, 450-pound speaker a “baby” — that primarily was designed by Daryl.
David was in fine spirits then. He talked of making more time to travel with his wife of 50 years, Sheryl Lee, and enjoy some of the fruits of his labors. Company officials told me the AXPONA appearance might be Wilson’s last official show prior to his semi-retirement.
Before Wilson began his remarks about the Alexx, he paused for a moment that later became deeply ironic. “First of all, let me get this out of the way. I’m not sick,” he said, rubbing his shaved head. Between the new grooming decision and plans for Daryl’s promotion, Wilson had been getting some questions about his well-being.
“I guess people looked at this,” he said, pointing to his gleaming pate, “and that’s how the rumors started.”
It was only a year-and-a-half later, however, that Wilson actually was diagnosed with his disease. He continued to work, even showing up at the factory’s listening facility last November — after a long and admittedly painful medical procedure — to give Part-Time Audiophile writer Lee Scoggins a personal tour and demo of the new WAMM.
I first met Wilson in 1992 at the Stereophile high-end show in Los Angeles. By then, the Watt/Puppy — a compact floor-stander with separate modules for the bass and midrange/tweeter array — had become something of a legend, as had its designer.
As I peeked in Wilson’s room shortly after opening on Friday morning, it was still empty. Wilson was sitting in the sweet spot listening to a lively piano recording. His eyes were pressed shut, a smile was on his face and he was tapping his foot. I grinned myself. Here was an entrepreneur who ostensibly was working a show to sell product, but he seemed more focused on the musical joy his creations were bringing him.
I didn’t know much about Wilson then, but later it became obvious why this would be the case. Wilson didn’t go looking for a business or audio career when he pieced together his first speakers. His goal only was to make music sound better to him, a central fundamental that remained unchanged for the decades he spent building Wilson Audio.
Wilson became fascinated with hi-fi at the age of 13, when he heard a neighbor playing Christmas carols outdoors on a Klipsch speaker. The lifelike quality of the music caused him to begin his own audio endeavors, including building a Heathkit amplifier that caught fire when he switched it on. Undeterred, he continued to experiment, trying ideas such as creating an infinite baffle loudspeaker by using a window in the Wilson home.
Still, audio remained a hobby — although a serious one — as he attended Brigham Young University. While there, he met Sheryl Lee Jamison — perhaps the only moment that would eclipse his introduction to audio, as far as a life-changing experience. Jamison, however, had a boyfriend in New Zealand. She asked her cousin if he knew someone who could transfer music to tape to send to the boyfriend. The cousin recommended his roommate — David Wilson.
Wilson, as he later told the story, took one look at Sheryl Lee and immediately was smitten. As he set up his recorder, he realized his time with her probably would be limited to only an evening of taping, so he surreptitiously reached behind his system and disabled a patch cord. Wilson proceeded with the session, only to “discover” nothing had been recorded. Sheryl Lee would have to come back to do it all again. They were married in 1966.
Wilson at first went into pharmaceutical research, and worked on one of the first kidney dialysis machines. But he continued to putter in his garage with speaker ideas, convinced there was a way to achieve a wider-bandwidth, lower-distortion sound than what was available at the time. Wilson loved live music, and wanted a transducer that could come closer to the real thing.
The Watt/Puppy actually was not Wilson’s first venture into audio. He started by modifying Acoustic Research turntables and also making recordings. Still, when he played back those records, the speakers he was using fell considerably short of convincing sound. He hit on the unusual idea of supplementing a modified version of the Dahlquist DQ-10 with an electrostatic upper-frequency panel and a separate mini-monitor made by Braun. Despite the Frankenstein’s-monster aesthetics, he liked what he heard, and soon began developing his own version of the prototype.
Somewhat brazenly, Wilson came up with a system consisting of two towers for each channel. One handled lower bass, while the other contained two mid-bass drivers along with midrange/tweeter units above and below the electrostatic super-tweeter. He called it the Wilson Audio Modular Monitor, or WAMM.
Wilson demoed the speaker at California retailer Garland Audio in 1981, and — despite a Robb Report-worthy price tag of $32,000 — promptly sold two pairs. Suddenly, he was in the speaker business.
WAMMs became the stuff of legend. They were so rare, actually hearing a pair created stories that circulated for years in the audio community. Stereophile, for instance, famously reported on a WAMM demo at CES 1983 that shook several floors when the system’s formidable bass units were unleashed. While the intimidating price kept Wilson from selling more than a few WAMM systems each year, talk about the speaker drove interest in the Watt/Puppy and other models to come.
As for the Watt/Puppy, that speaker arose from Wilson’s desire for a better monitor speaker for the live recordings he enjoyed making. He developed the Watt, a mid/tweeter design in 1986 and, deciding he needed more bass for home use, added another module, the Puppy, in 1988. The stacked design went on to influence much of Wilson’s speaker line from that time on, and became widely copied by competitors
While the WAMM was only within reach of the very well-heeled, the Watt/Puppy appealed to the merely affluent. The Watt’s initial price of $4,500 per pair still was heart-stopping, as it was more than twice as much as many of the top compact speakers on the market at the time. Still, despite rising over the decades to $29,900 a pair, the Watt/Puppy combo sold briskly until being replaced a few years ago by the Sasha W/P.
Wilson never lost his fervor for attention to the smallest details. Daryl Wilson once told Stereophile a story about his dad having him carefully listen to the sonic changes caused by altering a capacitor’s value by just 5 percent. Wilson Audio also developed several highly inert synthetics — called X material and Y material — to reduce resonances in its cabinets and baffles. The material was so hard, blades used to cut it would wear out quickly, but Wilson was not deterred by the inconvenience or higher manufacturing costs. Indeed, he bought a vibrometer to do measurements and explore how to further attack the problem.
Wilson also built a state-of-the-art facility to apply automobile-grade paint finishes to his speakers, which the company became known for. The Provo plant also has heavily tweaked listening rooms stocked with top-tier components on which to dial-in models.
Those new designs would be released only after a painstaking development process. One example was an empty speaker cabinet I once saw on the side of Wilson’s room at a show. “Where are the drivers?” I asked a Wilson official. “Dave has narrowed it to two different woofers, but he hasn’t decided yet,” was the response. Word had been leaking out about the model, so he sent a pair of boxes, but he wasn’t going to be rushed on the final product.
Another example of Wilson’s meticulous nature is that for years he used a heavily modified titanium tweeter that produced impressive high frequency response, but which also could sound a tad bright, especially with less-than-ideal ancillary gear or incorrect setup. It was perhaps the most controversial aspect of Wilson’s speakers.
Several years ago, with many competitors switching to such exotic materials as beryllium and synthetic diamond for their tweeters, Wilson began exhaustive testing of various high-frequency units. After a long period of trials, David Wilson was about to make a change. Then he heard a somewhat old-school silk tweeter. It wasn’t trendy, but it sounded better. Today, the silk tweeter is used throughout Wilson’s line.
Wilson may have had strong opinions about sound, but they weren’t written in stone. When Daryl was developing the Alexx, for instance, his father told him he thought it needed a rear-firing tweeter to add air. Daryl tried it, but argued it didn’t sound as good in that particular application. After some careful listening, Dave agreed.
When I spoke to David Wilson, he always seemed proud of the fact he’d built his company in Provo and was able to create dozens of good jobs. Although a number of competitors shifted production of their speakers to China over the past few decades, Wilson stuck with his “made in the USA” strategy. That alone likely kept the prices of Wilson products at a premium level, but it also ensured quality control and pride — two of the main areas in which Wilson refused to compromise.
At the 2016 AXPONA event, Wilson spent a few minutes looking back on his career. While he seemed satisfied with what he’d done and was positive about turning the reigns over to Daryl, what he seemed most enthusiastic about was spending more time with his beloved Sheryl Lee. She long had been an integral part of Wilson Audio, he emphasized. Indeed, his wife had encouraged him to start the company in the first place, even though he was concerned about how expensive it would be to make the speakers he envisioned. She told him to do what made him happy.
“Sheryl Lee has been the brains of the company since day one,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d be living in a trailer with my stereo.”