Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM) loudpeaker system

No, we made no typos in the specifications sidebar. The weight of the Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM) speaker system is enough to make you consult a structural engineer before dropping it on your living room floor—fragile, 300-year old New England frame houses are probably out. And the recent price increase from $32,000 to $35,000 is enough by itself to buy a pair of Quad ESL-63s—which is not a bad speaker system. The WAMM represents an all-out assault on both the state of the art in speaker systems and on the limits to which wealthy audiophiles will go in order to have the best (footnote 1).

Actually, it's pretty easy to poke fun at a $35,000 speaker system—kind of like making tall-man jokes about Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The question is, is this the best speaker system you can buy? I've only spent a portion of two days with the WAMM, but I would have to say it's the best speaker system I've ever heard, and I'd love to have a pair in my house. (I've even got the floor and walls to withstand the weight and low frequencies.) I'm not an authority on the Infinity IRS or the Levinson HQD (which at $29,000 and $24,000 respectively are the only speakers competing in this price category), so I can't really make a valid comparison with the competition, though I have heard both of those systems. (An A/B comparison would require a forklift!)

Compared to the experience of live music, the WAMM does some things well that I have not heard reproduced music do before, and that's certainly one of the main criteria. In addition to that, the WAMM proved useful in making evaluations of other equipment to a degree I've not experienced before. To say that every equipment reviewer should own one of these systems (what would the folks at The Sensible Sound magazine say to that?) is both fatuous and not strictly to the point. It is not, after all, through WAMMs that a clear majority of readers will be listening to their amplifiers and cartridges. I can only reiterate that I would love to have them in my home (perhaps a utility cabinet could drop the price a few $k), both for listening to music and for evaluating equipment.

First, a description. The complete WAMM system consists of six pieces: two 6½' subwoofers (also available in a low, fatter version); two 6½' "full-range array towers" containing the mid-bass, midrange, and high-frequency drivers; one modified Crown equalizer (!!); and an electronic crossover. As implied by the term Modular in the name, the pieces are available separately: two full-range arrays with equalizer and personal calibration ($28,000), one or two subwoofers with electronic crossover by themselves ($4500 for one, $8000 for two), and the modified equalizer by itself ($1500). Other than the arrays, these are not unheard-of prices in high-end audio. The subwoofer modules are large, quite attractive boxes, heavily reinforced, which are simply enclosures for the extraordinary Magnat woofers that were mentioned last year in Stereophile (Vol.5 No.5). I have never seen a woofer as well-constructed as the Magnat. As a machine for moving air under control they seem without peer—although I'm sure the people at Hartley and Yamaha (who make a 24" and a 36" woofer, respectively) would differ with me on that point.

For some time now I've been leaning towards the opinion that smaller, highly-controlled woofers are the way to go in low- frequency reproduction. Considering that the Magnats in the WAMM system respond flat (or a little up, depending on your sitting position) down to 20Hz at sound pressure levels up to 120dB (10% harmonic distortion), they could be considered a small woofer.

The full-array towers themselves each consist of 15 separate drivers: two KEF B139 woofers mounted in an extremely well-sealed, well-baffled box which serves as a base for the remainder of the array; one modified Braun satellite speaker mounted on a handsome cast-aluminum "beanpole" immediately above the midbass enclosure; the electrostatic array (9 panels) mounted further up the array; and finally an additional Braun satellite speaker at the top of the beanpole (up where the Giant lives, so to speak). The satellites and electrostatic array are extended out in front of the vertical beanpole on aluminum rods which are themselves adjustable forward and back. The whole thing is not unattractively reminiscent of a schematic for ET, or maybe ET with a little ET riding on his (her?) shoulders.

Although ungainly, it is not unattractive, and I found the WAMMs less oppressive than the Acoustat 2+2s, which visually dominate a room in an inescapable fashion. Definitely not for small rooms (although Wilson Audio says rooms as small as 2000 cubic feet are suitable from a sonic standpoint) or audiophiles dedicated to disguising their fanatical interest in reproduced sound.

The electronic crossover is packaged in a separate chassis which can be stacked above the equalizer. The equalizer has been modified significantly by Wilson Audio, primarily by installing integrated circuit chips (with a much higher slew rate) and precision film capacitors. The original Crown costs $1200 and allows ±15dB of equalization in 11 octaves, with the centerpoint of each octave widely adjustable. At the Wilson's house the largest variation from flat was 2dB, with most octaves equalized less than that. For those of you horrified by an equalizer, Dave Wilson pointed out that this equalizer causes 3° of phase shift for each dB of equalization; in the Wilson home there was from the equalizer a total phase shift of 6° from 0. I would be astonished to read evidence of someone detecting this amount of phase shift (though obviously the equalization itself would be detectible—that's why it's in there).

Sound Quality
How do they sound? There's been much discussion in the press of the WAMM's abilities to reproduce low frequencies at high volume levels. The shaking of several floors of the Riviera Hotel at the 1983 Las Vegas CES comes immediately to mind. These reports are not unfounded. The amount of press attention to low frequencies also reflects the interests of the WAMM's designer, David Wilson.

Just before I left the Wilson house in Novato I was "treated" to a fairly high-level audition of one of Dave's master tapes (Wilson Audio also makes records, which are not infrequently reviewed in these pages) wherein the organ used in one of Dave's records plays a 16Hz note for some time. Dave had me sit in his favorite spot for that cut where he confessed, with a twinkle in his eye, the 16Hz tone was reproduced about 2dB above reference level. In other words, he's a bass freak.

For those of you not used to hearing 16Hz at high volume (that should include almost every¬ one), it ain't fun if you're not a bass freak. Although clearly audible, a primary mode of sensing 16Hz is through your organs: stomach, kidney, liver, etc. which are not accustomed to being shaken around that way. Although I didn't like it, I must confess the organ sounded very realistic and the sound was reproduced without apparent effort, distortion, or strain. That's a real accomplishment for any sound reproduction system.

Focusing on the extraordinary low-frequency capabilities of the WAMMs misses the point, though. Their true value to the music-lover lies elsewhere. There are three character¬ istics that I found remarkable: a "bloom" in the mid and upper bass region, which allows the power of an orchestra to almost overwhelm you in live performances; seamless presentation of the entire frequency range, so that one thinks only of instruments and voices, not individual drivers; and uncanny imaging—so specific that it's almost unrealistic.

The demonstration at the Riviera Hotel used a record with which I'm intimately familiar (Hot Stix on the M&K label). At one point in the record, the drummer beats the rim of a drum with his sticks, producing an unusual, very woody sound. On the WAMMs it was possible to hear the drum stick move from one point on the rim of the drum to a point only 2" away, both points clearly defined (aurally) in the air. Fantastic! I'm sure this effect would not have been so dramatic in a live performance, just as I'm sure it's information the microphones (which are frequently much closer to the performer than any listener) captured and which I was hearing reproduced accurately for the first time.

Seamless presentation of the frequency range is a characteristic shared by other speakers, even some that are not all that expensive. The Quad ESL-63, the Thiel 03a, and the new Spica TC-50 come to mind. What is unusual, and truly an achievement, is that the WAMMs do this with a complex, hybrid system over a very wide range of frequencies, much wider than the other speakers mentioned and at much higher sound pressure levels. Hybrid systems have a strong tendency to remind you of their different driver characteristics, and of the struggle the designer had in getting them to blend together. The Plasmatronics and HQD, to mention two otherwise excellent systems, are good examples. I would say that Dave Wilson has overcome this problem, certainly to a large degree. Whether he has completely overcome it would require much more extended listening; probably he has not. His technique for coming as close as he does will be described below.

I've saved the best for last. To say the mid and upper bass "bloom" referred to above is unusual would be a dramatic understatement. In my experience virtually all systems fail down when it comes to portraying the dynamics of live music, particularly orchestral music. Along with the upper midrange stress that always seems to accompany disc reproduction, there is an unwillingness of the system to increase its volume level as the orchestra reaches a crescendo, particularly at lower frequencies. Speakers that reproduce mid and upper bass dramatically are boomy; non-boomy speakers sound too lean. The absence of this difficulty is a hallmark of live music. The little drivers in their boxes just can't match the 80 players with their celli, trombones, french horns, and fiddles up on that stage.

Footnote 1: By the time of my June 1990 interview with David Wilson, 25 WAMM systems had been sold in various parts of the world.—John Atkinson
Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606
(801) 377-2233

remlab's picture

What A MMess.

corrective_unconscious's picture

That photo looks more late 60s or early 70s than early 80s, but that's probably Utah versus coastal culture.

Jceaves's picture

Yes, the speakers are the monster. Smile for Mr. Holt, son.