Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8 loudspeaker Page 2

Guitarist David Russell's performance of Albéniz's Malagueña, Op.165 No.3, on his Art of Guitar (CD, Telarc CD-80672), was fascinating. Although the W/P8s were widely spaced at 7' apart, they projected Russell's guitar solidly between them, enveloped by—no, suspended within—the reverberant acoustic of the recording venue. I'm not talking about a pinpoint guitar submerged within a big old cushion of warm decay, but a physical instrument—more soundboard than string—projecting into a supportive space that was rendered as solidly as was Russell himself.

The room acoustic of Toby Twining's Chrysalid Requiem (CD, Cantaloupe Music CA 21007) was far less immediately apparent, because the individual vocal lines are all separately (and closely) miked. What this recording shared with Art of the Guitar, however, was the W/P's astonishing transparency. Twining's Requiem is an hour-long exploration of the possibilities of vocal music, fusing the form of the Roman Catholic mass onto vocal techniques from around the world. Specifically modeled on the overtone structures of rung bells, the Requiem employs vocal techniques that range from interlocking hockets to overtone chanting to create intensely mystical music. There are also overtone clashes, phantom tones, stacked harmonics, warbles, and Leslie-style rotating sound—all produced naturally, without electronic manipulation. These effects aren't normally served particularly well by hi-fi systems, especially loudspeakers, because they require precise re-creation combined with an absence of masking imperfections. Heard live, phantom tones can be surprisingly loud and active suckers; most speakers swallow 'em or pin 'em to a single spot.

Not the WATT/Puppy 8s, oh my no. Was it the tweeter? The crossover? The new cabinet? Magic 8-Ball sez: Signs point to Yes.

The inner wind harmonies on Private Astronomy's "There Ain't No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears," by Geoff Muldaur's Futuristic Ensemble (CD, Edge 028947458326), were delightfully delineated, creating cushiony contrast for Randy Sandke's piercing cornet and Martha Wainwright's brassy vocals. The soundstage was large but far from immense, and everything was spread across the space far more comfortably than when I saw the 13-piece band squeeze onto the stage at Joe's Pub in 2003. However, Jonathan Levine's baritone sax solo (which Muldaur boldly substituted for Joe Venuti's violin solo from Paul Whiteman's original) sounded perhaps a trifle too warm, as did Arnie Kinsella's kickdrum.

"Perhaps," "a trifle"—or was I finally hearing the recording accurately for the first time?

I certainly wasn't able to bring any preconceptions to Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), mostly because John Atkinson handed me a 24-bit/88.2kHz DVD-A of his preliminary mixes less than a week after the performance. I sure hadn't heard it on anything else—heck, other than JA, nobody had.

Merkin's lively acoustic was prominent, but it was the recording's dynamic range that pegged my ears back. The band sure could play loud, but it wasn't just that—Attention Screen employs changes in dynamics as easily as it rings melodic and harmonic changes. Drummer Mark Flynn uses the whole spectrum from total silence to explosive pounding—and the W/P8s kept him as big and loud as life.

At the concert, I felt Bob Reina's unamplified piano didn't project into the hall as well as I would have wished, especially in the tuttis. JA's rough mix actually improved on the event; Reina's impressionistic use of the Steinway's tonal color was revealed as the essential component that it actually had been.

The W/P8s came awfully close to capturing the all-out sonic assault of Attention Screen live. Their sound was huge, although the attack of Flynn's kick drum seemed less incisive than it had live. Still, few loudspeakers capture as much of the electricity of live music as the Wilsons did.

All hands on deck
I didn't have any speakers on hand in the rather exalted price range of the WATT/Puppy 8, but I did have the Dynaudio Confidence C4s ($18,000/pair, Class A in "Recommended Components"), which I'd written a Follow-Up on in March 2007. Maybe the two speakers didn't live on the same block, but they were certainly in the same neighborhood.

Although neither the Wilsons nor the Dynaudios ever taxed my Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks, the Wilsons got a lot more jump at the same loudness levels, so I was careful to level-match the comparisons. While matching levels puts speakers on a more equal footing, there's a reason the words acoustic and immense figure so prominently in my descriptions of the Wilsons' performance: Those properties are innate.

The C4s captured the phenomenal slam of Live at Merkin Hall, but the sound of the hall itself was more dominant through the W/P8s. The sense that the instruments both created and existed within the Merkin's soundfield was just stronger with the Wilsons.

I preferred that excitement, but that doesn't mean you will. There were times playing back the Attention Screen recording when I thought that that "excitement" might have been a tweeter artifact. It wasn't ringy and it wasn't bright, but a different pair of ears might have heard the Dynaudios' more laid-back presentation as more truthful.

Where I felt the C4 was unquestionably more accurate was in the bottom octave. Despite the difference in size, the smaller WATT/Puppy 8 probably generated deeper bass than the C4, but that bass also seemed warmer and ever-so-slightly smeared—especially in deep transient attacks. Yes, down low, the Dynaudio may have been a touch more laid-back, but its sins were those of omission. Perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder.

That sense of control might have worked against the C4s with Twining's Requiem. There's not much sense of space on that recording, but the Dynaudios just didn't create that jump sensation with all the overtone action up top.

I could have gone either way with Russell's Malagueña. The Wilsons were almost bigger than life. Well, not really—it was like hearing Russell in my own living room. The C4s placed him about 20' away—close enough, but not as right there as the W/P8s. And yes, there was a difference in perspective as well as in tonal balance. When speakers capture as much of that right here right now excitement as the Wilsons did, it's hard to resist.

There was a similar change of perspective with the Geoff Muldaur track, but again, I felt the Wilsons warmed up (and blunted) the bass drum and baritone sax enough to call attention to themselves—all the more because of how perfectly the W/P8s captured Martha Wainwright's breathy vocals. The C4s' top-to-bottom coherence got me closer to that 2003 night at Joe's Pub, even if they put me farther from the stage.

Paris is well worth a mass
There's no such thing as a perfect loudspeaker, even one as sophisticated and expensive as the Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 8. I feel strange even having to say that, despite its being my job. David Wilson has been refining his WATT design for more than 20 years, and for the last decade it has been one of the proverbial speakers to beat if you wanted to even pretend to have a world-class contender.

Yet the WATT/Puppy has also been a lightning rod for controversy. The speakers aren't everyone's cup of tea—well, what is? They're unquestionably costly—kind of hard to deny that, what with a $27,900/pair price tag hanging off the System 8. All I can say to that is that every pot has its boiling point.

Here's what I can tell you: In my opinion, what was a very good speaker to begin with has gotten better. Your opinion may differ, especially if you own a pair of WATT/Puppy 6s or 7s. What I hear as changes for the better might strike fans as a change in character. Ironically, the closer the W/P8 gets to "perfect," the more its scant shortcomings seem to matter. Go figure.

The W/P8 appears to be a relatively easy load to drive. I even drove it with the 2.2Wpc Cayin HA-1A, not that any sane person would. Like all Wilson loudspeakers, it is meticulously constructed and finished. It produces an immense soundstage without dominating your listening room, and it captures the excitement of live music as do few loudspeakers I've heard.

You may not like the WATT/Puppy, but I'd bet the chances are greater that you'll love it. While acknowledging that it's not perfect, I'm a lot closer to "love" than to "like." But here's the thing: You do have to hear this loudspeaker—otherwise, no matter what speaker you choose, no matter how much you end up spending, you'll always wonder: Is this as good as a WATT/Puppy System 8?

Give David Wilson his props: He may have meant to build a monitor loudspeaker only for his own use. Instead, he built a benchmark.

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606
(801) 377-2233