Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy System 5 loudspeaker

Some products are destined never to be seen for what they are. Instead, they exist as avatars, the very embodiment of their ages or concepts. The Wilson Audio WATT (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot) and its nigh-unto-ubiquitous subwoofer, the Puppy, have achieved this legendary status—no, have manifested it almost from their creation 10 years ago—to such a degree that they've come to stand for the entire class of no-holds-barred-monitor loudspeaker. They serve as the focus for a whole realm of the industry; indeed, to show any customer an expensive speaker possessing a modest footprint and not to invoke the incantation "better than a WATT" seems to abjure any pretense of serious sales strategy. At the same time, this speaker system has polarized the industry and its followers, strongly praised by some for its staggering accuracy, and equally dismissed by others for having little soul (musicality, to the initiated).

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on this expensive, lavishly built loudspeaker system. When JA mentioned, in "Letters," that I had the WATT/Puppy System 5 for review, my phone immediately began ringing off the hook. As nearly as I can recall, the consensus is that they: are too fast and too slow; have no character and possess a mid-bass hump; are hard to place and sound good anywhere (this is a problem?); are too bottom-heavy and too shrill. If everybody who offered me an assessment has really put in time with the WATT/Pups, then stop the presses; we've got a universal reference. Not to mention that manufacturers began showering me with equipment—"Well, as long as you've got the speakers, you really must hear - - - - -; they'll let you hear how good it really is."(Footnote 1)

So here we have a product that everybody knows all about—not that any of them agree! At the same time, the WATT/Puppys seem to have become the industry standard for resolving power.

Is this speaker really that hard to get a handle on? Yes. Is it really that good? Yes. Is it the perfect loudspeaker? (Do you really think I'm going to answer that in my lead?)

Watt's goin' on?
The WATT/Puppy is really two speakers which, taken together, comprise a reasonably full-range speaker system. The WATT was developed by David Wilson to serve as a location monitor for his recordings. Wilson constructed the two-way system with virtually no consideration for cost, which resulted in a speaker that set new standards for freedom from resonance, response speed, and accuracy within its bandwidth. The mass of the individual speakers left consumers gasping—though small, each speaker weighed 70 lbs!

At a time when the most expensive small monitor was the Celestion SL-600, which cost $1600/pair, a pair of Wilsons were priced at a whopping $4400, which essentially took care of any breath left after hefting them. And this for a speaker that, to put it politely, had no bass response to speak of. Solutions were offered immediately—the first being a "beard," or an extension of the speaker's baffle, that altered the 2pi equation and "extended" its low-end response. Most consumers opted for mating the monitor to a subwoofer, however, and it didn't take Wilson long to offer a sub with what he felt to be the necessary speed and transparency to mate with the WATT. Thus was born the Puppy—not really a subwoofer so much as the woofer that the WATT was lacking.

Wilson Audio doesn't divulge much in the way of specifications for either component, so perhaps we should start with a physical description. The WATT is dense, its 70 lbs enclosure enclosing an internal volume of only about 9 liters. The footprint is a scant 11" by 16.5"; front, rear, and both side panels slant inward toward the top-plate, which is half that size—4¾" by 8 1/8"—thus forming a truncated pyramid. The faceplate is covered with a dense suede-finish foam material in order to reduce panel diffraction.

The rear is inset, the side panels extending beyond it to form "flaps" to which a rigid alloy bar is clamped—which puts those relatively large radiating surfaces under stressed reinforcement. The enclosure is machined from a material composed of ceramic and mineral-filled methacrylic polymer, laminated to a bituminous compound on the inner surface—which further damps panel modes. Tuned, seismic damping is provided by 20mm lead slabs that are bolted internally to elastic mountings. The driver complement is one 1" inverted titanium-dome Focal tweeter, and one 7" Scanspeak midrange/woofer. Both are proprietary designs which Wilson has further modified—the Scanspeak driver looks a bit scabrous, as it has been treated with some sort of (randomly applied, it seems) damping compound. The rear panel features a removable tuned port; Wilson Audio supplies a second port, differently tuned, for users of tube amplifiers. (If the WATT is to be used with a Puppy, Wilson recommends using the standard port only—no matter what amplifier is mated to the system.)

Footnote 1: Music Hall's Roy Hall rang the most interesting change on this one, offering to send me an inexpensive preamp and murmuring, "It's cheap and some people say it's nasty, but I think you'll be surprised at how good it sounds."
Wilson Audio
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, UT 84606-6222
(801) 377-2233