August 1, 2004
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 7 Loudspeakers
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 7 loudspeaker is mans best friend. All right, at $22,400 USD per pair, lets make that an audiophiles best friend, a relationship I shall attempt to establish in a professionally disinterested fashion.
I begin blandly enough by stating that two Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s now stand exactly where once stood my two WATT/Puppy 6es, emphasis on exactly: The 7s floor spikes fill the holes poked by my 6es.
Your reporters adventures in WATT/Puppyhood began with Series 5, which was actually the breeds fourth generation. Wilson exports a significant amount of product to Asia. The Chinese hold the number 4 to be bad luck, hence the jump from 3 to 5, with the sonic and scenic differences between Series 5 and 6 favoring the update in a big way. The WATT 5 was affixed to the rimless Puppy 5 by nothing more than sticky dots. If the Puppys were anything other than perfectly level, the WATTs would in time migrate -- not much, just enough to irritate. With its handsomely tapered topside rim, Series 6s larger Puppy projected a rather more handsome and sculptural look -- and the WATT 6 didnt migrate. Like the 6, the WATT/Puppy 7 is as elegantly made and aesthetically pleasing a speaker as Ive seen. Ive always played my WATT/Puppys without their grilles, and so requested that the 7s grille-grabbing Velcro strips be omitted. Its a cleaner look. (Wilson provides two sets of grilles: a framed, open-weave fabric, and frameless foam.)
From the start, Wilson has used composites rather than wood, or the near-ubiquitous fiberboard, in its pursuit of speaker-cabinet inertia. Rapping on a WATT or Puppy of any generation is hard on the knuckles. Appearance-wise, the WATT 6 and 7 are about indistinguishable; the Puppy 7 differs from its predecessor only in its left and right side walls (wings). Both 6 and 7 offer four choices of lift to adjust for the WATTs phase alignment, relative to the distances of oneself from the speakers and ones ears from the floor. The 7s wings, slightly taller toward the rear, better conceal the backside gap between Puppy and WATT. Purely cosmetic.
According to Wilson Audio, Scan-Speak in Denmark manufactures to Wilson specs the 7s midrange driver and woofer. The Puppy 7s new woofer is said to provide flatter response, speedier transients, and somewhat deeper extension (more about this below). The WATT 7s Focal tweeter is modified by Wilson in Provo, Utah, mainly by the addition of a sealed enclosure behind the tweeter-motor structure. As for the WATT 7s new formulation, in typically Wilsonian tight-lipped fashion, the promotional prose identifies the composites only as X and M: "Distortion, noise, and audible . . . resonance are all substantially reduced." The crossover, too, has been modified, but sealed as it is like a bug in amber, any improvements remain undisclosed.
In a phone chat I had with Dave Wilson, I asked whether hed be better off designing and manufacturing all his own parts. His answer was intriguing. Wilsons company is certainly doing enough business to afford the expense of tooling up. However, once a designer-manufacturer has committed resources to an in-house component, hes reluctant, for obvious reasons, to give it up any time soon, whatever the temptation. For example, what if a driver manufacturer develops a product that Wilson thinks would be ideal for a Wilson system -- better, indeed, than his hypothetical own, into which hes sunk a hypothetical bundle? In the long run, its more cost-effective and less stressful to have a quality OEM manufacturer modify an already well-executed driver to Wilsons specific needs; or, as with the WATT 7s Focal tweeter, have it modified at the Wilson factory.
I asked Dave Wilson about his cryptically named enclosure materials. Composition X, first used in the X-1 Grand SLAMM, consists of a "very hard" phenolic resin and mineral mix -- and, I suspect, a dollop or two of other stuff. The more recently developed composition M, "harder than the best MDF" but softer than composition X, contains "wood fiber and other organic materials" (eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog?). M surpasses X at "settling resonances in the midrange." It also does better at coupling driver frames to enclosures.
Apart from a reviewers bloviations about the discs he played, nothing is as tiresome as the parroting of a manufacturers information -- not that Ive ever had occasion to doubt or question a Wilson claim. Conversely, nothings as stimulating to a writer as attempting to describe what he hears a speaker doing, for better or ill -- stimulating and challenging.
Lets remember that the WATT/Puppy 6 is one peach of a system. (I choose is over was in deference to those who may be looking to score a pair. The speaker still exists, and its not likely to decompose.) The 6, as mentioned, is a step up from the 5. The WATTs geometry hasnt changed since its inception, though its drivers, crossovers, and enclosure components certainly have. Dave Wilson conceived the WATT (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot) as a portable recording-session monitor. After a few less-than-ideal stabs at the WATTs domestication, Wilson introduced the Puppy as the weighty little brutes domicile-friendly perch and low-frequency companion piece, which is how the system has long been marketed.
However, my first experience of the WATT antedates the Puppys introduction. Audio writer Michael Gindi had a pair in his home. I dont recall what kind of pedestal they occupied, but I do remember the "beard," a Wilson-crafted apron. Its purpose, I believe, was to smooth and extend the WATTs low end, such as it was. Honest-to-God woofers dwelt elsewhere in the room.
I wasnt much taken by that early WATTs sound, but was definitely impressed with the detail and dimensions of the soundfield it cast, reluctant as I was to admit it. Dr. Gindi and I hit it off like butter in a hot skillet and wound up exchanging several published unpleasantries. Trivia buffs can find them in the moldering pages of ancient issues of Fanfare. Before I was demoted to record reviewer, I contributed a column, "Random Noise," where, among other scattershot activities, I did verbal battle with what Ive since become: a carefree, to-hell-with-double-blind-testing subjectivist. I learned early in the game that you can say what you please about music without risking riptides of ire. But poke fun at high-distortion tubed electronics? Burning the flag is nothing by comparison.
When it comes to fundamentalist zealotry, I wish I could afford the luxury of contempt. At the time of lAffaire Gindi, I was one of Roy Allisons acolytes -- or, more precisely, much influenced by a strict, numbers-tell-the-story objectivist for whom the sun rose and set on his audio hero. I mention this only because Allison designed and manufactured his own drivers. Anyone who did otherwise was a mere "enclosure stuffer." The well-reviewed Allison Model One remained unchanged for better than a dozen years. With that time scale perhaps in mind, my guru expressed contempt for audio designers who brought modifications to market more speedily than seemed fitting. "Why cant they get it right the first time?" Its a fair question, but frequently its the wrong question. If something initially good can in time be improved on, should it be? Obviously, yes. With respect to my having lived with three WATT/Puppy iterations, the successors to the excellent Series 5 represent good, valid advances. Nor is it a matter of apples and oranges: the Series 7 is very much a WATT/Puppy.
As mentioned, the 7s woofers are new. However, to return to my conversation with Dave Wilson, extensive work on the crossover accounts in larger measure for the differences between Puppys 6 and 7. I tried a few organ recordings, and the low-end extension impressed me as rather more than slight. Those long, lovely pipes communicated their punch with greater authority than Id heard in my room, which, in fairness, is not quite what it was when the 6es were here. The spaces five windows -- two facing the street, three comprising a large bay to the left of the sweet spot -- have been changed. Milady and I decided to replace largely inoperable antiques, along with their ill-fitting storm windows, with double-glazed vinyls. The new windows are great at masking street-traffic noise, and, more to our purpose, they imitate a wall a lot better than the old windows did. Its no secret that windows can degrade a sound systems low end. Otherwise, nothing in the room has changed. Had I assessed the 6 and 7 under identical conditions, Ive the feeling Id still be impressed by the 7s bass, which sounded to me smoother and deeper. I also think it integrates better with the WATT. As coherent a system as the 6 is, the 7s seamlessness was more impressive yet.
All my WATT/Puppys have been bears for resolution, permitting me to detect the subtlest differences among recordings. Their character has been that of the production. As with its low end, the 7 seems to do even better in this regard. I suspect that what I was responding to was superior coherence not only between its upper and lower units, but within the WATT itself. Early in my listening sessions -- before the system ought to have been broken in -- I remarked the 7s openness. Did crossover modifications account for what I was hearing, or was it as much a matter of the WATTs enclosure formulation? Its fun to speculate, but it was even more fun to listen to the music filling the room. The Series 7s rather astonishing transparency could not be denied. And Im sorry, but theres no way to express my admiration without discussing a few recordings. But first . . .
For the purpose of these comments, I did not install the Walker UHD Links I had at the WATT 6es binding posts. The speaker cables and interconnects, which Ill be reporting on presently, are Audio Magic Clairvoyants. The CD player is the Mark Levinson No.390S, an upgrade of the No.39. The mono amps are ML No.33Hs. My Reimyo line conditioner, connected to which are two Harmonix Studio Master power cords, incorporates Quantums QRT technology. A Quantum Symphony and Quantum Symphony Pro are also in operation. The electronic components sit on SRA platforms, and my sound system takes its power from four dedicated 20A lines with FIM 880 outlets.
Morton Feldman and the FLUX Quartets String Quartet No.2 [Mode 112] consist of a five-CD, six-hour-plus performance. Thats right: 6:07:07 of two violins, viola, and cello in a one-movement work. As in much of Feldmans music, events unfold sotto voce. The magic is in the simplicity of patterned understatement. We hear no heroic rhetoric from the cello, for example, thus nothing to remind one of the 7s glorious low midrange to midbass. Weve other delights to savor. Ive played these discs on the 6es and have been impressed by the intimacy of recording engineer David Walters fine detailing. The FLUXers are well served by a sensitive production.
In listening to the quartet on the WATT/Puppy 7, I was yet more keenly aware of the strings wonderful textures. They filled the space like luxuriant, subtly hued textiles. Thanks to the 7s extraordinary resolution, transparency, and low-level detail, the very air enveloping these uncomplicated tones radiated harmonic largesse. I suspect that I was rather close to what Feldman must have imagined as he composed his second quartet. As one of modern musics great sensualists, he relished sounds every nuance -- overtones, decays, harmonic interactions set against silence. (Or nearly: on this as well as a few other recordings Ive played, I can actually hear the mikes. The sound resembles a sustained soft breath.)
In starkest contrast was Helmut Lachenmanns opera (of sorts), Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern [CD, Kairos 0012282KAI], based on Hans Christian Andersens The Little Match Girl. Lachenmann, an utterly committed, take-no-prisoners modernist (and a great favorite of mine), employs instruments in hugely unconventional, often unrecognizable ways. In the effects he applies to high-tension conceptions, hes Feldmans polar opposite. Suffice for these remarks that engineer Gerd Puchelts beautifully detailed recording ranges from the barely audible to the thunderous. In audiophile terms, were treated to the kitchen sink: keen-edged transients tick-tock soft to howitzer-loud, along with a vast assortment of description-defying sonorities in a spacious, lifelike soundfield. The 6 handled this handsomely, and the 7 just better enough, again in terms of resolution and transparency, to justify the difference. The 6 and 7 are siblings to the bone, the younger being better at what both do so well.
Listening carefully to well-produced CDs has helped me understand what sets the WATT/Puppy 7 apart. I mention in my Feldman remarks a strong sense of texture. Bang on a Can is a New York new-music organization; their So Percussion [Cantaloupe CA21022] features music by Evan Ziporyn and David Lang. The middle track of Langs The So-Called Laws of Nature is scored for some kind of metallophones -- bars of brass or bronze perhaps, or struck bells (the insert provides scant information) -- and medium-deep drums. Wow. Gooseflesh. Hairs bristling on the back of the neck. The struck metals complexity -- its texture -- put me there. To my mind, nothing sets a good sound system apart so much as resolution. Any adequately powered rig can play loud, but with this much detail? Not likely.
Finally (youve been very good), on an old (1987) all-digital CD, the human voice: soprano Pamela Coburn and baritone Hermann Prey singing Brahmss settings of German folksongs, accompanied by pianist Geoffrey Parsons (Helge Jörns, engineer [Capriccio 10 199]). Im reminded -- again -- that the silver discs detractors could more profitably have spent their time fertilizing crops. This is a beautiful release with, once more, that thrilling sense of texture, of both voices and piano. Lest you mistake the term to mean fulsome infusions of analytical purity (read: brittle and cold), understand that Im talking about the kind of humid fun that approaches voyeurism -- an observation that only an audiophile could possibly understand.
It occurs to me that harping on a single quality -- texture -- might inadvertently convey the suggestion of coloration: that the WATT/Puppy 7 contributed a euphonious effect. Not so. Ive been hearing that delightful something extra only from notably good productions. Other productions, even those as remarkable as Ken Wilkinsons engineering of early stereo performances (such as Brahmss Symphony 2, with Fritz Reiner and the Royal Philharmonic [Chesky Gold Series CD CG906]), convey what my WATT/Puppys have always permitted me to hear: the limitations and distortions of the technology of its time (1962, in the case of this excellent reissue). The WATT/Puppy 7s resolution, transparency, micro- and macrodynamic capabilities, timbral accuracy, and soundfield projection are the best Ive lived with.
Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 7 Loudspeakers
Wilson Audio Specialties, Inc.
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