An Infidel’s Glimpse of Paradise: Wilson Audio’s WATT/ Puppy 8

Mike Silverton

[November 2006.]

Wilson Audio's WATT / Puppy 8 Speaker

From high fidelity’s mid-century inception, its consumer products’ advertised virtues have ranged from questionable to that which could perhaps hold true at a black hole’s exit. In the People’s Republic of Audiophilia, hyperbole has long since withered on the vine.

From a small loft in Brooklyn’s Park Slope to an old house in Midcoast Maine (from which I intend to depart on the horizontal), this geezer hi-finik has cohabited with several WATT / Puppy iterations, all of which I’ve loved and enjoyed. Consequently, I read Wilson Audio’s ad in Stereophile describing the qualities that distinguish the WATT / Puppy’s eighth edition with interest — of course! — along with the skepticism that comes of benumbing exposure to audio marketing’s embroidered ways.

The Eights have arrived, and I’ve done a lot of listening. As a launch lubricant, let’s remain with that Stereophile ad. But first, a few details.

The since-departed Series 7’s grilles attach to the WATT and Puppy’s surface-mounted foam diffraction pads by means of Velcro strips. The 8’s diffraction pads are flush with their enclosures’ façades, and the Velcro has been replaced by tidy holes into which one plugs the sturdy, nicely designed grilles. The WATT 8’s inverted titanium tweeter now sits within a black felt frame, and if you believe that these materials — felt and foam — and the manner of their application are typical of the window dressing manufacturers concoct for novelty’s sake, with respect to intervention, listen to the 8s with and without their grilles — which are now in the attic. I’ve no doubt that the Wilson team tested a range of frameworks and fabrics for minimum audibility before settling on their choice. And I’m also convinced that the grilles are included, with reluctance, as a sop to the householder who cannot abide the sight of the drivers. As my wife and I contemplated the grilleless 8s (I think the nude drivers look just dandy), I offered that the speakers are a touch more domesticated than the 7s. Lee sees them as more sophisticated. From what I hear the Series 8 doing, I accept without question that everything about this speaker system is on sonically solid ground. With respect to fit and finish, little comes close. At $27,900USD / the pair, that’s as it should be.

Attention to detail: The WATT couples with the Puppy on three spikes. Like the 7, the WATT 8 comes with an assortment of rear spikes for angling the top unit according to a calculation involving distance and ear-height. And, as with the 7, the rear spike parks in a shallow well. When you position the WATT on the Puppy during setup, two strips of metal allow you to slide the unit into position without gouging the Puppy’s roof. The 7’s metal strips are featureless. The 8’s employ a slightly raised spine at the end of which two small holes receive the WATT’s front spikes. Lower the WATT into position, slide it forward, kerthump. In its small way, reassuring.

Superficially, the System 8’s drivers — tweeter, midrange and woofers — look like the 7’s. In order to remain compliant with European Union requirements, a reconfiguration of X and M materials (proprietary, polymer-based composites) replaces the WATT 7’s internal lead ingots. The WATT 8 weighs less and the Puppy 8 is heavier than their System 7 counterparts. At a total of 340 pounds, the speakers stand where the 7s stood. (The Series 8’s manual covers placement far more exhaustively than any of its predecessors. Absorb these pages in their entirety and you’d be qualified to hang out an acoustician’s — or at the very least a system-installer’s — shingle.)

From that Stereophile ad: “The anti-jitter crossover technology developed for the MAXX Series 2 and Sophia 2 is now part of the System 8. The transition from midrange to treble is significantly more coherent and seamless. Transients are more clearly delineated, without audible overshoot or grain. Bass linearity, impact, and speed increase. The System 8 achieves greater tonal beauty and superior resolution….”

I am hearing differences. Superior resolution, yes. “Greater tonal beauty,” which owes as much to the recording as the hardware, bears further comment. In any event, tonal beauty — synonymous with that audiophile favorite, “musicality” — and resolution are qualities that don’t normally share the same bed. Advances in seamlessness translate for this listener to coherence. In living with the Series 7 and its predecessors, I was oblivious to an uncomfortable fit among the three-way designs. In how we sense differences, taking silence as an illustration, one can become aware of a lower noise floor without ever having been conscious of the noisier component’s shortcomings, and so it is with coherence. I doubt that what I’m hearing can be bettered. To remain with “bass linearity, impact, and speed,” I hear a firm, authoritative and tuneful low end but am reluctant to declare it clearly better than that of the Series 7. “The tweeter technology first developed for the MAXX Series 2 […] is now part of the new WATT / Puppy. High frequency noise and grain are audibly reduced […] The perception of air and extension, combined with sweetness and listenability, far surpasses any other comparable design on the market.” Determined as I am to make immobility my twilight’s modus vivendi, I plead ignorance to an acquaintance with the entire field. However, a perception of better “air and extension” I’d swear to under oath. A Wilson press release makes similar points: The most significant advances are in the tweeter and crossover, permitting the design team to “hear further into the loudspeaker, detect and parse out problems previously obscured….”

* * *

As usual, this year’s shift to Daylight Time disturbed my sleep pattern. I arose at 3:30 (reluctantly) the day after the clock change, making the best of it by indulging a pleasure: early-morning listening when my quiet town is quieter still. I immersed myself in a couple of Hat Hut Guillermo Gregorio CDs: Ellipsis, with the Chicago-based Gregorio, alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Jim O’Rourke, acoustic guitar, accordion; Michael Cameron, acoustic bass (hatOLOGY 511, issued in 1997). With Ellipsis as an excellent example, Gregorio’s understated, calm and unhurried music occupies a position somewhere between a highly intellectualized take on jazz and a likewise thoughtful excursion through art music’s coloristic vanguard — ideal fare for a solitary time of day. Steve Metzger’s recording couldn’t be better: intimate and detailed within a space that sounds exactly right. I’ve played this disc often. This early morning I listened with particular attention for whatever differences I might detect in resolution and transparency.

Iteration 8 remains a WATT / Puppy in continuity’s best sense. Differences are audible yet subtle. I’m reasonably sure I’m hearing Wilson’s claims with respect to tweeter, crossover and enclosure developments as a step closer to the Great Whatever. It’s terribly difficult to compare speakers more similar than not, especially when one system is no longer on the premises. Another Gregorio CD, Background Music (hatOLOGY 526, recorded by John Corbett in Chicago and released in 1998), Gregorio, alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Mats Gustafsson, tenor sax, fluteophone; Kjell Nordeson, drums, percussion: again, a long and lovely sojourn in quietude, leaving me with the same impression — a stunningly clear and engaging picture of low-level activity. Less grain? Greater coherence? Seamless to a fare-thee-well? ’Twould be boorish to naysay.

There’s little purpose to however superb a sound system beyond one’s love of music, the art of recording and its accurate translation to the listening room: melomane, discophile and audiophile under one haircut. You don’t buy a Porsche 911 if driving simply means getting to and from the mall comfortably and without incident. As an imperfect analogy, if you can’t have a Motherwell, Cézanne, Hopper or Magritte over the sofa, and nothing else will do, a reproduction has to suffice. You’d want it to look as much like the original as possible. Cheap paper, inaccurate colors, crude lithographic dots — these cannot convey the impact of the original or, perhaps a touch less affecting, a good facsimile.

Call it a secularist’s take on worshipful love. I greet the piecemeal appearance of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach cantata series on Monteverdi Productions’ Soli Deo Gloria label (www.solideogloria.co.uk) with reverential cheer. There’s nothing in the world quite like Bach’s church cantatas, and these performances are as good as or better than any I’ve heard. Gardiner, with his English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir and excellent vocal soloists, began the project, then called the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, for Archiv Produktions. That relationship dissolved, to be resumed by what I believe is a label with which the conductor is directly involved.

In terms of releases, the project continues in earnest, if eccentrically. With the exception of St. Bartholomew’s in New York City, where the live pilgrimage concluded in 2000, the troupe performed in a number of British and Continental churches. Given the high sonic standard the recording project has set for itself, my guess is that the Polyhymnia team had fits trying to get it right in a succession of new venues. So far, the evidence points to missions accomplished. (And nobody’s strutting about in a flight suit.)

To date, the volumes are numbered 1, 7, 8, 10, 15, 19, 21, 24, and, more curious still, they haven’t appeared in that order. The elegant, book-like covers celebrate global camaraderie with dramatically lit photo-portraits of exotic folk, young and old, nary a garden-variety Lutheran among them. Indeed, volume one features a bearded, rather Rembrandtian-looking Afghani in a turban, perhaps an imam. The irregularly numbered volumes and their artful covers have me bemused. The music and its performance as often as not raises gooseflesh. I gaze into the stereo image, awaiting revelations.

Some productions emphasize warmth. Another Guillermo Gregorio CD, Red Cube(d), hatOLOGY 531, released in 1999, features Gregorio accompanied by Pandelis Karayorgis, piano, and Mat Maneri, electric violin. Recorded in Boston by Antonio Oliart, a soft, commodious focus dominates the spectrum’s high end. With this kind of sound, attempting to detect differences between the Series 7 and 8 becomes difficult. A different style of recording, which includes the Soli Deo Gloria series, is ever so slightly upwardly tipped, thus exquisitely detailed and, relative to an especially humid midrange, somewhat dry. Here, the Series 8’s tweeter and crossover developments seem more apparent. To return to the language of the press release, I do believe I’ve a better, deeper view of the sounding array, enabling me all the more to enjoy Bach’s vocal and instrumental writing. Given Polyhymnia’s sonic style, if a speaker system’s highs are grainy to however slight a degree, you will hear it in the chorales. Attempting as best I can to recall how these discs sounded by way of the Series 7, I have the impression that the WATT / Puppy 8 does the better job of treble resolution. As advertised.

My first exposure to the WATT predated the Puppy’s appearance as the Tiny Tot’s companion. The pair sat in an audiophile’s home on pedestals fronted, if memory serves, by floor-length boards. Well, long anyway. I’m not quite sure what their purpose was — likely some manner of sound reinforcement. From that makeshift beginning, the WATT and its soon-to-join Puppy have had a long and productive history. Perhaps we’ll see a Series 9, though it’s difficult to imagine from where I sit what aspects can be bettered.

* * *

The components behind the WATT / Puppy system: Aurum Acoustics’ Integris CDP, a CD-only player with preamp functions. Several knowing geeks regard the Integris as among the best available. I’ve certainly never heard better CD sound. I bought the unit I reviewed for UltraAudio.com. AurumAcoustics.com provides good views of the Integris, inside and out. A pair of tiny, lightweight (7.5 pounds each), digital NuForce Reference 9 SE amps replace Mark Levinson 33H mono amps, which, in a direct comparison, came off a distant second. For the NuForce amps and Integris CDP I’m using Aurum Acoustics’ tweak of Cardas Golden Reference power cords, a WattGate wall plug comprising the difference from the stock Cardas cord. The audio components are on discrete power lines terminating at the wall in four FIM 880 duplex outlets. At Derrick Moss’ suggestion (he designed the CDP), I have a Richard Gray’s Power Company 1200S line conditioner plugged into the duplex the Integris occupies. It’s his opinion that the line conditioner’s huge choke improves his CDP’s performance, as does a substitution of an Isoclean Power gold-plated fuse. Cabling: Nordost Valkyria speaker cables and Valhalla balanced interconnects.