In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018

David Wilson, assembling a WAMM loudspeaker, 1986. Courtesy of Wilson Audio.

In Chicago in 1972, Peter McGrath was holding down a part-time job in a stereo store, while he pursued his graduate studies in fine art.

For those who were not alive and aware at the time, the early 1970s witnessed the dawning of the second Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The first Golden Age encompassed the late 1940s through early 1960s. Pioneering companies included Fisher, McIntosh Laboratory, and Marantz (electronics); Klipsch (horn loudspeakers); QUAD (electrostatic loudspeakers, and electronics); and Acoustic Research (acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, and turntables). The great hi-fi companies of the 1950s established the component stereo system (consisting of a turntable and sometimes a tuner or reel-to-reel tape deck, vacuum-tube amplification, and loudspeakers) as a vital part of what was understood to be “the good life.”

I think it is tremendously important to point out that although hi-fi started out as a hands-on hobby for technically-inclined males, by the late 1950s, high-quality music playback in the home via stereo components was almost universally regarded as something to aspire to—even if in many cases, people had to settle for suitcase stereos or the massive pieces of furniture called console stereos. Going back and reading general-circulation magazines of the 1950s (as well as male-oriented magazines such as Esquire and Playboy), one is struck by the prevalence of advertisements for hi-fi components and loudspeakers, as well as for “culturally improving” book and record clubs.

More context, backstory, and appreciations of David A. Wilson, after the jump link.

A listening party in the 1950s with what may be Eico electronics and a Rek-O-Kut turntable.

The many virtues of 1950s hi-fi (including overall listenability, low fatigue factor, and a lifelike midrange presence) were not enough to save such products when the commercialization of the power transistor coincided with the popularity of power-hungry acoustic-suspension loudspeakers. In all that, not to be ignored is the rationalist fanatic’s fixation on things that can be “objectively” measured.

So, the first Golden Age was followed by an Age of Tin; or, if you prefer, the Age of Boom and Sizzle. The “midrange magic” formerly taken for granted often was gone; but at least the components measured better! That might have been good enough for people who chose their equipment by evaluating the claims in advertisements in Stereo Review magazine. Fortunately, true believers in the transformative capabilities of great music played back on truly great-sounding equipment were waiting in the wings, preparing for their turn on stage. True believers such as Dave Wilson.

These audio visionaries all had in common excellent ears and the thirst to hear the finest possible audio reproduction in the home (as well as having enviable work ethics, and the courage to take risks on their quests). The second Golden Age of Hi-Fi came about when these visionaries set out to surpass the status quo—each according to his interests and capabilities. But the over-arching rubrics were the convictions that not everything that could be measured was important; that not everything that was important could be measured; and therefore, the true test of audio performance was listening by a trained listener.

The second Golden Age brought about:

  • A re-examination and in many cases the embrace of vacuum-tube electronics;
  • A closer inquiry into getting the best sound out of vinyl LPs; an inquiry that to a large part depended upon counter-intuitive explorations such as the Linn Sondek;
  • Alternative polyradial, omnidirectional, or panel-speaker loudspeaker designs from Shahinian, Carlsson (Sonab), Walsh (Ohm), Magnepan, Acoustat, and others.
  • The growing realization that wires and cables had been a bottleneck hampering sound reproduction, starting with Bob Fulton’s “outrageous” Gold loudspeaker wire (at the time, $4.00 per foot).
  • A sharpened focus on purist/minimal signal chains while making recordings, including direct-cut LPs, as exemplified by early Sheffield Lab and Crystal Clear recordings.

Peter McGrath’s 1972 stereo-store customer was an earnest, dedicated young man on a mission—to make the best-quality tape recordings anyone ever had. David Wilson’s day jobs had been in the pharmacy and medical-technology industries, but his avocation was making high-quality recordings of church choirs. Peter McGrath sold Wilson a vacuum-tube stereo preamplifier by Audio Research Corporation. But rather than use the ARC preamplifier in a home playback system, Wilson redesigned and modified it to function as a high-quality vacuum-tube microphone preamplifier.

When Peter McGrath told me this story years ago, I was so impressed by the counter-intuitive thinking (and I remain impressed). But once you get past the “Ah-ha!” moment, it is rather obvious that scaling up a microphone’s output is not that dissimilar an engineering challenge from scaling up a phono cartridge’s output. In 1972, there were lots of commercially-available microphone preamplifiers. But most of them were made for non-critical uses such as AM radio broadcasting. Dave Wilson took the position that what was already out there was not good enough for the recordings he wanted to make, and so he applied his scientific background to solving the problem from a starting place of no preconceived notions. That’s the bold kind of thinking and fastidious practical application that made the Second Golden Age of Hi-Fi a Golden Age.

Wilson took the same approach when it came to playback-monitoring loudspeakers. He expended much time and brainpower on the problem of time alignment, that is, co-ordinating the launch times of the wavefronts from tweeter, midrange, and woofer properly to integrate at the listening position recreate the harmonic structure and spatial localization cues of the original performance. The result was Wilson’s “WAMM” loudspeakers, four columns each six feet six inches tall, weighing in total more than 1,000 pounds. The “Unique Selling Proposition” of the WAMMs was their modular design, which allowed the physical distance from the midrange and treble drivers to be adjusted for the listening room and listening position. (Please refer to the top photo.) Wilson took his loudspeakers out to trade shows, only to find out that some people were more interested in his loudspeakers than in his recordings. The rest, as they say, is history.

I think it significant that even when Wilson Audio had captured more than 50% of the market for loudspeakers costing over $10,000 a pair, Dave Wilson continued to regard Wilson Audio Specialties’ first business as making recordings. In an interview in 1990, at a time when the modular WATT/Puppy combination was the best-selling loudspeaker over $10,000/pr., Wilson told Stereophile‘s John Atkinson: “The WATT, like the WAMM, was originally designed as a reference loudspeaker tool, because, believe it or not, Wilson Audio is primarily a recording company.”

Wilson Audiophile Definitive Recordings put out 27 commercial releases on LP and CD between 1977 and 1995. I am of course biased, but I think that the Dave Wilson recording that does the best job of refuting (Gordon) Holt’s Law (that in “audiophile” recordings there is often an inverse relationship between the quality of the recorded sound and the value of the performance as music-making) is Hyperion Knight’s début LP of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata coupled with Stravinsky’s solo-piano “Scenes from Petrushka.” Hyperion Knight was kind enough to share his thoughts:

My first meeting with Dave Wilson had all the characteristics of most of our meetings: it was both delightful and quirky. He came to audition me for his new record label at the home of a mutual friend, on an upright piano. His overwhelming passion for music, for sound, and for friendship were all in abundant display, and we quickly inked a deal for me to make several discs for Wilson Audiophile Definitive Recordings. Over the years I became close with his family, and his wonderful wife Sheryl was there every step of the way to help and guide us. The Wilsons are a remarkable family, just as remarkable as the man who blazed so many new trails in the world of audio. Dave will be missed by those of us lucky enough to have known him, as well as by the countless thousands who were touched by his work.

My most lasting impression of Dave and Sheryl Lee Wilson dates back to the early 1990s and one of the earliest audio shows I attended (or perhaps it was a Winter CES). This was at a time when the Wilsons were still actively promoting their recordings, and so instead of a hotel room or suite with loudspeaker playback, their display was in a typical trade-show “pipe and drape” booth. The owners of the company stood behind a table covered with recordings, chatting people up. On the last day of the audio show (a Sunday), though, the booth was empty, and the Wilsons were nowhere to be found. Ah-ha, I quietly said to myself. There are 613 what I call “Tactful Suggestions” in the Five Books of Moses. One of them is:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

I was impressed then, and I remain impressed now. Dave Wilson and his best friend, his wife Sheryl Lee, charted the course for the most successful high-end loudspeaker company ever, while along the way making some truly memorable recordings. But I am confident that for them, faith and family came first.

Eternal rest grant him, O Lord.

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16 Replies to “In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018”

  1. Harry

    Awesome! A lot packed in there that flew over my head but enough context for someone not familiar with the subject matter to enjoy the article. I now look forward to doing some googling to learn some vocab.

    The history of how we got to where we are in regards to audio equipment is fascinating to me, but inaccessible with my level of knowledge. I think going down a few rabbit holes with the information provided here will be a good time.

    Reply
    • john marks

      Thanks. I know that Dave Wilson welcomed constructive discussions; furthermore, the fact that his loudspeakers went through several iterations indicated to me that he truly was a “lifelong learner” who was always on the path of Continuous Improvement.

      If you can handle a long article, I spoke to a Polish + German audio e-zine about the history of home audio and how these days (1) fine audio is the victim of its own success, and (2) going after rich people simply because they have a lot of money just might be the death of the industry (at least in the US).

      http://highfidelity.pl/@main-490&lang=en

      There are also a few “Desert Island” recording selections, and I think that everybody will benefit from those.

      ATB,

      jm

      Reply
  2. JMcG

    Thank you Mr. Marks. I wish this piece were longer. I’m no audiophile, but I enjoy what you have to say and even more, the way you say it.

    Reply
    • john marks

      Thanks. Please see above re: the Polish audio magazine interview (Duuh, the version I link to is in English), if you really want a longer meditation on wherefore fine audio in the 21st c.

      jm

      Reply
  3. Eric H

    I’m glad he tried to push the state of the art but there were some poor decisions in there as well.

    I’ve spent some time with some WATT/Puppy and X-1 Grand Slamm, they were good but did not blow me away. I ended up buying a pair of Dunlavy speakers because they had a precision and purity missing on everything else I auditioned.

    I really wish people would drop vinyl already. It has so much phase distortion from the RIAA equalization it makes my head swim. Similar thing with tubes, they’re noisy and degrade and don’t even start me on the limitations of output transformers. Tubes ARE great for music instrument amps where you use their shortcomings as an effect.

    Reply
    • Ben Johnson

      John, you provided a nice dip into an amazing time of possibilities and showed us a kindly man. Seattle used to have a company called Speaker Lab where you could buy these neat kits to make your own speakers – one of my friends asked David for any tips and he kindly and generously provided his experience on how to deaden the box. In cars terms it would be as if Colin Chapman helped someone with their Super 7 kit.

      And let the perpetual light shine upon him.

      Reply
    • john marks

      Dear Eric,

      Please see above; I think it honors Dave’s memory first to engage in respectful dialog about audio and second to see his life whole and unflinchingly. Dave would be the first to say he was on a learning curve. The big difference between the first WATT/Puppy and later versions was that the punishing half-Ohm impedance dip was (in that time frame) to a degree ameliorated, and he pretty much admitted that that was a mistake.

      I think that Dave was the classic “Watts is cheap” designer, even while at the same time he always strove for higher efficiency.

      Dunlavys were good speakers, IMHO, but I also think that his original Duntech were better. Mastering engineers still pay good money for Duntech 2001s, but not as far as I know for Dunlavy models.

      My own take is that before the original Sophia, Wilson loudpeakers had my respect but not my love; since then, they have really gotten both very good, and I think light-years away from the sound of the era you refer to.

      David was blessed to live long enough to see his masterpiece set out upon the waters. A life well lived.

      jm

      Reply
    • Bill Malcolm

      You might want to consider the signal fed to the record cutter in the first place. The playback reverses the RIAA curve including the phase shift you complain of. In other words, phase shifts in RIAA networks are linear and reversible. So what you say is mostly not correct; since you don’t like vinyl playback, you’ll have to think of some other technical excuse. Same with tubes, a decent amp is more than quiet enough. Easily measured. Perhaps you should just say you don’t like vinyl and tubes and leave it at that.

      Reply
      • john marks

        Hi, Bill!

        Do you have an engineering degree; and, is it from Texas A&M???

        If so, you just walked into the classic “Texas A&M Engineering Degree” joke.

        Just sayin’.

        BTW: Ever stood there counting the dollars while someone cuts an LP for you? Back in the day, Bob Ludwig did my LP mastering for me.

        RIAA phase shift is only reversible to the extent that all the passive components in both signal chains are (i) perfectly accurate and precise; and (ii) perfectly linear from below 20Hz to above 20kHz.

        In other words, Aggie: in the real world, cows ain’t spherical.

        jm
        Proud holder of a Vanderbilt degree; in Nashville, the cows ain’t spherical!

        Reply
      • safe as milk

        I was just reading today in an old interview with the famed audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder that he considered vinyl records to be a terribly flawed playback medium. In particular he pointed out how difficult it was to master to disc in a way that accurately corrected for the RIAA curve.

        Reply
        • john marks

          Thank you…

          RIAA is not the only problem. While most people are aware that the system of tonearm and stylus suspension has its own resonant frequency, the stylus cantilever itself has a resonance that is high up in the audio band–there’s a huge quote from Stanley Kelly writing in Gramophone in 1966 that is too long to post here, but his point is that there are multiple resonances with a big one at 8kHz (in one particular cartridge). Hand in hand with that, that region is where the stylus is most efficient, and its efficiency drops by a (nominal!) 6dB per octave all the way down.

          So the phono stage has to compensate first for the baked-in-the-loaf base-shy-ness of the stylus-cantilever-and-motor system, just to get as accurate a read as it can on the RIAA-encoded signal, and then apply the inverse curves. (By the way, the British firm Graham Slee makes a phono stage that can apply only the stylus-efficiency compensation so what comes off the LP is in theory a close analog of the RIAA-encoded signal that was cut, for those who wish to make a hi-res digital rip so they can do the RIAA inversion in the digital domain.) But I have to restate that the stylus correction is nominal and I assume based on an average of a meaningful amount of data. This is the bathroom-keyhole view of why LP playback is so fussy and why a given combination of tone arm, cartridge and phono stage just might not sound worth the money while another one sounds golden.

          I ghost-wrote the CES press release for a phono stage that has an MSRP of $45,000. Yes, that’s right, a forty-five thousand dollar phono stage. There are people who are willing to pay that because they understand how demanding proper LP playback is in a real-world sense.

          But in all fairness, the human ear-brain system is both forgiving and creative… When I spoke about these matters at a conference at Yale last fall (#humblebrag) I quipped that the miracle of stereo LP playback is that it works at all. The human ear-brain system can put up with dehydrated-and-rehydrated bass response, poor channel separation, and limited dynamic range, and allow us to be taken in, and taken for a ride to some lovely places.

          jm

          Reply
  4. bbakkerr

    Enjoyed this journey into the audio world via Wilson via John, thank you. That listening party pic is priceless.

    Reply
    • john marks

      Thank you. If you want my half-hour sermon to the industry (in English, I hasten to add), klicken sie hier:

      http://highfidelity.pl/@main-490&lang=en

      And in any event, if you have not heard each and every one of my must-hear recordings, you are missing out.

      BTW, I keep the listening-party painting (by a famous commercial artist whose name I cannot summon up at the moment) handy because it shows that an important part of post-WWII society and culture was the democratization of high culture (as well as the fact that the art music called jazz was the most “popular” musical genre). The problem for high end audio today is that audio in general is the victim of its own technological and marketing successes. Everybody thinks that “good” sound is important in their lives–their cars, computers, and phones all play music–but the number of people willing to pay a lot of money to get sound better than what Sonos delivers for under $1000 gets smaller as a percentage of the population each year.

      Back at the outset of high-class cars in Europe, builders sold a chassis and a drivetrain and the customer selected a coachbuilder. The few coachbuilders who survived WWII did not survive the era of “soak the rich” luxury taxation. I think that history may turn out to be to a degree predictive of the fate of brick and mortar stereo stores, at least in the US. Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe will still provide opportunities for high-end audio–but not as a democratizing product the was Dynaco amplifiers and AR turntables were 60 years ago

      ATB,

      jm

      Reply
  5. Disinterested-Observer

    Takes all kinds. I can’t imagine anything on this fancy equipment sounding better than youtube clip of Townes performing “Pancho and Lefty” from Heartworn Highways played through my shitty computer speakers.

    Reply
    • john marks

      Please let me know where you live and I will try to arrange a personal absolutely no obligation listening session for you at a Wilson dealer, and if there is not one close enough, perhaps another stereo store. My personal email is johnnywehardly located within the caverns of gee mail dott cahm.

      If there is a high-res download of “Poncho and Lefty,” I will buy it for them.

      ATB,

      jm

      Reply
  6. Shocktastic

    As someone who sold a raft/logjam of midfi equipment in the early 1990s, I must say my ear often agreed with Mr. Marks’ reviews. I was a devoted reader of Stereophile for 2 decades. With hearing loss I have sold off the AR amps, the Levinson & Parasound stuff, the La Scalas, the Quads, the sales-contest Martin Logan/Dahlquist/Thiel/keg/ad nauseam stuff, the cool British stuff like Arcam, the regulated power supplies, the infinite variety of interconnects & rubber bases, the heavy stands, the various Frankenstein mess of amps/preamps/tubes solid state transports/DACs/converters…but hearing loss means that I now have some Paradigm reference 20s on cheap lead-filled stands running from a (very) modified Rotel integrated amp & a modified Philips transport. I should have quit with the Harbeths pushed by an Aragon 4004 but oh, well, hifi is 1/3 science, 1/3 drug, & 1/3 ear. Thank you Jack for guesting Mr. Marks.

    Reply

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