Listening to the Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of afternoons listening to a system built around the late David Wilson's magnum opus, the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeaker ($685,000/pair), which Jason Victor Serinus reported on in December 2016. In addition to the joy of simply listening to music on such exotic speakers, the experience provided insight into just how well the Master Chronosonics would work in a relatively normal-sized listening room—in this case, one measuring 21.5 feet long by a little over 18 feet wide, with a ceiling height of a little over 9.5 feet: not small in an absolute sense, but a lot smaller than the sort of space usually associated with speakers this large.

When I say the room is of relatively normal size, I do not mean it's normal:

One doesn't simply shove aside the pool table and plop down a pair of WAMMs in the basement rec room. Although it started out as a regular room in a regular house, this listening room was designed by noted acoustical engineer Bob Hodas (Skywalker Ranch, Abbey Road Studios, footnote 1), who began by closing off an adjoining space and replacing the doors with acoustic doors. Hodas replaced the original walls with ones made from two layers of 5/8" sheetrock, with a Quiet Rock double-panel material between them. Hodas designed the room when the system had smaller, less complex speakers, but he wasn't at all concerned about switching to the Master Chronosonics. "It's been my experience that if a room is well-designed, most any speakers will work well in it," he told me.

The system relies exclusively on digital sources. Some of the recordings I heard were streamed, but the majority were files that had been downloaded from content providers or ripped from CDs. (An aside: my host felt that "MQA done right" was the best-sounding of the available formats, although he was quick to add that "all are good...how well the different versions were done matters more than which format was used.") In addition to the Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonics, the system—assembled by retailer Music Lovers Audio of Berkeley—included two Wilson Audio WAMM Subsonic subwoofers; two Wilson Audio WAMM Subwoofer Controllers; two Spectral DMA-500 monoblocks for the WAMM towers; two Ayre MX-R Twenty monoblocks for the subwoofers; a Spectral DMC-30SV preamp; a dCS Vivaldi Upsampler, DAC, and Clock; a Roon Nucleus server; and top-of-the-line cables from Transparent and Spectral/MIT.

Although the room wasn't small, its dimensions required a more compact than usual system layout for the Master Chronosonics: The centers of the towers' front baffles were 5 feet out from the front wall, a little over 4 feet in from the side walls, and roughly 9.5 feet apart. The listening position was 16 feet out from the front wall (or 5 feet out from the back wall). Those dimensions brought to mind a few questions: Would the output from the widely spaced multiple drivers be integrated at so close a listening position? Would I be listening to small, intimate performances with 10-foot–tall vocalists and violins? Could frequency-response anomalies be avoided with the walls that close to the speakers? And, most obvious of all: Would the 3600–cubic-foot space be overdriven by the volume of air moved by the WAMMs?

My original plan, to the extent that I had one, was to listen to music that spanned a wide range of styles but was chosen to systematically address these sorts of questions. That plan lasted until about 30 seconds into the first song, by which time I'd been completely sucked in by the music. As it turned out though, the time I spent with the Master Chronosonics answered all my questions and more. For example, one of the first performances I listened to was "The Snow Maiden," from Reference Recordings' Exotic Dances from the Opera—and right away I had an answer to my first question: Yes, as impossible as the visual cues made it seem, the WAMMs disappeared completely and took the listening-room walls with them. That level of performance suggested that the signals from the multiple drivers were indeed being integrated at the listening position, with precise timing and phase alignment.

Later, I listened to a couple of recordings of more intimate performances and venues. The first was "Cuando Silba el Viento" from Sera Una Noche's second album, La Segunda. The WAMMs did an outstanding job decoding the odd but very specific spatial relationships between the performers and recording space, and beautifully recreated the rich inner detail and complex harmonic structure that make Lidia Borda's vocals so compelling. The second was Rickie Lee Jones's "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking," from Pirates. One thing that struck me was the temporal precision of the beginnings and ends of notes. Another was the appearance of sharply defined, crystal-clear spaces between even the most closely spaced performers. I hate to invoke a cliché, but I know this record very, very well—yet I was hearing more background vocalists in that recording studio than I had ever before.

The next thing I listened to was a performance at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, the Saint Saëns Symphony No.3 in c, with Olivier Larry playing the spectacular Fred J. Cooper Memorial organ, and with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece began, I raised the volume to the right level, and the WAMMs did exactly what they were supposed to: They effortlessly recreated every aspect of the performance, including the organ, with a scale and power far beyond anything I'd ever heard from an audio system. It would be pointless hyperbole, and thus demeaning to the speakers, to claim they actually reproduced the output and scale of an organ with nearly 7000 pipes and 32-foot stops—nothing can do that, other than an organ with nearly 7000 pipes and 32-foot stops. What the WAMM Master Chronosonics did was a stunningly good job of evoking such an instrument—a far, far better job than I've heard from even the largest of their would-be competitors.

I have to admit that the Master Chronosonic/WAMM Subsonic system's bass performance was a surprise. I expected power, impact, articulation...you name it. But nothing could have prepared me for the organ's output at 16Hz. To think: I had wondered whether the room would support true low bass, and, if so, whether that bass response would be spectacularly uneven. The answers were Yes and No, respectively, and I'm still not sure how that trick was pulled off.

In his own report, Jason Victor Serinus noted that production of the Master Chronosonic would be limited to 70 sets, so I feel very fortunate to have had an opportunity to spend time listening to a system built around one of those—in Carmen Red finish, no less!—and doubly so in that I was able to do so in a normal-sized room. I'll admit that I'd been skeptical about the Master Chronosonics' ability to work very well in such a space. Yet song by song, and hour by hour, my questions were answered, my doubts put to rest: The Wilsons worked very, very well. I heard nothing to suggest their performance had been compromised to accommodate the room's size, or anything that suggested their performance was being degraded by the room itself. They displayed all the virtues I associate with Wilson speakers, and at a level commensurate with the role they fill at the top of the company's line.


Footnote 1: Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis, Orinda, CA. Web: www.bobhodas.com.

COMMENTS
John Atkinson's picture
Larry Archibald wrote about the very first WAMM in 1983: www.stereophile.com/content/wilson-audio-modular-monitor-wamm-loudpeaker-system. It cost $35,000!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

georgehifi's picture

Having those 9 X RTR/Jantzen/Crown ESL biscuits, would I "dare say" JA the mids were perhaps better than the new ones???

http://www.audiocircuit.com/A-Images/AA-Brands/C/Crown-CRK/ES-224______-F-001-941-CRK.jpg

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be JA1 could make a trip to Wilson HQ and listen to the WAMM speakers and take some measurements ........ Then JA1 could write about his listening impressions and provide some measurements :-) ......

dial's picture

Yes it needs some measures to prove it's not some speakers thrown in a Goldmund-like enclosure. In the past, they used Focal, very good ones. I must admit some models got rave reviews here and there, even at their extortionate price. But here they're playing like musicians are in the room, or slightly better.

jeffhenning's picture

Given that all the time alignment could done much more easily and cheaply in DSP, creating an incredibly complex & expensive cabinet system to achieve time alignment is absurd.

I'm sure it's a great sounding speaker (given the price tag, it better be), but a digital solution will give better results for a fraction of the cost and weight. That would also allow for phase linear crossovers and group delay correction.

Rube Goldberg, though, would have loved this!

JHL's picture

The only benefit to a single chassis is cost. The benefits to individual enclosures is front panel strength, meaning inertness. Individual enclosures also tip the acoustical loading more toward free air, and the symmetrical array provides for a semi-spherical wavelaunch (as opposed to the usual TMW stacks, which won't sound-stage as well).

As for ease, it's fairly trivial to align drivers, especially when part of your method is to offer incremental depth adjustment in the field. I imagine that feature is actually easier mechanically and its learning curve no more protracted than user DSP.

Lastly, the passive system leaves the market open: There are a lot of users who prefer not to inject A/D-D/A apparatus into their systems or signals.

Jason P Jackson's picture

into their signal." Indeed.

jeffhenning's picture

I never suggested that a simple box is as good as separate enclosures.

My point is that this elaborate system for time alignment is both extremely costly, materially wasteful and gives you a speaker that needlessly weighs upwards of a half ton.

There are also some serious limitations to a design like this beyond cost that DSP could cure:

• I'll make an assumption that, given the number of drivers, that this is a 1st order, minimum phase crossover design (or mostly that)... this type of passive crossover is a lot simpler to design and build than one with steeper slopes, but the implementation here requires a lot of work since you have to wire it after swapping components to match the drivers output sensitivities as well as physically nudge them to and fro

• Once you have done that, there is no guarantee that this painstaking temporal alignment will last as parts age

• In DSP, all of this can be done in a fraction of the time with drastically less effort as well as offering the flexibility to tweak the settings as the speaker ages

• The other advantage of DSP is that you can offer every type of crossover topology from 1st order to FIR, linear-phase brick wall filters for those who like to experiment

• The entire "A/D - D/A" argument holds no water when you consider how much distortion passive crossovers introduce into the sound of a speaker... it's several orders of magnitude greater than any properly designed A/D/A process and they also leach about 3dB or more from a speakers sensitivity

One other thing that gets me about this design is the lengths that are needed to go to keep that woofer/subwoofer cab from vibrating the mid & tweeter array.

Also, the tweeter is about 6 feet from the floor so that's way above the standard seated position.

Finally, with the additional subs used here, the total system weight is almost 4,000 lbs. How do you install these in anything other than a concrete-floored, home addition built to accommodate a fork lift from the driveway? How do you move these things around to find the best spot in your room?

Honestly, you could get all the benefits of this design using Corian/Zodiaq for front baffles on seperate MDF enclosures that sit inside a larger cabinet frame lined with thick felt. And, oh yeah, not attach it to a subwoofer. Yes, it wouldn't look as imposing, but a normal person could both install it and afford it.

It's no secret that you can buy just about the exact same speaker drivers used by Wilson from Madisound. They use a lot of drivers sourced from Scanspeak. Scanspeak makes excellent drivers, but they aren't ridiculously expensive. This has bugged me about Wilson's products for years.

JHL's picture

I'm not assuming one box, it's the natural direction once you defeat the mechanical offsets. Frankly that the mechanical work is such an issue is the assumption.

-It's probably not 1st order; we'll only know if it's measured in these pages but so far I don't think Wilson does 1st order work. You could argue that not less than five DSP actives are somehow more conducive to something immaterially good, but so far that assertion is undeveloped and pedantic.

-Component wear is a non-issue. The design envelope is far more robust than that and the drivers themselves at this level are very precise devices with synthetic suspensions. If in thirty years we somehow hear a half dB offset, we adjust the filters or replace the driver. They're available and at this level, matched.

-DSP has no less front end design work whatsoever, plus it adds scads of amplification complexity and the programming investment to make it all go. Passives are actually perfectly acceptable in terms of time invested, especially for a passive shop.

-Experimental aftermarket DSP is a *market* feature at best, and one of considerable, even daunting market complexity. There's zero upside except in terms of adding proportional complexity.

-Passive crossovers don't add "distortion". That's an assumption no more real than an assumption that DSP adds digital sound. And please, they do not leach 3dB from the signal. They're close enough to unity to simply not matter, the reason being that the passive filter only tames driver excesses past zero reference, which are few and relatively low level if they occur at all. It cannot attenuate the whole speaker. Even so, a few average heat-watts during loud passages isn't problematic. We generally aren't power-limited when we give the active system the benefit of hundreds of unneeded watts, so presumably our single, passive-system amplifier isn't too small either.

-Woofer cabs always vibrate; welcome to the loudspeaker. The problem is one of degrees and engineering solutions, not of fundamental design.

-Tweeter height. You can save maybe nine inches shoving everything down to the carpeting (and certainly not do the sound any favors or find that tweeter at 6' minus 9". It's more like 4'6".) So far nobody's complaining about tall speaker sound in general or this speaker's apparent acoustical origin in particular.

-Product weight. Then don't own them; problem solved. I need to be able to deliver, garage, heat, air-con, and service my McLaren if I aim to own it so presumably I can figure out how to get some big speakers into the living room.

-Armchair engineering. Wilson's decades of experience serving their customers didn't elect to use either MDF, I wager, or felt-suspensions. Separating and displacing the bass unit, despite the faulty conventional wisdom about that, doesn't sound right.

-Sourcing. You can buy very nice wheels, crate motors, engine computers, and reams of carbon fiber sheets from ebay, which doesn't bug me too much about Ferrari. What I cannot buy from ebay is a complete sales, delivery, setup, and tuning chain, nor has Stereophile reviewed too many of their own home-brews. I find myself at the local supercar or high end audio retailer for those crucial, critical elements.

Malcontented parts bin speculations have hounded premiere and bespoke product from tech leaders for years, sadly, probably more in audio than elsewhere. Practically-speaking, gainsaying the best of the high end has yet to produce competitive alternatives, similar quality, or comparable sound. It has, on the other hand, produced a lot of unfulfilled promises.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

ScanSpeak is famous for 'sliced-cone' woofers and 'ring-dome' tweeters ....... Older Wilson Speakers used to use 'sliced-cone' midrange drivers :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Sony top model SS speakers also used 'sliced-cone' midrange drivers :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There is description about 'aspherical group delay' in sound reproduction used by the Wilson speakers in the Alexandria XLF review :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile frequency response measurements of Alexandria XLF also show the 'BBC dip' in the presence region :-) ..........

JHL's picture

And I'm not a proper foodie until I file away lots of restaurant reviews.

ringmeraudioguy's picture

Not this again, boring.....

ok's picture

..cabin shape and driver configuration I guess it’s mostly about aesthetics: the least appealing amongst all Wilson features no doubt.

dreite's picture

Bandwidth spent on this kind of product is complete lunacy.

jeffhenning's picture

Generally, I tend to not comment on this stuff, but when you see a product this absurd and wasteful, I think it requires someone to point that out. After getting mildly flamed, I decided to add a little more detail, but, yes, spending serious brain power on crapola such as this is way less edifying than pro wrestling (shout out to Ric Flair...whoa!).

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Un objet de désir :-) ...........

chuckles304's picture

I am a carpenter, living in upstate NY near Albany. The overwhelming majority of my clientele are NYC weekenders building multi-million dollar 2nd homes. Over the years I have become accustomed to discussing materials/products that to the average Joe would seem outrageously priced. $14,000 bathtubs, $74,000 ovens, $4000 medicine cabinets, and even $380,000 for an order of reproduction old-school weight-and-chain windows that would have been around $50,000 had it been normal Marvin or Pella units. I've worked for a billionaire with 29 Ferraris.

My point is it's all relative. To the people who spent $2.2 million on an old Colonial Revival and 200 acres only to have us renovate and add 4 more structures to the tune of $7+ million, $685k barely covers just the windows in the main house. I don't envy them their wealth (and certainly not their heating/maintenance bills). I'm certainly damn grateful they chose us instead of our competitors.

There are plenty of posts in the forums from (I assume) college kids who think $300 for a DAC is insane. I used to think that too. I don't ever expect to hear the WAMM, let alone purchase a pair, but I don't see why people who can do both should get dumped on.

ok's picture

..sooner or later borders on the absurd.

jeffhenning's picture

...my thought is, just because it's price is astronomical, that doesn't mean it's worth it.

I know for a fact that the speaker drivers don't cost Willson more than $10K and I seriously doubt that the crossover components and wiring do as well.

So, other, than it being a short run, hand built speaker why is this so expensive? Because, as you noted, people with more money than brains are willing to pay for its status appeal.

For about one tenth the price, you could get the best system that Legacy Audio makes, get equivalent performance and be just as happy.

I don't fault people for being rich. And that house you are talking about is probably pretty awesome and it will most likely appreciate in value.

This speaker will never appreciate in value. This is not a Ferrari or Picasso. No one will be interested in taking this off your hands 10/20/30 years from now.

When you buy this speaker you are throwing a half mill out the window. Any speaker priced at $185K is just as good.

JHL's picture

Neither do I but I don't fault them for using it, which far as I can tell is the reason for it in the first place. I also resist questioning people if they don't take my advice literally; when it comes to imagineering the sorts of things they want to use it on anyway while claiming it has catastrophic depreciation.

stefano antoniutti's picture

Please, permit me to be critical about the trend in HiFi towards highly expensive and ultra highly expensive devices. This sites, and many other sites and journal, are creating the feeling that any device under 5000 or 10000 or 25000 USD is not an adequate one. Under Ferrari's or Bentley's price tag only garbage, or, more socially relevant, if you are not THAT wealthy, music's reproduction will be poor...

About 700 000 USD are my ten years income, and in my country the mean income is between 20000 and 30000 USD/year.

As a result, HiFi is simply dying... RIP (requiescat in pacem) if this is what the economy wants...

joelha's picture

chuckles304,

You're a wise man.

You see wealth that far exceeds yours and yet aren't jealous and don't sneer at the expenditures you see.

You're also grateful for the times the wealth of others benefits you.

Better to be thoughtful and practical then emotional.

Good for you.

Joel

chuckles304's picture

I don't know about wise, but from talking over the years with carpenters from other firms it does take a certain kind to be able to mentally handle it. I have to happily and knowledgeably discuss the $100/sq.ft. custom tinted concrete floor tile, the stupid $20,000 recessed track light for ONE ROOM in the BASEMENT, and the $11,000 custom slate fireplace surround, nod and smile, nod and smile, yes yes your dollar not mine, and then go home to my plastic modular house which is awesome because it takes no maintenance and it's simple.

Honestly the only time I shake my head and complain is when the nitwit A/V sub comes in and I hear "Sonos!" and "in-wall speakers!" and "wireless!" and everybody nods and smiles, and I wonder when I'll find my first Stereophile-subscribing client....

ok's picture

during my last relocation the logistics supervisor –who proved to be an audiophile– said to the men responsible for packaging and handling: careful with audio gear, it’s the only thing of actual value in the household..
..but my wife didn’t actually think so.

Glotz's picture

It is ALL relative..

You don't hear posters complaining about the high price of Ferraris!

ok's picture

but “master chronosonic" might be a little too much for my taste.

Kal Rubinson's picture

"Master Chronosonic" suits their demeanor.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Maestros del universo :-) ..........

dfh's picture

So what if only a (very) few can afford this magnum opus? I'm glad that David Wilson was able to create this work-of-art (aurally & visually) before he passed. It advances Wilson's in-house state of the art, has already benefitted lower cost models in their product line-up, was a training ground for Darryl Wilson -- and is a fitting tribute to David Wilson's design prowess.

Glotz's picture

They said the same thing about Enzo Ferrari.

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