A speaker designer speaks out

The best speaker designers are all good listeners. Because at the end of the day, the human ear is a more discerning "listener" than any microphone.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

Speaker designers are fascinating people, and each one has his or her own unique perspective and priorities. Some are "pure" engineers, and spend most of their working life in front of a computer; others test and measure their designs, but invest countless hours listening to prototypes.

I recently interviewed Dave Wilson, founder and chief engineer for Wilson Audio Specialties for The Absolute Audiophile magazine. Wilson Audio is the high-end audio equivalent of Ferrari; the Provo, Utah,-based company makes ultra-high-performance speakers for the most demanding audiophiles and music industry professionals. Warner Brothers, Pixar, Disney, and CBS/Sony are all Wilson customers.

Dave Wilson and Steve Guttenberg, with a Wilson Sasha speaker.
Dave Wilson and Steve Guttenberg, with a Wilson Sasha speaker. Peter Mc Grath

Q: The greatest challenge is making highly accurate speakers that still sound good with less-than-stellar recordings. Accuracy can't be the only design goal.
Wilson: Right, it's like designing a car for sports car enthusiasts, and developing it entirely on a smooth racetrack. You find that if you take out all of the suspension compliance, the car performs better and lap times go way down, so it's great on the track, but it will be hell to drive on a real road. [In audio] a lot of people use "accuracy" as a pejorative, meaning the sound is bright, forward, or lean in the lower midrange; so it emphasizes high-frequency detail at the expense of the music's body and soul.

So the art of speaker design is all about preserving accuracy without losing musicality.
Wilson: The speaker needs enough resilience and latitude to sound great with all types of music. As our designs have improved over the years they have become more tolerant of imperfect recordings. It should just sound right.

That's exactly what I thought when I heard your new speaker, the Sasha. It's highly resolved and it's still very easy to listen to. Your designs of the last few years have more curves and fewer hard edges than before; do I see a Ferrari influence in the Wilson aesthetic?
Wilson: I take inspiration from Pininfarina designs, I like their organic quality, compared to Bertone's. I hope I'm not aping them...

Do you work out the cabinet designs in clay, like automotive designers do?
Wilson: Yes, that's the way I did the original Alexandria and more recently Sasha, but I'm also starting to work with 3D solid modeling. It helps to feel the design with your fingers.

If the Sasha stays in production for many years, will you make running changes in the design?
Wilson: No, as we develop new technologies and approaches over a model run we save them up, and implement them with the next model in that Series. You could argue that the opposite approach is valid and we should incorporate improvements as we go along, but as a manufacturer I prefer to guarantee the repeatability of the product.

I have to ask, do you still listen to LPs?
Wilson: Yeah, quite a bit. In my office I've got a SME 20/12 turntable, serial number 2, and at our ranch it's a Well Tempered Reference turntable with a Lyra Helikon cartridge. I'm going to say something that won't win me a lot of friends, but I haven't been impressed with the sound of high-resolution files played off computers, yet. I'm willing to concede I haven't heard the right combination.

So even at the highest levels of the high-end the analog/digital skirmishes continue.