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September 2004

Wilson Audio Specialties WATCH Dog Series 2 Subwoofer

Multichannel Pick of the Month

I Ching: Of the Marsh and the Moon
Hybrid Multichannel SACD, Chesky SACD265

The creative talent of the Chesky recording team is in full effect on the multichannel SACD release of I Ching’s Of the Marsh and the Moon. I Ching is Sisi Chen playing the Chinese dulcimer, Tao Chen on bamboo flute, Bao Li Zhang on erhu (two-stringed Chinese fiddle), and Joel Goodman on synthesizer/sampler. Of the Marsh and the Moon is a study in the art of melding musical styles. The synthesizer serves to add a modern touch to traditional Chinese instruments in an ambient-rich multichannel environment. The sound is amazingly clear throughout all channels and is balanced nicely for those who like active, but not overbearing, surrounds. The ethereal music is of the like-it or don’t-like-it varieties, but I can’t imagine anyone being ambivalent about the sound quality. I have found this disc especially good for examining the high-frequency performance of the surrounds and center-channel in comparison to the mains. A mismatched system will stand out in bold relief, while a smartly assembled array of loudspeakers will result in a sonic world-music extravaganza.

...Jeff Fritz

Reviewers' Choice LogoThere is a battle underway in high-end audio to drive manufacturing costs down. Witness the latest surge in overseas speaker and electronics manufacturing as one example. Companies that once built their products in-house are outsourcing various enclosures and subassemblies to the Far East. Controlling costs is not simply a function of where a product is made, however. There are also design trends that have appeared in recent years, developed at least in part to lower costs; these are particularly prevalent in the subwoofer market, and examples abound. For instance, smaller enclosures are the de facto "thing" these days. From both sales-floor and manufacturing standpoints, a smaller subwoofer is better because its materials cost is lower and it can be more easily placed in a home where domestic tranquility rules the day.

But smaller, as it applies to subwoofers, comes at a price. There are specific design elements that are necessary to make small work. To oversimplify a complicated subject, smaller subwoofers can’t produce as much, or as low, bass as larger subwoofers, all other things being equal. There is simply not sufficient internal air volume in a small box to support deep bass naturally. As a workaround, therefore, manufacturers use equalization to coax deep bass out of little boxes. Boost (another term for equalization), sometimes as much as 15dB or more, is applied to the lowest frequencies to force a small subwoofer to do something it otherwise would not. Equalization, however, requires power, and until fairly recently power has not been cheap.

Recent advances in the various forms of switch-mode amplifiers have made high power available in less-costly, and smaller, packages. These amps use far fewer parts, are more thermally efficient (meaning less heatsinking is needed) and less costly to produce than conventional amplifiers. It’s not uncommon to see 1000W-plus power-output ratings for these amps, which was unheard of just a few years back. But do these amplifiers perform better? That’s a subject hotly debated amongst enthusiasts, manufacturers, and reviewers.

The Wilson way

Are these newfangled design elements the best way to implement a subwoofer? Again, it depends on the person you ask. Most designers will tell you that speaker design involves managing tradeoffs. The tradeoffs necessary to produce smaller, less expensive subwoofers that still provide enough output for home theaters are acceptable to most.

Wilson Audio Specialties sees things differently. What sets the $10,950 USD WATCH Dog 2 apart? The answer can be discovered by ticking off the laundry list of tradeoffs.

Let’s start with the cabinet -- it’s big. The WATCH Dog 2 weighs 283 pounds, is 27 1/2"H x 18"W x 27 1/2"D and is constructed of high-density materials proprietary to Wilson Audio. If you’re familiar with the company you no doubt know about X material -- a phenolic-resin-based compound that is harder than steel -- used here for the front baffle. Its sister, the less-hard, constrained-layer M material, comprises the cabinet proper and interior braces. Both M and X hold inherent structural and acoustic advantages over MDF according to Wilson Audio. These materials are also more expensive to buy and machine, and because each weighs more than MDF, they are more expensive to handle and ship as well. To put it bluntly, the WATCH Dog 2 dwarfs the mini-subs so prevalent today. Eschewing the prerequisite of being small, the first tradeoff is eliminated. Big boxes can produce low bass.

Immediately, the larger enclosure gives the subwoofer designer an advantage -- no need for equalization to force the driver to produce bass below the cabinet’s natural capabilities. This leads to two more ticks off the tradeoff list: (1) you don’t need huge amounts of amplifier power for the express purpose of satisfying the equalization curve, and (2) you don’t need to preoccupy the high-excursion capability of today’s subwoofer drivers with absorbing all that equalized power. Wilson Audio has been able to specify not a switch-mode class-D amplifier, but a beefy, conventional class-AB amplifier custom designed by Richard Marsh of Marsh Sound Design. It’s still quite powerful at 400W, but that power is not used to compensate for the inherent compromise of a small enclosure. The purpose-built driver Wilson Audio uses is as overbuilt as I’ve seen, but, again, it’s not this way expressly because it needs to withstand power-robbing equalization. So the WATCH Dog 2 essentially is a massively constructed cabinet housing a high-current, massively constructed amplifier and a massively built driver. Do you sense a trend?

If you accept the premise that fewer tradeoffs translates into better performance, then you know what Wilson Audio’s goal was in designing the WATCH Dog 2: uncompromised performance. Finally, Wilson Audio’s outstanding WilsonGloss finish is standard on the WATCH Dog 2, rounding out an impressive package.

New Dog in town

The WATCH Dog 2 differs from its predecessor in a couple of ways, all functional. First, there’s a 12V trigger that allows the user to toggle between the processor input (used for home theater’s LFE track) and the line-level input (used for conventional left and right inputs), as well as the high-pass filter in/out and low-pass filter in/out. The user also has the ability to power up and down from a remote device. These changes obviated the need for the WATCH Dog 2’s front-panel on/off switch. Instead, there are main power-on and standby rocker switches on the rear.

The rest of the feature suite remains the same. You have both balanced and single-ended inputs for both the processor and line-level inputs, as well as the outputs for the high-pass-filtered signal (the latter includes selectable slopes, either 6dB or 12dB per octave). There’s an adjustable crossover (including slope, either 12dB or 18dB per octave), phase, and level controls, and a single-band equalizer that can be used to tame your room’s primary bass mode, which usually manifests itself as a hump somewhere in the subwoofer's operating band. The equalizer has its own frequency, level, and Q controls. (A low Q setting would make the cut/boost very sharply defined, whereas a high Q setting would produce a more gradual curve.) The EQ function can be most beneficial in attaining proper blending with your main loudspeakers and in many cases can ease room-placement issues.

My system

I used the WATCH Dog 2 with two distinct speaker systems. First up was a set of five Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v.3s arranged in an ITU-style setup. While the WATCH Dog 2 is almost twice as expensive as the entire system of Paradigm speakers, the pairing was instructive. I was easily able to integrate the WATCH Dog 2 with the Paradigms, which indicated that its control flexibility worked as advertised. Even though the Studio 100 v.3s are nearly full-range speakers, the WATCH Dog 2 did augment the bass response of the system seamlessly.

The more natural insertion of the WATCH Dog 2 into an all-Wilson system came next, and this arrangement was used for the majority of my listening tests. The flagship X-2 Alexandrias occupied front placement, while a pair of Sophias were used in the surround position. The WATCH Dog 2 found a home to the outside and slightly behind the left X-2. Amplifiers were a combination of models from Coda Technologies and the Gryphon Audio Designs Antileon Signature. Multichannel preamplifiers included both the Audio Research MP1 and Orpheus Labs Two. An Esoteric DV-50 and a Lexicon RT-10, both universal audio/video players, acted as sources. A trio of Shunyata Research Hydras powered the system. Cabling was from either Nordost or Shunyata Research.

Dialing in the WATCH Dog 2 with the X-2s required some careful consideration. Although the WATCH Dog 2 would primarily be handling the LFE track for multichannel recordings and not augmenting front-channel information, there was still a very good likelihood that both the sub and mains would be fed some low-bass information simultaneously, potentially overexciting bass modes in my room. To insure that this did not interfere with the system’s performance I carefully matched the WATCH Dog 2 to the X-2s in a two-channel environment first. I found that a low-pass crossover in the 50Hz range worked well, although some adjustment of the phase control helped achieve seamlessness. Once room placement and the dialing-in process concluded I connected a balanced XLR cable to the processor input (for the LFE channel) and away I went.

Up and running

Assessing a subwoofer’s worth in the context of a music system is somewhat different than examining performance with home-theater material. A good subwoofer should be able to excel in either context, but there are times when a lesser subwoofer fares just fine with movies but falls down with music. One of the best tests for subwoofer integration I’ve found is the multichannel SACD version of Kodo’s Mondo Head [Sony/Red Ink 56111], particularly the track "Daraijin." This song has percussive sounds pinging from speaker to speaker and includes content that spans the crossover point over and over. A subwoofer that either slows down the action or blunts the transient response of the main speakers serves to destroy the timing of the piece. The WATCH Dog 2 was able to track this cut right along with the X-2 Alexandrias, a nice trick. There was bass power aplenty without any muddying of sudden impact or leading edges. If any subwoofer can be called "quick" -- a term that applies as much to the integration with the mains as it does to any inherent speed of the subwoofer itself -- then the WATCH Dog 2 was like lightning in my system.

A very objective performance parameter to assess with subwoofers is noise -- both from the driver and from the cabinet. I like to use Massive Attack’s Mezzanine CD [Virgin 45599], which contains a plethora of steady-state bass notes, to listen for untoward noises. I’m amazed at how noisy subwoofer drivers can be, but it’s even more common to hear rattles and vibration from cabinets and chuffing from ports. In these areas, the WATCH Dog 2 was simply the best I’ve come across. It is a very quiet subwoofer, and the driver operates with a very low noise floor, meaning no mechanical aberrations. In this aspect the WATCH Dog 2 bettered even the Wilson XS’s two 18" drivers, which I conducted the same test upon several years ago. An equally fine test for subwoofer performance is Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum [Rykodisc RCD-10206]. The WATCH Dog 2 attained room lock -- where the subwoofer is able to energize the room evenly with low bass no matter where in the room you’re listening -- while remaining free from audible distortion. The only thing a subwoofer should emit is the bass being fed it, and the WATCH Dog 2 shone in this regard.

I Ching’s Of the Marsh and the Moon [Hybrid Multichannel SACD, Chesky SACD265] paints an amazing musical perspective that requires a system that is both precise in transient response and detail reproduction. The WATCH Dog 2 was able to reproduce simultaneously pitch-defined drumming and the venue-specific ambient information almost always prevalent on David Chesky’s recordings. While you may be able to reproduce the depth-charge explosions on the U-571 DVD with lesser subwoofers, this is the type of test that causes folks to rethink their subwoofer-purchasing decisions. Simply put, with this quality of program material you need simultaneous punch and precision. The WATCH Dog 2 delivered to my satisfaction. I heard drums and felt St. Peter’s Church at the same time. The WATCH Dog 2 could play deep, but it also remained agile right up to its upper-frequency limit.

Summing up

The WATCH Dog 2 is an amazing subwoofer, but there are several scenarios in which I would not recommend the Wilson WATCH Dog Series 2. If you need a massive amount of output for a huge room and enjoy home theater exclusively, you can get more bass for less money. I imagine several SVS units daisy-chained around the room would work incredibly well. If you need more output than the WATCH Dog 2 can provide and have unlimited funds, Wilson Audio makes the gargantuan XS, which I can tell you from experience will play considerably louder than the WATCH Dog 2. There’s also the quality of your mains to consider. With many speakers the subtleties of the WATCH Dog 2 might be masked, in which case the budget might be better spent on better speakers.

I think, though, that these scenarios aren’t all that relevant to the WATCH Dog 2’s target market. I have not asked the folks at Wilson Audio, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most buyers of the WATCH Dog 2 are pairing it with Wilson Audio speakers. These buyers are looking for a subwoofer that excels in system integration with speakers that have exceptional bass. They are seeking a subwoofer that displays very low distortion while producing impressive low-frequency output. There's also Wilson Audio’s unparalleled build quality and finishing, which will match those of the speakers. For such consumers, the WATCH Dog 2 is the powered subwoofer to own.

...Jeff Fritz

Wilson Audio Specialties WATCH Dog Series 2 Subwoofer
$10,950 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
Phone: (801) 377-2233

E-mail: was@wilsonaudio.com
Website: www.wilsonaudio.com

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