WATT/Puppy Then, Sasha Now

by Marc Mickelson | April 22, 2010

hile change might be, as self-help gurus and politicians tell us, inevitable, it is rarely effortless to bring about. Sometimes a rut becomes a canyon out of which it's not easy to climb, and at other times there seems to be no apparent reason to think or do differently. Falling squarely into this latter category is the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy, a seminal high-end-audio product and an institution within the industry.

The first WATT monitor hit the market in 1985, and the Puppy bass module followed three years later. In those early years, models such as the WATT 2/Puppy and WATT 3/Puppy 2 caused some confusion with the speaker's naming. The nomenclature standardized with the WATT/Puppy 5, and with the WATT/Puppy 6, introduced in 1999, the speaker shed the practice of a decimal point and numeral marking the addition of running changes.

With the WATT/Puppy 7, introduced in 2002, Wilson Audio introduced a significant change in the speaker's construction. The WATT 6's cabinet was made of a mineral-filled acrylic-based material that had been used for the WATT for 15 years. For the WATT 7's cabinet, Wilson Audio turned solely to its M material. The next important enhancement came with the development of the flagship Alexandria X-2, when Wilson Audio identified "jitter" -- a noise artifact generated by the multiple crossovers used in the company's speakers -- and began to address it. The first speaker to feel the Alexandria's touch was the MAXX 2, which came to market in late 2004. Then, in 2005, the Sophia 2 appeared, and in 2006 the WATT/Puppy 8.

The view from the listening couch.

By this time the speaker had literally become an industry icon -- its likeness was used at CES to denote the high-performance audio exhibits. But the eighth series of WATT/Puppy would be the last. In 2009, Wilson Audio unveiled the Sasha W/P ($26,950/pair) to replace its 20-year-old classic. The Sasha shares neither drivers nor crossover parts with any of its predecessors. While its woofers are similar to those for the WATT/Puppy 8, they have bigger magnets and a more robust basket. The midrange driver and tweeter descend from those developed for the Alexandria X-2 Series 2. The WATT/Puppy 8’s crossover had two separate modules, one located in the base of the Puppy and the other in the WATT, which made the WATT a fully operational speaker. The Sasha’s crossover also has two modules, but they are both in the bass cabinet. The Sasha is built almost entirely of Wilson Audio's proprietary X material, a mineral-filled resin compound that's in its second generation. However, the baffle for the midrange-tweeter module is of a completely new epoxy-based laminated composite dubbed S material in Sasha's honor. Internally, the Sasha W/P's bass cabinet is 20% larger than that of its predecessor, and the tweeter/midrange unit is more than 40% larger than the WATT 8. What's smaller is the price -- nearly $3000 less than the WATT/Puppy 8, due to manufacturing efficiencies Wilson Audio instituted in its expanded factory.

I've heard every WATT/Puppy back to the Series 5. General characteristics include dazzling dynamics, both at the micro and especially macro levels, wide bandwidth, and powerful low frequencies. These helped the various WATT/Puppy versions reproduce recorded music more realistically than much of their competition. And with each new version, the speaker became more coherent, better erasing driver-to-driver sonic boundaries. New cabinet materials, drivers and crossover parts also reduced the speaker's intrinsic noise, which only enhanced the low-level dynamic prowess. My own listening told me that the difference from WATT/Puppy 5 to 6 was monumental. This was the point at which the speaker began to sound like the ones Wilson Audio designs and manufactures today. From 6 to 8, improvement was evident and evolutionary, the speaker's sound simply following the same path, while being further along it.

The Sasha W/P shares a fundamental character with the WATT/Puppy 8 and other current Wilson Audio speakers. However, in specific ways, it also signals the beginning of something new. I first heard the speaker when a pair was set up in Paul Bolin's room last summer, then once again at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last fall, and finally at the CES earlier this year. In all of those systems -- a half-dozen in total, with very different electronics -- the bandwidth and dynamics belied the speakers' size and price, but it was their coherence that once again signaled their musical significance. Coherence isn't a particular sonic quality as much as the lack of certain things, namely driver disjointedness along with time and phase irregularities. I've found over my years in the press, discussing sound with many of my peers and people who work in the audio industry, that coherence is not as apparent to everyone as it is to some of us. To me, it's where the performance of a speaker begins or ends, and it's not quantitative. It's easy to recognize with music, but measurements, at least the ones traditionally done, simply do not capture it. Measurements will show that the Sasha isn't quite as sensitive as the WATT/Puppy 8, although it is still above average. A dip in bass impedance makes it a tougher load for amps with high output impedance, although, paradoxically, Paul Bolin has reported great success driving Sashas with Atma-Sphere OTLs.

With the Sashas, coherence makes for a presentation that flows both tonally and dynamically. From the lowest-level detail to the most soaring guitar blast or orchestral crescendo, the speakers scale quickly and confidently, ramping up or down with equal ease. There is inherent smoothness; this doesn't imply transient softness or tonal darkness, two things that definitely do not apply to the Sashas. Rather, there is a natural integrity to the presentation, the music pouring like water from the drivers. There is no clunkiness to the way the Sashas transition from driver to driver or cabinet to cabinet, the speakers never clumsily calling attention to anything they do.

What accounts for all this? The cabinet -- its design and materials? The expert choice of drivers and canny implementation of the crossovers? I asked David Wilson about this. He smiled knowingly and said that it's all responsible, underscoring the notion that the Sasha is truly a speaker system. Bass power and dynamic ability are the two areas in which live music most obviously reveals recordings to be mere facsimiles, and two areas in which the Sashas shine. Perhaps this is another one of David Wilson's knowing bits of insight -- to address the most obvious deficiencies of recorded music head on.

However, the midrange is the crucible for most of the music, and it's here that the Sasha obviously improves on the WATT/Puppy 8 and the models before it. As with the Alexandria 2's and MAXX 3's, the Sasha's midrange displays great clarity and precision, but its liveliness -- the quick-paced way it resolves musical detail -- is new and significant. The nuances that define one singer from another, or one acoustic guitarist from another, are not so much laid bare as laid out -- illuminated within the tapestry of the music. Vocals are sprightly, defined and, more important, textured, imparting their humanness. It would be easy to simply call the Sasha's midrange "detailed." It would also be slighting, as there is so much more to it.

And there is so much more to this speaker. I've lived for a few months with the massive Alexandria X-2 Series 2s, and the MAXX 3s, also massive, are my reference speakers. The Sashas remind me of both. I know the MAXX 3s best, and there were times when listening to the Sashas -- with certain system configurations and music -- that I would have sworn the bigger speakers were playing. Both Sasha and MAXX 3 are notably dynamic, coherent and powerful in the bass. The more diminutive Sashas play big like the MAXX 3s when the music calls for it, and they are so spatially adept that mono LPs are illusory, casting substantial, palpable images that are expertly layered front to back. The Sashas even look like scaled-down MAXX 3s -- well proportioned and smartly angular.

Given all this, perhaps David Wilson should have considered a different name for the Sasha W/P: the WAMA, for Wilson Audio MAXX Alternative. That's my only suggestion regarding the Sasha W/P, other than hearing a pair of them for yourself.

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