Few speaker manufacturers design and build products that are as full range as those of Wilson Audio. Just have a look at the bass cabinets of the Grand SLAMM, MAXX or even the more diminutive WATT/Puppy 6 for proof -- these speakers all go low. So why would Wilson Audio also be so dedicated to creating subwoofers like their long-discontinued, coffee-table-sized WHOW, the mammoth and appropriately named XS, and the subject of this review, the $9950 USD WATCH Dog?
I suspect two theories are at work. First, Wilson Audio takes the full-range tag seriously. Why settle for 25Hz, or even 20Hz, when there is recorded signal below these frequencies? Second, and probably more the impetus for the company's interest in subwoofing, is the fact that some rooms need help reaching 20Hz even when a speaker is spec'ed to do so. A room the size of David Wilson's own 30' x 40' dedicated listening room can support some serious bass, but its sheer volume can also swallow it up. For the most part, Wilson Audio customers are not prone to compromise, so the company has endeavored to create subwoofers that will be as serious as its speakers.
The WATCH Dog is part of the Wilson Audio WATCH (Wilson Audio Theater Comes Home) series, which includes the WATCH center-channel and surround speakers. But don't let the acronym confuse you -- the WATCH Dog is meant for serious two-channel audiophiles too. It includes both low- and high-pass functionality, which makes it appropriate for use with a wide range of speakers -- floorstanders and minimonitors alike. Wilson Audio suggests the Cub, WATT/Puppy and MAXX as the best possible mates for the WATCH Dog, but the company doesn't rule out use with the Grand SLAMM in some instances.
The WATCH Dog is an amalgam of high-tech composite materials -- Wilson M material for the bulk of the cabinet and internal braces, harder-than-steel X material for the front baffle and bottom. You won't find any MDF in the WATCH Dog -- or any current Wilson Audio speaker for that matter. Another thing you won't find is any type of screw or other fastener. Wilson Audio has reportedly done extensive research on adhesives, feeling that what holds a cabinet together is an "often overlooked element crucial to the proper performance and longevity of a loudspeaker." Hence, a thermoset adhesive chosen for its "excellent bond strength, solvent resistance, hardness and optimum vibrational characteristics" is used. It also creates bonds that are stronger than the materials themselves, no small consideration for the WATCH Dog, whose life will be spent reproducing bass waves.
The WATCH Dog's 12" ultra-long-throw woofer is a sight to behold; it's seemingly all surround and little cone. This affords it enormous excursion capabilities -- a reported three inches! I saw one of these drivers at Wilson Audio, and the picture I shot of it doesn't quite capture its odd and massive look. Understandably, a stout amp is needed, and for this, Wilson Audio enlisted well-known designer Richard Marsh, who currently designs electronics for the company that uses his name, Marsh Sound Designs. The amp is rated to deliver 400W, but Wilson Audio admits that this is a very conservative rating. The large heatsink for the amp protrudes from the rear of the WATCH Dog -- far enough that you'll notice it, but not so far that it will make placing the subwoofer any more of a chore.
And this is especially good given the WATCH Dog's size and weight: 27 1/2"H x 27 1/2"D x 18"W and 283 pounds. Thus, it's a little smaller than a built-in dishwasher and heavier than a full-sized refrigerator. In its wooden shipping crate, it weighs a hulking 400 pounds, which made getting it into my basement a more-than-two-man job. So why did two of us attempt it? We're young and strong -- and a little stupid. How did we do it? The dolly I have here was no help because it wasn't made for moving such a mass, so we very carefully rolled the crate down the stairs one side at a time. The WATCH Dog was packed and protected so well inside that even this method of moving didn't harm it a bit. But don't try this at home! Enlist a few friends with strong backs and an appliance dolly instead.
The WATCH Dog's front baffle is slightly beveled at the top, below which is the on/off switch -- a simple push button. At the very bottom are a pair of square ports -- a big driver in a big box needs big ports. Milled anodized aluminum pegs protrude from the front panel to hold the grille, whose frame, like the front baffle, is made of X material. There is no sonic penalty for using the grille, which you can tighten to the pegs via set screws, and it dresses up the WATCH Dog quite a bit. On the back is the actual power switch along with all of the connections and IEC power-cord receptacle. The WATCH Dog can accept single-ended and balanced input and output the signal via the same type of connections when you use the high-pass option. It will also work with an LFE output from a surround-sound processor via a separate input. There are five fuses accessible from the back, although you'll have to get down on your hands and knees to change them.
All controls are mounted on top of the subwoofer under a dark Plexiglas plate that gets screwed into place once the WATCH Dog has been adjusted for your system and room. There are seven toggle switches for choosing the type of input and functionality of the WATCH Dog -- high pass or low pass, EQ in or out. The rotary knobs are for adjusting frequencies, phase and levels, including the overall output of the WATCH Dog.
The WATCH Dog is available in the full WilsonGloss color palette and an almost infinite number of custom finishes to match your main speakers. The review sample arrived in cashmere beige, a muted gold that looks great to my eyes. Any way you look at it, the WATCH Dog is a big box, so there are only so many things you, and Wilson Audio, can do to make it fit in with decor. The deep and very attractive finish is certainly one of these. And as with the WATT/Puppy 6 and Sophia speakers, Wilson Audio includes all of the wrenches and hardware needed for setup, some very substantial spikes and protective discs, and a very detailed owner's manual. The WATCH Dog also comes with a CD packed with test tones and musical selections to aid in setup, although your Wilson Audio dealer will do this for you. The WATCH Dog is certainly an expensive product, but Wilson Audio doesn't overlook even the smallest detail in terms of its presentation.
Where does a 300-pound WATCH Dog sleep?
I won't go into great detail describing everything you need to do to wring the utmost performance from the WATCH Dog, but I will talk about a few broad decisions you will have to make during setup. The first is where you will place the WATCH Dog. In my 12' x 24' listening room, there were a limited number of spots in which I could position the WATCH Dog, and I eventually settled on a corner area to the left of my two Target equipment racks and in back of the speakers. While the subwoofer was still on its casters, I experimented with toe-in and settled on firing the WATCH Dog toward the center of the soundstage and not directly at my listening position, which did give its position away with some CDs. In its final position, the WATCH Dog was invisible -- that is, I was unable to detect it in the room even when it played its loudest.
Next, you'll have to decide whether you will use the WATCH Dog's high-pass or low-pass functionality (for home-theater use, you will likely use the LFE input). This choice will depend almost solely on your main speakers. If they are nearly full range like the WATT/Puppy 6 or Sophia, you will connect the WATCH Dog to an extra set of outputs from your preamp and configure it for low-pass use. If your speakers offer far less bass, you will likely go out from your preamp into the WATCH Dog's high-pass circuit, then out to your amps. You will configure the subwoofer to filter frequencies above a certain point, sending them to the amp and main speakers. Everything else the WATCH Dog will reproduce. Wilson Audio rates the WATCH Dog up to 150Hz, and I would say this is the very upper threshold of its use anyway.
Finally, after configuration, you will need to determine if you will use the WATCH Dog's built-in equalizer to either attenuate or boost a certain frequency band. Such equalization is a great boon for subwoofer users because it makes getting optimal results possible in essentially every case -- unless you need to correct a suckout in one band and a boost in another, which is unlikely given the small frequency range the WATCH Dog will influence.
I used the WATCH Dog with my usual reference components -- Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 speakers, Lamm ML2 mono amps, Lamm L2 Reference preamp, Mark Levinson No.39 CD player -- as well as a number of products that I've reviewed previously or will review soon. These include the Audio Research Reference Two Mk II preamp, Wilson Sophia speakers, Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk II.2 mono amps, and Tenor Audio 75Wi mono amps. Cables in use most of the time were Acoustic Zen Silver Reference interconnects and Hologram speaker cables. Power cords were from Shunyata Research, including the newest Python and Taipan models, as well as the trusty JPS Labs Power AC, which I used with the WATCH Dog. A Shunyata Hydra conditioned and distributed power to my system, although I primarily plugged the WATCH Dog directly into the wall.
Before John Giolas, the Wilson Audio marketing director, could arrive and dial in the WATCH Dog, I was able to use the included CD and directions in the manual to integrate the WATCH Dog perfectly with the Wilson Sophia speakers, the review of which I was finishing. However, I had all kinds of trouble once I removed the Sophias and put in the WATT/Puppy 6es. I followed the same directions multiple times and had lumpy, unsatisfying bass each time -- no matter what I tried. Of course, John made short work of it and had speaker and subwoofer singing together in less than an hour. Luckily, you will get the same setup help from your Wilson Audio dealer, who will also likely deliver your WATCH Dog. Hallelujah!
You're probably asking yourself right now: "Why do speakers like the WATT/Puppy 6 need a subwoofer?" After all, in my review of the speakers, I wrote, "The WATT/Puppy 6es do bass with greater dynamics and more realistic shading, detail and power than any speaker I've heard at length." The answer here is that they don't need a subwoofer at all, and none of us need an elaborate audio system for listening to recorded music. A boombox will suffice. But if you want to chase the signal and extract as much of it as you can, a subwoofer is a necessary tool for use with speakers that can't produce 20Hz or below flat. This is the niche the WATCH Dog fills -- it gives you the bass your speakers likely can't, and even most other subwoofers can't.
However, when used with speakers like the WATT/Puppy 6 and Sophia, the WATCH Dog is silent more often than not. Such speakers go so low on their own that the subwoofer only needs to augment the very lowest frequencies, and in the case of the WATT/Puppy 6, this is only a handful of Hertz. Vocal recordings as well as those of acoustic music without drums or bass elicit very little or nothing from the WATCH Dog. It just sits there, patiently waiting its turn.
What you'll find out in a most startling fashion is which of your recordings have really low bass, the kind your main speakers may only hint at, and how essential it is to the music. Holly Cole's Temptation [Metro Blue 7243 8 31653 2 2] is a collection of covers of Tom Waits songs and has low tones that literally shook the floor in my living room, which is above my listening room. But who cares about such audio pyrotechnics if the effect doesn't enhance the listening experience? In the case of the songs on Temptation, "Invitation to the Blues" especially, the WATCH Dog laid down a low-end foundation on which the music above was built. It gave the music character that was intended and beneficial. For the same reason, I enjoyed bass-workout favorites like Harry Connick Jr.'s She [Columbia CK 64376] (listen to the beginning of "Joe Slam and the Spaceship," but be ready to dive for the volume control), Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 31454 0583 2], and Spain's The Blue Moods of Spain [Restless 72910-2]. In each case, the bass had greater depth, weight, punch, and slam. If you are used to simply hearing more bass with a subwoofer in your system, the WATCH Dog will be a revelation because of what it does to the quality of the entire low-frequency spectrum. Bass is better in every way, and there is no excess that would signal to savvy listeners a subwoofer is in your system.
Some writers have remarked how adding a subwoofer often cleans up the midrange because the main speakers are not called on to reproduce anything too low. With the WATCH Dog and WATT/Puppy 6es or Sophias, this is not the case as the speakers aren't being limited in any way. But one very surprising sonic attribute that I did notice and came to regard at least as highly as the low-end foundation the WATCH Dog laid down was the soundstaging, which expanded laterally and became more tangible with the subwoofer in use. The WATCH Dog is able to broadcast low-frequency ambient information, reproducing music with a more spacious and physical presence. Again, this was not the case with every CD, only those, it appears, that have this information on them. Among the tracks with which this was very obviously happening are "Rhyme" from Television's eponymous release [Capitol 100197], "Helium" from Mark Eitzel's West [Warner Brothers 46602-2], and "Me and the Devil" from Cowboy Junkie's Whites Off Earth Now [RCA 2380-2-R]. But if you want more proof, it's easy to test: just switch the WATCH Dog off and see if the soundstage doesn't collapse toward the center and seem less tangible. Freaky!
It's easy to compare the WATT/Puppy 6 speakers with and without the WATCH Dog -- the subwoofer doesn't make an audible contribution to the sound most of the time. But in cases where it's obvious that the WATCH Dog is at work, switching it off quickly reduces bass weight, depth and dynamics. And just as important, the sense of space and physicality are diminished too. By no means is the sound bad without the WATCH Dog, but it is more than a few percentage points better with it in use. The best way to determine this is to use the WATCH Dog for a while and get used to it being in your system, then switch it off and listen to your music sans augmentation. For me, it was easier to detect the WATCH Dog's absence than its presence, except when it was positioned improperly in my room, in which case things like the bass guitar on "Virtue" from Ani DiFranco's Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe RBR013-D], which resides in the right channel, was blurred because of the setup of the subwoofer in my room to the left. Once again, firing the WATCH Dog across the soundstage solved this.
But there is one definite problem for reviewers who own the WATCH Dog: When it's properly set up and integrated with review items (speakers and amps are the only pieces of equipment for which you will have to make adjustments), the bass is always spectacularly deep and expressive. Thus, I used the WATCH Dog only about half of the time because of my reviewing duties -- although I always used it when listening for pleasure.
Big, heavy, versatile and able to rumble your house at its foundation when called upon to do so, the Wilson Audio WATCH Dog is a giant peach of an audio product. It is the ultimate accessory even if you own a speaker like the WATT/Puppy 6, whose bass needs only a small amount of augmentation, because it does what no other component can: extend in a real way the bandwidth of your audio system. It will not only reproduce the very lowest notes on your software but also the low-frequency ambient information that gives reproduced music a greater sense of physical space. Other than the considerable cost and mass of the WATCH Dog, the only downside is for reviewers and equipment jockeys who have audio goodies cycling through their systems. They'll have adjustments to make each time, and the WATCH Dog will homogenize the bass response from change to change.
While we audiophiles often build our systems based on our tastes in music as well as audio equipment, no such considerations exist with the WATCH Dog. It delivers the cleanest, most powerful bass I've heard, and because of the WATCH Dog's ample flexibility, I suspect it will do so in just about any system and with any recording that has low bass. If you seek the ultimate powered subwoofer, the Wilson Audio WATCH Dog is your starting point.
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