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How to spend over a million bucks in Lisbon

How to spend over a million bucks in Lisbon

I had barely unpacked from Munich after High-End 2019 when it was time to nick off to Lisbon in Portugal for a spot of ultra-high-end listening. Lisbon is a beautiful city, but this was one of those fleeting airport-studio-airport visits, so its beauty was very much seen through the windows of aircraft and Ubers. However, a first-in-Europe opportunity to re-experience the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic (now considered a fully integrated system with the WAMM Master Subsonic), sitting with what is perhaps most commonly considered the loudspeaker’s new natural partner, the D’Agostino Relentless mono power amplifiers, with a matching Momentum HD preamp from the brand, and a dCS Vivaldi One digital front-end and a TechDAS Air Force One analogue source. With Artesania and Bassocontinuo stands and top Transparent cable throughout, this is a system that easily pushed past the million Euro mark. 

The system – playing for two weeks at Lisbon’s chic high-end retailer, Imacustica – was painstakingly set up over a period of five days after the Munich show. The room itself is both large and well-treated, but the large amp/speaker array dominated the visual field of all the listeners who were invited to listen. Over the weekend, both a cabal of the press (both specialist and mainstream) and then a group of high-end listeners had the opportunity to hear the system, described and played by Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath. This wasn’t just a carefully-curated selection of music; it was a combination of LP, CD, downloaded recordings (some in MQA format, as he’s a bit of a fan of the format), and a sprinkling of some of his own recordings. This included music of almost every genre (although – fortunately after suffering a particularly nasty case of ‘Jazz Hives’ at Munich – not as much jazz as might be expected in an audio demonstration).

, How to spend over a million bucks in Lisbon

This gave me three opportunities in one; the first was a revisit to the WAMM (now with the Subsonic as a complete system), the second the chance to hear it with the Relentless, and finally the chance to see if my reaction to the WAMM was a one-off, or if the experience was shared by others. This last required a bit of subtle people-watching in the demonstrations, but the simple answer was ‘yes’. The same reaction took place almost universally. People sat spellbound to the music. They applauded great works. They sat in silence. Out of respect and an absence of release forms, I won’t publish pictures of the crowd. There is something of the macho culture in Lisbon life, so let’s just say someone working nearby was testing tear gas canisters or something because there were a few misty eyes. But perhaps the most fascinating thing was watching the person in the hot seat. The WAMMs are precisely time-aligned and while everyone was benefitting from the frequency range, dynamic range, and sheer scale of the volume headroom of the WAMM, the chair in the middle of the front row was also getting the full experience. And watching them undergoing that experience was fascinating in a ‘been there, done that’ way. Oh, and to give this some scale, the picture of the woman standing behind the loudspeaker is drawn more or less true-to-size, and the main speakers stand close to seven foot tall in total. 

Each time, when the demonstration concluded, they stayed sitting for maybe ten seconds longer than the others. Where the other people in the demonstration crowded around the loudspeakers or asked questions, they just quietly walked out of the studio and sat down for a few seconds, processing what they heard. One person said “I read your review, about how you were lost for words. I… I thought you were bullshitting, but…” and then trailed off into their own thoughts. Perhaps fully ten minutes later, they came back from the musical space they had occupied and just said the same thing (admittedly often in Portuguese, so I had to rely on the translation); “I don’t have the words!”

, How to spend over a million bucks in Lisbon

They are right. The vocabulary of audio runs out of road around the time you sit in front of these loudspeakers. Something more than one person said was that it was almost better than the live event because the live event means you have to focus on the musicians and the event itself, whereas this is just a direct injection into the music. This isn’t just about the frequency range (although being able to hear 16’ and even 32’ organ notes reproduced in a near-domestic setting with some force behind them is more than a little striking) nor is it about the detail (although hearing far enough into a mix to hear that one of a French horn player’s valves is a little squeaky is quite shocking in its own right) or even about the dynamic range or the imaging (although Peter’s recording of the ending of a production of Tosca is breathtaking in scale and intensity on both these marks). It’s sort of… well, everything. It’s like there is so little impediment between you and the music that you effectively insert yourself into that musical space inside your head and hear something like the Platonic form of recorded music. Reading that back, it sounds like hyperbole and pseudo-intellectual psychobabble; but it’s the nearest I can get to explaining what it sounds like. And maybe 100 people who were in Lisbon this weekend are nodding along in agreement. 

Then there’s the Relentless. Vast in scale, unliftable, giant… and equally powerful in sound. It is an amplifier that is overkill for almost every loudspeaker on the planet, and despite the fact the WAMM is a surprisingly undemanding load, the Relentless has so much power in reserve and the WAMM has so much headroom in reserve, the two are logical partners… and sonically they more than match. The combination is like walking into a musical version of Dr Who’s TARDIS; you get the feeling that you could go anywhere or anywhen in musical history and enjoy the bejesus out of it. It’s little wonder that every pair of Relentless have gone to WAMM owners, or that most WAMM owners feed them Relentless power. I get the feeling there is more to the Relentless than just the WAMM’s big amp friend, but thus far the “words fail me” power of both join forces in combination to leave people in awe. And yet, for all its bravado (an amp that big with a name like Relentless is not without its bravado), the Relentless is capable of great subtlety and focus. Play an operatic aria and the recording isn’t upscaled so that the singer has a 20m wide mouth. Everything is in proportion… it’s just that it can scale from the tiniest of instrument voices to an orchestra belting out the end of the 1812 Overture without turning a hair. If another loudspeaker gets within the WAMM’s performance envelope, I’m fairly sure the Relentless will also be the amp of choice.

I guess the really big question is “Is this system in a class of its own?” From a price perspective alone, there are other systems that exceed a million bucks (or Euros, or Pounds… at this level such forex distinctions become a little academic), but few have even come within striking distance of what this system can do. Technology moves forward constantly, and I’ve not heard everything, but I’m going out on a limb to say there isn’t anything quite like this system at the moment. Some get close and maybe on a good day… but as it stands for me at this time, nothing has the reach of this system, in terms of dynamic range, frequency extension, imaging, detail, volume headroom, vocal articulation, solidity, and does so while sounding enjoyable. Other top-flight systems seem to do many of these things exceptionally well, but no other system thus far seems to do them all as a complete package quite as well as this system. That is a pretty big gauntlet thrown down, too. There are two ways of picking up that gauntlet; accepting the challenge, or attacking the reputations of those who made it. I hope for the former.

It’s been two years since I heard the WAMM (without the Subsonic) but more importantly, this week marks a year since Dave Wilson’s passing, so playing his magnum opus was as fitting a tribute as one could make. The WAMM should not be considered Dave Wilson’s self-made monument; this is no musical mausoleum. Instead, it is his masterwork, and he saved the best ‘til last. It completes the circle started with the original WAMM, and it was to be his last design before stepping down from the company and enjoying retirement. Sadly, that retirement was not to be, but what he left behind as a musical legacy is a masterpiece.

Let’s be entirely honest here. Unless I win the lottery or discover my inner criminal mastermind and successfully knock off a few big-ticket heists, the chances of me being one of the 71 people able to both buy and house the WAMMs is zero. That invites another question… if I had the money, would I buy this. But that’s the easy one to answer: absolutely, without a single doubt, and I’d do it in an eyeblink. However, climbing down from Mount Fantasy, normally, being exposed to something this good could mean a life spent constantly wanting something completely out of reach, but that’s not how the WAMM leaves you. It resets your musical clock, sure, but it’s a life-affirming reset for the music lover. If this is an experience you might only get once or twice in a lifetime, you don’t spend the rest of your life jealous of those able to experience this on a daily basis. It makes you re-evaluate your own audio system and your goals. Rather than depressing and churning on what was lost, it’s uplifting as you focus on how you get closer to the motherlode!





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