So much of what makes the Duette Plus One system (as I’ve come to call it) so musically compelling and captivating happens exactly where the best hi-fi has always happened – in the mid-band. But you don’t get it without the low-frequency extension delivered by the WATCH Dog, despite the fact that I’m running the Duettes full-range. Whether you play the rhythmic convolutions of Monk and Coltrane, the exquisite phrasing of Ella, the aching poignance of Billie or the fragile duets that characterize Dolly Varden, the result is always the same. The subwoofer delivers a more natural, more believable and more listenable result. And that’s with all of 50 Watts doing the driving. 50 valve Watts at that. The potential musical coherence to be gained by using identical amplification and cabling for the lowest frequencies should be apparent after only a moment’s pause for thought. Its actual importance however is hard to overstate. If we move on a continuum from “bass doesn’t matter” to “bass matters but the quality of the amp and cables doesn’t” and keep on going we eventually get to the “let’s overlay the main amp’s sound on the bass” school of thought. In performance terms we’d be somewhere short of halfway towards what the WATCH Dog delivers. Of course, we’d also be quite a way short of the WATCH Dog’s cost, but there are two issues in question here: the quality and value of the Wilson products (used alongside the Duettes or not) and the integrity of the conceptual reasoning behind them.
I’ve discussed at length the cost/ value equation that applies to Wilson speakers in both the MAXX and the Duette reviews. I’m not going to tread the same tired ground here. Suffice to say, if you’ve bought into the Duette you’ve bought into the Wilson way. The WATCH Dog offers a fantastic upgrade for that speaker, delivering increased bandwidth, transparency, texture, tonal colour and scale to what is already a wonderfully musical speaker. But the real gain is best expressed in musical rather than hi-fi terms. The presence and sheer musical authority that arrives in the wake of the WATCH Dog elevates the Duette (and I’d suspect the Sophia too) to a whole new level. In doing so it spreads the cost and even the domestic impact of ownership without overloading the front-end spend or amplifier budget. This is an upgrade without any perceivable downside – save the cost. A WATCH Dog, active controller and a second amp will cost around £10K plus cables, doubling the price of the Duette solution. Do you get twice the signal? Clearly not. Twice the music? twice the pleasure? Absolutely, no question. It’s an upgrade that once heard you won’t want to surrender. Duette owners – you’ve been warned.
But that only answers the first of those two questions. In some ways, as emphatic as the musical point the WATCH Dog makes might be, its conceptual impact could and should be even greater. Active sub-woofers offer all manner of (mainly marketing led) benefits. In practice, the passive cabinet with amplification to match the rest of the musical range delivers a less physically elegant solution, but far higher performance potential. It all comes down to the micro-macro debate. Why do want a sub-woofer in the first place? If the answer is to reproduce some soundman’s notion of what a train wreck or car exploding sounds like, all within the comfort and physical constraints of your front room, by all means go the active route.
Now consider just how difficult it is to achieve real musical coherence from a system, the lengths we go to in order to get it – all so that we can ‘get’ the music. Just how easy is it to disturb that equilibrium? Add a separate cabinet (or two) with different construction and materials, driver(s) from a different source, an amp or two, each with its own distinctive character and possibly a switching power supply to pollute the mains and some DSP to really screw things up. Throw in a cheap length of three-core cable to carry the signal. What chance have you really got? Okay, so I’ve painted the blackest possible picture of the active approach, and as we’ve seen, it’s capable of delivering remarkably good results for the price, especially if it’s carefully set up by a man who can. At the other end of the spectrum lies the WATCH Dog, £10K of cost no object, performance dedicated engineering. The point is that somewhere in between lies a happy median of price versus performance, more readily attained by mere mortals with all too mortal bank balances. For performance orientated, two-channel systems, bandwidth is an essential and passive sub-woofers promise the best and most cost effective way to get it. All we need now is for a few enlightened manufacturers to throw off the burden of the AV Gods and the LFE doctrine (I think that stands for Low Frequency Excess) and actually deliver the goods we need to buy. After all, most of the work has been done; all they need to do is brush up on their filter circuitry, house it in a separate chassis and leave the electronics out of an existing cabinet. I know it’s not quite that simple, but why fight for a place in an overcrowded market when blue water beckons?