GARY STEEL chats with the two genius designers of a revolution in sound reproduction. Prepare to be amazed.
I’m sitting in an office in a factory just off Auckland’s Dominion Rd. The sounds that are wafting around me are like nothing I’ve heard before. When I close my eyes, which is most of the time, I can almost “see” the musicians picking out notes on their guitars. The sound is practically holographic. The bass is really deep but natural. The transition from low-mids to high-highs is incredibly smooth. The treble is clear but astonishing in its transparency.
Whenever I open my eyes I’m presented with a dilemma. There are no actual musicians, virtual or otherwise. Instead, facing me from across the room are two diminutive speakers on stands. It’s a kind of magic, some mysterious alchemy, but there’s no trickery here.
Would you like to support our mission to bring intelligence, insight and great writing to entertainment journalism? Help to pay for the coffee that keeps our brains working and fingers typing just for you. Witchdoctor, entertainment for grownups. Your one-off (or monthly) $5 or $10 donation will support Witchdoctor.co.nz. and help us keep producing quality content. It’s really easy to donate, just click the ‘Become a supporter’ button below.
The Wing Zeros are the result of more than 20 years of development by two Auckland-raised musician brothers, and they represent a genuine revolution in loudspeaker technology.
Yeah, I know. We’ve become immune to the incessant hype-speak of the 21st century, where every tiny advance in technology is trumpeted as innovative, and an excuse for the hapless consumer to dump the previous generation of a product for the must-have latest.
But this is different. Mike and Dave Palmer have actually developed a completely new speaker system from the ground up. Forget everything you know speakers to consist of apart from the box. Instead of cones, the Wing Zeros have a trademarked Acousticwing driver that – get this! – mimics the action of a hummingbird wing in flight!
Wing Acoustics describe it thus: “The revolutionary acousticWing driver is an ultra-rigid wing that moves in a precise arc, eliminating resonance distortion at the source. The result is unparalleled sound purity.”
Let’s ponder this for a moment. For the 100 years or so since the loudspeaker was first invented, they’ve consisted of cones with rubbery surrounds. There’s much more to a loudspeaker than that, of course, but my point is that the essential architecture of speakers has remained the same all this time. There has been innovation in cabinet design, the materials the cones are made out of, and so on. There have been a few different ideas like electrostatic and planar magnetic speakers, and both of these have eliminated some of the issues that occur between crossovers (the transition of sound between, say, a tweeter and a driver) but have remained esoteric choices for reasons we don’t need to go into here. There has also been considerable miniaturisation and clever thinking in the design of portable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speakers in recent years, but the basic idea is the same one they had at the beginning of the last century: electrical signals sending sounds through paper (or mylar, or whatever) cones. And with that kind of soundwave dispersion, there are always compromises because the room itself does so much to shape the sound as it bounces off the walls, the windows, everything.
Yeah, is it starting to sink in now? A couple of dudes from Auckland, New Zealand, have come up with an entirely new thing. The phrase “game-changer” has become a terrible cliché through over-use, but it’s apt in regards to the Wing Zeros.
A little birdy first whispered something in my ear about these “amazing speakers that you’ve just got to hear” a few years back, and like an idiot, I had it in my “to do” diary for at least a year to track down these folks and get to have a listen. When I finally Googled “Wing speakers” I found that there was already a website talking effusively about the forthcoming Wing Zeros, but when Wing Acoustics’ Chief Executive Chris Hardy answered my email in 2019, I discovered that they weren’t quite ready to launch. Instead, plans were made for a big reveal in 2020, but we all know what happened in 2020, right?
When I finally sat down and chatted with Chris (an ex adman turned entrepreneur) this year, he explained how the nasty Covid had temporarily thwarted the international launch of the Wing Zero, and how manufacturing had by necessity become NZ-based. I can imagine that the disruption will have caused some financial stress but if that’s the case, it’s not showing. Chris and the two extraordinary thinker/designers he’s taken under his wing come across as relentlessly positive, but not in the forced way those of us in the media are used to experiencing from organisations with products to sell. I think the phrase here is “boundless enthusiasm”. They know that they’ve got something really special and I’m sure the marketing of “the product” will be stamped with the same spirit of creativity as the product itself.
Chris explains that Mike and Dave – both classical musicians in their own right as well as audio engineers – have been beavering away at the idea since the late 1990s when they were still students. It takes time to perfect a completely new way of doing something and clearly, they were loath to get their creation out to consumers before they’d ironed out all the teething problems. Chris came on board a few years back to help with marketing and was so enraptured with the product and the genius of its creators that acousticWing became his main project.
There’s a lot more to the story than we can get into here because it’s complex: the company has lodged a bunch of patents for Mike and Dave’s unique systems and they’re in talks with a variety of parties internationally in regards to ways the technology could be harnessed and applied, including industrially and in recording studios.
In fact, a few weeks later I attend a launch function at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios in Mt Eden, Auckland, where I meet Studio Manager Paddy Hill, who waxed eloquent about the Wing Zeros and just how groundbreaking they are. They auditioned a pair at Roundhead for potential use as monitors, and were gobsmacked at just how great they sounded. “Incredible – it was like there was no longer any barrier between me and the performer,” writes Paddy in a testimonial on the speakers. There was however, a small problem. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Back to that room at the acousticWing factory, Chris is introducing me to the two young men who came up with this amazing idea, and actually made it work. I say “young” – although I would guess that they’re both in their mid-30s – because they come across with the kind of naivety-cum-innocence-cum-curiosity that often seems part and parcel of genuinely brilliant individuals. I don’t conduct a formal interview, just chitchat, but what’s apparent is a kind of ceaseless interest in everything, brains that never stop interrogating their environment.
The Wing Zero is the first acousticWing product to roll lovingly off the production line, and they’re visibly proud of it, and eager to hear what people think of it. My approximately 30-minute audition is way short of a proper critical evaluation, but I’m clearly reeling with the excellence of what I’ve just heard. Amazingly, this brief audition uses just selections from the Tidal and Spotify streaming services, so I’d love to hear what the speakers do with a genuinely hi-res source. Chris demos the system with Angus & Julia Stone’s ‘Draw Your Swords’, a Billy Ocean track, a bit of Mahler, Henry Mancini’s ‘Pink Panther’ theme and (just for good measure) cranks it up with AC/DC. It all just sounds so great.
As the Wing Zero bumf says: “Going beyond the limits of conventional ‘cone’ loudspeaker technology, currently used in virtually every sound device on the planet, there is NO flexible diaphragm, NO rubbery surround and NO unstable pistonic action that is the cause of resonance distortion (unwanted vibration energy) in conventional loudspeaker drivers, polluting and shrouding your music.”
What I take from those sentences is that the Wing Zeros emit a sound rather than shoot it out, thereby preventing the resonant distortion inherent in conventional speaker cones. This prevents them from being overtly directional, although there is still a sweet spot for those stereo nerds who like that kind of thing (me).
Even my beloved Martin Logan hybrid electrostatic speakers can’t claim to be completely free of the issues faced by cone speakers. I love them because of the utter smoothness through the entire audio spectrum with no sense of crossover (because there isn’t any, apart from the bass speakers) but they don’t completely overcome the “bouncing off walls” issue, and the fact that Martin Logans produce sound from both the front and back of their electrostatic panels makes room placement and setup a complicated job and somewhat of a balancing act.
Back to the Wing Zero blurb, which talks about the ‘waterfall plot’, a measure of the resonance distortion generated by a loudspeaker driver. The waterfall plot for a Wing Zero speaker shows zero detectable resonance distortion over the widest operating bandwidth ever achieved – 80Hz to 17,000Hz.
As a complete moron when it comes to the specifics of the technical side of sound reproduction, my understanding of all this is limited, but the proof is in the pudding, and already, international hi-fi critics are raving. “One of the finest sounding small speakers I’ve heard,” wrote UK hi-fi pundit David Price(StereoNet). HiFi Choice magazine has more recently awarded them a 5 out of 5-star review. And it seems the industry is buzzing about the Wing Zeros, too, if former Sonos Chief Transducer Engineer Richard Little’s comment is anything to go by: “Truly exceptional sound. We are all seeking this level of performance,” he’s quoted as saying after experiencing the early prototypes.
Okay, so what was small problem I mentioned way back near the beginning of this piece? Well, the elephant in the room is that the Wing Zero speaker can’t go very loud and needs a really powerful amp to drive it properly. Roundhead Studios inadvertently popped one of the in-built protection systems, a fast-blow fuse, by driving them too hard in an attempt to fill their big studio A.
Don’t forget, these are tiny speakers, and in the mid-sized office I listened to them in, they certainly sounded loud enough. Death metal and octane-fuelled dance fans may want to shop elsewhere, but for someone with a small space – say, an apartment – the volume the speakers are capable of will probably be ample. Even so, these are not party speakers.
Unlike the majority of 21st century loudspeakers, however, the Wing Zeros are not very efficient, which means they need a powerhouse amp to drive them. Audiophiles with 25-watt valve amps just won’t do. The day I briefly auditioned them, the Wing Zeros were being driven by very reasonably priced VTV and Nord D-Class amps with plenty of juice. And that’s the thing. We have this tendency to think that powerful means hot and power-hungry solid state amps, but there’s a new generation of D-Class and digital amps that sounds surprisingly good and doesn’t cost a bomb.
It probably goes without saying that, while the Wing Zeros are really special, it’s not like their advent will kill off conventional cone speakers. Clever designer/manufacturers are constantly coming up with ways to improve that template and there are many brands out there making incredible-sounding speakers.
The Wing Zeros are currently only for sale through the acousticWing website at US$5000, so you won’t see them down at Hardly Normal or your local stereo store (although Chris tells me they may be able to sweeten the deal for Kiwis). Both the price and the lack of distribution may hamper the initial reach in their home country, but for those who want to experience something truly unique, at least they’re available to purchase here.
I’m hoping that Witchdoctor will get to do a detailed review of the Wing Zeros at some point. In the meantime, look out for our forthcoming Q&A with designers Mike and Dave Palmer.