SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published June 1, 2003


Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Loudspeakers

For a certain breed of audiophile, Wilson Audio loudspeakers represent everything that's wrong with the industry. Their speakers are unabashedly expensive, unconventional, and feature an attention to detail that goes far beyond reason. After all, who on earth would machine a port tube out of solid stock?

David Wilson, that's who.

And whether or not you agree with the necessity for such fanaticism, one thing is obvious: if it didn't have that level of persnikitude, it wouldn't be a Wilson product.

And that doesn't come cheap.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the first Wilson speaker that I have fallen completely in love with -- out of all the ones I have lived with and reviewed, and the ones I have auditioned at shows, and Wilson's Provo production facility, and even David Wilson's home -- also happens to be the least expensive in their current line.

Let it be said, however, that the Sophias -- a Wilson product to the core -- earned this distinction through the application of the company's usual values, not from trying to tone any of them down.

It's hard to imagine that even the most cynical audiophile could fault Wilson for that.

It’s better to be looked over than overlooked

The Sophia bears more than a passing resemblance to the WATT/Puppy's cabinet shape -- although the Sophia's cabinet is a single enclosure rather than the two-part assembly belonging to its venerable stable mate. But don't let the family resemblance fool ya -- the Sophia's enclosure is anything but derivative.

Wilson has always advocated the use of advanced materials in cabinet construction and the Sophia is no exception. The speaker's sides and bracing are composed of what the company dubs "M" material: a composite that consists of cellulose-fiber matrices bound in phenolic resin. Sheets of the resulting material are laminated into the speaker's chassis panels.

The cabinets’ woofer baffles and bases are assembled out of Wilson's "X" composite, which exhibits even greater rigidity. This is the latest iteration of the mineral-loaded methacrylate material that the company has been refining for many years. After the cabinets are assembled, they are rubbed down, primed, spray-painted with automotive lacquers, and clear-coated. The resulting finish is spectacular and deep (many colors are available).

Now Wilson's critics are probably crowing at this point that all of that hand labor is the reason the speakers don't cost $2500, but the process doesn't just make 'em pretty (which they are), it makes the cabinets phenomenally dead acoustically. Could the company skip all the finish work? Sure, but the cabinets would not sound the same -- and then the speakers wouldn't be Wilsons.

As is the company's custom, the Sophia utilizes the same Focal inverted-dome tweeter Wilson has used in its home-theater speakers. The tweeter's titanium diaphragm is coated with "tioxid 5," a damping deposit said to "remove" the metallic sound many audiophiles object to in metal-dome tweeters. The tweeter also employs a foam surround, dual magnets, and a rear-radiation damping chamber.

The midrange driver is a 7" Scan-Speak paper-cone design that has been grooved with a radiating pattern, as has been the dust cap. These grooves are filled with a damping material.

The 10" long-throw aluminum woofer is reflex-loaded (the Sophia has a 3"-diameter aluminum port on its rear panel -- actually, there's also a 1" port back there for the midrange driver).

The Sophia's crossover is potted and, therefore, a mystery. Wilson ain't talkin', either -- the company will only say it is constructed of high-quality parts. You'd probably have guessed that from the sound, anyway.

The Sophia has a single pair of custom speaker terminals on the rear panel. The speaker sits firmly on elaborate (and impressive) spikes -- long a Wilson trademark.

It is better fun to punt than to be punted

I actually had the Sophias for a while before I set 'em up -- which was driving me crazy, I might add. The delay was caused by the fact that I wanted to experience the same sort of set-up procedure that any other customer would, and it took Wilson Audio rep, Peter McGrath, a while to make it to New York. A lot of audiophiles get upset when they read of visiting audio celebrities setting up gear for reviewers, but Wilson has insisted that personalized set-up be part of the company's regular way of doing business from the beginning, when David Wilson would personally set up every pair of WAMMs he sold. If you buy a pair of Sophias, your dealer (who has probably been trained by McGrath) will do the honors -- and you won't have to wait six months, either!

Here's the Wilson method of speaker location discovery: The customer sits in a comfy chair and the setter-upper (SU) stands against the wall he or she is facing. While talking, the setter-upper takes half steps out from the wall, while the customer listens for the SU's voice to lose its chesty, near-boundary affect, at which point the SU marks that point on the floor with masking tape. The SU then walks further into the room, continuing to speak -- at some point the SU's voice loses clarity and develops a hollow tinge. That spot is marked, too.

This creates a band running from one side wall to the other in the front of the room. Now the SU -- starting first from one side wall and then the other -- repeats the walking and talking process within that band, marking the two points where his voice "clears" and where it goes "swimmy."

This is particularly useful if your room is not perfectly symmetrical (mine isn't). It gives you two zones of optimum sound -- the next task is to determine where within them the loudspeakers will function best.

The SU now lays out a grid within the two zones. Playing a recording of a solo instrument or voice through one channel at a time, the SU will move the speaker grid-by-grid forward and back (and then side to side) until the perfect combination between clarity and tonality is achieved. The process is repeated on the other side of the room.

The usual result is a wide isosceles triangle that encompasses the two speakers and your listening chair -- possibly with the speakers further apart than you would have ever placed them by "eye" (certainly true in my listening room where the Sophias ended with a staggering 9’ hole between 'em). The next step is to toe the speakers in, and the Wilson way is to point them straight toward the listener's ears so that only the speakers' faces are visible (no sidewall should be visible).

I have gone through this process four times now and each time it has resulted in wide, deep, tonally correct sound. I once heard David Wilson refer to it as "eliminating the room from the equation," but it seems to me to do the opposite -- to identify the room's contribution to the sound and then work within its limitations to allow the speakers to do the best job they can. But whether you see the room as half-full or half-empty, the process works extremely well.

Facts are better than dreams

Once Peter McGrath and I had the speakers tuned in, we got right to the important part of the afternoon: listening to music. Peter always brings along a passel of great-sounding discs -- some recorded by him, others commercial releases I've never heard. We started with one of Peter's own discs, a piano recital by Emanuele Arciuli honoring Thelonious Monk. Arciuli commissioned 19 composers to set variations and ruminations on the great jazz pianist's "Round Midnight," considered by many to be jazz's national anthem. The stylistic span of the treatments is immense -- as you might expect when you consider that the arrangers ranged from hip jazz icons like Fred Hersch and Uri Caine to contemporary classical giants like Milton Babbit, John Harbison, and Frederic Rzewski.

Initially, however, I found it impossible to concentrate on either Arciuli's astonishingly powerful playing or the wonderful music he had commissioned. I was agog at the concert-sized Steinway that had suddenly materialized in the center of my listening room! (Hmm, a 9' Steinway would just barely fit between the speakers. Coincidence? You be the judge.)

And I don't use the word materialize casually. The sound was brilliant, ringing, and solid -- I could all but feel the hammers striking the strings, and I could (or at least, it sounded as if I could) actually hear the tones strike the lid and bounce off it straight at my listening chair.

And yet, I've heard this kind of all but physical sound before, especially from the Wilson WATT/Puppy Vs -- what was new to me in a speaker the size and cost of the Sophia was the remarkable cohesiveness of the sound. From the highest string overtones to the lowest fundamentals (and even the resonance that surrounded each note), the sound was all of one piece.

But it was not homogenized. The Sophias perform a trick I have almost never heard a loudspeaker pull off: they recreate spatial information so uncannily realistically that I could have sworn I was hearing the spacing of the individual string clusters that created each note. Now, I've heard speakers and systems that soundstage holographically before, but it has always been "holographically, considering that it's a reproduction of the real thing." The combination of the effortless physicality of the sound and the sense of real space, depth, and breadth in the reproduction of Arciuli's playing eliminated that sense of "being there once removed" to an astonishing degree.

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons

Lest anyone assume I was assembling a "cost-no-logic" audio system, I should hasten to point out that the components I had paired the Sophias with, while certainly not inexpensive, were far from extravagant: Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista stack of SACD and integrated amp, connected with Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Constellation Series speaker cables -- a system that essentially matches the cost of the speakers.

However, while Peter McGrath seemed happy with the sound we were getting, he proposed a shocking -- scandalous by audiophile standards, even -- notion. "Got any great-sounding cheap gear?"

"I bought the Linn Classik I reviewed," I replied.

"Perfect! Let's hook it up to 'em," Peter urged me.

I couldn't just then. I was too entranced by what we were hearing to change a thing, but I promised I would try that very combo before writing a review.

Even if you believe that the speakers are the most important article in any high-resolution audio system, that seems far too unbalanced an approach to consider serious. Yet, when I followed through on my promise to Peter, I was amazed at what I heard.

The 75Wpc CD player/tuner/integrated amp drove the Sophias with authority and finesse. The bass was deep, the midrange sang like a bell, and the top end was clear and extended -- maybe it didn't have that same level of microtonal precision (or that preternatural sense of tones in space) as the Musical Fidelity/Shunyata combo, but it was completely satisfying. In fact, if an audio store had convinced me to spend $15,000 on a system by combining the Linn, Shunyata Constellation speaker cables, and the Sophias, I would quite likely thwart their long-term upgrade strategy by staying right where I started. I could work very hard and pay a lot of loot for only incrementally better sound.

That is, if I weren't the kind of obsessive audiophile that I am, that's how I might react. But I am picky and I do love what the Sophias do when paired with products of similar pedigree, so I reveled in the sound of the Tri-Vistas again after being so completely amazed at the doughty little Linn.

Good taste is better than bad taste

The Tri-Vista SACD player, for instance, revealed just how air-like and extended the Sophia's upper frequencies sounded, especially when playing DSD-mastered SACDs. The grainlessness of SACD's upper regions is a continuing source of delight for me, especially on such superb recordings as Telarc's recent celebration of Hovhaness (Mysterious Mountain; Hymn to Glacier Peak; Mount St. Helens; Storm on Mount Wildcat [Telarc SACD 60604]) by Gerard Schwartz and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. "Love Song to Hinako," the andante movement of Hymn to Glacier Peak gestures a duet for flute and oboe that soars above the plucked strings like a sigh. On the Sophias, it was rendered with a purity that never failed to prickle my skin with goosebumps.

Not that the speakers couldn't deliver true power. The roar and clatter of the full orchestra that recreates Mount St. Helen's full-bore eruption was delivered without compression or limits -- and that with an amplifier that delivers far less than the 1kW that Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson now reckons "sufficient" for high-resolution reproduction! (Now that he's marketing the 1000W kW amplifier, that is.)

Just as I was preparing to write about the Sophias, I received two discs that showed different areas where the speakers excelled. The first was Carla Bley's new CD, Looking For America [WATT/31 CD], which, huge fan that I am, immediately became the most played disc chez Wes.

The centerpiece of Looking For America has to be the 22-minute-long "The National Anthem," a distorted fun-house mirror reflection of "The Star Spangled Banner." The piece was recorded in October 2002 and it reflects the darkening national mood as the country careened toward war and the debates on the country's future actions turned rancorous. Yet, "The National Anthem" is far from dark or bitter; it is supremely American music -- full of the same refiner's fire as the work of Charles Ives, who himself smelted the country's zeitgeist into a uniquely Yankee art.

"The National Anthem" is pure Bley -- it is buoyant and full of energy, marching along to a martial beat laid down by the phenomenal Billy Drummond and motored by Steve Swallow's burbling bass bottom end. Upon this rock-solid foundation, Bley adds her colors: some bright trumpet splashes from Lew Soloff and crew, a generous dollop of buzz-saw trombone (Gary Valente out in front of a four-chair section), and the seasoning of Wolfgang Pusching and Andy Sheppard fronting a sax section. Add Bley's own piano, daughter Karen Mantler's organ, and Don Alias' percussion and the sound opens up to a scale few jazz artists can even conceive these days -- and the band takes our venerable anthem places it never dreamt of, I'm sure (including cameo appearances from "O Canada" and the opening theme from Also Sprach Zarathustra).

In places, Bley features the familiar melody with the reverent hush of a grateful citizen, in others the piece metastasizes into something disturbingly dark and frightful -- but it always sounds recognizably present. As usual, Tom Mark and Steve Swallow have mastered the disc to present that astounding power and impact that only a jazz big band can deliver -- and it's a sound that few speaker systems can deliver without reaching a point where they just can't get that last bit of dynamic range out of the enclosure.

Not the Sophias, however. They delivered everything -- from Drummond's rim shots to the brass choir's most extreme tutti with remarkable ease and grace. Live? It sounded better than live -- I've never seen the band in a venue with a PA that could deliver its sound without distortion or limitation. It sounded as immediate as a microphone diaphragm's perspective (actually, even better than that, since Gary Valente has been known to shred microphone diaphragms with his immense, immediate sound). It was sound that seemed to have no limits.

The other disc that kept jostling Looking For America out of the Tri-Vista's drawer was a rough mixdown CD of the Persuasions' new recording of classic R&B songs, slated to be released by Chesky records in September. I was present at the recording sessions and watched the group stand in a circle about five feet back from the centrally located microphone and sing a diverse program of great songs. I, of course, was seated a lot further than five feet away from the group, so what I heard in the church those days was far different from what I hear now on the disc. But the essential warmth and humanity of those five fabulous singers comes through the recording with a fidelity that seems even truer than the sound I heard from 30 feet away. More realer than the real thing? Perhaps that's not conceptually possible, but I believe the disc is truer than what I heard from where I was sitting -- and, at the same time, merely a different expression of that same truth.

And what did those microphones capture? A sound that transmuted five voices into one seamless whole that encompasses a huge range of tones -- an alchemical reaction that converted the pain of human experience into wisdom and comfort. It caught the urgency of Jerry Lawson's throaty tenor, Jayotis Washington's sublime falsetto, Jimmy Hayes' fat-bottomed bass chops, and all the lovely harmony you could pray for.

For the length of a CD, it captured as much of heaven as we could ever ask. At least, that's what I heard through the Sophias -- and I didn't have the heart to hear it any other way.

I don’t know very much, but what I do know I know better than anybody

I didn't have any speakers on hand that remotely begged to be compared to the Sophias, but I'm not sure that's even germane. I have heard speakers that bettered the Sophias in one particular area or another -- I think the Dynaudio Evidence Temptations went considerably deeper with even greater impact, and I have heard Wilson's own WATT/Puppys and Grand SLAMMs capture even more skin-tingling transient sparkle. I could also probably root through my memory palace and find tiny areas here and there where other speakers actually bettered the Sophias (although not by much and, probably, not without considerable qualification).

I'm not even saying that the Sophia is the best loudspeaker I've ever heard (although I have certainly run that thought past myself a time or two during the audition period). I'm simply saying I've never heard a speaker that combined the Sophia's considerable roster of strengths with so few ticks checked off in the weaknesses column. It doesn't do anything egregious to the sound and it does so many things so darn well.

Further, the speaker never succumbs to the Frankenstein syndrome -- you know, where the bass is wonderful, but not cut from the same cloth as the midrange or high frequencies. The Sophia's sound is continuous and cohesive. It's remarkably satisfying -- and thrilling as all get out.

A pair of the Sophias cost almost $12,000. There -- that's my biggest criticism. But name a loudspeaker that comes close to the same performance that's cheaper. I can't. In fact, most speakers I like almost as much cost considerably more.

If, like me, you can't afford 'em, that thought probably won't offer a lot of comfort. However, if you can afford to contemplate buying a pair without weeping -- say it means driving the same car for an extra year or two, or spending a vacation at home rather than in Cancún this year -- I can certainly think of worse things than buying a pair of Wilson Sophias.

Not buying them, for instance.

 ...Wes Phillips

Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Loudspeakers
Price: $11,700 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
Phone: (801) 377-2233


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