Wilson Audio Sophia Series 3 loudspeaker
Two years ago, I was drawn to the Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2then as now, the company's entry-level floorstanderby its good reputation among lovers of low-power tube amplifiers. "Forget the specs," they said. "Sophia is the one to hear." In fact, with its 89dB sensitivity (slightly lower than most of Wilson's other domestic loudspeakers) and mildly challenging impedance curve (less daunting than those of its stablemates, but not by a lot), the Sophia seemed, on paper, no better than average for use with flea-watt amps. But when I tried a pair at home with my 25W Shindo Corton-Charlemagne mono amps, I was impressed: The Sophia Series 2 was, as I suggested in my "Listening" column in the February 2010 issue, the product that will forever mark Wilson Audio's progress toward not merely excellent sound but beautiful sound.
Yet time and Wilson Audio march on, leaving some notable accomplishments in their wakessuch as last year's Sasha W/P ($26,900/pair), which replaced their long-lived WATT/Puppy speaker. Now the company says they've applied the lessons learned in that project to make an even better Sophia, here in Series 3 guise ($16,700/pair). "Our motto was: First, do no harm," David Wilson says of the development process. Not only were he and his design team dedicated to keeping intact what they acknowledge is the Sophia 2's special musicality, but also the model's model behavior with a wide variety of partnering equipment: "[We] didn't want to compromise the Sophia's ability to not only be easily driven, but to be dumb-driven, by any amp!"
I would describe the shape of the Sophia 3 as quintessentially Wilson, if not for the fact that so many builders have taken Wilson's shapes for their own. Suffice it to say, the Sophia Series 3 retains the basic appearance and dimensions of its predecessor: a tower of rectangular cross section ending in a blunt pyramid on top. Yet the Sophia 3's lines, like those of the Sasha, differ subtly from the lines of Wilson speakers past, with creases and mild angles that create a more sculpted, less boxy look. Although I didn't notice at first, even the lowest sidewalls of the new cabinet are tapered inward slightly. In all, the new Sophia looks swoopier than the old: Think of a Fender Stratocaster compared with its progenitor, the Telecasteror its progenitor, the wooden plank.
The change, of course, was motivated more by considerations of performance than mere appearance: The creases endow the new speaker's cabinet with greater rigidity than that of the old, while the angles are outward signs of newly nonparallel panels, made to fool standing waves into thinking they needn't exist. Interior volume is slightly up and material choices have been tweaked, with thicker panels of Wilson's X-material phenolic used for the main walls, and a switch to the company's proprietary S-material composite for the midrange/tweeter baffle.
Those two upper drivers have themselves been upgraded. Where the Sophia Series 2 used a pulp-cone midrange drivera nice enough thing in its own rightthe new model comes with what's described as a "simplified" version of the pulp/composite cone driver used for current versions of the upmarket Alexandria and MAXX models, as well as the Sasha. Also, the Series 3 Sophia has the same inverted titanium-dome tweeter used in all the aforementioned models, all more expensive. That tweeter, made by Focal to Wilson's specifications, is said to be fitted with a newly developed device that inhibits rear-going waves from impinging on the dome and thus coloring its output. The Sophia's woofers, too, have been improved: Although the aluminum-cone drivers are of the same basic design, the magnets have been doubled up, for greater sensitivity and speed.
As one might guess, those and other changes brought with them the need for a new crossover design. Although Wilson Audio maintains their usual reticence regarding all things network, they do say that the new crossover is "completely reworked" and incorporates the most recent technology that David W. has developed to eliminate the time-domain distortions, related to interactions between high- and low-pass filters, that he calls "crossover jitter." Like all other Wilson speakers, the Sophia Series 3 has only a single pair of input connectors, but an access panel on the rear (rather than the bottom) of the cabinet makes it easier to reach the new model's user-replaceable midrange and tweeter resistors.
Like every other Wilson speaker I've had in my home, the review samples of the Sophia Series 3 were stunningly well made. Indeed, Wilson's speakers are made in accordance with the idea that strict attention paid to even the smallest, most seemingly unimportant details of design and construction can reap significant performance gains overall, if done consistently and thoughtfully well. More than just a marketing claim, that tenet is obvious to anyone who's ever looked at one of their products in the flesh. One senses that, if Wilson Audio made CD players, their transports would not be driven by plastic gears; and if they made amplifiers, their on/off switches would be more than just the same garbage you can buy at Home Depot.