Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia loudspeaker February 2010 Page 2

House guests

Peter McGrath was our guest near the end of summer, but I was the one with the baggage: A few good Wilson demonstrations aside, I was far from convinced. I didn't think the Sophia Series 2 would prove musically satisfying. Would it sound good? Yes. Would it deserve my respect? Without question. Would I love it? Couldn't imagine it.

Then there's the power thing. My favorite amp these days is the 20W Shindo Haut-Brion, each of whose custom output transformers has only a single 16-ohm secondary winding: scarcely the thing for a high-end loudspeaker with a sensitivity rating of 89dB and an impedance curve that dips below 4 ohms at a musically popular 220Hz (A3 on the piano). Yet virtually every Wilson employee, Wilson dealer, and Wilson enthusiast with whom I spoke on the matter advised me not to worry. Don't get hung up on the specs, they all said. The numbers aren't encouraging, even compared with other speakers in the Wilson line, but the Sophia is magical with low-power amps. What's up with that?

The Sophia would be unstirring, I thought, and in some ways I was right. It never pushed my Thrill button in the manner of a big horn—a quality that may be a horn's sole province, tied as it is to a horn's size and scale and the way it loads a room. But the Wilson surprised me by being dramatic in subtler ways. Inside ways. I noticed it during "Emily," from Joanna Newsom's Ys (LP, Drag City DC303), when every increase in the density of the arrangement was accompanied by a distinctly bigger, louder sound through the Sophias. That, too, may have derived from the way in which the freestanding Sophias loaded my room: It was something the corner-mounted Audio Notes had missed altogether.

And the Sophias made bass. Not the boomy, overripe, out-of-control bass of early subwoofers, nor the fleshless, pitchless, salami-whapping-an-inner-tube kind of bass that some speaker manufacturers continue to get away with, but real bass: equal parts colorful, substantial, musical, percussive, and heavenly.

The Sophias made treble, too. Scratch that: They allowed treble to happen. There was just enough shimmer, sparkle, detail, and air that I could fool myself into thinking, from time to time, that there was music in my room. That depended on keeping in place the Sophias' grilles: silver-beige things that matched almost perfectly the silver-beige of the enclosures' paint, giving the whole a sculpted, architectural look that was rich, serene, and surprisingly un-hi-fi. Without their grilles, the Sophias still sounded fine, but slightly more intense than I care for.

For all that, the Sophias weren't amazing—yet. That didn't happen until Labor Day, by which time I was driving them with Shindo Corton-Charlemagnes (25Wpc, with multitap secondaries on their Hammond output transformers) and listening to whatever suited my mood. Suddenly, one late summer evening, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic's recording of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2530 402) just locked in: Sound and music alike strapped me to my chair and delighted me. After that came Ruggiero Ricci's recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Øivin Fjeldstad conducting the London Symphony (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2077): more brilliance. The most trying test, although that wasn't why I selected it, may have been Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment (LP, Mercury/DCC LPZ-2010). The band's double-time charge at the end of "True Blue" was amazing—the room was electric with that mood change from the moment it began—and every note sung and played on "Mama You've Been On My Mind" was right and real. Drums that were hit hard sounded that way, and when the ensemble of players gained or lost a member, the Sophias' sense of scale followed suit.

It wasn't so much good sound or good music as sound in the service of music—the sort of thing Quad ESL owners enjoy every day, but on a grander and altogether more impactful scale. Like the Quads, the Sophias were open and clean without robbing the music's flesh and blood, and were detailed without sounding bright—or even light. As such, the Wilsons brought new understanding to my appreciation of some recordings. For example, listening to them play the famous Jacqueline Du Pré recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, with Barbirolli and the LSO (LP, EMI ASD 655), I heard as never before how effectively Elgar used the massed cellos to follow up a solo obbligato in the last movement. The emotional nuance carried by that distinction, in timbre and sheer force, between the soloist and the entire cello section, came as a beautiful surprise: the sort of thing I never expected to get from the piece this late in the game.

But I've left out something important: When that passage from the Elgar Cello Concerto caught my attention, I was sitting at my desk, seven or eight feet off axis. The right-channel loudspeaker should have dominated the stereo soundstage; the two Sophias were toed-in slightly, per Peter McGrath's setup procedure—though not drastically, with the speakers' axes crossing in front of the nominal listening seat, as with my Audio Note speakers. Instead, I continued to hear and enjoy a spatially solid, timbrally balanced chunk of sound coming from the speaker end of my room. Indeed, the Sophias' excellent spatial performance—a quality often associated with Wilson speakers in specific, as with freestanding high-end speakers in general—added to my enjoyment, albeit not in the sense of pinpoint-accurate image placement (although they could do that quite nicely), and not to the exclusion of the musical message itself.

A disappearing act

How did they do it? How did the Wilson Sophias manage to "disappear" so well?

Unlike the Audio Note AN-Es—and, for that matter, unlike the majority of loudspeakers I've loved in recent years—the design of the Wilson Sophia requires its cabinet to be as acoustically dead as possible, but without being so massive that it re-releases stored energy into the playback.

Other designers would make the same claim, of course. But to my way of thinking there remains a distinction: The whole dead-cabinet thing, like the whole nonresonant-tonearm thing, must be done intelligently, thoroughly, and to the nth degree—or not at all. As with very-high-quality record players, if just one element within the whole is allowed to resonate in a manner that sets it apart from the others, not only is the sound distorted, but it's distorted in a manner significantly less tolerable than if the designer hadn't bothered at all with anti-resonance techniques. If what you have in mind is a loudspeaker in which only the drivers themselves can contribute to the sound, then every other element of the system must be perfectly dead and perfectly immune to storing and releasing energy. And, by the way, those drivers had better be damn good!

I daresay Wilson Audio is better at realizing that technical ideal than most other loudspeaker manufacturers. That comes as no great surprise, given how long they've been at it. For longer than any one individual I know, David Wilson has been mining this vein—refining the materials, the shapes, and the manufacturing techniques that do the most to prevent the speaker enclosure from adding its own sound to the playback—without ever veering off that course. As he told me in a recent conversation, there are other impressive loudspeakers on the market, some of which are the products of different technologies or different design approaches. But while Wilson stays current with other developments in high-end speaker design, he has no interest in leaving the path he's on. "My role is to make Wilson loudspeakers," he said. "That's what I'm good at."

Fair enough. But what accounts for the seemingly divergent path of recent Wilson loudspeakers—beginning with the Sophia Series 1, arguably the first Wilson speaker that had non-Wilsonians reaching for superlatives?

David Wilson acknowledges the Sophia as a turning point in the performance of the entire Wilson Audio line, and credits the change to a refinement in what he's always done best: listening. In describing the technical breakthroughs that have enabled his company's recent progress, he points in particular to the construction of three new and distinctive listening rooms. Rather than taking the usual approach of building acoustically "perfect" test environments, Wilson Audio designed and built a series of rooms that are good enough to reveal, rather than mask, the sonic effects of various parameters—yet that otherwise offer exemplary, real-world listening conditions. Soon after, according to Wilson, his company began to create loudspeakers that sound beautiful—his word, and quite rightly so—in more than just a handful of idealized settings.

Excitement

Janet and I just spoke in the kitchen. I shared with her my concern that this might be one of those dull columns: the sort I often write when trying to express sincere admiration for a product and come up short.

"Why not just say so?" she asked. Again, fair enough.

When I had the Harbeth M40.1s here, I liked them every bit as much as I said I did in my October 2008 review. I could have lived with them then, and I probably still could now. The Harbeths were obviously—obviously—designed by ear, by someone who knows and loves the sound of music. But when the Harbeths had to go, I was nonetheless ready to get my Audio Note AN-Es back into the system.

Same thing with the very different-sounding Zu Essences, which I reviewed exactly one year later. The Essence was, if anything, closer in spirit to what I want from a loudspeaker, given the smallness of the amps I like. It's a great value, too—especially now that it's sold factory-direct for $3495/pair. (In saying so, I mean no disrespect to those dealers who work hard both to fairly represent their product lines and to give their customers the best possible music for their money.) I liked the Essence a lot, and could have lived with it as well. But I was happier still to have the Audio Notes back in their corners.

The Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2 is on another level. The AN-Es still do a few things better, and I think I'll probably always love them. But after several weeks with the Sophias, the Wilsons remain the speakers I genuinely want to use. And, as with few other audio products, I know I'll be sorry as hell when they have to go back. That's been the biggest surprise of all.

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