Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia loudspeaker Page 2
Peter McGrath, now with Wilson Audio Specialties, set the Sophias up in my listening room. If you're concerned that this means a reviewer is being given special treatment, I'm told that the dealer from whom you purchase a pair of Sophias will provide this service as a matter of course.
Before we did any listening, Peter marked off a grid in the probable speaker positions with masking tape and, standing in the center of each grid and crouching so his mouth was at the approximate height of the Sophia's midrange unit, began the setup procedure by speaking evenly. He and I were listening for the position where the coloration added to the sound of his voice by the room acoustics was minimized. This would be the starting point for deciding on the optimal placement of each speaker.
Once we had found those positions, we experimented moving the speaker ½" at a time in both horizontal planes, noting whether the midrange tonal balance became less or more even. (Half an inch may not sound like much, considering the wavelengths of sound in the midrange, but it can produce a surprisingly large change in the perceived balance.) At the end of this iterative procedure, the speakers ended up 56" out from the wall behind them—a little closer to the room boundaries than the Revel Performa M20s, which had preceded them. The spikes were then fitted, effectively locking the 160-lb Sophias to the floor.
I've mentioned the phenomenon before in these pages: Loudspeakers tend to affect your choice of music to listen to. Even though the small Revel M20s had excellent low-frequency extension in my room, I found that I was playing a lot of vocal and chamber music with them. Yes, this was to great musical effect, but it wasn't until I played back a hard-drive copy of Peter McGrath's 24-bit live recording of "Der Abschied," from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, on the Sophias that I realized how little orchestral music I had been putting on the player. Without a speaker that can reproduce the wide dynamic sweep of a symphony orchestra in full measure, the musical sense becomes diminished. But over the Sophias, as conductor James Judd—in one of his last performances with the Florida Philharmonic, the orchestra he had bullied, cajoled, and persuaded in the past decade or so to become a truly world-class ensemble—I felt there were no dynamic limits, that there was almost nothing between me and the event captured by Peter's microphones.
One of the major strikes against small speakers when it comes to reproducing the symphonic repertoire, of course, is their lack of low bass. This has always been one of the first things I will sacrifice in favor of natural midrange tonality, accurate imaging, and stable soundstaging. But that doesn't mean I don't value true 20Hz extension when I can get it in addition to those more important (to me) aspects of sound quality.
In many of his scores, British composer Edward Elgar indicates a part for organ marked ad libitum. You'd think that this gives them free rein, but I'm always surprised by how discreet organists are, adding only enough of the instrument's majesty to flesh out the sound when appropriate. But when the organ pedals are used to underpin a work's foundation, a speaker like the Sophia gives the bass fundamentals full measure. Our June 1998 "Recording of the Month" was a CD of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performing Elgar under veteran conductor George Hurst (Naxos 8.553564). The main work on the disc is the popular Enigma Variations, and the organ is held back until the final, eponymous "E.D.U." variation, where it thunders out a descending bass line under the final climactic reiterations of the tune and reinforces the final cadence. The Sophias' wide dynamic range and extended lows allowed this music to be presented in as realistic a manner as I have experienced, particularly when I drove them with the Australian Halcro amplifiers. It was only when the last chord died away and I heard the phone ringing that I realized how loud I had been playing this CD.
But it was not so much the quantity of the Wilson speaker's high frequencies as their quality. In real life, where acoustic music comprises many different sound sources, those sources are perceived as discrete entities. By contrast, with reproduced music, the acoustic objects tend to blur into one another. Think of a thin rubber sheet pulled down over a series of physical objects. The objects are now perceived as projections thrust up out of the rubber matrix; they may appear discrete when viewed from certain angles, but they are actually connected at an underlying level. This is exactly analogous to the creation and perception of acoustic objects in a stereo recording, with the rubber replaced by all the artifacts and grunge added by the recording and playback processes. The worse the audio equipment, the higher the level of grunge, the less differentiation there is between the perceived objects, and the harder it is to make sense of the music.