Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia loudspeaker Paul Bolin, October 2005
At the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show in January, John Atkinson asked if I would like to do a "Follow-Up" on the Wilson Audio Sophia ($11,700/pair). I was happy to accept the assignment. Not since my days at The Abso!ute Sound, where I reviewed the first generation of Wilson's Cub, have I had the opportunity to listen to a Wilson speaker at length.
I'd quite admired the Cub for its dynamics, resolution, and surprising bass, but ultimately I respected it more than I could love it. For all the performance the Cub packed into its reasonably sized box, I could never quite warm up to it. That had been my usual impression of Wilson speakers—until I heard the Sophia at the 2002 CES. (Can it already have been more than three years since the Sophia appeared on Stereophile's July 2002 cover?) The Sophia charmed and captivated me from that first hearing, the traditional Wilson virtues of clarity and dynamic range, accompanied by a more relaxed top and a richer, more fleshed-out midrange. That introduction of the Sophia was the scene of one of David Wilson's more famous "gotchas" on the audio press. During the demonstration, a pair of costly Spectral monoblock amps was visually prominent; at the end of the presentation, Wilson revealed that, in fact, a modestly priced Parasound stereo amp had been doing the honors. His point? That the speakers are still the most important factor in a system's ultimate sound.
Given what I'd heard of the Sophias at shows and JA's enthusiastic recommendation, I looked forward to their arrival. A friend with considerable experience in setting up Sophias and Wilson WATT/Puppys came over to lend a hand getting them out of their sturdy, foam-lined crates. Within an hour, the speakers were locked in. And yes, once you get their positions roughed in, those half-inch-at-a-time adjustments make the difference between good and great in final setup. The Sophias wound up 55" from the front wall and 31" from the sidewalls (distances measured to the tweeter centers). A bit more than 9' apart, they were toed-in so that none of the cabinet sides were visible from my listening position.
I auditioned the Sophias with my usual analog setup: SOTA Cosmos Series III turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, Dynavector XV-1S cartridge, and Manley Steelhead phono preamp. The line stage was my longtime reference, the VTL TL-7.5. CDs were spun on the splendid (and reasonably priced) Plinius CD-101 player, and amps were the stupendous Chord SPM 14000 monoblocks and the Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks. (Reviews of the Plinius and Chord are in the works.) Interconnects were Acoustic Zen Silver Reference and Silver Reference II and Harmonic Technology CyberLight. Speaker cables were Nordost Valhalla and Shunyata's new, ear-opening Orion. AC cables where Shunyata Anacondas, and power conditioning and filtration were supplied by Shunyata's Hydra 8 and a pair of Hydra 2s.
On the many audio chat rooms and bulletin boards, one often reads dismissive remarks about the cost of Wilson speakers. I wonder how many of those naysayers have ever taken a close look at the way they're finished and packaged, much less listened carefully to a properly set-up pair of Wilsons. The speakers are covered with a plastic "frisk" to protect the finish during transit and setup. They are then bagged and crated, supplied with superb multipart spikes, protection discs to keep those spikes from marring wood floors, a tool kit, and the most thorough setup instructions I've seen supplied with any speaker. And the finish! Wilson's proprietary M and X materials, which they use for the cabinets, are sealed with a gel undercoat and three layers of color primer, then finished with eight layers of automotive-quality paint and buffed to a dazzling mirror finish. The quality of a Wilson speaker's paintwork would bring tears of envy to the eyes of the finishing mavens at Lexus and Bentley.
There's no point in being coy about it—the Sophia is a tremendous speaker—but it's worth describing what makes it such a great all-around performer. If I could ask Dave Wilson one question about the Sophia, it would be, "How do you get that kind of bass performance out of a single 10" driver?" Yes, it's a proprietary aluminum-cone woofer, but I mean, really. This "little" Wilson (41" H by 12" W by 18" D) delivered some of the most exhilarating bass performance I have ever heard in my listening room, with tremendous control, a massive dynamic envelope, and unexpectedly subterranean depth. Bass guitars were individualized the way I hear them when I play them myself. Jon Camp's twangy, trebly Rickenbacker (played with a pick) on Renaissance's "Can You Understand," from Turn of the Cards (LP, Sire SAS 7502), and Rosko Gee's funky Fender Jazz Bass (played with the fingers) on Can's "Animal Waves," from Saw Delight (UK LP, Virgin V 2079), were as completely and viscerally satisfying as could be. Those hair-trigger bass-synthesizer transients on my favorite Sugar CDs rattled the room as if produced by a speaker twice the Sophia's size.
The Sophias also played big—I mean, BIG. When I drove them with the Chord SPM 14000 amps, which can deliver a rather excessive 2000W into each Wilson's 4-ohm load, they presented a gigantic, wraparound soundstage on "The Battle" and "The Might of Rome," from the Gladiator soundtrack (CD, Decca 467-094-2). More impressive were the weight and density of the bass and the way it projected into the room. The Sophia's woofer moved more air per inch of diameter than any I have heard. The sense of space was also spectacular on "Each Small Candle," from Roger Waters' In the Flesh (CD, Columbia C2K 85235). This live recording had the immediacy and intimacy of a small-venue gig, but the Sophias put me squarely in the best seat in the vast auditorium.
Low-frequency heroics aside, the midrange is where the Sophia really shone. The lower and middle registers of Earl Wild's piano on Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, from the splendid boxed set Romantic Rachmaninoff (LPs, Reader's Digest/RCA RDA-29A), spoke with alluring palpability and perfect clarity. And when a speaker gets the voices of both Emmylou Harris and Frank Zappa dead-bang right, it's a fine speaker indeed. Eva Cassidy's "Tall Trees in Georgia," from Live at Blues Alley (CD, Blix Street 10046), was incredibly pure and touching through the Sophia. The speaker's resolution floor was strikingly low, its settling time incredibly quick. The Chord and Lamm amplifiers showed not only their distinctive strengths through the Sophias, but their decidedly individual personalities came through distinctly as well. The Chord's awesome quietness, speed, and dynamics were not shortchanged; nor was the Lamm's otherworldly solidity and continuous palpability.
Treble is a textbook example of balance. The only time the Sophia's Focal-sourced titanium-oxide tweeter called attention to itself was when there were a lot of high frequencies in the program material. Then it was smooth, well-detailed, and as civilized, as the music allowed it to be. It didn't highlight the darkish, strangely fluorescent-lit mix of Zappa's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," from You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10561/62). Neither did it tone down the aggressive EQ on Sugar's addictive "Misty Blue" (Korean CD single, Starworld/Jeil JIDA-6616). The sense of air and space around soloist and orchestra on Ruggiero Ricci and the London Symphony's still-sensational Carmen Suite (LP, London CS 6165) and the Rachmaninoff were exceptional, though not quite up to the level of ribbons or Focal's own beryllium tweeter.
Compared to any speaker of similar price, the Sophia's ultimate trump card was its freakish dynamic range. Together with the Chords, the Sophia put large-scale music into the room with power that was uncannily convincing. Listening to "The Battle," I managed to light three of the Chord's front-panel warning lights, which had to have meant something like 1500W peaks. The Sophia sailed along, entirely in control, on peaks that my old RatShack meter said topped 105dB.
There were some limits. Following a night of especially, uh, vigorous listening, there was something definitely wrong with the speakers. An ear to the midrange drivers while music was playing met with silence. When I shamefacedly informed Wilson's John Giolas that I'd blown up the review samples, he laughed and informed me that all I had done was to "open up" the heatsunk Caddock resistors that Wilson uses for driver protection. According to Giolas, no one had ever managed this feat with the Sophia's midrange drivers before, but there's a first time for everything. New resistors were dispatched and installed, and the speakers were none the worse for wear. I suspect it's unlikely that anyone will pair the $75,000/pair, 2kW (into 4 ohms) Chords with Sophias in the real world, but it's good to know that the Wilsons are up to the task.
A few months ago, I spent a weekend with some friends who own a pair of the $45,900/pair Wilson MAXX2s that Michael Fremer reviewed in August. The Sophia sounds like nothing so much as a smaller-scale version of its big brother. They share the same highly detailed but natural, completely serene, and stress-free character. Where some earlier Wilson speakers rapped your knuckles and said "sit up straight and pay attention," the Sophia and MAXX2 invite you to lean back and lose yourself in the music. The bigger and much more expensive MAXX2 plays even bigger, with more resolution and dynamics—as, at four times the price, it should—but there's no doubting that the MAXX2 and Sophia are products of the same vision.
I repeat: The Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia is a very special loudspeaker, and so close to being a "super-speaker" that it's silly. Nearly $12,000 is expensive, but when you hear it, see it, and live with it long enough to come to know the total quality it offers, the Sophia is a bargain. I could live happily with the Sophias for a long time. I can offer nothing but the most fervent "Hear, hear!!" to JA's enthusiastic recommendation of three years ago.— Paul Bolin