Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia loudspeaker Wilson Sophia 2: November 2006

Brian Damkroger wrote about the Wilson Sophia Series 2 in November 2006 (Vol.29 No.11):

One day in the fall of 2005, Wilson Audio Specialties' John Giolas had just finished setting up my new pair of Sophia loudspeakers, and I was taking in their incredible sound. He turned to me, seemed to hesitate for a second, then uttered the phrase that makes any audio purchaser's heart stop. "We're coming out with a new model."

I know, I know—my Sophias were still every bit as good as they'd been just moments before, and besides, new isn't always better. The logic is unassailable, and it always seems simple and straightforward when I explain it to despondent friends.

But at that moment it wasn't simple at all. I didn't want to hear anything about logic. All I wanted to hear about was the Sophia Series 2 and when I would get a pair. I recovered quickly and returned to enjoying my Sophia 1s, but what a humbling experience. It's amazing how the investment of a few dollars—well, actually, a lot of dollars—can affect your perspective.

Sophia, our time was so short, I hardly knew you... John Atkinson reviewed the original Sophia ($11,700/pair) in the July 2002 Stereophile (Vol.25 No.7), and Paul Bolin followed up with his comments in October 2005 (Vol.28 No.10). For the whole story, the reader should begin with these two pieces. But for those short of time or patience, I'll summarize them as Paul did for me—"Oh wow, the Sophia is a wonderful speaker!" I did go back to JA's and PB's comments after I'd lived with my Sophias for a couple of months, and they were right on the money. There's nothing I can add other than to echo Paul: The original Sophia was a wonderful speaker.

A new day dawns: Wilson knew that the original Sophia was special, and they approached its update with some trepidation. It's a speaker whose performance belies its size and (for Wilson) simplicity via its extraordinary synergism of components. It wasn't certain that the technologies so successfully applied to the MAXX 2 would translate to the Sophia. The Series 2's literature even cites the Hippocratic oath: "first, do no harm"—a concern and phrase I heard repeatedly from Wilson.

In the end, however, the upgrade process was short by Wilson standards, and went smoothly. Work began in May 2005, and the Sophia 2 was officially launched in October at a price of $13,990/pair. The major changes include a reengineered tweeter similar to the one in the MAXX 2, Wilson's new M3 cabinet material, a reworking of the crossovers, and a new diffraction-absorbing pad configuration that adds a second, star-like wool pad immediately next to the drivers. In the Sophia 2, the (now two-piece) diffraction pads surrounding the drivers are recessed into—rather than glued on top of—the cabinet faces to create entirely flush surfaces. The final change was to switch from Velcro- to pin-mounted grilles.

As JA noted in his 2002 review of the original Sophia, Wilson works closely with drive-unit manufacturers to produce the drivers used in their speakers. Some of these, such as the Puppy's woofer, are designed by Wilson and produced to their specifications. The Sophia 2's cone midrange unit was codesigned by Wilson and ScanSpeak, but is sold only to Wilson.

In the case of the Sophia 2's tweeter, only some of the piece-parts, or raw components, are purchased from Focal. Wilson supplies the remainder of the components and manufactures the unit in-house. The 1" inverted dome is similar to those used in several other Wilson speakers but is identical to none of them. Compared to the original Sophia's tweeter, the new unit is "completely different from the middle back," according to John Giolas. The biggest change is the addition of a proprietary baffle assembly affixed to the magnet. This (I'm told) complex chamber, which looks kind of like a hockey puck, is designed to modify the diffraction of the rear-propagating wave. This permits the more straightforward absorption and reflection mechanisms to be optimized to minimize their interference with the driver. The results, in theory at least, include lower noise, less distortion, and improved resolution of detail.

The Sophia 2 uses Wilson's new cabinet material. M3 is still a reinforced polymer composite used in a multilayer structure to exploit constrained-layer damping, but it's harder, more rigid, and even more acoustically inert than earlier versions. The bass launch is thus more efficient, but a more profound effect turned out to be the improved midrange damping. Eliminating the slight smearing associated with the earlier material's energy storage made it possible for Wilson to hear, measure, and eliminate a level of time-domain distortion in the Sophia that had previously been obscured.

Wilson's literature attributes the improvement to crossover modifications that they call "anti-jitter technology," design and layout changes that reduce "the interaction between the high-pass and low-pass filters [which] created group delay noise they dubbed 'crossover jitter'." It's kind of the electrical equivalent of acoustically blending the outputs of multiple drivers to optimize time and phase coherence. Just as the drivers face a complex acoustical environment in which they "see" each other, the electrical signal faces a load in which each branch is affected by what goes on in the others.

My electrical-engineer friends at work rolled their eyes when I described this. Indeed, it's well into the realm of low-level effects. But dealing with low-level effects, particularly those that affect absolute time and phase alignment, is what Wilson Audio is all about. It's why their cabinets are internally braced like no others, and why they've developed—and continue to develop—their own cabinet materials. It's why Wilson dealers spend hours moving speakers ¼" at a time to optimize a setup. It's why Wilson speakers sound the way they sound and cost what they cost—in the case of the Sophia Series 2, $13,990/pair.

I ordered my Sophia 2s (footnote 1) in the same Fly Yellow as my original pair, much to Trish's chagrin. I don't use them with their grilles on, and the two versions looked identical. Because the two models' footprints differ slightly, I placed the 2s so as to keep their drivers' centerline as near as I could to where it had been with the 1s. This put their spikes slightly outboard from where the originals' had been. I carefully leveled them up, locked everything in place, and left them to spend two weeks cycling through a mix of music.

The proof is in the listening: I spoke with Wilson Audio about the Sophia 2's technical details only after I'd completed my listening sessions, so I didn't know any of the above when my 2s arrived last winter. All I'd heard about the upgrade was that Wilson had used a tweeter similar to the one in their MAXX 2, so I did anticipate hearing something dramatically different in their treble response. I expected a bit of extra sparkle or breathtakingly fast transients, maybe more sharply defined image edges, or even an overtly obvious emphasis on such instruments as triangles and piccolos.

Instead, what I noticed was that although the Sophia's fundamental character hadn't changed, the 2 did sound and feel somewhat different from the 1. Two things I noticed immediately were that the 2's bass seemed more powerful than the 1's, and that the 2s' soundstage was wider, deeper, and noticeably more open. If anything, the 2 seemed less overt in the treble region, which initially caused me to wonder whether its focus was what it should be. Because the 2's slightly different footprint prevented me from exactly duplicating John Giolas' painstaking setup of the 1s, I spent several evenings moving the 2s around in ¼" increments—and ended up back where I'd started. Giolas will revisit my setup in the not-too-distant future; should we end up with the speakers placed somewhere different, with different sonic results, I'll report the changes.

One of my "Records To Die For" suggestions illustrated what I heard: Alain Lombard and the Paris Opéra-Comique's recording of Delibes' opera Lakmé (LP, Seraphim SIC-6082; also available on CD, EMI 67745). A good place to start is the exchange between Lakmé and Nilakantha near the end of Act II. The scene features two soloists, soprano Mady Mesplé and bass Roger Soyer, precisely and realistically located on the stage, along with a crowd of chorus members and a number of orchestral passages that punctuate the vocals.

For starters, the Series 2's dynamic transients were larger. A percussive note that might have gone from f or ff with the Sophia 1 now reached fff. The short timpani roll that accents one of the lines in Lakmé was clean and powerful through the Sophia 1, but truly startling through the 2. And though larger, the 2's bass transients weren't at all forward or forced, but effortless and pure.

Another thing I heard was that the leading edges of the Sophia 2's bass notes were clearer, temporally sharper and more certain, and imbued with more inner detail. With the timpani in Lakmé, this was most obvious in how the 2 reproduced the transition from the initial impact to the expanding vibrations of the drum skin. Later, more obvious stages of bass notes—such as the timpani's characteristic round, elastic sound, or the jumbling mix of harmonics in a piano note—were wonderfully detailed and clear as well, though not dramatically different from how they sounded through the Sophia 1.

The other things I noticed with the Sophia 2s—the larger, airier soundstage and slightly more laid-back presentation—were a little harder to deconstruct, though I was able to make more sense of them after I'd learned the details of the update, and of Wilson's efforts to reduce low-level noise. I had marveled at the Sophia 1's wealth of detail and its ability to use very-low-level cues to place instruments within their acoustic environment. Superficially, the speakers had seemed to lack presence, but careful listening had revealed that they actually lacked a fine layer of grit that added contrast to transient edges. I went through the same discovery process with the Series 2, beginning with the same initial perception and ending with the same conclusion: that another layer of fine grit had been removed.

Mady Mesplé's voice in Lakmé now sounded purer and more natural, comprising a more complex mix of nuances and textures. These effects were most apparent at the loudness extremes: In very soft phrases, there was more "there" there—kind of like turning up a digital video display's color intensity to sharpen a bland image. The improvement in purity was most obvious at the other extreme; at high volume levels, it was more like turning down the contrast on a hashy video display to better see the images' details. With the Sophia 2, the orchestral image was also more three-dimensional, with individual instruments occupying more specific points in space.

I don't want to overstate the differences between Sophias 1 and 2—the original had an absolutely gorgeous midrange in its own right. The 2 did reveal more low-level information, but the differences weren't dramatic. Assume a similar caveat for the two versions' top ends, though here the Sophia 2's slightly lower noise and distortion were apparent. Crescendos of massed violins playing near the top of the instrument's range are the undoing of many speakers—what seems like presence at lower levels and frequencies turns hard, and edges become a little too incandescent. The Sophia 1 was better in this regard than most speakers, though still slightly susceptible. But the Sophia 2 seemed to reproduce the most extreme high-level, high-frequency violin-section crescendos without breaking a sweat, retaining their natural ease and detail better than I've heard anywhere outside a concert hall.

JA praised the Sophia 1 for its lack of noise or "grunge" between instruments, describing this as the removal of a thin, flexible sheet covering the performers. That description was spot-on, and it's even truer of the Series 2. On Lakmé, the 2's lower noise floor showed up as better resolution of ambience cues, which moved the discernible boundaries of the soundstage out a bit and opened up the spaces between performers. The most noticeable effect was in soundstage depth. The Sophia 1s were very good, but the 2s provided noticeably more precision in where Mesplé and Soyer stood, and of the space behind them.

"We're coming out with a new version." Do I panic or celebrate? I can hear the voices now: "Should I upgrade? When's it coming out? Are my Sophia 1s obsolete? What do I do, what do I do?"

I can empathize. Those nervous questions rang in my own head for about four months. Now, having lived with the Sophia Series 2 for about as long as I did the originals, I have an answer: Don't panic. Call your Wilson dealer to arrange an audition of the new Sophia and decide for yourself.

In upgrading the Sophia to the Series 2, Wilson Audio has succeeded in their mission to "first, do no harm." In fact, the Sophia 2 is better than the original in nearly every way. On the other hand, unlike the evolution of the WATT/Puppy from the Series 5 to the Series 7 and 8, or of the MAXX to the MAXX 2, the Sophia 2 isn't stunningly, startlingly, night-and-day better than its predecessor. The characters of the MAXX and WATT/Puppy have fundamentally changed through their evolutions; the Sophia has not.

The Sophia 2 is different, however. Wilson has made major improvements in some areas, lesser ones in others, and in some cases has left well enough alone. In the process they've created a speaker that's a bit different in overall feel from the original Sophia. I'm not suggesting that the changes upset the original's magical balance—while a little different, the Sophia 2 is still superb. I can understand some owners, still head over heels in love with the Sophia 1 just as it is, opting not to spend the money to update.

Whatever the cause—great engineering, fortuitous synergy, alignment of the planets—the original Sophia worked very, very well. John Atkinson speculated in 2002 that "the Sophia might well be Wilson's best speaker to date...when considered as an integrated package at its price." I don't know if, in light of the MAXX 2 and the WATT/Puppy 8, he'd make that same statement now, but the Sophia Series 2 is unquestionably a great speaker. That it differs slightly from the original Sophia matters not a whit—anyone looking for no-compromise performance in a loudspeaker of real-world size and price can stop looking. To paraphrase Paul Bolin: Oh wow, the Sophia Series 2 is a wonderful speaker.—Brian Damkroger

Footnote 1: Serial numbers of units reviewed: 1807, 1808.
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