Listening #86 Page 2

Truth told, the latter wasn't a worry: As with any set of Wilson speakers sold by an authorized dealer, my review pair was installed by a factory-trained setup technician—in this case, the estimable Peter McGrath himself. I observed and assisted (mostly observed), and you may rest assured that the process is every bit as systematic, painstaking, and successful as you might have heard: Moving the cabinet as little as half an inch really did have an impact on the sound.

But for now, file that away . . .

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.