Wilson and VTL Dance at Music Lovers

At Montreal's Salon Son et Image earlier this year, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio (left in photo) found the pairing of the company's Sophia 3 loudspeaker ($18,000/pair) and VTL's MB-185 Series III, EL-34-based monoblocks ($15,000/pair) and VTL TL-5.5 preamp w/phono ($10,500) so felicitous that he proposed that he and VTL's Luke Manley (right in photo) revisit the coupling in the US. The opportunity arose at Music Lovers Audio in Berkeley, California, where a public afternoon demo on June 9, 2012 drew a large group of audiophiles who packed two large showrooms at the prestigious, well-appointed store.

From left to right: Music Lovers' Will Kline, Jae Wheeler, and Hugh Fountain. (Photo: Peter McGrath)

Music Lovers had prepared two systems. In their Reference Room, the Sophia 3s, MB-185 Series IIIs, and 5.5 preamp were coupled to both digital and analog chains. For the former, a MacBook Pro running Sonic Studio's Amarra 2.4 ($189) fed a Weiss USB-S/PDIF interface, which in turn made music through the dCS Debussy USB DAC ($11,499). Analog came courtesy of a Clearaudio Ovation Turntable ($5500) with a Lyra Delos phono cartridge ($1650), sitting on Synergistic Research's Tranquility Base ($1995) and powered from a QLS-9 Power Strip ($499). Transparent Audio Reference MM speaker cables ($22,320), Reference MM balanced interconnects ($19,685 and $13,685), and Reference Power Link ($1049) completed the none-too shabby chain.

Having heard the MB-185 Series III monoblocks at CES 2011, paired with Avalons, I was eager to hear how they would sound with the Wilsons. At that show, Stereophile's Erick Lichte declared his undying love for their EL-34 sound, while I was far more enamored of VTL's MB-450 Series III Signature monoblocks equipped with 6550C tubes. On second hearing at Music Lovers, however, the EL-34s in the MB-185 Series IIIs won me over.

Before I arrived for a pre-demo listen, McGrath had already devoted four hours to schooling Music Lovers' staff in how best to determine placement of the Sophia 3s. Aiding him in fine tuning the speakers to the room was a combination of acoustic panels and Synergistic Research's Acoustic ART system.

Given that McGrath is also a sound engineer who has made any number of feted recordings for Harmonia Mundi, including the famed James Judd Mahler Symphony 1, multiple titles with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and others with viola da gamba master Jordi Savall, he began the session with his own recording of gamba player Paolo Pandolfo performing the music of Marin Marais. Having been up close and personal with a viola da gamba before, it was delightful to discover how natural it sounded. While some tube equipment tends to fatten an instrument's midrange and sweeten the timbre, this pairing produced sound remarkably neutral and life-like.

Feelings of honest, natural sound were seconded by listens to a duet between harpist Andrew Lawrence-King and Savall on the gamba, and to an 88.2/24 track from San Francisco Symphony's commercial recording of Mahler's great Symphony 5. Save for a little splatter on cymbals, which could have been due to any number of factors, the sound was superb.

Playing some of my trusted demo tracks, the beginning of Ivan Fischer's recording of Mahler's Symphony 2, an R2D4 disc for Stereophile, was thrilling. The violins sounded superb, with no trace of bright or brittle edge; the simultaneous wallops to timpani and bass drum were tremendous in their impact and remarkably controlled; and the bottom octave of the music came through with a clarity I seldom encounter at demos in stores or at shows. (The Sophia 3s extend in-room down to 20Hz (–3dB) and up to 22.5kHz). Any notion that VTL's MB-185 Series III monoblocks might be slow on the draw or lacking in dynamism was shattered.

Equally impressive was a prime recording of soprano Elly Ameling singing Schubert. (McGrath is an admirer of the miking techniques Philips was using in the 1970s.) I've played this recording on dozens of systems, but few have nailed the warm tonalities of the piano and its inner voices, as well as the radiant but never sharp edge of Ameling's voice so perfectly. No wonder McGrath and Manley wanted to share the sound of the Sophia 3s and MB-185 Series IIIs with audiophiles who couldn't make it to Montreal.

The Duette
In Music Lovers' tiered Theater System room, the Wilson Audio Duette loudspeakers ($13,900/pair) were producing gorgeous tonalities through the VTL IT85 integrated amplifier see in the rack ($4750) and TP-2.5 Series 2 phono stage ($2500). The 60Wpc amplifier couldn't produce the same thrilling dynamic contrast as the more powerful MB-185 Series III monoblocks, nor was the bass as tight in a far more difficult to control room, but the system certainly made music. Sources were the Clearaudio Concept turntable w/Concept moving-coil cartridge ($2000), another Macbook Pro running Amarra 2.4 ($189), Sony SA5400 ES SACD/CD player ($1500), and Ayre QB-9 USB DAC ($2750). With the exception of Transparent Reference speaker cables ($8575/pair), all cabling and power treatment was from Synergistic Research.

dalethorn's picture

I think a really dedicated audiophile of average income could see their way to a Sophia 3 system if they had a good long-term plan. Now getting the gear (and cutting corners on the amps and maybe excluding analog equipment) isn't the hard part from where I come - getting the room suitable for bass in the mid-20 hz's is a challenge, getting away from neighbors on a limited income is tough, and parsing out a few dollars for insurance and security could be difficult. But it's doable, which is great!

Jack_Mlynek's picture

As per the article, the total cost of the Sophias, the VTL amps, preamp, software and DAC is $55,188. The total cost of the cables is $55,690.

Seriously? This makes about as much sense as believing Lance Armstrong didn't inject EPO or some other designer drug.

dalethorn's picture

You can buy the Sophias and enjoy them with a lot less pricy associated gear. I seem to remember that the transducers make the biggest differences in the sound, so I don't think lower-cost amps and using a digital source is going to lessen sound quality much, as long as you do your research and choose wisely.

JasonVSerinus's picture

As dalethorn states, it is possible to assemble a great system one component at a time. I, for one, do not subscribe to the "Most important component of your entire system" theorem. I can switch transports, for example, and achieve completely different bass response from my speakers. And I can change a single power cable and, as Erick Lichte reports in his Audio Research Reference 150 power amplifier review in the July 2012 Stereophile, change the sound of my entire system.

On the other hand, changing transports or power cables in an effort to achieve deeper and more solid bass won't yield results if your speakers don't descend low enough, and aren't designed well enough, to do justice to your efforts. Hence, while I wouldn't say that the speakers are the most important component in the chain, they are the ultimate component that, in league with your room and however it has been treated or corrected, delivers that fruits of your efforts.

I am convinced that, having heard the Sophia 3s in any number of system configurations with markedly different components and in very different sized rooms, they are an exceptionally balanced, full-range loudspeaker for the price. They won't create the huge soundstage, life-like image size, and, depending upon the speaker, organ-shaking dynamics of larger loudspeakers, but you'll have to shell out a lot more for those babies. I believe that you can invest in the Sophia 3s with confidence, then upgrade the rest of your system around them.

The cable issue is another bag of worms entirely. The rule that your cables should never cost more than 10% of the total of the rest of your components is idiotic. It's a myth upon which more ink has been spilled than there is plastic in the oceans. Not really, but so it seems.

In my opinion, cables are just as essential as any other component in the chain. And, given the cost of metals these days, premium cabling costs a lot.

Careful cable matching is essential. Thinking back to the last few demos I've attended, I've now heard Wilsons sound wonderful with cabling from Nordost, Transparent, Cardas, and Synergistic. Every one of those cable lines, and every tier within those lines, yields a different sound. Some definitely work better with some components than others. If, for example, your components are second-rate, you may not want to use cables that excel in detail and transparency, and that mask nothing. On the other hand, if your components are exceptionally detailed and capable of yielding gorgeous sound, why obscure it with cables that smooth things over? (I believe I've encountered lots of these at audio shows, because they yield pleasing sound while masking flaws, but will not name names, because I have not had the opportunity to test out my hunches at home.)

Again, you can upgrade cables one at a time. I do believe, however, in the cable department, that the quality of your power cable on your power source and source component(s), as well as of the first interconnect in the chain, is crucial.

jason victor serinus

Et Quelle's picture

By just recently jumping into the exciting world of hi-end electronics, I am a honored to even read an article about a stereo that cost as much as a car. These things only make sense to audiophiles or wealthy men. The point to me, as I dream up hi-end components for my systems is that, it is not showing off because outsiders thinks it costs $400 bucks like Target topline.

I have always knowned gold plated plugs and sturdier looking cables by established names are more reliable and transfer better signals. But I had no idea there were cables that costs more than $1000/ meter. I would really love to know if all electronic lovers can tell the difference between something like Audioquest and Cardas?

dalethorn's picture

All of what Jason says is true, yet there's this thing in the back of my mind that says I shouldn't have to get in bed with my high-price audio dealer and evaluate (and purchase) all of those pieces at his site, just because doing it any other way is going to be a logistical nightmare, which it might very well be.

It may be a poor analogy, but it makes me think of voting for a political party because of their unified platform, or even a team within that party that "promises to work together".

Maybe my mind is stuck in the liberal 60's from a purely audio viewpoint, but what happened to the democratic ideal of choosing components not so much on how well they're supposed to get along with each other, but rather on how pure of a signal each of them can pass along? I do acknowledge the sensitivity of these things because of their level of refinement, but are the higher-priced audio components really that far from flawless integration just because of their advanced designs?

JasonVSerinus's picture

Dealers don't always showcase the best equipment matches; they showcase the brands they carry. But what the best dealers do offer is home audition. That gives you the opportunity to listen to components and, in addition, check JA's measurements of many of the components Stereophile has reviewed to see if he includes specific comments about component matching (e.g., works best with tubes, solid-state, an amplifier with a lot of power, etc. etc. etc.).

Buying without auditioning via the internet can potentially save you money, but it also can leave with a set of mismatched components that, in the end, costs you far more money when you find yourself stuck with components that don't work well together.

RBrooks's picture

I must say that I am tempted to see if Nordost battery cables and spark plug wires will sound different than, say, Audioquest or Kimber when installed on my automobile.

Perhaps Uncle Omar could lend his well trained ear in deciding which brand produces the better exhaust note. Or nota as the Italians would say.

But what should I spend on this vital upgrade for a $56,000 car ? 40K, 50K, more ?

And if there is extra horsepower produced, well that's a bonus.

dalethorn's picture

I'm no cable expert, but I remember hearing big differences in speaker cables with low-priced integrated amps and less than $1000 speaker pairs. Monoblocks were a great idea when they started becoming popular, to keep the cables short.

JItterjaber's picture

While cables certainly make a difference, we have reached the silly side of cable prices.


bonhamcopeland's picture

The two Grand Prix racks in the second "smaller" system cost as much as the components resting on them. The speaker cables in the second system cost as much as its amp + one analog or digital source. The "...cabling and power treatment from Synergistic Research," combined, would cost more than the components they connect. (note the Tranquility Base in the second system photo that was mentioned in the first system cost $1995 - as much as the Clearaudio turntable). 

And if you really want to get into the details, that Macbook is not an off-the-shelf model. It's been modified with thousands of dollars of man hours and hardware/software tweaks. Also, the room treatments and the home theater seating probably cost more than the system. Also, the property line music lovers is built on is 2.3km from the Hayward fault, well known for it's sonic characteristics (particularly 5th order harmonics and liquid mids). So add in the costs of the building, it's materials, and the insane Berkeley commercial real estate market… 

You lying liers in the audio business, this is a multi-million dollar stereo system!  

Music Lovers wasn't tasked with building a system to fit a certain budget. They were tasked with making a combo of products sound their very best under ideal conditions for the purposes of a demonstration. It is "a taste of what could be." 

Is it a true representation of a realistic budget, or the reality of your room, absolutely not. But what is? And where do we draw the line for a demo? Just because you have an annoying fridge next to your listening room, doesn't mean the dealer should install a compressor or a white noise generator in theirs to re-create real world conditions. 

Thankfully, ML will let you audition most of their gear in real world listening conditions: your home, your room, with your gear and if you so desire, your radio shack cables because they don't matter anyway. They can also build a demo system that works within your budget.

This righteous indignation over cable prices, and prices in general, is pointless. Do I think it's insane to pay 50 grand for a set of cables, you bet. Just like i think it's insane to pay 5000 bucks for a bottle of wine. The good news is we don't have to buy either. But these things exist, and there are people who buy them. And, there is a difference. Whether you think it's worth the price, is up to your judgement. To that end, knowing how a 300,000 dollar system sounds will help you evaluate how good a 3000 dollar system sounds. 

dalethorn's picture

I've paid $300 for a 7-8 year old bottle of Perrier Jouet, and while you can find other esoteric wines with exotic flavors for ten times the price, I don't think they taste "better".

Same with cables. Figure out your minimum requirement. If you're playing digital, what's the hit for analog cables? Preamp to power amps and amps to speakers? Sure, you can add half a million dollars for "real" analog via turntables and accessories, but that's hardly a basic requirement to get a top-flight hi-fi system. I don't think for example that you would need multi-thousand dollar power cables if you filter and regulate your power ahead of the system as a whole.

Then look at sound for a moment. I don't subscribe to the idea that you have to recreate your own universe molecule by molecule. A good system should be transportable to another home, another room and with a reasonable amount of adjustment sound just as good. Somewhere along the line here someone should get new definitions in place for these highly customized systems that ordinary consumers, avid audiophiles included, cannot even configure in their own home. It's almost like buying your own Abrams tank and calling it your personal car. It's not your personal car, it's an Abrams tank.

JItterjaber's picture

Considering the fact that most dealers don't acoustically tune the rooms adequetly, or use inefficient acoustic treatments is a testament to the fact of - a lack of audio understanding in the Hi-Fi World.

The next time I walk into a room with those little bikini corner traps...I swear, ha! Understanding absorption and diffusion is a good starting point - I would recommend "The Master Handbook of Acoustics." If you are going to use acoustic treatments like synergistic - a description of the underlying principles would help me.

As for Cables - If people are willing to buy, and they are, there will be a market. Yes, indeed different geometries, conductors and terminations will yield different sonic results. I have listened to over a dozen high-end cables and feel I found one that suits my impression of neutral. I can't imagine chasing this one forever, way too much music to enjoy!

...And no, we are not yet done advancing audio and Hi-Fi, but being open and honest helps a younger more technologically interested audience stay interested.


dalethorn's picture

If I can assume that hi-fi (i.e. high fidelity) is relevant here, then compare the general precepts of hi-fi to many of the Stereophile reviews of amps, cables, DACs, disc transports and other such things. You read about brightness of cables, or bass qualities, or soundstage or coherency etc. etc., and little of that is apparently 'right' or 'wrong'. How can that be high fidelity? If I read that cable 'A' is flat-out cleaner or clearer or some such unambiguous quality compared to cable 'B' then perhaps I can say that cable 'A' really does have greater fidelity than cable 'B', but I'm not sure it works that way in every review, or most reviews. If we're saying that everything is merely different and perhaps better or worse, but bottom line it's personal preference, then how is that better than the old saw that everything rates from "Well worth consideration to among the very best"? It's not exactly the same principle, but similar in end effect.

I do understand that it's an imperfect world and perfect cable 'A' may not give the best results with perfect speaker 'A', but that may be due to any number of factors that have little or nothing to do with cable 'A's inherent properties of fidelity, and recommending a different cable just pushes the distortion down to some other component or subcomponent, patching but not solving the issue, and creating a longer term liability for the guy who's already suffering the costs of building his ultimate system. What I'm trying to get at is, can we move in the general direction of accuracy and fidelity in these matters, or are we headed for a new new dark ages (relatively speaking) of voodoo and sacrifice in order to select the best system our budgets will allow?