Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia loudspeaker Page 3

I love the Enigma Variations, but the highlight for me of the Naxos Elgar disc is a stunning interpretation of the In the South overture, where the contrasts in mood—that between the contemplative viola section and the bombastic, Imperial Rome passage that precedes it, for example—finally made musical sense. Elgar's dense, rich orchestration depends on the uniqueness of all the various instrumental tone colors being preserved. If the grunge level rises too high, then the meaning of the music is diluted. (This is what I believe was meant by the Linn mantra of 15 years ago, following pronouncements made by the Scottish company's founder, Ivor Tiefenbrun, that so many components didn't allow the listener to "follow the tune.") Via the Sophias, the way the themes are handed around among similar-sounding instruments—from trombones to horns, for example—never descended into undifferentiated mush.

Don't let the fact that I kept returning to orchestral recordings in my listening sessions leave you with the impression that the Sophia was a one-trick pony, optimized for just one kind of music. In fact, its high frequencies were delicate enough, its midrange neutral enough, that chamber works were reproduced in a manner to rival the finest minimonitor. Peter McGrath had left me with a copy of a CD (Naxos 8.559067) he had engineered of a piano trio and quintet and a violin sonata by the American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman. Despite his being voted 1930's "Most Popular American Composer" by the National Federation of Music Clubs, Cadman wrote in an unashamedly Brahmsian idiom. There was no sense via the Sophias that these intimate works were emanating from loudspeakers. Instead, the images of the instruments and the space around them defined a soundstage that was stable yet completely unlocalized from the speaker positions.

The Sophia's high frequencies were smooth and grain-free, though perhaps not featuring as much top-octave air as the similarly priced Revel Ultima Studio. When I mixed the master for Mosaic, my recently issued CD of the Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets (Stereophile STPH015-2), choosing the correct top-octave balance for the final mix was an arduous task. For the main pickup, I had used ½" omni mikes with acoustic equalizers over their capsules to boost the on-axis response in the top octave. By applying a complementary cut above 10kHz in the mix, I would suppress any HF grain by the same amount. However, for the secondary pickup I used tubed Neumann cardioids with 1" capsules, which roll off above 15kHz or so. So choosing the exact amount of top-octave rolloff to apply was a subjective decision that depended both on the balance between the two pairs of mikes and the speakers used. When I auditioned Mosaic on the Sophias, the balance that had sounded correct on the Revel Studios made me wish I had gone for just a little more energy above 10kHz in the mix.

In fact, my only real criticism of the Sophia, and one that is relatively minor, concerned an octave or so below 10kHz: the speaker's tonal balance was slightly forward in this region. This was not nearly enough to add any hardness to the sound, but the sense of clarity into the perceived soundstage that was aided by this forward balance was offset by a soundstage that was not as deep as I have experienced from the Meridian DSP 8000s (reviewed in November 2001, Vol.24 No.11), for example, or my venerable B&W Silver Signatures.

As I am a bass guitarist, it should come as no surprise that one of the things I am most fussy about is how loudspeakers reproduce my own instrument. In fact, this is partly why I am so prepared to sacrifice low bass: In their attempts to reach down as low in frequency as possible, so many speakers destroy the leading edges of the sound, turning recorded bass guitar into a "puddingy"-sounding instrument instead of one that is struck and strummed percussively. But, like the Sony SS-M9ED, which I reviewed last August (Vol.24 No.8), the Sophia is one the few speakers that gets right the sound of the 1964 (pre-CBS) Fender Precision Bass that I had used to prepare the channel identification and speaker phasing tracks on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (STPH004-2).

When he had set up the speakers in my room, Peter McGrath had brought with him a recording that I have been unsuccessfully trying to get hold of for years, by bassist Brian Bromberg, brother of guitarist Dave. On the solo cut "My Bass," Bromberg offers a compendium to modern electric bass technique that a mundane player like me can only marvel at. He plucks, taps, slaps, and double-stops in a technical tour de force of chords and counterpoint, hammers-on and harmonics, that makes it hard to remember that the instrument has but four strings and the player but two hands. Via the Sophias, there is no sense that the sound of Bromberg's bass is emanating from loudspeakers. Instead, there is a stable, palpable sense of a sound source hanging in the space between them. And when Bromberg punctuates his music with low open Es, the Sophia's excellent LF extension allowed the speaker to fill my room with sound. Awesome stuff.