December 2001Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson
A year ago this month, my review of the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 6 loudspeakers appeared. Since that time, I have used the wonderful WATT/Puppy 6 as my reference speaker, and I haven't doubted this decision for even a fleeting moment. The WATT/Puppy 6 has proven to be an important reviewing tool because of its high sensitivity (91.5dB by our NRC measurements), relatively amplifier-friendly load, and high resolving power. But when the reviewing was over, the WATT/Puppy 6 also proved to be an eminently enjoyable speaker, one I could listen to for hours on end. I've answered much e-mail about these speakers, telling all the writers to listen for themselves but also to be ready to write a check when they do.
Here it is a year later, and my enthusiasm for the WATT/Puppy 6 hasn't waned a bit. In fact, it's been very difficult in the interim to want to review other speakers, so hard have I fallen for the 6. But one speaker I was willing to stow my WATT/Puppy 6es for was the new Wilson Sophia, which Doug Schneider and Jeff Fritz spied at High End 2001 in Frankfurt, Germany and we saw again at CEDIA in Indianapolis. Given that we received Sophia serial numbers 1 and 2, it stands to reason that this review is the first of the Sophia you'll read anywhere.
As its angular profile would suggest, the Sophia ($11,700 USD per pair) is the product of David Wilson's vast accumulated knowledge of designing floorstanding speakers, but its one-piece cabinet also signals a departure from the multiple parts of Wilson speakers like the WATT/Puppy, MAXX and X-1 Grand SLAMM. The Sophia resembles the WATT/Puppy 6 and replaces the long-discontinued WITT in the Wilson Audio lineup, but its lines are more elegant, feminine even, and thus in great contrast to the look of the chunky WITT. The speaker comes in your choice of four Wilson Audio finishes -- diamond black, Mercedes silver, cashmere beige, and dark titanium -- but the entire WilsonGloss finish palette as well as a nearly infinite number of custom colors are available to you at extra cost. No matter the shade, the finish is painstakingly buffed to bring out a deep shine. The people at Wilson Audio are craftsmen. I saw the Sophia in Mercedes silver at CEDIA, while the review speakers came in diamond black, which would suit me fine if I weren't anal about fingerprints. I know -- some of us reviewers have issues.
As we were able to show in our factory-tour article, the cabinet of the Sophia is an amalgam of Wilson Audio M and X material, the former making up the bulk of the cabinet and its internal cross braces, and the latter used for the baffle and bottom plate. This recipe is an approximation, however, as Wilson Audio is not forthcoming with the exact formula for its speakers. But it makes perfect sense for the X material to be used for the baffle given its greater-than-steel density and strength. In any case, the cabinet is the product of much trial and error at Wilson Audio, David Wilson and crew using many permutations and combinations of the two materials in different locations until they came up with the final version.
The drivers used in the Sophia were designed by Wilson Audio for the Sophia and are proprietary, which means you won't see them for sale anywhere for three years. And even after this moratorium you won't be able to buy the exact drivers used for the Sophia because Wilson Audio modifies them at their factory to get the last iota of performance from them. The 1" inverted-titanium-dome Focal tweeter is similar to the one used in the WATT/Puppy 6, as is the 7" ScanSpeak midrange driver, although it's obvious with the midranges that the two are different because of the radial lines around the cone of the Sophia's driver. The 10" woofer, also from ScanSpeak, represents something new for Wilson Audio in that its cone is made of aluminum. This is the first aluminum-cone woofer used in any Wilson speaker. The Sophia has two rear-mounted ports of unequal diameter.
Crossover components are of high quality, and that's all I can say because it's all I know. Wilson Audio is very guarded about their crossovers; when I toured their facility, they wouldn't even let me see where the crossovers are wired, although I did see, and photograph, one of the WATT/Puppy 6 crossovers in its potted Zero Halliburton brushed-aluminum casing -- stop the presses! I can't blame Wilson Audio for protecting its work, but mystery doesn't make for good review copy. Crossover slopes are chosen for each application, as are the crossover points. Don't bother asking about either.
With the Sophia, Wilson Audio once again claims as a goal time and phase alignment, although because no adjustments can be made as they can with the WATT/Puppy 6 and other models, time and phase correctness are presumably fixed to one distance from the listening seat. Not to worry, however, because your Wilson Audio speakers will be set up for you, so you won't be guessing as to where you should be sitting.
Wilson Audio quotes the Sophia's frequency response as 29Hz-22kHz +0dB/-3dB and its sensitivity as 89dB (2.83V at 1 meter). Nominal impedance is stated as 3 ohms and minimum recommended amplifier power as 12 watts. The Sophia measures 41"H x 12"W x 18"D and weighs a hefty 160 pounds. As with the WATT/Puppy 6, each Sophia is protected for shipping with an outer layer of film, or "frisk," and delivered in its own foam-lined wooden crate that increases the shipping weight to 200 pounds each. I suspect that only dropping off a truck and punching with a forklift will damage the speakers in transit. The speakers come with a "shipout kit" of tools, footers and the like as well as a comprehensive owner's manual. Nice touches include the jewel-like proprietary binding posts and machined ports, both of which impart an impression of luxury.
System and setup
As with the WATT/Puppy 6es I reviewed a year ago, the Sophias were set up by a representative from Wilson Audio, this time John Giolas, the company's director of marketing. This is not just a perk for a reviewer but rather standard operating procedure for buyers of Wilson Audio speakers (although your dealer will be the one doing the setup of the Sophias). After going through the standard Wilson Audio "voweling in" process, Giolas placed the speakers about a foot closer to the listening seat than the WATT/Puppy 6es and moved the seat a few inches toward the speakers to remove it from a null point in my 12' x 24' room. The Sophias ended up with 79" in between the front-inner edges of the cabinets and approximately 130" from my listening position; they were 56" from the front wall and 20" from the side walls, with toe-in not allowing me so see the inward-facing sides of the cabinets when seated, which I would guess equals 20 degrees or so. Because the Sophia is a one-piece design, there were no adjustments to be made after the speakers were sited other than screwing in the spikes and leveling the speakers.
The Sophias were driven with three rather different sets of mono amps -- Lamm ML2s, Audio Research VTM200s, and Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk II.2s -- as well as the Mark Levinson No.383 and Audio Analogue Puccini SE Remote integrated amps. These different amps allowed me to hear the speakers from various perspectives, although in each case the speakers showed clearly what they were about sonically. I used two different preamps, the Lamm L2 Reference and Audio Research Reference Two Mk II. Digital sound was provided by the Mark Levinson No.39 used as both a CD player and transport, in the latter case being run into a Bel Canto DAC1.1. Cables were at first Acoustic Zen Reference Matrix interconnects and Hologram speaker cables, but these gave way later to the Ensemble Megaflux and Dynaflux combination. The Acoustic Zen cables proved to be wonderful companions to the Sophias. Power cords were from TARA Labs (The One and RSC Air) and Shunyata Research (King Cobra V2 and Python). A Shunyata Hydra routed power to the various components. I had on hand for comparison a pair of WATT/Puppy 6es and for augmentation the portly Wilson WATCH Dog subwoofer.
John Giolas used the ARC amps to set up the Sophia, but we were both anxious to hear the speakers with the Lamm ML2s. With the VTM200s, I could tell immediately (and I'm sure our measurements will uphold this) that the Sophias were not as sensitive as the WATT/Puppy 6es they replaced, so I thought the Lamm amps and their 18Wpc would be taxed beyond their limits and thus not work very well. We were both pleasantly surprised at not only the sound level produced by the Sophia/ML2 combination in my room, but also the overall refinement of the sound. While other listeners may prefer one of the other amps available during the Sophias' visit, I could be very happy with the Sophias and the Lamm SET monoblocks -- although the difference in their prices would make such a pairing highly unlikely.
Making Sophia sing
My experience with and admiration for the Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 speakers made me greatly anticipate hearing the Sophias. I wondered before the speakers arrived what they would reveal about Wilson Audio's ability to build a more affordable speaker, albeit one that is still very expensive. Would the Sophia sound like the WATT/Puppy 6 in significant ways, or would it be its own speaker? The answer was easier to formulate than I anticipated. The Sophia shares some broad characteristics with the venerable WATT/Puppy 6, but it is not by any means a less-expensive copy of that speaker.
First, the family resemblance, which can be summed up with the phrase musically detailed. Both the Sophia and WATT/Puppy 6 are highly resolving speakers that engage listeners with their ability to convey the grace of music. Thus, they display both beauty and truth. In my WATT/Puppy 6 review I mentioned that models earlier than version 6 were unable to pull off the beauty part to my ears because they were too preoccupied with the truth -- to put it mildly. Not so with the WATT/Puppy 6 and especially the Sophia, which proves itself to be an even more involving and aesthetically communicative speaker than the WATT/Puppy 6. Don't think dark, thick or syrupy here -- the Sophia is not even close to these. Instead, the sound is fleshed out and rich with feeling, detailed and tonally accurate, but never at the expense of the musical message. My standard test for tonal balance is Greg Brown's voice, and on "Real Good Friend" from Covenant [Red House RHR CD 148], he has "the rasp of reality," as my notes say, which is as it should be. When things are wrong, Brown sounds like he has the beginnings of a chest cold. The Sophia does right by him.
There is ample transparency through the midrange and into the treble, where the Sophias show themselves to be exceedingly refined. These speakers are as easy on the ears as any I've heard, but the potential negatives that can come with this characterization are happily not present either -- the Sophias are too well balanced. I listened to every Jacques Loussier Trio disc I own on the Sophias, and the piano and cymbals on the very fine Telarc recordings, especially Satie [Telarc CD-83431] and Baroque Favorites [Telarc CD-83516], rang with vibrancy and life. The Sophias sounded very good at low levels because of their way with fine detail, but they beg to be pushed, in which case they are able to fill a room as only a big speaker can.
Images from the Sophias are substantial; theirs is no wispy, overly airy presentation. Singers have blood and bone -- and breath -- while massed strings move as one entity, like a school of minnows darting in the sunlight. If you haven't yet encountered the JVC XRCD remasters of various classic Munch and Reiner readings, you are in for a treat. My favorite so far is the Reiner Beethoven's Seventh [Victor JMCXR0006], and I know part of my admiration is due to the Sophias and their way with large-scale material, played LOUD, of course. They are able to create a fully populated panorama of sound. With the Reiner Seventh, the Sophias show themselves to be their best at higher volume levels, though they are no slouch with more peaceful material. Guy Van Duser & Billy Novick's Lovely Sunday Afternoon [Darling Records 25101-3035-2] is a collection of quaint, gleeful jazz -- Van Duser on acoustic guitar and Novick on clarinet. It was refreshing on the Sophias. Ahhh.
The Sophia's bass has typical Wilson punch and slam, just not to the same extent as that of its larger brethren. Instead of digging to the 20Hz range, the Sophia lives in the 30s, still very low. The aluminum woofer is highly articulate, able to express shading and texture of electric and upright bass. The Jacques Loussier Trio discs demonstrate this in abundance as well as the power of the Sophia's low end when the kick drum is used on Handel's Concerto in F major for Organ from Baroque Favorites. The Sophia amply portrays the initial "whomp" of the drum with the same sort of impact as the WATT/Puppy 6, though not with the depth or quite the weight. But the WATT/Puppy 6 is extraordinary in all bass departments; the Sophia is a little less so, but ahead of the curve for speakers with a similar driver complement. For those who need more bass -- much more -- Wilson Audio's $9950 WATCH Dog subwoofer was a breeze to integrate with the Sophia, and the combination comes in at a little more money than a pair of WATT/Puppy 6es. I'll be reviewing the nearly 300-pound WATCH Dog soon.
Wilson Audio speakers are very often paired with solid-state amplification, and I speculate this is done because their owners wish to maximize the speakers' formidable dynamic capabilities and ultimate loudness. From my firsthand experience with the WATT/Puppy 6 and now the Sophia as well as hearing the MAXXes driven by Atma-Sphere OTL monoblocks, I can say that Wilson speakers seem made for tubes, so gracefully do they let all the vacuum glory shine through. However, the Sophia puts a new twist on this thought by working particularly well with lower-priced solid-state components too. They were a splendid pairing with the Audio Analogue Puccini SE Remote integrated amp, which costs about 15% of the Sophia's price. Other affordable integrated and power amps would also mate well with the Sophia, making for a system that puts speakers first, which should be the case.
Comparison of competitors
Although the Sophia is a step down in price from the WATT/Puppy 6, I firmly believe it is valid competition for the more expensive speaker. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if another company made the Sophia, perhaps one smaller and less efficient than Wilson Audio, it very well may cost what the WATT/Puppy 6 does and be billed as so many other speakers have been: "It's better than a WATT/Puppy." And this is not inaccurate -- I can easily understand that someone might choose the Sophia for its greater intrinsic involvement and beauty, neither at the exclusion of true high-fidelity performance.
On the other hand, a buyer choosing the WATT/Puppy 6 will likely opt for its greater precision and high sensitivity, which will make it a better mate for amps like my Lamm ML2s. The 6 also has a bit more top-end air, imparting a greater sense of space and ambience. The WATT/Puppy 6's midrange is a little more transparent -- voices have more variation and unique identity -- and its bass is more substantial too.
In my opinion, the WATT/Puppy 6 is the superior speaker. But for those of us without a $20,000 budget who want a speaker with the lion's share of the WATT/Puppy 6's magic along with a completely engrossing signature of its own, the Sophia is waiting.
Before I finish this review, I need to address the Reviewers' Choice issue about which we'll surely get e-mail. The Sophia is a wonderful speaker, one that would be my choice if I didn't own the WATT/Puppy 6, but it's caught in the no-man's land of our Reviewers' Choice designation: it's not state of the art (which I believe does apply in many ways to the WATT/Puppy 6) and it's hard for it to be considered a screaming bargain at its nearly $12,000 price. These are the Reviewers' Choice criteria and always have been. End of story.
However, I don't know of a speaker short of the WATT/Puppy 6 that's as accomplished at the art of reproducing music as the Sophia. Its involving nature is always there, and the speaker retains a good many family traits of other Wilson Audio offerings. I had excellent results with tubes and solid state, using both to construct my assessment of the Sophia, and with no component I had here did the Sophia create a mismatch. I began to wonder how the speaker would sound with a surround-sound receiver of reasonable power. I suspect the outcome would reinforce the notion that you should spend the bulk of your audio budget on speakers.
I've heard from Wilson Audio that the Sophia is selling like hotcakes and the company was over the 100-pairs-sold mark months ago -- before any reviews or advertising hoopla. I suspect that as the Sophia starts showing up in dealer showrooms and at audio events, this number will grow rapidly. So if you want a pair, you'll likely have to wait. But you know what they say about people who wait .
Copyright © 2001 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved