November 2006Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Series 2 Loudspeakers
by Ken Choi
Nevertheless, the speaker's incredible resolving power left an indelible impression on me. Several years later, when a change of listening environments necessitated smaller speakers, I traded in my Martin-Logan CLS IIs and Entec SW-5 subwoofers for a used pair of WATT 2/Puppy 1s. I loved the dynamics and detail that these speakers provided. I delighted in the way I could discern even small changes in upstream components, the speakers serving as a neutral canvas upon which a tonal landscape was painted.
The W 2/P 1s were by no means perfect, though. There was a midbass accentuation that was not amenable to placement or room-treatment strategies. They were difficult to drive, and the tweeters were unforgiving of many recordings such that careful matching to ancillary equipment was an absolute necessity. I subsequently auditioned other speakers and later iterations of the WATT/Puppy. It was almost ten years after I bought my first pair of Wilson Audio speakers, after listening to the original Sophia, that I felt I had found a speaker special enough to supplant those early WATT/Puppys. With the Sophias, the positive attributes of the W 2/P 1s were combined with a more coherent, kinder, gentler presentation. Beauty, it seems, had met truth, and I took the speakers home.
Fast-forward two years. In an act of audio ennui I brought my amps in to the dealer to hear how they would drive WATT/Puppy 7s. What transpired was an evening of comparing the 7s to the original Sophias. Such juxtaposition revealed the Sophias to sound a little reticent and restrained in contrast to the WATT/Puppy 7's vivid and more exuberant presentation. After some deliberation, I traded in my Sophias and a hefty chunk of change for the WATT/Puppy 7s, which have remained in my main system since.
That was then
The Sophia has been a clear success for Wilson Audio, with many seasoned listeners proclaiming that it was the first truly musical transducer to emanate from the Provo, Utah factory. Never to rest on their laurels, however, David Wilson and his team have incorporated some of their ongoing thinking derived from the development of the Alexandria and MAXX 2 into the Sophias one-piece enclosure. Now, some five years after its introduction, the original Sophia is reborn as the Series 2.
Ostensibly, the Series 2 cabinet appears identical to that of the original. It is still constructed of Wilson Audio's proprietary X and M materials, which continue to be subtly revised themselves. The extreme rigidity and damping qualities of these materials contribute in no small part to the Sophias sound, the original version being the first Wilson Audio product to be completely built of them.
In fact, the Sophia 2's dual-ported cabinet is fractions of an inch wider than that of the original. This was to accommodate the diffraction pads on the baffle, which are now flush with the speakers surface and allow the grille covers to be attached by steel pins, a clear aesthetic improvement over the Velcro system previously used. Even with something as mundane as a grille cover, the attention to detail is impressive. The cloth cover is meticulously sealed to an underlying X-material frame. The pins are machined from a steel alloy selected for non-resonance, and their fit to the pads is impeccable.
Such quality is applied throughout the speakers construction. The Sophia 2 continues to employ the 7" ScanSpeak paper-cone midrange and 10" aluminum-cone bass drivers used in the original. These OEM drive units were co-designed by Wilson Audio. Also used is the same 1" inverted-dome tweeter from Focal that features a titanium oxide diaphragm. Based on work done on the MAXX 2, this tweeter has been rebuilt with a new magnet assembly and a redesigned rear damping chamber cast from the X material. The ever-mysterious Wilson crossovers have undergone revisions based on findings made during the development of the Alexandria and MAXX 2. New topologies have been implemented that are said to reduce time-domain distortion generated from the interaction of the high- and low-pass filters. Other crossover strategies have been incorporated to better align transient information in the bass to that in the treble.
The price of a new pair of Sophia 2s has risen from $11,700 to $13,990 USD. However, owners of the original Sophia can have their speakers factory upgraded to the Series 2 at a cost of $4000. Here the enclosure is retained but the innards are entirely replaced and the cabinet is refinished as necessary. This last point is no small undertaking, but Wilson Audio does it so that owners of upgraded speakers can relive that sense of newness when they open the crates. The new grille system is excluded in the upgrade, as it does not fit the original cabinet.
The review samples arrived in surprisingly swift fashion, dropped off on a Friday evening by two delivery guys who clearly looked like theyd rather be somewhere else. The two large shipping crates weighing in at over 200 pounds each took up valuable real estate in my garage for some time until I enlisted help to move them into my 22'L x 12 1/2'W x 8H basement listening room. I was delighted with the desert silver finish, which blended nicely with my walls and room treatments -- a combination of DIY tube traps, ASC Sound Planks and Art diffusors.
I ran the speakers with an Audio Research 100.2 amplifier for some 40 hours before fitting their footers and spikes and placing them roughly where the WATT/Puppy 7s were sitting before. In addition to the solid-state amp, I drove the Sophia 2s with Nagra VPA tube monoblocks that I found to work particularly well with their predecessor. Sources included the EMM Labs CDSD transport and DCC2 DAC as well as an Oracle Delphi Mk V turntable fitted with an SME V tonearm and a recently rebuilt Koetsu Onyx cartridge. Both sources passed through a Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Ultimate preamp. Speaker cables and all interconnects were Purist Audio Designs Venustas. The equipment was powered through a Shunyata Hydra Model-8 fed from a dedicated line.
With the exception of a power cord or two and some tubes, I had used this same system with the original Sophias.
Just after I thought I was getting good sound from the speakers, Peter McGrath, Wilson Audio's director of sales and an ace setup man, paid a visit. He declared that with 5 being ideal, my current speaker-room combination was yielding a 3.5 and thus holding back the Sophia 2's potential. He proceeded to voice the speakers to the room in a particularly efficient and concerted fashion. It is customary for prospective owners of Wilson Audio speakers to have this procedure performed by their dealers, and I will tell you that it is well worth the effort. With the speakers finally positioned about three inches back and about two inches laterally from their erstwhile locations, the soundstage expanded in a way not unlike the effect of employing Shakti Hallographs, but multiplied by a factor of five. Tonality became more natural, and the speakers sounded even more coherent than before.
The speakers ultimately sat with their tweeters 104" apart and about 23" from the side walls. They were some 120" from the listening position, 60" out from my recessed front wall and toed in so that just a hint of the medial cabinet surface was visible.
The listening begins
After setup, Peter and I spent a good amount of time listening to music, much of it Peters own wonderful live recordings, which were stored on the hard disk of his Sound Devices portable recorder and processed through the EMM Labs DCC2. A particular highlight was his recording of Bill Charlap playing Leonard Bernsteins music solo. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of solo performances, preferring, for example, the accompaniment of a rhythm section to get my toes tapping. However, the simplicity of this recording, with the pianist on stage alone in what sounded like a large, ambient environment, allowed me to get lost in the music rather than the sound. Besides which, when Charlaps toes started tapping and resonating on the stages floorboards, I really couldnt help but tap right along.
If I were to choose one word to describe the Sophia 2s sound it would be "clear," and this is where the speaker is most improved over its predecessor. From top to bottom, every sound that issues from the Sophia 2 is clean, lucid and true to life. The bass, for instance, is focused and tight, rendered with a great sense of impact. The complete absence of overhang, a salubrious byproduct of the Wilson Audio enclosures, while affecting the full frequency spectrum, wreaks the most benefit in the lower registers. Thus the Sophia 2s bass is supremely articulate and tuneful with no sense of smearing.
I often use Mickey Harts Planet Drum [Rykodisc RCD10206] when evaluating new speakers. This is percussive world music, but youd have trouble nailing down the geography because there isnt any. Every track on this album offers something sonically interesting -- from subterranean bass on some cuts to a couple of pieces featuring the not-so-dulcet tones of a conch shell.
Drums on songs such as "Island Groove" exemplify the bass detail and definition that the Sophia 2s provide. On "The Dancing Sorcerer," Airto Moreiras strikes on the berimbau, a Brazilian stringed percussion instrument, are captured with razor-sharp transient fidelity, and its metallic tone resonates in the room with energy. As a former owner of full-range ribbon and electrostatic speakers, I can confidently say that the Sophia 2 has no problem matching or exceeding these in terms of speed and detail, but at the same time it serves up dynamics that the others cannot come close to providing.
The albums last song, "Mysterious Island," starts out with a recording of ocean waves Hart made one evening in Kona, Hawaii. Layered on to this is a somewhat exotic bass line produced by a dumbek (goblet drum) and seagull sounds voiced by Flora Purim. Here, the Sophia 2s' soundfield is expansive and particularly impressive in terms of depth. Close your eyes and you can practically feel the breeze and smell the hibiscus.
The midrange performance of the original Sophia was one of my main reasons for moving to the WATT/Puppy 7s. The first-generation Sophia was a little laid-back in this regard, and I suppose this was one of its charms. With the Sophia 2, piano, horn and guitar notes are more forcefully projected into the room, yielding a considerably greater sense of presence, resolve, and dynamics. Voices are rendered in a more lifelike way, but not at the expense of forwardness or aggressiveness. Tonality remains neutral, pure and true.
Im quite the sucker for female vocals, and Ive been particularly taken with Stacey Kents singing of late. If I were to recommend just one of her albums it would be The Boy Next Door [Candid CCD79998], where she is backed by a small jazz ensemble that includes her hubby, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson. Consider the track "Que Reste-T-II Des Nos Amours?" Here we have a sultry feminine voice, cooing words that I cant fully understand, set against the backdrop of a swaying samba rhythm. Without getting into some potentially painful, public self-analysis, Ill simply say that this kind of music pushes all the right buttons for me.
Even though I could enjoy this music through a boom-box, the Sophia 2s presentation is so coherent, tonally natural and harmonically textured that it is impossible for me not to let my shoulders droop and become completely immersed in the sound. Despite the speakers visually being set so far apart, Kents voice was full, pure and centered solidly between them, taking on scale appropriate to that of the gentle background accompaniment. When Tomlinson interjects a sensual saxophone solo the sound is present and palpable, the nuances of his phrasing readily apparent.
Initially I thought that the Sophia 2's tweeter sounded a little over-energetic, with a touch more sizzle than I would have liked. Fortunately, this effect completely disappeared after several hours of running in. Extended listening did reveal the upper registers to be endowed with notable definition and detail, just like the rest of the frequency spectrum. An apparent sense of air and space around instruments was also apparent. But in contrast to the bass and midrange, where the speaker sounds like it has been subtly "juiced up," the improved clarity in the top end appears to result from a lower noise floor and darker background upon which all sounds are superimposed.
I love listening to the cello, as it is superbly communicative, on par in my minds ear with the female voice. A very nice example of the instruments expressiveness is Schuberts Sonata for Arpeggione. As its title suggests, the piece was originally scored for the arpeggione, an archaic fretted instrument that resembles an oversized guitar played with a bow. Now it is most often performed on the cello. My recording of Mischa Maiskys performance, accompanied by Martha Argerich on the piano, is one of the oldest CDs in my collection [Philips 412 230-2], yet it still sounds marvelous.
Listen to the second movement, the adagio, and see if you dont agree that it is powerfully evocative of loss or sorrow, while the closing allegretto signifies hope and renewal. This music arises from a deep, dark background through the Sophia 2s, where the cellos natural voice is beautifully rendered without being compromised by cabinet coloration and where the higher-pitched piano notes ring with lucidity. Old CD or not, this music sounded fresh through the Sophia 2s.
I am convinced that these refined speakers will perform their best with good tube amplification, but this is not a prerequisite for enjoying them. During his visit, Peter McGrath connected the speakers to a late-'80s-vintage Rotel receiver and CD player I had lying around. We used speaker-cable scraps from the closet, the type of interconnect commonly included with a $40 DVD player, and plugged the gear's scrawny captive power cords straight into the wall -- all anathema to the modern-day audio neurotic. This setup, with a street value of next to nothing, produced astonishingly satisfying sound. Adding the Audio Research 100.2, widely regarded as a sweet and musical amp, in the main system was a significant but surprisingly small step up from the all-Rotel system. When the Nagra VPAs entered the system, the speakers performance crept further up to the levels Ive alluded to above. Thus, you can appreciate the Sophia 2s with rather modest but well-chosen equipment, and they will certainly respond as the ancillary equipment improves.
Wilson vs. Wilson
It seemed natural for me to compare the Sophia 2s to the WATT/Puppy 7s ($22,400 per pair), since I have used the latter as my reference speakers. However, moving these beasts back and forth over the Berber carpet in my basement was anything but natural. The WATT/Puppy 7 is clearly the more spectacular-sounding speaker, producing a bigger, more dynamic sound with relatively greater ease. But while the WATT/Puppy 7s bass is fuller, that of the Sophia 2 is more articulate. Similarly, the WATT/Puppy reveals a staggering amount of detail, but the Sophia 2 offers somewhat more in terms of definition. Perhaps owing at least in part to its greater sensitivity magnifying my systems inherent noise, the noise floor through WATT/Puppy 7 is imbued with a subtle sense of haze or grain that is missing from that of the Sophia 2. However, it takes the latter speaker to hear this in the former.
Sonic priorities, rooms and budgets will vary, but if the Sophia 2 were available the day I visited the dealer with my amps, the decision to acquire the WATT/Puppy 7s would have been much harder to make. Does this mean that the Sophia 2 is the better speaker? I can't say that, but it's certainly competitive with the WATT/Puppy 7 at a fraction of the price -- the very definition of an upgrade.
Truth versus beauty is a fundamental dichotomy that audiophiles must grapple with in their quest for sonic nirvana. While the line between the two may not be as fine as some claim, this ultimately boils down to individual tastes, and we all know there is no accounting for that. My own proclivities lean toward the truthful, accurate side of the fence. Not that there is any disdain for beauty and sheer musicality, but, for me, these are really the domain of secondary systems. Fortunately there is no dearth of well-produced recordings that sound wonderful on any well-thought-out audio system.
Owners of the original Sophias have a special, beautiful pair of speakers that they can continue to enjoy for many years. Judicious upgrades of their associated equipment will be readily manifest by enhanced speaker performance. Because of its gentler and more forgiving demeanor, a pair of used Sophias could also serve as the ideal entrée for those new to the Wilson line. However, as good as the Sophia is, the Sophia 2 is improved across the board. A healthy modicum of truth has been instilled into the Series 2, while the beauty of the original has been preserved. A careful audition is the only way to determine if an upgrade is of value to you or if the speaker meets your sonic needs.
Personally, I think that the Sophia 2 is a fantastic speaker, and thats the truth!
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