Sasha technology has trickled down to the Sophia. Is the Sophia 3 Wilson Audio's 'easiest' speaker yet?
Since the early 1980s, Wilson Audio has produced speakers as physically small as the Duette and the original WATT, not just behemoths such as the Alexandria. It has been my good fortune to have heard almost every model, either at shows, at the Wilson listening room in Provo, Utah or in friends’ homes. And there’s a reason why I have used the smaller Wilsons as my primary reference for 25 years or so: they allow me to listen into the recording.
Unlike most, though, I don’t necessarily believe that the progression from smallest model to largest should incite an automatic desire to follow that ascent. I have been perfectly happy with the WATT Puppy sequence from 1-7 because they suit my room. I repeat: they match the Kessler listening area to perfection. And while I’m certain that some crafty soul could find a way to convince a pair of Alexandrias to work in my 12x18ft chamber, I wouldn’t want to be faced with something that so dominated my field of vision. So, as a result of swearing by the horses-for-courses approach, I have been a Sophia user for a couple of years [see HFN, May ’09].
Eh? A step down from WATT Puppy to Sophia? To understand this, you have to think like a reviewer whose system changes weekly. While there’s absolutely no such thing as a ‘universal’ component in the truest sense, there are those which are generous with the way they interact with other items. WATT Puppies can be ornery. They can make mincemeat of amplifiers. Conversely, Sophias don’t make such demands. They simply make my life easier. I can even run ’em with a £700 Croft. I love them to bits, however much I fantasise about Sashas.
But Sophia Series 2 was due for a refresher. As Wilson sees it, the company has – since the ’2 first appeared – moved ahead quite radically with its driver technology. Because Wilson is a firm believer in the trickle-down process, it was time for Sophia 2 to share in the tweeter developed for MAXX Series 3 and used in Sasha W/P. This 1in inverted titanium dome tweeter employs techniques conceived to reduce back-wave reflections that might propagate through the diaphragm, in turn adding noise and distortion.
When it comes to the midband, Sophia 3 enjoys a simplified version of the driver found in the Alexandria X2 Series 2, MAXX and Sasha, closing the sonic gap between them. As the midrange is the critical speaker in any three-way, it goes some way toward achieving one of Dave Wilson’s stated goals for the ’3: to provide such an instantly appealing and satisfying sound so that customers won’t automatically consider it ‘inferior’ to its dearer siblings. [See boxout, p34.]
What this Sophia user felt, though, was an even more profound gain involving the lowest octaves. Along with other modifications, the new woofer sports a magnet structure twice the size of the Sophia 2’s, retaining only its predecessor’s voice coil and cone. Describing the sonic gains finds me at a loss for words, despite Wilson providing its own list that includes ‘the overall impact, speed, agility and linearity.’ What that inventory doesn’t include is the transformation of the physical presence of the bass in one’s room, with breathtakingly life-like textures and realistic scale.
It’s not simply the drivers that ring in the changes. The crossover has been completely reworked, benefiting from Wilson’s sophisticated computer modelling, while the enclosure – made of its ‘X-material’ – has been re-shaped, with special attention paid to the slope of the upper baffle. This provides the time alignment for the mid and treble, an obsession at Wilson.
Hardware includes wheels underneath for use during positioning, which are then replaced with superb adjustable spikes. The only other tweaking is best left for the installer: the Sophia contains changeable resistors to ‘tune’ the mid and treble output, and which protect the drivers. These have been relocated from the bottom of the enclosure on the ’2, to a more-accessible panel on the rear.
As Sophias 2s were already in place, I simply moved them and positioned the 3s in the same spots. Only marginal adjustments took place over the listening period. I should add, however, that the ’3s need a running-in period – Wilson’s Peter McGrath suggests fairly robust levels rather than merely leaving them on over night with soft music. They just got better and better. One suspects that, like LS3/5As, this running-in is like the maturing of a fine wine: they’ll continue to mature for the years.
For the listening sessions I fed the Wilsons from an EAT
Forte S turntable with a Blue Angel cartridge in the Pro-Ject arm and Linn LP12/Ekos/Arkiv, connected to an Audio Research PH-5 phono stage. Amplification consisted of an Audio Research Ref 5 driving either Quad II-eighty monoblocks or McIntosh’s C2200, while digital arrived via a Marantz CD-12 and Musical Fidelity kW DM25 DAC/transport. Wiring was Kimber Select and Yter throughout. And, blessed be, it sounded magical from the first notes I heard.
They were provided by Keb’ Mo’, because it was the nearest disc to the players and I was eager to hear in my room what I’d only tasted at shows. But it turned out to be a wise choice: a superior recording with a varied complement of instruments, textured vocals, slithery Dobro and some of the most fluid bass you’ll ever hear. But you have to try some transposition if I’m to convey the scale of the shock which it provided.
Think of a time when (or if) you replaced an audio component with its Mk II version. Perhaps you upgraded an LP12 from one stage to another, or had an amp re-valved with superior tubes. If the upgrade was worth the re-badging of the model, it should have been startling, not subtle. For the move from Sophia 2 to 3, I am tempted to put it on the same level as that of the last of the WATT Puppies to the Sasha W/P. Staff at Wilson may scratch their heads at my astonishment, and even my presumptuousness at daring to deem the changes as of the same degree, but the effect they had on me was identical to my first exposure to Sashas.
For this to happen, a certain amount of familiarity is required. The music was, of course, beyond familiar, and I’m sure many of you are heartily sick of me using it constantly. My experience of the smaller Wilsons is a matter of record, too. Yet I can liken the scale of the evolution in terms of other products: Leica M4 camera to M6, the generational leaps between Porsche Turbos. And yet it was unmistakeably a Sophia, with all that entails.
For me, the Sophia differs from its dearer siblings in terms of gentility, without giving up too many of their virtues. They do not force the listener to sit there like a student in a Dickensian classroom. As Keb’ Mo’ demonstrates, the Sophia 3 can retrieve detail with precision almost as ‘macro’ as the Sasha’s, while the soundstage and all of its proportions are simply an exact scale replica of the huge floostanders. And still the voice of Keb’ Mo’ – whom I’ve stood next to in a lift and know is seriously tall – hovered above the 104cm Sophias, as if in the room. I’d hazard a guess that the Sophia 3 created a perfect 5⁄8ths-scale model of the Alexandria’s sound spread – an apt reduction for my room, a perfect fit.
This is not a qualitative reduction, but quantitative, adhering again and again to Dave Wilson’s desire to create a more cost-effective floorstander which does not constantly remind its owner that there are dearer models in the family. Perhaps the most accurate analogy takes us back to cars: I have yet to hear of a Porsche Boxster owner who lays awake at night wishing it was a 911 in his drive.
Despite lacking the movable top section of the Sasha, the Sophia still delivers the correct time alignment, even though its fixed nature means that it must be a carefully calculated compromise. You can, of course, raise or lower the front or rear spikes to alter the tilt. With the speaker set perfectly level – the top is angled, so I determined this by the bottom plate – I was able to do a direct comparison with the ’2, and even this appears to have improved. There is simply no smearing to be detected. The transients are faultless, the speed and decay reminding me so much of the Sasha that I can believe there are, indeed, Wilson devotees who can afford either, but who opt for the Sophia.
Contrasting sounds further strengthened my belief that the Sophia remains peerless as an egalitarian design. On one hand were 1960s/1970s recordings from Rick Nelson, during his country period. ‘Garden Party’ is just about the only track that people recall from his post-teen idol years, but the gentle material he recorded was captured sympathetically, paving the way for the Eagles. His voice, pleasant but never powerful, can be swamped by the backing band. Sophia retained his presence front-and-centre, with absolutely complementary levels, which is how one imagined it was meant to sound.
Utterly alien to this is the first CD in Tom Waits’ 2006 triple disc epic, Orphans. If it’s possible to blend the blues, ‘Cleveland Industrial’ and gospel, if Dr John had a baby with Throbbing Gristle, this is it. What Waits feeds us is an aural landscape somewhere between fin de siècle sleaze/romance and post-nuclear holocaust urban decay. In defiance of all that is logical, the refined, genteel, even demure Sophia suddenly turns into a wanton trollop. In fishnet stockings.
Atonal, clanging percussion, Waits’ growling vocals, greasy harmonica placed way in the background, dirty guitar licks stage left, that wonderful, papery sound that suggests a drum kit in need of re-skinning but the drummer can’t afford it: this is virtual home cinema without a screen. Waits himself would appreciate a pair of Sophias, if he ever felt like re-creating in his listening room what he did on tour three decades ago: stage set that could have been lifted from a play by Tennessee Williams.
TEAR DOWN THE WALL
This is what high-end audio is all about: a listener’s transcendent involvement with the musical event. For a truly believable experience of an event being reproduced rather than heard live as it happened, the listener must be transported from the synthetic arrangement of sitting in a room far removed from the hall or studio where the music was recorded, to the event itself. The Sophia offers what is surely the aural equivalent of Diderot’s Fourth Wall, the indefinable barrier between listener and the music, removed by virtue of an absence of artifice, plus the disappearance of any imaginary haze or unwanted atmosphere between speaker and ear.
Currently suffering an unquenchable thirst for country music, I overindulged in Lefty Frizzell, the Judds, Juice Newton, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Chet Atkins. These performers run the gamut of vocal types, from the basso profundo of Ford, to redneck nasality, to the crystalline warbling of the distaff members of this collective. Slapped bass, slide guitar. Mono to stereo. Atkins’ take of ‘Mister Sandman’ is a lavishly liquid feast of the guitar as a substitute for vocals. The Sophia caressed them, respected them with the same equanimity shown to Waits’ film noir look at life. Every contrast was highlighted, yet kept in proportion. In effect, the Sophias embodied in their sound what David Wilson values above nearly all other manufacturers’ standards: authenticity.
A Wilson user for over two decades, I’m used to the leaps between incarnations. Just as Sasha shocked listeners in 2009, so does the third Sophia represent a disproportionate jump. Sophia 2s remain magnificent; I could live with them for the rest of my days. But the gains in bass authenticity and presence, the impact of the extreme treble and the overall coherence of the ’3 are simply dazzling. A major coup indeed.
Sound Quality: 89%
Originally published in the January 2010 issue
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