Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Series 3 Loudspeakers
by Marc Mickelson | May 27, 2011
When Wilson Audio introduced the Grand SLAMM in 1994, the company single-handedly changed the loudspeaker market in a number of obvious ways. First, the Grand SLAMM redefined the scale of a loudspeaker, both in terms of its physical stature and the ambition of its design. It stood over six feet tall and weighed more than 750 pounds. It used advanced composite materials for its multi-component cabinet and a lineup of drivers that included both 12" and 15" woofers, helping it achieve gargantuan bandwidth and dynamic range. Second, introduced at $64,500 per pair, the Grand SLAMM shoved the price boundary far past where it had previously resided for speaker systems. It is true that Wilson Audio's own WAMM system cost even more, but it was a rare, custom-made product -- an exception and not the rule. Wilson dealers put Grand SLAMMs in their demo rooms, resulting in the sale of several hundred pairs.
Which leads to the most enduring way the Grand SLAMM changed the speaker market. Its sales figures emboldened speaker makers both well known and obscure, planting the seed that they could equal Wilson Audio's success with a similarly large, similarly ambitious and similarly costly speaker -- a premise that continues to dominate the market today. Walking around the high-end audio exhibits at CES, I frequently see massive speakers in the over-$100,000 price range and diminutive minimonitors with price tags north of $20,000. While cost is no predictor of sonic potency, it seems as though these speakers are not just increasing in number but multiplying. I have a hard time believing that all of them are selling, so their creation must be based more on hope than reality.
Ironically, since 1994, the loudspeaker market has caught and passed Wilson Audio when it comes to pricing. Several years ago, the company began a concerted push down the price scale with the introduction of the Sophia, a speaker I first heard, and wrote about, in late 2001. It was the same general size and weight as the WATT/Puppy 6, which I owned at the time, but it was a single-cabinet design. It was also more ancillary-friendly -- a speaker that could be used with the best amps and preamps available or far more modest electronics and still achieve a Wilsonesque sonic outcome. I recall a CES demo that Wilson Audio performed to prove this point, driving a lineup of speakers that included competitors' products and the Sophia with top-flight electronics and sources. However, after hearing all three of the speakers, it was revealed that while the competition was used with the pricey amp, preamp and CD player in plain sight, hidden away were budget-priced electronics and an iPod, all of which were used with the Sophia.
With the introduction of the Sophia 2 in 2006, Wilson Audio's least expensive floorstanding speaker took an important sonic step forward, adding supreme coherence to its characteristic ratio of resolution to ease. With the introduction of the Alexandria Series 2 in 2008, which featured a new and remarkably articulate Wilson-designed midrange driver, the handwriting was on the wall for the Sophia 2. The Sophia 3, introduced a little over a year ago, features a new version of that driver, whose cone material is unusual -- a composite of fibrous materials including paper and carbon fiber. The Sophia 3's new woofer possesses higher sensitivity and, reportedly, greater speed than the driver used for the Sophia 2, and the Sophia 3's new tweeter comes from the Sasha W/P. Because of all the new drivers, crossover changes were necessary, no quickly performed task at Wilson Audio, which takes the crossovers of its speakers very seriously.
The same holds true for the Sophia 3's cabinet, which is a combination of Wilson Audio's X and S materials. The former is a phenolic-resin composite in its second generation. Wilson Audio has used it most often for bass cabinets, because of its very dense, very hard physical properties. For the Sophia 3, it is used everywhere except the midrange-tweeter baffle, which is S material, named after the Sasha, whose cabinet was the first to include it. It's a proprietary material that is as well damped and almost as rigid as X material, but it has a much lower resonance frequency that's out of the midrange band.
But these are the particulars -- the "what" in terms of speaker design and manufacturing. It's the "how" that separates high-end speakers from the rest of the market. At Wilson Audio, "how" begins with a statement of specific sonic goals, which comes from David Wilson, who drives and manages the entire process. Chief among these for the Sophia 3 was increasing overall resolution through the implementation of the new midrange driver. Achieving this also required a redesign of the cabinet, whose walls and braces are thicker than those of the Sophia 2.
The first iteration of a new Wilson Audio speaker occurs virtually, where initial design parameters are measured and analyzed with proprietary software. A scale model follows, this created by a three-dimensional printer that lays down polymer to form a dollhouse-sized speaker cabinet that's correct in every respect. Then comes the first full-sized prototype, which the people at Wilson Audio have admitted will generally sound "amazingly bad," proving that no matter how much modeling and measuring you do, the outcome may still not sound musically right. From here, listening leads to a refined and rebuilt crossover. All aspects of the cabinet are also remeasured using laser technology. Following this is the second prototype, which incorporates all modifications and refinements, and then a third prototype, also called the production prototype.
Before this, the speaker's crossover existed outside the cabinet, making fine-tuning easier. At this point, however, the crossover is installed in the speaker, and more listening ensues. Listening dominates the process. "It's the final arbiter," as John Giolas, Wilson Audio's sales and marketing director, told me. While the entire design team -- including Giolas and the company's engineers -- provides input, David Wilson is the driving force here. "He's the one who does the hours and hours of listening," Giolas revealed. "He asks for feedback, but he does the final 'voicing'" -- a term used in a specific sense. David Wilson likens voicing a speaker to voicing a pipe organ, "a precise process of making the speaker sound more correct, not adhere to his tastes."
As much as I value what measurements can reveal about a speaker's design -- or the missteps thereof -- I never trust what I see over and above what I hear. It appears that David Wilson feels the same way.
Suggested minimum amplifier power for the Sophia 3 is 25Wpc, which seems low given that the speaker's sensitivity is 87dB/W/m. However, compatibility with a wide array of amplifiers was one of the design goals of the Sophia from the very beginning. I remember well pairing the original Sophia with 18W single-ended amps and being amazed at the quality of the music this combination made. Still, I pushed the compatibility claim as far as I could with the Sophia 3, driving it with literally every amplifier I had in the house. I expected no issues with the Lamm M1.2 monoblocks and Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, both of which possess the power and low output impedance to drive most speakers. I was also not concerned that the Lamm ML2.2 and Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks that I lugged home after CES would have issues. The Lamm amps are the latest iteration of the 18W SET amps I mentioned above, and the Atma-Sphere amps possess tremendous power and driveability for an OTL design.
However, as I connected the Sophia 3s to the TEAC A-1D integrated amp I use in my office system, doubt began to emerge. Putting aside this integrated amp's $300 list price and 50Wpc output, I knew it to sound rich and dark, and I thought the Sophia 3's resolving power would exacerbate these, especially as the speakers reached depths that the Infinity Primus 150 minimonitors, the speakers with which the A-1D are normally used, couldn't equal. While shrill and razory highs are uglier than a thick midrange and lumpy bass, neither makes for pleasing listening. Luckily, this would be a true experiment -- not the way I would be listening to the Sophia 3s as I evaluated them.
The TEAC A-1D sounded better than it ever had, and the same was true of the TEAC Reference CR-H500NT receiver that I reviewed a couple of months ago. The A-1D still sounded rich, bordering on overripe in the lower midrange, but colorful and dimensional -- medium-res but fun, in short. As I expressed in my review, the CR-H500NT offered "a clear view of the music and surprisingly punchy bass. Tonality is more on the lean than full side, while the high frequencies are nicely extended, even finely detailed, though also somewhat lean." Much of this was arrived at with the Sophia 3s at the downstream end. While my Infinity minimonitors are fine speakers for their size and price, they don't possess the bandwidth, dynamic prowess or overall refinement of the Sophia 3s -- not even close, in fact.
Perhaps the most interesting amp with which I drove the Sophia 3s was the Virtue Audio TWO.2. This bare-bones integrated amp is downright puny -- about the width and height of two paperback books. It uses the long-discontinued Tripath class-T chipset to produce 87Wpc. The TWO.2 may seem antiquated, but the Tripath chipset was ahead of its time and remains the best-sounding digital-amplification circuit I've heard in my system. The simplicity of the TWO.2, which has only an on/off switch and volume control, almost certainly leads to better sound as well. With the Sophia 3s, the TWO.2 displayed the best parts of the two TEAC units combined. It was as if the richness of the A-1D and the leanness of the CR-H500NT cancelled each other, the TWO.2 providing a more neutral view of each recording. Transients were fast, possessing the right amount of snap without exaggerated crispness, and the bass was nimble, though lacking ultimate weight and power. In other words, this mismatched combination worked in sonic terms. I listened to it for a number of days, always delighted by the visual discrepancy of the large speakers and nearly invisible amp -- as well as the music the two of them made together.
The result of all this amplifier-speaker mixing and matching was unequivocal: while some speakers must be used with certain electronics in order to deliver a pleasing -- and honest -- result, the Sophia 3s are not among them. Moreover, for the purposes of this review, the Sophia 3s revealed themselves in moderate or large degree with every amp I used. My first and persistent thought about why they are so widely compatible is that they are utterly coherent. It's not just that the three drivers blend so expertly as to sound like one (which is true), but that there is a tonal and textural consistency to their output that only enhances this quality. While you can hear this with every recording, an LP like the masterful reissue of Miles Davis's Seven Steps to Heaven [Columbia/Analogue Productions APJ 8851-45] makes it all the more plain, as the horns, piano, drums and bass retain their sonic individuality while binding into a blood-pulsing ensemble. Instrumental textures were variegated yet lustrous, flowing from the speakers with easeful pacing that was the antithesis of hyped and edgy. Seven Steps to Heaven marks the genesis of Miles Davis's second great quintet, which was populated with precocious youngsters Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Their freshness of approach was responsible for the record's eclecticism and vitality, both of which the Sophia 3s served up.
This version of Seven Steps to Heaven is a 45rpm remaster, and the added detail, especially into the bass, gives the presentation a more accurate spectral balance. This is another of the Sophia 3's strengths: the evenhanded portrayal of the entirety of the musical spectrum. This is a cousin to coherence, the two creating a sum that's greater than their parts. Wilson Audio speakers have always displayed copious bass power, and while the Sophia 3 may be the least expensive of the company's floorstanding speakers, it is no less adept down low. On cuts like the bass workouts from Harry Connick's CD She [Columbia 64376], the Sophia 3s provided surprising power -- "surprising" because they cede some bass extension and heft to their larger and more costly brethren, yet they still deliver electric and acoustic bass with throbbing power. On the other end, the treble displayed delicacy and air while retaining the textural abundance of the midrange and bass. Even when I isolated a certain region, the Sophia 3s remained tonally continuous, their coherence and balance never diminished.
I am very familiar with the new Wilson-spec'd midrange from my time with the X-2 Series 2, which I reviewed, and the MAXX 3, which I own. While the Sophia 3 doesn't use the identical driver of the larger speakers, its midrange displays the same sort of textural diversity and animation, along with the same rich presence and ease. Voices are physically dense yet rife with dynamic nuance and breathy inflection. They never surrendered sheer beauty to high fidelity -- or vice versa -- and I enjoyed every minute it took to discover this. One of my very best thrift-store rescues is a clean mono copy of Mack the Knife: Ella In Berlin [Verve MGV 4041], Ella Fitzgerald's classic 1960 concert that features an ad-libbed version of the well-worn title track that gets my vote for the best ever recorded. Ella is, of course, in the sonic spotlight, but the recording also captures waves of airy ambience. The Sophia 3s convey both the inherent sweetness of the voice without turning it into cloying excess, while providing insight into the wispy acoustics of the Deutschlandhallen, where the concert was held. When Ella's voice is just right, it has an upper-range "twinkle," a narrow band where chest hands off to throat, and she's able to reach her dynamic apex. There it was in Berlin, courtesy of the Sophia 3s, never distorting and pushing past the point of tastefulness.
The big Wilson Audio speakers always display thrilling dynamics, both as they launch crescendos at blistering levels or simply rise and fall along with subtle harmonics and inflections. As these speakers have evolved, so has this core set of qualities, improving in small but discernible ways that don't seem possible until you hear them. The Sophia 3s don't have quite the same dynamic dexterity as the MAXX 3s, for instance, but they are still able to deafen with their sheer output capabilities and reveal the nuances that differentiate performances and the recordings themselves. Here again their balance is precise, resolving spatial information with as much insight as the physical presence of the performers.
In many ways, this is the foundation for what the speakers ultimately achieve, the qualities of their treble, midrange and bass adding spice to a foundation of adept dynamic and spatial retrieval at both loud and soft levels. "Charming" is how I would sum up the Sophia 3s in one word. While it might be a cliché, they do cause you to forget about them as you revel in the music they make. As I've written in past reviews of Wilson Audio speakers, it's just this kind of unreasoned involvement that appeals most to me.
Same difference or different sameness?
For much of the time the Sophia 3s were here, so were the Thiel Audio CS3.7s ($12,900 per pair) that I reviewed a number of weeks ago. The late Jim Thiel and the very much alive David Wilson are two luminaries of the American loudspeaker industry, building successful companies that bear their names on the strength of speakers that are distinctly their own. Their design philosophies share some general tenets, as would be expected, but the speakers their companies produce are very different aesthetically and sonically.
Like Wilson Audio, Thiel Audio puts a great deal of design and manufacturing effort into its cabinets and drivers. Wilson Audio designs its drivers, which outside vendors make specially for the company, while Thiel designs its drivers and makes some of them in its Lexington, Kentucky, factory. Those for the CS3.7, however, including the unusual coincident tweeter/midrange, are manufactured in China. In terms of cabinets, the goal for both companies is to create as inert a structure for the drivers as possible. For the CS3.7, this involves a combination of materials, including MDF, multi-ply panels and T6061 aluminum. Wilson relies on its extensively researched and tested proprietary X and S materials, which are used purposefully in order to produce a cabinet that adds as little of its signature to the sonic outcome as possible. Thiel veneers the CS3.7, while Wilson Audio gel coats each cabinet and then applies multiple coats of automotive-grade paint and clear-coat, which are finished to a lustrous end. The outcome is starkly different, though equally appealing.
By and large, however, audiophiles don't buy speakers based on their looks. It's performance that differentiates high-performance speakers, and here again there is great divergence between Thiel Audio and Wilson Audio, between the CS3.7 and Sophia 3. With the CS3.7s, this means tremendous resolving power and utter frankness, the products of Jim Thiel's goal of reproducing the input signal as faithfully as possible. This gave the same recordings an obvious quickness and clarity, though at the expense of presence, naturalness and bloom. Singers and instruments sounded consistently leaner and less tonally saturated with the CS3.7s than they did with the Sophia 3s.
And this raised a question I couldn't really answer: which presentation was more right? My sense, assembled from listening to a great deal of recorded and live music, is that what emerged from the Sophia 3s was truer to the way music sounds live, with dimensionality and, for lack of a better word, humanness intact. The Sophia 3s were also less dependent on the quality of the recording, sounding the way they do with good or mediocre material, while the CS3.7s conveyed flaws more readily, sounding blah (or worse) with less-than-stellar recordings and absolutely spectacular -- quick into and out of each note, able to reveal the totality of recorded ambience -- with recordings that had few issues. The Sophia 3s weren't forgiving of a recording's flaws; they simply didn't highlight them, somehow staying centered on the musical message, even when it was delivered with far-from-perfect fidelity.
Perhaps a more interesting comparison for the Sophia 3 is the Sasha W/P ($26,950 per pair), Wilson Audio's replacement for the renowned WATT/Puppy. Sophia 3 owners may be thinking of stretching their budgets for the Sashas if the nearly $10,000 difference in price is justified. Putting aside the differences in configuration, there are certainly sonic similarities between the two Wilson Audio compact floorstanding speakers, including the characteristic dynamic prowess, spatial resolution and bass power, along with hair-raising output capabilities. Both also have a sense of ease about them, although the Sasha less so than the Sophia 3, because of more acute retrieval of detail, especially in the treble and bass.
The Sasha is more demanding of amplifiers, however, even though it is more sensitive than the Sophia 3. While I could drive the Sophia 3s with inexpensive integrated amps, the Sashas need, and deserve, amplifiers with greater power and pedigree. This points to the most important general distinction between the two speakers: potential. As adept as the Sophia 3s are, the Sashas have the potential to reach greater sonic heights, given partnering components that can deliver on that potential. On the other hand, the Sophia 3 is so unfussy as to be self-effacing. Power it sufficiently and it will reward you.
If I do say so myself
I began this review by stating that with the introduction of the Grand SLAMM, Wilson Audio "single-handedly changed the loudspeaker market in a number of obvious ways." I hope that the third version of the Sophia will do the same, this time creating a legion of high-performing speakers that don't require pricey, über-powerful amplifiers to reveal their abilities but do respond to electronics that share their copious refinement. Perhaps they will also be the harbinger of a downward pricing trend in the speaker market, inspiring those companies currently making six-figure behemoths to steer their resources toward more modestly priced speakers, and giving companies that have been occupying this turf all along better exposure.
I also hope that audiophiles who love music more than sound (there are too many who love sound more than music) will hear the Sophia 3. These are the people who will ultimately appreciate this speaker most, because it so obviously aligns with their reasons for assembling an audio system to begin with. It really is about the music, not the equipment, and the Sophia 3 is a persuasive reminder of this.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Wilson Audio Specialties
2233 Mountain Vista Lane
Provo, Utah 84606
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Audio-Technica AT33EV cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Allnic Audio H-3000V and Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics DX-5 universal player.
Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference 5, Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Legend.
Power amplifiers: Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks, Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference and ML2.2 monoblocks.
Integrated amplifiers: TEAC A-1D, Virtue Audio TWO.2.
Receiver: TEAC Reference CR-H500T.
Loudspeakers: Thiel CS3.7, Wilson Audio Sasha W/P.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-IC.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-SP.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II.
Power cords: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research CX-series (various).
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases under digital gear.