Introduction to the Wilson Audio Sophia 3 Speakers
For many audiophiles, there comes a time in our lives when we say, in so many words, enough is enough. We’ve worked hard enough, long enough, and with enough dedication and sacrifice to no longer have to suffer with a system that fails to satisfy. We deserve a setup that makes us happy: a system that allows us to sit back and listen for as long as we want to the music we love and want to explore and without ever feeling fatigued or short-changed.
WILSON AUDIO SOPHIA 3 SPEAKERS SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Three-way, Ported
- Drivers: One 1″ Inverted Titanium Dome, One 7″ Cellulose/Paper Pulp Midrange, One 10″Aluminum Woolfer
- Sensitivity: 87 dB @ 1 Watt @ One meter @ 1 kHz
- Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohms, 3.1 Ohms Minimum @ 98 Hz
- MFR: 20 Hz – 22.5 kHz, ± 3 dB
- Minimum Amplifier Power: 25 Watts per Channel
- Dimensions: 41.2″ H w/o spikes x 13.6″ W x 18.9″ D
- Weight: 165 Pounds/each
- MSRP: $17,900/pair USD
- Wilson Audio
- SECRETS Tags: Wilson Audio, Speakers, Audio
In my case, the biggest impediment to system enjoyment has been a succession of loudspeakers that have always come up short. After an initial loudspeaker debacle that I prefer not to think about came the Talon Khorus X, a speaker with a lot of positive attributes that I got to sound “pretty good” after at least four upgrades and I don’t know how many tweaks addressed a number of its major design flaws. Then came the Eficion F-300, a well-designed loudspeaker whose AMT tweeter does a lot of things really well, and whose midrange provides the warmth and richness that the Talon lacked, but whose soundstage limitations, lack of ultimate bass control (in my room) and need for amps with a high slew rate were not an ideal fit for either my system, room, or musical preferences.
Finally, after reading any number of positive reviews of Wilson Audio Specialties’ Sophia 3, I contacted company founder Dave Wilson and company spokesperson and Recording Engineer Peter Mc Grath. The essence of my message: Help! I can’t stand it any longer. After attending and reporting on any number of Wilson Audio speaker debuts and demos at shows and stores, it’s about time that I heard a pair of Wilsons at Casa Bellecci-Serinus.
It’s not that my email was sent out of the blue. I first met Dave Wilson at his old home in Novato, CA in 1980 or 1981. Shortly after the premiere of She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon in which I whistled Puccini as “The Voice of Woodstock,” Ed Bogas, who arranged the sound for the Peanuts cartoons, asked me to come whistle for his friend Dave Wilson. I didn’t know who Dave was, or what the funny stack of speaker boxes in his living room was all about, but I made the drive with Ed and blew my brains out in Dave’s living room.
It was only years later, when I got involved in the high-end, recorded some music with pianist Julie Steinberg (whom Dave had recorded), and began to see ads for Wilson Audio loudspeakers that I began to realize that I whistled for one extremely gifted speaker designer. When I began covering audio shows, and Dave and I renewed our acquaintance, I finally had the opportunity to hear what the successors to that funny stack of boxes in his living room could do.
I first learned of Peter Mc Grath’s engineering prowess when his name began to appear on a host of critically acclaimed Harmonia Mundi recordings of artists that included Jordi Savall and Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson). Then I learned that he was the recording engineer for James Judd’s wonderful sounding CD of Mahler’s First Symphony. Eventually, when Peter began working for Wilson Audio Specialties, I had the opportunity to hear his master recordings played back on Wilson loudspeakers. Given our similar tastes in music, I soon managed to find ways to linger in his room at shows, enjoying as many of his recordings as time allowed, and then a little bit more.
These multiple decades of acquaintance with both men and product culminated in my emai. Months later, shortly after the California Audio Show in July 2012, Peter braved the wilds of the East Oakland barrio to set up a brand new pair of Sophia 3s in my living room. I found their Desert Silver color – one of four standard colors and 12 upgrade colors available – a perfect match for the blond and darker wood tones of the room, dark maroon of the rug, and my silver and black component mix.
As for their sound, I quickly fell in love. For the last six months, as I have reviewed music and equipment for multiple publications on the Sophia 3s. As I dashed home after shows to test my aural memory of the best systems I had heard against the sound of my own system, the Sophia 3s have served as my trusted reference loudspeaker. As I prepare to bid them farewell, and welcome a pair of Wilson Audio Sashas to my living room, I do so with the knowledge that the Sophia 3 is among the finest-sounding and most satisfying loudspeakers in its price range.
Design and Setup of the Wilson Audio Sophia 3 Speakers
Wilson Audio manufactures but one component: loudspeakers. Hence, they’ve figured out the best way to deliver and set-up their product.
The Sophia 3s, packed in solid wooden crates, arrived with easily removable casters on the bottom of their cabinets. When the covers of the crates were unscrewed, the speakers rolled right out. They may weigh 165 lbs. each, but it was a snap to roll them into preliminary position with hardly any effort.
For any Wilson customer, set-up by a qualified Wilson Audio dealer is part of the package. In my case, Peter himself did the honors. After taking a short listen to the Eficions, which enabled him to get a sense of my system and what I was looking for, he took over. Once he was able to hook up his own equipment and play some of his reference recordings, he invited me to head out to the cottage and take a nap.
Two hours later, after moving the speakers many times and taking detailed measurements, Peter invited me to choose between two possible speaker positions. The one we preferred was virtually the same distance from the front wall as my Eficions, but thankfully much farther apart. (The Sophia 3s throw a wider and taller soundstage than the Eficions). Once the speakers were wheeled into place, casters were removed, and Wilson’s own custom-made spikes, which the company prefers to after-market supports from a host of other companies, were installed.
All my subsequent listening was accomplished with grilles removed. During set-up, Peter and I experimented with the Bybee Golden Goddess Speaker Bullets and Stein Speaker Matches that I had used on the Eficions. He liked the combination, and thought they enhanced the already fine sound. Both have remained on the Sophia 3s during their stay, with the addition of an inverted Stein Magic Diamond on the top of each speaker.
My room is also treated with a host of Synergistic Research Acoustic ART devices, four Stein Harmonizers, and a number of additional Stein magic Diamonds, all of which have been positioned by Ted Denney and Holger Stein. My cabling set-up, all Nordost Odin save for Synergistic Research Synergistic Research Element Tungsten and Element CTS Digital AC cords and a Synergistic Research Power Cell for my upgraded-by-Demian Martin G & D Transforms transport, is enhanced by the presence of Nordost’s Quantum Qx Power Purifier, QBase Power Distributor, and Qv2 AC Line harmonizers. None of these admittedly pricey refinements is required to enjoy the Sophia 3 in all its glory, but their presence in my particular space greatly enhances bass control, three-dimensionality, transparency, and “truth” of presentation.
In a video on the Wilson website http://wilsonaudio.com/product_soph.shtml, Dave Wilson says that he designed the Sophia 3 to work well with a modest set-up. I’m afraid my system, which also includes Pass Labs XA 200.5 Class A monoblock amplifiers, is not exactly modest. Yet in a system whose amplifiers and cabling cost far more than the loudspeakers, the Sophia 3s did not leave me wanting for anything other than more time to listen.
The Sophia 3 combines the same 7″ cellulose/paper pulp composite midrange driver and 1″ titanium tweeter as found in the more expensive Sasha and MAXX3 with its own 10″ aluminum woofer. The enclosure is composed of Wilson’s proprietary X-material, which is about inert as you can get. Both midrange and tweeter have S-Material baffles. Tweeter compartment is sealed, while both midrange and woofer are ported. As for the sound, please read on…
The Wilson Audio Sophia 3 Speakers In Use
Many audiophiles are familiar with that “kid in a candy shop” sensation when, no matter what your chronological age, you make an equipment change that leaves you as excited as the first time your parents set you loose in a toy store. Thus I found myself heading to my CD collection, playing beloved recording after recording, for hours on end, and discovering sounds, nuances, and details I had never heard before with clarity.
First and foremost, I heard tight bass. Tight, strong, beautifully articulated bass that only got stronger when, shortly before a visit from John Atkinson of Stereophile, I swapped my long-time Theta Gen. VIII, Series 3 DAC/preamp (24/192) for the Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC/preamp with optional Voltikus power supply. With that additional equipment change, not only did I hear far more bass than ever before, but I also noted that highs were smoother and less sharp, and the midrange was more clearly articulated.
With all my former speakers, I became accustomed to bass that was neither tight nor had the same sonic signature as higher-pitched instruments. When playing a demagnetization multi-octave sweep on the Talons, for example, I could literally hear the “bump” as the crossover switched from bass to midrange and tweeter. With the Sophia 3, I can hear no discontinuity between drivers and registers when I play such a sweep.
When John Atkinson was here, one of the recordings we auditioned together, via my Macbook Pro, was the 176.4/24 HRx master file version of Reference Recordings’ Delibes Ballet Suites. The soundstage was huge, the colors brightly illuminated, and the bass thwacks profound. Delibes may not be the deepest composer on the planet, but some of the movements for his scores for Sylvia and Coppélia have a brilliance and visceral thrill that can hold their own against all the RCA Living Stereo blockbusters that I have listened to 1000 times at shows.
What amazed me most about the Sophia 3, and continues to amaze me over five months after the speakers were set up in my living room, is how much more of a recording I can hear than ever before. Especially with high-resolution masters which transmit far more sonic information, air, and dimensionality than redbook CDs, it is essential to control bass in order to hear all the extra information on the recording. The more a speaker booms, the more are inner detail and micro-dynamic information obscured.
Thanks to Wilson’s extremely inert cabinetry and solid internal bracing, bass and midrange information comes through loud and clear. You may encounter control issues in your room, but if you begin to knock on a Wilson cabinet with your knuckles or listen with a stethoscope, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear any cabinet resonances. As opposed to my Talons, the Sophia 3’s speaker cabinets are rock solid.
This solidity on the bottom end, and lack of resonances that affect drivers, also allows highs to sing freely. Listen to a triangle or gong sound on a well recorded, high resolution file, then listen to the same instrument in live performance. You’ll be amazed at how much of the actual sound of instruments the Wilson tweeter reproduces. If you want to check out a redbook CD that will absolutely put these speakers to the test, check out Reference Recordings’ Horns for the Holidays, and listen to how clearly and cleanly the sound of inner winds emerges.
In the last month, I had the opportunity to review Decca’s 24-bit, 48 kHz Blu-ray digital reissue of one of the most important stereo recordings of the 20th century, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, recorded 1958-1964 by Georg Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the finest Wagnerians of the era. Using the NuForce edition of the Oppo BDP-93 as a transport, I marveled at the richness of the cellos and basses, the solidity and weight of images, and a host of subtle details that are obscured in 16-bit sound. I was even able to hear individual members of the violin section. Had any of my former speakers been in use, I know that a lot of the detail and articulation in the lower strings would have been blurred or obscured in entirety by bass boom.
I remember one particular fun evening when we danced with our friend to Blue Cha Cha, a Concord Picante release that highlights the very best of the late Cuban guitar legend Manuel Galbán. The sound was so crisp and alive, the beat so solid. Irene and our dog Daisy Mae Doven had a ball. I even took a photo of Irene holding Daisy as the two of them admired the Sophia 3.
Shortly before I bid the Sophia 3s farewell, I wrote a review of Reference Recordings’ new Christmas disc, Horns for the Holidays. If you want to discover how a superb audiophile recording by a Grammy winning Recording Engineer (Keith O. Johnson) can sound through a good loudspeaker, listen through the Sophia 3.
Yes, you can get far bigger, more realistically scaled imaging and even greater bass response and low-level detail, through a bigger Wilson loudspeaker, as well as behemoths from a number of other companies. But when it comes to relatively small floor-standers with a modest footprint, you’ll be hard pressed to find whose response is as neutral, smooth and controlled from top to bottom as the Sophia 3.
Don’t expect the Sophia 3 make compressed or harsh recordings sound better than they are. It won’t. If your collection is filled with brash hip-hop or the like, and you’re looking at Sophia 3s, either bite the bullet or experiment with electronics and cabling that tend to smooth things over. The Sophia 3 tells it like it is.
Over the years, one often-voiced criticism of Wilson Audio loudspeakers has been that they are technically accurate but somehow lacking in soul or emotion. I can’t speak for the Wilson speakers of five or ten years ago, but I can say with absolute certainly that anyone who applies this criticism to Wilson’s current line of loudspeakers is doing so without listening.
Play music that is designed to touch the heart through a pair of Sophia 3s, and I guarantee that you will be moved. When John Atkinson listened to my recording of soprano Arleen Auger singing Gustav Mahler, and called the sound “magical,” he wasn’t simply massaging my ego. The Sophia 3 is, first a foremost, a musical loudspeaker whose superb engineering enables it convey the emotional truth of whatever music you care to throw at it.
Conclusions about the Wilson Audio Sophia 3 Speakers
The more time I’ve spent with the Sophia 3, the more times a single question has arisen in my mind: Why would anyone with the financial resources to purchase a speaker in the $15,000-$20,000 price range end up settling for a flawed product when the Sophia 3 is such a proven performer? After all, the reason you spend $17,900 on a pair of loudspeakers is because you want the wide frequency response, solid bass control, spatiality, transparency, detail, speed, and tonal refinement that only well-designed loudspeaker constructed with top quality components can deliver. With a full-range frequency response that descends to 20 Hz and ascends to a room average of 22.5 Hz, a design that throws a wide soundstage with lots of depth, drivers and internal parts that convey musical timbres startlingly close to the real thing, and superb control in all registers at both low and high volume, why would anyone with decently powered amplification settle for anything else?