Ben Shyman is an AV reviewer based in New York City. His interest in audio/video gear began in the late 1980s when he worked as a salesman for a regional AV retail outlet in northern New Jersey, selling brands such as Adcom, Sony, Bose, Sunfire, Nakamichi, and Pioneer. He published his first review on AVRev.com in 2004. His specialties include bookshelf speakers, audiophile electronics, and high-resolution source components. Ben fully embraces the digital future of music, including streaming audio, and believes in high-end elegance and simplicity in constructing AV systems.
I have always been a movie and music junkie and my 5.1 home theater system rooted in Proceed and Lexicon electronics and amplification, Revel Performa Speakers and a Revel Ultima Sub 30 subwoofer, provided years of immense home theater enjoyment. I recently sold everything, however, save a Pioneer Kuro 60-inch plasma and a lot of cables, because I wanted a simplified system, one which embraced Robert Browning's famous adage, "Less is more."
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Explore subwoofer options in our Subwoofer Review section.
• Find an amplifier to drive the Sophias in our Amplifier Review section.
I enjoy New York City apartment living and it is challenging to find room for, let alone to handsomely wire, a 5.1 speaker system into an 800-square-foot living space. I desired to return to my roots with a two-channel system that established a reference listening experience in my home without all the clutter and excess that 5.1 systems sometimes exert over modest listening areas. When Jerry Del Colliano, friend and publisher of HomeTheaterReview.com, offered me the opportunity to audition Wilson Sophia Series-3s in my home as part of a system-redesign and write this review, I jumped at the chance.
My approach in moving from a 5.1 to a two-channel system was simple: consolidate assets and make them blue-chip. I deliberately spent the vast majority of my budget on speakers. There are many enthusiasts who will sneer at the idea of going speaker-strong, preferring to spend more on electronics and amplification. However, I believe that with recent frequent advances and commoditization of high-end technologies, unless you can afford to spend the super big bucks on electronics with names like Levinson, Bel Canto, Krell or Classé, there are products that capture 95 percent of the listening experience at a fraction of the price. I decided that the Wilson Sophia 3 Speakers ($16,700/pair) would be paired with an Oppo Blu-ray Disc Player BDP-95 ($999), a Benchmark DAC1 HDR preamp ($1,895) and an Aragon 4004 two-channel amplifier. A Verizon FIOS Cable Box and Transparent Cables rounded out the equipment profile of the new two-channel entertainment system.
Wilson Sophia 3 speakers come in four standard colors: Black, Titanium, Desert Silver and Argento Silver. They are hand-painted with WilsonGloss paint and can be produced in any color imaginable. I chose standard Titanium, which is neutral enough to match my décor, yet more distinguished than Standard Black. It has been my observation that Wilson Speakers hold their resale value best in standard colors, so if you choose a custom color, say, metallic lime green, it should be one you love and can live with for the long haul. The finish on the Sophia 3s is gorgeous. Polished to a high gloss, the finish is like that on a luxury automobile, instilling a high pride of ownership from the moment you uncrate the speakers. The Sophias are refined and speak of sophistication. No wood veneer here.
Wilson has made many changes to the new Sophia Series-3 speakers. It would clearly be a mistake to assume they are a mere evolution of the Sophia product line. Wilson has borrowed technologies from other speakers in the Wilson family, mainly the pricier Sasha W/P ($26,900), which qualifies it as an entirely new loudspeaker. According to Wilson, the Sophia 3 has thicker upper and lower enclosures and internal bracings, which contribute to greater cabinet rigidity and lesser resonance and coloration. It is for this reason that older Sophia models are not upgradable to new Sophia 3s. The Sophia 3 also has a new crossover, as well as a new one-inch inverted titanium dome tweeter and seven-inch midrange driver, both of them sourced from technologies used in the MAXX Series 3 and Sasha W/P. Finally, the new 10-inch aluminum woofer has a magnet twice the size of those found in earlier models.
Bucking the conventional approach of having a Wilson dealer set up the Sophia 3s, a service included in their purchase, I decided to embrace the challenge and perform it myself. I have set up many systems before and had the opportunity to watch acoustician Bob Hodas calibrate my previous 5.1 system. Performing the Wilson set-up would allow me to better understand the subtle nuances - for better and worse - of the speakers for this review. Wilson provides detailed step-by-step set-up and voicing instructions (called the Wilson Audio Set-up Procedure or WASP) in their simply-worded Owner's Manual. Clearly, Wilson expects some owners, many of whom acquire speakers second-hand, to perform the set-up procedure themselves, or the company would not have taken care to provide detailed guidelines in their Owner's Manual. Performing WASP is easy and the manual provides a worthwhile education, for those who require it, in how room acoustics and shapes affect sound quality and play a pivotal role in speaker placement and orientation.
The set-up process presents several distinct challenges. First and foremost is taking delivery and uncrating. Each Sophia 3 speaker is a floor-standing, single-body construction and arrives in a 243-pound, large custom wooden crate. This is unlike Wilson Sasha W/P, Sophia's bigger sister, which is constructed in multiple sections and ships in smaller, more manageable wooden crates. Second, Sophia is heavy. Milled of proprietary resin materials - X-Material and S-Material - each speaker weighs 165 pounds. It requires two people to stand each crate upright and roll each speaker on its industrial casters from its wooden tomb. The consequence of a mistake during this process can be drastic, such as damaging the speaker's finish. Suffice to say I needed to contain my excitement and move slow.
After hooking Sophia to my Aragon 4004 amplifier, using Transparent Ultra Speaker Cables, and spending a few minutes establishing a reasonable listening position, I carefully removed the protective film. The speaker break-in period lasted several weeks and I noticed a significant change in sound, which enabled me to put final touches on the speakers' position and orientation to suit my tastes. One of Wilson's goals in designing the Sophia was to make it accommodating to modest associated equipment and a casual listening environment. I found it easy to get the Sophia 3s to image beautifully. Determining optimal placement where the bass was to my liking, however, was more challenging. Providing the rear-ported Sophia 3s room to breathe, away from rear and sidewalls, was critical to obtaining the most ideal listening position. I was now ready to begin the evaluation.
I have been listening to a lot of jazz lately, so what better place to begin than with two widely-known Rudy Van Gelder 24-bit remixes from Blue Note: Lee Morgan, "The Sidewinder" (Blue Note 84157, RVG, 1998) and Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, "Moanin'" (Blue Note 4003, RVG, 1998)?
Read more about the performance of the Wilson Sophia 3 loudspeakers on Page 2.
The title number, "The Sidewinder," is a soul/jazz-era standard, which begins with a long-metered blues rhythm from Bob Cranshaw on bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Barry Harris on piano. Right from the start, Sophia declares itself a highly musical speaker designed to maximize listening enjoyment for both the sophisticated ear and the causal listener. Harris' piano solo, accompanied by Morgan's trumpet and Higgins' tenor sax, had a pleasantry and realism, which were precisely defined through a detailed soundstage. Sophia easily rendered the lowest frequencies of Cranshaw's bass solo with vigor and oomph. Most impressive, however, were Sophia's articulate pronunciation of details evident in fingers moving, pressing and plucking bass strings, which coaxed a tangible sense of enjoyment from the musical performance.
Here is the same "The Sidewinder" track I listened to:
"Moanin'," composed by pianist Bobby Timmons, is the most popular song and title track on Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers' album of the same name. Art Blakey is widely considered a founder of bebop drumming, a musical genre which germinated in the mid-1940s and matured in the 1960s. The 24-bit remaster here provides a definitive view into a jazz album masterpiece led by a percussionist, uncommon by any measure. "Moanin'" begins with a funky blues riff by Timmons and provides the foundation of a classic rhythm section filled out by Jymie Merritt on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Throughout the performance, it was easy to hear air moving through Lee Morgan's trumpet, which provided a sense of realism similar to Cranshaw's bass on "The Sidewinder." Simply put, you can hear the musicians playing their instruments, not just the musical notes emanating from them. One of Sophia's more endearing qualities is its ability to not only make performances sound live, but to feel live as well.
Listening to Art Blakey specifically provided interesting insight into Sophia's character. On one hand, drums were always well-placed in the soundstage, particularly cymbals, which were never harsh or disorderly. On the other hand, despite the CD being a 24-bit remaster, Sophia was capable of defining the limitations in remastering a 1958 recording. In these circumstances, Sophia showed itself as a highly refined speaker, unforgiving of many flaws in the original source.
Here is a version of the "Moanin'" track I listened to:
Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company" (MonsterMusic, 2004) is a reference recording and one of the best-sounding discs in my entire music collection. The limited edition release comes as a two-disc set: one a CD, the other a high-resolution super disc with DTS 96/24 (5.1 channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio) and high-resolution stereo tracks.
I listened to the high-resolution stereo tracks, beginning with the opening duet featuring Ray and Nora Jones singing "Here We Go Again." The Sophia 3s had absolute command of a complicated collage of instruments featuring a vocal duet, three keyed instruments - piano, keyboard and a Hammond B3 organ - as well as guitar, bass and drums. Ray and Nora were placed side by side in the mix and, whether they were singing independently or in harmony, the energy and chemistry between them were remarkable. Female vocals are exceptionally difficult to properly replicate, in my opinion, and the Sophia 3s had Nora sounding as natural and graceful as a songbird, never throaty or constrained. It was easy to hear the detail of every instrument, most notably Nora's piano, Ray's keyboard and the Hammond B3, throughout the song.
Continuing with "Genius Loves Company," I moved to the bluesy, sexy "Fever." Written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and originally recorded by Little Willie John in 1956 and then made famous by Peggy Lee in 1958, "Fever" has been recorded by nearly 40 artists, including Ray's vocal duet with Natalie Cole. I chose "Fever" to get a better sense of Sophia's ability to deliver a more robust female vocal track, compared to "Here We Go Again," and to test Sophia's low-frequency ability on the well-known groovy double bass track which carries the tune. Here again, Sophia did not disappoint. Even at high volume, Natalie Cole's vocals never broke down and the bass was articulate and musical. Sophia delivered Ray's soulful vocals with the gusto and vibrancy that distinguishes him from all other artists.
Here are the exact versions of the Ray Charles tracks I listened to:
"Here We Go Again," with Nora Jones:
"Fever" with Natalie Cole:
Another high-resolution disc in my collection is Peter Gabriel's "So" (Geffen, SACD, 2003). "In Your Eyes" features bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin and a guest vocal appearance by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. The artful arrangement is highlighted by a rich tapestry of vocal and percussion tracks reminiscent of the early days of Art Rock. The liner notes actually indicate six different contributors to vocals alone. The various layering of percussion instruments and my ability to hear them clearly and precisely where producer Daniel Lanois intended is a statement to Sophia's high-quality midrange, upper b
ass enunciation and precise imaging ability. Sophia revealed a subtly-placed talking drum in the left channel, a more prominently-placed bongo drum in the right channel and a series of percussion instruments dead center during the chorus. These were just a few of the well-articulated drum-like goodies that Sophia 3 revealed as I continued my listening. I also took the opportunity to move my listening position to sit almost directly between the speakers. Doing so revealed a three-dimensional quality to the soundstage like no other track that I heard during my evaluation. Gabriel's vocals moved almost directly overhead as I became enveloped in his supporting cast. I always try to have fun and experiment with my listening position, most notably front to back, to see what a speaker is likely to reveal. Usually the ability to envelop a listener in a three-dimensional soundstage to this degree is reserved for highly detailed bookshelf speakers, but on "In Your Eyes," the Sophia 3s increased my enjoyment immeasurably.
Here is an original version of the "In Your Eyes" track I listened to:
I continued my music evaluation, moving into the realm of more high-energy music, choosing Robert Randolph & The Family Band's "Colorblind" album (Warner Bros Records, 2006). "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That" is all about heart-thumping rhythms and a bluesy vibe. I would not describe the Wilson Sophia 3s as possessing the bowel-shaking bottom-end associated with dedicated subwoofers, like the Revel Ultima Sub 30 in my previous multi-channel system, but I would say the Sophia 3s performed more than admirably, especially considering the size of its modest 10-inch aluminum cone woofer. Despite the normal expected roll-off in lower frequencies, you could easily discern bass below 40 Hz emanating from the low B string on Danyel Morgan's five-string bass. As I pushed the volume here, the Sophia 3s never lost their rock-solid grip on Randolph's pedal steel guitar, the background vocals, nor the stomps and claps present throughout the entire arrangement.
Here is the "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That" official video:
I concluded my music listening with a foray into classic rock and my favorite YES album, "Close to the Edge" (Atlantic Records, 1972). "And You and I" embodies the essence of a band that extended the boundaries of music through experimentation with long songs, complex musical arrangements and layered instrument and vocal tracks. I was hoping the Sophia 3s would deliver an intimate and highly musical listening experience with an album that I have cherished since I was a teenager.
Steve Howe's acoustic guitars are masterfully arranged throughout "And You and I." During "Part III: The Preacher the Teacher," the Sophia 3s beautifully rendered his accompaniment to Jon Anderson's vocal track. Chris Squire's signature Rickenbacker bass tone - played with a pick, containing a warm, smooth sound in the lower frequencies and slightly distorted sound in the middle and upper frequencies - could be easily heard during the performance. If you listen to any YES record from the 1970s, you will be rewarded with thoughtfully arranged background vocals and "And You and I" is no different. The Sophia 3s made it possible to hear far into the mix and pick out Howe's and Squire's background accompaniment and signature harmonies with relative ease. The Sophia 3s conveyed "And You and I" with fresh dynamics and space unlike any previous listening experience with other speakers in my home.
Here is a copy of "And You and I" from the "Close to the Edge Album":
When "Casino Royale" was released in 2006 featuring Daniel Craig - the best Bond casting since Roger Moore, in my opinion - the movie became an instant classic. I chose the Collector's Edition Blu-ray version (Columbia Pictures, 2008), hoping the Sophia 3s would be up to handling the heart-racing intensity of this action-packed thriller. I would soon learn if downsizing from a 5.1 system to a two-channel system with blue-chip components, mainly the Wilson Sophia 3s as the ace in my rotation, was a mistake. My theater set-up is configured to have the Oppo BDP-95 output optical stereo to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, which handles digital-to-analog conversion duties.
Chapter 7, where James Bond chases a terrorist targeting the destruction of the Skyfleet prototype jumbo jet, contains enough dynamics to bring many 5.1 home theater systems to their knees. In this case, a single pair of Sophia 3s would be solely responsible for delivering all the dialogue, music, gunshots, explosions and effects that would normally be handled by six separate speakers, including a dedicated subwoofer. I was elated with how the score accompanied the crisp, beautiful Blu-ray picture on the Kuro 60-inch plasma. The Sophia 3s delivered audio with delectable transparency and, whether it was screeching tires, the rumble of the vehicle engines, gunshots or dialogue, I was in two-channel movie nirvana. The soundstage was wide; bass was tight, deep and intense; dialogue was never muddy or inaudible; the overall performance was dynamic and realistic, containing the energy and subtle nuances one should expect from the Wilsons. I am not suggesting that the Sophia 3s would not benefit from the addition of a matched center channel - the Wilson Mezzo - or a dedicated subwoofer, but for the added investment in speakers, cables and amplification, as well as giving full consideration to my living arrangement, the Sophia 3s handled the job beyond my expectations and met the theatrical challenge head-on.
The most noticeable drawback of the Wilson Sophia 3s is efficiency. At 87 dB, Sophia is the least efficient speaker currently produced by Wilson. All other Wilson offerings rate between 91
dB and 95 dB. With this Sophia release, gone is the opportunity to get by with a modest amplifier. This means, comparatively speaking, that compared to other Wilson products or previous releases, such as the Watt Puppy Version 5, which is 94 dB efficient, the cost of ownership for Sophia 3 is high. The Sophia 3s require a modest to high-power solid-state amplifier. If you are a tube fan, you are going to have a rough run of it if you like to make it loud in your room.
Another downside of the Sophia 3 is the glaring omission of a beryllium tweeter. Wilson continues to use titanium tweeters, a 15-year old technology bought from Focal. Beryllium tweeters measure up better in bench tests and represent the most modern technology on the market today. Personally, I fall squarely in the camp of believing that a speaker should be judged by its overall sound, but to many buyers, and especially technophiles, this is a glaring downside, because when you spend nearly $17,000 on speakers, you expect the latest and greatest.
Comparison and Competition
If you are in the market for Wilson Sophia 3s, there are alternative speakers that should merit your full consideration. The most obvious speaker that comes to mind is Revel Ultima Studio2. Other comparisons include the Paradigm Reference S8, the B&W 802 or the Snell Acoustic Phantom. The Paradigm Reference S8s, owned by HomeTheaterReview.com's Del Colliano, are half the price of Sophia 3s and are far more efficient, perhaps leaving room in your budget for a state-of-the-art subwoofer or a higher-quality amp.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the past few months with the Wilson Sophia 3s - enough to say that I now proudly own them. This is the biggest compliment that any reviewer can bestow on a product. The listening sweet spot for me resides slightly closer to musical than technically detailed or precise. This is the personality of Sophia. These speakers are easy to enjoy and deserving of the high accolades and cult-like following they maintain, albeit at a steep price. There are definitely better values out there. However, when you spend this kind of coin on speakers, the word value is less paramount to the discussion than absolute performance, unless you believe Sophia 3s represent a better "value" than, for example, Sasha W/Ps, or are a lesser value than, say, Paradigm S8s.
I believe the Sophia 3s have increased my listening enjoyment immeasurably. They bring me closer to what the artist and producer intended me to hear and feel. This is high on the list of qualities for a loudspeaker I want in my home. The Sophia 3s sound beautiful and possess a fit and finish that is second to none. So bring your favorite CD to your local Wilson dealer and give the Sophia 3s a listen - both you and she deserve it.
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• Explore subwoofer options in our Subwoofer Review section.
• Find an amplifier to drive the Sophias in our Amplifier Review section.