Conventional beginnings
I wasn't expecting an epiphany -- who is? -- and thus went about my reviewing the usual way. I began by choosing the Wilson Sophia for the bulk of my critical listening. The Wilson is more full-range, resolving and dynamic than the Bella Luna if less fun. I was keen to learn as much as I could about the Sinhonia and the Sophia seemed more suitable for the task. Wilson touts the idea that you can drive the Sophia with any number of inexpensive integrateds and there is no doubt that you can make music doing so - some of it satisfying. These folks know how to market their product, and I, for one, admire them for it. By reducing your initial amplifier and front-end investments, their aim is to get you into a Wilson-based system at a reasonable price.

The conventional way of approaching the relationship between an amplifier and a speaker is to ask whether the amplifier is a good match for the speaker; and an answer to that question usually involves determining whether the amplifier can drive the speaker. I didn't end up adopting the conventional view but I began that way. And so the first order of business was to determine whether the Sinhonias were up to the task.

The Sophia is a well-balanced speaker. While it does not plumb the depths as the System 7 does and is a less dynamic design overall, it is nevertheless a very dynamic loudspeaker capable of producing substantial bass. And with its challenging impedance curve and nominal 4 ohm load, it is not the sort of speaker that represents an optimal match for your typical 40-watt tube amp. But then again, the Sinhonia is no typical tube amp.

It was immediately apparent that the Sinhonia is fully extended in the bass. There was no softening or loss of control in the bottom octaves, and bass was rendered with speed, proper pitch and a weighty authority that was both palpable and honest to the recording. The string and body of Anthony Ross' cello on George Lloyd's brilliant and beautifully performed Cello Concerto [Troy 458 with the Albany Symphony Orchestra] were reproduced with a transient attack and weight that contributed to the haunting beauty of the piece.

When called for, the Sinhonia delivered the macro dynamics that Wilson loudspeakers are known for. This was apparent on everything from "Buena" on Morphine's knockout Cure for Pain [Ryodisk 1026] to the ripping live rendition of "Third Avenue" on Clifford Jordan Big Band', Play What You Feel [Mapleshade 03232]. Alan Hovhaness' majestic and powerful "Symphony No. 50 - Mount St. Helens - Opus 360" which appears on his Symphony No.22 and 50 [Delos 3137] is an awesome full-scale orchestral onslaught that the Sinhonia/ Wilson combination portrayed with a visceral impact that shook the walls of my listening room and unsettled the furnishings.

At the same time, the Sinhonias' way with dynamics meant as much to the midrange presentation as to the midbass. This was evidenced by their ability to readily convey the dynamic swings, twists and turns of Brad Meldhau's piano on his trio's 2001 release, Art of the Trio: Volume 5: Progression [Warner Bros. 48005]. Where necessary and appropriate, macro and micro dynamics both were displayed with power and finesse. Even more importantly, the Sinhonia exhibited the same dynamic coherence and consistency throughout the frequency range that I had previously detected in the Monbrison preamplifier - indeed, a dynamic coherence that appears to be a signature feature of all the Shindo electronics with which I have had experience thus far.

But then again, it was not the dynamics of the Sinhonia that caught my attention; it was its resolution and refinement. Ultimately, it was the Sinhonia's way with music -- better, its ability to get out of music's way -- that won my attention and affection. I was unprepared for just how much out of the way a properly constructed audio system needs to and can be. Beyond natural and consistent dynamics throughout the frequency range, the key to a component's ability to disappear from the chain depends on its resolution, refinement and transparency - and all this to an extent I had not previously realized.

Resolution & musicality
Audiophiles are often divided into two groups: Those who prefer an analytic sound and those who prefer a musical one. An analytic sound comes across a hard, cold, hyper-detailed. The prevailing view is that those who prefer an analytic presentation value detail for its own sake. For these "lost souls", the outstanding virtue of an audio playback system is its capacity to resolve details. In contrast, a musical sound is said to be easy on the ears, relaxed, warm, robust, rich and comforting.

One of my closest audiophile friends insists on this distinction. He has often been overheard recounting with all due sincerity his history as a well-heeled audiophile. In the '80s, he'd pursued the path of detail & resolution, but sometime in the '90s he came to his senses, found his way and has been pursuing a path of musicality over high resolution ever since. He is just one of the many who have come to think of those who prefer a ""musical" sound as music lovers. It leaves others who are drawn to high resolution systems as misguided souls.
Click on image to learn more about the origins of the famous Ying Yang symbol

According to this world view, they'd rather analyze than enjoy the music and hence must be written off as folks who have sadly lost or missed the point of an audio playback system. I don't buy it. However familiar and seductive the alleged distinction between musicality and high resolution may be -- and however often perfectly intelligent and well-meaning audiophiles insist upon it -- the distinction is not merely without content or merit, its persistence is both misleading and dangerous.

The resolution of detail is one thing; the tonality of presentation another. A highly resolving system can be rich, full- bodied, fully developed, warm and relaxed. Indeed, audio reproduction must be both highly resolving and tonally correct if it is to be musical. In my view, the inability of a component to resolve fine detail is the single greatest limiting factor of its ability to play music. There simply is no music without high resolution.

Notes have a leading edge, a body and a natural decay. While notes do make up music, they cannot be interpreted as such if they are inadequately resolved. If the leading edge is inadequately resolved, it appears as blunted or rounded and musical dynamics suffer accordingly - there is no sense of transient attack. If the body of a note is inadequately resolved -- if its harmonic structure is not fleshed out or unraveled -- the sound comes across as either fat, undifferentiated, syrupy and oversaturated or as harmonically bleached and thin.

There are many more ways of getting this wrong than right. This is not to gainsay that some ways of failing are more desirable and easier on the ears than others. Of course there are more or less satisfying ways of falling short of an ideal. Most of us probably prefer a warm and sweet sound to a thin and edgy one. But at the end of the day, the ear identifies all shortcomings as failings, the mind grows unwilling to accept them and the heart refuses to embrace them.