the amplifier type at low volume can make a big difference. just to confirm, try the 802 with a relativley powerful arc or other tube amp. the levinson is spectactular but will not shine at low volume.
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I've owned both Sophia 1 and 2 and they need to be driven a little to get going. I wouldn't call them a good low level listening speaker. Kharma is very good a low levels but don't sound good a higher levels. I know what you mean about the 802 really need to be cranked to sound there best.
Avalon and Verity do very well and any volume level. This tells you that the crossover design is very very good.
When I switched preamps to the Conrad Johnson Act 2 the Sophia 1's ability to stay "full and balanced" at low levels became apparent. With my old preamp I had to play at a higher volume for the music to have any life, the CDP, amps and cables remained the same.
Late at nite I play at very low levels and I'm still surprised when the level meters read 8-12!!!
I would say from my experience the Sophia 1 is very good at low levels. (with the right gear ?)
If I recall correctly you need to consider the Munson Fletcher effect hearing effect. At low volume levels bass is attenuated relative to the rest of the range. So a speaker with ideal laboratory response won't sound as good at low volume levels as it would at higher levels. Audience-please correct me if I'm wrong.
As I recall, the Fletcher-Munson curve mapped the sensitivity of the human ear, frequency on the horizontal axis and volume on the vertical. As volume decreases, the ear is less sensitive to the low and high end of frequency plot as volume decreases. The "loudness" circuit on some receivers is designed to compensate for this decreased sensitivity at low volumes, increasing the low bass and high treble. For a time, Yamaha even made some receivers with a "loudness" control that was a rotary knob. The idea was you would turn the volume up as loud as you were likely to listen, and then decrease the volume of sound by turning down the "loudness" control...which changed the equalization to increase the low bass and high treble roughly along the Fletcher-Munson lines as the control was turned.
The performance of a loudspeaker at low volumes has very little to do with the associated amplification, except for the amplifier distortion and noise levels. The Fletcher-Munson loudness curves are far more important. The speaker drivers may or may not produce much sound at low volume, depending on efficiency, moving mass, surround stiffness, etc. For example, an acoustic suspension mounted conventional cone woofer with a rubber surround may be very sluggish at low volume. These factors help explain why compression drivers, field coils, electrostats, plasma drivers, etc. perform more linearly at different volume levels and give much more detail at low levels.
The decline in LF hearing sensitivity as level is reduced is usually portrayed by a set of hearing sensitivity curves published by Fletcher and Munson, of Bell Labs IIRC. Preamps and receivers with a knob or switch labeled "loudness" usually try to implement an inverse of these (or newer) curves. I suppose it's conceivable that the distortion of a tube amp could to some extent give a greater sense of fullness to which Rhljazz alludes, but I wouldn't imagine that would match the loss in sensitivity as level is reduced.
Ever read the white paper on the B&W design principals? They are overdamped, extremely inefficient and engineered for excessive headroom aka loudness. In other words they are meant to play loudly with alot of power and not compress. The irony is that they sound dead and compressed under average to below average listening levels. Live music has energy at any volume level, not just ear slitting levels. I owned a few pair over the years and liked some aspects of their sound but eventualy heard speakers that delivered a more realistic portrayel of music being played in front of me. I recently sold my Sophias but they definately have more life a the lower end of the volume range. Preamp sensitivity and voume range will also play a huge difference in your perception of "aliveness" at any level.
I think it is has more to do with the quality of the amp than the speaker itself. I have the Sophias, previously, I have had Eidolons Vision, and they both sounded good with the correct amp. IMO amps that sound good at low volumes are those that excel at microdynamics. SS amps in general have problems with reproducing microdynamics.
I have found that the amp/speaker interface is more important. We tend to forget that the components and cables we speak of cannot, do not and will not make a sound by themselves. They only work in unison with other components under variable circumstances. Some componets definately have a heavy handed design perspective which will dictate the overall resultant sound heavily, but not completely. In the case of B&W there is a tendency to sound restrained dynamicaly without large amounts of power and current. This is by design as they are born of a studio monitoring heritage...large headroom and low distortion uber alas! SS amps can have tremendous micro and macro dynamics when utilized properly. On the other hand, tube amps can sound lacking in dynamics as well if mated improperly.