Help me, I have Thiel FEVER!
I'm doing my best to become a full-fledged member of this thread.
This seems the right place to express my thoughts on Thiel speakers, and current predicament. So in the spirit of sharing my Thiel-related audio journey with other enthusiasts, here we go...
I started out just wanting to draw a line from where I started to where I am regarding a Thiel purchase now, and somehow enough detail flowed out about my audio history and musings to turn it into a magazine-article-length post. So, what the hell, I'll post it anyway on the premise that someone will relate to some of it:
My Dad was a jazz musician, music teacher and audiophile. At one point we had the famous Kef 105.2 speakers (looking like the later Ariel 10Ts) and Bob Carver's "Holographic" Magnetic Field amp system. The sound was absolutely stunning in it's clarity, imagining, timbral richness and slam. I still vividly remember the incredible combination of impact and spaciousness EWF's "Written In The Stone's" had on that system, one of our demo records.
So I had the audio bug put in me pretty soon. I was most audio-obsessive in the 90's into the early 2000s, chums with many other audio buffs, audio writers, and doing some on-line reviews of speakers. I'd travel everywhere to hear great systems so I'd heard a great portion of the popular or heralded speaker systems of those times. And I'd have various of my favorites - almost all being floor standing speakers - in my home. (I'm not talking Pipe Dreams and Infinity IRS Beta sized objects - more practically priced and sized speakers for my home and budget).
Like many, I have been fascinated by live vs reproduced sound. I record a lot of sound myself (I work in film post production sound) and in evaluating loudspeakers I'd often play my own recordings of instruments I owned, and my families voices, to see which speakers seemed most accurate (and if the speaker was in my home, I'd directly compare the live voices/instruments to the reproduced versions).
Lots of fun.
Back to the audio-bio: After leaving home, going to school, I had to settle for much cheaper bang-for-the-buck systems where I could find them. I went through various non-descript but very full range kick-ass systems, able to pump out the dance and funk music I loved through that time.
On to Thiel.
In my adult years, my love for audio was actually re-awakened by one one of Thiel's first products, already old in the tooth when I encountered it, the original Thiel O2
, as described on this page:
I'd moved in with my girlfriend (now wife) and these were the speakers her audiophile brother and father had bought for her, in the early 80s. Along with her Harmon Kardon integrated amp, that became "our" music system, and I quickly became beguiled by the sound. What was it I was hearing that grabbed me so much? It was a life-like quality, a sort of clarity and truthfulness that I hadn't heard for so long, even if limited in frequency response. The 02s (at least my wife's) had some lower treble peak, a bit of a hard, pointy raspiness that departed from neutral. But aside from that, the music was astonishingly clear, with amazing separation of instruments and beautiful tone. This was I think one of those "magic of the midrange" eye-opening moments many audiophiles experience, when you realize that there was something more possible in music reproduction than big speakers with eqs set to "smile." I'd learned that lesson earlier in life, but with the Thiel 02's that appreciation for sonic realism and better audio reproduction had been re-awakened.
It took a large leap forward when pal of mine, who was a good year ahead of me on the audiophile journey, had me over to listen to his new Quad ESL-63s electrostatics, with the classic Dynaco ST-70 tube amp. Needless to say, the delicacy, immediacy, detail and accuracy blew my mind. Set a new paradigm for what was possible. I had to throw my hat into the game, and my audio journey was off to a roaring start.
I ended up buying a pair of Quad ESL-63, and smitten by tube amplification, I paired them with a Conrad Johnson MV-55 tube amp. Later I added the Gradient Di-Pole subwoofers, made for the Quads, which made for a seamless match. The sound was so wall-to-wall, so transparent, large, deep and detailed sometimes when I think back on it, I'm not sure I've ever quite repeated the effect in my home.
But, like most audio-nuts, you always leave your first love. What was it that led to my abandoning the Quads? It was the flip-side of that electrostatic transparency and boxlessness. As transparent and detailed as the sound was, I became more sensitive to the weightless quality of the sound. It just didn't push air the way a box speaker did, or as real instruments do. When players dug in and played hard, I could hear it occurring intellectually, but in a detached way, sort of like "watching" music being played in another room through a clear window, but not participating in the event. To this day, I get the same feeling from every electrostatic speaker I hear. Though my favorite electrostatic, the earlier Quad ESL-57s actually suffer less from this than the later ESL-63s to my ear, and I prefer the tone of the ESL-57s. (I find ribbon speakers, like Maggies, are a sort of 1/2 point between the transparency of electrostatics and having more physical body to the sound toward dynamic speakers).
I went on a crazy big speaker search after that, auditioning everything I could find, and ended up replacing the Quads with Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen II speakers. They were full range, did holographic life-sized imaging like the Quad/Gradient set up, but with the physical presence of a dynamic speaker system. I lived happily with the VR-4s for a few years, but...likely to no one's surprise...found the VR-4s still lacking in something. What was it? It was the timbre, the tonal characteristic, of the speaker (or it's reproduction of timbre). Why did I actually enjoy listening to the Thiel 02s, which I still had, more than the VR-4s in some ways? It's because the Thiels had a tone that both seemed beautiful considered on it's own, but also consonant with the organic qualities of real voices and instruments. An acoustic guitar through the Thiels had that golden-sparkly tone to the strings, against a woody-sounding body - that I immediately recognize as "right" given how often I play around with acoustic guitars. The same went for most instruments: trumpets had that golden, brassy glow, saxophones sounded brassy and reedy, flutes organic and breathy, etc.
I've often wondered about the possible role Synesthesia could play in this:
And how, possibly, individuals experience varying degrees. It seems clear from the audiophile literature that there are Synesthesia-like references everywhere, about "golden," "caramel-colored," "silvery" etc descriptors given to the signature of various audio components. So I'm hardly alone. But for me audio systems and real sounds invoke mental impressions often associated with color, and a particularly inviting tone for my ears is the one often associated with Conrad Johnson classic tube amplification, a sort of "golden glow," - or anything that can invoke a sense of "woodiness" to wooden instruments, and an organic fleshiness to voices.
The problem with this, for me at least, is that this sensitivity to "getting the timbre just right" SEVERELY limits the audio systems, speakers in particular, that actually invoke in me the desire to purchase and listen to at home. I will always love to sit in front of any system just to hear the variety of ways sound is reproduced, and enjoy what a system can do. But to make me actually fall in love with the sound, to desire it for my own use, it has to be able to have "that" tone that I search for, that is either consonant with or accurate to the tones real instruments I love invoke in my mind.
Back to the VR-4 speakers, that's what they were missing for me. The "color" of the sound was off. It was a combination of dark/carbon-fibre-like, aurally sprayed with gray and silver as you went up the frequency response. After the VR-4s I heard innumerable "great" or expensive speaker systems produce a similar result: entire orchestras summoned in front of me, with great imaging and detail, but...imposters. Every instrument slightly altered, made out of the "wrong' materials, sort of like instruments synthesized, made out of plastic, compared to the rich timbrel colors of the real instruments.
An important caveat here is that I'm talking about MY OWN perception. It's clear that the perception of "what sounds right" is incredibly variable among listeners. What sounds "timbrally unconvincing or wrong" to me can strike other listeners as "getting it right" and visa versa. (Though, as a side note, I don't suggest the accuracy of a sound system is doomed to pure relativism - I see no reason why experiments can't be done to ascertain which designs are perceived as more accurate or pleasing to a wide array of listeners, and of course such tests have been performed with some interesting results. Anyway...)
Ok, so the VR-4s were out. The next speakers I owned HAD to have that magic "thing" in their timbre that sounded "right" to me.
Backing up, before the VR-4s I'd encountered other Thiel speakers at shows, and demoed some at hi-fi shops, e.g. the 3.6 etc. My first exposure to the Thiels evoked a response similar to first hearing the Quad ESL-63 or 57's. The sound immediately struck me as "truthful." There was something so pure, so organized, so specific about the recordings being reproduced through the Thiels, like it was telling my brain "those other speakers have been lying, THIS is what's actually on the recording
." So something fundamentally accurate seemed conveyed by the Thiels that stood them apart. And part of that was a reproduction of instrumental tone that struck me as getting something correct.
But I had some of the same issues other people found with Thiels. They also sounded a bit too over-damped to me, a bit "too tight," constricted, lacking some body, and somewhat dry. So as much as they got "right" in the sound, they also seemed to undercut some of the things I was also looking for in how real instruments sounded. Hence, I admired them, but couldn't love them.
Some of the speakers that DID seem to have that magic tone ended up in my home for some time, either for review or I had simply purchased a pair. Those included Audio Physic (Virgo, Libra, and later Scorpio). I loved Audio Physic speakers because some of their models had a rare combination of incredible detail and soundstaging, with an organic "woody" tone that sounded pleasing and right to my ears. (The only issue is, in ultimate terms, while I found their timbre very pleasing, it tended to be cast through everything that played through them - less variability in timbre than is possible in certain other systems).
My next "revelation" concerning Thiel occurred at CES 2000 (where I also had nice conversations with Jim Thiel - what a smart, kind guy!). I'd heard the big Thiel CS6
speakers before and admired their typical Thiel qualities, and they had also been featured in more than one room, always hooked to solid state amps. Then I happened upon the VAC (tube amplification) room at CES, and there were the CS6s. I was going to leave the room, but was stopped in my tracks by the sound. It was...gorgeous. In a special way.
I took a seat, listening to classical music (and other selections), and I heard possibly the most beautifully truthful sounding, organic reproduction of instruments I'd yet heard.
What was this? It was...Thiels...with TUBES. I'd always dismissed Thiel speakers as being too hard to drive with the tube amplification I tend to enjoy, but here was my first exposure to that combo. It did everything the Thiels were famous for: density of imaging, precision, dynamics, clarity, but with an added fullness, a more relaxed, organic quality, a more liquid presentation. That was a head-turning moment.
At the same show I also encountered the Hales Transcendence 8 speakers (which I'd heard before in audio stores), producing, along with the Thiels, the most convincing instrumental and vocal timbres I've ever heard. Two different speaker approaches, both using metal drivers, but one designer (Thiel) feeling that first order/ time/phase-coherent designs were necessary for proper reproduction, the other (Hales) feeling the compromises in going for time/phase-coherency actually tended to work against other parameters, deleteriously affecting accurate timbre. And yet BOTH seemed to produce, to my ears, the most accurate depictions of timbre at the show.
I ended up with a pair of the smaller Hales Transcendence 5 speakers for quite a while, powered by my (then newly acquired) more powerful Conrad Johnson Premier 12 140W/side mono-block tube amps - the sound was glorious. A rainbow of pleasing and convincing timbrel colors coming from the Hales. They really were, and I think remain, special speakers in their timbral accuracy combined with incredibly low driver resonance, for a super hash-free and smooth sound. It's for this reason, even after I sold the T-5s, when I designed my home theater system well after the Hales company went under, I sought out left-over Hales monitors and their rare center channel. They give me a very rare combination of super clear, smooth, timbrally convincing sound, but in a relaxed way that I can enjoy even after a long day of doing sound effects for film/TV.
But, you can see it coming...why don't I have the Hales T-5 speakers any more? One reason was that they were too big for my new home theater design, which was taking over my 2 channel listening room.
The other reason I managed to let them go was this: Despite the virtues in timbral beauty I've described, one thing the Hales lacked somewhat was a density to the sound, and texture. They were a dynamic system, able to push tons of air, and yet...there was still a slight, swimmy weightlessness, and rubbing away of the type of texture that, for instance, gives stringed instruments realistic "bite" when played hard. Sometimes, and this is an exaggeration, string sections could sound more like a gorgeous sample of a string section, or synthesized version, a few steps removed from the presence real strings have.
And what was it that made this 'lack' so particularly evident to my ears?
Those damned Thiel 02s! Now as much a curse as a blessing.
I remember playing the crazy raw and percussion-propulsive Enter The Dragon soundtrack on the Hales and then I set up the little Thiel 02s. On the Hales it was spacious, huge and gorgeous. On the Thiels the players came alive, the texture of hands hitting drums was THERE in the room, and the sense of physical objects showing up in the room being whacked fervently was just that much more exciting and convincing.
So it wasn't long after that that I tried the Thiel experiment. I got in a pair of those wonderful, big CS6's - which were really breathtaking in their fit and finish, and over all impression of engineering/design quality. I was hoping to dear goodness that my CJ amps would drive them ok, and get me something like I remembered from the VAC amp combo from CES.
And, it worked! The CJ amps drove the CS6's quite well in terms of power and control, and they added just those type of tube-ampy virtues to the sound I'd been craving - it kept the Thiel virtues, and added some more organic "body" to the sound. What struck me were those Thiel virtues again: the precision, the sense of "truth" to both the recording - "this is how those instruments sounded, in that precise room they were recorded in
that made recordings both more variable and surprising, while simultaneously portraying convincing instrumental tone - the sparkle of a guitar string against the wooden body, the reediness of an oboe etc.
What I loved, LOVED about the Thiels was the way they seemed to focus all the sonic energy for each instrument into dense, palpable, dynamic "images." But I'm not just talking about "imaging" per se, which as I found early on can equate to weightless specters on a stage through many systems. It was the physical presence this gave to instruments through the Thiels. I'm a fanatic for Bernard Herrmann soundtracks, and there's nothing more I love than his spare, ominous use of the lower range of woodwinds and brass instruments. Through the Thiels bassoons, oboes, double-basses, cellos, lower register trombones were rendered as physical presences, solid vibrating columns of air reminiscent of being in front of the real instruments (even if diminished in scope).
And the bass set a new standard in my room. Just like the rest of the spectrum, the Thiel seemed to clean up and organize all that stray bass energy and bloat that sound "warm" through other speakers, and organize it into a dense, physical, focused object energizing the room. It was tremendously satisfying. I was in heaven. A number of friends and audio pals felt it was the best sound I'd ever achieved in the room.
In ultimate terms, I'd experienced more depth to to soundstage in some other systems in my room, and the Thiels still skimped a bit on the body of the sound vs other speakers. They didn't have *quite* the tonal rainbow sound of the Hales speakers, but they were gorgeous enough, especially combined with the CJ amps, to be loved on their own terms.
However, for various reasons - aesthetic, practical, moving on to other things - to my regret I had to let the Thiels go.
Getting into video and home theater has distracted me for quite a number of years, though I've kept my tube amplification and incorporated the ability to use it in my home theater room. The Hales monitors sound wonderful when I hook them up to my 2 channel system.
I've also picked up speakers here and there, for instance another on my top-5 list of speakers - MBL 121 omnidirectional speakers. They produce probably the MOST varied instrumental voices I've heard in my home and I love them. However they don't go very low, and I can't afford the big MBL 101 omnis in this lifetime.
I have hankered here and there for the bigger floor standing speaker experience that I was so used to before.
Recently I perused Audiogon - always a deadly mistake to my bank account - and I noticed some Thiel CS 3.7s for sale, at a price I could actually afford. I realised I'd missed experiencing that last generation of Thiels, did some research, and got very excited at the idea of owning a pair. I had to do some serious deliberating on how I would actually employ floor standing speakers for listening, given I was not going to replace the current Hales system I'm using in that home theater room. The floor-standers could not stay in the room. But I finally figured out a way to get them in and out easily - "Eureka! It will work!" - and hence my Thiel 3.7 fever took hold.
I can't be sure I'd love the new Thiels. My hearing is quite sensitive so I'm not all about playing speakers loudly. But from what I've read, the 2.7s and 3.7s, despite being detailed and revealing, are nonetheless smoother sounding than ever, and they seem to have all the attributes ascribed to them that I've loved about the Thiels - the soundstaging, density, aliveness, tonal purity etc. Hence, I'm HOPING the Thiels would end up as good a mating with my CJ tube amps as the big CS6s were in my room. (My room, btw, is only 13' by 15,' but due to it's shape I think, a bay windowed cove, and a large room opening to the hallway on one side, they've allowed every floor standing speaker to work in that room so far).
It can be difficult to assess whether an amp will work with a speaker, subjectively speaking. That is, via specs you can typically tell when a speaker is particularly demanding for an amplifier, and what type of amp should struggle to feed it. Nonetheless synergistic things happen in this domain, subjectively speaking. For instance, the MBL brand (e.g. my MBL 121 monitors) are well known to be brutal loads, 81 db efficiency. And yet the sound of the MBLS driven by an old Eico HF-81 integrated tube amp, a mere 14W per side, is utterly magical.
More so than with my more powerful CJ amps, or solid state AV receiver, frankly. I don't push my systems very loud, so that helps. And on that note, since I don't turn my systems up very loud, I'm enticed by reports that the Thiel 3.7s are particularly good at retaining their qualities at lower volume levels as well.
Unfortunately, a closer look at the audiogon Thiel 3.7 listing - from overseas, a seller with no feedback etc - lowered my confidence that this was a wise move to make. Totally bummed me out. Like the Thiels slipping through my fingers in a way.
It's killing me because it seems like my timing is terrible: I've become interested in the Thiels again just a couple of months late, right after they were discontinued, all the stock having been dumped and discounted by Thiel and their dealers, everyone snatching them up.
As it happens, it looks like I will have a way to hear the Thiel 3.7s at an owner's place, to at least see if they float my boat and whether to pursue them. Alternatively, I may be able to pick up a pair of 2.7s. I'm sure the 2.7 would be wonderful too, though I'm not sure I can resist "going for the gold" in terms of the ultimate culmination of Jim Thiel's efforts in the 3.7.
Hopefully if like the 3.7s it won't be too long before a reasonably priced pair with a legit seller shows up on the audio market. (Anyone wanna sell a pair of 3.7s?). If I got the 2.7s, which is a possibility, my only real fear is how easy they are to re-sell in the second hand market (like if I afterword found a pair of 3.7s). It seems the 3.7s go pretty fast, I don't know about the 2.7s as there is little data on those.
To anyone who made it this far, thanks, please add any comments, and I hope there are elements to relate to in my post.