Mark Henninger takes a critical listen to Thiel's new tower speakers, first introduced at CES 2015.
Audiophiles know the Thiel brand thanks to the instantly recognizable designs of the company's late founder, Jim Thiel. Over the company's nearly four decades of operation, it has earned a loyal following pursuing designs that use a coaxial/coincident driver and a first-order crossover.
If you follow the brand, you know that Thiel underwent major changes recently. It emerged from a revitalization effort with a new line of speakers, the Third Avenue Collection. At CES 2015, the company unveiled the TT1, a $6000/pair, 3-way tower that represents a fairly radical departure from the company's past products.
I dove into this TT1 review with fresh ears and no preconceived notions of how a Thiel speaker should sound or perform. I have no nostalgia for the company's legacy speaker designs, which I've heard only a few times at high-end audio shows.
The TT1 eschews two defining features of its prior speaker designs, namely the use of a first-order crossover and a time-aligned driver layout. Thiel's stated design goals for the TT1 are: achieve flat on-axis frequency response, assure a uniform response within the listening window, minimize distortion (intermodulation and harmonic), achieve a good balance between efficiency and bass extension, and keep the output linear—even at high volume levels. Let's see if it achieved these goals.
The TT1 employs a 1" custom SEAS titanium-dome tweeter paired with a Scanspeak 4.25" fiberglass midrange. Twin Scanspeak 6.5" aluminum woofers handle bass duties. Thiel rates power handling at 2-250 watts, and nominal impedance at 8 ohms.
The titanium dome is mounted in a CNC-machined aluminum trim ring that acts as a waveguide. It's very shallow, and there's no horn loading involved; the purpose of the waveguide is to reduce in-room reflections and in this way reduce image smearing.
The tweeter and midrange are mounted in CNC-machined aluminium trim that acts as a waveguide.
Notably, the tweeter does not use a first-order crossover. Consequently, it can handle quite a bit of power without fear that midrange frequencies will overtax it.
After extensive computer modeling and prototype testing, Thiel chose fiberglass for the cone of its Scanspeak 4.25" midrange driver. According to the company, simulations and measurements showed that aluminum cones used as a midrange suffer from cone breakup, resulting in intermodulation distortion at higher amplitudes.
The two 6.5" Scanspeak woofers use aluminum cones. Each woofer resides in a discrete rear-vented chamber and features a motor customized specifically for the TT1.
Here's a close-up view of one of the rear venting ports on the TT1.
A complex, customized crossover is at the heart of the new speaker's design. According to Thiel, the passive crossover offers a blend of multi-order filters, equalization, and impedance compensation. The result is a smooth blending of the drivers to produce a flat frequency response.
The cabinet is curvaceous and attractive as a function of its design. Eliminating diffraction and resonance is the name of the game, and to that end, the enclosure avoids parallel surfaces to reduce internal standing waves. Furthermore, the curved exterior helps mitigate baffle edge-diffraction artifacts.
The TT1 cabinet features generous internal bracing. An informal knuckle-rap test reveals that its enclosure is substantially more inert than many other less-expensive tower-speaker cabinets. I happen to have a number of speakers in the $1000-2000/pair price range on-hand, and the difference between the Thiel and the less-expensive speakers is like knocking on a marble countertop versus a wooden door.
Each TT1 supports bi-amplification, although the manual notes that a single amplifier of sufficient power and quality works just as well as bi-amping. The binding posts are finely machined and easily accessible.
The Thiel TT1's easily-accessible binding posts support bi-amplification.
An aluminum grill attaches to the TT1's front baffle with neodymium magnets. The low-profile grill uses a hexagonal perforation pattern that the company says is acoustically inaudible.
Depending on your floor type, you can choose between spikes, spikes with pucks, and rubber feet.
The pair of TT1s I reviewed came in Piano Gloss Black. The finish was impeccable and complimented the modern, minimalist, sculpted TT1 cabinet.
The TT1 towers arrived in mint condition, each in its own double-boxed package. Inside the boxes, I found the speakers wrapped in velvet bags. It's a decidedly fancy presentation, but the bags do protect the speakers' mirror-like glossy finish.
The only required assembly involved installing the rubber feet or spikes. I opted for the rubber feet since I place speakers on a hardwood floor. Screwing in the feet took but a minute.
A box contains the manual as well as white gloves (how fancy), rubber feet, spikes, and spike pucks. I installed rubber feet, seen here are the spikes and pucks.
I placed the towers four feet from the back wall and two feet from the side walls, in a classic equilateral-triangle configuration. I wired them to my reference amp, a Crestron Procise
ProAmp 7x250. A Procise PSPHD pre/pro handled digital decoding and bass management. My primary audio source was a PC running Tidal lossless streaming and iTunes.
I tested the TT1s with and without subwoofers. When running a 2.2 system, I used a pair of JL Audio e112 subwoofers. Each sub was located between the speaker and the side wall. I configured the Crestron PSPHD to use a 50 Hz crossover and ran the subs in stereo mode.
I paired the TT1s with twin JL Audio E-sub e112s for true 2.2-channel playback.
I decided not to use EQ with the TT1s. My studio is not acoustically perfect—no room is—but it does not require the use of EQ, either. If a speaker's response is relatively flat, it will sound balanced.
The Thiel TT1 towers' sound is smooth yet highly detailed, and they maintain those qualities as the volume goes up. Indeed, I noticed an absence of dynamic compression and distortion—the TT1s get out of the way, leaving you with nothing but music.
Quick near-field measurements confirmed that the TT1 offers excellent performance. When it comes to treble, my UMIK-1
is rated at 20-20,000 Hz (+/- 1 dB), it recorded flat output past 20,000 Hz.
I measured the frequency-response linearity of several less-expensive speakers; the TT1 outperformed them handily. Although I do not have an ideal space for making measurements, the superior linearity of the TT1 was self-evident.
Even though my room is not the ideal place to perform measurements, you can see the TT1 is flatter and more linear than a (well regarded) $1500/pair speaker.
Thanks to room gain, the TT1 easily met its bass-response spec of 39 Hz and exceeded the rated low-frequency limit of 27 Hz (-10 dB). In fact, I found the TT1's bass output was more than usable down to 25 Hz or so. Below that frequency, I could start to hear a bit of distortion creep in when playing a sine wave. From 25 Hz on up, output was clean, even when pushing the drivers hard. Furthermore, the TT1's mid- and upper-bass response was tight, impactful, and linear.
I'm a big fan of using subwoofers to augment the bass response of most speakers. For my listening sessions, I paired the TT1s with twin JL Audio e112 subs using a 50 Hz crossover. The subs and speakers blended perfectly, creating a sublime full-range 2.2-channel system. Once relieved of deep-bass duties, the TT1 is ready and willing to test the limits of your amplification—without worrying about overdriving its twin woofers.
Treble-wise, I typically enjoy the qualities of horn-loaded compression driver tweeters and AMT (air-motion transformer) ribbon tweeters. Nevertheless, the TT1 showed how smooth and detailed a well-designed dome can be—it is resolute yet offers no hint of graininess or sibilance. The tweeter maintains its composure at any sane volume level, and it—along with the TT1's midrange—managed to tease an extra bit of nuance out of many of my favorite recordings.
While audiophiles tend to gravitate to jazz and classical music, my taste in tunes tilts toward dub, hip-hop, electronic, rock, pop, and other genres that typically don't appear on audiophile-show playlists. Indeed, here on AVS, I've received more requests to include death metal in my review-music queue than jazz, classical, and opera combined.
I'm not going to change my listening habits just because a speaker costs a lot, so I delved right into the TT1 listening sessions with some of my favorite hip-hop tracks. It's important to note that a lot of the music I listen to contains bass that dips below what the TT1s can handle.
The Roots always sound excellent, thanks in part to the fact that their music comes from real instruments instead of a DJ. The potent combo of "Double Trouble" and "Act Two (The Love of My Life)" from Things Fall Apart are among my favorite Roots tracks, and the TT1s helped me find new appreciation for Questlove's drumming. And Black Thought's lyrics came through with perfect clarity.
I listened to the tracks twice, once in 2.0 mode and again in 2.2 mode. Adding the twin subs made a significant difference. To the TT1s' credit, the 2.0 presentation was very satisfying—you don't need a sub to enjoy them. However, with the inclusion of subs, the system truly shined.
Nas sounded better than ever on "NY State of Mind" from the 20th-anniversary edition of Illmatic. It's a recording that often sounds sibilant on cheaper speakers, but the TT1s acted as neutral arbiters, doling out precisely the right amount of sizzle. It helps that the Thiels measure as flat as they do; you can trust in the verisimilitude of a TT1's output because it performs a lot like a high-end studio monitor.
Squarepusher's brand-new album, Damogen Furies, tested the TT1's capacity to handle highly textured IDM-flavored drum-and-bass. In what became a familiar theme, the Thiels handled the album with a gratifying combination of precision and smoothness. I quickly forgot that I was not listening to a surround-sound system because the mix evoked 3D space. That illusion—of image depth as well as width—is a crucial trait of every great-sounding speaker I've auditioned.
The synthesizer wash that opens "Exjag Nives," the fifth track on Damogen Furies, lead straight into a buzzy, glitchy drum-and-bass anthem that invites critical listening. The reward? A greater appreciation of how resolute stereo systems have become these days. At 50 seconds into the track, the glitch dubstep kicks in and forces the TT1s to get gritty. It takes a stout speaker to handle the track's cacophonous complexity, and once again the TT1s delivered. However, there was no question that the subs helped complete the experience—listening in 2.2 was a fair bit more gratifying than 2.0.
I've long marveled at the production value of Coil's album, Love's Secret Domain. "Further Back and Faster" uses phase-shifting trickery to project sounds throughout the listening space, and even beyond the walls. Coil used very little dynamic compression in its tracks, so you have to turn up the volume to experience the full impact of the recording.
The reward for attentively listening to Coil is hearing through all the layers of the composition. "Further Back and Faster" is a track I've played countless times—on every single speaker system I've ever owned or reviewed. I rely on deep familiarity with content when performing a subjective performance analysis of a speaker system, and in my opinion, the TT1s pass the Coil test.
Death-metal fans may be disappointed to hear that I am not going to add that genre to my collection. However, I do have a few industrial albums, and Skinny Puppy's Last Rights contains a lot of intense passages. "Knowhere" combines beastly drums, epic organ, and nearly indecipherable screaming/singing to achieve a decidedly gothic effect. Lesser speakers choke on the complexity of the mix, but the TT1s dug right through the mess, revealing hidden textures within.
"Rivers End" is the seventh track on Last Rights, and it is my favorite. It's an instrumental track with an attitude, and it puts the grand in grandiosity! The only catch is that Skinny Puppy's tracks feature bass that demands the power and bass extension of high-quality subwoofers, and the 2.2 renditions had more impact than playing them in 2.0.
On the smoother side of the music spectrum, I enjoyed DJ Krush's "Kuon/Far and Away" for its crisp and funky jazz vibe. At it's best, DJ Krush's music sounds effervescent, and the TT1's transparency highlighted that quality. It was the audio equivalent of expensive champagne.
A musician friend of mine stopped by during a listening session and convinced me to audition some audiophile-friendly music on the new Thiel towers. He suggested "Here and Heaven" from The Goat Rodeo Sessions, featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Aoife O'Donovan on vocals. While it's not necessarily my style of music, I appreciate the way the TT1s handled the female vocals as well as the banjo.
"Here and Heaven" sounded fantastic; there was no sense that the speakers were re-interpreting the recording. Yo-Yo Ma provided the bass with his cello, and the overall effect was akin to being at a live concert. Notably, there was little difference between listening in 2.0 and 2.2 mode since the instruments used in the recording do not dip below the TT1's rated bass response.
The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" is a timeless track with a fascinating stereo mix that veers into the realm of the strange after the two-minute mark. A good system will make the most of the phase-shifted soundfield and the thick montage of high-pitched sounds and voice samples that close out the track. I found the TT1 rendition to be very revealing without sounding at all harsh. There's no need for a sub when listening to the Beatles; the TT1s do quite well on their own.
"Come Together" from Abbey Road provided another opportunity for the TT1s to strut their stuff without a sub. When I play the track through a great pair of speakers, the illusion of having the Beatles playing in your living room is the prize—all you have to do is turn up the volume.
I listened to a lot more music through the TT1 towers than what I've discussed in this review. Not once did I find the TT1 speakers unable to provide a deeply satisfying rendition of whatever track I threw at them. These are great speakers, and I want to get as much out of them as I can during the relatively brief time I have a pair to play.
The TT1 is a thoroughly modern speaker—no surprise given its CES 2015 debut. Thiel's approach to speaker design is meticulous, and the result is measurably and audibly superior performance.
I expect existing fans of the Thiel brand will look at these speakers with skepticism. Thiel acknowledges it is veering into the luxury segment of the audio market, and away from catering to pure audiophile sensibilities. In addition, the Third Avenue Collection includes a center-channel speaker, the TC1. If you combine a pair or two of Thiel's TM3 bookshelf with some TT1s and the TC1 center, you have a full-fledged surround system—audiophile heresy in its purest form!
If you plant yourself in the sweet spot and listen carefully, the TT1s will deliver a high-end 2-channel experience. If you have some friends over and start a party, you can simply turn the TT1s up and rock the house without worrying about frying a tweeter when playing some dubstep. Furthermore, the aesthetics of the TT1s are very decor-friendly, despite the fact that form followed function. The TT1's sexy curves help it stand out from the boxy tower-speaker crowd, both visually and aurally.
I'm going to hold on to the TT1s for a few more weeks. Thiel offered to send me a pair of the CS1.7 towers that the TT1 replaces, and I'm seriously considering taking the company up on the offer. Please leave a note in the comments if you are interested in reading about a direct comparison between old-school and new-school Thiels. If there's enough interest, I'll set the wheels in motion to make it happen.
The ultimate question is whether the TT1s are worth $6000/pair. With so many great speakers available at a fraction of the price, it's hard to answer. However, I found the TT1s level of refinement seductive—they outperform most speakers I've heard, regardless of price. I found them to be a reference-quality speaker system.
On their own, the TT1s are impressive—albeit not full-range. They are a manageable size and look fantastic, but adding twin subs that reach below 20 Hz—such as the JL e112s—elevates the whole system's performance to a rarefied territory often occupied by speakers that cost as much as luxury cars or even a house! When you consider the refined full-range performance achieved by adding a pair of good subs to the TT1s, they suddenly look and sound like a (relative) bargain when compared to audiophile-oriented full-range passive speaker systems. If the TT1s fit into your budget, they are sure to please a wide variety of audio enthusiasts as well as casual listeners.
DIY PC (Windows 8) running Tidal and iTunes
Amplification and Processing
Crestron Procise PSPHD pre/pro
Crestron Procise ProAmp 7x250
Monoprice 12-gauge OFC speaker cables
Mediabridge Ultra Series subwoofer cable
Mediabridge Ultra Series HDMI cable
Two JL Audio e112 12" subwoofers