New (High-Order) Blood at Thiel

When I interviewed Thiel’s new owner Bill Thomas (right in photo) at the 2013 CES, he was bullish about the company’s future. However, I felt that future was going to be dependent on whom Bill hired to head up the Kentucky company’s engineering team. At the 2014 CES, Bill introduced me to that person, Mark Mason (left), who had come to Thiel from PSB, where he had worked alongside veteran speaker engineer Paul Barton. Bill and Mark are flanking the new TT3 speaker, which is intended to replace the CS3.7 as the company’s flagship when it comes to market in the late summer. Bill feels that with Mark now leading the engineering, Thiel can be taken to a larger customer base.

The TT3 was on passive display at CES, but a system was set up to show off the other new design for Mark, the TM3 (above), which is expected to sell for $2999/pair when it reaches the market in the summer. The two-way design combines a proprietary 6.5" woofer using a cast basket with a 1" tweeter and sounded larger, with more extended lows than you would expect from its size, Muddy Waters’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” also sounded palpably real. (The system included a dCS Puccini DAC, Dan D’Agostino amplification, and Tributaries cabling.)

I asked about the crossover, as the late Jim Thiel had been a strong proponent of first-order filters. Mark explained that without taking away from what Jim had achieved, he believed that while it is possible to achieve a flat, time-coincident on-axis response from a multiway design with first-order filters, this can involve compromises in the three-dimensional radiation pattern if the drive-units are not coincident. And as Floyd Toole has demonstrated, the time coherence of the first-arrival sound does not compensate, subjectively, for the problematic off-axis behavior. Although Mark believes Toole is correct, he performed extensive listening tests with prototypes of the TM3 before settling on the high-order crossover that was ultimately used.

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COMMENTS
Regadude's picture

Apologies for being so blunt! But, yes, Thiel, the man, the creator, the artist is dead. Unfortunately, these generic "me to" speakers will follow the same route.

These new speakers are not Thiel. They wear the name, but only bring shame to it. This new designer from PSB is a generic engineer who only knows how to make/copy proven, but not innovative designs. A cookie cutter designer if there ever was one! 

PSB is the same company as NAD! Would anyone want NAD to design the next Krell, Dan Dagostino, or Nagra amp? 

It is time someone called out these suit and tie businessmen...

John Atkinson's picture

Regadude wrote:
PSB is the same company as NAD!

They share North American distribution. They are discrete companies.

Regadude wrote:
Would anyone want NAD to design the next Krell, Dan Dagostino, or Nagra amp?

NAD has heavy-duty engineering talent. That the company chooses to address that talent toward the affordable end of the market should be appaluded, not sneered at.

Regadude wrote:
It is time someone called out these suit and tie businessmen...

For what? For keeping the company alive? For looking for and hiring a qualified speaker engineer? For continuing to give employment to Thiel's staff? I understand your sadness over Jim Thiel's passing; I also had a huge respect for Jim. But you are firing from the hip.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

DaveinSM's picture

John, 

I understand what you are saying about the practical concerns of the new Thiel ownership.  I don't think anybody realized how dire things were financially at Thiel before the buyout.  The latest Thiel models sure did seem to face an uphill battle in terms of their high cost in relative terms to objective things like driver complement/size/specs, etc.  I am sure that newer designs like the 3.7, 2.7 and 1.7 had limited appeal to anybody besides audiophiles who value those coherence aspects.  Let's face it: most wives wouldn't like the looks of the CS3.7 no matter what the cost.

But we can only imagine that Jim Thiel was very passionate about the basic tenets of his design (phase/time coherence), and though I'm sure he would've wanted Thiel Audio to survive as part of his legacy, I have my doubts about how pleased he would be about their throwing out his basic design principles-- on which he built the company-- completely just to 'survive'.

Up front: I am running a pair of CS3.6s that I love, and so I am probably biased.  I've also had CS 2 2s and a pair of Vandy 1Cs in an office system.  To me, all of them sound noticeably better than the speaker designs that they replaced.

caudiofile's picture

I have to agree with regadude at least on one point that Thiel is dead. The guy spent his entire life mastering and working on making that design with ugly large box speaker, strange taper and angles to get the best possible sound. When he died company could no longer sustain and appears that family sold it to retire and let go of the business. These new guys with some having no background at all in high end audio are businessmen. The have crafted this beautiful looking white speaker that would have very high wife acceptance, decor and physcial attraction but what about the sound? changing the drivers, their locations, the speakers shape, angles, etc. would no doubt change the sound. And this replacement will replace the final statement product of Jim's CS3.7...and Im guessing for the purpose of new sales and business. What it sounds like is remain to be seen. But such a dramatic change in design has to change the sound don't you think? Whats shocking is how the looks and repackaging in new cases and colors have infiltrated high end audio. So rapidly new boxes and colors keep coming. and the prices are going into the stratosphere. Being an audiophile for 20+ years I have officially been kicked out of this hobby due to the pricing. But music will remain the main focal point for many of us. I know that I am also guessing on the design etc. but J.A. why defend these guys until you have a review sample to evaluate or compare to Jims classic?

John Atkinson's picture

caudiofile wrote:
When he died company could no longer sustain and appears that family sold it to retire and let go of the business.

That is not really correct. After Jim passed, the Thiel company was now in the sole ownership of his long-term business partner Kathy Gornik. (See my interview of Jim, with Kathy, at www.stereophile.com/interviews/221/index.html and Steve Guttenberg's interview at www.stereophile.com/content/sisters-sound-kathy-gornik.) After 18 months or so of dealing with an increasing depressed market, coupled with delays in bringing new models to market, and experimenting with using outside consultants for system design, Kathy was faced with having to raise capital in order for the company to survive.

Bill Thomas stepped up - see my interview at www.stereophile.com/content/exciting-says-thiels-new-ceo-bill-thomas - and from what I understand, the relationship between Bill and Kathy was not sustainable.

caudiofile wrote:
J.A. why defend these guys until you have a review sample to evaluate or compare to Jims classic?

I am not defending the new Thiel company, I am reporting what they have done and will be doing. Yes, the true test of their activities will come when we review one of the new models.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tmsorosk's picture

I think we are reading to much into the look of the speaker and the agenda of the new owner , should we not be more concerned with the sound of these units and whether or not it's an improvement over the old design ?

caudiofile's picture

My issue is not just the look of the speaker. What it looks like is a complete re-design. A much more esthetic look. In terms of sound, it makes sense that making such significant changes to the final design most likely will change the sound of the original CS 3.7. Again it remains to be seen until its released and heard. In terms of business, the audio industry has made it very clear that they have taken the esthetic route and their target customers are not the 98% anymore. Their customers are the 2%. And these customers want something new and different every 1 or 2 years. The competition is fierce. I have been following this for 20+ years. even if you include inflation or cost of living the asking prices of 90% of these "New" audio products is a sad reflection of where this is going. Making something new/attractive/different very frequently has a lot to do with the current market and target audience. These guys are businessmen thats why they are in it.  

corrective_unconscious's picture

Maybe they sound great and are great values, and maybe Thiel the company had no choice, but they have clearly dropped at least three clearly identifiable unique-ish aspects of Jim Thiel's designs: The coaxial units, the time and phase alignment efforts, the pie plate drivers.

agrave02's picture

Well, I think that the Thiel design philosophy was their niche, being time and phase aligned and doubly so because it was something you could physically see because of the step design. When you have that much of the company identity wrapped up in a design, it can be very difficult to change. Exponentially so when the one leading the charge for that design is no longer with the company. 

It would be like Magnepan suddenly doing only box designs. Well, maybe not to that extreme, but something akin.

But it's an interesting crossroads for Theil and one I have been curious over how they would handle. Do they continue in that design philosophy and be ridiculed for being bereft of new ideas and milking the last few design concepts left by Jim Thiel?

Or come up with something completely different, something new and part of a new direction to make a break from the past, but be ridiculed as being disrespectful towards the design concepts that Thiel championed and to the memory of Jim Thiel.

A tough choice all around.

Just my 2 cents.

corrective_unconscious's picture

That's just it: There's nothing remotely new or different from what I know so far about these new Thiels...except only in that they discard about everything we associated with Thiel.

Timnlex's picture

Jim Thiel would work for months or even years on new ideas to come up with a sonically pure yet cost effective solution.  He would keep listening and measuring until the product was ready to his high standards, and he had to answer to no one. (Think multi year delays on subwoofers and the 3.7)

Im concerned that in just a few months these newcomers have come up with wholly new redesigns from top to bottom in the whole product line.  How is that possible? One has to assume they are cookie cutter crossovers  and off the shelf drivers (albeit in attractive cabinets).  I suspect their  strategyis that many more people in the future will be able to say "I own a set of Thiels"   but IMO they won't really be Thiels.

As a resident of Lexington I hope they prove me wrong, I'd like to see them succeed for the sake of those employed there.  Made in USA is still a good thing. I'll try to keep an open mind until they come out.

RAMON VIVES's picture

JA is right about brand survive and jobs and so on, BUT I always thought of Thiel like a niche brand with its own philosophy and when you exchange your values and philosophy for profist you often end up with such non-sense like a hybrid Cadillac, a class D Audio Research Amp or a Mark Levinson without Mark Levinson. For sure these TT3 are great sounding speakers BUT if the market is waiting for a 15-20K PSB´s, I think Paul Barton would have done them yet.
You may say I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one (john Lenon dixit)

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