Thiel CS1.2 loudspeaker John Atkinson
You will probably remember from October's "Recommended Components" that there was disagreement in Stereophile's ranks over the merits of the smallest in Thiel's range of three loudspeakers, the CS1.2. Larry Archibald had been mightily impressed with the sound of this $1090/pair floorstanding speaker last January, feeling that it "images extremely well, has a more extended...and more natural high end [than the similarly priced Spica Angelus]...plays reasonably loud easily, has satisfying low-end extension, and possesses a very neutral tonal balance with no significant aberrations." Yet in June's Audio Anarchist column, although he liked the speaker's lack of tizz in the treble and its neutral tonal balance, Sam Tellig grew increasingly dissatisfied with the CS1.2, feeling that while its bass did not boom, it failed to "put a firm foundation under the music...The sound was thin, bass-starved." In addition, ST felt that the imaging stayed localized within the speakers rather than allowing the soundstage to float unbound by physical constraints.
Puzzled by this conflict, we asked Sam to send his pair of CS1.2s to Santa Fe so we could compare them with the original review pair under familiar circumstances. I started my listening with Larry's pair of 1.2s which I had used at length last December. The CS1.2 is fitted with three holes for floor-coupling spikes, which I used (see my introduction to the review of the Spica TC-50 and Celestion 3 in October, p.162, for my feelings on those who don't consider such tweaks to have any aural benefit). The rest of the system consisted of Mark Levinson No.25/26 preamplifier, Mark Levinson No.20.5 power amplifiers, connected with Madrigal CPC speaker cable and HPC balanced interconnect, Linn Troika/Ekos/Sondek LP12 record player, and a British Fidelity Digilog D/A processor driven by the digital output of a Meridian 207 CD player.
The first music track was the Alligator blues recording of Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland (ALCD 4743), a must-have disc for anyone into Chicago blues but one where the energy and power of the music-making is spoiled by a heavy hand on the treble EQ and an artificial reverberation engine that sounds peaky, resonant, and distinctly unpleasant, particularly on Robert Cray's Stratocaster, where it almost adds a "rattle" to the sound. I tend to reach for this recording when I suspect any treble problems in a loudspeaker, as its "shouty" midrange leaves no room for additional speaker problems in this region. Both pairs of 1.2s sounded rather too aggressive on this recording, the speaker's balance being a little unkind to the sound of recorded guitar. (Orchestral trumpet was also projected a little too forcefully at times.)
Experimenting with the listening height showed very quickly that sitting significantly above the tweeter axis makes the mid-treble a little peaky and sucks out energy between 1 and 3kHz. As with the Spica TC-50, it is essential not to sit in too high a chair with the CS1.2 if the otherwise neutral treble is not to get a little strident. If you can see the top of the 36"-tall cabinet, you are sitting too high and the sound will be rather thin and peaky.
The sound of bass guitar and drums was presented with quite a degree of authority, if not absolute weight: certainly the speaker has enough midbass energy to play rock convincingly, provided that you keep the levels below 100dB or so. Prolonged listening suggested that the Tellig pair of speakers had just a tad less authority, but not so you'd notice except in an A/B comparison. (And it could have been that I was just hearing what I had already measured.) "Enough" midbass was the verdict here, with the caveat that again the listener must be sitting; as well as a more strident tonal balance, the standing listener is presented with a significantly shelved-down upper bass.
Now I know that the Alligator CD is not one to have found permanent residence in the redoubtable Sam's collection, so I reached for one that I'm pretty sure he does have, the Blomstedt/Dresden recording of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (Denon 33C37-7581). "Smooth treble, good string tone, a palpable presence to the presentation of the solo violin, and a precisely defined, wide but ultimately shallow soundstage," read my listening notes. Hmm. A "shallow" soundstage was one of Mr. T's criticisms, along with the fact that he felt the Thiels to localize the image within the speakers. That they certainly did do, the Denon recording lacking centerfill and the violins, for example, sounding as though they were in a phonebooth at stage left. This could well be a function of the recording—it's uncannily reminiscent of those outrageous spatially distorted Columbia recordings John McClure produced first for Stravinsky/Craft, then for Leonard Bernstein in the '60s and early '70s.
I put on the more recent Bernstein Mahler 5 (DG 423 608-2). Again, the soundstage was shallow (though less so in the middle), but now the violin and cello sections did have rather more substance in that they stretched toward the middle of the stage. But insufficient bass? The beginning of the work's second movement—"Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz"—where angry double basses outline the music's stormy nature, had considerable power even given the fact that it was just a pair of 6" woofers being asked to provide the motive power. The effect was the same on both Larry's and Sam's speakers, there not being any appreciable difference in the low-frequency performance.
No, Sam, I can't agree with you: the CS1.2 does not lack subjective low-frequency authority in musical terms, even though it does do so in absolute, measurement terms. But yes, the soundstage presented by a pair does appear to somewhat lack both relative depth and centerfill, particularly on multimiked classical recordings. However, I felt the soundstage to be more evenly spread across the distance between the speakers, though still somewhat shallow, when my ears were level with the tweeters. (This is just 28" off the ground, which is a very low listening height.)
To confirm my opinion on the soundstage presented by the CS1.2s, I played a recording I had made of pianist Anna-Maria Stanczyk playing Chopin, the master tape being handled by my antique (ca 1975) Revox A-77. Tonally, the verdict was the same as with the Collins, Cray, and Copeland recording with which I had started my listening session: "enough" midbass to be musically convincing. The work being played was the Scherzo in b-flat, which hinges on some thunderous left-hand B-flats, D-flats, and even E naturals more than an octave below the bass staff. Without a doubt, these musical tone-centers had sufficient weight to balance the right-hand flurries and arpeggios higher up the Steinway's register.
The soundstage presentation was accurately defined laterally, the piano image being strongly center-dominant with the instrument's soundboard and bass notes stretching toward the right-hand speaker. However, again, the image was shallower both than it should be—remember, I made the recording—and than it is presented via such time-slicing speakers as the Spica TC-50 or Vandersteen 2Ci. Overall, the Thiels seem to push the image forward at the listener a little, more so at the extreme left and right of the soundstage.
Overall, this is still good performance at the price, and the Thiel CS1.2 can be confidently recommended. But as to why the Anarchist was disappointed by the CS1.2's bass when LA and I found it to be at minimum adequate and mostly satisfying, I have no explanation. Both measurements and listening confirmed that Sam and Larry were essentially listening to the same loudspeakers. I shall retreat from the subject, therefore, muttering something along the lines of "Perhaps the bass quality of the reflex-loaded CS1.2 is more room-dependent than that of the sealed-box speakers which seem to work best in the Anarchist's listening room...," though I really don't believe that to be the case.—John Atkinson