Thiel CS1.2 loudspeaker Page 2
JA was actually quite impressed by the CS1, and I was a little surprised to hear of a whole new model relatively soon after the '1's introduction. JA did notice what he felt to be an objectionable brightness in the CS1, and this is where I feel Thiel has done their most effective work. The range from 2–8kHz, for instance, sounds essentially flat to me. The very present, forward sound that Thiel favors is just as much there as on all the other models, but the CS1 had a bit of gratuitous zing on strings, and an accentuation of tape hiss, which the CS1.2 lacks. I am almost willing to declare that the metal-dome tweeter in the '1.2 is better than the Dynaudio they're using in their most expensive models; it is definitely very smooth, but I want to listen even more to decide whether it delivers better high-frequency performance than the CS2 and '3.5.
One indication that this might be the case, which I found fascinating, was that I could hear, on the CS1.2s, the gentle rain on the roof of the performing site where Mike Skeet and Martin Colloms recorded Ivor Humphreys' flute for track 12 on the HFN/RR test CD. As soon as JA told me this could be heard on some speaker he was auditioning I started listening for it, but until the CS1.2s came along I never could distinguish the raindrops. With the '1.2s, you can! This makes those raindrops an absolutely fabulous test—they're either there or they're not.
The off-axis high-frequency radiation of the '1.2 is just as flat as the other Thiels, and it was at the feet of this off-axis radiation that JA laid some of the blame for the CS1's brightness. How sensitive you are to this "room" brightness will depend on your room and your listening position; when sitting in the nearfield of the speaker, the problem goes away.
As I said before, I feel the CS1.2 is now Thiel's most all-purpose speaker, the one that is easiest to recommend not knowing what else is in the system. I still auditioned the '1.2 using my $16,000 worth of electronics, but at no point did cautions appear with respect to source material. This is not to say the speaker lacks discrimination. As with all Thiels, you are immediately aware of the widely varying tonal balance present on different records, but with the CS1.2 none were particularly objectionable (I don't listen to DGs from the '70s). My completely hacked-up Junior Wells classic, Hoodoo Man Blues (Delmark DS-9612), for instance, which is not your basic audiophile purist recording, sounded great on the '1.2s. It's really easy for the surface noise and general corruption on this record to overwhelm the spirit of the music—which is extraordinary. A speaker that rules out Hoodoo Man Blues doesn't stand a chance in my house; the CS1.2 passed with flying colors.
Ambience and Soundstage Preservation: I found the CS1.2 to be substantially more flexible in positioning than the earlier CS1. It admitted almost as high a degree of distance between the speakers as the CS2 and '3.5 without sacrificing image coherence. The CS1s in my room yielded a soundstage a bit too cramped. The character of the soundstage—that is, the dimensions of the hall or stage, and their character—is inevitably less well revealed on the '1.2 than on the '2 or '3.5 due to a lack of low-frequency extension, but it is noticeably better than the CS1.
This should not be confused with image width and depth. In my experience, image width is determined by dispersion, low diffraction, and lack of peakiness in frequency response from the upper midrange on up—but it is affected more than anything by the recording you use, your listening room, and the speaker's position within the room. Even poor speakers can be mightily improved in this respect by correct setup.
I am of uncertain mind about image depth. Frequency response is definitely important here. Speakers designed to be really flat, such as the Thiels, tend to yield less average depth than a speaker with a presence-range dip; the Thiels sound more forward. On the other hand, it would seem that the key to good performance here is the ability to discriminate among recordings, where image depth varies considerably. Here, low-frequency response is important, but, that aside, the CS1.2s are quite respectable, even remarkable. Their ability to define the layers of the orchestra, for instance, seemed on a par with the CS3.5, perhaps even a little better, though it's difficult to say definitively since the '3.5 is so much better at the low end. The '1.2s are quite a ways ahead of the CS1 in their precision at establishing depth within the soundstage.
The preservation of individual instrumental ambience is the area where the '1.2 most suffers in respect to the CS2. The "pools" of ambience I mentioned above are suggested rather than portrayed. In some instances, the ambience simply isn't there, where it was with the CS2. My guess is that this problem is related to the woofer having to operate so much higher than in the CS2 (different woofer, too). All drivers have a naturally comfortable range, and one of the problems of two-way systems is that virtually no drivers have the four-plus octave range necessary for two drivers to span the audible range. With woofers, they tend to break up or simply get a bit out of control at the top of their range; I think this lack of control in the woofer is what obscures the ambience preservation on the '1.2.
Dynamics: Dynamics are quite good on the '1.2 when compared with the speaker in this price range I'm most familiar with, the Spica Angelus, but suffer in comparison with the CS2. (As I write this review I become more aware of what a good package the CS2 is; Thiel has really packed a lot in there.) I was nevertheless surprised that a room my size could be well-filled by a speaker of these diminutive dimensions.
The preservation of sonic integrity over a significant dynamic range is just about as good as the other Thiels, but the range is smaller—say, a maximum of 90dB output before you begin to hear things go wrong. This is not to say that's the speaker's maximum output, only its maximum uncorrupted output. From 90dB up to about 98dB, you experience a progressive reluctance to listen louder. This, actually, is what almost all moving-coil loudspeakers do, and most listeners have come to depend on this gradually increasing sense of strain to know when to turn the volume down.
This review has suffered somewhat in that the comparisons so far have almost all been internal within one family of speakers. It is time, therefore, to bring on the Spica Angelus and Magnepan MG2.5/R.
John Bau of Spica and Jim Thiel share their reverence for phase coherence and time-alignment, but their products both appear and sound quite different. In the case of the Angelus, Bau has chosen to sacrifice low-end "whump" for greater control, and has chosen to stay with his faithful Audax soft-dome tweeter. Although this tweeter is now showing its age, in my opinion (it's also the one that best exemplifies what JA dislikes in soft domes), Bau uses it off-axis to make these problems less noticeable. The overall presentation of the Angelus is satisfyingly full at the low end without sounding quite full-range, and notably soft at the high end. Although the Spica will display the virtues of even very–high-end gear like that which I used for these reviews, it will also work fine with much more modest equipment.
Where the Spica really shines is image specificity. I have literally never heard anything as good. Images are so clearly defined, in both width and depth (and internally, an image characteristic rarely mentioned, which refers to the believability of that which the image portrays), they practically jump out at you—all in a completely natural manner. It's as if with other speakers there's a kind of thickness between the performers that disappears with the Spicas. On the other hand, the Spica is not nearly as good at preserving individual instrumental ambience, the space outside of the performer, as are any of the Thiels, including the CS1.2.
I would feel quite comfortable recommending either the Angeluses or the CS1.2s, but they will appeal to somewhat different people and work well in different systems. If you love highly specific imaging, the Angelus was designed for you. The Thiel also images extremely well, has a more extended and, to me, more natural high end, bass that's more adequate, and plays loud with less anxiety. If you listen to the two I think it will be clear which you prefer.
The Magnepan MG2.5/R is in quite a different category. First, it's a dipole with attendant problems in setup, as well detailed by both JGH and JA in Vol.11 No.6, which are much less of a problem with the CS1.2. In my listening room, though, both speakers set up with no problems. If you're in that category, the '2.5 offers a taste of very–high-end sound reproduction which you just don't find in the under-$2000 price range. I refer, of course, to its ribbon tweeter. This may not be the best high-frequency reproducer ever, but it's certainly close. It's also the only one you can come close to buying at this price. In addition, the MG2.5 offers good, but different, soundstage reproduction. I say different because it has a character all of its own, with lots of size but a certain homogeneity from one recording to another. I assume this is because, more than non-dipoles, the soundstage is created in partnership between the speaker and your room. I also find the imaging somewhat less believable than with a Thiel CS1.2 or Spica Angelus, but not to the point where it is distracting.
I love the MG2.5s because they work so well in my listening room, and I love clean and easy high frequencies. I still would have a hard time choosing them definitively over the CS1.2s. I suspect that, given their entirely different characters, you will have an easy time deciding if given a high-quality demonstration of each.
With the CS1.2, Thiel has brought nearly all the virtues of their more expensive speakers down to the level of the readily affordable, in a significantly better fashion than with the CS1. The changes from the CS1—a much better tweeter, more heavily braced cabinet, better diffraction control, a lower distortion woofer—are all positive, and at low increased cost. The '1.2s image very well, play reasonably loud easily, have satisfying low-end extension, and possess a very neutral tonal balance with no significant aberrations. It's most unusual to get this much sonic precision at this low a price. In addition, Thiel has created the first of their products to which it's easy to match electronics. Although not a perfect speaker, I found its problems easy to live with. After noticing the shortcomings and omissions, I went on to enjoy the music. I suspect a lot of people will.
When I began writing this review, my impression was that the various Thiel speakers represented sort of a small, medium, and large version of the same thing. But, as I've listened and relistened as I wrote, I realized that this was not quite true. Although the Thiels are undeniably from the hand and mind of the same designer, they each display a different point in the evolution of that designer's thinking about speakers within a particular price range and size. Looked at from this standpoint, the CS1.2, being most contemporary in design, is Thiel's most successful effort, the "new" version of the CS2 (I don't know at what time this newness came into being) is in second place, and the CS3.5, though overall Thiel's best speaker, is also the oldest design. It is as if Jim Thiel gets to polish up and mildly rework his designs every time he comes back to them—and you can hear the results.
Thiel is representative of just how great the high end in this country is; we should be thankful there are such companies. While good enough at the business end of things to stay around and prosper, their real strength is an almost unending thirst for better sound. There are many such people, whose real driving force is love of well-reproduced music rather than money: Conrad and Johnson, Jeff Rowland, Bill Johnson, Jim Winey, Leo Spiegel and Jason Bloom, Dan D'Agostino, Steve McCormack and Joyce Fleming...I could go on and on.
Jim and Tom Thiel, Kathy Gornik, and the others at Thiel Speakers are still working hard to make their products better. If you're in the market for one of the speakers in the price ranges discussed here, or even higher, visit your Thiel dealer for an audition. You may or may not like the speakers—and I hope I've given you an idea of what to listen for in each case—but you'll have heard something into which the makers really put their hearts.
Footnote 1: This is a design decision I disagree with—though I'm hardly the one to offer my credentials as even in the same universe as Jim Thiel's. I feel that smoothness of off-axis response is crucial, but I prefer it gently rolled-off—say, at 6dB/octave. This results in an overall in-room tonal balance that is both easier to live with and more characteristic of live music.—Larry Archibald
Footnote 2: See Stereophile Vol.9 No.7 and Vol.10 No.1.—Larry Archibald