Thiel CS2 loudspeaker Larry Archibald page 1
Thiel Audio, headed up by Jim Thiel (President and chief designer) and Kathy Gornik (Marketing Director), sets itself apart from other speaker manufacturers not only by making what I feel to be almost uniformly excellent products, but also by serving as a kind of hallmark for the good dealer: Although not all good dealers sell Thiel, just about every Thiel dealer is a good one. This comes about because, in spite of just about uniformly positive reviews and excellent customer relations, Thiel (primarily in the person of Ms. Gornik) has insisted on limited distribution through retailers they know will give their product a good demonstration. There are a few other such companies performing this hallmark function, though only Mark Levinson Audio Systems readily comes to mind. Most other successful companies prefer as wide a geographical distribution as possible, in spite of the occasional necessary compromises in dealer quality.
Although my original intention was to review just the CS1.2, I have chosen to cover the $1650/pair CS2 for two reasons: I've listened to the CS2 for a long time and have a bit to say about them; our original review dates back to October 1985, and I feel that an update is in order from that standpoint alone. In addition, the Thiel line of speakers, particularly the CS2, has generated the most controversy among our staff, mostly based on informal audition at Consumer Electronics Shows or at dealers. A remark like "Thiel! How could you possibly stay in the room with it?" is not untypical. Because of the informality of the observations, these exclamations have not been committed to type, but I suspect that similar comments have been repeated by consumers as well. (This suspicion was confirmed reading over the "ballots" from our most 1988 Santa Monica Hi-Fi Show, in which the Thiel demonstration was quite widely decried.)
Frankly, it's not hard to make the Thiel CS2 sound bad. I've heard it sound bad at Shows, at dealers, in other people's homes, and at my own home. Nevertheless, it's the speaker I've had hooked up at home for the second longest period of time over the last three years—second only to its larger brother, the CS3.5. But I precede myself.
The CS2 demonstrates, along with its Thiel brethren, a Scandinavian appreciation for the finer qualities of wood; the shape of the speakers, too, evokes a Scandinavian air. It would be hard to overemphasize how much care goes into their appearance. Teak is standard, handsomely finished and, unless my samples have been handpicked, pair-matched veneers are mandatory. My most recent pair was Rosewood, which costs an extra $300. If you've got the bucks, and value both wood and the enhancement of your listening space, it's more than worth it. (The only speaker I've run into whose wood is more sensuous is the Infinity IRS Beta in Padauk.)
The CS2 is a three-way design, with the 8" woofer port-loaded. Shallow, 6dB/octave crossover slopes are used at 800Hz and 3kHz, the first-order crossover being the easiest with which to maintain phase coherence. A 3" cone midrange and 1" Dynaudio soft-dome tweeter fill out the driver complement. Crossovers boast air-core chokes and polystyrene capacitors—a not insignificant inclusion for a product in this price range.
The CS2 is quite a good-sized speaker, at 39" high and a solid 62 lbs each, but feels small in the listening room due to its sloped-back front baffle and, probably, its attractive looks. You might be confused by Thiel's literature, which appear to show a speaker with grille and without grille, though in the latter case there is a lot of sculpting visible on the front of the speaker to provide anti-diffractive effects. The "ungrilled" speaker shown actually does have the grille installed, but without its cloth. The cloth is not in fact readily removable, so don't be surprised if you never see a Thiel CS2 in this unclothed condition (except at a Thiel dealer equipped with a special naked grille for demonstrating the anti-diffractive sculpting). The speaker is definitely intended to be used with the grille on.
I discovered this in two ways: First, upon receipt of the smaller CS1.2s, I noted that the grille could not be readily removed, as was the case with my almost-original sample of CS2s (now two years old); second, I read in the '1.2 instruction manual that they were intended to be heard with the grille on. I do not remember this caution from the original CS2 manual, but upon receipt of a fresh pair of CS2s last week I found that they, too, had not-easily-removable grilles and the same instruction. (Since then I've found that the instruction was contained in the original Thiel manual, albeit in an easy-to-ignore location; it is also repeated in light print on the interior of the base of the speaker where the cables are attached—a location where I admit I don't do much reading.)
In any case, you may rest assured that the grille is an important element of the CS2's sound, as noted later. I regret that, either through my quasi-invincible ignorance or through lack of clear instruction on Thiel's part, I spent the better part of two years listening to the CS2s without grilles. Don't make the same mistake. (It's much harder now that the name strip at the bottom of the grille screws it in place.)
The CS2, as all Thiel speakers, comes supplied with ferocious spikes to overcome the insecure base provided by a carpet or wood floor. Valuing the wood in my floors just as much as that on the surface of the speakers, I approached use of these spikes with real trepidation. Upon finally overcoming my fears, I found that the spikes yielded real, if not overwhelming, advantages. As generally noted elsewhere in these pages, and to varying degrees, the improvements were primarily in image specificity, lower midrange, and a general increase in the "security" of the sound. These are not areas where the unspiked CS2 is weak, however, and I would be the last to laugh at an audiophile whose love of his or her floors led him to just plop the speakers sans spikes down on the carpet. And, if you use them, settle on a correct speaker positioning before installing the spikes! None of their benefits made me want to jump up and shift the speakers ever so slightly, you can be sure.
AHC found that the CS2s benefited from "inch by inch experimentation" in room positioning. While I would agree that such experimentation yields audible benefits, it would be wrong to infer that the CS2s are tricky to set up. In my unusually large rectangular room, I had little trouble finding a good position for them. In fact, I could adjust the apparent room size from which the performance came simply by moving the speakers closer together or farther apart (with appropriate compensation in toe-in). My preference is for a relatively close seat, with my ears some 10½' from each speaker. The speakers were located 11' from the wall in back of them, and my room offers the luxury of an even greater distance in back of my listening seat. This large amount of room tends to give all speakers a similarly spacious character (JGH objects to this quality of my room), but the various Thiels have been the best at taking advantage of it.
In addition, the size of the room makes a fairly close seat mandatory, as other locations in the room have almost an echo, which in the listening seat is diminished by the dominance of the early-arrival sounds. I have found that listening positions as close as 5' (which feels like you're right on top of the speakers) are perfectly satisfactory, with appropriate additional toe-in of the cabinets. It does give a "large headphone" type of effect (which some may like), but I would definitely prefer that to restricting the space behind the speakers, which I find a necessity in the creation of an "involving" acoustic. (For my preferences in this area, see "Final Word" in the December 1988 issue.)
Thiel's general advice is to position the speakers facing straight ahead, though they also recommend experimentation. I would switch the recommendation around: start with the speakers anywhere from facing right at the listening position (CS2) to only mildly toed-in (CS3.5). If the soundstage seems too small (on a recording with generous hall sound), move them a bit farther apart and toe them in a bit more. You should be able to get an almost-optimum position with 30 minutes of experimentation using various recordings; a few days more of listening will give you the feedback necessary for the final tweaks. (Then install the spikes.) In my listening situation, straight ahead left a noticeable hole in the middle of the soundstage, but Thiel is correct in pointing out that this characteristic will vary with every listening room. The off-axis frequency response of the speaker, particularly the tweeter, also affects the degree of toe-in you will want. Thiel speakers benefit on occasion from a bit of high-frequency rolloff, which sitting off-axis from the tweeter provides to a small degree; this has to be compromised depending on the soundstage recommendation noted above.
Spectral balance is the area in which Thiel speakers in general, and the CS2s in particular, arouse controversy. Although Thiel is not a declamatory company, Jim Thiel has all along been adamant in his insistence that a speaker be amplifier-like in its neutrality, with no "pleasant" rolloffs to make up for errors elsewhere in the system. I admire this stance, if only for the purity of its idealism, but it presents at least two problems. The first is simply a market problem: If you're up against a "forgiving" speaker, and very many of your potential customers have systems that require such forgiveness (Why does religious language keep creeping into these engineering realms?), then you won't sell too many speakers. For the idealist, particularly one as successful at selling speakers as Jim Thiel, this is not a philosophical problem; if you sell enough to stay in business, or expand by 35–50% for every year of your existence, as Thiel has done, who needs more?
For the ultimate speaker designer—he or she who would start from the ground up to create a new order of speakers—this philosophy has another problem, one that has actually been at the root of many flawed (and unpleasant-sounding) audio designs: One's insistence on accuracy masks the real, and aggravating, errors (inevitably) contained within one's own products by one's insistence that the product is "ruthlessly revealing"—the source of any problems heard must be searched for elsewhere. (How many times have you heard that one in the pages of subjective review magazines?)
With the instance at hand, the problem noted by the Stereophile reviewers referred to earlier has been an overly forward, aggressive sound attributed to Thiel's insistence on flat high-frequency response. This is strange: extended high frequencies—say, flat from 10kHz to 22kHz—do not yield an aggressive, forward sound. At their worst they give you accentuated surface noise and sibilants, and possible long-term listening fatigue. This can happen even with superb designs, for two reasons: Recordings are made close up, and thus contain much more high-frequency energy than either live music or any other "natural" sonic experience (cymbal players and airline travelers excluded); and, all forms of analog distortion add energy that is higher in frequency than the fundamental, thus tilting all reproduced music toward the high frequencies by the time it gets to you, even when recorded with utmost naturalness. (One of the reasons for digital's "unnaturalness" is that what can be the predominant distortion, aliasing, appears lower in frequency than the stimulus for that distortion.)