Thiel CS2.4 loudspeaker Follow-Up, February 2006
I still had on hand Thiel Audio's CS2.4 speakers, which I reviewed in the November 2005 issue, and it seemed natural to compare the Penaudio Serenades with them. Granted, at $4400/pair, the Thiels are just a hair under half the price of the Serenades, but they'd impressed me so much that I'd put 'em up against almost any ambitious loudspeaker. Besides, like the Serenades, the Thiels had captured my imagination with their uncanny re-creation of "Ripple," from Might as Well...The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead (CD, Arista GDCD 4070).
So I cued up the song again and discovered how different hearing the same thing can be. With the Thiels, the sound was focused and big. The 'Suasions weren't so much between the speakers as they were in the room. I don't mean they were amorphous and without body—boy, was Jimmy Hayes' body ever evident—but that the Thiels didn't confine the sound to a particular pinpoint of real estate.
Eric Thomson's mandolin surfed over the deep male voices—as opposed to peeking through them, as it had with the Serenades. The Serenades gave the group more precise locations within the room. The band was slightly smaller than life and believably placed between the speakers, though the resonant character of the studio was distinctly different from that of my room.
You could say that the Thiels put the Persuasions in my room, while the Serenades reconstructed in my room the space in which the Persuasions had made the recording. Which was more accurate? Looked at one way, the Serenades were telling it more like it was—after all, the group wasn't in my room. But it didn't work out that easily—I liked both presentations. What the Thiels did was more exciting. What the Serenades did seemed more right.
With the Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators, the difference was greater. The Thiels can really push some air, and while this disc still didn't sound good, it sounded like a rock album. It made me want to boogie a lot more than it made me want to take it off, which is all I could ask of it.
The Serenades didn't have the Thiels' sheer power at filling my large listening room, and they just didn't cotton to the Bastards. It was kind of like watching a beloved but oh-so-proper aunt trying to get jiggy with it at your sister's wedding. I respected the effort, but I felt a bit embarrassed at asking them to make it.
Don't get the impression that the Serenade isn't "a rock'n'roll speaker." It could be. Fed a great-sounding rock album, such as Dengue Fever's Escape from Dragon House (CD, Birdman BRG 137), it delivered the goods: good bass, crisp guitar, and a whole bunch of strange instruments I'd never heard of (such as the dan bau, a single-stringed Vietnamese instrument). Then there was vocalist Ch'hom Nimol—no question about it, the Serenade shone with vocals.
The Thiel CS2.4 gave Dengue Fever more "edge," which isn't inappropriate for a group that pushes all kinds of boundaries; it also played louder, projected bigger, and had a more forceful bottom end. The Serenade is rated to 28Hz, while the Thiel is claimed to go to 36Hz—but in every comparison in my room, the Thiel seemed to have more bass heft.
That, of course, could have been a factor of my room. And I was aware, as I said earlier, that I never did get the room/speaker equation exactly right for the Serenade. The speaker may sound its best in a room smaller than mine.
Did I feel bass-deprived? No, the Serenade gave me good, deep bass and persuaded me that orchestras and choruses were full-range ensembles. But it never flapped my trousers the way the Aerial 20T did when I auditioned it in the same room. For that matter, neither did the Thiel CS2.4.
It's a good thing that The Here and Now stands up to repeated hearings—I listened to it many times while comparing the CS2.4 and Serenade. The two were so different, and each in its own way seemed quite right. The Thiel continued to sound bigger and brawnier than the Penaudio, which was quite appealing. The Thiel wasn't sensational, but it was exciting, and conveyed the thrill of a big orchestra and a big chorus digging deep into themselves to deliver the music. You could say the Thiel had physicality—if that means it delivered the physical excitement of music making.
The Serenade was more restrained. Part of this was that it didn't easily deliver the same big, room-filling mass that the CS2.4 achieved so effortlessly, but it also had to do with the Serenade's tonal balance—which, as I've said, was less weighted toward the bottom end, but was also smoother from the upper mids through the ultra-high frequencies.
Part of the excitement of the Thiel, I realized while listening to the Serenade, was its slight brightness in the upper octaves. I'm less sensitive to this than some, partially because I do listen at a fair distance from the speakers, which mitigates it to some extent. But I couldn't ignore it when comparing the Thiel with the Serenade, which was simply magic throughout the mid to high frequencies. You listen to voices? The Penaudio Serenade will enchant you.
No, the Penaudio wasn't perfect, but I ended my comparison without a knockout winner. The Thiel is exciting, seems to play deeper (in my room), and can play loud when I want it to. I like it a lot. But the Serenade is a very special loudspeaker that delivered the midrange and highs with a delicacy that never palled. My room may be a tad big for a pair of them, but they played to my susceptibilities very nicely.
Then again, when I want to kick it, I love the Thiel CS2.4. I wish I could have everything.—Wes Phillips