Thiel CS3.5 loudspeaker
But wait—that's where I disagree. Although it's rarely seen as such by product designers—and even less often by those in charge of sales—the critical reviewer performs a dual function: For the magazine's reader, he or she evaluates, informs, and aids in the buying decision; for the product's creator, he offers insight into the response of the typical buyer and possibly saves the embarrassment of a flawed product design. This last benefit, of course, presumes that the reviewer is better able to perceive the product in a typical use situation than is the designer. It is on the correctness of just this presumption that we hang our hat(s).
Wait a minute yourself, I can hear you saying. "The alleged achievement of objectivity aside, why should we pay any attention to what you say, LA? You haven't appeared in print (aside from your monthly 'Final Word' column—which we hear, by the way, arrives at the printer just before plate meets paper) since Vol.7 No.3, way back in 1984." Recognizing the justice of this question, and in place of a more comprehensive "Matter of Taste" (to appear in a future issue), I herein plead my case.
My musical and equipment tastes have already received some attention from time to time in these pages, in both my own comments and in those of others (primarily JA). My musical tastes are catholic in the extreme: raised on the classics, I fell in love with folk music at an early age, became enamored of what's now called soul while still in my teens (in the best place for it—the Mississippi Delta), was forced to accept Romantic sonorities by JGH, listen to C&W sometimes, like Gospel, look back nostalgically on musicians as completely in synch with their times as the Beatles, have been acclimated to hard rock (from the 1970s primarily) by JA—and even have had to say a good word about Wagner, at RL's prompting.
I listen in an unusual room, 20' by 35' with an 11' ceiling—almost 8000 cubic feet. Although heavily carpeted and furnitured, the room is not at all dead—not nearly dead enough for JGH, who is, for my tastes, too accustomed to his Tube Traps. Amplification for this review was provided by Mark Levinson, in the form of the Nos.26 and 20. Source material was analog LP (no digital-to-analogs, thank you) played on a Well-Tempered Turntable and Tonearm (the best value ever in a $1000–2000 'table-plus-tonearm, in my opinion) with a variety of cartridges, none of them spectacular. Interconnects varied, but tended toward the "lean and clean" school, as exemplified by Straight Wire, Discrete Technology, and Audioquest. Speaker cabling was the super-exotic Kimber 4AG recommended by DO in Vol.11 No.7. Also included was CD listening, on both the Denon DCD-3300/DAP-5500 combo and the CAL Tempest II.
Attuned readers know that I fall into the digiphobe category, though not unreasonably I hope. Well, the Tempest II is almost enough to get me out. It adds to the convenience inherent to CD—and I don't care what machine you use, they're all a helluva lot easier than even a B&O record player—an ease of listening that's very tempting. Only when ultimate transparency and that "see-into" quality are necessary, or the ultimate performances which in my experience are found only on LP, is LP the only answer. Still, that's most of the time, especially when you're reviewing equipment.
But In the end I must win you over with the cogency of my argument and the correctness of my observations; you alone will be the judge. After this much hot air, on with the review.
Thiel CS3.5: $2450/pair
You'll be relieved to hear that my discussion of the CS3.5 will be shorter than that of the CS1.2 and CS2—primarily because most of what needs to be said has already been said, and more recently too.
Were I to say that the '3.5 is simply a bigger version of the '2, I wouldn't be too far off. It weighs 15 lbs more per speaker, goes significantly deeper in the bass, and will play louder. Were you to see a pair of '3.5s in one store and '2s a few weeks later in another store, you could be forgiven for thinking they were the same product. (Thiel has kindly put different finishes on my different pairs so I don't fall into the same confusion.) The typical Thiel attention to finish quality is present here to the same degree, and the gently tapering front panel as well.
With the '3.5 (which followed the CS2 by nearly a year and a half) Thiel has incorporated the anti-diffractive front-panel effects, which appear to me to be more through-going than on the CS2, into the baffle itself, rather than relying on the grille. You may therefore use them without grilles, as I have, particularly if you find the front-panel contouring attractive.
The '3.5 and '2 have similar tweeters, and their upper-range behavior is, not surprisingly, just about identical. The midrange drivers are different, though, with the one on the '3.5 appearing to me to be much the heavier-duty, with a substantially larger magnet. Although their power-handling capabilities have been in my experience about the same—both were plagued by failure in response to upper-bass and lower-midrange transients—I suspect that on the '3.5 I was led to play the speaker louder because of its overall greater loudness capability.
More important, though, the CS3.5 has never suffered from the upper-midrange problem of the CS2. While preserving the general forward character typical of all Thiels, and their extended high frequencies, the '3.5 is more "generous" than the '2; it lets you get away with more. I should emphasize that I have still never heard it sound good with anything but superbly clean electronics, but it has not demonstrated the same lack of affection for CD that I found with the earlier '2s. (I've demonstrated that lack, but not the speaker.)
The biggest difference between the '3.5 and the '2, however, is in the bass. The '3.5 is a sealed box, has a woofer with 65% more radiating area, and uses a custom equalizer, made for insertion between pre- and power amp or in a tape loop, to modify the low-frequency response. This is claimed to yield flat response down to 22Hz, which JA and I confirmed when we were attempting to deal with Bud Fried's accusations about our supposedly screwed-up measuring techniques when reviewing the Fried G/3. (It turned out we had been right; in my listening room, the G/3 rolled off below 40Hz, being 9dB down at 31.5Hz and –18dB at 20Hz, while the Thiel was flat to 22Hz.) But from a measurement standpoint, the '3.5 has not pulled a rabbit out of a hat; we observed significantly high distortion from the Thiel's woofer when reproducing the range below 35Hz at 90dB.
Tonal Balance: As in physical size, with the '3.5 you get a bigger sound than from the CS2. This is true even without the equalizer; with the equalizer, you get an overall sound that suffers, as far as size is concerned, in comparison only with live music (which can be so much bigger than anything heard reproduced that I wonder we make the comparison) and much bigger, more expensive speakers. (The Vandersteen 4As, the Apogee Divas, the Sound Labs, the Duntechs, IRS Betas and Vs, and WAMMs come to mind. Interestingly, JA's Celestion SL700s, under the right circumstances and in his room, can just about match the Thiels.)