Frankly it's a bit nutty for me to be doing this review. First, as Publisher of this esteemed journal, my primary duties involve financial and personnel management, as well as a good bit of public relations; I don't need and am not required to perform the exacting tedium of product reviews. Second, Jim Thiel and Kathy Gornik of Thiel are friends of mine. So what, you ask? Well, if this were going to be a uniformly positive review, I would therefore be ruled out as the reviewer; if it's to be wholly or partially negative, it will surely put a strain on one of my best audio friendships.
Choosing a loudspeaker can be difficult. Although it is easy to be seduced by a certain model's special qualities, that exceptional performance in one area is often at the expense of other important characteristics. Go with high-quality minimonitors for their spectacular soundstaging, but give up bass, dynamics, and the feeling of power that only a large, full-range system can provide. If you choose an electrostatic for its delicious midrange transparency, you may have to forgo dynamics, impact, and the ability to play loudly. Pick a full-range dynamic system for its bass and dynamics, but lose that edge of palpability and realism heard from ribbon transducers.
One might argue that Thiel Audio's 3-series loudspeakers are the audio equivalents of BMW's 3-series sports cars: relatively affordable, but 100% about performance. Thiel has made bigger, more expensive loudspeakers than the 3s, as well as smaller, less expensive modelsbut the iconic Thiels are the 3s.
John Atkinson Opens
I've said it before and I'll say it again: a would-be loudspeaker designer shouldn't even start to think about the possibility of maybe designing a full-range, multi-way loudspeaker until he (and they do all appear to be men) has cut his teeth on a small two-way design. There is still as much art as science in designing a successful loudspeaker, even with all the computer-aided this and Thiele-and-Small that, that even a two-way design requires a designer either to be possessed of a monster talent or of the willingness to undergo months, even years, of tedious and repetitive work—or of both. For a would-be speaker engineer to start his career with a wide dynamic-range, multi-way design, intended to cover the entire musical spectrum from infra-bass to ultra-treble, seems to me to be a perfect case of an admittedly well-intentioned fool rushing in where any sufficiently self-critical angel would fear to tread.
A reviewer's life is not all fame and fortune. There are downsides, too, one of which is that, while many great-sounding components pass through your listening room, only a few get to stay there on anything like a permanent basis. (And that involves money changing hands, as in [gasp!] "purchase.") Before I bought my long-term reference loudspeakers—a pair of B&W John Bowers Silver Signatures—back in 1994, the speakers that had spent the most time in my 2900-cubic foot listening room were a pair of Thiel CS2 2s. I reviewed the '2 2 in the January 1993 issue of Stereophile (Vol.16 No.1), and although it was relatively affordable ($2250/pair at the time of the review), it did most of what I wanted a speaker to do. Other than a limited dynamic range in the bottom audio octave and a slightly exaggerated top octave, the CS2 2 sounded effortlessly smooth and free from coloration throughout the midrange and treble. It was also a real imaging champ.
When I describe the Thiel CS7.2 to friends, the word that gets the biggest reaction is "simple." Veteran audiophiles protest, noting the big Thiel's multiple drivers, complex cabinet, and elaborate, zillion-element crossover. Nonaudiophiles just glance at the 5'-tall speaker, smile sympathetically at Bonnie, and roll their eyes.
These speakers inadvertently managed to put me in a good mood even before I listened to them, because of a dumb little gaffe committed by Thiel's packing department. Each speaker came with an Owner's Information sheet, which is nice. Each sheet included Unpacking (and Repacking) Instructions, which is nicer. But each sheet came packed inside the carton, underneath the speaker, where it was not accessible until after the speaker was dumped out of the box, which is pretty silly!
Those who have read this magazine regularly over the past five years know that Canadian designer Vince Bruzzese has been marketing his small, two-way loudspeakers under the Totem Acoustic brand name. Every review of one of these designs has raved about their strong bass response and three-dimensional imaging, but ends with a "but": "the sound is totally awesome, the imaging is holographic, and my wife thinks it looks terrific in the living room, but..."
I don't know whether Sam Tellig or I first discovered the delights of some slightly idiosyncratic loudspeakers made by Triangle—Tree-ON-gle, if you add the relevant accent—in the northeastern corner of France. I do recall feeling quite relieved to find that I wasn't the only hi-fi writer who liked and wrote about them.
Whenever I think of cone speaker systems, I think of three brand names: Snell, Thiel, and Vandersteen. There are many good loudspeakers and many good designers and manufacturers, but it is these three who, in my opinion, consistently produce the best cone loudspeaker systems. All three companies produce full-range systems, transparent systems, and systems which mate well with a wide range of equipment. Their systems can be owned and enjoyed for years. Long after some fad or special feature has given a competing designer brief notoriety, these are the products you turn back to for music.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.
In the Beginning Was the Word... At first blush, the sound of the Vandersteen Model 2Ce Signature transported me to a bucolic nature trail in the Berkshires on one of those high, dry August days when the amber stillness of late afternoon imparts a sense of otherness against the endless vistas of green and brown and blue. In my Wordsworthian reverie, as I made my way up the mountainside, remembrances of venerable loudspeakers past called out to me from the sturdy stands of New England foliage. Mark you the lofty maple and the supple white birch; the noble pine, the mighty oak and humble larch; there, on the crest, an Acoustic Research AR3a; farther up the ridge, a copse of Advent, KLH, and Allison—and finally, high on yonder peak, beckoning like God's own flip-top, crush-proof box, the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature.
Eighty thousand pairs. According to Vandersteen Audio, that's the number of Vandersteen 2s of various generations which have been sold since the loudspeaker—and company—first saw the light of day in 1977. The 2 has been continually refined along the way—a new driver here, a new crossover change there, heavy-duty stands—more changes, in fact, than the occasional changes in model designation would indicate. The 2's main calling card has always been a high perceived value for money. If anything, this calling card has only been enhanced over the years as its price remained remarkably stable while the cost of high-end audio in general was perceived—rightly or wrongly—as being on a dizzying upward spiral.
High-end-audio manufacturers are both more and less adventurous than their more mainstream contemporaries. While mainstream-audio manufacturers will almost invariably change their models every year, the changes are more often than not cosmetic—at least in between successive models. High-end manufacturers, on the other hand, will keep the same model in the line for several years, but make cosmetically invisible refinements along the way.