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!
I believe it was 1958 when I first heard a transistorized audio product. The Fisher TR-1 was a small battery-powered box that provided microphone preamplification and inputs for three magnetic phono sources.
This product is a pre-trol. What, you may well ask, is a "pre-trol?" Well, Threshold Corp. calls its FET-10 a preamplifier, but it isn't, really. In fact, it isn't an It at all; it's a Them. Only half of Them is a preamp, and you can buy each half separately. If that sounds a little confusing, maybe it's because some of the old, familiar language of audio is starting to lose its relevance.
Eleven years ago, Threshold Corporation entered the high-end audio market with the first amplifier ever to use sliding bias (footnote 1) in its output stages. Some 10 years later, Threshold spawned another innovation: their so-called Stasis circuitry, which yielded the S-series amplifiers. The SA-1 and its lower-powered sister SA-2 are the latest from Threshold, and are the first Threshold amps to abandon sliding bias for straight class-A operation. Both use the Stasis circuit.
Much of the descriptive terminology used in subjective reporting describes things we hear in live music, and expect—or, rather, hope—to hear from reproduced music, too. I'm referring to terms like width, depth, perspective, spectral balance, and tonal accuracy. If you read our reports, you know these terms as well as I do, and since they are (for most people) self-explanatory, I will devote no more time to them.
While the LP-vs-CD debate continues unabated among high-end audiophiles, the rest of the world has already closed the book on the venerable LP. All but a few specialized classical record companies (footnote 1)(and some weird magazines) have ceased releasing new LPs, few record stores sell them any more, and consumers who wouldn't be caught dead owning something that wasn't trendy have long ago dumped their LP collections for cents on the pound.
A reader who asked to remain anonymous wrote to tell us the results of some tests he saw conducted on one of our top-rated loudspeaker systems. Frequency-response checks showed that the system had virtually no deep bass, a midbass peak, a midrange slump, and a high-end rise. Further checks had shown gross distortion at input levels of over about 6W, and a definitely limited (although adequate for Row-M listening) maximum output-level capability. Said reader then went on to ask how we could possibly consider such a speaker to be one of the best available.
Few people in the audio business would deny that John Curl is an audio design genius—arguably the greatest one of our generation. He designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. (The other is Keith Johnson's home-brew unit.) He designed the JC-1 head amp and JC-2 preamplifier sold under the Mark Levinson name some years ago. He designed head amps for SOTA, Michaelson & Austin (TVA), and has done consulting work for more high-end companies than you can shake a stick at.
There is something vaguely disturbing about the idea of an $8000 turntable and arm combination. That's more money than a lot of audiophiles have invested in records through the years. Total overkill! Or so it might seem. But the entire history of analog disc reproduction, from the first LP to the present, has been one of seemingly open-ended discoveries—of subtleties nobody ever imagined were frozen in those tiny grooves, of levels of quality no one ever guessed the medium was capable of. Yes, newer LPs are a lot better than the first ones, but that is only to be expected in any technologically advancing field. What is amazing about the LP is that, 40 years after its introduction, we are still finding out that all of them, from the first to the latest, are better than anyone could have imagined. An improved phono unit doesn't just make the latest release from Wilson Audio or Reference Recordings sound better, it does the same for every LP you own!
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.
There is something refreshingly no-nonsense about the design and construction of this turntable. It looks as if someone just said, Okay, this, that, and the other thing need to be done. Let's do it. And then they did it. In appearance at least, it is about as simple a design as you're likely to find. What sets it apart from other simple designs is that this one is built like a battleship! Everything is heavy-duty (notto mention heavy), from the 10-lb, lead-laminated aluminum platter to the ¼"steel-reinforced subchassis.
Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.
First I should clear up what may be an ambiguity in the driver-lineup spec for these speakers. In each system, three 8" cone units serve as woofers. Two of these crossover from the midrange drivers at 100Hz. Crossover to the third 8-incher, the subwoofer, is at 40Hz. Thus, two woofers are active from 100Hz down to 40Hz, and all three are active below 40. In other words, the third woofer does not come into play until the frequency drops to the point where the radiating area of two 8-inchers starts to become inadequate for moving air, at which point the additional area of the third speaker is thrown in. Below 40Hz, all three are working together.
In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.