Thiel CS3.7 Speaker System Page 2

As impressive as the CS3.7’s cabinet is, the stars of this show are the new proprietary drivers that Thiel introduced with the CS3.7 a couple of years ago. A key battle in driver design is maintaining the rigidity that’s required to deliver flexion-free pistonic motion over the driver’s frequency range while keeping mass as low as possible. Thiel has upped the ante by designing and building its aluminum midrange driver diaphragms with corrugations (ripples) that offer high stiffness at low mass. At CES a couple of years ago, I held one of the corrugated 4.5-inch midrange cones in my hands and was astonished. It felt nearly as light as a double layer of aluminum foil. Thiel claims that this new midrange remains pistonic well beyond 20 kilohertz. Wide frequency response is essential for a first-order design in getting the driver resonances (all drivers have them) out beyond the already broad frequency range at which the driver is active. The 1-inch aluminum-domed tweeter is mounted coincident (coaxially), which means it sits inside this magic midrange. The flat, subtly rippled surface also does another cool thing. It minimizes diffraction of the tweeter’s output, which is a potential pitfall in coincident designs. The 10-inch woofer sits above a passive radiator of the same size, each with the similar ripple-effect construction for improved rigidity and low mass.

As is common today, while the CS3.7’s drivers are 100 percent designed by and proprietary to Thiel, they are manufactured in China. The CS3.7’s extruded-aluminum front baffle and the cast-aluminum top piece are also manufactured there. Thiel handcrafts the gorgeous wood cabinets and builds the speakers in its Lexington, Kentucky factory.

The System
Thiel doesn’t have a center speaker that matches the CS3.7 yet, so I pressed a Thiel SCS4 ($990, HT, April 2008) into duty. The SCS4 is a compact speaker, but its driver configuration eliminated the potential dispersion issues I’d have if I’d turned a speaker with vertically aligned midrange/tweeter drivers on its side.

For LFE, I used a Thiel SS2 powered SmartSub subwoofer ($4,900). I’d been dying to hear one of these babies in action for years, and this was my chance. The SS2 features a sealed box with two 10-inch aluminum-coned drivers and 1,000 watts (rated, RMS) of Class-D power. The sophisticated SmartSub design also has an impressive amount of configurability. A few button pushes on the SS2’s back-panel placement-correction adjustments tell the sub how far it is from the rear and side walls. The SS2 then uses that information to select an appropriate factory-set EQ curve. I only used the SS2 for movie playback, but Thiel also offers accessory passive crossovers and a SmartSub integrator. These offer very sophisticated ways to use the SmartSubs to augment your main speakers in addition to LFE playback.

The CS3.7s are large speakers, and I placed them out in my room with their front baffles 4 feet and change from the front wall. I put them on Thiel’s optional wide Outrigger bases, which use pointed stabilizer feet. I played around with positioning but ended up more or less where I started, with the speakers toed in just slightly but not pointed directly at the listening position. Overall, it was easy. While the Thiels imaged superbly at this position, I was concerned that this placement would compromise their bass response. I shouldn’t have worried. The Thiels were convincing with everything short of high-SPL pipe organs or LFE duty for Transformers. I placed the SCS4 sideways on a stand. This placed it vertically close to my front-projection screen but below my ears. It perfectly anchored dialogue at the screen. I used the SS2 as an LFE subwoofer (it also handled any bass rolled off from the other speakers in my system) and placed it in the corner.

Listening and Watching
Before I expand to surround sound, I’ll tell you what I heard from these Thiels with two channel music. The CS3.7s don’t merely impart an impression of transparency, they get out of the way altogether. In this context, less speaker sound is much more. It’s much more convincing and can more intimately connect the listener to the music. Instead of feeling like I was listening to a great stereo, I felt like I was involved in the musical performances. That sounds simple, but it’s rare magic.

Tonally, Thiel’s speakers have a reputation for a slightly cool character. I wouldn’t describe anything here as warm or fuzzy, but with my associated equipment, the system sounded neutral and exceptionally clear against the blackest backgrounds. I heard tremendous but not overbearing top-end air. Cymbal splashes and piano decay lit up the soundstage, but they receded naturally and convincingly. The midrange provided a wealth of inner detail that few speakers approach. The bass was just as superb. It was clean and nimble in the mid- and upper-bass regions, and the low-end weight and impact continually surprised me. The lowest registers of acoustic bass and piano really brought the body of those large instruments into the room. Full but strikingly textured, I haven’t heard better bass from a passive speaker.

Coherence isn’t just a buzzword or a mere concept. Many loudspeakers are fantastic with certain music components and present them in vivid color. However, few loudspeakers tonally and spatially pull the entire fabric together like the CS3.7 does. Tonally, this speaker reveals the instruments’ physical textural details in a way that doesn’t demand unwanted attention. Instead, it washes over you. Spatially, the CS3.7 presents dense, totally focused images from side to side and front to back. Plus, it re-creates both small and large environments astonishingly well. Regardless of price, there are very few speakers with imaging prowess comparable to the CS3.7. With Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall, the Thiels were a teleportation device. I was there. I heard the microdynamics in Young’s vocal inflections, his hands on the strings and body of his guitars, and the hall and the crowd. 3D is coming to TVs later this year, but I’ve already heard 3D in my listening room!

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