Equipment Review No. 2 December 2001
Thiel CS2.3 Loudspeaker
3-way system with 1" aluminum dome tweeter coaxially mounted with 4.5" aluminum midrange; 8" aluminum woofer; single wire 5-way binding posts; 11 x 15 x 41.5 inches; 70 pounds; rated 35 Hz- 23 kHz; 10 year warranty.
SRP: $3500 pr.
Philips CD transport; Meridian 568 Preamplifier; Krell KST-100 Amplifier; PS Audio P300 Power Plant; MIT, Discovery, and Audioquest wiring; and Revel F30 and Thiel PCS speakers for comparison.
Like the PCS speakers, I ran music through the CS2.3 for weeks before beginning the review process. They also served as main speakers during the Rel Storm III subwoofer review. My Martin Logan speakers are in the shop, so the Revel F30 was a natural choice for comparison-not only are they similarly priced, but could also be considered to appeal to the same type of listener. I placed the speakers farther apart than usual and toed them in very slightly. The CS2.3 were very critical to toe-in, so I spent a good amount of time moving the speakers. I used "Life Is Sweet" from Natalie Merchant's Ophelia to help make the adjustments. Eventually I achieved a good balance between sense of space and soundstage width and solid center image. I did not use the subwoofer for any of the actual testing, but the CS2.3 mated very well with the Rel. Thiel has a subwoofer in the works, although it wasn't available at the time of this review.
Right away I ran into testing difficulties with the Thiel speakers. For obvious aesthetic reasons the binding posts have been located on the bottom of the speaker. This makes for a nice visual presentation when walking behind the speakers, as well as keeping the speaker cable flat on the floor. The problem is that this made it difficult to disconnect and reconnect the speakers for comparison. In a normal listening situation this would never be a concern, but it meant that I had to lay the speaker on the carpet and fiddle with the connections over and over-ah, the life of a reviewer.
The stabilizer pins described in the manual (and supplied with the speakers) are basically spikes. The location for the speakers in my room is strictly hard wood flooring so I did not use these pins. The manual suggests moving the speakers and determining a final location before they are inserted. A friend who has had some experience with Thiel speakers warned me about putting the pins in place and then moving the speakers. Apparently, all it takes is an accidental snag on the carpet and you could damage the speaker! In any case, the pins are not essential, and the manual even mentions that on occasion using them will worsen the sound. Experimentation is the answer, but I achieved excellent results without them.
The speaker grills are removable and the speaker is quite attractive without them. However, I left them on during the review, and assumed that most people who buy this speaker will do so as well. The manual confirms that the grill does virtually nothing to alter sound quality, so I felt confident in leaving it in place. The manual itself is excellent and covers just about everything having to do with the speaker including design, placement, and even care of the wood finish. Bravo!
Listening- Part I
After playing with positioning as described in the Setup section, I launched into a few favorite CDs. I had been using the CS2.3 speakers as a main set of speakers in my listening room for a few other components under reviI"IK¤ eady fairly E-ortable with their sound. I had used them successfully while watching two months worth of movie reviews, as well as some old favorites while reviewing the Rel Storm III subwoofer. I was more than happy with their performance as front channel speakers in a surround system, so all the listening test in this review was dedicated to two-channel music listening.
First up was "Outbreak of Love" from Midnight Oil's Earth And Sun And Moon album. Soundstage was noticeably wide and deep. I did have the speakers a good distance apart, but center image was still solid. Thiel recommends an equilateral triangle placement scheme if possible, as opposed to a typical isosceles setup. The sound came from the plane of the speakers and extended back several feet beyond the back wall. Voices were clear and distinct from each other. There was a significant amount of high frequency content-almost too much. I thought it might have been the recording, but the Thiels do tend to have a very extended high frequency response. Unfortunately, I didn't have any other equipment that I can try that would help in this area, but my feeling and personal preference with these speakers (were I to use them permanently) would be a softer sounding set of equipment, preferably a tube preamp. In the past when I've heard this model as well as the CS3.6, an Audio Research Tube preamplifier was in use. I would consider older recordings and/or recordings that have plenty of upper range information to determine if this characteristic will be problematic. The quality was evident on guitars and percussive instruments that had a slight edge to them. Part of this was obviously software related, but the speaker added some of this. Transient response was excellent and there was no evidence of any kind of compression when the volume was increased.
For a little mellower folk rock sound I turned to James Taylor's "Fire And Rain" from his Greatest Hits record. Normally I expect to hear a deep powerful bass sound on this track, but the bass wasn't as convincing as on larger speakers with bigger bass drivers. The 2.3 was extremely well defined in the mid and upper-bass range, and gave the impression of tightness and control. Voice from this speaker is especially good in terms of dimensionality, fullness, size, and focus. The voice just seemed to hang in the air while the other instruments had a similar effect with a relatively black background and lots of air and space. The edginess was much reduced in comparison to the previous track, so I caution those who listen to mediocre and/or bright recordings. Dynamics were excellent as evidenced by the drum and percussive sounds. Imaging was great within a very naturally presented recorded space with the feel of a real acoustic. The size of everything was portrayed with great realism and helped to further the illusion of a live acoustic event.
"Portrait of A Young Mother" from Mal Waldron's Mal/ 3 Sounds CD contains a wonderfully rich and melodious vocal track. The female voice sounded so alive you would probably mistake it for a real person if you were standing in the other room. It truly seemed as if the chanting was coming from right in front of me! The instruments on this track vary in quality, however. The cello has a nice sound to it, and the plucks from the bass sounded like they were in the room. Lower frequencies from the bass sound like they are coming from under a blanket. The drummer sounds like he is in the kitchen playing the dishpans a good distance from the other performers. The Thiels handily conveyed the differences in depth and layering in the recording. Some of the more distant instruments help to give the feeling that the voice is more present, resonant, and the sound energizes the room. The echoes and reverb are unmistakable as the woman sings a lullaby to her infant. It is quite intoxicating. The trumpet has a natural squawk to its sound, but the piano sounds like it is playing in another room! The fact that the differences were so easy to pick out is a tribute to the resolving powers of the CS2.3.
For a change of pace I put on Shubert's Quartet #15 in G (GM Recordings GM2018). The sound from this piece was quite pleasing. I was duly impressed with the realistic size of the instruments and the ability of the speaker to present the recording environment. There was a marvelous sense of space and depth. Again, I wished for the opportunity to hear these speakers with a good tube preamplifier. There is a slight tendency toward brightness, and a bit of glare in the lower treble/ upper midrange was evident with this recording. It was slight, yet I felt that given the long list of positives attributed to the CS2.3 that this negative stood out. The music still managed to retain a level of sweetness, and this made it quite enjoyable. It was easy to hear the player(s) drawing a breath in between phrases-causing me to anticipate the following attacks while launching into the next musical expressions. The sound would build and build until a strong climax-pulling, almost dragging me to a final close. The notes from the plucking of the violin virtually danced off the board and popped into the air.
Patti Austin and James Ingram perform "Baby, Come to Me" on disc 2 of Forever 80's. Instruments were very good; voice was palpable with just the right amount of sibilance. This cut suffers from the "too much reverb syndrome." I could sit and listen for every moment on the high frequencies when the reverb would unnaturally come in. Oh, well. Drums were polite and easy. Harmonies were very nice and added to the sweet quality of the sound. I wished for a little more warmth, but mostly this was related to the recording. Overall, the sound was very spacious and filled the front of the room with sound.
Listening- Part II (Introduction)
Rather than set the speakers side by side for the listening test, I chose to audition them one at a time. I chose eight different recordings that I felt would give enough of a test to the CS2.3 and allow for easy comparison with the Revel F30 and the Thiel PCS. Both of these speakers were reviewed separately (links above), so my comments apply to the differences between them and the CS2.3. The recordings used for the auditioning were:
1 "Fireflies" by Gato Barbieri from Caliente
2 "Always and Forever" by Heatwave on Dedicated To You, Volume #3
3 "Bizarre Love Triangle" by Frente from Marvin The Album
4 "The Boy Is Mine" by Monica and Brandy on 1999 Grammy Nominees
5 The Finale from Symphony in B flat Hob. I:98 by Haydn (Philips 442 611-2)
6 "8/4 Beat" by Bobby Hutcherson from Atlantic Jazz Sampler again
7 "Little Wing" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience from Essential Jimi Hendrix Volume 1
8 "Good Morning Beautiful" by The The from Mind Bomb.
Listening- Part II (Comparisons)
With selection 1, the 2.3 speakers had sounds coming from beyond the edge of the right speaker. Cymbals were clear and silky and other percussive sounds were sweet. The cowbells were in the room with amazing clarity and liveliness. Bass was not that deep but sounded tight, with no overhang. The overall sound was dimensional and layered, and it was very easy to pick out different sounds in the soundstage. The saxophone stood out from the rest of the mix, but all the sound came from the plane of the speakers and back. The F30 had more extension in the bass, and that gave the presentation a richer sound. The F30 has more output in the midrange, and there was less on the top end. Note: In my previous review I used the Revel speakers with the tweeter position at -.5 db. This was clearly the wrong setting in the current system. I played with the control somewhere between +.5 and 0 db finally leaving it at 0. Even with the control set higher, the speaker gave the impression of being smoother in comparison to the 2.3. There was clearly not as much air, but the sound was mellower. This gave it a more forgiving sound and more relaxed presentation, but at the cost of some resolution. Imaging was not as precise, no matter how much I played with positioning and toe-in. Horn is softened by comparison to the 2.3. The PCS was much more like the 2.3. The restriction in low-frequency response in comparison with the other two speakers made the PCS seem "small" even though other aspects of the sound made it sound "big." At higher volumes the lack of bass was more noticeable.
With selection 2, the vocals on the 2.3 were quite nice, but with an occasional spittiness at certain times. Violin sound was very good and natural, percussion sounded good except for some sizzle on cymbals, and harmonies blended well with the main vocals. Soundstage had good width to it, and everything was tight and focused with vocals sounding realistic and present. With the F30 there was a miniscule amount of nasality added to the voice that made it appear thicker than on the 2.3. It could also have been the midrange balance that tended to smooth it out and make it richer sounding. The low end was more prevalent, and the harmonies did not stand out as much in the mix. The voice appeared more upfront, but at the same time the other instruments and sound appeared farther back. Cymbals were more reticent. There was not as much image focus on the F30 and everything blended more together. With the PCS it seemed that recording hiss and sibilance were even more noticeable than the 2.3. As the track got louder, the lack of bass was again more noticeable. The fullness in the lead vocal was not as great. It was less colored in comparison with the Revel, but sounded a bit "whiney" in comparison with the 2.3.
Selection 3 was not as telling a recording as I had hoped. The sense of air and quiet around the vocal and guitar were excellent on the 2.3. There was a slight wispiness on the voice that sounded just a bit too much, but it was so slight it was hard to pin on the speaker. It was easy to sense the proximity of the singer to the microphone and note changes in level and position. The F30 did not sound radically different from the 2.3 on this cut. There was a persistent toned-down quality to the sound including mellowness in the midrange that was more diffuse, and an added smoothness to the guitar. The voice does not stand out as much as the 2.3. The PCS was very much like the 2.3-sibilance was noticeable, and the high frequency concerns are still there. The funny thing is, I complained about this in my review of the Revel F30's and now it seems that those speakers are the softer ones. I guess it is all relative.
Selection 4 opens with some very nice electronic sounds that resemble a harp. The 2.3 played the cymbals a little hot although some of this is recording related. The bass was tight and popped, but not very deep. Vocals were a little recessed. On the F30, the opening percussive/ keyboard sounds were softer than the 2.3, and there was less difference between the two voices. The presentation is more homogenized and things are more blended together than on the 2.3. All the elements of the mix are favored about the same whereas with the 2.3 certain instruments had more front-to-back distance and more presence. The bass sounded a little muffled and not as distinct as the 2.3, but it did go deeper. With the PCS the instrumentation just hung in the air like it is supposed to. A subwoofer would be a welcome addition with this track. Every bass hit had less impact than it should. The good thing is it doesn't try to produce bass that it can't, so everything that is there is of the highest quality. The 2.3's did not give this feeling of missing bass. Definition was excellent much like the 2.3, but with a slight high frequency emphasis.
On selection 5 I could almost visualize the entire orchestra, albeit on a smaller scale than reality. When different instruments played it was no task to "see" their position in the overall soundfield. Strings had liveliness to the sound that was appropriate, but with a slight edge. This was somewhat recording related. The sound on the F30 was richer, but I felt it was lacking in resolution compared to the 2.3. The high frequency edge is gone, however. The softness in the midrange also helped to take out some of the edge, but also took away from some of the vibrancy of the performance. There was a more audible bass trail than on the 2.3. A decrease in sense of space made the recording acoustic harder to fix in my mind. The PCS had the same edge as the 2.3, but I would again suggest a different equipment choice to help alleviate or fully eliminate this. The sound was involving, and microdynamics and transients in the upper ranges were superior to the Revel and much like the 2.3.
With selection 6, the 2.3 speakers really shined. The xylophone was very mellow and pleasant sounding, and you could distinguish between the tones of each of the keys as they were struck with the hammer. The cymbals and percussion had just the right amount of scratchiness, and the horn honked, as it should. The sound coming from the speakers was easy and smooth, dynamics and transient response was excellent, and the frequency range was well integrated from top to bottom. Depth, imaging, three dimensionality, and sense of space are some of the best qualities of the CS2.3. I'm not sure if it is due to the crossover choices or sloping front panel with very little diffraction, but the characteristics are definitely there. When I began listening to the F30 I promptly wrote "mellow" in my notes. The bass, midrange, highs, and focus were very similar to the 2.3, but there was not as much depth to the presentation. Cymbals were less distinct. In general there was less texture and substance to the sound of the cymbals through the F30. The horn took on a richer/heavier/thicker quality. The F30 is a naturally more forgiving speaker than the Thiel and would generally work better on harsher recordings. The PCS showed more of a scratchy sound on cymbals, but the xylophone was vivid and more fleshed out than through the F30-just like the 2.3. Runs up and down the bass were harder to make out in comparison with the other two speakers. If the slight metallic edge were gone from the high frequencies, then this speaker would be hard to beat.
I chose selection 7 because it is especially gritty. The guitar sound on the 2.3 was grinding and gritty the way only an electric guitar with effects can sound. The recording is a little bright, but otherwise melodious. Jimi's voice rises out of the sound of the music, and the instruments manage to stay separate from each other. The F30 had more foundation to the bass, but the sound was thicker and not as quick. The guitar seemed toned down and did not rock as hard as with the 2.3. The PCS presented a little more grit than I wanted. The bass was very good, but there was more hash to the sound than I thought was on the 2.3. Normally I'd say that perhaps the PCS needed more break-in, but the amount of time I spent with them playing seemed more than sufficient. The midrange was very clean and had more inner detail than the Revel speakers.
For the last selection I chose, I made sure there was a lot of distinct instruments and wide placement in the soundstage. The 2.3 did not disappoint. This recording has just a slight edge to it, but it wasn't too bad. The whispering girl on this cut can take you by surprise if you aren't expecting it and in a dark room can almost be scary. Drums were good, and the sound was very spacious. The main vocals travel from speaker to speaker and the transition was more poignant than on the F30. The F30 did have a somewhat wider soundstage. The bass was deeper but not as taut. The voice was more upfront and the image didn't have as much depth. With the PCS the horn was not as fat, but the sound was mostly the same as the 2.3. Overall, the performance of the PCS was commendable given its much smaller size.
The Thiel CS2.3 is an impressive speaker. Its strong points are imaging, depth, soundstaging, dimensionality, and resolution. I had excellent results using the speakers with solid-state equipment, but my recommendation would be to check out a tube preamplifier. My only concern was a slight glare or added edge in the high frequencies. Certain recordings seem to be more effected than others, but it was evident even with higher quality recordings. In comparison with the Thiel PCS, the CS2.3 offered a little more performance for roughly the same price although the PCS offered much of the sound of its larger cousin in a much smaller package. The CS2.3 was happy with all types of music as well as movie material. For those who plan to use the speaker in larger rooms, or with material with generous amounts of bass content, it would be a good idea to add a subwoofer. Eventually Thiel will make a subwoofer that will most likely be a perfect match. Bring some music and go audition this speaker at your local dealer. It just might offer the combination of performance and looks that will make you happy.
- Brian Bloom
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