February 1, 2009
Thiel Audio CS2.4SE Loudspeakers
When I learned about the introduction
of Thiel Audios CS2.4SE loudspeaker, I immediately threw my reviewers hat in
the ring. Thiels representatives e-mail went something like, Can you do the
review now, and will a somewhat shortened review period suffice? There are going to be
only 150 pairs and only one set of review samples. To which I responded: Yes, no
problem -- send em on!
To my way of thinking, Thiels original CS2.4 had
always been a winning proposition: a speaker at a popular price of $4900 USD per pair,
from a company that has always been mentioned in any conversation about "great
loudspeakers." Thiel Audio is led by a designer, Jim Thiel, who is one of the big
names in the audio world, and whose products are pictures of technical prowess -- as
evidenced by our SoundStage! measurements. Add to all of that a
Signature Edition upgrade of one of his most popular models, and . . . well, Id
deserve to lose my audiophile pocket card if I turned down the chance to review it.
The CS2.4 platform
The CS2.4 has been around for several years. The Signature
Edition isnt a complete rethinking of it, but a refinement of what was already
considered a winning formula (see Jim Thiels thoughts on this below). Most of the
CS2.4s technical details remain unchanged in the CS2.4SE ($8000/pair): its a
three-way, floorstanding design measuring 41.5"H x 11"W x 14"D and weighing
70 pounds, with a coincident tweeter/midrange driver mated to an 8" woofer, all
drivers made of metal. The coincident unit -- a 1" tweeter mounted inside a 3.5"
midrange cone, the two sharing a single voice-coil -- is in many ways the heart of Jim
Thiels design philosophy: It provides the listener with a time- and phase-coherent
signal that, according to Jim Thiel, results in "enhanced realism, clarity,
transparency and immediacy as well as improved imaging and soundstaging in both the
lateral and depth perspectives." First-order crossover networks are combined with a
sloped front baffle to aid in proper acoustical and electrical alignment for Thiels
time and phase specifications. The CS2.4SEs bass response is augmented by a
7.5" x 11" passive radiator.
A single set of large, gold-plated, super-heavy-duty
binding posts are provided on the CS2.4SEs rear panel. These are really nice -- very
easy to tighten, with fingers or wrench. Specifications supplied by Thiel include a
frequency response of 33Hz-37kHz and an impedance of 4 ohms. The sensitivity is rated at
87dB/2.8V/m. And, like all Thiel speakers, the CS2.4SE has an impressively robust ten-year
Signature Edition differences
The list of upgrades that make the CS2.4 an SE are mostly
cosmetic, but the one that Thiel claims actually enhances the speakers performance
is not a typical Thiel "thing": "ultra-fine-grade boutique
capacitors." These crossover parts are high-dollar items, according to Thiel, and
responsible for some real sonic benefits. They may not have the type of price/performance
ratio that Jim Thiel usually looks for when speccing out a loudspeaker design, but this is
a Signature Edition; Thiel adjusted his standard for this model. Other touches are
stainless-steel hardware that secures the drivers to the baffle; a finish of Vermilion
Maple, complete with a bevel between the black baffle and the stained wood; an aluminum
rear panel laser-engraved with a facsimile of Jim Thiels signature; and nicely
finished outriggers of milled aluminum complete with polished spikes.
I didnt have a pair of CS2.4s on hand to do any
detailed comparisons, so I decided to ask Jim Thiel a few questions about the differences
between the products. After all, a $3100 upcharge -- a price increase of 63% -- is not
insignificant. My first question was: "When you decided to create a Special Edition
version of the CS2.4, what were your goals for bettering the original, specifically?"
Jim Thiels answer: "The CS2.4s have been a very
successful model for us and, originally, the SE version was conceived only as a
commemorative edition with some enhanced cosmetic features. The SE would have a beautiful,
unique finish, refined spikes, and a laser-etched metal input panel with [my] signature.
But then we decided to also improve the performance by relaxing our usual value placed on
a high performance/price ratio. In this way, we could also achieve some improvement in
sound, while recognizing that this limited Special Edition would be available as an option
to the interested buyer."
My next question involved the changes in the speakers
crossover: "When reexamining the CS2.4 crossover, was it your intent to only change
to better-quality components, or were there other improvements, such as physical layout
and parts values, that were addressed?"
According to Thiel, "Our intent was to
only improve upon the component quality. We liked the tonal balance of the CS2.4, so we
didnt want to change values. We changed two key capacitors in the coax signal path
to ultra-premium parts at a very high comparative cost that did improve performance.
Physical layout had to change slightly to accommodate the much larger size of the new
capacitors." Thiel didnt specify which brands of capacitor he used, but he did
talk about the selection process: "We ordered samples from several well-regarded
brands and listened to each of them in the signal path. We spent quite a bit of time in
our listening room with a variety of reference recordings, listening for greater
resolution and musical involvement. Stock CS2.4 caps are very good, but the ones chosen
for the CS2.4SE reaffirmed for us that the CS2.4 coax is a wonderfully detailed driver
worthy of the SE upgrade."
How were the improvements measured? Jim Thiel again:
"The improved resolution is not the kind of thing that shows up well in measurements;
the magnitude of the difference between the CS2.4 and the CS2.4SE is more easily heard
than discerned from graphs. The new capacitors allow more nuance, air, detail, and decay
to be reproduced by the coaxial drive unit. This was especially evident to us when
listening to recordings that contained realistic reverberation, as well as recordings
where the instruments were not processed heavily."
Last, I asked Thiel if there was a way to quantify the
sonic improvements. Just how much better is the CS2.4SE than the CS2.4?
"I think, to some people, the SE upgrade is going to
be considered a substantial improvement. The degree of improvement will depend on each
individuals listening habits, musical preference, and associated equipment. The SE
crossover upgrade is certainly a worthwhile improvement to us here at Thiel, and, along
with the unique physical features already mentioned in the finish, the signed back panel,
and the outriggers, we think that the CS2.4SE represents a high degree of value for the
150 fortunate people who we think will be very pleased to own a pair."
I auditioned the CS2.4SE speakers with my Apple MacBook
laptop feeding an Audio Research DAC7 via USB. Also along for the ride were the Simaudio
Moon Evolution P-8 preamplifier and a pair of Classé Omega Omicron Mono amplifiers.
Cabling and power conditioning were by Shunyata Research: Aurora-IC interconnects,
Aurora-SP speaker cables, Hydra V-Ray power conditioner; Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX, Python
Helix Alpha/VX, Taipan Helix Alpha/VX power cords.
See the entire Thiel CS2.4SE gallery by Chris Lang.
Signature Edition sound
About seven years ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show, I
was having dinner with a group of reviewers, including one fellow we were considering
hiring on to the SoundStage! Network. He was a nice enough guy, and obviously passionate
about music and sound. At one point he launched into a rather long dissertation about some
component he had in his system and how it, um, sounded. He was using more 75¢ words per
sentence than I could keep up with, most of which didnt seem to describe sound at
all. Everyone at the table nodded politely, and dinner continued. Driving back to our
hotel afterward, I looked at two of my colleagues. "Do either of you know what the
hell he was talking about?" We all busted out laughing. No one there could translate
what hed said into standard English. We didnt hire the guy.
I tell this story because the words that best describe the
Thiel CS2.4SE arent ethereal or sublime. What first come to mind are words such as clear
and precise, followed by a really good or two.
First and foremost, the CS2.4SE produced crystal-clear
sound. From the lowest bass notes it could produce to the highest highs I can hear, the
sound was always open and straightforward. The Thiel seemed to shine a light on the entire
audio spectrum, fully revealing the music I listened to. Loreena McKennitts voice on
her new album, A Midwinter Nights Dream (CD, Quinlan Road B0012096-02), was a
fine example. It floated freely in the space of my listening room, without any apparent
coloration or veiling. I could hear deep into the substance of her voice on "Coventry
Carol" -- the Thiels placed a very close approximation of McKennitt right in my room.
Her image was completely detached from the speakers, and properly scaled with the
instruments around her. And all the while, the clarity remained pristine.
Music that was highly compressed and generally poorly
recorded sounded that way. I was disappointed with the sound of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
singing "Like We Never Loved at All," from Reflected: Greatest Hits, Vol.2
(CD, Curb D2-78891). The entire recorded event was flat and hard. The Thiels did nothing
to pretty-up the sound, performing just as a high-fidelity product should: they reproduced
the music with the highest possible fidelity to the quality of the original recording.
On the other hand, terrific recordings were also presented
just as they should be. Carol Rosenbergers Water Music of the Impressionists
(CD, Delos CD3006) was startling, the sound of her Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand at
once powerful and delicate. The space around the piano sounded natural and live, conveying
the mood of the performance directly to my listening position. The CS2.4SE could do
microdynamics about as well as any speaker Ive heard. It got right the little
details that are so important to the most finely recorded performances. Every live
recording I played was a treat because the Thiels held nothing back -- each little nuance
and detail was exposed in a revealing and neutral manner. This is what its all
about, I thought.
During an extended listening session with a friend, I
mentioned to him that the CS2.4SEs really seemed to benefit from a superquiet listening
room. My Listening Vault is indeed quiet, but sometimes my two-year-old sons voice
can break right on through the walls triple-layer construction of sheetrock and
plywood. I found the Thiels so adept at low-level resolution that having as low a noise
floor as possible became a must -- only then could I hear all of the little details in
live concert recordings that make them so special. The Thiels could reproduce sounds that
many other speakers seem to ignore. They begged me to listen to them.
The CS2.4SE filled the Music Vault (which measures 23
6"W x 201"D x 9"H) as well as have some far larger speakers, and with
articulate, solid bass down into the mid-30Hz region. They couldnt reproduce all
of the bass that those big bruisers could, however. For instance, one of my references for
great bass is "Norbu," from Bruno Coulaiss Himalaya (CD, Virgin 8
48478 2). The big bass-drum whacks and the ensuing decay at the start of the song were
truncated just a bit by the Thiels in terms of both depth of pitch and overall reverberant
power. But what surprised me was just how good the bass that the Thiels did produce
was. Although by no means in super-subwoofer territory, the bass of these fairly compact
floorstanders was worlds apart from that of most stand-mounted speakers Ive heard. I
think most audiophiles could live happily with the CS2.4SEs low-end response, which
was solid and clean. For those who need a touch more oomph, I recommend pairing the
CS2.4SEs with one of Thiels own subwoofers. This is sheer conjecture, but I imagine
that a Thiel SmartSub SS1 subwoofer and two CS2.4SEs would come closer to the state of the
two-channel art than a sub-$15,000 system has any right to. If that were my budget, that
array would surely be on my short list.
Last, the CS2.4SEs cast an amazingly wide, deep soundstage.
In my room they floated aural images between them with a pinpoint precision equal to some
of the best speakers Ive ever heard at any price. They reproduced with accuracy and
exactness all the fine lateral gradations between dead center and incremental shifts to
left and right. If, like most audiophiles, what trips your switch is to close your eyes,
turn out the lights, and mentally "watch" a performance unfold in your room, the
Thiel CS2.4SEs are ideal speakers for you.
The Signature ending
The Thiel CS2.4SE is about the best loudspeaker Ive
heard in my listening room for under $10,000/pair, and its limited-edition cachet is just cool.
If I were shopping in this price range, the CS2.4SE is what I would buy. Im sure
Ill be telling all my audiophile friends about it in the coming months, but with
Thiel Audio making a total of only 150 pairs, the shelf life of those comments and this
review wont be long. The CS2.4SE is one of only a very few audio products I can
recommend without the caveat of ". . . but first hear them for yourself."
I cant imagine anyone not being thrilled with them. Get a pair while you still can.
. . . Jeff Fritz
Thiel Audio CS2.4SE Loudspeakers
Price: $8000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor.
Thiel Audio Products
1026 Nandino Boulevard
Lexington, KY 40511
Phone: (859) 254-9427
Fax: (859) 254-0075