High Quality Speakers for Less


As we head into the final week of 2008, it may be tough to see a silver lining in today's rocky markets -- but you can certainly hear one.

Audio is confounding today's dark economy. To my eye -- or ear, rather -- there has never been better sound at better prices. You can hear the value seemingly everywhere.

It is no secret that major consumer electronics vendors like Samsung and Panasonic (PC) have not been shy about bundling and discounting their televisions and other media products with decent sound systems. Best Buy (BBY) in particular loves to push these so-called bundled packages. Recently, the retailer featured a Sony (SNE) 32-inch 720 P LCD HDTV matched with a five-speaker so-called 5.1 surround-sound home theater system, both for $699 or about $450 off list. The audio quality from these sorts of systems, while not at the tip top of my impossible-to-satisfy standards, are respectable given the spend.

What is getting overlooked in these no-go times is that there is plenty to listen for from smaller, less-well-known audio makers. These companies have their roots in the hot house world of audiofile sound. That is the place where sound junkies -- like me -- try to justify that, yes, spending $200,000 on a two-speaker sound system is reasonable.

The names l know -- and have audio love for these days -- out of the flocks of these makers is Joseph Audio, Bel Canto Design, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Sumiko, Von Schweikert Audio, Manley Labs and Pass Labs.

But even these once lofty brands are offering some nice equipment at reasonable prices. I have been testing one such, entry-level lux audio product: THIEL Audio's SCS4s loudspeaker ($1,000 each).

What you get. A very high quality speaker for not a very high price.

Leave it to speaker wiz Jim Thiel, co-founder and product designer of Lexington, Ky.-based THIEL Loudspeakers, to create the first deliciously annoying speaker. It's not that the SCS4s are bad -- far from it. The quality here is flat-out excellent. The annoying part is, THIEL sort of sneaks that excellence upon you.

At a just barely a grand each, the SCS4 really should be a mid- to low-market audiofile unit. So when I set up these speakers, I matched them against other perfectly reasonable mid-market equipment: The Denon AVR-2808CI integrated amp, and my own home made cabling and wiring. But after just 3 seconds of listening to the SCS4s, they were just too good to compare. That meant I had some serious upgrading and benchmarking to do. And hence the annoying part: there were a few trips to the audio store for better cables; cleaning up my listening room to get it tuned properly; and ringing out the electronics so the signals were as they should be. It all turned into work.

But the remarkable part was, the THIELs were worth it. The speakers performed well enough to bring the best -- and worst -- out of the signal being run into them: a sign of a high-quality piece of audio equipment.

What you're listening for in better sound is the unparalleled experience of having a musical master -- and this not drivel here, but the actual experience -- in the room with you. To this day, and I have heard this recording more times than I can count, on good equipment Billy Holiday is there in my living room singing "Lover Man." No kidding.

Great sound equipment is not about loudness or rumbling low sounds or any of that nonsense -- it is about transparency. That is, capturing what happened and rendering that for you as clearly as possible. And from this perspective, the THIELs do a heck of a job for the price. Particularly for mid-frequency details, that is the bits of sounds that float around in the middle noises and the scratch and movements of the musicians themselves, these speakers rendered remarkably well.

And THIEL has been smart to build real world flexibility here. These units will work well on their side, say on a book shelf, or on a stand or a table, or even the floor, though I would not recommend that. Toss in the very nice cherry finish, the excellent workmanship and the well-done grill details, and THIEL has put in a lot of value here.

What you don't get: A state of the art speaker.

The SCS4s perform better than what I would expect for a $1,000 box. But there are limits. Their cleanliness of sound, while a virtue for many applications, gets a bit bland after a while. I miss the punch and lushness of a larger, more complex, and yes more expensive, unit. And don't think of overdriving these THIELs with a big fat amp. They are clear, but they are not massively powerful. So use your judgment.

Bottom line: Jim Thiel has made a lot of box for the money. And if you are looking for ways to drown your sorrows these dark days, he has given you another option besides scotch.

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