Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Today’s consumer knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Several years ago, while completing my master’s degree, I worked for a brief stint at a friend’s audio shop. A sales representative visited one day, and I talked with him about the fact that so many people who came into the store were more interested in the prices of the speakers and electronics we sold than in the quality of those products. He replied with the sentence italicized above, and it’s stuck in my head ever since. I didn’t realize at the time that he was paraphrasing a line from Act III of Lady Windermere’s Fan, by the Irish novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright Oscar Wilde; a line that originally described not consumers but cynics -- although I suppose that, very often, there is no difference.
When I received Thiel Audio’s SCS4T loudspeakers for review and began listening to them, I thought about my conversation with the sales rep that day. At $3650 USD per pair the SCS4T isn’t exorbitantly expensive, at least not by the standards of anyone even vaguely familiar with high-end audio. The ordinary consumer, though, might find it difficult to imagine spending $3650 on a pair of speakers when a new TV and home-theater-in-a-box can be purchased for less. After I’d spent more time with the SCS4T, it became evident that although its price was more or less commensurate with those of many of its competitors, its sound was in some ways noticeably superior. I realized that it would be impossible to put a price on the pleasure I was experiencing listening to them, and that therein lay their outstanding value. But before delving further into that, a few things about the speakers.
Thiel Audio, based in Lexington, Kentucky, needs little introduction. All I’ll say here is that the company has been prominent in the American loudspeaker industry for over three decades, and that their products have been featured on the SoundStage! Network many times. For more about their history, I encourage readers to visit their website.
The SCS4T began selling in 2010; designed as a floorstanding version of the smaller SCS4 bookshelf speaker, it’s the second-smallest floorstander in Thiel’s product line. The SCS4T weighs 50 pounds and measures 38”H x 8.38”W x 10.8”D (or, with the floor spikes and outriggers attached, 42.25”H x 12.67”W x 12.6”D). Around back is a pair of very-high-quality binding posts that can accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wire. The SCS4T also comes equipped with a svelte metal grille; this attaches magnetically, to cover the coaxial driver that is at the core of the design.
In a coaxial driver, a smaller driver is mounted inside a larger one in such a way that they share the same central axis (hence co-axial). The purpose of this approach is to produce a coherent source (which is what the CS in SCS4T stands for) in which all sound originates from a single point. In a typical two-way speaker design, the tweeter is completely separate from the midrange-woofer, which means that the outputs of the two drivers will arrive at the listener’s ears at slightly different times because the soundwaves from one driver have farther to travel than the soundwaves from the other. In a coaxial driver, all sound originates from the same point, and because the drivers are equidistant from the listener (and coupled by a crossover topology that supports it), the drivers’ outputs reach the listener’s ears simultaneously; in other words, their outputs are time coincident. Can the human ear actually distinguish such small differences in arrival time? The late Jim Thiel believed so, and this principle has long formed the foundation for how he and his company have designed loudspeakers. An additional advantage to this approach is that, in a room with multiple people listening, the off-axis response would be very similar in quality for all listeners, regardless of where they sit.
The coaxial driver used in the SCS4T consists of a high-output 1” metal-dome tweeter mounted inside a high-output, low-distortion 6.5” metal diaphragm. The tweeter is an example of trickled-down technology if ever there was one -- it’s the same one Thiel uses in their three-and-a-half-times-more-expensive flagship model, the CS3.7. Another Thiel trademark is the use of a short-coil/long-gap, copper-stabilized motor system for the 6.5” midrange-woofer. Thiel claims that this significantly reduces distortion, and that this driver’s cone is specially shaped to reduce diffraction of the tweeter’s output. Thiel has been using a similar design for years; clearly, they’ve found something that works for them.
In addition to time coincidence, Thiel is a big proponent of making their drivers phase coherent. This means that the diaphragm of each driver must move in and out in step with the other. In other words, as one driver pushes air out, so does the other (as opposed to having one driver pushing air while the other pulls). Achieving phase coherence requires the use of a first-order crossover, meaning that through the crossover region each driver is rolled off by 6dB per octave. In order to allow for such a gradual crossover transition (as opposed to a fourth-order crossover, in which the drivers’ output is decreased by 24dB/octave), the drivers must be capable of operating over a wide bandwidth without audible breakup (i.e., distortion). Presumably, this is why metal drivers figure so prominently in Thiel speakers: their rigid diaphragms have the combination of light weight and stiffness necessary to reproduce such a broad frequency range.
Drivers and crossover aside, another key element in the SCS4T’s design is its cabinet. Its walls of 1”-thick MDF are laminated on both sides, and it has thick internal bracing to further reinforce the box and reduce unwanted cabinet resonances. The driver is mounted on a die-cast aluminum baffle to further increase rigidity.
Thiel claims for the SCS4T a frequency response of 48Hz-20kHz, +/-2dB, and a sensitivity of 87dB. The speaker’s nominal impedance of 4 ohms (3 ohms minimum) is a bit on the low side; you’ll need an amplifier comfortable with a 4-ohm load if you plan to get the best out of these speakers. Given its moderate sensitivity, the SCS4T should start singing with just 50W (Thiel recommends a minimum of 30Wpc). Obviously, if you like to listen loud, you’ll want a beefier amp. I had no trouble driving them with a Bryston B100 SST integrated amplifier.
The SCS4T is available in three real-wood finishes: Natural Cherry, Dark Cherry, and Black Ash. The review samples were finished in Dark Cherry, and though I prefer a lighter-colored wood (in the photos I’ve seen, the Natural Cherry looks very sharp), the fit’n’finish of the SCS4Ts was beyond reproach. Thiel strikes me as being a little obsessed with detail; the meticulous care that had obviously been taken in building the SCS4Ts was apparent the first time I set eyes on them. Even the black, brushed aluminum of the outriggers and the gunmetal finish of the spikes were superb, while providing a wide, stable footprint for the speakers. If I could make only one change to the speaker’s appearance, I would have tried to find a way to hide the six screws used to affix the coaxial driver to the aluminum baffle. It’s not a big deal, but it would have made for an even cleaner appearance.
According to the user manual, the SCS4T requires a minimum of 50 hours played at moderate volumes before it will perform at its optimum, with further improvements taking place even after 100 hours. I’ve been skeptical of such statements because I’d never used a speaker that took that long to break in. The Thiels changed that. Although I didn’t consult a stopwatch to determine the exact moment the SCS4Ts began to sing, they took considerably longer to get to that point than any other speaker in my experience.
The changes were pretty striking. At first the SCS4Ts sounded pretty boxed in, especially through the midrange and bass. There wasn’t much space in the music, as reflected by the constrained soundstage they reproduced. Furthermore, the highs were a bit bright, with a metallic edginess that was unpleasant at high volumes. A few days later, it was as if the SCS4Ts had been replaced by different speakers. The sound opened up tremendously, and music seemed to emanate from the entire front of the room, instead of just in the area of the two boxes. The tweeter lost its harsh edge, but managed to retain excellent extension that was far smoother and more liquid than before.
Originally, I’d positioned the SCS4Ts so that their baffles were 43” from the front wall. The sense of scale they created from these locations was impressive, and the music spread from wall to wall. Unfortunately, the Thiels didn’t quite measure up in the bass, where they sounded extremely clean but rather thin. I moved them 6” closer to the front wall to see if I could extract some more low end, and presto! The bass was still crystal clear, but now full enough to give music that feeling of extra oomph that I crave. The soundstage was still enormous; in fact, moving the SCS4Ts closer to the wall had only created more space, particularly in terms of depth. Finally, the Thiels ended up with their baffles 37” from the front wall, their tweeters 66” apart, and the outer edge of each cabinet 26” from the sidewall it faced. They produced such a big soundstage that I found myself sitting 7’ away -- 1’ farther away than usual.
If I were asked to say only two things about the sound of the Thiel SCS4T, it would be that it was exquisitely balanced and extraordinarily clean. In fact, my listening notes are peppered with those two adjectives. The Thiel was very transparent, letting me hear everything on my CDs, LPs, and digital files without unduly emphasizing any single facet of the music. Instead, a sense of “rightness” accompanied everything I played through them -- once they were set up properly, I didn’t want more or less of anything. But the SCS4T didn’t make crappy-sounding recordings suddenly more listenable: it was too neutral for that. What it did do was give me total access to my music collection, letting me hear not only what was in the pits of my CDs and the grooves of my vinyl, but also what the rest of my system was doing. In another word, the SCS4T was highly revealing -- I prefer that sort of sound, and the Thiel transported me to sonic nirvana, donning a different sonic mask for every album I played.
Because the SCS4Ts were able to create such a wide soundstage, I tried pointing them straight ahead to see if I could make that stage even wider. They managed very good center fill, but I found that music sounded less diffuse with the speakers toed in, which was ultimately how I left them. Will Butler’s voice in “Modern Man,” from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (CD, Merge MRG385), was tighter with the Thiels toed-in several degrees; it brought him, and the music as a whole, into better focus. The Suburbs didn’t make any lists for Best Recording of 2010, but the songs are consistently remarkable, and the Thiels conveyed them as such, reproducing only what was on the disc.
Once the SCS4Ts had fully broken in, it became apparent that their reproduction of high frequencies was on a par with the best I’ve heard. The tweeters were extended and clean without crossing the line toward becoming bright or brash. They sound detailed and quick, portraying the attack and decay of strings with speed and precision; instruments in complex passages were easy to distinguish. If you favor speakers that open a window on the music, the SCS4Ts did it with ease.
Highly revealing, the SCS4T did a wonderful job of conveying a recording’s low-level detail and subtle musical nuances. Combined with how adept the pair of them were at creating a wide soundstage with depth that extended past the front wall of my listening room, the SCS4Ts made it a cinch to sort out what was happening on the stage. Loreena McKennitt’s Nights from the Alhambra (CD, Quinlan Road QRCDDVD2-110-N) features an incredible cast of musicians playing a variety of string and percussion instruments, several of which were unknown to me prior to hearing this album. Through the Thiels, I was given a front-row seat at the wonderful concert at which this album was recorded: they did a fine job of demarcating each performer in a distinct place at the front of my room. I could even hear the space around the instruments, almost to the point where I felt I could rise from my seat and move among them. Such a level of realism is difficult to re-create, but the Thiels handled it better than most.
And don’t let the SCS4T’s somewhat small size fool you into thinking it couldn’t play loudly. Each weighs a sturdy 50 pounds, and though its dimensions mightn’t be too imposing, it could handle lots of power. The pair of them easily filled my medium-size room with crystal-clear sound, tearing with aplomb through the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (LP, Promotone B.V. B0014203-01); “Casino Boogie,” a bluesy rock tune (which I guess describes most of the album), had a swagger and energy that were infectious. Music like this is well served by turning it up, and the Thiel was definitely up to the task. Rated to handle from 30 to 200Wpc, it did a remarkable job of maintaining its composure even when I took admitted liberties with the volume dial. If you like to unwind, let your hair down, and various other clichés at the end of the week while listening to some jammin’ music, the SCS4T will be ready to party when you get home.
In terms of bass quality, the SCS4T was almost beyond reproach: fast and accurate down low, starting and stopping on a dime with the discipline and nimble-footedness of a middleweight boxer. It provided more than enough of the underpinning needed to give the music a solid rhythmic foundation and get my toe tapping. What it lacked was any bloat or heft added to the music that would have made it sound sloppy and overblown. The SCS4T is rated as being 2dB down at 48Hz, and though I was unable to measure it, I suspect it dug a bit deeper in my room. One thing the potential buyer needs to know is that the SCS4T was not warm or heavy in the bass. It didn’t add any weight down low that wasn’t already in the music, nor did it cause my room to rumble. The SCS4T is about quality over quantity; although I think Thiel has found the perfect balance between the two, that’s something each listener must decide for him- or herself.
When the Thiel SCS4Ts arrived, I still had on hand a pair of Argon3Ls, from Finnish manufacturer Amphion. It would have been difficult to select a better speaker to compare with the SCS4T. At $3695/pair in black or white veneer ($3995/pair in a real-wood finish), the Amphion is a direct competitor with the SCS4T in terms of price, and also like the Thiel, it’s a two-way design with a 1” tweeter and 6.5” midrange-woofer. Unlike the SCS4T, the Argon3L doesn’t have a coaxial driver; its tweeter, at the base of a deep waveguide, is separate from its midrange-woofer. The speakers are similar in size. The fit’n’finish of both are superb, though the Thiel has a few more stylistic touches that contrast with the Amphion’s simplicity. Either will blend nicely with modern décor.
The Thiel and Amphion also shared some sonic traits. Each sounded exceptionally clean, and allowed me to hear into the darkest recesses of the music. For those listeners who prefer a more detailed sound, either speaker will likely be more than adequate. If you want still more detail, you may have to consider an electrostatic speaker, or something costing significantly more than either of these; at this price, the Thiel and Amphion are pretty much at the top of the class.
Both speakers could also play very loud without flinching, and should have no trouble filling a medium-size room with wall-to-wall sound. Each pair was capable of creating a three-dimensional soundscape that fully immersed me, while simultaneously establishing a sense of presence that made music more tangible.
Differences began to emerge at the frequency extremes. Overall, I found the SCS4T more extended in the highs, where the uppermost octaves seemed to soar into the stratosphere. In contrast, the Finnish speaker seemed a touch subdued up top, ever so slightly rolled off and not quite as incisive as its American counterpart. This may be why I found the SCS4T a bit more detailed than the Argon3L, though this also had something to do with to with these speakers’ reproduction of bass.
In fact, their differences in bass performance was what really distinguished these speakers. The Argon3L digs a lot deeper and has a much weightier low end. But while the Argon3L produces clean, full bass, it couldn’t match the clarity of the SCS4T down low. In fact, the Amphion sounds fatter, and lacks the Thiel’s start-and-stop-on-a-dime discipline. The thump of the kick drum on Great Lake Swimmers’ Lost Channels (LP, Nettwerk Productions 0 6700 30893 1 9) was tighter through the Thiel, but lacked the weight it had through the Amphion. The Thiel sounded more accurate, though the Amphion reproduces Lost Channels with more warmth -- very appropriate for what is essentially a folk record.
Despite their similar prices, sizes, and driver configuration, the Thiel SCS4T and Amphion Argon3L sounded sufficiently dissimilar that each will appeal to a different type of listener. Both were very transparent throughout the audioband, but their performance diverged at the extremes of that band. As usual, you’ll need to carefully audition each in order to be able to select the speaker that’s right for you.
For me and many others, $3650 is a lot to spend on a pair of speakers. But if you can afford to spend almost $4000 on loudspeakers, you want to get the best bang for your buck and still have cash left over to buy some music. Enter the Thiel SCS4T. Thiel’s newest floorstander is a true reference product, and the attention to detail that has gone into both its construction and the execution of its design is extraordinary. Given the SCS4T’s neutrality, transparency, and wonderful balance, it is a loudspeaker that you’ll likely own and cherish for many years. It’s difficult to put a price on that.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Amphion Argon3L
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B100 SST
- Sources -- NAD C542 CD player; Thorens TD-160HD turntable, Rega RB250 tonearm, Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Type 4
- Interconnects -- AudioQuest Copperhead, AMX Optimum AVC 31 coaxial
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Thiel Audio SCS4T Loudspeakers
Price: $3650 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