Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thiel CS 3.5 vs B&W 801 series 3

In 1992 I picked up used a pair of Thiel CS 3.5's used from Audio Visions in Tampa.

The store had a new pair going for $3500 and these were on consignment for $1500.  After a quick in-store audition I brought them home and have enjoyed them ever since.  While at the time they were Jim Thiel's flagship product, needless to say time and progress marches on.

Fast forward 21 years.  I recently acquired a used pair of B&W 801 series 3's from a local dealer for $1800.  I had had a chance to hear a new pair back in the late 90's and had been very impressed.

The 801's were delivered to my home.  I hooked them up to my Pass Aleph 1.2 monoblocks with the Pass Aleph P preamp.  These amps have lots of current and run in pure class A.   But, one of the speakers was missing nearly all the output from the mid/tweeter.  I called the seller and he said he would stop by the next day and check them out, and send them to a well respected shop in Tampa.  No worries.

So that night we put on some music with one-and-a-half working B&W 801 speakers.   The good one was pulled out well into the room and to the side, not the usual place. By chance, we were sitting with it pointing straight at us about 6 feet away.  And the other speaker had full woofer function and just a tiny bit of mid which gave a slight amount of sound stage, as well as the extra bass umph down deep.

Wow!   I had never heard my collection sound anything like this! Just insert all the positive audiophile review words here.  But most of all it sounded live and with a harmonic rightness and detail that was amazing.  It was just before Christmas, and even holiday music recorded in the early and mid-60's sounded like a live performance.  Brenda Lee was standing right in front of us, or maybe we were right in front of a loudspeaker in a live performance.  The drums that had just sounded like a distant after thought were now a small vintage kit sitting on stage to her left as she rocked around the Christmas tree.

Song after song, genre after genre the same with a few exceptions.  Yes, the 801's pointed out a few recordings where there was no further magic to reveal.  Generally it was the highly over produced, compressed "loudness wars" ones.  But even a number of these pop tracks sounded great.  And poorly produced tracks showed their flaws in stark detail. 

But, the most amazing tracks were any live recordings, both my own and professionally produced. 

If "one-and-a-half" speakers could do this, we thought, imagine what two fully working ones would do!  But it turned out not to be quite that simple.

The repair was just a few caps gone bad in the cross over.  So, I hooked up both fully functioning 801s and positioned them.   

But the result was not at all what I had expected!

There was a huge center suck out!  Vocalists who had been very strong and up front were nearly gone out of the mix on the newly repaired 801's.  I checked the wiring.  Not out of phase.

Carly Simon had left the room.  Instead of the gutsy vocal with a lot of presence, she was reduced to a tiny voice between two sidewalls of sound.  Song after song it was the same.

In about 3/4 of the recordings the singer had shrunk to a tiny presence. I don't mean recessed back into the sound stage. I mean shrunk, as if the mix engineer had decided to duck them way down.  If you've ever heard those "vocal eliminators" it was as if someone had processed out the singer, or any solo instrument that was dead center.

Subconsciously, I found myself wanting to sit in front of one or the other of the 801 directly. When I did, the vocalist returned.  I've never felt that with any speakers, from the lowliest Radio Shack boxes to mega-buck monitors I've only heard at a store.  Something strange was going on.

After another half dozen songs with the same experience of center suck out. But move to the side and,  Bang!  They were back.  It was late so I quit listening and called it a day.  Maybe I was just imagining it or was tired.

But the next day when my wife listened she immediately said, "These don't sound as good.  It doesn't sound like the singer is....It all just sounds like it's in a straight, flat line from speaker to speaker." My wife never says things like that.

I was sunk.  She was right. $1800 mistake?

Was there some sort of phase issue, cancelling out what was panned dead center?  Again, I left it for the next day.

Day 6:  I had a vacation day, so I re-hooked up the old Thiels and their stock external equalizer.  Immediately one thing was obvious. The Thiels totally, absolutely disappeared from the room.

With the 801's the speakers refused to disappear.  Something always called slight attention to the cabinets themselves and not the sound stage.  Maybe just a hint of ring or something that tended to smear anything panned 3/4 to the side all the way to the cabinets.  Like a magnet.   And the images would move with frequency, shifting to the sides with higher pitches or overtones.  With the Thiels the speakers always disappeared and the sound stage was like a physical, unshakeable source of the sounds instead.  In fact, even if I focused on the Thiels my brain refused to perceive any sound coming from them. 

The Thiels had their limits:  I did notice that compared to the 801's the sound was a bit smeared. Not bad, just not as detailed or high def. in many cases.  Yet the slight smearing of detail did not affect the imaging.  Also,  they could not handle the same sound levels as the 801s without a lot of strain  Nor did they have the huge dynamic range and bass slam or authority.  And they did not portray the detail of the 801's, or have quite the sense of realism with instruments.

But the 801's were putting everything in one of three places:  center, far left, or far right.  And a horn might meander to the side as it went up the scale.

And yet on my lowly B&W DM220's in my studio that same horn stayed put. Something had to be wrong! But what?  I'd read countless reviews of the 801's and heard them myself previously.

On the 801's the quality of each instrument and voice (save for the center suck out phenomenon) was superior to the Thiels. Yet for all the greater realism and detail and even sonic rightness, William Tritt's piano on Rhapsody in Blue danced all over the sound stage on the 801's, the higher keys coming from well to the right and the mid and lower coming more from center stage.  But you could in no way picture a piano anywhere on stage. It was a piano blur, impossible to truly point to.

And the center suck out?  So, were my tweeters on the 801's hooked up out of phase? 

Later that day I lugged the 801's back and reconnected them.  This time there were about a foot closer together and about a 6" further back, only about 20" in front of the wall, but further from the sidewalls.  I was about to run some test tones and check out the tweeters.  But before I could do so I replayed the track mentioned above and, surprise, the singer was back!  The center suck out was completely gone.  What happened?

A small shift in positioning and the 801's were a totally different set of speakers!

Turns out room nodes and anti-nodes were the culprit.  Test tones indicated that the mid driver in the left repaired unit was about 3bd louder than it's mate in the right. But all were functioning properly and in phase.   (It also indicated that the right mid driver on the Thiel was dead!  The first order cross over had totally masked it.  This will be the second repair/replacement of that driver.  It's amazing the Thiels still sound so good missing one mid-range!)

Ironically the 801's better dispersion probably created this issue.  Even the image shift to the sides were reduced to almost nil.  That means it was room boundary reflections that was the problem.  Apparently certain high frequencies were beaning off the side walls to my listening position, causing this shift.

This means phase cancellations (suck outs) are very pronounced with tracks too if something arrives at your ear out of phase.  Apparently in their first positioning in my room this was the case.  Now they were back 6" closer to the back wall and a foot closer together and all was well.

The Thiels by contrast are very, very forgiving of placement.  And the Thiel's off center dispersion is not nearly as uniform as the 801's, falling off dramatically in the treble. 

Second Chance for the 801's.  Inspired that the center was now right I listened to several tracks. I noticed that the 3D sound stage had also emerged.  Not quite Thiel level, but definitely there now.  And less attention to the speakers.  In fact, I now felt no urge at all to sit in front of the 801 cabinets. 

Day 9:  With further listening to the 801's I believe that their very strength, which is precision and details, is also a potential weakness.  Assuming that details = accuracy then placement is even more crucial with the 801's.  While listening to a 500Hz test tone I noticed the nodes and anti-nodes in my listening room were far more pronounced with the 801's than the Thiels.

A few additional small adjustments made additional improvements and total satisfaction.

(--Update:  3 years later, in a different house, and now with a BenchMark DAC2 this is still the case.  The B&W 801/III really like to be set up just right, and far away from side walls.)

Overall impressions of the 801/III?  No going back!
I lamented the flaws revealed in a few tracks.  But nearly all other tracks have revealed layers of musical beauty not there before through the CS 3.5's.  Most notable is the stereo version of the Beach Boys Good Vibrations.  I downloaded this for the occasion as it was the first track I had heard on an identical pair of 801's at the stereo shop back in the late 90's.  I couldn't believe the bass slam, intricacy and detail on that old recording.  On my Thiels Good Vibrations sounds almost like fat mono.  No color, no life, way too laid back.  But through the 801's and it's like stepping from Kansas into Oz.  You can't believe it's the same track.

Bottom line: my audio engineer son is getting a pair of Thiels for Christmas.  (Do I tell him the mid-range is blown?)

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