Thiel ViewPointWell respected in audiophile circles for its two-channel systems, Kentucky's Thiel Audio has recently embraced multichannel playback as well with unusual systems like the ViewPoint. The front left/right speakers, with their elegantly machined brushed-aluminum cabinets, are made to order to match your plasma TV. There's no center speaker because Thiel believes that the ViewPoint's "coherent source" design makes one unnecessary. Thiel also believes you should avoid mounting front speakers at different heights, which is inevitable with a center speaker in a plasma-based system.
The ViewPoint has a triangular cross section, which means that when the cabinets are placed on either side of your TV, the drivers actually fire away from the listening position rather than toward it. Each speaker has just one woofer, with the tweeter nestled coaxially. You mount the pair flush against the wall, using holes behind the grilles and running a screw or bolt into a wall anchor. And since the big, heavy metal binding posts are located on the inner edge of the cabinets, they're likely to be concealed behind the TV's undercut bezel.
PERFORMANCE The ViewPoint's unusual cabinet means that the baffles are "toed out" - just the opposite of how we're used to seeing front L/R speakers arrayed. The look is elegant, but how did this unorthodox arrangement sound? Sparklingly clear and exceptionally spacious, as it turned out.
The Thiels were perceptibly brighter than either the KEF or M&K front speakers, but not "hot" or "trebly." The stereo mix on the Super Audio CD version of Costello's North sounded supremely open and three-dimensional. And the ViewPoints made it easy to compare the SACD and CD two-channel formats. Tracks like "Someone Took the Words Away" sounded more effortless and open on the SACD, with a more dramatic sense of depth - the sound extended both out to the listening position and "behind" the front wall.
The Thiels also sounded distinctly different from most other on-walls in the sense of space they created from stereo sources. I could hear this immediately by listening to applause. Where the KEF and M&K front L/R pairs produced a tight, between-the-speakers sound, the ViewPoints radiated a palpably wider, more spacious soundstage - probably because their wider dispersion pattern was creating more reflections from the side walls.
Thiel's SCS3 surround speakers are probably a little too good for the job, with the same sizes of coaxial drivers as in the ViewPoint. But their broad, controlled sound served the system well. The surrround channels of top-flight SACD and DVD-Audio discs sounded gorgeously cohesive and transparent. The multichannel layer of the Costello SACD sounded wonderful, with the subtle vibes, strings, and brushwork on the drums elegantly defined. Cueing up a big-orchestra SACD - like the San Francisco Symphony's reading of the Mahler Fourth under Michael Tilson Thomas - was a visceral pleasure, with large, lifelike, ultra-dynamic high-end sound from all positions in the multichannel mix.
Thiel's "Who needs a center speaker?" approach meant that I had a 4.1- rather than a 5.1-channel setup. This worked very well, but I had to stay within a relatively narrow listening area. In my room, this meant I could move about one position to either side of my centered listening spot when I sat 9 or 10 feet from the screen. If I moved any farther to the left or the right, the sound "pulled" to the closer speaker. If you set this system up in a large room and sit well away from the TV - say, more than three times the diagonal size of your screen - everything should sound fine.
The system's clarity and definition made sure I never missed a word of dialogue, and its impressive dynamics came through on even the most demanding soundtracks. For example, the 15-minute gunfight climax of Open Range had an attention-getting, visceral punch, with sternum-striking detonations. But you could also easily tell which gun was being fired by its sonic signature.
Of course, some of the credit for the system's impact goes to the SS2 sub. Thiel recommends using it with the company's PX 02 external passive crossover ($350), a simple "black box" (silver, actually) with a pair of heavy-duty speaker-level inputs (for cables from your left/right front speaker outputs) and a single balanced-XLR line-level output to the sub. There's also a conventional RCA input for a separate LFE (low-frequency effects) connection from a preamp/processor. For home theater use, you connect both.
Thiel gets excused for including a sub that costs almost as much as either of the other two complete systems because it's the only one the company makes - and it's a doozy. The SS2 equaled the best subs I've tried in my system in almost every way. In the famous depth-charge sequence from the U-571 DVD, it slammed me about, awakening room rattles I thought I'd chased down and cured long ago. Is it worth nearly $5,000? Couldn't say - I've never seen $5,000 all in the same place - but I can tell you that it's one hell of a sub.
The Bottom LineSo has our search for the ideal speaker system for flat-panel TVs come to an end? Not yet - but we're getting amazingly close. Any of these setups is a colossal upgrade from the pathetic microspeakers far too many flat-screen owners select for "invisible" sound.
Thiel's unusual ViewPoint system seems a natural choice for anyone who's also a serious two-channel audioholic - or for the price-no-object, minimal-visual-impact crowd (it clearly wins the prize for flat-TV compatibility). The more traditional M&K MP-150 system might be the best bet for those who simply want dead serious, full-range home theater performance at fair value, without too much fuss over styling. And KEF's KHT 9000 ACE system does a nice job of splitting the difference: reasonable price, great sound on music and movies, and more than elegant looks. Best of all, whichever one you choose, you won't have to worry about any big boxes intruding on your flat-screen paradise.
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