We've had a pair of the THIEL SCS4 speakers pulling front-channel L/R duties in our setup for a month now, long enough to burn in and take full measure of them. During that time, a theme of "wonderfully unremarkable" kept turning up in the scribbled listening notes. That's no slight on these speakers; in fact, it's a very high compliment. Follow us past the break for our full rundown of THIEL's entry-level model.
For those of you familiar with the THIEL name, the SCS4 speakers are a departure from many of the company's signature features. A compact (8.4 x 11.7 x 17.6 inches, 25 pounds) bookshelf-type speaker, the SCS4 does not have the familiar sloped "time aligned" baffle up front. Also gone is the made-in-Kentucky cabinetry and components -- to hit the $990 per speaker price point, manufcaturing was moved to China, with the design and components made especially to THIEL's specifications. Before shipping out to your hot hands, each speaker goes through full testing and quality review at THIEL HQ in Lexington, Kentucky.
Ok, that "Made in China" label may force you to give up some of your audiophile bragging rights, but what do you get in return? You get a very high-quality speaker -- a nicely finished, sturdy (1-inch thick) cabinet with lots of cross-bracing that's front-ported through an aluminum baffle, a single set of really nice binding posts around back and a magnetically attached perforated metal grille. All said, it's a compact speaker that looks modern, clean and techy while still classic and not too "audio den." THIEL certainly didn't skimp when it came to the drivers, either -- set into the aluminum baffle is a coincident array pairing a 6.5-inch metal cone mid-bass with a 1-inch metal dome tweeter that borrows some tech from tweeter on the top-of-the-line CS3.7 model (the moving bits are the same, the motor is different) from the top-of-the-line CS3.7 model. When it comes to first impressions, the SCS4 may be made overseas, but it's definitely designed and held to THIEL's very high standards. Your pride in ownership won't suffer a bit on initial unboxing or years down the road.
As a general rule, we're partial to soft-dome tweeters; so we were fully prepared to give the speakers a long time to break in. We needn't have worried -- the SCS4 tweeter does a great job of not being too hot on top, while also not giving up anything in the way of extension. Compared to the (admittedly, much less expensive) Paradigm Phantom towers that we reviewed, there's not much of a comparison -- the SCS4s sounded smoother, with just as much detail, albeit not as prominent and "in your face" (note that evaluations were done with the grilles on). Bass response was also much better than we expected, and we got a smoothly rolled off in-room response that was usable to just below 40Hz. For music, at least, the low end reach is ok, but you depending on your tastes, a little bit of subwoofer reinforcement might come in handy. THIEL has -- wisely to our ears -- traded off tight, fast accurate bass for indistinct rumblings.
Over the years, THIEL's speakers have always achieved great imaging, and again the SCS4 does the family name proud. Imaging wasn't laser sharp -- it also wasn't artificially defined -- but the overall soundstage and placement of audio within the stage were very impressive. Coming from monitor-type speakers with a conventional stacked driver arrangement, the fusion of bass and treble from the SCS4 was subtle but even more impressive -- we were totally unable to localize discrete sound sources for the different registers.
Again, our listening notes are actually fairly thin on this speaker, not because we didn't spend time with them, but because they are such well-balanced speakers. While many speakers emphasize certain attributes of their performance proudly, the SCS4s are a well-refined speaker that does so many things well that it's hard to attribute an overall character to them. On good recordings with a lot of ambient spatial cues, like the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Revisted, we got a good feel for the recording space; throw in a not-so-great recording (too many to mention) and you'll recreate a flat, lifeless Potemkin village in your room.
So the imaging performance of the SCS4s was every bit as good as we'd expect from THIEL. But really, it was the sonic coherence that really blew us away. Sure, the frequency response was good and smooth, but there was a kind of cohesiveness to the sound that went beyond a bandwidth chart. Simply put, the two drivers in the SCS4 are clearly cut from the same cloth and designed by the same hands -- they fit together incredibly well under the guidance of the 1st order crossover. Add in the point source radiation pattern and you've got a two driver system that sounds like a single driver covering the entire range without a shift in tone or timbre. It's a subtle kind of thing that you might not even notice until you put on another speaker and notice that the character changes as the audio moves up and down in frequency and different drivers are put into play.
No surprises on soundtracks -- the SCS4s turned in a great performance there, too. Some of you may think that a bookshelf design can't do special effects bombast justice, but these speakers unraveled punishing tracks with aplomb. We ran through The Dark Knight and The Matrix, for example, and the SCS4s never sounded compressed to our ears. Of course, we had them paired up and crossed over with a subwoofer, but the 200-Watt rating on these speakers isn't far-fetched at all. Conversely, if your amplifier is shy on power, we suggest a "try before you buy" approach to the SCS4s -- 87dB sensitivity means a little oomph is needed to open them up. On a side note, the coincident driver arrangement makes the SCS4 ideal for LCR duties -- just lay the center channel on its side and you've got an exact timbral match across the front. Of course, if you want to complete your setup with additional THIEL speakers all around you, the company will happily supply them -- a set of PowerPoints across the back of the room would be nice, thank you very much.
No doubt about it, the SCS4s are a great speaker. Of course, at $990 each, you'd expect nothing less. We stand by our recommendation of the Paradigm Phantom Cinema Gaming system "as all the speaker most folks will ever need," but if you've got the coin and the ear to appreciate them, the SCS4s are in a different class entirely. Welcome to audiophile-dom, where the SCS4s sit somewhere past the knee in the cost-to-benefit curve -- not stratospheric, but definitely in a regime casual consumers don't tread.
If you just want to get yourself set up with really, really good sound and forget worrying about upgrading your speakers, the SCS4s could be a good fit. The styling is classic and fairly unobtrusive, the performance is fantastic, and THIEL isn't the kind of company that will roll out wholesale changes that obsolete your speakers overnight. Quite the contrary, the SCS4s are an obvious refinement product -- solid and well-tested THIEL parts assembled into a new form and developed to a fine point worthy of the THIEL badge. These are very clear speakers, but given how balanced they are across the range they cover, nothing will initially jump out at you like, say, the treble response of the Paradigm Phantoms we reviewed earlier. The overall sonic "oneness" of these speakers is really the most distinguishing feature to our ears -- no one part of the audio stands out, but it's all on display.
If you would have asked us five years ago for our predictions on which high-end speaker manufacturer would be sold through a mainstream storefront like Crutchfield, we would have never picked THIEL. Paradigm or B&W, perhaps, but THIEL was pretty niche -- but here we are, and you can order the SCS4 right from the Crutchfield website to the tune of $990 each. For those who can afford it, we'll say this -- you can spend a lot more and get a lot less; just be sure not to skimp on the rest of your system, or you'll be disappointed. THIEL is one brand we're happy to see moving into the multichannel world, and as much as we love our own reference speakers, we'll be sad to box these babies up and send them back to Lexington.