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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, Hadcock GH 228 Export arm, Rega Super Elys
Digital source: Acoustic Arts Drive 1/ Bel Canto DAC2
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Bryston 7B ST
Speakers: Hørning Perikles
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference S/PDIF
Power Cords: ZCable Heavys & Black Lightning, PS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Auric Illuminator, Ultra & Heavy ZSleeves
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $1,450 ea. PowerPoint 1.2 loudspeakers; $2,900 Thiel SS1 subwoofer; $350 PX02 passive two-channel crossover
Okay, I was stumped. 6moons reviewers aren't asked to review home theater speakers very often. Why then did Thiel approach me to review their new PowerPoint 1.2 with matching SS1 subwoofer? I wasn't sure but what the heck - I was game. Alas, when I was sent just one pair, I wondered. "Shouldn't I be reviewing an entire multichannel system?" I was assured that two of them would be fine. Okay.
Home theater speakers? Well, that was my assumption. I mean, two speakers intended for mounting to either the ceiling in front of you or to the walls behind you - we've just got to be talking theater. Right? Well, that was to be just the first of a few dispelled untruths. Read on.
I recall first hearing the original PowerPoint a few years ago at CES. I recall a fairly large room with three PowerPoints set across the floor in front of me. I recall that the sound was fine but also somewhat disconcerting. All that sound coming from small speakers on the floor? The image it brought to mind was akin to the Star Trek teleporters. The apparatus was on the floor but the images (the bodies) were clearly above them suspended in mid-air. Suspended by what? In my home, I used the PowerPoint 1.2 on the floor, which was no less disconcerting at first. Imagine an equipment rack full of gear with almost no speakers flanking it. Strange.
|The nuts and bolts of it all
The new version of Thiel's PowerPoint is called the PowerPoint 1.2. Unlike its predecessor that used a 3/8-inch thick thermoformed acrylic plastic enclosure, the 1.2 sports a new cast aluminum cabinet said to offer significant sonic improvement in both clarity and dynamics. With a newly reshaped chassis, the 1.2 is also sleeker than its predecessor.
|As is true for all Thiel speakers these days, the PowerPoint's drivers are made completely in house. While the coaxial driver array may look similar to that of the PCS at first glance, appearance is skin deep only. In order to|
|achieve both time and phase coherence, Thiel has been mounting its tweeters inside the mid-woofer's voice coil for generations now. That much remains the same. However, unlike the PCS and CS 2.4 that use no electronic crossover between tweeter and midrange, the array in the PowerPoint 1.2 includes a tweeter that is a separate and self-contained unit mounted coaxially and coincidently in the center of the woofer. It is the same tweeter first developed for the $16,000/pr. CS7.2 and said to be a very high output, low distortion design. An electrical crossover network supplies signal to the tweeter and woofer.
|According to Jim Thiel, "another important point about the PowerPoint drivers, in this case the [6½-inch] woofer, is that it uses a very shallow diaphragm so as to not degrade the tweeter's output. It maintains great strength nonetheless by the use of a layer of cast polystyrene foam laminated to the rear of the aluminum diaphragm. Also, the woofer uses a neodymium magnet --unusual for woofers because of its high cost -- to provide a large amount of magnetic energy while still being small enough to allow driver mounting very close to the ceiling. This design element is critical for the functioning of the PowerPoint's boundary reflection reduction operation. Both drivers also utilize our short coil/long|
|magnetic gap and copper-stabilized motor design for very low distortion."
The PowerPoint 1.2 is said to have a frequency response of ±3dB from 75Hz to 20kHz, a sensitivity of 89 dB @ 2.8 V-1m, phase response within ±10 degrees of minimum and a 4-ohm nominal impedance. Horizontally oriented, the cabinet's dimensions are 21" deep, 6.5" tall and 12" wide. Weight is 16. Thiel recommends amplifiers from 30 to 200 watts.
For bass duties, Thiel sent along their SS1 subwoofer. By Thiel standards, the SS1 is the baby of the family. By most standards, it's anything but. The 11-inch wide, 17-inch deep and 20-inch tall enclosure holds a 10-inch aluminum woofer and a 500-watt RMS Class D amplifier and weighs in at a solid 55 pounds. Thiel quotes a sensitivity of 120dB (at one volt) at 1 meter and an acoustic output of up to 99dB at 20Hz and 106dB at 30Hz. Clearly these figures won't qualify the SS1 as a super-sub in terms of output (you can find woofers with higher output at 20Hz for a lot less money). But Thiel's emphasis is on quality, not quantity. That's me speaking, not Thiel. And in the name of quality, Thiel has taken some unusual steps.
First, in order to spare the user the trial-and error process of mating their subwoofer with their Thiel speakers, Thiel has designed the PX series of passive crossovers - one for every model of Thiel speaker made. No more fumbling around looking for that correct low-pass point. No more experimenting looking for correct subwoofer phase. Thiel has done all the work for you. The brushed aluminum and extremely attractive PX02 crossover measures 2 inches high, 7 inches wide and 6.5 inches deep. More on the PX02 later.
Second, Thiel studied the effects of wall proximity on bass (which we all know are monumental) and then gave the user the ability to dial location information directly into the subwoofer, allowing the SS1 to compensate automatically. Allow me to quote Thiel: "The effects of the third category of problems are well known. Almost every subwoofer installation is plagued by response irregularities that are habitually attributed to 'room resonances'. A study of the situation reveals that the majority of serious problems are not, in fact, strictly speaking room resonance problem, but rather boundary problems of cancellation and reinforcement. Even though the effects on performance are similar, the distinction is important because it indicates a quite different type of solution. Room resonance problems cannot really be solved by any method other than physically changing the proportions and size of the room. Further, even mitigating the effects can only be accomplished for one listener location, with the usual result of worsening the problems for other locations. And implementing such mitigations requires sonic measurements in the listening room with microphones and adjustable equalizers."
"Boundary problems are fundamentally and importantly different. Boundary effects are substantially consistent throughout the room and therefore corrections are improvements for all locations. Also, the effects of nearby boundaries are predictable and therefore can be corrected without measurements. Such a built-in system of boundary compensation is an important aspect of the Thiel Smart Sub system."
According to Thiel, the degree of reinforcement, cancellation frequency and cancellation severity are the three variables addressed. As distances to adjacent walls directly affect these variables, they are accurately compensated for at a given distance. The SS1 can thusly be calibrated for just about any likely placement. All you do is dial in the distance to the two adjacent walls.
Sounds good in theory but does it work in practice? If my experience with the SS2 was any indication, it would work just fine. I had high hopes for the SS1.
Where theory meets the tarmac
I received the Thiel combo at the conclusion of a particularly draining week at work. Looking forward to some fun and diversion, I set about hooking the system up. What followed was a disaster by just about anybody's definition.
The PX02 crossover is designed to take a speaker level input. This is to say, you hook the PX02 to your amplifier. It takes the signal, processes/filters it and sends it along to the SS1 Smart Sub via a single length of balanced interconnect. It works well and sounds great. But in case the user wishes to use a pair of subs, the PX02 is shipped with a bridging pin that connects the positive and negative input binding posts at one of the channel's inputs. In my exhausted stupor, I saw the strap but paid it no mind. When I fired up my Bryston 7B STs, I was rudely awakened when the left monoblock shut down because of the short circuit. I still didn't make the connection. Who would expect to receive a component configured to blow up your amplifier? I checked my wiring, replaced the fuse in my Bryston, held my breath and fired up the amplifier again. This time the amp sparked from within, went dead and required a trip back to Bryston. It forgave my stupidity once but twice was not an option. It was then that I focused on the bridging strap and wrote the folks at Thiel.
What came back was a promise that forthcoming PX02s would include the bridging strap attached to the owner's manual. I have no idea how long it'll take those PX02s to get to the dealers so if you buy one, beware that little strap!
As for the Bryston amp? Let me just say that the people at Bryston USA are terrific. I'm embarrassed to say that this was the second time I've availed myself of their 20-year warranty. The first time was fully my own fault. I called Bryston, told them of my dumb-ass attack and they told me where to send the amp. They didn't even laugh at me. Having admitted that I was stupid, I asked how I would arrange payment for the repairs and was told that it was covered under warranty. Both times all they required was that I ship the amp with a letter detailing the problem and supply a return address. Both times I did so and received my amplifier back within a week. You just can't ask for better service than this. Kudos Bryston USA!
While the Bryston was in rehab, I took the opportunity to plug the PowerPoint 1.2s into my multi-channel system and watch a couple movies in two-channel mode. What I heard took me by surprise to say the least. I was astounded by what I heard to say the most.
In the video system, just two PowerPoint 1.2s sounded big. Big, full and robust. Solid, too. Not big as in a little speaker trying to sound big by stretching reality here or there but just plain big. Though floor-mounted, there was no problem locating phantom-center dialog within my TV's screen. The human ear/brain does a remarkably poor job locating the source of sounds in the vertical plane and it has a tendency to locate sounds within the listening room straight ahead of the listener. I heard the same phenomenon from an array of Magnepan CC3s pinned against the ceiling for review a few years ago. So there was no sonic indication from the PowerPoints that I wasn't listening to a tall tower speaker. Neither was there any aural suggestion that I was listening to a 6.5-inch woofer in a relatively small enclosure. I figured that some credit must go to the bass reinforcement of the adjacent room boundary, in this case the immediate proximity of the floor. But down to their lower bass limit, the PowerPoint 1.2 was extraordinarily robust and articulate. I've never heard a smallish speaker like the PowerPoint 1.2 perform in this manner.
When I queried Mr. Thiel about this, he told me, "You are more or less right about the floor or ceiling reinforcement of the bass response. Actually, the crossover is designed so that the speaker provides the correct lo/-mid and bass balance in the environment in which the speaker is intended to be used. So if the speaker had been a freestanding design, the crossover would have been adjusted to provide the same bass balance you hear from the PowerPoint when the PowerPoint is against floor or ceiling. So the wall reinforcement does not cause a different tonal balance if the speaker is properly designed. However, the wall reinforcement does cause a given bass output level to be achieved with less movement of the woofer's diaphragm. And therefore a given level of bass output will exhibit less distortion and compression and as such be more dynamic and effortless."