High Fidelity: High-end system can last a lifetime

 By  Todd Whitesel
Thiel Audio SCS4 speakers.
Thiel Audio SCS4 speakers.
I’m not a gambler, but if there was an audio equivalent of the lottery, I’d likely be buying a ticket every week. And if I hit the jackpot to the tune of, say, $10,000, I would probably cash out my winnings on a system very like what follows. There must be something in the Canadian waters, as we venture again into the Great White North for a look at components from Bryston in Peterborough, Ontario, and Torus Power in Toronto; then we move southward to bluegrass country for Thiel Audio in Lexington, Ky.

First Impressions

When you reach a certain price point in audio components, there’s generally a substantial improvement in not only individual components but in overall build quality, too. That’s what you get with this package. The Bryston B-100 STT and BCD-1 are substantial pieces of gear, beautifully designed and equipped. If you’re shy about spending a couple grand or more on components, know that Bryston backs its goods with a warranty that should ease any concerns. Analog audio circuits have a 20-year (!) warranty, including parts and labor, from date of manufacture, while circuits and cables are warranted for 5 years, again including parts and labor.

The Thiel SCS4s, although considered bookshelf speakers, weigh 25 pounds each, wrapped in gorgeous wood cabinets protected by a flat lacquer. Inside are coaxially-mounted drivers and an aluminum baffle that make beautiful music. The drivers are mounted in such a way to permit extreme flexibility in placing the speakers in just about any orientation — the sound coming from the drivers will be consistent, no matter the position. High-quality five-way binding posts serve as connections for speaker cables. Recommended power is 30 to 200 watts, good for nearly any home setup.

The Torus RM5 weighs nearly 30 pounds, a hulking black box with six power outlets and one inlet for a detachable power cord.

Listening

Put simply, this system is the most neutral-sounding I’ve heard. And that’s the highest compliment I can offer. Often components and accessories introduce their own set of sonic characteristics, making some systems sound bright, others dull. The Bryston/Thiel/Torus combo did so many good things by simply getting out of the way and let the music do the talking.

It took just one CD to know that the BCD-1 was the best player I’ve yet encountered. There must some wizardry going on with its 24-bit/192kHz oversampling digital-to-analog converter, because what emerges from the speakers is magic. Play a CD — any CD — and it’s like being transported into the recording room as the final mix is being laid down. The BCD-1 powered by the B-100 SST bring a vivid realism to recordings that make them sound like studio masters (good or bad) instead of mass-produced plastic slabs.

The Thiels take some break-in to sound their best. Out of the box they sounded cold and a bit clinical, but after enough time — Thiel recommends at least 50 hours of play at moderately loud levels, with even better results coming after 100 hours — they open up and bloom. They have excellent mid-range and high end, with a pleasant crispness that brings out the colors and details in music. The SCS4s are extremely versatile, serving in this case as main front speakers in a two-channel system. They can also be incorporated into a home-theater system as front and rear — even center channel — speakers. You can place the SCS4s in a vertical or horizontal position with no loss of fidelity. And the speakers are time- and phase-coherent.

In my last column I discussed how many speakers are not time-aligned — the sound coming from the top tweeter arrives later than the bass. That’s not a problem with the Thiels. You get accurate reproduction, for better or worse. If the SCS4s have a downside, it’s that what goes into them also comes out. Bad recordings are exposed like a bad photograph; if you start with a good recording the results are superb.

IQ’s Frequency has been spinning in my system for much of the summer. It’s one of my Top 10 records of 2009 and could be the poster album for this system. Swirls of keyboards permeate the music and the depth of orchestration flowers via the Bryston/Thiel/Torus setup. I probably listened to this disc 20 times and came away from each session with some new detail or nuance revealed.

Audio Fidelity’s recent 24 KT+ Gold Disc reissue of the The Band’s self-titled sophomore release brought a sense of delightful déjà vu. The more I hear this record, the more I’m impressed by The Band’s uncanny arrangements. Listening through this system was revelatory — Levon Helm’s drumming on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the thump of Rick Danko’s bass on “Up On Cripple Creek” and Richard Manuel’s heartbreaking vocal on “Whispering Pines” had an ethereal, intimate presence I’ve not heard before. The music takes on an organic sense of life and weight that does justice to the genius behind such tunes as “The Unfaithful Servant” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”

System Synergy

 When possible, I like to listen to components from the same manufacturer, as the design philosophy generally carries over across the entire product range. The Bryston amp and CD player are “meant for each other” and make a convincing audio couple. Transparent, natural and neutral are the three words that kept coming to mind when I listened to this combo.  Mated with the Torus RM5, music emerges from a dead-quiet background, and I found it nearly impossible to introduce distortion into the system by cranking the volume. The job of a power conditioner is to smooth out spikes and unwanted electrical interference from any number of sources. For optimum audio results, you want an uninterrupted and clean power stream. The RM5 actually isolates system components from such nasties, resulting in more pronounced bass and better separation of instruments. The SCS4s make a logical and convincing endpoint for such a system. Musical, accurate and ear-opening. It’s a digital system that analog lovers will embrace.

Final Thoughts

Most audiophiles are on a constant upgrade path, always looking for the newest product that can somehow squeeze a couple more musical drops from the collection. That path can be dizzying and require a second mortgage. For around 10 grand, here’s a system that’s built to last a lifetime. Most importantly, it’ll sound great for a lifetime. Don’t make me give it back!

Leave a Reply