My first encounter with THIEL speakers was with the excellent CS3.7 floorstanding speaker, which was the late Jim Thiel's last flagship design at the end of his life. I was impressed by how it managed to deliver extremely high-end performance at a pretty solid value. With Mr. Thiel's passing, the audio community wondered what would become of this great brand's legacy. Many of our readers, I'm sure, are now familiar with THIEL's latest comeback--the new 3rd Avenue line of speakers--after reading Brent Butterworth's review of the TT1 floorstanding speakers.
For review here today is the TM3 bookshelf speaker, which belongs to the same 3rd Avenue line and shares much of the design characteristics of its bigger brother, the TT1. At 17.1 inches tall, 9.8 inches wide, and 10.9 inches deep, the TM3 weighs in at 20 pounds. Standard to the line are four beautiful finishes: high gloss black, white, and two different wood patterns. The driver complement is similar to the TT1 but reduced in configuration: whereas the TT1 is a three-way design, the TM3 is a two-way design that uses the same one-inch titanium dome tweeter and employs a similar glass fiber-cone technology in a 6.5-inch woofer that pulls double-duty as the midrange and bass driver. The TM3 retails for $3,000 per pair, with matching stands available for an additional $600.
My usual Oppo BDP-105 served as the conduit for all sources, disc or streaming. The TM3's speaker sensitivity is rated at 87 dB, which tells me that it runs a little on the inefficient side--that doesn't mean it's a bad speaker, it just means that the TM3 needs to be paired with amplification that has enough power to drive it right. The nominal four-ohm impedance rating (with minimum impedance of 3.6 ohms) tells me that, beyond just needing more power, it needs high-quality amplification--an amp that is stable down to at least four ohms. Recommended power is between 20 to 150 watts, but the manual suggests that on average you should pair these speakers with at least 100 watts.
Wanting to test this out, I alternated my listening tests between running the Oppo directly through an Onkyo TX-NR515 receiver and going through higher-quality separates with my reference Parasound JC2-BP two-channel preamp powered by a Crown I-Tech HD 5000 amplifier. A full complement of Wireworld Silver Eclipse 7 interconnects and Solstice 7 speaker cables provided all the necessary connections.
The TM3 speakers were a breeze to unbox and fit nicely into the matching stands. Banana-plug connections from my speaker cables fit snuggly in back, where the inputs are well spaced and easy to access.
Starting off with some music, I played Daft Punk's Random Access Memories (CD, Sony/Columbia). With the Onkyo receiver in the mix, I immediately got the sense that things weren't quite right. Bass was flabby and loose. Vocals seemed nondescript. This was simply a matter of the speakers needing more power. It's an all-too-familiar feeling for me, as my own reference Salk speakers have similar impedance and sensitivity characteristics and similarly need lots of high-quality amplification. So I plugged the TM3s into the Parasound/Crown combo, and that made all the difference. With techno music, the beat is very important, and it's often defined and characterized by the bass. The TM3's bass was tight and controlled, just the way it should sound. Even playing without a subwoofer, I felt the TM3 was able to dig low enough to portray the overall feel of the beat. With the Crown driving the speakers, I had no issues filling the room with sound--even at volumes that risked death by neighbor, the TM3s showed no signs of letting up.
The overall timbre was very neutral, almost overly so. For instance, on the track "Lose Yourself to Dance," during the introduction that features a mostly artificially created combo of sounds ranging from blowing air and "sprinkles" of high-pitched chimes, the TM3s' delivery lacked the excitement and immediacy of a speaker like B&W's CM6 S2. It wasn't that the TM3's presentation was wrong; it was just very matter-of-fact.
In vocal passages, I heard absolute accuracy. The soundstage further impressed me, with a very deep, wide, almost holographic picture of Pharell Williams voice in "Get Lucky." However, while the size of the soundstage certainly was impressive, I did notice that the sweet spot was very small. As I moved from the center spot on my couch even just a few inches, I heard significant differences from that optimum sweet spot.
Realizing that techno music is probably not the THIEL speakers' specialty, I moved on to some more natural acoustic selections. I queued up the early Celine Dion hit album S'il suffisait d'aimer (CD, 550/Epic). On the title track, the quality of the piano sections was superb, shining through with rich, deep tones that gave the piano a very natural, realistic presentation like few speakers of this size and price point can do. Dion's voice came through with fine clarity and resolution, but it seemed to sparkle a little less than I've heard through other speakers. Here again, the overall sound was very neutral, almost without a particular character or bent. With classical, jazz, or any music with real instruments, especially in live recordings, this was a strength, creating an almost unparalleled sense of realism. However, with more produced music like rock or techno, the presentation seemed to miss that extra little bit of excitement or pizzazz that sometimes helps me to engage more with the music.
Moving on to some full-bodied TV sound, I streamed the premiere episode of Blindspot (NBC). This action-packed thriller/drama has a wide range of material that's great for testing out speakers. The TM3s proved to be quite adept at managing dialogue. In one of the initial scenes where Sullivan Stapleton's FBI agent Kurt Weller interrogates Jaimie Alexander's Jane Doe, every nuance of Stapleton's deep, gritty tone and all the subtleties of Alexander's nasally, slightly hoarse voice were reproduced masterfully. Equally impressive was how all the dynamics from yelling/screaming to sudden whisper-like quiet passages flowed with just the right timing, never being too discrete or too mixed in. At times I felt like the actors were in the same room as I was.
In some scenes, usually when the action was heaviest and more sound effects were in use, the TM3s didn't quite paint as life-like a picture. For instance, I tested an apartment fight scene where Jane Doe squares off against an abusive husband to defend his wife using both the THIELs and my reference B&W CM6 S2s. With the B&Ws, the many thuds, crashes, crackles, and pops seemed to dazzle a little more, telling a story about the action, while the THIELs seemed more to be stating a fact that the action happened and describing the sound exactly as it was recorded.
Next, I slipped the Christopher Nolan hit Interstellar (Paramount/Warner, Blu-ray) into the Oppo. Throughout the film, the Thiels presented Hans Zimmer's score with a beautiful picture. It exemplified the Thiel's style--what it is and what it's not. Every sound and note were masterfully detailed and measured out. The dynamics were timed and executed with stunning accuracy. The organ music and other naturally voiced instruments were so natural sounding, it was like being in a live performance. Yet, the TM3s did not sound artificial, even with artificial-sounding effects. The synthesizer portions lacked that bit of edginess that I got playing when those scenes with other speakers. The kind of edginess that allows you to feel the tension Matthew McConaughey's Cooper is experiencing being in space and racing against time to save the world. In one of the final scenes [potential spoiler alert], Cooper is trapped by unknown powerful beings in a Rubik's cube-like maze where he watches helplessly as he is shown various scenes from his past. The presentation I got was more akin to listening to a live performance of an orchestral accompaniment instead of an artificial score.
Click over to Page Two for The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...