Review from AXPONA 2017

May 3, 2017

by Mark Henninger
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I thought that a demo in The Thiel Room at AXPONA would be a quick stop, but I wound up staying a while and loving it.

I knew the company brought its flagship 40.3 Reference towers ($35,000) that it had on the show floor at CES 2017. But the CES environment in the Las Vegas Convention Center made quality audio demos essentially impossible, whereas at AXPONA 2017 Thiel set up a room with a pair of these gorgeous speakers, and one properly located plus comfortable chair.

I sat down to listen to these flagship towers and got talking with Stuart Levine from Thiel about what went into designing and building these speakers. Turns out there’s more to the story than I had expected.

First things first: Thiel today is not the same company and not making the same kind of speakers as when the company’s charismatic founder ran the show—Jim Thiel passed away in 2009. But Thiel the company lives on, and once I heard about how it approached building the 40.3 Reference, it became clear that the company is serious about building the best possible speaker, and doing it in the U.S.

The 40.3 is a bespoke product. It doesn’t come in a selection of finishes, that’s something you work out with the company when you order a pair. Maybe you want wood grain, maybe you want an automotive-style glossy paint finish, maybe you want matte black. It’s also rather large, measuring 53″(H) x 13.5″(W) x 17.5″(D) and heavy at 130 pounds each.

in terms of performance specs, you get a speaker with a specified frequency response of 28Hz to 30kHz. sensitivity is 91dB (2.83vRMS at 1 meter) and maximum power handling is 300 watts. This is a 4-ohm speaker that leverages twin aluminum 8″ woofers for bass, a 8″ fiberglass-cone woofer for midbass, a 5″ fiberglass-cone driver for midrange, and a 1″ beryllium-dome tweeter. the team that designed the speaker managed to tie these drivers together seamlessly.

An interesting fact about these speakers is the cabinet work is done by a company that specializes in building the interiors of ultra-luxury airplanes. The standards for that sort of woodwork is exceedingly high, and this is how Thiel sources the enclosures. I’m sure that craftsmanship is at least partly responsible for the price tag, but there’s no denying the fit and finish of these Thiels is impeccable to the bone.

Perfect fit and finish is great, but what we’re looking for are speakers that present an impeccable soundstage, and possess lifelike dynamics, and that can appear to disappear from the room. The best speakers turn invisible and leave you in a jazz club, or opera house, or symphony hall, or in a studio producer’s mind, allowing you to commune with the performers. And guess what! The 40.3 Reference from Thiel did all that. Easily.

As for the audition itself, the high point came when I heard Daft Punk’s “Fragments of Time” through the system, which consisted of a laptop and a Krell Digital Vanguard integrated amp. The sound was exactly what I’ve come to expect when that track is reproduced properly. Typically, I hear it at home on systems that includes subwoofers and room correction.

What I heard from the 40.3s at AXPONA 2017 delivered the same sort of tonal neutrality, not to mention bass impact plus extension, that I expect from a system that can do justice to great source material.

Similarly, listening to Pentatonix “Take Me Home”—from the album of the same name—provided plenty of opportunity to experience the exquisite precision these luxury speakers are capable of. Again, we are talking about $35 thousand bucks for a pair, so they had better deliver on the audio front. From what I heard, Thiel is aiming for one of the top slots in the high-end hierarchy. With product of this quality, that’s made in the USA without compromise, it has a good chance of getting there.