Then again, when combined with the aforementioned requirement for experimentation, the Integrator’s plethora of parameters makes for a lengthy set-up process. Note, too, that certain factors are particularly critical. If the damping is off by even one notch, it will drag down not only the subwoofer but the entire system. Fortunately, the Integrator’s vanguard user interface makes fine tuning eminently manageable. From the comfort and optimal vantage point of the listening chair, any parameter can be instantly changed and the consequence assessed. Mid-bass sounding a bit thick? Just lower the crossover point a hertz or two until everything gels. It’s childishly simple. And in blessed contrast to traditional back-panel crossovers, changing one Integrator parameter does not impact others, further simplifying what might have been an overwhelming task.
To complete its groundbreaking system, Thiel designed four subwoofers called SmartSubs. They differ in size and price, but not in features or philosophy. All are designed to run plays called by the Integrator and to compensate for their room position. My own tests included a pair of the mid-range SS2, each sporting dual 10" woofers powered by a 1000-watt Class D digital amp.
Once I had the Integrator properly configured, I was anxious to assess its advertised ability to effect a superior integration with the main speakers. In particular, I wondered how the SS2 would sound and blend when driven by the Integrator versus a more conventional crossover. To find out, I compared the SS2 through the Integrator to the same subwoofer through an in-line second-order high-pass filter. In both cases, the crossover point was 50Hz.
The differences lend strong credence to Thiel’s approach. With the Integrator engaged, the transition zone between the main speakers and the SS2 was strikingly smoother; the Integrator conferred a consistency of weight and tonality to bass notes throughout the zone. The effect was most evident on tracks that featured a descending bass line, like the opening of Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire” [Afterglow, Arista]. Through the Integrator, the amplitude and character of the sliding notes remained constant. They did likewise when bass lines jumped around, as on “Jamaican Turnaround” from Michael Wolff Trio’s indispensable 2am [Cabanna Boy]. Constancy prevailed as the acoustic bass bounced from the main speaker’s domain to that of the subwoofer to points in between. Played through the SS2 with the passive crossover, the same tracks produced far less balanced results. Notes stuck out or faded out, and the main speakers and subwoofer no longer felt of one piece.
The lack of coherence without the Integrator was no doubt partially due to the inability to match the subwoofer’s character with that of the main speaker. Convincing integration requires such a match, and the Integrator enables the SS2 to take on a remarkable range of personalities. With damping set to .5, the SS2 is a tight, fast welterweight. At the midpoint setting of .7, it becomes more relaxed, more inclined to throw a punch than a jab. At .9, the highest setting, the SS2 sounds heavy, loose, and slow, which I suppose will perfectly match some speakers. Still, even at its lowest damping setting, the SS2 with Integrator could not quite match the speed of my ribbon tweetered, passive radiator-ed main speakers, whose fondest lark is to embarrass subwoofers. The SS2/Integrator slightly blunts transient attacks, thereby removing some element of surprise from drum whacks. More broadly, the SS2/ Integrator isn’t as dynamically free as my main speakers or reference B&W ASW850 subwoofer.
Surprisingly, these qualms all but evaporated when I ran the SS2 without the Integrator. The sub opened up dynamically and transients became as convincing as any I’ve heard. From this I conclude that the Integrator, for all its clear benefits, mildly checks the SS2’s sonic potential. It also compromises the sound of the main speaker— something endemic to all subwoofers— more than an Integrator-less SS2. Compared to most subs, the effect is modest. But with the Integrator, there is a reduction in air that can normally be heard in the wind through flutes or in the ringing overtones of plucked strings. Without the Integrator, these effects are mostly eliminated. Clearly, the Integrator could be more transparent, and perhaps Jim Thiel will one day create a reference version that replaces the current model’s ICs with top-grade parts and discrete circuitry.
The final element of Thiel’s assault on total integration is the SmartSub’s unique room-compensation feature, which proved to be both foolproof and highly effective. Engaging the circuit cleans up the sound at all frequencies. Mids and highs become far more open, imaging is improved, bass lines and bass sources—a picked versus a fingerthumped electric bass—are more easily distinguished. The feature also allows the subwoofer to sound remarkably consistent regardless of its room position. I tried several spots and could perceive no change to the SS2’s sound, meaning that the sub can be placed for maximum integration without fear of adverse consequences.