The SS2 is actually one member of a family of new Thiel subwoofers collectively dubbed SmartSubs. They vary in size and price (the SS2 is approximately mid-line), but not in features or philosophy. The idea of all SmartSubs is to compensate for the predictable problems that degrade subwoofer performance. One such problem is voicecoil overheating. Thiel claims this condition can reduce a driver’s output by as much as five decibels and play havoc with its frequency response. As a countermeasure, SmartSubs include thermistors mounted to each voice coil that continuously sense and report temperature. An internal circuit then boosts output as necessary and corrects any response aberrations associated with current conditions. The upshot is a speaker that remains linear and uncompressed regardless of temperature. Of course, if the driver is about to toast itself, the circuit will temporarily shut everything down. But so long as a SmartSub is playing, it isn’t holding back.
The second performance obstacle SmartSubs surmount is not internal— it’s the room itself. Like all speakers, subwoofers sound very different depending upon their location. Finding the optimum position can be a maddening process. Furthermore, every location will excite one or more room resonant modes (corners are the worst in this respect).
To overcome this problem, Thiel created a circuit that allows the subwoofer to know and account for its room position. The user employs those three mysterious buttons and the LED readout mentioned earlier to input the sub’s distance from the side and back walls. Having been thus programmed, the SmartSub tailors its response to counteract the deleterious room effects it knows it will encounter.
No doubt these circuits play a large part in the SS2’s rare combination of power and finesse. Thanks presumably to the temperature compensation circuit, the speaker exhibits nary a whiff of dynamic compression, even when driven murderously hard. The room-compensation feature is equally effective. I positioned the subwoofer in multiple spots and could not perceive any change in its sound. Moreover, by switching the feature on and off I confirmed that it is at least partly responsible for the SS2’s superior resolution. Enabling room compensation cleans up the reverberant overhang that normally obscures subtle bass information.
The Thiel SS2 demonstrates the sound of a subwoofer freed of the usual constraints. Its unbridled dynamic headroom allows it to toss off mammoth sonic booms with such ease that viewers have no choice but to surrender themselves to an overwhelming experience. And its superior dynamic range, transient response, and pitch resolution enable it to carry far more than the usual quotient of a film’s dramatic impact. Even room colorations are slashed by the SS2’s placement compensation feature, to refreshing effect. The SS2 breaks ground both sonically and technically, and the results are giddily satisfying.