Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Vinyl is Dead! Long live Hardwood Veneer

Vinyl has a very special place in our hearts for those of us who love music and high performance audio. It's such a wonderful medium for music, but you'll never find it on the cabinet walls of THIEL speakers.

Ever since Jim designed, built, and sold speakers from his garage outside of Lexington in the 70s, we've used real hardwood veneers. The only deviation from this practice was offering black laminate on some models back in the 80s and 90s.

Why real, natural, from-the-earth, hardwood veneers?
Quite simply, it's gorgeous. The look of a beautifully crafted cabinet, piece of furniture, or fine loudspeaker finished in fine hardwood veneer is stunning. Every speaker is unique. Even when we book-match veneers, each sheet is a little different, and each tree looks completely different from the last. Aesthetics are awe-inspring. Some hardwoods with wild grain patterns pick up light so magnificently that the grain seems to stand out in relief from the cabinet walls. There are massive features of heavy grain lines rising into cathedral shapes that draw you in for a closer look, then the minute details capture your eyes. If the speakers didn't sound so damn good, you might sit there and stare at them all day.

So why doesn't everyone use real hardwood?
Because in all things beautiful and natural, there are features and flaws that for some people completely wreck what would otherwise be a text-book example of beauty. I've got a pair of PCSs on my desk that have quite possibly the most remarkable bird's eye maple veneer ever seen. The reason I've got them and not some lucky customer is that we rejected them at final assembly because each speaker has a dark bird's eye that looks suspiciously like a sperm cell seen under an microscope. They're not flaws if you think that flaws are man-made. Rather, they're features...and they're book matched!

Everything in nature has something about it that we don't like. I LOVE backpacking in the mountains, and I've been doing it for as long as I can remember, and I'll do it till I die, but I still hate mosquitoes. Would I be happier if my PCSs didn't have little grey twin sperm on their tops? Probably, but I sure wouldn't return them or gripe about it especially if the only way to ensure that it would never happen again was to go for vinyl veneer that looks the same every time, and I don't fixate on this feature every time I see the speakers. My PCSs are still gorgeous speakers just like super-models with one well placed mole on their faces are still total babes. Hrm...don't they call these beauty spots? Maybe we're on to something!

I suspect the reason most loudspeaker manufacturers don't use a wide variety of hardwood veneers anymore because they were put out with the heartburn caused by having to deal with flaws, beauty spots, and general irregularity of natural hardwood. Let me assure you that our manufacturing process would be much simpler if we slapped a big vinyl "cherry-look" sticker on every cabinet wall in phase-1 of our manufacturing process.

But our speakers wouldn't be as beautiful. Even if they still sounded the same, I don't think our speakers would be as popular as they are. I, for one, wouldn't love my THIELs as much if they weren't finished in natural hardwood veneer.