One of the most rewarding aspects of writing reviews, at least for me, is witnessing the various approaches designers and engineers take to transform recorded media into convincing sound. Be it speakers or electronics, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve researched a product or company and found myself smack dab in the middle of a “who’da-thunk-it” moment. I experienced such a moment while looking into the recently released Criterion TCD 110 S loudspeaker, from T+A Elektroakustik. To most of us on this side of the pond, T+A (the letters stand for Theory and Application) is synonymous with designing and building high-end electronics -- amplifiers, preamplifiers, and digital sources. It surprised me to learn that things have not always been so. In fact, this German company, based in Herford, a district of Eastern Westphalia, opened its doors in 1978 as a maker of loudspeakers.
As I dug deeper into T+A’s history, I began to understand the culture behind their products and appreciate that, from the get-go, T+A has consistently striven to create products that differ from the competition in not one but every facet of design and performance. In 1982, T+A put this philosophy to the test when they decided to develop a groundbreaking series of loudspeakers, to be called the Criterion models, that would be designed as benchmarks against which all other T+A speakers would be measured.
To this day, T+A still considers the latest iterations of their Criterion speakers to be benchmark products among their peers. Now prefixed TCD (for Transmission-line Constant Directivity), the new Criterion line replaces the well-respected TL models, which had a production run of more than five years. The new line comprises the flagship TCD 110 S ($13,000 USD per pair), the TCD 210 S ($10,000/pair), and the smallest of the three floorstanders, the TCD 310 S ($7500/pair). There are also a bookshelf variant, the TCD 410 S ($4500/pair); a center-channel, the TCD 510 C ($3300); and an active subwoofer, the TCD 610 W ($5500). All Criterion speakers are available in hand-rubbed, satin-gloss, lacquer-coat finishes of Black, White, Dark Walnut, Cherry, or Macassar Ebony -- but should you want something a little more glitzy, high-gloss lacquer is available at additional cost.
My TCD 110 S review samples were finished in high-gloss Macassar Ebony (a $3000 surcharge), which gave them a very luxurious appearance. Measuring 51.6”H x 14.2”W x 19.3”D, and weighing a hefty 130 pounds, the TCD 110 S is a bit imposing, but as I walked around each speaker I noticed some attractive design details that helped me forget their size and simply appreciate their presence in my room. For example, each speaker is topped with a 0.25”-thick plate of gloss-black safety glass, into the front of which the T+A logo is subtly etched. This aesthetic is continued on the rear panel, where, perched atop a gloss-black plaque etched with pertinent information and the speaker’s serial number and surrounded by a simple matte-black finish, are four high-quality, five-way binding posts. Around front, rigid metal grilles offer exceptional protection of the drivers. Each grille is fastened firmly in place by pressing its edges into a pinch seam that runs along the sides of the front baffle; removing them requires a hook key. When in place, the grilles blend seamlessly into the curvature of the cabinet. At the base of each speaker is an integral, mechanically fastened, 1.5”-thick plinth finished in the same simple matte black as the front and rear panels.
When I asked Dynaudio's Michael Manousselis (T+A’s NA distributor is Dynaudio) why this finish was chosen, he explained that it was necessitated by the TCD 110 S’s cabinet construction. The overall cabinet design is based on an inner cabinet made from panels of 16mm-thick MDF slotted and channeled into each other, then pressure-bonded to form a structure rigid enough to be used as a complete speaker cabinet all on its own. Inside this inner cabinet are three airtight compartments, each home to a tweeter or midrange driver, plus an 8’ transmission line (TML). The TML is mostly toward the rear of the cabinet’s interior, and provides both a pressure chamber for the twin woofers and the bulk of the cabinet’s internal bracing. Bonded to the outside of the inner cabinet are the glass top plate, the plinth, and two substantial side panels each up to 30mm thick. Fully assembled, this cabinet is an immensely rigid structure that T+A claims is devoid of any internal resonances.
Mounted on this cabinet with brass inserts pressed into the front baffle are five drivers. Two of these -- the twin bass drivers -- are borrowed from T+A’s considerably more costly flagship model, the Solitaire CWT 2000 ($55,000-$62,000/pair). The 1” silk-dome tweeter was designed and built specifically for the Criterion line. In correspondence with Jochen Fabricius, T+A’s principal speaker engineer, I learned that the silk dome is driven by a magnet system that makes use of ferrofluid in its air gap to control cooling. The dispersion of acoustic energy in front of and behind the tweeter is controlled by two unique reflectors also designed by T+A. The first reflector resides behind the tweeter, is asymmetrical in shape, and was designed to completely cancel any high-frequency energy that finds its way into the rear chamber. The second reflector curves around the dome itself, and functions as a waveguide that effectively matches the tweeter’s radiation characteristics to those of the midrange drivers while simultaneously delaying the tweeter’s output. The latter was implemented to further control the transitional behavior to the midrange drivers.
The two 6.5” midrange drivers are identical and handle all frequencies between 2200 and 200Hz. Based on the Greycone drivers designed by T+A and used in the Criterion TL series, these have been redesigned and, T+A claims, significantly improved for use in the Criterion and far more costly Solitaire ranges. I was told that the original Greycone drivers had paper cones made with a high proportion of carbon fiber, which permitted faster, more detailed performance. The new cones are also of carbon-fiber-reinforced paper, but cut and glued in different positions (which forms the multiple slots visible in the cones) to further damp resonances. In addition to optimizing the cone geometry, Fabricius also came up with a surround material that’s said to be more durable and more flexible. The result of these efforts is a new midrange driver capable of providing higher levels of linearity and bandwidth with significantly lower levels of distortion.
To pair the new midrange drivers with the waveguided tweeter, Fabricius also designed for the former a new aluminum phase plug that provides better control of high-frequency radiation, thus permitting better integration of the drivers’ outputs. Collectively, T+A calls this trio of midrange-tweeter-midrange their Constant Directivity (CD) array. When I asked Fabricius why T+A chose this arrangement, more commonly known as a D’Appolito array, he said that during the design of the Solitaire CWT speakers it was discovered that a CD array improves not only power handling, but also midrange directivity in the vertical domain, which results in reduced floor and ceiling reflections.
The TCD 110 S’s 10”, long-throw woofers were designed and built from scratch to be used as part of a TML. Each cone is made of embossed, carbon-fiber-reinforced paper and housed in a custom-designed aluminum basket with narrow struts. Propelling the diaphragm is what T+A calls an “ultra-powerful” magnet that charges a 50mm voice-coil long enough to permit linear excursions of +/-10mm. Other than the long excursion of the woofer and voice-coil, the final and possibly most important design requisite of this bass driver was that each unit must be tuned to perform with the resonant frequency of the TML. Jochen Fabricius said that, unlike the ATL used in the PMC IB2i I recently reviewed, no computer modeling was done for the TML in the TCD 110s; only a desktop calculator was used. He indicated that if you know the desired bass response, the specifics of the TML are quite easy to calculate. Fabricius also noted that in some speakers, heavy stuffing of the transmission line is used to reduce and avoid the anti-resonance in the output (usually between 100 and 200Hz), which can degrade efficiency. In an effort to maintain rather than lower efficiency, Fabricius took a different approach.
First, the bass drivers are relocated to be positioned approximately a third of the way down the TML. The idea here is that the drivers are then loaded by a small volume of air, which in turn acts as a low-pass filter to reduce higher-frequency resonances. There is also a “shortcut” line, if you will, added in the TML at a position where pressure extremes cancel out. By these means, unwanted resonances are said to be greatly diminished while maintaining a high efficiency. But efficiency and resonance control are only parts of the equation; the TML also needs to maintain a flat response to remain effective. The key to ensuring this, Fabricius explained, is to control the velocity of the air as it exits the port. The solution consisted of two measures: First, the TML is tapered; its cross-sectional area increases as air approaches the aperture of the large front port. Second, damping material -- albeit minimal -- is used in specific areas throughout the line. The result of Fabricius’s efforts, at least in the case of the 110 S, is a speaker with an efficiency of 88dB/W/m that is well-engineered enough to go as low as 22Hz.
By this time, all I wanted to do was sit down and listen to and for everything that Fabricius had just reviewed with me -- but there was still one more important piece of the puzzle to fit into place: the crossover. Designed in-house but built by an external supplier (as are all drivers used in Criterion speakers), the three-way crossover used in the TCD 110 S is said to be built using only top-end parts. Both air- and ferrite-core coils are used throughout the network, ferrite-core coils being primarily used in the input path of the woofers and midranges, and air-cores where ferrite-cores might suffer from saturation under certain conditions. Nothing but top-end MKT or MKP capacitors are used in these networks; where a high capacitance is needed, long-life bipolar electrolytic capacitors bypassed by MKT capacitors for low losses are also used.
With all that information buzzing around inside my head, I wanted to hear what Jochen Fabricius had just spent so much time explaining to me, and to put T+A’s CD array to the test. I began rummaging through my music collection trying to find recordings with such distinct characteristics as high-resolution vocal specificity, profound bass dynamics, intricately recorded detail, and definitive soundstage characteristics. With the TCD 110 S speakers positioned about 4’ from the front wall, 2’ from the side walls, and 9’ from my listening position, I began by cueing up “Looking for a Home,” from Sony’s AR1 SACD Sampler: Because You Care About Music -- a very well-recorded track with excellent image specificity, easy-to-discern micro- and macrodetails.
What I heard was impressive, to say the least. “Looking for a Home” begins with Keith Greeninger plucking an acoustic guitar at center left, complemented by Dayan Kai’s acoustic guitar at center right. Greeninger then begins to sing, his voice precisely imaged at center stage and slightly higher than the guitars. The tonal accuracy was very good, sounding more live than recorded, but what really caught my ears was the realistic scale in which the voice and guitars were presented.
Speakers with a D’Appolito driver array can sometimes present voices and instruments with a somewhat blurred, inflated sense of scale, giving the illusion of a larger soundstage at the expense of realism and focus. That was not the case with the T+As -- Greeninger’s and Kai’s guitars were presented with lifelike image specificity and size. Greeninger’s voice sounded solid, dynamic, well textured, and free of congestion at any volume level. The breadth and duration of both vocal and string decays gave me a great sense of the soundstage boundaries, and subtle details, such as the soft thump of Kai’s hand on his guitar as Greeninger strummed, allowed me to easily place each musician on stage.
Having begun with a high-quality recording, I moved on to something I knew had not been recorded with the same resolution or attention to detail: La Roux’s “In for the Kill (Skream’s Let’s Get Ravey Remix)” (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Kitsuné Music). The electronic bass that kicks in about 30 seconds into this track was visceral enough to be felt in my chest, but articulate and textured enough to clearly convey its synthesized origins. Admittedly, the volume was up, but there’s no other way to play this track. La Roux’s voice was placed dead center on the stage and slightly elevated, and was velvety smooth and sounded hugely dynamic. The reverb added to the voice on this remix was convincingly conveyed -- I heard echoes from the left channel, where they originated, and from around the room. In similar fashion, there’s a delayed echo of a synthesized drum being struck that seemed to decay behind my head, an effect so well managed that it let me break free of the confines of the room, and gave me the impression that I was in a club. Keeping my finger on the volume up button throughout “In for the Kill,” I was impressed that there was a complete lack of compression or congestion often experienced when listening to electronica. About 90% of the track’s sound originates from center stage, yet at no time did I yearn for more channel separation or a larger soundstage due to a closed-in or mono-like sound.
As I listened to the Criterion TCD 110s, I was reminded of speakers I’ve reviewed or listened to in the past that cost well north of their asking price. I had to remind myself often throughout this review that I was hearing a $13,000/pair of speakers wearing $3000 worth of tuxedos. I decided to focus more on how they performed against the speakers they reminded me of than on their performance alone, and chose as my product of main comparison PMC’s IB2i ($21,999/pair). At nearly twice the T+A’s price, the IB2i might not seem an ideal speaker for comparison, but consider the similarities: Both models use a silk-dome tweeter, both have midrange drivers borrowed from flagship brethren and woofers specifically tuned to perform in their intended environments, and both breathe through a front-ported, 8’-long transmission line.
One of the PMC IB2i’s most endearing qualities is its uncanny ability to present a balanced sound at any volume level. When I listened to La Roux’s “In for the Kill,” the Criterions performed very much as do the PMCs, maintaining commendable balance throughout the audioband, regardless of volume. Listening to “Wish You Were Here,” from Pink Floyd’s Discovery collection (CD, EMI 028945 2), I noted in my previous review that the PMCs exhibited tremendously well-textured and articulate strings with “jaw-dropping” image focus, string detail, and soundstage placement. Although the Criterions couldn’t quite match the outright resolution or trueness of all of these attributes, they did present well-focused, palpable images while drawing little to no attention to the drivers responsible.
When I moved on to Lara Ruggles’s “Snowflake,” also from Sony’s AR1 SACD Sampler, I found that voices through the Criterions sounded less colored than through my reference B&W 802 Diamonds. The T+As’ midrange actually reminded me a lot of what I heard while listening to this track through Wilson Audio’s Sophia 3s -- Ruggles’s voice was vibrant, with excellent timing and depth, but also a bit harder and cooler at higher volume levels than through the PMCs or B&Ws. This brings me to my one and only criticism of the Criterions: Like the Wilsons, when the T+As are pushed hard, the upper midrange can sound a bit tilted up and teeter on sounding sharp, most notably with female voices. That’s not to say that their tweeters become noticeable, as do the Sophias’ -- they don’t -- but with some recordings, the Criterions’ CD arrays could sound a hint shouty.
Lowering the volume to a more reasonable level, I turned my focus to “Melodia Africana,” from pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s I Giorni (CD, BMG 97462 2). Here the Criterions excelled at presenting the scale, location, and tonal purity of the acoustic piano, besting my B&W 802 Diamonds by some margin. Comparing the TCD 110s to the PMC IB2i’s was a bit more difficult -- the Criterions were, amazingly, almost on a par with the PMCs, delivering similar levels of natural note decay and openness, but falling slightly short of conveying the full natural liquidity of the piano notes. I did, however, revel in how resolute the piano’s lower notes sounded through the Criterions. In fact, throughout all of my testing, regardless of the recording, the T+As unfailingly delivered deep, controlled, resolute bass, leaving in the dust both the PMCs and my B&Ws. “Thanks to You,” from Boz Scaggs’s Dig (CD, Virgin 8 10635 2), provided a particularly good example of this -- the track has a continuously deep bass line that few speakers in the T+As’ price range can properly communicate. Their combo of twin woofers and TML took those notes in stride, digging deeper and sounding firmer than the PMCs or the B&Ws, especially at higher volumes.
When I first set up T+A Elektroakustik’s new Criterion TCD 110 S speakers in my listening room, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Out of the box, the bass sounded a bit thin, and at $16,000 (with optional finish) they were more expensive than my B&W 802 Diamonds, yet seemed to offer less in terms of apparent material value. But, a few months of break-in later, I can say with conviction that, at this price, the Criterion TCD 110 S is a total sleeper -- and I mean that in a 427-equipped Chevy Yenko Nova sort of way.
T+A’s Constant Directivity driver array is incredibly well implemented and does a commendable job of presenting aural images in space with appropriate levels of depth, texture, detail, scale, and focus. I applaud Jochen Fabricius and T+A for designing and implementing such a seamless driver array and so brilliantly tailored a crossover network. The innovative twin bass driver/transmission-line combination partners wonderfully with the CD array to deliver deep, accurate, powerful bass that remains palpable and controlled regardless of volume level. Add to that a cabinet built and finished to last a lifetime, and one of the most attractive and well-thought-out protective grilles in the business, and T+A has a winner.
If you’re looking for a reference-level speaker that sounds fantastic and offers almost impossible value for money, you need to listen to these. Highly recommended.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- B&W 802 Diamond, PMC IB2i
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifier -- Classé CA-M300 (2), Halcro MC50
- Preamplifier -- Marantz AV880, Classé CP-800, YBA Passion 550
- Sources -- Ayre Acoustics C5xeMP CD player, Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player
- Cables -- Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables, Kimber Kable Select 1126 interconnects, Cardas Clear Blue Beyond power cables
- Power conditioner -- Torus Power AVR2 20A
T+A Criterion TCD 110 S Loudspeakers
Price: $13,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-0
Fax: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-76
North American distributor:
Dynaudio North America
1140 Tower Lane
Bensenville, IL 60106
Phone: (630) 238-4200
Fax: (630) 238-0112