The Talon Phoenix is one of those rare loudspeakers that challenges the state of the art. If you find the opportunity to listen to it, it is almost certain to open your ears with new insights into sound quality. The passive version, which retails for $75,000 is by any standard an excellent loudspeaker. The active version, which retails for $95,000, includes an active crossover, 500-watt switching amplifier for the bass, and parametric equalization that provides the best automatic room correction I have used to date. It is one of the finest real-world approaches to providing musically natural sound in an actual listening room I have ever heard.
The practical problem in writing this review is how to put both variants into perspective. There are many other excellent speakers that sell for far less, and many for 20-30% of the price. The law of diminishing returns kicks in very early in audio. You pay more and more for each improvement in nuance, and the value of each improvement becomes more personal in the process. How much you are willing to pay for every slight step forward, and the resulting mix of nuances, has to be determined by personal taste. The resulting cost-benefits are also determined by how good the rest of your system is, how good your music collection is, and how much music really matters to you. The trade-offs involved are inherently personal and subjective, and become harder and harder to put into words. Once virtually every aspect of performance is very good to excellent, and this is true of many far cheaper speakers, you have a choice between hype, which uses words to oversell the item under view, and restraint, which can seriously hurt a manufacturer in a world where hype is the norm.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that while high-end reviewing is not a morality play, it is a fact that only a handful of audiophiles can hope to afford such a product. I can’t justify paying this much for a speaker, any more than I can justify a luxury home, car, painting, or wine cellar. I can’t justify my fascination with the high end over all of the other luxury alternatives that motivate the growth of our economy and civilization.
About all I can do is to make two points at length in the comments that follow that I can summarize more quickly now. The active version of the Talon is one of those few speakers that really do compete for state of the art, and it is one of the few truly high-priced speakers that are worth a long trip to a dealer even if you have no chance of ever buying one. My prose may entice you to make that trip, but only serious listening can tell you how good it is and help you set the listening standards you should apply to any speaker you buy. The only way to know excellence (and set standards for spending on a far more limited budget) is to hear the state of the art, and the best way to know the right trade-offs to make in any given price range is to hear the best speakers around
This point gets lost all too often in complaints that we should focus on cheaper, more affordable systems. It also gets lost in valuing the role of good high-end dealers. Prose is no substitute for the listening experience. Relying on reviews without listening is the audio equivalent of buying a wife or lifetime partner by want ad or e-mail.
Let me begin by noting that the Talon Phoenix is not large by state-of-the-art-speaker standards. It measures 16" x 54" x 32", and is small enough to fit into most real-world rooms without dominating them. I can’t believe that any sensible audiophile buys equipment for status, but if size is your thing, you may have to ask your friends to lift one if you want to impress them. Each speaker weighs 370 pounds.
As the photo accompanying this article shows, the Talon Phoenix is also exceptionally well styled in a slightly retro manner. The grilles are magnetic, easy to remove, and reveal drivers that add to the visual impact.
Moreover, the cabinet holding the midrange and tweeter is separate from the bass unit to reduce resonance, improve timedelay and dispersion, and make moving and positioning the speaker easier. The crossover also is totally removable to allow upgrade, conversion from passive to active with room correction, and again ease moving the unit, although I’d still classify setup and movement by hand as a two-person job.
Size does, however, affect one aspect of performance: Sheer ability to move vast amounts of air in the deepest bass. The Talon Phoenix is rated at 17Hz–40kHz, and does use two 11" ceramic woofers, as well as a 5" ceramic midrange and a 1" ceramic tweeter. The end result is a remarkably well-integrated sound that is far more similar to a point source that the driver layout would indicate. The Talon Phoenix does not, however, provide the kind of super bass that some assaults on the state of the art provide by using much larger enclosures, separate bass towers, or subwoofers.
I did not find this to be an issue, given my musical taste. I could not fault the quality of the deep bass with any form of acoustic music, even at the loudest humanly acceptable levels for orchestra, opera, and jazz. Organ and bass viol reproduction was excellent. If, however, you are a bass freak who is into electronic music and want the deep bass to move the room and flex the walls, the design does impose a slight tradeoff below 30Hz, albeit in sonic areas I feel are best restricted to thunderstorms, really bad war/sci-fi movies, and communication between elephants.