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T+A elektroakustik Talis S 300 Loudspeaker

T+A elektroakustik is a major high-end presence in Europe with 120 dealers in Germany alone. Deliberately and incrementally, T+A has been working on achieving greater visibility in markets worldwide. Central to this effort for 15 years has been James Shannon, T+A’s Export Sales Manager, who visited me briefly last December to confirm that the estimable Talis S 300 loudspeakers were performing as they were supposed to. One nuance is worth passing along. Not once in the several hours we spent together did Shannon refer to his employer as T and A—as he probably should, as that’s shorthand for Theory and Application (Theorie und Anwendung in German)—but as T plus A. That small edit, which I fully embrace, diminishes the tendency for the smirking and giggling that, inevitably, ensues after “T and A” has been spoken aloud a few times. Now if you decide to further investigate this lovely speaker and visit one of the company’s 21 North American dealers—more are coming onboard in the near future—you won’t have the experience of saying “I’d like to check out the T and A,” and have the gentleman behind the counter direct you to a dive bar down the street.

T+A makes nearly every category of audio product, including digital and analog electronics, turntables, cables, power conditioners…and loudspeakers. TAS has reviewed several offerings within the past few years. In Issue 260, Alan Taffel was greatly impressed with both the performance and value of the PA 3000 HV integrated amplifier and MP 3000 HV music player; Neil Gader was enthusiastic about a similar combination, the PA 2500 R and MP 2000 R MKII in TAS 275. Robert Harley gave top marks to the $22,800 PDP 3000 HV CD/SACD player and DAC in 268; it was on his recommendation that I auditioned and purchased the less costly but nonetheless world-class DAC 8 DSD. But we had yet to consider a T+A loudspeaker.

Which is surprising, as T+A began life as a speaker company in 1978. Its founder, Siegfried Amft, studied plasma physics at university (as they say in Europe) but also took classes with Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, of microphone and headphone fame, who became a mentor. The young Amft decided he’d like to get into the audio business himself, and as loudspeakers required the least amount of initial investment, that’s the path he took. Fortunately, an early product was a big success. The Criterion transmission-line models, introduced in 1982, remain in production and Amft is still running the company. Over the years, T+A’s development team, which now includes 13 graduate-level engineers, pioneered a number of significant innovations such as active and, later, digital speaker designs. The current loudspeaker lineup includes a range of technologies, aesthetic values, and price points, ranging from the Solitaire series (T+A’s largest and most expensive speakers, which employ a one-of-a-kind electrostatic midrange/treble driver) to the much more affordable Pulsar models. The Talis series includes the two-way R 300 bookshelf speaker at $9900 a pair, and the three-way S 300 floorstander, $13,900 per pair and the subject of this review.

The Talis S 300 is easy on the eyes—a sleek, solid, aluminum tower available in either a silver or black anodized finish. The front surface measures 8.3″ across and curves gracefully backward to a rear aspect just 4″ wide. The S 300 is 11″ deep and, without spikes, 41.4″ high. The wall of the enclosure is fairly thin, maximizing internal volume without compromising strength or rigidity: The Talis S 300 weighs 72.8 pounds, about 50 pounds less than the similarly sized Magico S1 Mk2, another extruded aluminum design. A sound-absorbing material is applied to the S 300’s internal walls.

Unlike a number of American high-end speaker makers, T+A doesn’t own CNC or surface-mount machines to fabricate parts for its wide range of products. Rather, the metalwork and manufacture of other components are assigned to outside companies, often German ones. For example, T+A has circuit boards made at a technologically advanced Siemens facility that is literally across the street from its own factory complex in Herford, a town of 65,000 in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The Talis’ aluminum drivers are built to T+A’s specifications from parts manufactured by two long-term suppliers in Asia and then assembled in China. Intent on assuring that no one can copy its drivers, T+A owns all the tools required to make the baskets, cones, voice coils, spiders, and surrounds.

The S 300 employs a 1″ (25mm) dome tweeter, operating out to beyond 30kHz, a 4.72″ (120mm) midrange, and two 6″ (150mm) woofers that cover the same frequency range and function in parallel; crossover frequencies are 250Hz and 2200Hz. A waveguide for the tweeter is machined into the baffle to assure that the HF driver’s dispersion characteristics remain smooth, even at the tweeter’s handover to the midrange. The Talis is a bass-reflex design with two ovoid ports at the rear of the loudspeaker. Two sets of speaker terminals are connected by a reassuringly robust jumper cable, in the event you’re not bi-wiring. Fabric-covered perforated-metal grilles attach magnetically to the front baffle—these certainly don’t look to be acoustically transparent, and I did all my listening with them removed.

 

After the S 300s are unboxed, the owner must bolt three curved, flat metal plates to the bottom of each speaker to create a stabilizing outrigger structure. T+A  provides beautifully machined, adjustable TipToe-style spikes, four per side, that screw into the outrigger base but I found that these didn’t come close to piercing my not-especially-thick carpet and pad to make contact with the concrete slab beneath. As the thread size isn’t the same gauge found on North American speakers and equipment racks (but, rather, a European M6 metric thread) T+A quickly sent longer spikes that did the trick nicely. James Shannon tells me that these will now be supplied routinely with S 300s; I do hope that the more elegant pointed cones will be included as well, for those with a less challenging floor-covering than mine.

An aside. The Talis S 300s were shipped directly from the Herford factory and were packed with gratifying care. You’d be surprised how many loudspeakers arrive damaged (or at least represent close calls, with evidence of significant trauma to the shipping cartons). With S 300s, you can be confident that the speakers will probably get to you in good shape. Each speaker is packed in a cardboard box with stabilizing foam; that box is then placed inside another cardboard box. Those boxes are then snugly positioned side-by-side in a substantial wooden crate. That crate, by the way, isn’t secured shut with wood screws but instead with an ingenious system of metal clamps that are easily pried off with a large screwdriver and replaced with a mallet or hammer. These details may soon be forgotten when the loudspeakers are making music, but during those first moments of ownership it’s encouraging to know that this level of attentiveness went into a peripheral but nonetheless important aspect of the speakers’ production.

The Talis S 300s were in and out of my system—mostly in— for two months. That system included Pass XA 60.8 monoblocks (they each have two sets of binding posts, which facilitates bi-wiring) and either a T+A DAC 8 DSD connected directly to the amplifiers or an Anthem D2v pre/pro that allowed experimentation with DSP room correction and a subwoofer. A digital data stream was provided by either an Oppo BDP-103 universal disc player or a Baetis Reference 2 music computer. The occasional LP was played on a VPI Scoutmaster ’table fitted with a JMW Memorial tonearm holding a Sumiko Blue Point Evo III cartridge. My usual cabling is Transparent Gen V Ultra, and I began my testing of the Talis loudspeakers with those wires—but later changed the speaker cables to either one or two pairs of T+A’s own product, Speaker Hex ($1600 for a 3-meter pair), which the company provided. The advantages of bi-wiring the Talis S 300s, in terms of maximizing intelligibility of the most complex music, were readily apparent and I did most of my serious listening with that configuration.

In my 15′ x 15′ room—the ceiling height varies from 10′ to 12’—the S 300s were positioned in the same general vicinity as other bass-reflex loudspeakers of this size. They were located about 2′ from the front wall and were 8.8′ apart, center-to-center. The front plane of each speaker was 9′ from the listening position, with each Talis canted in slightly.

I thoroughly enjoyed all stripes of music through the Talis S 300s and was in decidedly no hurry to return them to those robust crates and send them on to their next destination. From grand opera to The Grand Slambovians, from Anonymous 4 to Maroon 5, from piano trios with Emmanuel Ax to piano trios with Oscar Peterson, these loudspeakers never failed to engage me. If there’s one sonic attribute above all others responsible for the appeal of these speakers, I feel it’s their complete lack of additive and subtractive tonal coloration. That’s not to say that the S 300s are bland or that they short-change music in drama or character. Quite the opposite: Distinctive voices and instrumental timbres are immediately identifiable. You won’t mistake the lowest notes of an oboe with the middle range of an English horn, even though the pitch is the same, and with a little practice, you can learn to distinguish a Stradivarius from a Guarneri del Gesù violin. After only a few notes, there’s no mistaking Michael Bublé for Frank Sinatra, even if the former is appropriating the latter’s repertoire and trying mightily to emulate his style. There are plenty of loudspeakers that will parse these kinds of distinctions. What the Talis S 300s do that most others can’t is to reliably represent the uniqueness of more complex sonorities, sounds that may be responsible for a musical effect of special significance. Two examples should give an idea of what I mean.

Serious Steely Dan aficionados will be familiar with the song “Razor Boy” from the group’s second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. The subject, as usual, is obscure though the narrator is letting a woman who is riding high know that her comeuppance is imminent. What makes the arrangement so exceptional (other than jazz bassist Ray Brown sitting in for Walter Becker) is the pairing of two instruments perhaps never before combined—vibraphone, played by frequent SD collaborator Victor Feldman, and pedal steel guitar, played by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. The sonorities of both instruments feature a gentle attack and long sustain; together they provide the textural and harmonic density that saturates the song with bitter melancholy. Through the S 300s, I experienced this as never before and the song’s poignancy was heightened.

Similarly, in Benjamin Britten’s ballet score The Prince of the Pagodas, the composer set out in the second act to mimic the sound of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, a singular aural phenomenon he’d experienced first-hand on a trip to Bali about a decade earlier. Britten managed to do it utilizing only Western instruments—two pianos, celesta, xylophone, vibraphone, a pair of piccolos, orchestral gongs, a tom-tom, and discreet lower strings. On a recording—I listened to Oliver Knussen’s excellent version for Virgin Classics—it only works if this extraordinary instrumental grouping is heard as a perfectly blended sonority as, ideally, it would be in life. The Talis speakers bring it off because there’s no extraneous coloration to undermine Britten’s sleight-of-hand.

 

It may be for this reason that the low-frequency performance of the Talis S 300 is, at first, hard to get a handle on. If one starts with pop and rock recordings from the 1960s and 70s, many seem undernourished in the bass department and you may conclude that the loudspeaker’s a lightweight in this regard. But, in fact, many of those recordings really didn’t have that much low-bass information—and plenty of speakers artificially pump up that part of the frequency spectrum. Not the T+As. This is a fat-free representation of what’s on the recording, from top to bottom. It’s then kind of surprising when some “real” bass comes along—say, in the finale of the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording on the Ondine label: The potency of the low end is quite unexpected. The Talis floorstanders will provide adequate weight for most symphonic recordings, and there’s enough “slam” so that newer rock recordings will have the needed propulsiveness that comes from well-recorded electric bass and kickdrum. Still, if you feast on synth-heavy dance music or late-Romantic French organ works (or both!), the Talis S 300s may not be the best choice. Adding a subwoofer is a possibility, but it needs to be done with care, lest you screw up the very good things that are happening further up the frequency spectrum. After a good deal of trial and error, I more-or-less successfully integrated my Magico S-Sub, using DSP room correction and limiting the sub’s contribution to 35Hz and down. I could then get my jollies from Blue Man Group’s The Complex, and the terrifying organ pedal descent heard in “Le verbe” from Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité was suitably apocalyptic. Mostly, though, I listened to the S 300s without a sub and felt nothing was missing.

Up top, the high-frequency specification of 35kHz seems believable, so open and airy is the sound with truly full-range recordings. The divisi violins at the beginning of the Act 1 Prelude from Lohengrin are richly textured on both digital (De Waart) and analog (Solti) versions. On Dark Side of the Moon, the scary-realistic bell and clock sounds on “Time” had a generous dose of “jump.”

The T+A’s abilities with spatial cues are as good as I’ve heard. With my go-to orchestral performance for scaling and imaging, Bernard Haitink’s version of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15, the localization of instruments was precise but lifelike, and the many passages in the opening movement for solo woodwinds and brass had those instruments correctly sized. The presentation had both immediacy and a sense of the room; the soundstage was vast and continuous. A lot of the credit, of course, goes to the engineering, but the loudspeakers assured that this recording’s glories registered fully. Likewise, Count Basie—Jam Session at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1975 was never more absorbing. The all-star sextet—Basie, Johnny Griffin, Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Louis Bellson, all having good days—were tangible presences in front of me.

I do want to emphasize that the qualities described above were not evident when the S 300s were freshly unpacked—they needed 150–200 hours of playing music to come into their own. Before that, the speakers were quite “accurate” with loads of detail, yet provided only a very ordinary listening experience. With time, the preternatural clarity remained, joined by an organic ease and naturalness surely related to the tonal verisimilitude noted above. Loudspeakers under $20,000 are the class of products I cover at shows, and I’ve not heard ones better than the S 300s. Sonically, they hold their own with competing models from Wilson and Magico that cost thousands more, despite having to cross an ocean to get here, and the T+As will likely get higher marks for appearance than products from those other two fine manufacturers. Most importantly, the Talis S 300 can make you forget that you are listening to a recording. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

Specs & Pricing

Type: Floorstanding, three-way, bass-reflex
Driver complement: 1x 1″ aluminum-dome tweeter, 1x 4.72″ aluminum midrange, 2x 6″ aluminum woofers
Frequency response: 32Hz–35kHz (+/-3dB)
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 87dB
Dimensions: 8.3″ x 41.4″ x 11″ without base
Weight: 72.7 lbs.
Price: $13,900/pair

T+A ELECTROAKUSTIK GMBH
Planckstraße 9 – 11
D – 32052
Germany
ta-hifi.com

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