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Talon Phoenix Loudspeaker

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.

The Technology

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.

 

Both the passive and active versions of the Talon Phoenix have the following list of design strengths:

The crossovers are balanced in topology. The designer, Richard Rives Bird, states: “Almost no one does this because it uses nearly twice as many parts. The crossover slopes are very steep, around 30bB/octave. We need this with the Accuton cones because too much overlap winds up smearing the image with these drivers. The Accuton drivers are ceramic—very light and very fast and very expensive. I used to love electrostatic speakers because the response was so fast and detailed. The Accuton drivers are the only ones that have that kind of ESL response, but as I said they have their challenges in execution. When you get it right, it’s glorious. When it’s wrong, it’s really bad.”

Sensitivity is high at a rated 92–95dB, allowing use with any amplifier including low-power tube amps, while still having the dynamic range in my system to handle well over 250 watts per channel. “In general we want to be around 90+dB efficient,” Bird says. “We also keep all of our speakers between 12 and 4 ohms across the bandwidth. As an example the Phoenix in passive  mode is 92bB efficient and achieves our impedance goals. In active mode it improves to 95bB sensitivity and has an impedance curve that remains between 10 and 6 ohms. At CES we drove the active version with 12 watts of 300B tube power…Of course in the active configuration the bass drivers are being driven by a highly specialized 500-watt internal switching amplifier.”

A massive cabinet, which, says Bird, “uses brute force to reduce resonance. In Talon’s reference line we are really pushing the limit of what can be achieved. We do so with pretty much a total disregard for parts cost, cabinet cost, finish and hours to build a pair of speakers. Some things look like they may not add cost, such as the non-parallel-walled enclosures, but this does add significant cost to build. It’s far harder to make than typical rectangular boxes, but it does yield significant benefits in sound performance. Even speakers like the Phoenix that appear to have rectangular elements have complex angled elements internally to prevent standing waves and produce better sound.”

Controlling the back wave from the drivers, especially the bass drivers, limits back-wave pressure to the “level necessary to allow the driver to return to zero as efficiently as possible,” Bird says. “We do this with a labyrinth design. I like to refer to it as a quasitransmission line. It’s not a real transmission line because it’s not one-quarter of the lowest wavelength, but it works in a similar way to properly control the air pressure behind the speaker. You cannot achieve flat impedance curves as far as I know with any other method. Sealed, ported, vented all have significant issues in the impedance area and this can limit which amps can be used.”

Please do keep Bird’s comments in perspective. They represent the designer’s views and I have reviewed too many great speakers to endorse any given design approach, Yet, as my following comments on sound quality reveal, I did find that the sound of his Talon Phoenix lived up to all of his design goals.

The Active Crossover with Room Correction

These features help explain why I found the Talon Phoenix with the passive crossover to be an outstanding speaker. At the same time, the Talon Phoenix with the active crossover is a much superior speaker with critical additional features. If I had the money, I would definitely opt for the more expensive version. The extra $20,000 buys some truly impressive further improvements in sound quality

The electronics in the active system includes a 500-watt switching amplifier. Its use means the Talon Phoenix will be driven by two different amplifiers. It will use the built-in amp in the active crossover to provide the deepest and most dynamic bass, and your outside amplifier for the midrange and treble.

There are two ways to set this combination up. The one I used to write this review is to connect the power amplifier to the speaker-level input. The signal is then split and low frequencies dropped to line level. Parametric equalization is then applied to correct for room problems in the bass using computerized measurements of the speaker’s actual performance at the listening position, and the signal is re-amplified with the internal 500-watt switching amp. The Talon Phoenix gave excellent performance in this mode with both a Cary CAD 120 Mark II tube amp, and my reference Pass Labs XA 160.5s driving both the switching amp and the midrange and treble unit.

 

Richard Bird notes that “some people prefer this method of connecting because it gives the ‘signature’ of the amp they are using to the sound of the bass.” He also says, however, that he uses the separate amp to drive the midrange and tweeter unit directly: “For myself, I prefer a 12W 300B amplifier. When using the 300B amps I go in with the RCA connector, so the bass amp does not see the 300B’s low-frequency signature (which is a good thing since the 300B does not do bass well at all).” The most impressive aspect of the active unit, however, is its room correction. Bird describes this aspect of the design as follows:

“There were some early efforts that were actually pretty good, or at least in the right direction. McIntosh made a nice analog multiband parametric equalizer. Where everything went wrong was when people tried to make parametric equalizers in the digital domain and there were a lot of mistakes made. First the A/D and D/A converters for these were marginal and already corrupting the signal. Second the filters were typically FIR filters and often set with very steep curves causing a digital artifact. Third was the notion of creating or ignoring phase shift and when this got applied wrong, which was often the case, things really went downhill. And last, but not least, people felt that since they had the signal in the digital domain manipulating the full bandwidth for other aspects would be a nice benefit—it wasn’t.

“I’m a physicist by training and all of my graduate work was in digital signal processing. So, naturally I did everything in the analog domain. It’s more expensive in parts cost, but it’s straightforward and is the least damaging to the signal, particularly if you bandpass everything above 300Hz or so. So the equalization we do is only parametric for low-frequency room modes. We do this in the active crossover of the Phoenix and, of course, the Rives PARC and sub-PARC. The other beauty of analog is that the phase shift introduced by the circuit is equal and opposite to the phase shift caused by the room mode. It’s a simple and elegant solution and completely transparent to the mid and high frequencies.”

I should note that I am a firm believer in the desirability of room correction and feel that it has become the most critical frontier in high-end audio. As a result, I have spent considerable time listening to different room-compensation systems in both the analog and digital domains. I use a pair of Vandersteen 5a Carbons that have a built-in subwoofer with analog compensation in the bass as my reference speakers. I’ve tried a wide range of subwoofer room-correction systems. I’ve spent considerable time with TacT Audio room-correction units, and I have recently experimented with the DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core loudspeaker optimization system.

When it comes to relatively affordable built-in room correction, I’d go with the Vandersteens.

The Talon Phoenix, however, has the best approach to advanced electronic room correction that I have heard to date, as it should at the price. With reasonable attention to AC grounding, its active unit is totally silent, and it corrects the bass without coloring the midrange and treble and without over-correcting in ways that can affect other aspects of bass quality.

This means fixing what has become the most colored component in a modern high-end system: the listening room. The best uncorrected speaker in the world cannot avoid the bass problems common to virtually every listening room—problems that usually make the bass response look more like a profile of the Alps than a flat response.

At the same time, I have learned the hard way that room correction is an art form, not a science, and the ear is as important as the computer and the microphone. Too much correction kills dynamics and life and narrows the listening area to the precise point where the correction measurement is made, often creating new problems with small changes in listening position. Far too often there is a very uncertain correlation between a given method of room-response measurement and real-world bass response as heard by the ear.

To put the Phoenix’s correction in perspective, I have played around with a variety of other approaches, and none was as good. I once spent several months working on a review that tried out different subwoofer equalizers with high-end music systems, including designs from Velodyne, Audyssey, DSPeaker, and Polk. My efforts included Velodyne and Polk subwoofers with builtin room correction, and the Velodyne SMS-1 Digital Subwoofer management system, Audyssey Sub Equalizer, and DSPeaker Anti-Mode 8033.

These efforts did nothing more than tell me that using subwoofer equalizers is an unworkable approach to high-end audio. The subwoofer equalizers all improved the deep bass in movie soundtracks in AV systems to a significant degree, but none were really usable with the most demanding musical materials This was partly the result of problems in subwoofer placement, crossover problems, and the different sound of the bass from two different speakers even after room correction.

The main reason, however, was the unworkable nature of the design concept. Bass-correction systems optimized for subwoofers that perform below 80–100Hz simply cannot correct for the range of problems that affect the full range of bass music versus reproducing the drama from the bass in the sound effects of movies. In contrast, full-range room-correction systems can make major improvements if they are used properly, but all the others I have heard impose some cost in other aspects of sound quality like transparency and dynamic life. Good as some are, they have not equaled the Talon Phoenix.

 

The TacT room-correction systems and preamps are the best digital units that I’ve yet heard. They can make a real improvement in more affordable systems, particularly where speaker placement is difficult and room problems are more serious. Nevertheless, the TacTs have a slight compression effect and lose detail in the midrange and upper midrange. It short, The TacT is still well worth using in many systems, but it does not provide state-of-theart sound quality by today’s steadily more demanding standards.

The DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core is a very good buy at a very affordable price. It has good overall sound quality even by high-end standards; its display shows the before-andafter response; it is easy to set with a very wide range of other adjustments; and it will improve most more affordable speakers in most rooms. But the Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core has a bit more audible compression effects and loss of detail than the TacT. It also adds some (barely) audible digital noise at its audio outputs. It needs more digital headroom, and it badly needs an XLR or RCA digital input.

As for Audyssey’s full-range equalization, I use it in my AV system. I should also note that I have only heard it used in systems limited to AV receiver sound quality, and I have not tried professional installation. However, I cannot get consistent results in response correction when I use the set-up feature with any receivers I have tried, even though all the room-correction measurements were taken in exactly the same system in the same place in the same room. Don’t get me wrong, I would not buy a receiver without the Audyssey system, and I would get the most advanced version available, but it seems much better suited to AV uses than demanding high-end music.

This makes the Talon Phoenix’s state-of-the-art performance the exception rather than rule. Unlike the other systems I have tried, a properly set up Talon Phoenix does improve bass realism with every form of music and every recording without affecting the midrange, treble, level of detail, or musical dynamics–especially microdynamics. If you want to design your audio system around your life in a normal, socially functional room–rather than your life around a dedicated listening room that may still cause measurable problems—the active crossover in the Talon Phoenix does seem to be the answer.

The Other Aspects of Sound Quality

I now come to the impossible part of this review: Trying to communicate exactly the sonic nuances of the Talon Phoenix that make it so much better than even the best more-affordable speakers that they may justify its cost and certainly justify a road trip to hear it. I can tell you performance is excellent in both versions, and I have already told you that the active version has truly superb flat bass that blends into the midrange without coloration or over-correction.

Based on several months of listening to both the passive and active versions, I can also tell you that this is a remarkably wellintegrated speaker that gives the kind of near-point-source sound that provides a relatively wide and stable listening position without creating special problems with sidewall and other room reflections.

Detail, dynamics, and life are all excellent—truly excellent! If you want to know what is really on your recording—and the strengths and weaknesses of your front end, preamp, and amplifier—this speaker starts out providing immediately exceptional sound quality and then reveals more and more subtleties over time, as you really begin to hear the amount of information it can provide. At the same time, there are no annoying surprises or anomalies where that information is just the result of some aberration in response or performance.

Male and female voices are consistently accurate without any problems in the sibilants or upper register of solo tenor or soprano voice, or problems like chestiness in lower-pitched voice, that some speakers add to recordings. It is as revealing on complex jazz and rock vocal tracks as any speaker around and also exceptional with opera and mass choral works, including the most demanding passages in Wagner and Mahler. As might be expected, this means the Talon Phoenixes are also exceptional with massed and solo strings, harpsichord, and complex brass and woodwinds. At the same time, the Talon Phoenix manages to be exceptionally recording-tolerant while still being exceptionally revealing. I was playing around with a range of different high-res digital recordings and DACs while reviewing this speaker, and it did an excellent job of revealing the differences without favoring one over the other. The same with phono cartridges, and with my older LPs. I could hear the problems in a different age of mikes and tape recorders, but never in ways that made the performance less musical or less pleasant to listen to.

These performance characteristics helped a great deal with the soundstage. I’m never quite sure why, but some speakers seem to do a far better job of getting detail about imaging and depth out of a wider range of recordings than others, and doing so without freezing you in a given listening position. The Talon Phoenixes do not have some magic coloration in this regard. Setup is as critical as always, and they do not somehow create depth, soundstage width, or imaging detail if they are not on the recording. But, to the extent these sound qualities are there, the Talon Phoenixes deliver an excellent soundstage.

They also provide exceptional timbre and flat response above the bass frequencies. Detail and information sometimes come at the cost of lower midrange and upper bass tonality and warmth. This definitely is not the case with the Talon Phoenix. It is a flat speaker, and is not forgiving. At the same time, it is always as musical as the recording and other components permit. If flute, upper strings, or clarinet have any problems, don’t blame the speaker. It did as well with my brighter, closer-miked recordings as any speaker I’ve listened to at any price, and was far better in keeping all types of recordings musical than most.

 

The dynamic range is truly exceptional, without any loss of microdynamics and detail. If you can overdrive this speaker, you are doing it at the cost of your hearing. As is the case with other state-of-the-art speakers, there is no “sweet spot” in terms of volume. It will always sound better at musically natural volumes for a given performance, but there is no reason to either increase or decrease gain because of the speaker. Instead, you may find yourself making far more use than usual of both the volume and balance controls to get the listening level and soundstage that best suits the particular recording you are listening to.

As I’ve said in some previous speaker reviews, being able to choose your loudness level without having the speaker make part of the choice for you is a major performance advantage. How many times have you found a given speaker tends to impose its own loudness setting and dynamic limits on your taste? How many times has a speaker forced you to make trade-offs in the volume setting between the best low-level dynamic contrasts and detail and high-level dynamics? How many times have you had to crank up the volume to get to “flat” or had to turn it down to get more clarity and detail? The Talon Phoenixes let you focus on the natural level of music.

It is anything but my favorite piece of music, but I often use the last movements of Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony as a test (try the Michael Murray version on Telarc CD 86304). It provides some of the most complex dynamics and detail of any music, and particularly of acoustic music. Once again, the Talon Phoenix was exceptional, although the active version was notably superior because of its room correction in the bass.

The fact the Talons are not massive air-movers does not mean that they do not go down to the low bass with real power and detail, and do not benefit from room reinforcement when they are placed slightly closer to the real wall than usual. When I say their deep bass can’t move the room in potentially homedestroying fashion, I don’t mean that they can’t do an excellent job of providing the lowest organ notes or can’t push bass guitar and synthesizer sound levels to unpleasant extremes. One of my (ex?) friends got massive bass sound levels out of them.

I prefer the bass “speed” and detail they provide to excessive low bass. They are excellent where it counts. They easily go down to around 30Hz with near-flat response in my room, and keep

going after that without a sudden cut-off. This is more than

enough to cover the full range of real-world music.

Dealing with Room Interactions

The passive version of the Talon Phoenix required the same careful setup as any other top speaker. Like all truly full-range transducers, it needs a large enough room to develop full bass response, and enough space to keep sidewall and other room reflections limited. It does not need a lot of rear space, and the height of its drivers is well suited to placement in normal listening rooms, with little change in character according to seating height or even standing positions in a room with a tall ceiling.

If you do buy the active version, I’d strongly recommend dealer or manufacturer setup, although it is possible you could do this with a PC, the proper computer program, and a mike and instructions from Talon. (I’d also want to keep records on the settings and before-and-after computer printouts to know what correction took place and see the effect of any future changes.)

I also would urge patience in applying room correction. Don’t have your room-correction setup done until you have fully tried out various speaker positions and adjusted your listening position. Make sure you have at least a full afternoon or morning for the measurement and final setup, and listen to the options before you make a final decision. I might well pay for dealer help in a doing a final review after a couple of weeks or a month of listening. This is an interactive experience; don’t let a computer set up your speaker as if it were a high-end Robot Roomba.

Compatibility

The Talon Phoenixes worked well with my amps and those my friends brought in for listening sessions. It does not need trick speaker cables, but certainly benefited from the use of the topof- the-line AudioQuest and Kimber designs. If you like a given speaker cable, I suspect that the Talon Phoenixes will get the best out of it. If you do use the active version, use really good audio cables to connect with the active crossover. Richard Bird is more of a proponent of top-quality AC cables than I am, but the Kubla-Sosna AC cords he provided were very good.

Summing Up

Let me close with a point that I hope is obvious. I never recommend one speaker to anyone. I always believe in the “law of fives.” Listen to at least five speakers in the price range you can afford.

At the price of the Talon Phoenix, I’d spend a lot of time reading what my colleagues say and putting that list together in ways that ensured I’d never regret my choice. I’d also want to work closely with a dealer I could trust to stand by any such purchase, and who was patient enough to let me really listen. But, would I make this one of my five or recommend a road trip simply to learn more about the state of the art? Definitely, yes!

SPECS & PRICING

Driver complement: Dual 11″ ceramic woofers, 5″ ceramic midrange, 1″ ceramic tweeter
Frequency response: 17Hz–40kHz
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Minimum impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 92dB (passive version), 95dB (active version)
Active powered crossover: Input via either RCA or speaker level; 3-band programmable parametric equalizer (Rives PARC design); 500W built in switching amplifier
Dimensions: 16″ x 54″ x 32″
Weight: 370 lbs. (per speaker)
Price: $75,000, passive version; $95,000, active version

Talon Loudspeakers
P.O. Box 5548
Coralville, IA 52241
[email protected]
(800) 959-6553
(319) 351-9008 (outside U.S.)

By Anthony Cordesman

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