Product Review - Talon Audio Khorus Floor-Standing Speakers - February, 2002
Height: 112cm (44.24")
|Talon Audio Technologies, Inc., 5175 South Green Pine Drive, Murray, Utah 84123; E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web http://www.talonaudio.com; Phone 801-619-9000; Fax 801-619-9001|
For a number of years, I have enjoyed a speaker combination of two-way, upgraded Michael Green tunable Chameleon IIIs and a stereo pair of Hsu subwoofers. With the Hsu crossover set quite low so that they wouldn't double with the Chameleons on the bass, the setup has brought me much pleasure.
The Chameleons have many enticing features, the most seductive of which is their ability to completely disappear while projecting a huge, air-filled, three-dimensional soundstage. Because they are tunable, one can make minute adjustments for room asymmetry and anomalies. Since my room is asymmetrical, with a dining alcove on one side, this proved an especial benefit.
However, like virtually all fine speakers, the Chameleons – at least the discontinued Chameleon III that I have owned – have their down side. They are pretty specific as to the width of their sweet spot; especially when positioned nearfield, they are very much a one to two-person speaker. And they boast neither deep bass extension, the high sensitivity necessary for mating with single-ended triode amps (I gave up reviewing with the Pass Aleph 30 because it was not a good match for the Chameleons), nor the fullest midrange. Nonetheless, when the Chameleons are tuned optimally, there are no back walls or side walls; instead, one discovers a living, breathing helping of sound that transcends the disturbingly flat, cardboard cutout limitations of conventional digital sound.
As my reviews have increased in product variety, using the Chameleons presents a fundamental problem. Their ability to change their sonic signature with the slightest adjustment of one of their eight controls leaves me without a solid reference. (Is what I'm hearing due to that interconnect I'm reviewing, or is it because the Chameleon needs tuning?) Perhaps this is being a mite unfair. After all, some of the finest speakers on the market sound different at different room temperatures and humidity. Nonetheless, as I find my evaluations of sonic characteristics increasingly heeded by a growing audience, I feel a responsibility to artists, manufacturers, and record labels to be able to speak with certainty.
Enter the Khorus X
A little over a year ago, while attending CES, my audiophile compatriot Clement Perry waxed ecstatic about the first generation, $14,000 Talon Khorus. After being introduced to Mike Farnsworth of Talon, I headed to the large trailer Talon had set up at “The Show.” While my initial impressions were mixed, I realized that a demo conducted on the spongy floor of a large trailer could in no way represent a speaker at its best.
Shortly thereafter, despite several extremely positive reviews on the web, the folks at Talon decided to revise their speaker design. Months later, the Khorus X, with an upped price of $16,000, appeared on the scene. It was a pair of this revised design that came to me for review.
Talon claims that the Khorus X boasts improved dissipation of mechanical energy. They now use a polyurethane adhesive in manufacture of the cabinet that provides a stronger bond, and penetrates more thoroughly (while curing) into the higher-tolerance joints. Cabinet walls are fabricated out of a multi-laminated material. Besides adding rigidity, this material seals the cabinet and disallows any of the typical MDF breathing. The front baffle is fixed and thicker. Woofer loading, though essentially unchanged, is accomplished in such a way that responsiveness and presence are greater. To finish off the loading, the port is smoother and manufactured out of solid aluminum.
Alas, receiving the Khorus X proved complicated. Each speaker weighs 190 pounds; its shipping weight, when coupled to a wooden shipping pallet, amounts to something like 205 pounds. Delivery may not present a problem for someone whose listening room is on the ground floor, and whose physical frame and strength (or deep pocket to hire a mover) makes unpacking and positioning manageable.
In my case, however, chez Serinus is a 14.5 x 17 x 9 room on the third floor of an 80-year old apartment building that lacks an elevator.
I wish to honor and thank Mike Farnsworth and crew for bending over backwards (without breaking anyone's back) to make this review possible. A separate moving team was hired to get the speakers from my building's downtown Oakland sidewalk – not the best place to leave a $16,000 speaker overnight – up the stairs and through the front door. (I can't recall if the boxes actually fit through the door, or if the speakers were unpacked in the hallway and then dollied in. I will take credit for striking up a simpatico conversation with the mover's wife; the two of us teamed up to convince him to remove the speakers from their pallets and set them on the floor.
Physically, the Khorus X is quite impressive speaker. It is available in seven finishes, including the handsome “Piano Black” gloss finish I saw at Perry's. (The shiny black makes a striking contrast to the speaker's unusual aluminum edges, aluminum top, and aluminum bottom – also available in a gun-metal black, I am told).
My review pair, similar to the photo at the top of this review, arrived in yellow/ivory “Italo Pearl.” While such a color works quite well in a dark room, it is not an ideal match for the fading beige carpet and plain unbleached muslin backdrop that offer no visual distraction to music played chez Serinus.
(I must admit I fell in love with the gorgeous “Crimson Birdseye” finish I saw on these speakers at CES 2002. One cannot have everything in life, at least not all at once).
While the Khorus X looks great with its black grille on, it sounds best “naked.” Since the grilles adhere magnetically, it's easy to put them on to impress your guests, and then remove them when the listening begins.
Design Philosophy from Designer Tierry Budge
In an e-mail sent just as I was beginning to audition the speaker, Tierry shared the following:
“These speakers really sound their best with the right amount of time (doing set-up, mainly), as well as the right associated equipment, and good (and clean) set-up connections. It's not that the speaker is so demanding of the right set-up and associated equipment, it just took considerable time to find the right approach to design and implementation.
“In the high-end, there is such a difference between clarity, transparency, broadband openness, three-dimensionality, detail, extension at both extremes, etc. It can be nearly impossible (at best!) to choose the correct associated equipment to use as a reference . . . even then, when upgrades take place, you're forced to start all over.
“Over the years, I've been exposed to a fair amount of music (I've played six different instruments, since the age of four.) Trying to find the right frame of reference in audio (i.e., choosing the right equipment) has just turned into a mass of confusion. One day, about seven years ago, I started to look at music in terms of a musical reference. That is, I broke down the instruments (as it were) into the musical components. I found that each instrument has a particular volume and form of the following combination: 1) transient, 2) fundamental, and 3) harmonic. These three elements can be different in character, occupy different bandwidths, have different volumes, and (most important to our "hobby") come at three different times! I found out that, to our ears, these three elements get naturally associated with an instrument, but it was much tougher to accomplish this in audio. It took several years (after 25 years of research) to finally begin to see results.
“I realized that it could be quite a challenge because of all the phase-shifts that naturally occur in the drivers. However, once I had the "window" that I needed, I began to realize some things: Since all the music we listen to (in audio) is, obviously, recorded, things like frequency balance, instrumental color, transient balance, and even the sense of ambience, were all the province of the recording engineer. In a sense, you could say that the audio system is at the mercy of the recording engineer.
“At first, this thought was a bit disturbing, until I realized that what I was used to hearing was kind of backwards. That is, with every recording I played, I would find myself saying, "Oh yeah, this is a Wilson speaker, or a Thiel, or a Magnepan, etc." I found out that not only was I acclimated to hear a given sound, even the speaker itself had a given signature. So, I began to design around musical components (transients, fundamentals, and harmonics) and found that the sound began to get richer and cleaner. (Some hear this "cleaner" as sounding a bit more "rolled-off.") Given my background in high-end audio, I wondered how this would be accepted. But no matter what I tried, I always came back to this musical foundation of transient, fundamental, and harmonics.”
There are actually two 10” woofers in the speaker, positioned back to back, with the second located directly behind the first. Below the woofers, the cabinet is filled with layers of progressively denser material. Hence its extreme weight, and its ability to reproduce intense bass response without severely shaking the floor.
Talon asserts that the speed of the Khorus X is 3 to 20 times faster than that of comparably priced speakers. Although this is impossible to evaluate by ear, the speaker sounds very much alive and present rather than laid back and veiled.
The Khorus X tweeter is a modified Scanspeak design, while the super-tweeter is from Audax. The speaker utilizes their own 10" driver configured with Talon's patented group phase technology. Group phase coupling allows the 10" driver to start and stop effortlessly by exhausting the back wave pressure from the rear of the driver. Revolutionary port design dramatically reduces port turbulence. This patent pending design was created by Talon engineers and is exclusive to Talon Audio products.
Talon designates this speaker as “2.5-way.” This means that there is a full crossover between the woofer and midrange dome, and only half a crossover between the midrange and the super-tweeter. The midrange dome, on the upper part of its range, is allowed to roll off naturally without the use of low-pass, passive elements. The roll-off occurs at approximately 13 kHz, where the super tweeter, which extends to 35 kHz, is "crossed in." Talon claims that this approach allows them to keep the speaker as simple as possible.
When I asked Tierry Budge for clarification on these matters, he supplied the following via e-mail:
“About Group Phase Coupling (GPC): Every driver has a resonant frequency. In midrange drivers and tweeters, it's possible to use the crossover to limit the bandwidth so that the amplifier doesn't have to try to work with the driver's own resonance so much. However, woofers do not have this luxury. As a result, the audio signal has to deal with the natural characteristics of the driver and this same driver's resonant frequency. The effect tends to reduce dynamic tracking, make the soundstage (and images) quite unstable, and reduce the overall size of these same images. GPC allows us to nullify the effects of the woofer's own resonant frequency. This not only helps us to solve the aforementioned problems, but the driver is freed-up to increase its overall bandwidth. For example, traditional methods of implementation (of our own 10” driver) would predict an overall bandwidth of 60 to about 800 Hz and a maximum output of about 110 dB. However, GPC allows us to use this same 10” from 17 to 2200 Hz and, to a level of at least 126 dB, with less current demand and 20 times lower distortion and cone break-up. Actually, the response time of the driver is so much quicker (typically 25-40 times) that it became critical to be very precise about the design of the dust cap. The 10” driver's dust cap had to be designed and out-sourced independently. Truthfully, the dust cap (which is fabricated from 3 separate and specific materials) takes over frequency reproduction duties from 800-2200 Hz.
“Let me also explain what I mean by ‘2.5 way.' The first full-range system I designed was a 4-way (five years ago.) Besides possessing various response weaknesses, it took forever to build. However, some of the solutions introduced by Group Phase Coupling helped overcome issues of complexity. The only challenge was that GPC worked best when used with a dedicated driver. But, the benefits of such a design were greater response/dynamic linearity, and simplicity of construction. Truthfully, GPC made it possible to keep implementation simple so that sound quality took front stage (instead of complexity).”
Because my initial impressions of the old Khorus speakers were less than gushing, it is important to say, right off the bat, that I am writing an extremely POSITIVE review. These are very special, marvelous speakers.
However, the Khorus X didn't sound so great at the Bay Area Audiophile Society system-hopping event that I held literally one week after Mike had correctly positioned the speakers chez Serinus. This was due in part to the fact that Mike had just replaced one of the tweeters, and re-soldered tweeter connections in both speakers. It may have also been because, even though Talon submits its drivers to extensive break-in before letting the speakers leave the factory, my pair may have needed even more break-in to shine.
Initial comments from the 15 audiophiles who auditioned my system were that the Khorus X sounded dry, and lacking in air and depth. They felt the sound was rather flat and uninvolving; the magic simply wasn't there. Several people who knew my system quite well, and had heard it through years of changes, said that they preferred the Chameleons.
While I agreed with the criticism, I was also aware that the bass response of the speakers was phenomenal. Furthermore, I simply could not accept that after we went to so much trouble to get the speakers set up properly, they could cost so much money and impress several reviewers, yet remain inherently flawed.
Instead, I sensed that my system was in great need of upgrading. This was further confirmed when, somewhere in my extended review process, I replaced the Khorus X with the Chameleon III, and realized that the Khorus X was revealing deficiencies that the Chameleon III had masked. Somewhere, sometime, somehow, something had gone amiss in the Serinus system.
I determined to conduct a reality check. In July, while attending the Music Critics Association of North America Convention in NYC, I paid a visit to Clement Perry's home in New Jersey. There I heard the Khorus X/Roc subwoofer combination sound so much better than the Khorus X had at chez Serinus, that I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me. While I did not anticipate having the flexibility that the TACT preamp afforded Perry – my tunable speakers were in his case replaced by a tunable system – I knew I could do a lot more to create a system that would give the Khorus X a run for the money.
Many, many months of system revision and equipment modification ensued. The Svetlana KT-88s in my Bruce Moore Dual 70 amp were replaced, first by JJ Teslas, and then by Electro-Harmonix 6550s. Timbre became far more neutral and extended, the overall sound far more pleasing. (I will shortly try other tubes, which I'll discuss in a future article on tube sound.)
Then, the Tesla 6922s in my Bruce Moore Companion III preamp were changed many times. For a while, I used Jan Phillips 6922s. I finally ended up with Siemens Caa gold pin 6922s. The difference in sound between the Tesla and the Siemens is enormous.
Powercords too went through many changes. I am still experimenting with these cords. Each time my system has changed, so have my impressions. Expect to see several extensive powercord reviews on this website in the coming months.
My preamp's shunt attenuators (volume controls) were also modified, first by increasing my ability to adjust volume by smaller increments, then by replacing the shunt attenuators with superior series attenuators. Then these too had to be modified to allow for greater flexibility in volume adjustment; two different alternatives were tried before we found the one that best suits my needs as a reviewer. (An upgrade to capacitors and resistors is still in the works.)
Following that, the preamp's internal wiring was changed to Nirvana. (I had previously rewired my Chameleons with Nirvana hook-up wire, which I find quite neutral and revealing.) Finally, when my system's sound remained too dark despite loaner and review powercords worth many thousands of dollars, careful examination of the preamp revealed that its filament voltage was inadvertently set way too low, and its headroom attenuated. After more toll calls and gratuitous gray hairs than I care to think about, all this was corrected.
Subsequently, Mike again showed up at my door. As it turned out, he and designer Tierry Budge had decided to modify the speaker's crossover. The ability to witness this modification firsthand enabled me to lure our fearless Editor-in-Chief John Johnson from the suburban comfort of Silicon Valley to the unexplored wilds of downtown Oakland's Adams Point.
After Mike had modified the left speaker, I demagnetized and played my favorite “Blues No More” track from Terry Evans' JVC-XRCD, Puttin' It Down. The difference between the sound of the left and right speakers was immense. Imagine the sonic equivalent of the split face that greets you on a Mac. Can you conjure up the sound of a system that sounds like a mime, half of whose face is painted gray and the other half white? When you've got the picture, you can understand how different the two speakers sounded. Even before the 100 hours of required break-in, the modified speakers immediately impressed as far more transparent, alive, and involving. In fact, now all Khorus X speakers have had their crossovers modified.
I wish to thank Mike for his faith in my ability to create a system that is worthy of such a fine speaker. Finally, my appreciation to Dave Blair of Custom Power Company, Vin Guarino of Nordost, Peter Bizlewicz of Symposium Energy Absorption Platforms, Caelin Gabriel and Grant Samuelson of Shunyata, Bob Bergner of Bruce Moore Audio, the irreplaceable audio whiz and repair person extraordinaire David Tonelli, Paul Knutson, my partner in high-end excess Joey Cain, the fabulous Bob Cohen of The Cable Company (ably assisted by the team of seductive sirens known as Karen, Chris, Suzanne, and Lisa), and dealers Brian Rovinsky (St. Cecilia Sound Gallery), Jim Volpatti (Silent Lucidity), and Joe Cutrufelli (JC Audio) for their generosity of assistance and patience.
Whoever said that being an audiophile was easy? This has been a long haul, as each modification to my system was accomplished in the midst of an intense schedule of writing CD and performance reviews and artist features. Thankfully, the upshot of the process is that I have created a sound system that sounds great and will enable me to reliably review a wide variety of audio equipment.
When evaluating a piece of gear, it is important to have a reliable sonic reference. To my ears, this comes mainly when listening to recordings and performances of un-amplified music played on acoustic instruments.
Don't get me wrong. Studio-recorded pop music that employs electronic instruments can be marvelous. (The Terry Evans disc is a case in point.) But given the processing, amount of artificial reverb, multi-track layering, and many levels of sonic manipulation involved in producing today's pop recordings, it is hard to tell exactly what is producing what.
A case in point. At one of Sony's tight-ship surround sound SACD demonstrations at a previous CES, listeners were treated to a preview of a new multi-channel Joni Mitchell CD. I'm a child of the ‘60s, and happen to love Joni Mitchell. But there was no way for me to listen to a 16-track, studio-enhanced surround sound production and evaluate how good it sounded in SACD. Sure, I could evaluate transparency. I could even make a stab at timbre. But since everything had been so highly manipulated at the control panel, it was impossible for me to tell the forest from the trees.
Thus, my personal reference remains frequent attendance at un-amplified concerts in a variety of venues. I know the sound of Mahler in the eighth row center of Davies Symphony Hall as well as I know how it sounds from the side of the Second (top) Tier. I know what Hertz Hall sounds like in the first row (immediate), in the center (rich and resonant), and in the balcony (distant but warm). I know that the Kirov Orchestra can sound very different than the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra when reviewed from the same seat in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditiorium. And I certainly know that if I have a choice between hearing the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the terrible, made-for-movies acoustic environment of the Paramount Theater or spending a night at home listening to my system, I'll choose the latter.
It is with the sound of un-amplified music in my head that I approached the Talon Khorus X.
What the Khorus X Has to Offer
If there is one single word that describes what I like best about these speakers, it is their “honesty.” They are extremely clean, remarkably fast, detailed without being etched, and honest in their timbral presentation. While their bass is tremendously impressive and well-controlled, it is not in the least bloated or overly emphasized. The same can be said of their fine midrange: it is neither artificially bloated nor weighted toward the warm or romantic. And when it comes to their top end (abetted by the super tweeter), it is as clear, accurate, and pleasing as one might possibly wish without being artificially etched.
Audiophiles put great emphasis on three-dimensionality and soundstage width. Certainly these have their merits. Given that a 14.5 x 17 living room cannot deliver the thrills of a 3000-seat, acoustically tuned concert hall, three-dimensionality, height, width, air, and depth compensate for shrunken dimensions. (There's a good argument for surround sound here, but I cannot imagine such a setup in my confined space.)
In reality, however, despite countless attempts to tune into soundstage size, depth, and air in live environments, I have never heard them emphasized to the extent that they achieve prominence in many audiophile systems. Joey and I have sat in Davies Symphony Hall with eyes closed many times, and we find ourselves too blown away by Michael Tilson Thomas' conducting of the San Francisco Symphony to give a damn about the layering of instruments in a hi-fi system.
It is my belief that what often passes as three dimensionality in two-channel stereo is partially the product of an over-weighted treble interacting with a less than ideal room. It's a lot of fun, and certainly holds one's interest. But it hardly approaches the correct sound.
Here is where the Khorus X' honesty comes in. Yes, in Arleen Auger's Love Songs recital (Delos), her voice is in front of the piano. But the piano does not sound way in the distance, as it can with some speakers. Rather, Auger's voice has a roundness and presence to it, and the piano has its own roundness and presence. The two dance and blend with each other in space, as they do in live recital, rather than sounding like separate instruments vying for attention.
Whether playing tracks from Reference Recordings' orchestral spectacular Bolero! (which received an Emmy nomination for engineering) or the Tallis Scholars singing polyphony, the Khorus X leaves me feeling as though I have heard an accurate reproduction of the musical experience.
When I listen to the aforementioned Terry Evans' extended “Blues No More” track, I can hear just how successfully the Audioquest/JVC XRCD recording captures a marvelous sense of air. The sound of brushes on cymbals and sticks on drums is very clear. Ry Cooder's guitar rings out from the right speaker, suspended in space. But I do not hear what I heard from a Wilson Grand Slam/Convergent Audio Technologies presentation at CES 2002, where Terry Evans seemed to have ascended to the heavens, singing out from above me as though he had sprouted angel wings. Nor do I hear the intriguing but ultimately unreal disembodied sound I hear from many speakers, with each instrument carefully positioned in a separate acoustic space that makes the whole thing sound rather phony. Rather, I have a sense of a real acoustic venue, a genuine layout, and an honest interaction between players.
If there's too much reverb on a recording, I hear it. For example, just this afternoon, an audiophile society member and his girlfriend brought over the brand new Diana Krall CD. We compared two tracks on the new disc with a track from her classic "When I Look in Your Eyes". The difference in recording technique was enormous. “The earlier recording is better,” said both my visitors. Yes, less reverb, less doctoring, more natural. Thanks to the Khorus X, electronic tinkering is immediately apparent.
For those of you who have quickly scrolled through all of the above to cut to the chase, I say the same thing I say to those who have read my every precious word.
The Khorus X is a great speaker. Its accuracy, honesty, musicality, range, and sensitivity are amazing.
If you like your music warmed-over, romanticized, or hyped-up; if you want your music absolutely dry; if you want bass that pounds so hard, even when it's not supposed to, that your second chakra gets a major workout; the Talon Khorus X may not be for you.
If, on the hand, you desire your listening experience to approach the reality of live performance and/or what the recording and mastering engineer(s) hoped you would hear, this speaker very well may prove ideal.
It certainly works for me. The Talon Khorus X now graces my listening room, and serves as my reference loudspeaker.
Bruce Moore Dual 70 tube poweramp with Electro-Harmonix 6550 tubes
Bruce Moore Companion III tube preamp with Siemens CCa tubes(rewired with Nirvana hook-up wire)
Theta Gen. 5A single-ended DAC
Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Monolithic Power Supply
Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro transport
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power
synthesizer with Multiwave
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet for amp
PS Audio Power Ports in wall
Nordost SPM Reference speaker cable to the
(AQ 3' Clear II speaker cable to the Hsus if in use)
Nordost single-ended Quatro Fils interconnects from Theta to preamp and preamp to amp
(AQ 1m. Diamond II co-ax interconnect from Hsu sub amps to preamp if in use)
Nordost Silver Shadow AES/EBU digital interconnects from transport to P1A to Theta
Shunyata Python power cables on the transport
PS Audio Lab Cable on the Power Plant and Ultimate Outlet
Various review cords on other equipment: Currently, these include a Fatman Gold 2000 on the amp, a Nordost on the preamp, the Custom Power Company Top Gun High Current on the Theta, and the Ensemble on the P-1A.
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack and Basic
Racks, plus MG audiopoints and room treatment
Black Diamond Racing cones under Theta
Inner tubes, maple cutting boards and bags of sand, homemade bass traps
Shakti stone atop Theta and Shakti On-Lines on most powercords
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier, Audioprism Stoplight and Blacklight, Gryphon Exorcist, Sheffield/XLO degmagnetizer and break-in disc Ecstacy
Analog (hardly the strong suit of the system, rarely used):
Dual 1219, Sumiko Blue Point and a Classe 6 phono preamp with the optional
umbilical cord. Paired with Tara Decade and Nirvana SL-1 interconnects, and a
Shunyata Black Mamba powercord.
- Jason Serinus -
© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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