The Talon Khorus

The Talon Khorus
A Subjective Commentary
Stuart A. McCreary, Positive Feedback Magazine
5 February 2001

“And now for something completely different…” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus)

It does get a bit tiresome after a baker’s dozen or so loudspeaker have come and gone. It’s hard to be original, insightful or the least bit excited when you’re talking about the same old dynamic drivers in a wood box. Maybe it’s got a neat sculpted baffle, trick mid/tweeter module isolation, or the largest flared ports you’ve ever seen, but is it really all that different in form, function and sound from all the others? All too often the answer is no. Sure, they all sound a little different, but it’s a continuous scale with very fine increments and the pendulum rarely swings too far.

It’s this reviewer’s rare pleasure to have in the Talon Khorus a loudspeaker that really shakes things up, gets the juices flowing again, and reacquaints me with my passion for music.

Clement Perry did an outstanding job of describing the Khorus’s unique features and technical aspects. That leaves me with the fun stuff. We agreed to this division of labors early in our Talon journey: I get “techie” with the Bel Canto EVo and Perry does the heavy lifting with the Talon Khorus. I think I got the better part of the deal, because the subjective side of the Khorus experience is extraordinary and chock full of anecdotes, and the technical side is daunting, to say the least. Let’s get down to it, shall we?

The Stage is Set (and the Gauntlet Thrown)

The original claims of Talon as presented in their website and white papers are so outrageous that you might think you’re reading from a Monty Python script. Ten times faster, 100 times less distortion, a ten inch woofer that handles midrange up to 2.2 kHz, incredible power handling and bass extension from just over one cubic foot of air space…geesh! As incredible as all this sounds, Talon has plausible engineering explanations for each claim, along with patent applications. Me, I’m from the So-What School. If it doesn’t sound better to some significant degree, then it’s all just meaningless engineering hoohah.

This was my mindset when I un-crated the Khoruses and moved them into Stu’s Place for a serious listen. Perry had started his phone campaign weeks before and I could detect these were not your ordinary run-of-the-mill-loudspeakers. He was excited by what he was hearing and couldn’t help himself. We do this to each other often. It’s part of the ritual and fun to call up your audio pal and let him know that your listening room ceiling just opened up and you were visited by an archangel. “OK, OK, I’ll be sure to sprinkle the holy water and burn some incense,” I told him with just a touch of smugness in my voice. I can’t be rolled by anyone, not even my Bro’ from the Big City. I was not about to abandon my critical nature.

I’d gotten emails from several audiophile friends extolling the virtues of these speakers, with statements like, “the best I’ve ever heard” and “clearly superior to the XYZ’s you love so dearly.” This kind of thing has a negative effect. Rather then being excited to share their experience, I found myself getting more cynical and more willing to cut against the grain.

Breaking in, or Deflating the Cynical Balloon

The Khorus is not your average dynamic-driver loudspeaker and this realization arrives right out of the box in the first few hours of play. While most loudspeakers start off by sounding dry, thin and constipated, the Khorus was the complete opposite. It was immediately so full bodied and over-rich, that I was stunned. The bass was phenomenal, the midrange was a bit overblown (particularly the lower mids) and the treble? — it sounded rolled off. No, I think recessed is the better word. It was there but distant, lingering more toward the back of the stage. Now, except for the bass, this wasn’t promising. I thought the holy water might be needed to dispel the audio demons, rather than to invite the heavenly host.

Nevertheless, there was something else I heard that intrigued me and gave me the patience to weather the arduous break-in process.

Through that ripe, warm sound, I detected a background silence that was uncanny. I’m not talking about silence between musical passages; I’m talking about silence between and around the instruments. The pesky treble halo, haze and glare were absent, gone, adios, bye-bye.

This “haze” I used to think inherent to all loudspeakers diffuses the edges of images and fills in the gaps all around them, consequently decreasing the focus and spoiling our perception of stage depth. When that haze is removed, the solidity, precision and three-dimensionality of the soundstage stand out in striking relief. These over-ripe Khoruses removed the haze like no other loudspeaker I’d heard. It made such a strong impression that I knew in the first hour of listening that something extraordinary was taking place.

This was a déjà-vu experience. The Bel Canto EVo amplifiers had also exhibited this lack of halo and haze and in my review of them, and I commented extensively on this. Perry called the EVo the “Talon Khorus of amplifiers.” With the EVo, I concluded that its incredibly low distortion gives it this unique property. So what about the Khorus?

The air was starting to leak from my cynical balloon. Could low distortion claims of Talon be true? Could this “group phase” thing and unique compound driver loading significantly lower distortion like the EVo’s digital technology? Hmmmm.

So there I was on my first evening of listening with loudspeakers that arguably had the best bass I’d heard from something other than a dedicated subwoofer (much more on this later), a quiet, haze free soundfield, but with an over-ripe, almost tubby midrange and a recessed treble. Argggh! How frustrating! I was used to listening past the break-in problems, but I had serious doubts that this sound would improve over time. After all, this was not how fresh loudspeakers are supposed to sound. If they got any riper through break-in, I wouldn’t be able to take it. The cynical balloon was starting to re-inflate.

Fortunately, Talon had the good sense to say something about this break-in process in the manual that came with the speakers. It warns that 50% break-in takes upwards of 250 hours of play and you’re still not home after 500 hours. About the 500-hour mark the manual says, “85% of break-in: Midrange becomes more expressive, more dimensional towards the rear. Extreme highs come forward from the rear of the sound stage, creating more of a spectral match with the rest of the range. Ah-hah! That’s what I was looking for! With a sigh of relief and major cynical deflation, I knew that my hearing was all right and that there would probably be light at the end of the break-in tunnel.

Another comment in the manual intrigued me. Under the heading Burn-In Note, the manual states, “In view of the burn-in time involved with the Khorus speakers, Talon has designed-in two ‘elements’ which minimize the actual change in sound over time…as time passes, these ‘elements’ will diminish their overall effect, in order for the system to maintain a consistent, and correct, tonal balance.” Hmmm, well, well. Could this be why these speakers have such an ass-backwards break-in progression? Are these ‘elements’ what make it so intensely rich until the upper-mids and treble come in? I would wager that they are.

Armed with a little knowledge, I set upon the break-in process with a sense of mission. I played the Khoruses non-stop for three weeks with the volume cranked while the family was away during the day. I used Purist Audio disc extensively as I did my Dorian Organ recordings. When I sat down for some serious listening after two weeks, things were improved, but not to the degree I had expected.

On closer examination, I discovered that the compound loading of the ten-inch woofer yielded very little cone excursion. The accordion surround was still quite stiff and I doubted whether I had played the speakers loud enough to really give them a workout. The specs say that the Khorus will take a 1000 watts and produce a continuous 120 dB. Well now, that’s really loud! Much louder than I was playing them.

For the next week, I waited till the kids were off to school and the wife at work and played them at levels that shook the house. For fear of damaging my ears, I wore shooting headphones while in the room and used my Radio Shack decibel meter to check the sound pressure level. With the Bel Canto EVo monoblocks pushed near their limit, I was getting close to 120dB peaks.

After the first day of this regimen, I knew that I was hitting pay dirt. I could smell what seemed to be fresh lacquer in the room and I was finally seeing some reasonable cone excursion. Much to my delight, after a full week of this torture, the speakers settled in just the way the Talon manual said they would. The treble did in fact move forward from the recesses of the stage and the upper mids fleshed out nicely as well. The speakers still had a rich sound, but no longer over-ripe. The low bass, which I thought was already outstanding, was now incredibly good — powerful, full and oh my God, the pitch definition!

The Talon Controversy

On various Internet chat groups, these speakers have elicited some of the most polarizing comments I have ever read. Some folks fall under their spell immediately, while others make disparaging remarks about their listening experience. Why is this? Why the love ’em or hate ’em reactions?

I have my own thoughts on why this may be happening. Let’s dispense for the moment with those who may not have heard a broken in pair and those who have a vested interest in another loudspeaker and can’t stand to hear praise heaped on a competitor. Even with these folks eliminated, I’m sure there is still a small number of honest, well meaning people with reasonably good hearing who just don’t like the way these speakers sound. I hear the occasional comment of “it sounds rolled off,” “not enough bite,” or “there’s something weird going on with the midrange.”

Now, far be it from me to label these people as tin ears who “just don’t get it.” The Khoruses are not some audio philosopher’s stone that separates gold from tin. There is plenty of room for personal preferences and disagreement here. However, given technology claims of Talon and the unusual properties of this speaker, I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t state my own position and vigorously defend it.

I have reached the conclusion that it is the Khorus’ speed and low distortion that is messing with people’s heads and ears. What may sound to some as rolled off highs is, I believe, the lack of treble halo and haze. I have confirmed this for myself by going back and forth between several other loudspeakers I have on hand. There appears to be no treble information missing from the Khorus. What is missing is the low level hash and haze that typically rides along with the upper mids and treble like a halo around the instruments.

It does take some getting used to. The initial absence of this “filler” can produce some strong cognitive dissonance. I admit that it was a bit weird at first, but in my case, the acclimation occurred quickly. I was able to identify what it was and embrace it in my first hour of listening.

There are some who say there is no such thing as speaker break-in, only listener break-in. The Khoruses make a strong case for speaker break-in. There’s no mistaking the sound of the fresh-out-of-the-crate speaker with one that’s been playing for 300 hard hours. But this speaker makes an equally strong case for listener break-in. Clement and I have walked several other owners through the listener-acclimation process. It was getting so commonplace that we gave it a name. We call it “the bends.” Like a deep-sea diver who comes up to the surface too fast, the audiophile who experiences to the Khorus after listening to conventional loudspeakers may suffer. The recovery time is hours for some, days for others, and some will never get over it.

A less severe agent of the audio bends is the speakers’ ability to deliver and instrument’s bass, midrange and treble spectrum in a way that makes it appear to emit from the same point in time and space. The treble does not leap out at you, nor the bass lag behind the midrange. It comes in a very natural envelope that makes you think of real instruments instead of loudspeakers. Now, I know this is subtle. There are any number of good loudspeakers that do not have obviously disjointed treble, midrange and bass. We’re talking about degrees here. The Khoruses sound just that much more holistic in the sense that it all emits from the same point in the soundstage, thus making the imaging that much more believable. Could it be because there is one compound driver handling frequencies from 20 Hz to 2200 Hz? Is it because there is a series crossover to the tweeter and no low pass to the super-tweeter? I don’t know and I’m not writing about the technical aspects. All I know is, it works!

Midrange and Treble

With haze and glare gone, the extended treble takes on a delicacy and sweetness that one seldom, if ever, hears from a dynamic loudspeaker. The midrange melds with it very well; that is, the midrange is of the same character, cut from the same cloth, so to speak. The absence of haze and glare is also noticeable in the upper midrange. The mids are not aggressive or forward. If anything, I’d say slightly subdued, as compared to what I’m used to. Maybe it’s the “holistic” thing again. The absolutely seamless bass to midrange transition makes it difficult to dissect the midrange sound. That’s to be expected given the dual role of the compound mid/woofer. What I didn’t expect was such a smooth transition from midrange to treble. There may be a slight dip in the frequency response (or power response, due to radiation) around the crossover point which may contribute to the subdued character, but it is slight, certainly no more than I have heard in many other top shelf speakers. My eyes see a great big 10-inch driver below a 1.5-inch dome tweeter and my brain tells me, “Nah, no way can these blend at 2200 Hz — way too high for a ten-inch and way too different dispersion.” Again, the proof is in the pudding. It works! Talon has a technical explanation (and, as mentioned patent applications) for how this is accomplished, and it’s a bit, even for me. Notwithstanding the complexity, I’m glad that there is a plausible explanation, because without it, I’d probably keep staring at those drivers and thinking my ears were playing tricks on me.

I’m a big fan of acoustic music — strings, woodwinds and brass in the classical, baroque and jazz milieu. These instruments, especially strings, are notorious for their complex sonorities. If you look at the spectral balance of say, a cello, playing a C-flat, you will see an incredibly complex signature. There is a strong spike at the fundamental frequency, but a host of other frequency spikes representing over and under tones, resonance characteristics and miscellaneous spuriae all with time and amplitude components. Taken together these are what make the cello sound like a cello instead of a viola.

The problem with typical high-end audio systems, particularly loudspeakers, is that the spectral signature gets filtered in a way that condenses the spikes in both the amplitude and time domain. It’s like looking at a MLSSA frequency response after you apply a “smoothing” algorithm. You get a bleached out, sanitized version of the cello. I think our playback systems do such a good job of this — bleaching and straining out the harmonic texture of real instruments — that we accept the sanitized version and underestimate how rich and sonorous these instruments actually sound.

When you hear the Khorus reproducing that same cello note, the first response will probably be “Wow, that’s rich.” There is some real gristle and meat on the bones that may be hard on the audio-vegetarian’s taste buds. The question then becomes, is it more accurate, or is it over-done? To answer this for myself, I performed a little experiment.

I have a sister who is a music instructor and between her and her teaching partner, they can play almost all of the wind and string instruments you find in a typical orchestra. I invited them to my listening room and asked that they bring a full complement of instruments with them. I sat right in the “sweet spot”, had them play for me while standing well behind, and centered, between the loudspeakers. There is no substitute for this experience. You can claim to have heard dozens of live concerts, but until you hear the live instruments in your listening room, I don’t think you can adequately judge what’s real and what’s just “hi-fi.” I’ll be blunt. The dynamic energy and richly textured sound of live instruments made a mockery of my system. Were the Khoruses too rich, too “full bodied?” Not even close! They sounded more than thin, compressed and sterile in comparison. I had no idea of the amount of resonant bass energy a cello can produce, or a bassoon for that matter. Although the Khoruses were a step in the right direction, they, and the rest of my system, still had a long way to go before they could substitute for live music.

I had new respect for the Talon sound after this experience and it only increased when I substituted other loudspeakers. All that I tried (and I’m not going to pick on them here by naming them) were even more efficient strainers of harmonic texture. The deficiency became obvious when playing any good recording of piano or strings. The Khorus left more of the spectral signature intact. The Khorus strainer had bigger holes and let more information through.

I have often used Carol Rosenburger’s Delos recordings as an example of how much more full-bodied and bell-toned a Bosendorfer piano is compared with a Steinway. Performers often prefer a Steinway for its ability to cut through the orchestra and keep to center stage. The Bösendorfer is warmer and more powerful in the bass scales. When I heard Rosenburger’s Bösendorfer on the Khorus, I just about blew a cochleal gasket. Oh my god is that ever rich and powerful! I played Horowitz, Brindel and Ashkenazy and damn, the Steinways sounded better too! — not nearly as strident as I was used to. I might even learn to love Steinways the way they sound on the Khorus.

Oh, and the strings? No question there, the best massed and solo strings rendering I have heard in my room, period! I use Corelli’s Concerti Grossi on Harmonia Mundi and Chesky’s Chamber Orchestra performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as my long term strings test recordings. After reaffirming what they sound like live in my listening room, I had no doubt that Khoruses got the strings more “right” than any other loudspeaker that has visited this room.

I had a loudspeaker designer over at my place. He brought a prototype of a design he’d been working on. After listening to these recordings on his speaker, I coyly suggested, “Now, would you like to hear more of what these strings are supposed to sound like?” I disconnected his speakers, hooked up the Khoruses and cued up the Vivaldi. Oh, the look on his face! Priceless! To his credit, he admitted that he had some work to do. It was that obvious.

Basso Profundo

One thing I can state categorically: the Khorus loudspeakers have “state of the art” bass. I used to think that detail and definition were the business of midrange and treble domains. Not any more! I was blown away by the information coming through in the lower bass octaves. The pitch definition and localization of bass is, in my opinion, without peer. By pitch definition, I mean the very subtle changes in pitch that let you know that a flat or sharp has been played, or even a half step between. Perhaps as subtle a thing as a change in the tremolo frequency of a huge organ pipe would be audible. It’s pretty stunning when you put on an old bass favorite and discover that there is a lot more “music” way down there. What may have sounded like an amorphous wash of droning low frequencies, now has real notes and colorations of pitch. That old war-horse “Way Down Deep” on Jennifer Warnes’ “The Hunter” is a fine example. I must have heard that piece a hundred times, but until I heard it on The Khorus, I really didn’t appreciate how tuneful and complex all that bass drum work is.

I had the same revelatory experience with my Dorian Organ recordings. I could hear all of the big pedal stops as clear as a bell. I could actually count the bellows cycles as the air was pumped through the big 64 footers. I measured low 20’s in my room when the big pipes opened up. That, folks, is going low with authority.

Is this astounding bass performance the by-product of speed and low distortion? I don’t know. Again, it just works.

Now, as for “localization,” I choose this word carefully to distinguish it from “imaging.” Low bass information doesn’t “image” the way midrange and treble does. It doesn’t carve out a fixed image in space like you hear when a saxophone is playing. It’s the higher frequencies produced from the mallet striking the skin of a bass drum that fixes it in place, not the lower fundamental notes that emit immediately afterwards. However, when you have something like a bass organ pipe that is not “struck,” there is very little higher frequency information to fix it in place. Oh, perhaps a faint click of a stop opening or some “chuffing” of the wind in the pipe, but if the recording is mic’d at any reasonable distance, you really aren’t going to hear much. So, these low organ notes aren’t going to “image” in true audiophile vernacular. But, with truly great low-end reproducers like the Khorus, these notes will “localize.” You will get a very good sense of where in the hall the bass pipes are located—are they far behind the chorus? To their left, or right? At the same height, or above? The Khoruses answer these general location questions better than any loudspeaker I’ve heard.

What about the congas, tympanis, and bass guitar, those instruments that are struck or plucked and produce more mid-bass frequencies? Because these do have midrange and treble components, they should be easily fixed in space. Most any good loudspeaker will do a reasonable job of placing these images on the stage. The problem is that after the strike or pluck things can go a bit awry. The midrange and bass frequencies that follow don’t quite match up with each other or with the treble in terms of timing. As I’ve said, this timing phenomenon is a subtle thing, which the Khorus does to a degree better than what I’ve heard from other full range loudspeakers. The key here is “full range.”

Small two-way monitors have always excelled in this as do coincident drivers. Perhaps it is because of the simplicity of their crossovers and the fact that a single driver is handling both their bass and midrange frequencies. Up till now, the only drawback to these monitors has been their limited bass response. With the Khorus’s technology you get your cake and can eat it too: the holistic qualities of a two-way monitor with outrageous bass extension.

You hear this best on recordings with string bass and congas, like the outstanding Buena Vista Social Club that features righteous Cuban classics and Chesky’s new recording of The Conga Kings. The Conga Kings are featured on Chesky’s SACD compilation disc, and when I heard it in SACD, I suffered a traumatic case of mandible distention. It was sensory overload –impact, texture, pitch, imaging…good Lord, this stuff is amazing!

It’s one thing to say that a speaker has excellent pitch definition when playing at moderate levels. I’m sure there are a few speakers that can make that claim. It’s another matter altogether to maintain that accuracy at live listening levels peaking over 100db. This is where the Khorus really sets itself apart. These speakers maintain their purity and poise at absolutely ridiculous listening levels. I have never heard a speaker go this loud without smearing and congestion. As a result, my average listening level has gone up a few clicks, and that’s a good thing.

If you can listen comfortably at a louder level, you will hear a lot more of what’s on the recording. I have long maintained that a lot of the ambience cues and “live mojo” are at very low levels in the recording, often lingering around the noise floor. You will hear more of it if you lower the noise floor (which is preferred), or if you raise the overall sound level. The problem with the latter is that at louder constant levels, the peaks often get compressed and distorted. The wonderful thing about the Khorus is the huge amount of dynamic headroom they provide. Since the peaks are not distorted, you can comfortably listen at levels that would normally sound like fingernails on a blackboard. With higher continuous levels, those “way back there” rear soundstage cues are easy to hear, as are the plethora of human affectations, like humming, grunting, and the passing of gas.

It’s the Music, Man…

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the enjoyment of music. Forget about the vivisection we reviewers are obliged to perform. The final questions we should all be asking are:

  1. Did the speaker heighten your listening enjoyment as compared to others? and

  2. Did the speaker give you any new insights with your favorite music? and

  3. If the answers to one and two, are yes, are the benefits commensurate with the price?

My answer to one and two is an emphatic yes. The Khoruses produce beautiful, intoxicating music. The presentation is so natural, so devoid of artificial haze, glare and congestion, that I can sit contentedly for hours, just lost in the music. This is unusual for me. In recent years I’ve gotten very restless and finicky, more interested in watching a DVD movie than I am in listening to complete CD. That has changed with the Khorus. They draw me in and seduce me with their sound. I’m not bored any more, because even when listening to familiar music, I’m discovering all kinds of interesting things.

As for the price? Well, it’s difficult to put a price tag on this level of music enjoyment. As compared to other high priced audio products I’ve had, I would say that the Khorus loudspeakers yield a very high return on the investment. These are not your ordinary dynamic driver speakers in a wood box. If you are like those who recover from the bends, you will appreciate what these differences mean and will embrace them as I have.

My skeptical view of Talon Audio and my cynical attitude have been permanently checked at my listening-room door. You can count me in as one of the audiophiles who believes that Talon technology works. Hey, Perry, I’m a convert, and it didn’t take an Archangel. Now, let me tell you about the preamp I’ve got. The other night I swear the front wall parted like the tearing of the Temple curtain and Moses himself appeared before me…

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