November 2000Talon Audio Khorus Loudspeakers
by Grant Samuelsen
Everywhere you look in high-performance audio someone is in the process of reinventing the wheel -- or at least marketing their products as if they have. Terms like revolutionary design, groundbreaking technology and references to the Almighty are as common as a cold Wisconsin winter -- and just as numbing. When I happened across the technical papers and claims of design innovation coming from Talon Audio, their bold specs and assertions read like more of the same. Yet even in the honey-glazed realm of high-end marketing, the Talon claims stand out: "20 times the speed of a conventional cone design," "100 times less intermodulation distortion," and the kicker, 17Hz to 35kHz extension from a 2.5-way design using a 10" mid-woofer module and a couple a tweeters. Puh-lease. The long list of patent-pending declarations left me wondering when they would mention that the Khorus "levitates while playing favorite tunes." I was intrigued to know more about a design sporting such an ominous rap sheet, so when the review opportunity came along, I signed on for the ride.
In a bit of a timing coup, the Khoruses' arrival coincided with my evaluation of the $15,000 OLS Kharma Ceramique 1.0s and the $19,500 Audio Physic Calderas (review upcoming). Obviously, there would be little space for this upstart Talon design to hide from speakers the caliber of the Calderas and Ceramiques. So the stage was set and the deck was stacked in my favor; no matter the outcome, the experience would make the journey worthwhile. Unlikely to encounter such good fortune again, I took reckless advantage: "Honey, which speaker system should we listen with tonight?" "Oh, we had the Ceramiques in last night, dear, so warm up those nice Calderas, will you?" You get the idea; its been fun around here lately.
Nuts & bolts
Tierry Budge, who designs the Talon line of speakers, has been exploring the further reaches of speaker design for years. He worked for Wilson Audio until he departed in 1992, and since then he's been immersed, along with partner Mike Farnsworth, in bringing his vision of an elite transducer to life. After breaking down and digesting some of the technology used in the Talon line of speakers, my "What a bunch of Cheez Whiz" attitude began to abate. Finally, I was willing to can the sarcasm and give the Eagle Claws, er Talons, a fair hearing.
The phrase "form follows function" has been used in the past to describe products whose shape serves their technology, and this perfectly matches the Talon Khorus design concept. The $14,000-per-pair Khoruses are obelisk-shaped speakers standing 46" tall -- 8" square at the top and 18" square at their neatly dovetailed base. They weigh in at 130 pounds each uncrated. The shape of the speaker not only allows for the drivers' time alignment but, according to Budge, is a factor in the design's ability to pull the "back air pressure wave" away from the drivers, significantly ameliorating vibration-induced distortions. The Khorus internal bracing, and progressively damped dressings, were made to funnel extraneous pressure away from the drivers, condensing vibration to air and passing it out what Budge terms "a Laminar Flow Valve" at the rear of the speaker.
The Talon Khorus driver compliment is composed of a 10" dual-mid-woofer module that reproduces frequencies specified from 17Hz to 2200Hz before crossing to a 1 1/2" soft-dome tweeter extending to 13kHz. The Khorus 1" titanium "supertweeter" finishes off the 2.5-way design. All drivers are modified to spec for Talon then further modified by Budge before implementation. The drivers are inset 1/2" from the outer cabinet frame and surrounded by felt to tame diffraction. The contoured grille sits in this recess, but like most of its ilk, after a brief listen, it departed from the Khorus' fascia to my speaker-grille graveyard in the basement. The Khoruses use the consumer-friendly Cardas screw-lock binding posts accessible through an open port at the rear base of the speaker. Underneath there are five threaded spike holes, three up front and two in the rear corners, so you can use either sets of three or four spikes with the speakers.
Headlining the list of five patent-pending sections within the Khorus are the two mid-woofer drivers mentioned above, mounted back to back and locked in time by the inclusion of "time-inversion circuits" in the crossover. Budge asserts that the use of these dual drivers increases dynamic control, nulls out suspension anomalies, and adds to the drivers' moving mass without decreasing system speed. The "internal motor and suspensions" in these drivers are substantial and, according to Farnsworth, a large contributor to the longer break-in period required before the Khoruses round into form.
The Talon crossover begins life as a simple first-order design, but it departs from convention thereafter. Budge created what he terms "time-inversion circuits" and implemented them into the crossover. These circuits were designed to be infinitely variable and capable of creating the exact inverse of the multiple phase shifts that Budge says occur continually in moving drivers and their surroundings. The Khoruses' heavy, potted crossover is mounted on the center base of the speaker and mere inches away from the binding posts, thus isolating it from the active parts of the cabinet and cutting down signal-transfer distance. Rounding out the technical highlights are the Khoruses' power-friendly impedance specification of 8 ohms and rated sensitivity at 90.5dB/W/m. Continuous power handling is specified at 1000 watts, with transient power at 3000 watts RMS.
The Khoruses arrived in sturdy wooden crates that were thoughtfully implemented and easy to unpack. Included was an accessory box containing all the accouterments one could ask for from an upscale speaker company. I was impressed by the comprehensive, professional-grade user's manual and setup guide, a sturdy set of spikes, and a polishing cloth with a bottle of oil -- a nice all around package that is a rare high-end find in my experience. Removing the protective soft cloth stretched around the Khorus revealed a reasonably attractive speaker with what I would term a decent but not top-of-the-line finish. Anyone who compares the chiseled Euro-modern look of the Audio Physic Calderas or the Porsche-like finish and contouring of the Kharma Ceramiques may not fall head over heels for the overall aesthetic of the Talon Khorus.
Initial set up was a cinch. The manual provided concise, easy-to-follow directions, and within a few hours I had found a number of satisfactory speaker positions. Of course, as usual, the optimum placement of any speaker is a lot more tricky and requires patience and multiple listening sessions to fine-tune the sweet spots. The Khoruses ended their journey set up in the relative nearfield, along the long dimension in my room (more due to my listening and room-setup preference). Their final resting place was seven feet out from the front wall and five feet from the side walls, with eight feet of air from ear to drivers. The Talons didnt mind a wide 8.5' spread and were toed in so their inner cabinets were only just visible from the listening position. While toying with my Radio Shack SPL meter and Stereophile test CD, I discovered one of the Khorus' unique talents. No matter where I had these speakers in the room, their low-frequency measurements remained stable and impressive. I cant affirm the specified 17Hz, but I consistently read -4dB at 20Hz all over the map. Despite having put many speaker designs under such tests, this was the most stable set of low-frequency specs my listening room has produced.
Interested consumers who encounter a Talon design with less than 250 hours of good, hard signal on them may not come away with a true impression of their sonics. The Khoruses sounded so colored upon arrival that I restricted my listening to sound-byte checks for ten days of continuous high-level play before concluding that the Khoruses sounded stable enough to merit serious listening. They continued to reveal subtle shifts in sonics well after 300 hours, but the gains were progressively incremental in nature. I finally stopped cycling CD repeat after 400 hours, satisfied that the Talons were cooked well enough. I recommend investing in a cheap multi-play CD player if a pair of Khoruses drop in for an evaluation.
The Khorus line
The Talon Khoruses possess a naturally expressive voice with a nimble physical presence and balanced tonal signatures. Once the Khoruses had properly played into form, they exhibited the fastest, most incisive inner-transient behavior and timing nuance that Ive experienced outside of a concert venue. Their ability to re-create the inception, sustain, and decay of a transient with unnerving precision caught me off guard. "Over Yonder" off of Steve Earles Transcendental Blues [Artemis Records 751033-2] spotlights Earle and his acoustic guitar. The speed with which the Khorus resolved past the edge of each note and captured the essential timbral and harmonic elements of the guitar's singular voice brought me as close to this performance and instrument as Ive been. This ability to recapture an instrument's or vocalist's signature and resonant character is one of the most meaningful aspects of music reproduction and is an enduring strength of the Talons.
Dont let the Khoruses' tonal purity and inner harmony fool you. Their sense of inner calm and natural voice belie their dynamic prowess. From the lightest touch or inflection of an instrument or voice to the most ground-shaking, widow-rattling crescendos, the Talons will remain stable, coherent and true to whatever recording is being played. If its possible to have infinite dynamic headroom and a deft touch, the Talons have them. These speakers will never sound brittle, compressed, or distorted at high sound-pressure levels, and I was only too happy to put them to the test. The most explosive fusion recording I own is Tony Williams Joy of Flying [Sony SRCS 5825]. Williams and his all-star cast of George Benson, Jan Hammer, and Paul Jackson recorded the incendiary "Hip Skip," featuring by far Williams most ferocious drum work. The Khoruses' high dynamic ceiling allowed for playback levels approaching 110dB on this track without a hint of strain or compression. I was connected so viscerally with the musicians and their instruments that I caught myself bopping on the couch and frantically tapping my foot. In addition, it was easy to discern the slightest dynamic shift of an instrument within the complicated, transient-heavy framework of this music. The Khoruses are not only capable of cracking plaster, they can render the touch of a feather as well and switch these dynamic gears in an instant. After realizing what these speakers were capable of, I figuratively emptied my music collection on the floor and began the process of rediscovery.
As a group, audio enthusiasts are prone to using visual descriptors and "imaging" references when writing or talking about audio. This is because with good systems we can aurally perceive an instrument or vocal presence coming from a specific point in the soundfield. It occurred to me after listening with the Khoruses that we use two-dimensional descriptions almost exclusively in referring to these images. Well, the Talons fill in these holograms with physical texture and weight, creating a three-dimensional timbre with its very own amplitude. Huh? Ill let James Carters Conversin with the Elders [Atlantic 82908-2] elucidate my point. On the track "Blue Creek," Carter riffs with legend Buddy Tate on clarinet, and both are accompanied by piano, bass, and drum. Both the Calderas and Ceramiques gave an excellent representation of these instrumental images and placed them at various layered positions in the soundfield surrounded and separated by ambient space -- good stuff. But the Khoruses definitively added a third dimension to these sound images. The Talons reconstructed the timbral density, texture and the shifts in amplitude of Tates and Carters clarinets to a degree that brought the presence of these instruments into my listening room. There was a sense of the air exchange within each clarinet that filled out and defined the instrument's body. I noted for the first time Carters bass clarinets trilling and honking expand and contract as the musician shifted position and drew breath. All instruments from cymbals and bells to timpani had an added weight and physical form that contradicted their reproduced status. The Khoruses provided the most three-dimensional listening experience Ive had with a two-dimensional medium.
The Khoruses' bass response on all music was one of those "you have to hear it to believe it" productions. Even without a close room boundary for reinforcement, the Talons rewrote the book in terms of their pitch-defining accuracy, timing and power. The control, dimension and lithe touch of low-frequency images in the soundfield were at once startling and thoroughly enduring. This isnt overwrought, "gee whiz" bass response either. The Talons' chameleon-like character from the lowest octave through the upper bass captured each recording's and instruments low-frequency personality with aplomb. Im a huge fan of drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd. Hes been one of the most sought-after session drummers of the last 20 years for good reason. One of his shining moments is transcribed on Steely Dans Aja [MCA MCAD 12056]. Two-thirds of the way through the title track, Gadd takes off on a two-part solo that immortalized his place in music history. It wasnt only the Khoruses' rendering of Gadds power, speed and deft touch on this recording that sat me up straight, it was also the speakers' ability to re-create Gadds impeccable sense of time and pace. There were moments during his fills that I could sense Gadd leaning into a note or pulling back slightly for effect. To get a bit ahead of myself, the Kharma Ceramiques were also convincing on this track, and down low in general, possessing a surprisingly taught, quick attack and full body. But they could not re-create the air expansion, weight and stop-on-a-dime speed of the Khoruses. This detracts nothing from the 1.0s in particular because no other speaker I know of can re-create what the Khoruses accomplish in the nether regions.
The Khoruses have the most vivid, airy and yes, unusual treble performance Ive heard, with the possible exception of the MBL Radialstrahlers. The etch-less, continuous quality they have in the upper midrange also exists in the lower treble, and some may find the lack of an inceptive transient leading edge unnerving. Dont mistake edge for attack; the Khoruses have attack and immediacy to spare. What I refer to is more of a leading etch than an edge. Rolled off, you say? When there was treble information present, the Talons fired it out there, but not at the listener and not with the comparatively pronounced leading edge on transients produced by most other speakers. The Khoruses' treble information was always attached to or around instruments or came from a point in the soundstage and never seemed to come from the speakers themselves. The term omnipresent fits, so Ill use it. Cymbal work, spatial ambience, decay, recorded noise floor, and the resonant character of strings all demand excellent top-frequency extension, and the Khoruses have it.
As I mentioned, I compared the Kharma Ceramique 1.0s and Audio Physic Calderas to the Khoruses during their stay. Its safe to assume that for this review the Calderas were used as partial context for my listening impressions, but I will reserve specific comparative comments with the Calderas for my upcoming review of them. Suffice it to say that the Khoruses' musical fingerprint more closely matched that of the Calderas, while the Ceramiques proved to be quite different in their style and overall presentation.
The Kharma Ceramique 1.0s are exquisite in both sound and appearance. They possess an overall coherence and tonal balance that easily places them among the elite in their price range. The 1.0s are different in many respects to the Khoruses and as such may be a subjectively better or worse match for an individual system or listening preference.
The 1.0s throw a canyon-wide soundstage and allow music and images to develop and decay from just behind the plane of the speakers toward the middle of the room. Their overtone-rich, detailed sound washes over a listener and has a crystalline clarity through the midband that will capture and hold any music fan's attention. The Khoruses presentation is just as coherent, but more centralized and deep, beginning just in front of the speakers and filling the seven feet of space behind them with corporeal images, intimate sound portraits, and ambient space. The Talons cant replicate the cavernous stage width of the Kharmas, but they are still much more than just adequate in this area. The Ceramique 1.0s are speakers that will come to the listener with their scale and room-filling presence while the Khorus will draw a listener in with focused, physical renderings of instruments, harmonic detail and recorded space within a scandalously deep soundfield.
The Talons and Ceramiques occupy different worlds in their re-creation of midrange information, though they are similar as the upper bass crosses over to the lower midband. Overtone structure and weight in the lower midrange is superbly rendered with both speakers. Even off-axis, the Talons and 1.0s re-create spine-tingling realism with orchestral works, delivering a primal connection with the swell of a full orchestra. But after the lower midrange, these speakers are apples and oranges. The Khoruses maintain their blazing, accurate speed and 3D precision through the upper mids, but have an edgeless, supple quality and tonal density. The Ceramiques impart an open, sparkling incision reminiscent of the best ribbon speakers. Clearly listener preference will come into play because both speaker systems presented the same information but with different perspectives. Play anything by Lee Morgan and you will get to the heart of a speakers upper midrange signature. Morgans The Sidewinder, the Blue Note RVG remaster [7243 4 95332 2 6], is a classic that most jazz fans are familiar with. The Khorus placed Morgans solo on "Hocus Pocus" at the hard left stage behind the speaker and exposed Lee Morgans magical sense of harmony and the burnished timbre of his instrument. The Ceramiques rendered Morgans instrument in front of the speaker with a crystalline presence and were more up front and a shade lighter in tone than the Talons. The Ceramiques did not like to be pushed too hard, however; they preferred lower to moderate gain settings and became slightly brittle and edgy when pushed past 90dB. In contrast, I sent the Talons to the sound-pressure heavens without so much as a blip and stopped this ascent only when I noted the CDs on the table begin to vibrate. How distracting.
The Kharmas had, in contrast, a demur presentation on top, excellent detail and good extension, but they were slightly pushed back in the soundfield behind the laser-like rendering of their midrange information. Overall the 1.0s are exceptional speakers that have earned their respected place in the market, but they differed from or fell short of the Talon Khorus in absolute terms referenced to the areas I mentioned.
Nips & tucks
I noted during the review that the Khoruses are sensitive to supporting spikes. I found that either Orchard Bay cones from audio dealer Weekend Environments or Visteks Aurios Bearings made improvements over stock, and right or wrong, these were used for the majority of the review. Apparently, Talon has now included a version of the Orchard Bay cones with the Khoruses, but I would encourage experimentation. Talon also notified me that they have upgraded their finishes and no longer use the darker, less-desirable one on the demo pair I had for review. Thus it appears there have been a change or two since the Khoruses were conceived and brought to market, but I am told that current production will remain static.
End of the journey
Truly, Im not big on hype or overstating any product's performance; theres far too much of that in our hobby, and it devalues genuine innovation. Im also aware that overshooting the truth can stigmatize a reviewer who waxes poetic too often. Weve a limited number of bullets in our holster, but its important that I spend one of mine on the Talon Khoruses, whose skill at endowing music with lifelike inner detail, dimensional presence and micro-to-macro-dynamic contrast is without peer. Their timbral acuity, tonal balance and bass response are convincing beyond what I considered possible. So are they perfect? Of course not. They have a singular voice that is different from that of many other speakers, and in no category is subjective perception more individual than with transducers. These are definitively not what I would term audiophile speakers that outline transient edges with chalk or sound lean and tight in the upper midrange and low treble. What the Khorus do is make music come to life in the most compelling manner that I've experienced. And isnt that what were all here for?
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