July 2000WalkAllen Taos Loudspeakers
by John Potis
Getting back to the subject of this review, the WalkAllen Taos loudspeaker, Jolida wanted to produce a great loudspeaker that would not break the bank and would compliment their tubed amplifiers. They wanted to design a system that worked as a system in the truest sense of the word. First, they went to respected speaker designer Joe DAppolito (known to most for the MTM, midrange-tweeter-midrange driver configuration named after him) to do the base design of the speaker, and then Jolida tweaked the system to hone in on the sound they were after. It didnt sound like a bad start for a loudspeaker design to me.
At 16" high and 8 3/4" wide and 23 pounds, the stand-mounted Taos is no mini minimonitor. In fact, it features a 7-inch Peerless midbass driver and measures 13" deep, so its fairly large. The speaker has a look that reminds me of the Totem line of speakers, the Tabu in particular, and its one I find exceptionally pleasing. At 2800Hz, the mid-woofer crosses over to the tweeter, a 1-inch soft-dome unit from SEAS. System frequency response is given as 46Hz to 24kHz, with no tolerance offered. Sensitivity is stated as 89dB/watt/meter, and impedance, according to WalkAllen, is 8 ohms, making the Taos an easy load and rather efficient for a stand-mounted monitor. The Taos is a bass-reflex design with a rear-facing port. Finish is a vinyl laminate, though quite nicely done. My review pair was finished in dark cherry, and Ive seen the equally likable white ash. Don't bother looking for a second set of gold-plated binding posts -- there's only one. The price of the Taos is $1200 per pair.
Associated components used for this review included the Conrad-Johnson PV 12a preamp and MV100 power amp, Jolidas JD603A tube CD player, Jolidas JD302B integrated amp and a Sony DVP-S500D DVD player feeding a Meridian 563 DAC. Cables and interconnects were from Jolida, and digital cables were from DH Labs. As you'll read, I had stand-mounted speakers from ACI, Tyler Acoustics and Reimer on hand for comparison purposes.
This section could have been titled "The review that almost didnt happen." Initially I was impressed with several aspects of the speakers sound. It has an uncluttered and clean midband and a very relaxed and smooth treble. Imaging was excellent, and there was a lot to like about the presentation. But there was one problem I could not alleviate in my listening room: bad bass. The lower registers of this little speaker are positively robust, let me tell you. They can give you a powerful and resonating rendition of a string bass, but the problem initially was that, particularly around low E on the bass guitar, there was too much bass fundamental. The instrumental overtones and harmonics were completely overshadowed, leaving a powerful but unmusical delivery. As much as I liked certain aspects of the speakers performance, I was unable to enjoy the speaker completely. Particularly frustrating was the fact that an octave up the scale, the Taos was doing a beautiful job resolving the lower registers of the acoustic guitar. I tried bringing them way out into the room, and I tried moving them away from corners, back into the corners, closer to the wall. I tried what I thought was everything.
Then one day, while sitting at the computer, I looked down and there sat the speakers owners manual. As manuals go, Ive seen better and more informative ones, but as it happens, this one gave me exactly the info I needed: a recommendation for a 30" or higher stand. How could I have missed that? I had the speakers perched a mere 24" off the ground. Hmmm. Not having a pair of 30" stands in the house, I was able to elevate them to 34 inches -- still not exactly what was recommended, but it was worth a try.
Bass performance was transformed, and the speakers' presentation was utterly converted. While I had tried to vary the speakers proximity to all of the rooms other boundaries, I had forgotten the most important one: the floor. Completely gone was the over-ripe bass. The sound was now very well balanced and still quite potent for that of a stand-mounted speaker. The Taos goes deeper and with more authority than my ACI Sapphires and, if memory serves, the B&W Nautilus 805. The Taos may look like a Totem Tabu, but the bass reminded me of the Totem Mani 2's. No, it didnt go quite as loud or as deep, but as deep as the Taos went, it sure did sound good. This is one stand-mounted speaker that when used in a small to medium room does not require a subwoofer for satisfactory bass response. I even popped them into my larger theater room, and they still sounded great.
Kicking the speakers up a notch (literally) also had the effect of mitigating one of the speakers other previously observed shortfalls: soundstage height. The Taos throws a beautifully delineated image and a deep and layered soundstage, but height, up until this point, was not measuring up. But this changed drastically with their new elevated stance. While the Taos managed to keep the performers' feet on the ground, the soundstage height approached the ceiling. These are the type of speakers that almost defy you to set them up poorly as far as imaging is concerned -- just about anywhere I put them I was treated to a well defined image, very good to outstanding soundstage width and good to excellent soundstage depth.
If asked to sum up the Taos in one word, I would have to make it smooth. The Taos has the smoothest treble Ive ever heard in a speaker under $2000 -- bar none. It reminded me of the B&W Nautilus 805 in this respect, and while the 805 is not my type of speaker overall, its smooth treble cannot be denied, so the Taos' performance is truly excellent from a speaker half the 805s price. This liquidity was largely due to the slightly reticent and laid-back nature of the tweeter and did come at the expense of some upper-octave detail. Cymbals, for example, didnt have the ring and detail that other speakers in the house could give them, and massed violins became a little blurred as the Taos was unable to differentiate between them. But balancing that was the fact that the overall treble balance was always musical, and troublesome sibilants were almost never a worry with the Taos. Other tweeters may be more illuminating, but this one totally lacked anything that could make the presentation fatiguing. I would characterize it as musical and forgiving -- very much so.
The Taos' midrange was quite good for its price class. Out of the box there was a distinct grain overlaying the music, but that disappeared after about two weeks of heavy-duty use. Compared to my ACI Sapphire IIIs, the Taos had a slightly warmer and more inviting lower-midrange, albeit with ever so slightly less detail. The upper midrange was just a touch less forward than the Sapphires slightly more intimate presentation. As a matter of fact, this pretty much sums up the Taos' relative performance in comparison with the other fine and more expensive monitors I had on hand. The McCullough from Reimer Speakers is an excellent monitor (review in the works), and both it and the Tyler Acoustics Taylo Reference Monitor let you hear more detail from the upper midrange and allow you to hear into the music in a way that the Taos doesnt quite allow. But keep in mind that if they didnt sell factory direct, the cream-of-the-crop Sapphire III would cost closer to $2000 per pair. The Taylo Reference Monitor from Tyler Acoustics uses extremely expensive drivers and retails for over twice the price of the Taos, and the Reimer McCullough retails for $2295 per pair. But thats not to say that the other speakers are better or more musical or more natural to all who will hear them. Not exactly. An argument can be made (and will be, Im sure) that the Taos is every bit as musical as the other speakers, preferring to trade off a little of the inner detail (usually missing from live performances too, by the way) for a more true-to-life presentation.
And that opens up a whole other can of worms: musicality vs. artificiality. More and more Im seeing discussions regarding the fact that speakers and systems are getting so detailed, so analytical, so clinical that a trip to the concert hall will never get you as up-close and personal to the performers as many of todays components will. But two things remain clear: Nobody is walking into listening rooms and thinking that there is live music going on, and people dont seem to be enjoying their music anymore today than they did years ago. Why this is will be the subject for continued debate, but in the meantime, the Taos is the antithesis of an analytical speaker. It is a musical speaker, one designed for the music lover. Its distant perspective allows the listener to step back away from the nuts and bolts of the recording and enjoy the music. And I think that a lot of people are going to enjoy the experience.
Midrange transparency was, almost paradoxically, good. When you think of a speaker that doesnt illuminate the last degree of detail, you may mistakenly assume that there is a veil over the sound that obscures detail. This was not so with the Taos. I never had the gut feeling that there was something in the recording that I wasnt hearing. In my head I knew there was because I had heard the particular musical pieces before, but my soul never longed for more. In fact, the level of detail present was almost perfectly commensurate with the laid-back perspective the speaker threw as a whole, and everything just made musical sense. Everything just fit.
The Brian Setzer Orchestras CD by the same name [Hollywood HR-61565-2] teamed with the Taos to make the walls in my room disappear. The aforementioned depth of soundstage seemed to go into the next room and beyond. Transients may have lacked a little of their edge, seemingly rounding off some of the edge on the brass section, but vocals were very natural, and ambience recovery was excellent. The Taos doesn't require lots of power for enjoyable listening, but it doesnt mind being goosed a little either. Crank the volume and the soundstage swells; instruments become a little more palpable, a bit more "there."
As a guitar player for almost 30 years, I think I know a little about the sound of the guitar, and Ill tell you that acoustic guitar can sound stunningly authentic over the Taos. "High Steppin" from Larry Carltons Alone/But Never Alone [MCA MCAD 5689 SAN-443] was presented with tonal colors that were warm and true. Before the stand-height revelation, this was a real problem selection with overbearing bass lines. Once the speakers were properly positioned, bass lines were full bodied, resonant and flowing with good transient snap and an even balance. While the Taos has that relaxed presentation overall, it does not force it on all recordings. This CD has a more up-front delivery and a magnified presence, and the Taos resolved the difference well.
One day I was playing Roger Waters Amused To Death [Columbia CK 47127]. Also in the system that day, but not in use then, was the Avatar Kali subwoofer (which made a nice match, by the way) and the M&K LP-1S passive high-pass filter. Once everything was properly set up, the bass was so smooth, robust and convincing that I actually got on my knees to check that the Avatars driver was not moving and that, indeed, the subwoofer was bypassed. It was. Everything I was hearing was coming from the Taos. "Late Home Tonight, Part I" opened with a plucked acoustic guitar that was as well rendered as what I heard from the Larry Carlton CD. The orchestras string section was sweet, and the Q-Sound recording had me afloat in wall-to-wall ambience. The explosion at the end of the cut fully energized the room and was just amazing coming from such a small and inexpensive speaker. The speakers also fully cooperated with the Q-Sound surround process -- the phantom images were extremely well portrayed. "Three Wishes" had me surrounded on three sides with three distinct and well-focused voices. The barking dog on "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard" seemed outside of my house and off to my right, just as he should have been, and I was just able to get out of the way of the speeding car that zoomed across the room on "Too Much Rope." Im not exactly sure why some speakers handle Q-Sound so much better than others, but I suspect that it has to so with phase coherency. Whatever it is, the Taos has at it.
As a reviewer, while Id love to sit around listening to state-of-the-art equipment all day, the fact is that Id much rather write about budget gear. I believe that Im naturally writing for a larger audience when I review affordable gear, and its just plain easier to do. You see, the more expensive the piece, the less character it should have -- in theory anyway. As a portal through which to enjoy the re-creation of a musical event, the better the piece, the less there should be for me to say about it. It should be as clear and tasteless as spring water, and how much can you say about the taste of spring water? Well, reviewing the WalkAllen Taos loudspeaker has been an exercise during which I think Ive been able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Its an inexpensive product, and it most certainly is not without an identifiable character. But that character is distinctly high end -- plainly musical and entirely enjoyable. You can pick out parameters where the Taos is outperformed by other speakers (most of which will be vastly more expensive), but few of those parameters will be important and meaningful to the music or the music lover. I could live with and enjoy these speakers, and I will unhesitatingly recommend them to my closest friends. They are a near-full-range speaker with beautiful body and a wonderfully balanced bass that's bettered by very few monitors. They have as musical a midrange as you are going to find for two to three times the price (even if they do withhold the last iota of detail), and they have a clean and musically rich treble. Soundstaging and imaging are what you expect from a fine monitor, and the Taos is easy to drive. In short, the WalkAllen Taos is what I look for in musical speakers, and so they are my kind of speakers.
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