In the April 2012 issue of Enjoy the Music.com’s Review Magazine I reviewed the amazing Talon Hawk 2 loudspeakers. I call these stand-mounted speakers amazing only because they practically knock me over whenever I have the privilege of listening to them. That they earned an Enjoy the Music.com 2012 Blue Note Award should be no surprise to anyone who reads the review. I consider lucky any other audiophile who is able take part in even a short audition of these speakers, let alone anyone those who is able to purchase a pair of these nearly $20,000 speakers. The Hawk 2's only shortcoming, if one could really call it a shortcoming since this is how they were designed, is that they reproduce little of the lowest frequencies. The bass that they do have is certainly impressive, as the woofer of the Hawk 2 does not in any way attempt to reproduce bass frequencies it has no business in reproducing. Division of labor has rarely been so important and well implemented. The woofer of the Hawk 2 is claimed to reach down to 40 Hz, which is enough low-end to give one the impression of the presence of the lowest frequencies produced by an orchestra, jazz combo, or rock band, but except for the smallest of ensembles, not nearly enough to realistically portray them as most would require at a reasonable volume level.
The Hawk 2's mids and treble are undeniably the stars of the show, and in my review I said that they possess some of the most natural, detailed, and spacious sound I've ever heard from a pair of two-way speakers. Their reproductions of vocals are strikingly realistic, and the tweeter has a superb amount of detail and at the same time has an unequaled ability to reproduced subtle differences between treble sounds, which sound remarkably realistic. But of course this leads us again to the fact that the Talon Hawk 2s lack bass. And what a shame this is, for if somehow the lowest frequencies were present one could easily imagine that these speakers would equal the best that could be had for an average sized listening room. Enter the Thunderbird passive subwoofer and Rives sub-Parc subwoofer amplifier and equalizer.
The sub-PARC outfits this flexible parametric EQ with three controls that have a range of 40 to 300 Hz. It is a purely analog three band parametric EQ which never converts the signal to digital. The unit’s front panel reveals plenty about the sub-PARC's flexibility, and left to right has programmable controls and an LED readout above them for: the defeatable display, save, memory, channel, band, frequency down, frequency up, width down, width up, attenuation increase, attenuation decrease, and on the far right of the front panel, the bypass control. The rear panel of the sub-PARC sports both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR inputs and outputs, and also allows for monobloc configuration when using a pair of subwoofers (although Rives recommends a slave amp for the second sub). In addition, it allows for the use of the sub-PARC when using an active subwoofer, which after hearing the performance with the passive Talon Thunderbird sub, I could only imagine one will use their active sub only until a Talon is placed in the system!
I hope that I'm not giving anyone the impression that the setup of the Rives sub-PARC is a simple one. Far from it, and this is why Rives has their dealers properly set the sub-PARC using their issued Rives Audio Professional Test Kit, microphone, RAM software package, and other equipment to ensure the best performance of the sub-PARC with either one's desired subwoofer(s) and especially when used with the Talon Thunderbird(s). The dealer will measure the in-room response using test tones and with said microphone connected via an analog to digital converter, the results of which will appear as a frequency analysis graph on the screen of the computer. Leveling out this response curve is one of the goals of the parametric equalizer with the setting on the sub-PARC. By eliminating low frequency aberrations such as room resonant modes, the result will be a much flatter in-room frequency response, and thus a better sounding system with a subwoofer that is better integrated into this system. I was lucky enough to have Rives arrange for Tom Curnin from the Rives/Talon dealer and custom installer Bravo AV of Far Hills, NJ come by and set things up. One should expect their local dealer to provide this service. Lucky for me (and his customers) Tom is one of us – he and his staff at Bravo AV are not only knowledgeable, but also seem as enthusiast about music and audio gear (almost) as much as I am.
Hookup of the Talon Thunderbird to the Rives sub-PARC seemed simple enough since it uses only a single span of speaker cable to hook to its binding post on the rear of the cabinet. Positioning the cabinet in the corner of the room proved a bit more difficult, as lifting the cabinet required two people, then a third was needed to screw the large spikes into the bottom of its cabinet. Again, the personnel from the visiting Talon dealer were a big help in this department. The massive silver spikes were mighty impressive, too, shaped via CNC from a single billet of steel. The spikes aren't simply for penetrating the carpet in one's listening room, as they lift the sub a good four inches off the floor, and thus the vibrations from the subsonic bass came through the floorboards from the airborne sound waves, not the cabinet itself.
The Rives sub-PARC and the Talon Thunderbird were reviewed in just about the same context as the Talon Hawk 2. I say just about because about halfway through the review period I did away with the Edge 2 preamplifier and used the the Benchmark DAC1 PRE's preamp section perform these duties. And why not? With five digital and one analog, there are plenty of inputs available, and there is quite enough gain to drive the 70 Watt tube PrimaLuna monoblock amplifiers. The digital sources range from a Logitech Squeezebox to read FLAC files from the server two floors away -- with FLAC files directly feeding the Wadia 121 decoding computer -- in the main listening room, mostly standard 44.1kHz/16-bit, but also a smattering of hi-rez over the home network. An Oppo universal disc player is in the system to spin and decode SACDs. The analog input is reserved for family members wishing to connect an Apple product to play their tunes as background music. Cabling was at first by DH Labs, and later in the review period by Audio Arts.
I've been enjoying the 2009 digital reissues of The Beatles catalog since they were released. The chatter from the Beatlemanics that I've been subjected to, both on the internet and in person, only slightly damped my enthusiasm for the overall sound of these reissues. Yes, I still listen to the "reference" vinyl pressing that are both the original UK Paralophone LPs and the Japanese pressings, and comparisons can be made. I admit that on the Red Book reissues I can hear the bit of compression that they applied, as well as the slightly goosed-up bass. Certainly, I can't be alone in anxiously awaiting the vinyl pressings of the hi-rez versions. Again, this only reduces by a smidgen the revelation it is to hear what the band and George Martin was putting to tape back in the day, and let's not even get into the fantastic mono versions, which in my audio/music geek world made life just that much more enjoyable. Listening to either the stereo or mono versions of "I Am The Walrus" from Magical Mystery Tour (as well as the "Blue" stereo compilation album) continues to blow me away every time I hear it. With the Talon Hawk 2/Rives sub-PARC/Talon Thunderbird sub combination it transported me to a higher plane of Beatles bliss.
Besides everything else that is going on in the tune, the cellos in particular, with the sub-PARC and Thunderbird now in the system it was not difficult to discern the increase in the natural weight and body of the instruments, and I could hear more ambient information as well. The air in EMI's Abbey Road studio can be heard behind and around the cello section, especially in the introduction of the song, despite being joined by the band's percussion, John's Fender Rhodes electric piano and Ringo's Ludwigs. As the song progresses and the overdubs begin to overlay the song the clarity that is allowed to reveal itself due to the remastering, as well as the natural semblance of the instruments and realistic vocals timbres due to the Talon speakers, both the Hawk 2 and the Thunderbird make this recording sound as good as I'm likely to ever hear it (until the vinyl versions arrive). John's lead vocals, as well as Paul and George's background voices had better chest weight and clarity with the sub-PARC and Thunderbird now in the system, and this of course added not only to the reality of the sound of the proceedings, but the weird psychedelic burlesque that the band was successfully transmitting to the listener. Yes, these feelings occurred when I first heard the song as a child through a table radio, but now I was hearing the song played back in better quality than the band likely heard it when it was played back through the studio monitors. It would sound more natural sitting beside the band members in the studio as they played and sung it, but for me today, through the Rives/Talon setup it was definitively a close second.
Why am I not I mentioning the way in which the Rives sub-PARC/Talon Thunderbird combination is able to rock the house and the neighbors when I play the cannon fire from the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky? Or how the pedals of the organ in the second half of the 3rd Symphony by Saint-Saëns are able to compromise the foundation of the building? Isn't this why one purchases and uses a subwoofer? Oh, alright, on both these pieces the Thunderbird subwoofer was able to shake the air with extremely pitch stable low notes of the organ, and I was able to feel the sub-tonic digital canon-fire frequencies in my gut. Are you happy now? But I rarely, or should I say never, met a sub that couldn't pull of these parlor tricks with similar low frequencies specifications as the Talon Thunderbird. What the sub-PARC/Thunderbird was able to accomplish that these other subs couldn't even come close to was the integration that is sorely missing in other subwoofer/satellite systems. In other systems it is not that difficult a task to indicate with one's pointer finger where the gap in frequency response is. At least when seated in the sweet spot when visiting one of these systems I could easily hear the sonic separation between satellite and subs – and effortlessly describe to the owner of the system (often my own) where the sound of the main speakers end and were the sound of the subwoofer begins. This is especially true if listening to "simple" recordings such as a rock power trio, where the gap in frequencies between the lower bass and the mids and treble often aid in the "separation of instruments" that audiophiles are so often so proud of. The system containing the Talon Thunderbird and Rives sub-PARC fill this gap not only with music, but ambient information that aids in creating a realistic representation of the original event, whether a simple recording of a power trio, a jazz combo, or an Bruckner Scherzo running at full tilt.
And it was a Bruckner symphony that opened my ears to the prowess of the Rives/Talon combo, his Symphony No. 8, in one of my favorite versions as played by the NDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Günter Wand. I've used this musical example at least once before, and for good reason. It is a both a marvelous performance and great recording. It's also a great recording considering that the files were burned from a Red Book CD released not during the earliest days of digital recording, but early enough that one would think it needed to be reproduced on a more than decent playback system to cover its digital nasties. Not so. This symphony was not only conducted by one of the best Bruckner conductors of the modern era, but was recorded from a series of live concerts given at the Lubeck Cathedral in Northern Germany. The engineers did a superb job of balancing the sound of the huge orchestra with the huge reverberant space, and even during its most climatic episodes the sound of not only the orchestra, and not only the sections of the orchestra, but each instrument, where it is clearly and beautifully heard as part of the organic whole. Through the Talon/Rives system this recording was given its full support via the Hawk 2 monitors driven by tube amps, the sub driven by the Class D solid-state electronics in the sub-PARC. It was a perfect match – at least the most perfect match that I ever heard since I purchased this two CD set shortly after it was released.
I suppose one of the greatest compliments one can pay a subwoofer system is that it is not noticeable. Yes, one should hear the sounds, but not that it is coming from "over there, where the sub is located". The bass frequencies should startle and amaze when called for, as it does in a live situation. If one has ever been seated anywhere near a thwack of a concert bass drum, a double bass section during a triple fortissimo, or an SVT bass amp with its volume control anywhere past twelve o'clock, any conscious being should hear and feel the force that emanates forth. So it goes without saying that a good sub, and in this case the Talon Thunderbird powered and EQ'd by the Rives sub-PARC, should also do the same when reproducing these sounds. And it did. But no, a good sub should stay the heck out of the way of making the sub's presence known as the source of this music by producing nothing but the music. Which brings us back again to the Rives sub-PARC, in that by removing the peaks that would upset the natural reproduction of these bass sounds any differently than they were captured by the recording equipment, realism flows forth into the listening room. Somehow the Rives/Talon system gives poorly engineered recordings a leg up by not adding or taking away even more, and the end result always seems to be a transparent and at the same time realistic portrayal of instruments and voices.
So, throughout the Bruckner Eighth, the right side of the orchestra is both weighty and growls with reverent energy, and even during the quietest movement Adagio, and during the rest of the piece where the orchestra quiets to a dull roar, each instrument and group of instruments is reproduced by the system with its full timbre intact, whether it is the Bruckner horns exploding when signaling his signature dah-ta-ta-ta, taking on their naturally weighty sound without removing any of the mid and treble prowess that the Hawk 2 is now famous for. The silky sound of the strings are mixed with the rosin-y grit when they are going full throttle, simultaneously mixing with the ambiance of the church, letting one hear the lines of score, and hearing the ambient information fade into nothingness even when other instruments enter. The orchestration of this score is typical of Bruckner in that it is the epitome of late nineteenth century power orchestration, only to be outdone by Gustav Mahler later that decade, but where Mahler was Earthbound, Bruckner's music belongs to the heavens where his faith infuses his music at every turn.
Yet this is not what first impressed me about his music, it was the complex orchestration the likes of which I've never heard before, that brought the large orchestra to a new level of intricacy without losing any of the power that I've come to expect from post-Wagnarian composition. And thus with the sub-PARC and Talon Thunderbird in the system it brought the Bruckner symphony to a new level in my listening room. This weight not only didn't distract from the mids or treble, as I said previously, but also added to the proceedings without making any of the lines of the individual sections or their sections indistinct during the rather complex intertwining of melodic lines. The size of the orchestra's soundstage was also impressive, drawn perfectly to scale in my medium-sized room, taking me to the sanctuary in which it was recorded, obviously not as large in scale (we haven't gotten there yet), but this suspension of disbelief was so much more frequent, and falling down this rabbit hole was made much more easier to descend given the that the level of quality of the speaker system in the room was so unprecedented. And I doubt will be replicated very soon.