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Product Review - Talon Roc 12" Powered Subwoofer - May, 2001

Michael James


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Specifications:

Drivers: One 12"

MFR: 20 Hz - 500 Hz 

Power Amplifier: 350 Watts

Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms

Size: 22 1/2" H  x 15" W x 18 3/4" D

Weight: 93 Pounds

MSRP: $4,000


Talon Audio Technologies, Inc., 5175 South Pine Green Drive, Murray, Utah 84123; Phone 801-619-9000; Fax 801-619-9001; Web http://www.talonaudio.com

Introduction

The quest for the right home theater subwoofer can be quite a daunting endeavor. Filled with pitfalls of correct size, performance, and budget considerations, home theater enthusiasts can easily be confused with the myriad of options. Over zealous salespeople can easily detour consumers into making some wrong choices. And in my own personal opinion, even a more critical mistake would be to overlook the perfect model for their particular system and budget by not expanding their search to include manufacturers, which are not always carried by the most accessible retailer.

Questions that seem to always arise include: “How much of my budget should I allow for the subwoofer?” This is usually followed by, “How loud and low should the unit be able to perform?” These are all pertinent and significant questions, but not necessarily the only questions to initiate a proper subwoofer search and purchase. More often than not, the consumer starts the home theater audio system with the purchase of main speakers before considering a subwoofer addition. In this case, one has already drawn up a characteristic profile on the correct attributes of a matching subwoofer. With home theater audio, it is more about system integration than how much boom can I buy for my dollar.

Using a philosophy within the parameters of team sports, it has always been said that truly great players make the performance of their surrounding teammates better. This is exactly what one should strive for in his/her choice of a home theater subwoofer. The correct unit should increase the overall performance of your main speakers, thus raising the total audio package to a higher, and subsequently more enjoyable performance level.

I initiated my journey with an audio philosophy that included wanting a performance level equal in music as with movie special effects. Maybe it was my optimism or naiveté, but I never quite understood if these two functions had to be exclusive of each other. I realize from a manufacturers point of view that construction might be made significantly easier by keeping these two functions separate. But, I have always felt that the characteristics that make an excellent musical unit were at best equal in importance to the impact of special effect acoustics. How loud and low a unit can go should work in unison with how fast and accurate it can perform. A modern movie certainly is not void of a complete musical presentation, either through traditional definitions (as with movies such as "Amadeus"), or within the symphony and orchestration of the special effects. After all, we are not just focusing on increasing specific individual aspects of audio performance, but rather the sum total of the completed work. I wonder if we are swallowing some manufacturing myths? Was it a matter of simpler production lines?  Maybe this was a technical gap too wide to bridge, or just easier to go around and avoid completely. There are lots of variables to consider, such as ported vs. sealed, servo vs. non-servo, etc. All of these things can affect loudness capability, depth, and accuracy, and price point is a major factor in marketing. The best subwoofers might do music and movies well, but the less expensive ones might compromise so that they do one or the other well, but not both. How do you choose?

I was off on an enterprise to find a subwoofer that performed as well with musical presentations as it did with movie sound effects. Intent on saving the reader some valuable shoe leather, and a good deal less wear and tear on their eardrums, I hoped I was not on a fool’s errand. My quest advantageously led me to a fairly new company called Talon Audio Technologies and their powered subwoofer called “The Roc”. It was named for an enormous white bird in Arabian folklore, which was said to be of such size and strength that it could carry elephants to its mountain nest. I wondered if this was the unit I was striving for my own personal home theater lair?

Technology

Upon being made aware of this particular company, I had the good fortune to speak directly with one of the founders of Talon Audio Technologies, and also the subwoofer designer. I thought it might be interesting to start this discussion with some of my introductory questions to Tierry Budge, and hear his answers in his own words.

MJ: "You offer both a powered and non-powered version of the Roc. Is there an advantage of using your amp as opposed to a third party unit with the Roc?"

TB: “The amplifier that we use was designed specifically to deal with current and dynamic issues in the bottom octaves. For example, it can deliver its full rated output all the way down to 1 Hz.  Given the 94 dB efficiency of the subwoofer, and its lack of compression, 350 watts goes a long way.”

MJ: "My preamp controller does not let me vary the crossover point from 80 Hz. Is that a disadvantage to my system?"

TB: “As for the crossover point, we actually recommend a 50-80 Hz region.  The listing of 80 Hz is one that is based on experience more than anything else.  The variable here is the room.  Larger rooms seem to allow a lower crossover point.  Mid-sized rooms seem to need a higher one.  And small rooms have been all over the map (probably in an effort to equalize the over-done mid-bass)."

MJ: "Your web site and documentation make some very interesting statements concerning speed and your speakers. My main speakers are full range and fast. How will the Roc integrate into my system?"

TB: “As for the integration with your full-range speakers, yes the speed makes it possible to integrate with anything.  But, this wasn't the reason for attaining the speed.  Although bass frequencies are slower than upper frequencies, much of what we listen to (movies and music) is very complex, with a massive amount of information and level changes occurring constantly.  A slow subwoofer just cannot deal with this kind of complexity.  Additionally, this speed makes it possible to keep the transients clean, fast, and dynamic, through the crossover region.”

MJ: "So, your speed allows you to mate the Roc with a number of high-end speaker choices, from full range to satellites?"

TB: “I have no doubt about the integration possibilities between the subwoofer and the satellites.  In fact, you'll find that amongst this subwoofer's greatest qualities is its ability to actually improve the sound of the main speakers.  You'll find that they will sound more detailed, effortless, and dynamic.  (Many have bought the Roc for this quality alone...truly.)   To be honest, the only caution is that this subwoofer does not produce what we call "truck bass."  It is incredibly dynamic, pitch-perfect, open, detailed, "fast," and textured...but, it is intended to blend with the main speakers, not produce sound of its own.  I think that you'll be amazed.”

Mr. Budge’s speaker philosophy, throughout his whole line, and in particular, his subwoofer technology, reinforced my initial query on the music/special effects conundrum present in today’s subwoofer design. He astutely points out those subwoofer manufacturers working with “springy loose suspensions”, small motor structures, and high moving mass drivers, have led us to today’s technology. Attempts to increase boom and units that can go louder and lower lends to drivers that are not only hard to start, but maybe even more so, harder to stop. He states, “These types of subwoofers are somewhat analogous to having a 3-ton car with a 50 horse power engine and poor brakes.”

Achieving special effects that can be felt viscerally is a significant manufacturing goal, but it is by no means the complete package, and most assuredly not the final answer for a final audio presentation. Ask yourself how many movies have you viewed with great special effects and not much of a story plot? Hasn’t the experience left you unfulfilled? The total presentation clearly suffers in the long run.

Many audiophiles argue that whether or not a woofer is relatively "slow" is a moot point, due to the longer wavelengths of the low bass. Mr. Budge counters that argument by stating, “Acoustically, low frequencies might be slower (it takes longer for one wavelength to pass your ears than a high frequency with a shorter wavelength), but electrically (at the voice-coil), all frequencies travel at the same speed (theoretically). Therefore, a "slower" driver might miss half (or more) of the opportunities to pick up musical information. We believe that this is a big reason why subwoofers are not considered to be detailed in nature. Although the ability to respond quickly in the low frequencies would not seem necessary, it is the overriding reason for the lack of subwoofer "integration" with the full-range speaker involved.” Finally, I thought, a design engineer giving my gut feeling and common sense approach some audio theory to support my argument.

He continues his explanation with manufacturers use of small motor structures in their subwoofer design. “Dynamically speaking, subwoofers experience the largest excursions and highest current levels - due to the frequencies involved. A small motor structure cannot supply the necessary magnetic field to interact with the current levels at the voice-coil. A small motor will become softer and softer (musically speaking) with time. This, in turn, is a serious impediment to both detail resolution, and power handling.

Although it might seem contradictory to employ a large motor structure and a rigid suspension to attain low-frequency extension, the only true obstacle is the system's natural impedance. "At Talon Audio," he stated, "the combination of cabinet loading (our own patent-pending process which helps reduce inertia-related problems, and funnel away the back wave), 'Group Phase Coupling' (a patent-pending method of lowering distortion, smoothing out the impedance curve, increasing driver responsiveness, and lowering the system cut-off), and the use of powerful, rigid-suspension drivers help us to create subwoofers which reveal unheard detail, communicate natural pitch, and convey all the power of dynamic torture tests.

The bottom line, I was hoping, would be a product that performs equally well with both effects and musical presentation and the combination of both, while at the same time alleviating all my integration worries. Did the Roc set its aspirations too high? It all sounds well and good on paper, but would it translate into my listening area?

So Much for the Marketing Hype. How did the Roc Perform?

My subwoofer choices were made a bit more difficult because I was in need to mate a unit with my B&W Nautilus (804s – Fronts, 805s – rears, and HTM1 center) speaker setup. This is a full range, fast, and accurate main speaker system to be sure. Some might immediately say, right off the bat, why not save a good deal of effort and mate the B&Ws with their very own ASW4000 ($3000) powered subwoofer.  It has been an excellently reviewed unit by many audio journals, and it integrates very well with the speakers in the Nautilus line. In fact, the 15-inch cast basket driver is derived directly from the Nautilus 801 technology. But, for some reason, during my audio testing, the ASW4000's performance left me wanting and expecting a bit more. With movie effects, the ASW4000 is as solid as the signature B&W build quality, but its performance with music was only just adequate at best, to my ears.

This then led me to two other high-end top candidates, the Aerial Acoustics SW12 ($4,500-$5,200) and the Linn AV 5150 ($4,195). These also proved to be excellent units, but on a significant higher performance level than even the B&W sub. But, as with the ASW4000, they worked best within their own speaker line-up integration-wise. They probably were the best at both music and effects I had heard to date, but, at this price point, I still had the feeling there should be more to an all around performer.

All the choices seem to make some type of compromise. Two options arose to minimize these deficiencies. One option would be to double up on one of the high-end models. This would, in theory, help with the integration problems, and also increase the musical performance to some degree. I was, however, unable to test this option due to retailer showroom limitations. It was also, dollars and cents, way out of my budget. A second option was to drop down to a lower price level, and have one subwoofer specifically for effects, and another specifically for music, according to my own tastes in bass. In light of this option, I listened to some servo-feedback subs such as the home theater tried and true Velodyne HGS-18. Either the combination did not mate well with the acoustics of my Nautilus speakers, or they were too lacking in one audio area or another. Both these options did not seem practical, logistical, or budgetary feasible. My initial single unit high-end choices, at full retail, costing $3000 to $5200, should be producing a more complete personally satisfying performance level. It is one thing to get hungry again an hour after paying for an expensive Chinese dinner, but one should not have hunger pains while actually consuming the meal.

With integration being an important factor to me, I was beginning to think my best choice was one of my original ones, to stay within the B&W family. But, I felt I made no compromise with my speaker choices so, why then, should I be forced to make some with my subwoofer selection? It was upon that dissatisfaction, and by sheer clumsy luck, that I ran head long into this new company called Talon Audio Technologies. That luck was extended because the dealer who carried B&W Nautilus also just became an authorized retailer of the Talon speaker line. So, I was able to do many A/B comparisons. In fact, the Aerial Acoustic and Linn retailers were all within a quarter mile of each other. I burned up a lot of shoe leather and the patience of some very kind retailers going back and forth numerous times. Within my budget limitations, I considered these four models my top choices.

All four top choices were of the highest build quality. They all were meticulously designed for long term and heavy usage. Plus, all four came in a choice of beautiful wood finishes. So, with build quality being of top caliber on all four models, this was not to be a purchase-determining factor.

It was not very long after hearing the Roc paired with the Nautilus speakers that I realized I was hearing something very special. With many hours of listening logged in with the other three contenders burned iton my brain, it became clear that the Roc stood superior to the other three heavyweight competitors. It was most assuredly the unit I had to get home and test for a good thirty days, within my own personal home theater setup and environment.

While, I anxiously awaited delivery of my Roc from Talon, I eagerly planned my whole testing arrangement. Utilizing only one subwoofer, I thought, positioning might be a critical factor. I soon found out that the positioning of the Roc was not as a difficult endeavor as I had anticipated. The normal home theater setup procedure for finding the correct subwoofer position worked out quite simply with the Roc. Inserted into the right position, the Roc immediately blended into synchronization with the other channels quite seamlessly. As it turned out, the hardest task was getting the unit up a flight of stairs all by my lonesome. If only I had one of these mythical birds to place it gently into my nesting area. The unit is listed at 93 pounds, but either I am getting older, or it feels heavier than listed. Probably a little of both postulates are the case here.

From my initial home testing, and throughout the next 30 days, the Roc kept bringing a bigger and bigger smile to my face. It was almost as if Talon Audio custom-built this component just for my main speakers. To my own ears, the integration was perfection. The five B&W pieces and one Talon Roc performed as a single synchronized audio unit, leading me to believe that due to its speed, this unit would easily integrate with a number of speaker choices. My smiles kept getting increasing in number and size. I was beginning to look like Batman's Joker.

A number of DVD movies exemplified the superior performance level of the Roc. In the opening embassy siege, of the “Rules of Engagement” (2000) special edition, a good deal of action, effects, and dialogue are occurring simultaneously. Cries and chanting from the surrounding angry crowd, softball size rocks being thrown and slamming against the sides of buildings, sniper rifle shots, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails being thrown and ignited, orders being shouted out by the U.S. Marines, and the engine thunder of the evac helicopters, could make for a sloppy mess with a substandard subwoofer. This would result in the loss of some weight from the most important impact scene of the movie. The Roc played all these effects flawlessly and accurately, and with the precision and detail of a complex orchestral symphony.

Overhang is an acoustical trait that can degrade a home theater experience quite quickly. Simply defined, overhang is woofer movement after the drive signal has ceased. As you would want with the visuals, the viewer always wants to experience exactly what the artist intends. Nothing disrupts that experience more than having effects acoustically drag into scenes where they do not belong.  But, with some of today’s spectacular effects, you can be asking too much from some subwoofers. In the DVD movie, “GoldenEye: Special Edition” (1995), Pierce Brosnan makes a stylish and convincing entrance in the fifteenth Bond feature, as Agent 007. In chapter 22, when the Goldeneye weapon fires on the Russian Space Weapons Control Center, all hell seems to break loose. In the midst of all the destruction, you are then taken to the Situation Room located thousands of miles away in Great Britain's MI5 Headquarters.  You are now viewing a satellite image of the Russian Center. Whereas in one second, it is there, but after another, it is gone. This scene would lose a great deal of impact if the mayhem destruction effects carried over and muddied the stunned silence of the headquarter scene. These destruction effects easily reached a 109 dB sound pressure level in my home theater, so I might be asking a lot of the subwoofer to stop on a dime. The Roc was the only sub I have heard that performed this scene flawlessly. Only a servo-sub I tested came close to the start and stop precision of the Roc. But, it drastically lost a great deal of impact by not having the ability to play the scene with the same thunderous low bass (servo-feedback processing takes some of the amplifier power). The Roc was easily performing with the power and punch of the big boys, but with an added speed, accuracy, and precision that the others seemed to lack.

In chapter 34 of the same movie, we experience a very unique car chase sequence with a 30 ton military tank. The deep bass of the tank effects could have easily swallowed up the sound of the smaller vehicles. Instead, the background music and screeching smaller police cars, all occurring distinctly and simultaneously with the powerful rumble of a racing tank, make for a very effective and exciting chase scene.

In the movie U-571 (2000), the depth charge scene (chapter 15) can give a subwoofer an excellent workout, plus a possible call from the neighbors. Each explosion is accurately detailed as distinct from the others, to the point and precision of each explosion revealing their proximity to the U-Boat. It clearly gives the viewer the experience of being along with the crew of the S-33. We experience the same tension and pressure of imminent danger and possible destruction.

With music tests, I found myself going through as much of my CD collection as thirty days would allow. I would try one recording, and had to follow it with another, and then another. Hours quickly turned into days of pure enjoyment. I soon realized that upon completion of my tests, I would have to reintroduce myself to my family, but for now I would stay nestled in my bunker of listening Nirvana.

The Roc performed music with a crisp clarity of rhythm and pace that you would only expect from a live performance. Two test recordings stood out in documenting the musical abilities of the Roc. The first was Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine in D minor (with George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The power, strength, and grace of these four magnificent movements are only accentuated in their full presentation by the addition of a top performing musical subwoofer. The second recording was the JVC Extended Resolution CD of Bill Evans, entitled "Green Dolphin Street". Pitch definition and tonal detail in either of these two recordings, particularly within the bass, were of the highest quality and superbly reproduced for a most enjoyable listening experience. The attributes of speed and detail make the Roc subwoofer integration accessible with a number of high-end speaker manufacturers, but also makes it stand above the competition in musical presentation.

I can only wait in euphoric anticipation to experience the Roc’s performance with DVD-Audio, featuring, of course, utilization of the proper bass management. But, I presume, I will have to wait for the technology to catch up with my desires. The detriments of overhang are even more forwardly pronounced within a musical recording. Please note, although the musical performance is mentioned in a separate discussion, it by no means belittles its importance to a complete movie presentation. Let me re-emphasize that the critical benefits of a top musical sub are also crucial to enjoying the total home theater presentation. From both perspectives the Roc reveals zero overhang, as best as my ears can detect. Percussion instruments sound crisp, clear, precise, and accurate. Only a live performance could have brought me more enjoyment.

In each case, the Roc’s performance seemed as perfect, as audibly possible from a subwoofer. I threw all I could at the Roc to knock it off its game, but it kept knocking each test disc, one after another, right out of the ballpark!

Conclusions

Upon leaving my home early one morning, I was completely alerted by the sound of my neighbor's waste construction container being taken away and an empty one left in its place. If anyone has experienced this exchange, it sounds a great deal like what one would expect from massive movie effects. This is probably as close as I am ever going to get in experiencing a car chase involving a military tank, or the explosion of depth charges. Immediately I flashed back to the previous nights' movie viewing. Reality had nothing over the performance of the Roc! It is probably as close as you will get to reality as you would want to get. All that without the mayhem destruction of your neighborhood makes this a top powered subwoofer choice.

One should not let reviews alone determine your home theater purchases exclusively, but I could not more highly urge you to let this one lead you to at least a demo of the Roc at your local retailer. It is all I have wished for in a subwoofer and then some! Sometimes the thought of having your cake and eating it too is not such a far-fetched idea. Although some people might think that music and movies' deep bass cannot be produced by the same subwoofer, they just need to listen to the best ones out there. Thanks to the vision of Tierry Budge and Talon Audio Technologies.

 

- Michael James -

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