Review by Jon Eben Field
Serene Audio is an audio company based in Vancouver, Canada that has a group of very smart, talented, and creative people working to create fantastic audio products. You may ask how I know this. Well, I have had the privilege of listening to the Talisman speaker for several months now. In that time, I have been deeply impressed with what the Talisman speakers are able to accomplish from their small enclosure and single driver powered by an internal amp (did I mention it has a phono input?). To describe part of the magic of these speakers, I have to at first address how their name signifies. A talisman is an object that has been imbued with magical powers through a rite or ceremony. A talisman usually has magical power due to a kind of universal harmony that is bound in the symbolic gesture of the object itself.
Now calling a pair of speakers Talisman could come across as braggadocio or bombast, possibly even hubris, but the reality of the situation is that Serene Audio has delivered on the promise of their speakers’ name in numerous ways that are impressive which I will enumerate shortly, but they have also done something even more exciting; the speakers have created the magic of music in my home in ways that belie their size and assumed capacity. So, at this point, you may ask what is the assumed purpose of the Talisman speakers? Well, they are billed as a desktop speaker, but after listening to them and becoming acquainted with their functionality, they perform far outside the parameters of almost all desktop speakers I have listened to and they even perform better than some component systems I have heard.
The Talisman speakers are intriguing in design. And for a moment, I would like to call attention to the formal characteristics of the enclosure and its finishing. The single black 3” full range driver is housed in a bamboo and MDF enclosure (8” H, 5” W, 6” D) that has curved sides and a slanting top and which is poised on two long narrow bands of contact on the bottom of the speakers. Just look at the picture for a better sense than my mere words can describe. The enclosure is wrapped in a leather alternative (could have fooled me!) that is held in place on the bottom with brass tacks. The rear of the right channel speaker houses the control panel for the amplifier, which is finished flawlessly (even the names of the controls and inputs are engraved) in brass. If you’d like to read about how the enclosure enhances the sound characteristics of the speaker, please look here. Talisman claims that the enclosure offers controlled tuning, resonance control, and wall resonances. Basically, this means that the enclosure extends the bass performance of the driver and limits the cross-frequency vibration that afflict all cabinets at some level, but is especially true of most molded plastic cabinet designs used for desktop applications.
I will now describe the component elements of the speakers so you can discern whether these speakers are a good fit for your needs. The powered speakers (i.e., they contain an internal amplifier) have an 1/8” input (for phones, iPads, computers, or other RCA sources), an RCA phono input and ground, a 1/8” headphone jack, a power input and supply, an RCA subwoofer out, and a DIN cable to connect and power the left speaker. There is a wealth of features offered here for a powered pair of speakers that sound as fantastic as these do. The single 1/8” input might seem a drawback to some, but for the bulk of people who will likely be using this, the desing compromise fits the form and function of the speakers perfectly. The speakers also have a multi-function knob that operates as a power/source switch and volume control. All in all, it is a very elegant and compact design. And did I say that my wife loves them? She ordinarily has little positive to say about the audio transitions that happen in our house, but with the Talisman she was quite vocal. I believe she said something akin to, “They’re small, they sound great, and there are almost no wires. Why can’t all your audio gear be like these?”
Talisman has extensive information about its driver and rationale for its selection on its webpage (which you can find here). The main themes addressed are the drivers’ ultra low distortion, long excursion, and its superior imaging and transient response. Distortion refers generally to failure of the driver to accurately represent the sound waves within a specific spectrum of frequency. Excursion refers generally to the ability of the driver to extend its cone to push the air required for generating lower frequency sound waves. Imaging refers generally to the ability of a driver to create an accurate image of sound (i.e., instrument) in the soundstage when heard in stereophonic representation. Transient response refers generally to the ability of a driver to quickly react to the signal of an amplifier and generate sound (e.g., think of a cymbal crash). For a more learned discussion of these aspects of a driver, please consult Serene Audio’s website or other online resources (of which there are many).
But the things that immediately captured my attention with these speakers and have been pushed into the forefront of my awareness whenever I’ve listened to them are: fantastic imaging (even off-axis), real bass extension (which is incredible given the size of the driver), resolution of instrumental space, clarity of tone, and a large soundstage (relative to the speaker size). These qualities emerge from the happy coincidence of the harmony between the driver, the enclosure, and the amplifier.
I haven’t had a chance to address the amplifier yet, the third crucial element in this design. Serene Audio designs their amplifiers in-house (here’s a link to their design considerations), allowing them to custom-craft the audio innovations needed to symbiotically relate to the enclosure and the driver and play to their assets, while simultaneously downplaying their drawbacks (this is physics, after all!). Through this 20W per channel amplifier, Serene Audio offers many positives. The subwoofer output is “smart” insofar as it detects when it is in use and uses a high pass filter to determine where bass duty should occur. Due to Serene Audio’s construction of the amp, the drivers can be coupled directly to the amplifier outputs. The amplifiers have also been built to offer ample headroom in the amplifier to accommodate full range musical reproduction.
I listened to the Talismans and gained a sense of their magic almost immediately. I didn’t let their diminutive size determine their sound. I played them at a range of volumes in a medium-sized room using a Squeezebox classic as the input for digital music (always FLAC). I also listened to them with two turntables: my rebuilt Lenco with a Jelco tonearm and Charisma Audio MC-1 cartridge, and with a Toshiba SR-305 with an Audio Technica cartridge I had kicking around. As with most quality stereo equipment, they responded better to well-recorded music, but they were persistently able to reproduce music in an engaging and entertaining way. I was always drawn into listening to this system.
Perhaps you are wondering how I compared these speakers? Well, I put them up against another desktop system I have thrown together over the years: a Topping TP-60 with either Realistic Minimus 7s or Totem Dreamcatchers. In A/B comparisons with the Topping and Minimus 7s, the Talisman had much greater resolution, clarity, superior imaging, and overall depth of musicality. The Talismans were a clear winner. In A/B comparison with the Topping and the Totem Dreamcatchers, the Talisman only really came up short in bass reproduction. At first, I thought the Dreamcatchers would really outperform the Talismans, but as the evening went on and track after track was listened to, I found that in many ways the two systems were both very satisfying and, further, that on many tracks I actually preferred the Talisman speakers. Given the price point, size, and features of the Dreamcatchers vs. the Talisman, I was enthralled with what Serene Audio had pulled off. There did seem to be more than a bit of good science and engineering in their design, it seemed in fact that they had found a considerable amount of magic with which to imbue both the form and the function of their speakers.
I listened to many different albums on these speakers, and I want to impress on you that they can handle just about anything you throw at them, as long as you don’t expect cavernous bass. After a tip from a friend, I have been listening to the three volumes of The Famous Sound of Three Blind Mice. Using sessions from the best recordings of this Japanese record label, the music contained on these records is absolutely astonishing in clarity, musical space, and virtuousity. I listened to a FLAC copy of “Aqua Marine” by Isao Suzuki Quartet and was stunned by how Serene Audio’s Talisman speakers were able to immerse me in the deep resonant tones of the cello. The bass offers a beautiful counterpoint to that mid-range dramatic tension in the song, while the percussion is a master class in knowing when to play and when to be silent. This song is a cry or lament at the beginning of the album that resists resolution and the Talisman speakers are responsive to every moment of this terrific jazz quartet’s intuitive insistence on spatiality, openness, and expression in the song.
On the Toshiba SR-305 turntable, I listened to a record a friend had bought me recently by the Ventures called Rock and Roll Forever. On the first side, there is a track called “Smokie” that begins with a deep bass voice saying, “Smokie, Part One” before gliding into an easy rock shuffle. The music is live and loose and the Talisman easily got down on this groove. They faithfully rendered the electric guitar on the track with power and tonal accuracy, while the saxophone had a sense of presence and driving force on its solo. The gripping handclaps of the rhythm propel the song towards its climax, but I always get the sense that that Ventures could have spent all day just grooving along on a track like this. Although the Toshiba is a cheap turntable and I could tell how both the turntable and the cartridge were limiting the sound, the music coming out of the Talismans was still consistently good and engaging.
Finally, on my rebuilt Lenco, I played a record that blew my mind with the Talismans. Radiohead’s latest album has been incurring accolades and wrath across the Internet since it was released. For some, it is the antithesis of the band’s rock sensibility and, as such, must be shunned. For others, it is the logical extension of a long and fabled trajectory for the band’s eccentric musical evolution. I will tip my hand and indicate that I am a fan of what Radiohead has accomplished on A Moon Shaped Pool. The subtle orchestration and beautiful layers of minimalist rock that lies beneath Thom Yorke’s confident and assured vocals succeed in my books.
“Desert Island Disk” is one of my favourite tracks on the album because of the subtlety of its development. From the initial heartbeat of drums to the acoustic guitar that repeats throughout the song, there is an aching beauty that permeates the soundstage. The Talismans are able to fill out the centre of the soundstage, but I was incredibly impressed with how they handled the ambient and transient sounds (various hisses and buzzes created using electronics) that thread through and across the soundstage as the song plays. The sounds created “back there” in the soundstage venture from side to side and forward and backwards are difficult to render, but the Talisman speakers from Serene Audio are more than up to the task of representing these blips and tones. The soundstage is filled with grace, accuracy, fidelity, liveliness, and truth, while still maintaining the depth of tone in Thom Yorke’s voice surfing on top of this range of sonic stimulation.
Okay, so I’m enthusiastic about the Talisman speakers by Serene Audio. I’m not sure where all of the magic of this combination emerges, but I am sure that I like how it sounds when it hits my ears. These speakers punch way above their price point for both sound reproduction and feature list. I actually find it hard to believe that so much can be offered in such a diminutive package. If I am mystified by the power of their magic, then they have established in my mind one firm piece of knowledge. I know they are not going back. I love them that much.
Serene Audio also has a kickstarter campaign going which you can find here: http://eepurl.com/b0y735
Serene Audio url: http://www.sereneaudio.com/
MSRP: $445 US (Free Shipping)