Talon is a speaker company that needs little introduction to most audiophiles. Since 1989 they have been producing loudspeakers that have been the envy of anyone who have had the pleasure of not only hearing them but viewing their exquisite, often massive cabinets. Their top-of-the-line $40,000 Firebird model from the mid '00's was especially noteworthy, and I'm quite sure that these excellent speakers are still in the homes of many a well-healed listener. The stand-mounted Talon Hawk 2's that are featured in this review are "only" a bit more than one-quarter of the price of a pair of Firebirds, yet I have no doubt that the evolution of this speaker company's engineering prowess has trickled up to the Hawk 2. In fact, the standard that the Hawk 2 have set for a pair of stand-mounted speakers is so high that when preparing my notes for this review I had a sense that words alone were hardly a substitute for an audition. I've been doing this for a while, not to mention that I've been assigned the auspicious task of reviewing these fine speakers. Therefore I will do my best.
After the Hawk 2s were set up to both my and Mr. Curnin's satisfaction we gave the speakers a listen. As impressive as the speakers sounded, we both felt that they would need quite a bit of break-in. And indeed they did. Richard Rives Bird at Talon warned me they'd need at least 200 hours before they sounded their best, but I discovered that they needed more time than this to break in. Much more time. Although the speakers are past the point of needing continuous program material for the purpose of breaking them in, after more than a month I sense that the drivers are still continuing to "loosen up", as they continue to make incremental improvements in their sound quality as time goes on.
The Hawk 2 is part of Talon's Reference Line (they are currently in development of their less pricey Performance Line). Although they source the ceramic drivers of these speakers from Accuton, a 7" midrange and 1" tweeter, which judged by themselves are very fine components, the superlative sound from these speakers is in large part attained via Talon's design and engineering expertise. This is quite evident in their crossover, which uses very steep slopes in a unique and non-conventional topology. Talon's crossover methods, to my knowledge, are quite unique and Talon is understandably quite proud of the Hawk 2's crossover's implementation.
The Hawk 2 is of course an upgrade from Talon's previous model, their Hawk, sans 2. The changes to the new speaker a many, some quite minor, such as the crossover point, more significant are the component choices. They now use higher grade capacitors and inductors and upgraded the internal wire to Kubla-Sosna. Talon claims that there are absolutely no compromises in its design to its 18.5 by 13.75 by 11 inch trapezoidal cabinet and the exotic automotive gloss black paint finish. The Accuton drivers are quite pricey, and the Hawk 2 has a very complex internal construction. This likely all adds up to very expensive speaker to manufacture, but to my ears this expense is worth every penny. If you are ever in the presence of these speakers and are tempted to perform a "knuckle test" by rapping on the speaker, don't bother. All I could elicit was a high-pitched clack. When pumping the loudest passages playing music at a volume so loud it was barely tolerable, no vibrations could be or heard or felt from the speaker cabinets or their stands.
If I were responsible for drawing up class specifications I would not consider the two-way Talon Hawk 2 a "mini-monitor". With their dedicated stands they take up as much floor space as a pair of small-ish floorstanding speakers. But Talon has managed to take a speaker that was obviously designed with sound quality as its first and foremost concern and somehow manage to construct a very stylish looking speaker. I thought the speakers sounded slightly better without their magnetically attached grilles in place, but perhaps the speakers would fit in with more decors with these grilles in place. Although my wife may have felt otherwise, I thought that the glossy black baffles of the Hawk 2 with their mesh-covered drivers to fit right in with the rest of the system and our room.
One of the qualities of the Hawk 2 listeners will surely notice is their reproduction of vocals. Whether male or female, solos or groups, any and all voices that came through the Hawk 2 sounded spooky real. Depending on the quality of the recording, vocals would either enter the room, float between the two speakers, or take on the semblance of a crystal clear window into the recording studio or hall in which they were recorded. When I mention that it would depend on the quality of the recording I don't mean to imply that the quality of the recording is either good, bad, or somewhere in between. What the Hawk 2 manages to reproduce is the human quality of the voice recorded, whether in a live situation or in the studio, and renders an eerie facsimile of this sonic event that took place on this stage or in that particular studio. A perfect example was when playing the final movement of Mahler's Fourth with soprano Lisa della Casa. Say what you will regarding della Casa's performance (you will join countless others), or say what you will about the recording quality (it was an extremely early stereo recording with all that is good and bad that comes with this) but there is no denying the palpable rendering of her voice recorded over fifty years ago that came forth through the Hawk 2s. And in regards to the quality of the recording, no one that I've ever heard of has set out to record a vocal poorly. Yes, some are recorded better than others, as well is that it is true that the available technology and the skill (or lack of skill) of the engineer for that particular recording will determine the final sound. Yet the Hawk 2 seemed to intrinsically "know" that it was reproducing a vocal track and reproduce it in the most lifelike way possible. On this portion of the Mahler symphony recorded so long ago one's mind does not have to strain too hard to imagine della Casa standing upon the stage next to the conductor's podium in front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps not as important in rendering a lifelike reproduction of the original event, but perhaps as important to many audiophiles is the Hawk 2's soundstage. Now that I've had the chance to hear the Talon Hawk 2 in my own listening room there is the slight change that in the past I may have overstated other small speaker's ability to disappear within the listening room. But I don't think I'm going out on a limb proclaiming that the Hawk 2 is the best two-way dynamic speaker I've heard when considering its soundstage. This is made even more surprising in the medium-sized room in which I auditioned the Hawk 2, which has never been a champ in eliciting a very good soundstage from any pair of speakers. In this way the Hawk 2 did not sound like an ordinary pair of speakers – when fed a good recording the music was just there. This was true even when listening off-axis. I did not have to sit smack-dab exactly in the center of the sweet spot.
Yes, music sounded its best when in Hawk 2's rather large sweet spot but it was also true that I was able to sit rather far off-center and still enjoy the huge, wide, deep, and layered soundstage. The Hawk 2 would perform their disappearing act and near-perfect placement of instruments within the soundstage with just about any decent recording I'd play though them. The Mahler might not have been the best demonstration tracks for these speakers because the bass response of the Hawk 2 drops off very quickly below 50 Hz or so, but still, the sound of the orchestra, albeit in miniature, was laid out around, behind, between, and slightly in front of the speakers. It was amazing to hear these relatively small speaker reproducing the sound of this huge orchestra. It also helped that the Hawk 2 was able to play as loud as I would want at any given time without any hint of strain. As an important related aside, the speakers high-frequencies did not trail off when changing one's vertical position, so high's of the speaker sounded nearly identical when either standing or seated.
Which leads me to the Talon Hawk 2's treble response. It is possible that my positive impressions were made even more positive because of the extremely low amount of distortion in the Hawk 2's highs. This led not only to highs that had a superb amount of detail but also allowed for a level of subtle differentiation between different treble sounds that were unmatched by any other speakers I've ever auditioned in this listening room. The differences in each hit of a drum stick when it slightly varies in strength as well as distance from the crown of a cymbal, the slight spittle in the sound of a sax's reed, or the parting of a singers lips before a note was sung were only a few of the cues that made every piece of music sound more like music. The Hawk 2s were also somehow able to reproduce this amount of detail in the treble on each and every recording I played through them, yet at the same time never sounding strident while doing so. And by strident, again, I mean unmusical, because at the heart of this sound was also its truthfulness in expressing the meaning and intentions of the performers and studio engineers. I also cannot stress strongly enough the superb integration between the two drivers of the Talon Hawk 2, because even at a relatively close distance I was unable to hear the sound as coming from a separate tweeter and woofer. The accurate and naturally sweet treble response of the Talon Hawk 2 combined with the lack of sound outwardly coming from a pair of speakers, made it much easier to concentrate on the music that was being reproduced by the speakers rather than the sound of the speakers themselves.
Tom Waits' Small Change from 1976 is a classic not only because of Mr. Waits extremely imaginative characters that he introduced to the world, but because of the songs on this album that he still performs in his sets to this day. Although the Hawk 2 wasn't able to take advantage of its ability to disappear as much as some other music I played through them only because of the hard panning of some of the instruments. This hardly mattered. The musicians that join him on the sessions in at Wally Heider's Hollywood studio was recorded directly to two-track tape, and included not only drummer Shelly Manne who had been on the jazz scene since the bop scene of the 1940s, but also the then current jazz scene regulars tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin and bassist Jim Hughart. On the track "Step Right Up" Shelly Manne's brushes tickle the snare drum stage left, the sound seems to emanate behind the speaker with his kick drum's upper-mid resonance of the skin accenting the feel around the beat. Throughout the entire album the resolution of the Hawk 2 is on full display without ever sounding overly analytical. Again, it is because Tom Waits' voice and the instruments are sonically drawn there in space, attracting attention to themselves not because of any look-at -me personally traits from the Hawk 2, but because of the collectives' musical performance – Tom Waits vocals proclaiming his pie in the sky claims, the bass and tenor sax behind him supporting him both musically and sonically, and Shelly Manne's drums softly grooving to his side. And the Hawk 2 allows us to be privileged enough to eavesdrop on the session.
The Talon Hawk 2 is a by all means a perfectionist speaker, and so of course it makes sense that the two-way stand-mounted Hawk 2 was not designed to reproduce the lowest of the low frequencies. They wisely do not attempt to reach down to the deep bass with their relatively small drivers and in doing compromise the frequencies the mid-bass drivers are designed and best suited for. Anyone who has attempted to mate a pair of high quality two-way speakers with a sub can attest to the fact that this feat is often trickier than it might seem. Talon has taken great pains to ensure that the Hawk 2 matches perfectly with its matching Thunder bass cabinet. For those wishing to extend the Hawk 2's low frequency performance the Hawk 2 can be upgraded to the Thunderhawk. All Hawk 2 customers are eligible for a discount when upgrading their speakers to transform them into a full-ranged Thunderhawk with its dual eight-inch woofers, which will extend the bass of this two-piece unit to the lower limits of human hearing.