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Reviewer: Jan-Petter Egidius
Source: Muse Electronics Model Ten CD/DVD player
Preamplifier: Edge G1
Power amplifier: Edge G6
Loudspeakers: Peak-Consult In Cognito Monitor; Target R6 stands [on loan for current review]
Cables: Argento Serenity, speaker and signal
Power cords: 2 Transparent Reference (Amps), 1 Cardas Golden Reference (CD)
Rack: Finite-Elemente Pagode Signature – 4 shelves
Tweaks: Finite-Elemente Cerapucs under all electronics and under the rack. Dedicated Audio Cable Towers
AC: 2 separate AC lines, 1 grounded
Room: Dedicated listening-room, 6 meters long x 4.5 meters wide
Review Equipment Retail: $3,450/pr

This review is the story of a set of remarkable speakers unlike any others I've heard. Yes, I have certainly been listening to two-way stand mounts before but never with a ribbon tweeter. The Tonians had me very curious and I was eager to write the review. I had the speakers for almost 3 months and got to know them quite well. Before any serious listening took place, I had to burn in my new pre/power combination from Edge. The speakers also need several hours of time on them before sounding their best. Designer Tony Minasian had put 50 hours on them prior to shipment to Norway and I used the speakers for at least another 100 hours before evaluating them. This obviously helped and removed a slight remaining edge. Beyond this conditioning period, I could detect no further sonic improvements. My advice therefore is that a potential buyer must try a properly broken-in pair to hear them at their best.

Before any serious listening commenced, I drove them for over a week 24/7 with a 10-year old 50wpc Pioneer receiver and an old CD player while my new gear arrived - and to put time on them. I used cheap speaker cables costing about $30 for 10 meters! The old Japanese box had no trouble driving the Tonians. The sound was actually too good for the money. 95% of all music lovers could happily live with that combination forever. Yes, listening through the Edge gear was of course in a higher league but it does make one think, don't it?

The story behind Tonian Labs and some thoughts on music reproduction
Tony Minasian started Tonian Laboratories four years ago and began to import Supra Cables from Sweden, PHY-HP drivers from France and AER drivers from Germany. He did not plan to get into the loudspeaker manufacturing business because of the overcrowded market place but his customers kept pushing him to do so. He designed a few studios which use his custom-built speakers for monitoring.

His philosophy began formulating when he traveled to many places and listened to different systems and speakers only to conclude that none of them sounded like real-life instruments. To answer why that was so, he studied everything from psychology to electronics and psychoacoustics. Finally he came up with the technology of Tonian Acoustics, which is based on resonance and reflection. Tony asks that if you stand in front of a bass or cello and are enjoying the vibration and distortion of tone wood, why do speakers have to be totally inert and non-resonant? Some audiophiles will counter that you want to hear the drivers and not the cabinet but if you ask professional people, they would say that there is no microphone that can capture the complete sound of a cello or a bass. Another question. How can a 5"-12" driver create the same sound as produced by a 7' long piano soundboard? Tony agrees that cabinet resonance is no good and that one must find a way to manage resonance and
distortion to occur outside the audible range and help the listener feel as though he/she were listening to live music.

The technology and the two drivers
As far as the technology is concerned, the TL-NFSMs use advanced acoustical techniques based on controlled reflection and vibration instead of absorption. There is absolutely no absorptive material inside the cabinet. The cabinet is said to work similarly to an acoustical instrument despite being fashioned from MDF. Tony explained that this particular technique cannot be used to make physically larger speaker.

The crossover here is set very high at around 10KHz and is claimed to make it essentially invisible to the amplifier. The Japanese 6.5" woofer by Fostex is fabricated from banana skins while the heavily modified ribbon tweeter starts life as a Fountec before ribbon and magnet are exchanged. For more on this ribbon tweeter, I refer you to Michael Lavorgna's excellent review of the Tonian TL-R2 super tweeter.

Here's some personal thoughts. Ribbons can be both good and bad depending on the skills of the designer. Ribbons can be tricky to combine with ordinary drivers by often exhibiting lower sensitivities and impedances. Their operative band is restricted, not an issue in Tony's design because of his crossover point at 10KHz. Ribbons also tend to have narrow vertical dispersion, meaning they are more sensitive as far as listening position and speaker placement are concerned. So sit down and listen!

Internal wiring here is a very low-inductance cable made by Supra of Sweden, no big surprise there with Tony being the US importer. The cabinet is ported and measures 11.25" x 9.25" x 15.5" HxWxD. The paint job is superb and the speakers is of a very high quality all around. The posts too come from Supra and are the same as used on my far costlier In Cognitos by Peak Consult.

The sound in general and some words about the setup
Transparency, transparency and transparency yet again. Seldom have I heard more details on my CDs or such amount of air in the treble region. This of course has to do with two-driver coherence and the fast and extended ribbons in particular which blend perfectly with the mid/bass driver. I placed the speakers according to Tony's advice, 60 cm off the floor and on heavy stands. I know of no better stands than the ones from Target so I borrowed a pair. I usually listen with a little bit of toe in so I can just get a glimpse of the inner side of each speaker. Ditto for the Tonians. The distance between them was appr. 2 meters, with my listening chair at ca. 2.5 meters. This ended up exactly where my In Cognitos usually reside.

The sonic signature of the Tonians is very different from my Peak Consults that cost about 5 times as much, with a driver complement suggesting that the sound has to be different. So I am not going to compare them and simply add that nobody can tell what's ultimately right in sound reproduction. It's simply a matter of taste and priorities. The Tonians sound the way they do because of their design and drivers and they sound very good - with certain CDs, even extremely good for their price.

You will not get thunderous bass from stand mounts including the Tonians. What you do get with them is bass of high quality. For me, that is what counts. A speaker must work within its physical and price-constrained technical limits and it is in this crucible where I find the Tonians exceptionally well designed.

Their midrange is pure and transparent (there's that term again) as ice water from a Norwegian glacier. They handle voices and instruments with equal aplomb but more on that in a moment.

Get on with it then, play some music!
But of course! That is the way we do it, ain't it? First off was a Norwegian trio, The Hallgeir Pedersen Trio with Wistful [2004 Hot Club Records]. It's a classic if not world-famous formation with Pedersen on electrical guitar plus upright bass and drums, a warm, intimate-sounding album with Pedersen's guitar dominating the session. The bass here is full and articulate and drums and cymbals are light and airy. So it was also the case through the Tonians. If I held the slightest anticipatory worry that the ribbons would sound bright, this was not the case at all. Everything was very well integrated and the soundstage was as intimate as I normally hear on my reference speakers, simply scaled down a bit, with the bass expectedly a tad lighter. But again, for potential buyers of this type of speaker, it is about quality, not quantity of sound and here the TL-NFSMs proved very satisfying. The sound was involving over all kinds of sound levels and even when I cranked the volume up, everything simply scaled without any misbehavior or breakup. Clearly these speakers can be pushed hard without losing their composure.

Moving on to Jacques Loussier's Plays Bach on Telarc told the same story. When played loud, this CD in fact is a very good test for bass performance. The Tonians produced a very credible recreation of both the bass and the bass drum. No, you will not move the foundation with pressure waves coming off this small mid/bass driver but you have no problems either hearing what the musicians intended. And that's what counts. This CD presents piano very well and the Tonians are endowed with the necessary midrange power to reproduce a piano's considerable energy properly. And the treble? Airy and without even the faintest hints of hardness. If ever there was a time that I could see how cymbals are made from metal, this was it. Great!

I usually listens to music late at night. One night I played the extraordinary Duets by Rob Wasserman on GRP Records. Here Wasserman performs with many very talented singers such as Jennifer Warnes, Rickie Lee Jones, Aaron Neville and Dan Hicks to name just a few. This excellent recording of male and female voices plus upright bass is a perfect test CD for hearing how equipment handles human voices. The Tonians managed to bring vocals to life in a profound way. All I could have asked for more was a little weight but as stated earlier, a designer always has to weigh his compromises especially in the affordable sector. With the Tonians, you get exceptional speed, holography and clarity. So the overall sound is just a tad light. How beefy and weighty could it be with these drivers? You get my point.

Let's move to Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light 'til Dawn on Blue Note. Now here is a sublime record in every sense of the word, great songs, skilled musicians, natural sound and Cassandra's smoky voice to top it all off. Her rendition of "Come on in my kitchen" by Robert Johnson is unbelievably cool and funky. It showed how the Tonians can kick royal ass when asked to. The bass drum was very taut and explosive and I had no problem following the beefy bass lines. Cassandra's voice was as smoky as it should be and the work of her drummer was magnificent rendered. This track -- in fact the entire CD -- proved to me conclusively that the Tonians are blistering fast and handle everything that you can throw at them without preferences or flinching.

I could however hear a little sharpness in her voice when I pushed the system. I can't blame the Edge amp. It had zero problems with the Tonians that seem not to present a difficult load. No, I think the ribbon can occasionally exhibit just a whiff of sharpness. Nothing big but I think that speakers with ribbons are balancing on a thin edge between "excellent and airy" and "sharp and edgy". On this particular CD, I felt that the Tonians slightly tipped over on some of the tracks as compared to the silky smooth treble of the Scanspeak Revelators of my In Cognitos. This was a very minor occurrence and nothing that bothered me a great deal. My take on the Edge gear is that it's very neutral so perhaps a superior valve amp might be an even better choice with the Tonians? Either way, they sounded great to me.

I am not a huge fan of the saxophone but I do have a really good recording from Stan Getz, Café Montmartre on Universal. This together with some of the stuff by Ben Webster really moves me. The Getz album is a very good live recording from Copenhagen, well recorded so you can hear (and feel!) Stan's breath. The sax has a warm sound and all the other instruments used exhibited their natural size so banish all notions that small speakers will produce a small sound. These two yellow boxes managed to create life-sized image of what happened during those two magic nights in Copenhagen a long time ago.

During this particular listening session, I got the tacit sense of sitting among the audience, hearing them talk around me. The musicians had their places on the stage and I had no problem at all to see them there. This session also showed me that the Tonians should be paired with high-quality electronics, that's how revealing and transparent they are.

Hi-Rez and ribbons
My Muse Model Ten also plays DVD-A. I have a few of them but without starting any debate on the hi-rez issue, I would like to say that I am confused about the whole format discussion. I had high hopes for the DVD-A standard about a year ago but now I don't know anymore. The format is certainly capable of sounding great but there are few titles to buy and now we also have the dual-disc discussion. Thankfully, the Muse is also a highly capable CD player so I stick to RedBook until everything has settled down.

DVD-As occasionally nearly sound "too good", with a little excess energy in the midrange. Too transparent is not the right way to describe that effect. It simply doesn't sound right at times. The Ray Brown Trio's Soular Energy is a very good DVD-A but I wanted to try another one to allay my worries that the ribbons might sound edgy with this high-energy format. I played the DVD-A Trio with Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, also on Hi-Res Music.

What happened? Well, nothing to be concerned over to say the least. My worries about hi-rez and ribbons proved to be a total waste of time. The bass was clear, weighty and easy to follow. Ray Brown might be the best bass player alive and on this DVD-A he really shines. The same can be said about the two other musicians. I could hear the large acoustic space but also the atmosphere and transparency. The Tonians exhibit natural timbre over their whole range. The presentation was wide open and showed a high degree of tonal sophistication. The Trio DVD-A uses no drums so I played Soular Energy as well just to confirm that the cymbals had the proper sound and energy. They had, brilliant stuff indeed.

In short, the Tonians delivered on all kinds of music I played through them. I am not a huge fan of extremely long reviews so this basically sums it up. I did of course play a wide selection of CDs and the two yellow fellows acquitted themselves just as well with violins, horns and all manner of percussion - delicate, airy and musical all the way.

Summing things up
As you have surely added up by now, I really enjoyed my time with the Tonians. They are magnificent speakers for their asking price and they work very well within their physical and frequency limits. For my personal tastes in music, they handled everything I threw at them with grace. Yes, I could at times detect some slight edginess when I really pushed them but nothing is perfect.

These speakers like to be driven hard but will give you all the music and details at lower volumes as well. They deserve high-quality electronics and cables. Place them on heavy stands and you are on your way to a lot of musical enjoyment. They seems to be very well constructed and the build quality is of a very high standard. If you are then in the market for this kind of monitor speaker, do yourself a favor. Keep an open mind and be curios enough to check out brands other than only the already big & famous. The Tonians would be a good start on that journey and you won't be sorry to visit with them.
Manufacturer's website