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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, Hadcock GH 228 Export arm, Rega Super Elys
Digital source: Acoustic Arts Drive 1/ Bel Canto DAC2
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Bryston 7B ST, Gallo Acoustics Reference 3 SA amplifier
Speakers: Hørning Perikles, ACI Sapphire XL, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference S/PDIF
Power Cords: ZCable Heavys & Black Lightning, PS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Auric Illuminator, Ultra & Heavy ZSleeves
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $950/pr

When it comes to super tweeters, there are a variety of available explanations as to how and why they make the differences they do. After all, best-case scenario is that human hearing only extends to about 20kHz. Then that ceiling gets lower and lower as one ages. At first glance, frequency responses past that limit would seem superfluous. Some theorize that though we really don't hear their output, those frequencies are in fact sensed by the body in other ways - picked up and amplified by the skeletal structure, for example. Though received in unorthodox ways, it is theorized that the brain readily processes these ultrasonic frequencies. Tonian Labs has a simpler explanation, however.

Tonian Labs' Tony Minasian is of the opinion that there's nothing mystical or supernatural about super tweeters. He thinks that it's just a matter of most tweeters being ill equipped to successfully carry out their assignment. According to Minasian, most tweeters lack the dispersion at the top of their range as well as the power handling capacity and the necessary articulation. Super tweeter? Maybe just capable tweeter. Proficient and competent.

My interest in the Tonian super tweeters was piqued following my part in the review of the muRata ES103A super tweeter. At $2,495, the muRata is superbly finished but expensive. The Tonian TL-R1 promised similar performance at a significantly lower price.

The Tonian Labs TL-R1 is essentially half of the TL-R2 that Michael Lavorgna reviewed in May. Where the R2 used a 5" pure ribbon tweeter, the R1 uses a 2.5-inch ribbon of the same design. However, the smaller R1 has a high frequency extension of 40kHz as opposed to the larger R2's limit of 35kHz. The larger R2 offers more low-end response to 1,400Hz while the R1's limit is 1,800Hz. The R1 has a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 95dB. Power handling is 17 watts nominal and 40 watts maximum. The TL-R1 is 8 inches deep by 6.5 inches high by 4.75 inches wide.

For the purpose of this review, I was sent two different versions of the TL-R1. The first version was as described above, with a lower limit of 15 kHz. I was also sent a series of resistors to attenuate the TL-R1's output to mate with speakers of lesser sensitivity than its own rating. The first speaker I used was the ACI Sapphire XL, a monitor that had responded so positively to the muRata. However, I couldn't duplicate those results with the Tonian. The reason for why was simple; too much output and too much overlap with the Sapphires' own tweeters.

When I'd lifted the muRata and place it to my ear during operation, there was precious little to hear. I felt its output more than I heard it. The Tonian was a different story. It has much more audible output. That's not always a bad thing. As Michael Lavorgna discovered when he wrote up the muRata and the Tonian TL-R2, the Tonian was a better fit with his tweeter-less Cain & Cain Abbys. In other words, the Tonian TL-R2 is what I'd term an extended-range tweeter. But for use with a speaker with a tweeter, even a 15kHz hand-over (at unspecified slope) had too much
output. It resulted in far too much treble energy - too much sizzle. Even when I dropped the output of the TL-R1 and reduced the level significantly below the level of the 96dB Hørning Perikles, it still had too much output and too adverse an effect on the treble performance. There was no blending with either of my speakers.

So back to Tonian these tweeters went. What came back to me was an identical looking pair of TL-R1s, this time with a high-pass filter at 19kHz. I again placed the TL-R1s atop the Sapphire XLs, hooked 'em up and hit play. This time I was onto something. Yeah, there was still a little too much treble sizzle but not like before. And as well it should. I had just strapped a 95dB super tweeter to the back of an 88dB speaker. It should have been a lot worse than it was.

So I reached for one of the resistors Tonian had sent along. There are three binding posts on the rear of the TL-R1: a pair (positive and negative) at the bottom of the tweeter and another positive one toward the top. The bottom red binding post is connected to nothing. It's the upper red post that's connected to the tweeter. When using the resistor to attenuate the Tonian's tweeter, you connect the amplifier to the bottom dummy post and then use the resister to bridge across to the upper post, thereby completing the connection. It's a pretty slick scheme that makes swapping experimental resistors easy. Of course if you want to use the TL-R1 full strength, just ignore the bottom post and connect directly to the upper one.

After some experimentation, I settled on a 2.5-ohm resistor which, according to Tonian Labs, dropped the output of the TL-R1 about 3dB below the Sapphire XLs' sensitivity. I knew I hit pay dirt when suddenly there was a deepening of tonal colors, an increase in focus. The entire picture just seemed to gel. Never mind my favored values. The real point is that the user can experiment and find the value that works best with his speakers in his room. I wouldn't rely on the numbers game. I'd use my ears.

One record I've been using a lot for informal evaluation is Sports from Huey Lewis And The News [Crysalis FV41412]. Hardly an audiophile recording, it nevertheless is a good recording for throwing into relief what's going on with the system. The recording's treble is on the forward side and there's almost too much of it. So it's a great recording for sizing up unintended consequences of super tweeters. There's not a whole lot of deep bass but there's more than a fair amount of mid bass, which I find to be reactive to a variety of factors. The midrange is good enough for a pop record but it also leans just a touch to the harsh and grainy side of perfection. If a component is euphonic, things can smooth out in an attractive way, but I know that I'm not hearing straight up-and-down neutrality. Ditto if things get harsher or if grain is more pronounced. There's also a fair amount of center stage action and it's a good barometer of soundstaging focus and specificity. I used this record a lot with the Tonian TL-R1.

Once I felt I had the TL-R1s dialed in, I found that they had a significant impact on my enjoyment of Huey and the gang. But more importantly, like a canary in the coalmine Huey let me know when things were right. Excess record noise is a giveaway that something's wrong with the treble. Once I'd properly matched the gain of the TL-R1 to the speaker, not only was treble balance not affected, neither was record noise exacerbated. At the same time, the entire tonal balance took on a deepening of colors. Too much treble energy and the midrange sounds a little bleached - a little washed out and thin. My final settings resulted in tonal colors and contrast deeper and richer than without the add-on tweeter in place. The midrange also became smoother and less grainy. It wasn't a huge change but one that was just appreciable. It wasn't akin to moving from a solid-state amp to an EL34 tube amp but analogous to swapping out Chinese EL34s for some NOS Mullards. The basic character was unchanged, just made better.

Bass on "Honky Tonk Blues" took on a noticeable change as well. It took on a texture that it didn't have prior to the TL-R1s. It didn't become more powerful but richer, more intense and detailed, as though it was more closely miked to capture more of the instruments harmonic richness and detail. Speaking of harmonic detail, the snare drums in "Bad Is Bad" suddenly had more body and presence. Previously the snap and hiss of the snare chains was the dominant characteristic. Now I was reminded that on top of those chains is a real drum - two skins with real resonant action between them.

For reasons that I'm not exactly sure about, the TL-R1 didn't affect my two different speakers' bass in the same way. Though both speakers have similar bass extension, the ACI Sapphire XL -- a speaker that does very well on its own -- consistently seems to benefit more from a super tweeter. It's not a matter of increased power. That would seem to be impossible. But there are obvious strides in the areas of micro-dynamics and speed. As I mentioned above, bass detail can take on uncanny increases in both detail and realism and timing and pace are both made better. The TL-R1 did very nearly as well as the muRata ES 103A did with the Sapphire XLs. For some reason, it didn't do quite as well with the Hørning Perikles, which is not to say that it didn't have any effect whatsoever - it did. But the Perikles are already dynamic and fleet-footed and just didn't seem to respond to the TL-R1 by gaining in speed or microdynamic finesse. However, where they did respond was in the area of focus and color, an area where the Lowther midrange in the Perikles can always use some additional help. A little more body is a good thing here. Once again, the difference wasn't enough that one configuration sounded right and the other wrong, just different and similar to what one can expect from changing tubes. Subtle but important.

Female vocals responded very well via the TL-R1 no matter the speakers in use. Diana Krall's vocals from Live In Paris [4400651092] responded with particular symbiosis. The added smoothness and body on Krall's voice along with an appreciated air of presence went just that much farther toward making her sound real. The effect on Aimee Mann's Mobile Fidelity pressing of Lost In Space [MFSL 1-278] was similar but went even further. As a matter of fact, vinyl in general responds in more significant ways to the effects of a super tweeter than CDs. However, the TL-R1 does react better to CDs than the muRata ES 103A did whose effects seem to concentrate well beyond the 21kHz brickwall filter of Redbook CDs. In Aimee Mann's case, there was a certain softening of her voice that came along with a deepening of not merely color but also added depth to her voice. The TL-R1 added a sense of palpable presence to her just as it did for Diana Krall.

The live performance that worked so well with the muRata was Belafonte At Carnegie Hall [74321894852]. I had to give it another try - I remembered being so let down by this recording when I removed the muRata from the system. The TL-R1 didn't have quite the dramatic effect this time. I remember a real feeling of claustrophobia upon the removal of the muRata. This didn't come with the Tonian. That's not to say the TL-R1 wasn't missed - things didn't sound quite as real without it.

In terms of treble performance, once I'd picked the appropriate amount of attenuation via the available resistors, the TL-R1 had more of an impact on treble detail and HF presence than did the muRata. That seemed almost invisible through the audible treble. This may be good news or bad. If your speakers could use a little sparkle and detail through the treble, the Tonian will be the better choice of the two. Cymbals took on a touch more life, shimmer and detail. Still, I can't emphasize enough that if you try the Tonians and notice excess energy, rein it in a little. You don't have to hear the tweeter to realize its benefits. If it's not for the most part invisible, something's wrong. Once balanced, chimes and triangles sound crystal clear -- airy and detailed without sounding brittle or piercing -- and that's where I think you need to go.

There seem to be three different customers for super tweeters. The first wants to experience a little more treble energy from his regular speakers. The second owns a pair of speakers that doesn't use a tweeter at all. The third enjoys the treble performance of his speakers as is but wants to experience the "out-of-band" magic of a super tweeter without disturbing the treble balance he's already struck. For this last fella, my highest recommendation remains with the muRata ES 103A. That thing is simply invisible through the treble but works its magic far lower. Of course it's also two-and-a-half times as expensive as the Tonian. If that's too rich for your blood, I can recommend the Tonian along with the investment in a few resistors and some experimentation. At 34% of the muRata's sticker, you can come awfully close with the Tonian.

If your speakers can use a little help through the treble, then the Tonian TL-R1s with its 19kHz high-pass filter should be your ticket, probably more so than the muRata. It'll be an even easier fit than what I experienced because you'll be looking for a little overlap.

If you use tweeter-less speakers, then as Michael Lavorgna found in his review of the TL-R2 tweeter (and still stands by today), the TL-R1 tweeter should meet your needs nicely. Where tweeters are concerned, the TL-R1 when used full-range starting at 15kHz is really an excellent ribbon and probably competitive with nearly anything out there. If your speakers' treble response rolls off below that, perhaps Tonian's bigger TL-R2 will be your ticket. Either way, when it comes to affordable ribbon super tweeters, Tonian Labs has got you covered.
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