Talk Electronics Cyclone 1 Integrated Amp and Thunder 2 CD Player
by Jason Thorpe
Most people would view the Talk Electronics Cyclone 1 integrated amp and Thunder 2 CD player as, well, mainstream (one chassis each, fairly compact), perhaps even as extravagant considering their finish and prices. But Im an audiophile! And mainstream means to me many, many boxes -- preferably gold-plated.
But we shouldnt get too settled in our ways, and its good to have our preconceptions challenged once in a while. Theres something nifty about a good integrated amp. Its a stealth solution to an out-of-control audiophiles dementia. Its refreshing to see a simple product enter my system, replace lots of gadgets and wires, and still provide good sound. And a one-box CD player? Well, isnt that elegant! No digital cables, jitter reducers or external DACs. Most surgical, wouldnt you agree?
Talk, its only talk
Talk Electronics is an English company that started off life as Cable Talk, which, un-strangely enough, made cables. About four years ago the company decided to branch off into electronics, and as a result offers a fairly extensive line of preamps, power amps, integrated amps and CD players. The entire Talk Electronics line seems to use the same chassis, and the various amplifier models are higher and lower powered versions of the same basic design, with more attention paid to power supplies the higher you go in price. This, I assume, keeps costs down while still enabling Talk Electronics to offer a variety of products at varying price points.
The two items under review here, the Cyclone 1 integrated amp, which retails for $1200 USD, and Thunder 2 CD player, which goes for $1700, are pleasant-looking units with brushed-metal finish on their black or silver aluminum faceplates. They don't exactly weigh a ton, and this can set off audiophile alarm bells. But then again, there really isn't much required that's heavy other than a large transformer and perhaps a few big, juicy caps.
The Cyclone 1 is rated at 60Wpc, and is a two-transistor-per-channel job. The remote-controlled motorized volume control is most welcome, and this is my first exposure to such a luxury. Its going to be difficult to go back to the clunky knob on my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp. There are plenty of inputs available on the Cyclone 1, and you can select them via the remote. Speaking of which, the only ergonomic anomaly that I could find with the functionality of the Cyclone 1's remote is that the right button lowers the volume and the left raises it. Every button on both units has a quality feel to it and the relays that are actuated via the remote -- source switching and mute for example --- make chunky sounds as they engage. Theres no balance control on the integrated amp, and thats good riddance in the favor of sonic purity as far as Im concerned. One external touch that really appeals to me is the inclusion of a blue power LED. Blue LEDs and displays are just sooo cool.
The binding posts on the Cyclone 2 integrated amp are adequate. Although Im not overly keen on plastic nuts, at least the posts themselves are narrow enough for most spades. However, I feel that the RCA jacks are too close together on the back panel of both the integrated amp and CD player. Thick, WBT-type barrels will end up touching each other, as they did with my Acoustic Zen cables. Unless, like me, you were toilet-trained too early, this probably wont bother you.
The Thunder 2 CD player shares the same chassis look and design as the Cyclone 2 integrated amp, and as such, the two make a nice pair, what with the swoosh going down the front panel. And for those of you wondering, yes there are Thunder 3 and Thunder 4 CD players that differ from the Thunder 2 mostly in terms of their power supplies. Other than a mongo transformer and Sony transport mechanism, things are a bit sparse inside the Thunder 2, but then again, youre paying for sound quality, not parts count, right? The board is nicely soldered, and the wire inside looks to be of good quality and cleanly routed -- this things manufactured by a cable company, after all. Balanced outputs are a really nice bonus, although the lack of matching balanced inputs on the Cyclone 1 makes me question their usefulness. The ability to turn off the LED display on the CD player is a nice touch.
A few ergonomic nits to pick. The controls on the CD player could be labeled better. Its hard to read the lettering, especially on the black-finished model, and the buttons all look the same. You really need to get your nose right up to the thing in order to figure out how to advance a track. And the flimsy CD tray would be more at home on a mass-market CD player. It should be a little sturdier in my opinion, especially considering the Thunder 2's price.
All in all, the fit and finish of both the Cyclone 1 and Thunder 2 are pretty good and, with the few exceptions mentioned above, about what Id expect for the price.
When I first received the Talk Electronics components, I hooked them up to a pair of Axiom Millennia M80ti speakers. These towers are a claimed 90dB sensitive (measured anechoically), so the Cyclone 1 was probably cruising at about 1 watt. I used AudioQuest Quartz interconnects and the most-excellent Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables.
I also used the Talk components in my big rig, driving Hales Transcendence Five speakers with the source alternating between the Thunder 2 and Musical Fidelity A3CD CD players and my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog combo via a Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. Unfortunately the Cyclone 1 integrated didnt come with a phono section installed, although one is available. In this system, the integrated amp and CD player replaced a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, EAR 509 mono amps and a Rotel RCD975 CD player. The cables that worked best in this configuration were the Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects, which Im becoming more and more fond of, and Kimber Bifocal XL speaker cables alternated with the aforementioned Acoustic Zen Satori.
And finally, just to see how the Talk Electronic components would do in a bedroom setting, I lugged them up three flights of stairs and ran them off a Quad FM3 tuner. I used the integrated amp to power a pair of JBL HLS610 speakers.
A tale of three speakers
My initial expectations of the Cyclone 1 integrated amp were mixed. On the one hand, I was replacing about $8000 of tube gear with $1200 of solid-state. On the other hand, Id heard the same integrated/CD player sound magnificent at the Montreal hi-fi show. Which preconception would wrestle its way to the top?
Driving the Hales speakers in the he-man rig, the little-integrated-amp-that-could did surprisingly well despite its limited 60Wpc output. The highs were clear and grain-free, and the midrange was relatively uncolored. But when I throttled up the nifty remote-controlled volume, it was immediately evident that I was listening to a two-transistor-per-channel amp. The Cyclone 2 clipped gracefully but early. This wasnt surprising, as the Hales speakers are large, inefficient sealed-box designs that require some serious horsepower in order to produce high volume. But when I kept the Talk Electronics integrated amp within its limits, it sounded wonderful and still managed to produce enough volume to satisfy me 90% of the time.
But as you might imagine, large orchestral works and thrash metal were blacklisted from my main system during the Cyclone 1s stay. One of the first tracks that I put on was "Goodbye Sober Day" by Mr. Bungle, from their California album [Ipecac Records 947447-2]. This song, indeed the entire album, is a furious dynamic nightmare, angry with dissonance, which only works at volume levels just short of stun. If youre interested in this album (most people assuredly are not), its a combination of speed metal and nuevo tango, Hawaiian and Zappaesque influences. About halfway through the song, the singer, Mike Patton, explodes into ferocious sound effects that resemble a runaway chainsaw about to explode into a million pieces. Ive heard this to good effect on the Hales speakers as well as on such volume monsters as the Avantgarde horn speakers. The Cyclone 1 integrated, understandably, couldnt keep up, although it tried, it tried.
But further listening showed that bass with the Hales Fives was quite full and tight. "My Loss Is Someone Elses Gain" from Cowboy Junkies Pale Sun, Crescent Moon [RCA 66344-2] contains some rich, almost sloppy electric bass and kick drum. Im used to the bass being a touch generous on this CD, and I found it a bit juicier with the Cyclone 1 than with my reference electronics. I compensated for this by moving the speakers closer to me inch by inch, with forensic determination, until they ended up about six inches further from the front wall. The bass and kick drum on this track had a nice, organic quality to them; they were tight enough not to add additional slop but full enough to accentuate the richness upon which this track depends. The solid underpinning extended up to the lower mids, where there was just an added hint of thickness that turned out to be quite palatable. To tell the truth, I enjoyed this song more via the Cyclone 1 than through my reference gear. Imaging was almost as good as with my tube gear, lacking only the depth and spaciousness that, in my opinion, probably cant be beat by any solid-state equipment.
When I switched to the Axioms, which are very sensitive ported speakers, I was faced with a similar problem: bass, and lots of it. More speaker maneuvering ensued, and I ended up with the Axioms much further into the room than the Hales speakers. Unfortunately, with the Cyclone 1, the soundstage was flat and undefined, with little of the depth that I found so endearing through the Hales speakers. The bass was also overpowering and boomy, which made the treble sound recessed.
Next up in the speaker parade were my lovely little JBL HLS610s. These are cheesy, vinyl-clad, clapboard budget speakers that should sound like true dreck. Once more, it was preconception-shattering time. I paid $180 Canadian for these speakers at a clear-out sale, and Ive used them in my bedroom system for over a year now, powered by a vintage Eico HF81 tube integrated amp. Every time I fire this system up, I give joyous thanks to the hi-fi gods for sending me such a bargain. With a funky 1" horn-loaded dome tweeter and a 6" bass driver, the JBLs are a perfect complement in size and sensitivity, if not in relative cost, to the Cyclone 1.
Now here was a spectacular match! Most weeknights I listen to After Hours on CBC Radio. Here in Toronto its on between 10:00 PM and midnight. Ross Porter, the host, has the richest, smoothest FM voice Ive ever heard. When presented via my Eico amp, his voice can be rather syrupy, with the extra harmonic distortion sounding most soothing and atmospheric late at night. (I once switched over to an HF81 tube tuner, but the excessive sucrose sent me into auditory diabetic shock.) But the added schmaltz can be a bit much during the light of day, and the Cyclone 1 integrated served the music and Ross voice up much more accurately. The mids, via the JBLs, were especially delicious, attaining a richness that rivaled those of the Eico.
The JBLs, in keeping with their heritage, can put out some decent bass. The tightness and accuracy of the JBL/Talk Electronics combo was out of all proportion to the overall cost. The integrated amp controlled the JBLs down low, giving taut, meaty bass that satisfied beyond the levels that Im used to from an inexpensive combination. The crossover region on the JBLs is the only spot where their budget heritage shines through. The crossover is minimalist, but from a cost-constrained point of view rather than a design choice. With lousy solid-state power, the grain in the treble shines through unmercifully. But with the Cyclone 1, the JBLs had as near to seamless midrange/treble integration as Ive heard from them. As is often the case in this sport, price doesnt necessarily equate with quality, and synergy is everything.
What the Thunder said
Im a vinyl diehard, and thats what I prefer to listen to. But in the name of science (and reviewing), I proceeded to give the Thunder 2 a strenuous workout.
First off, the executive summary: The general tonal balance of the Thunder 2 sways to the lean side of things. In the context of a system with the matching Cyclone 1 integrated amp, this makes sense. The slight fullness in the bass and lower midrange of the integrated amp is perfectly offset by the more incisive sound of the CD player. The leanness manifested itself as a rear-hall perspective, with images behind the speakers, which is a trait that I happen to be really keen on. Although some might call it inaccurate, the depth that is portrayed in this manner allows me to relax into the music much more than if the music is thrust upon me in an aggressive manner. Aaron Coplands Appalachian Spring Suite [Mercury 434301-2] is a piece that benefits from this back-of-the-house sound. This remastered recording is already somewhat recessed, and the Thunder 2 CD player accentuated this trait, but not in a euphonically distorted way. Dont get me wrong -- this tendency in the Thunder 2 is very slight. Its just enough to downplay instruments that, while far back in the mix, should remain there rather than be dragged kicking and screaming to the front by the often excessive retrieval of detail that is the hallmark of other CD players.
The Thunder 2s highs are sweet. Nothing could make me happier, as I often find the highs of modestly priced players to be abrasive and tinny. The cymbals on "Shall We Dance" from Cassandra Wilsons Blue Skies [JMT 834419-2] are beautifully recorded, and the Thunder 2 presented them with an almost tubelike shimmer. Im often disappointed by the sound of cymbals, especially the ride, via CD -- cheap digital can render the instrument virtually unlistenable. The Thunder 2 infused the ride and brushed snare -- another problem instrument -- with all the lushness that Ive come to expect from more expensive front-ends.
The Thunder 2's imaging was just a touch diffuse compared to the best out there. Instruments were not quite as firmly anchored in 3D space. The piano and drums from the Cassandra Wilson album were not quite as believably arrayed between and behind the speakers. But hey, theres nothing wrong with that. If you want perfection, its gonna cost you an extra bucket-load of cash. The lack of absolute imaging precision was almost unnoticeable with the Cyclone 1 amp, and, to tell the truth, quite unobtrusive through my reference system.
Down low, the Thunder 2 matched the Cyclone 1 perfectly. Its the anchor of the bass that holds down the fantastic groove on Combustication by Medeski, Martin and Wood [Blue Note 93011], and the Thunder 2 shook its little backside in a most provocative manner. While not as full as some CD players in its price category, the Thunder 2's bass was present was tight and authoritative. This tonal balance should in no way be considered a flaw. Once compensated for by speaker placement, cables and choice of amp, almost any CD players bass signature can be worked into a systems coherent whole -- if, that is, the bass is tight, well structured, and most importantly, linear. Theres no way you can compensate for a loose, out-of-control, or rolled-off bottom end.
But theres more! The Mr. Bungle CD I mentioned earlier is just this side of a total wreck. Its scratched beyond belief, and the CD deck in my car will only play about half of the tracks. My Rotel RCD975 CD player also has troubles with parts of this disc. The Thunder 2, on the other hand, breezed right through the entire thing, tracking flawlessly and sounding great.
The Talk Electronics Cyclone 1 integrated amp and Thunder 2 CD player work very well as a team. The few slight colorations of each unit allow the strong points of other to shine through, while ameliorating the few deficiencies that I managed to find. Taken separately, the rich, full bass and lower midrange of the Cyclone 1 integrated make a nice foundation upon which to build a system. The smaller bookshelf speakers that are likely to be matched up with the Talk Electronics gear are given a juicy richness that other integrateds in the same price range fail to provide. With a clean midrange and treble and good imaging, the Cyclone 1 is a complete package that looks elegant and sounds involving. And the Thunder 2 CD player encourages leaning into the music. By virtue of tight bass, good rhythm and drive and a polite yet complete midrange and top end, the Thunder 2 will blend well with most systems, and especially with the Cyclone 1 integrated amp.
In all, I enjoyed the time I spent with these British units -- even with all the lugging around my house.
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