If you’re an avid music listener than you probably have tons of great music caged up inside your computer, smart phone or tablet. And if you care at all about sound quality, the last thing you want to do is play your music through a lousy pair of speakers. Serene Audio is a relatively young Canadian speaker maker that would like to unleash your favourite artists through its range of high-quality compact powered speakers.
Some music listeners care strictly about a speaker’s sound quality and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I’m not one of them. I agree that performance is paramount but I value aesthetic appeal nearly as much. To truly enjoy my audio gear, I prefer for it to look as good as it sounds. When Serene Audio asked us to review a pair of their speakers, I took a quick look at the company’s website and something became immediately apparent: Serene Audio’s top priority is quality of sound but the company also places a big emphasis on creative design. And so, without hesitation we asked them to send us a sample pair for review.
Serene Audio offers three speaker models designed and manufactured in Canada. Its product line-up consists of the Pebble, the Talisman and the Paisley models – each offering a strikingly beautiful and distinctive look. All three models are rear-ported and available in an active (powered) version for $495 or passive (non-powered) version for $395. The active models are designed for use with computers, smart phones, tablets and Apple’s Airport, if you desire wireless playback. The passive models on the other hand are intended for use with TVs and in home theatre environments. Besides their unique enclosure designs, these speakers use materials you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a typical speaker – the cabinets are constructed out of bamboo and partially wrapped in high-grade leather. You get a choice of caramel or natural bamboo, and black or white leather. My active Talisman review pair, measuring 8” high x 5” wide x 6” deep, came in a natural bamboo and white leather configuration and looked decidedly beautiful on my computer desk.
A nice, attractive enclosure is of course only a part of the equation here. If you’re observant, you’ll notice from the picture that these speakers utilize a single, 3 inch full-range, long-throw drive unit that’s lightweight and quick. A single, compact driver like this isn’t capable of reaching the same frequency extremes as a driver/tweeter combo but it does come with its own major advantage – it does not require a crossover network. Serene Audio uses only a minimalistic baffle step compensation filter in its design. The absence of a crossover translates into a seamless, less distorted sound across its frequency range capability, rated from 70Hz to 20kHz (+/-3 dB). Power for the Talisman comes courtesy of a 2 x 20 watt digital amplifier with a dedicated DSP chip, housed inside the right channel speaker. In addition to the amplifier, the rear panel of this speaker offers a volume knob (which also serves the on/off function), a subwoofer output, output to the left speaker, a mini-jack input, a headphone output and a power jack. The headphone output utilizes an internal class-AB amplifier. If you listen to the Talisman while sitting at a computer desk, as I did for most of this review, you will of course get the benefit of near-field listening. With your ears this close to the speakers the sound will reach your ears before it bounces off any walls, resulting in a cleaner audio presentation without the negative effects of a room’s acoustics – which can be a great advantage.
Unpacking the Talisman was nothing short of a pleasure. These speakers were not only very well packed, the manufacturer cleverly uses the bamboo left over from cutting of the speaker panels inside the box. Right off the bat, potential buyers should feel a pride of ownership. Unlike other speaker manufacturers, Serene Audio says that its speakers require only a few hours to break-in properly. The Talisman can be connected directly to a computer’s soundcard using a 3.5 mm mini-jack cable, but if you really want to hear the full quality that these speakers are capable of, you’ll definitely want to connect them to a decent external digital to analog converter (DAC). I setup my review pair with the ADL GT40 USB DAC, capable of 24-bit/96KHz playback and listened to a wide array of music, ranging from classical to live performances to rock. This DAC not only hugely improves the playback quality from the computer, it also offered the convenience of a front-mounted volume dial, so I didn’t have to reach for the volume dial on the back of the right speaker.
I launched my music listening session with a number of familiar recordings that I’ve been listening to lately including Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill Acoustic”, Florence + the Machine’s “MTV Unplugged”, Air French Band’s “Moon Safari”, Led Zeppelin’s “Mothership” and various Best Audiophile Voices albums. The Talisman quickly had my head bopping and my body doing a chair-dance, thanks to their sweet sounding and engaging midrange. Voices and instruments sounded natural, the tonal accuracy was excellent and my ears could not detect any colouration or distortion. The Talisman produced a slightly laid-back perspective, with voices and instruments emanating from just behind the speakers. I was delighted to hear that these speakers were also capable of laying out a respectable soundstage that offered great imaging. When listening to the “Jagged Little Pill Acoustic” and “MTV Unplugged” albums, the instruments and voices were placed accurately within a three dimensional space, making these albums a joy to listen to. I found that both the perspective and the soundstage deepened even further as I leaned back in my chair.
As I was writing this review, Serene Audio realized that my Talisman review pair does not have the latest version of the firmware installed, which offers a better overall tonal balance. This agreed with my review notes, as I found that my initial review pair did not extend particularly high in the treble region and didn’t offer the same richness and level of detail as I’ve come to expect from familiar recordings. I also found that the initial pair lacked a little in the lower frequencies. Serene Audio expedited another pair of the Talisman speakers to me with the latest firmware version installed and I’m glad to report that the new firmware fully addressed the tonal balance. The replacement pair offered a wonderfully clean high frequency extension, which translated into a higher extraction of details, with a slightly increased amount of air between voices and instruments. Many small speakers produce a rather tizzy, unnatural sounding top-end that can quickly become tiring but I’m glad to say that I didn’t hear any of that with these speakers. Low level, high level and extended listening sessions all brought pleasure to my ears, without ever fatiguing me. The updated Talisman pair also offered a noticeable improvement in the mid-bass and lower frequencies. The bass notes sounded cleaner, fuller and tighter, offering a great foundation for most tracks that I listened to. Serene Audio of course realizes the limitation of compact enclosures and hence provides a subwoofer output for those who desire to extend the bottom-end response even further.
While spinning up Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem from the “Best Audiophile Voices Volume 6”, the Talisman once again delivered a clean, musical midrange with great coherency and offered a nice sense of presence of the recording space. Pidgeon’s voice echoed realistically, exposing the size of the space, with a good amount of air around the vocals and the instruments. The violins played smoothly with a gentle treble that rolled off pleasantly at the top.
Switching grooves, I listened to some rock selections including City and Colour’s “Little Hell”, Social Distortion’s “Greatest Hits” and Johnny Cash’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around”. All of tracks I listened to from these albums again demonstrated the Talisman’s remarkable tonal accuracy. They conveyed the energy of harder rock tracks well and were able to play quite loud. I also appreciated their large sweet spot and ability to maintain imaging when I moved off to the sides.
There aren’t many competitors in the $500 powered speaker space but there is one that should be mentioned – the Audioengine 5+, especially since I own its original brother, the Audioengine 5 which normally sits on my computer desk. The biggest advantage this speaker offers is its tight, deep bass extension. But it does come at a cost of desk space as these speakers have a far larger footprint and overall dimensions than the Talisman. Also, the Audioengine 5+’s conventional design can’t compete at all with the styling of the Serene Audio speakers.
The Serene Audio Talisman is a powered speaker that brought me lots of listening pleasure during the time it spent on my computer desk. It performed very well with a mix of musical genres including acoustic, vocal, live, rock and jazz. The only area in which the Talisman lacked was with highly dynamic and bass heavy music. If you’re looking to purchase a compact speaker to seriously enhance the music from your computer, smart phone or tablet, this is certainly one speaker you should listen to. The fluidity and accuracy of its mid-range can easily be compared to larger, more expensive speakers. And if you desire more bass energy, you could always supplement them with a little subwoofer. Serene Audio offers a 30 day in-home trial, so there’s absolutely no risk if you choose to purchase them online.
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Serene Audio Talisman Active Speakers
Price: $495 CAD/pair
Take your pick – Serene Audio offers the same sonic characteristics from three distinct models: the Talisman (pictured at the top of this review), as well as the Pebble and the Paisley (pictured below).