Review: Tonian Acoustics TL-D1 Speaker

Category: Speakers

I’d like to share my impressions of the Tonian Acoustic TL-D1 speaker. I thought a review might be helpful to those seeking an exceptional speaker that offers excellent value in part because Tonian Labs is probably better known as the U.S. distributor of Supra cables and Phy-Hp drivers and less known for their speakers, and there are not many reviews published. There are dozens of speaker brands, most much more well known than Tonian Acoustics. So why consider these? This review was written for those of you that answer “No” to the following question. Do your speakers wholly engage you during your listening experience and leave you in wonderment?

Some background. I began my search in Summer 2005. After researching several designs—including DIY MLTL, wideband, and horn-loaded—and after auditioning quite a few speakers, I first heard the TL-D1s in November 2005. I was astonished. However, given that speakers define one’s listening experience and since I’m not one to rotate equipment through the house, I did more research and auditioning before ultimately purchasing them a year later. When I listened to them a year later, I was just as impressed relative to the first audition. I’ve owned them for about 5 months.

I’ve gone into some detail about the physical design of the speaker at the bottom of the review so all I’ll say now is: Floorstander. Wideband driver + supertweeter. 95 db efficiency. How does it sound? Incredibly dynamic. The dynamic contrast between strong, impactful notes and softer cues is special. The attack of a guitar strum juxtaposed against soft cymbals that shimmer slowly into emptiness before the next strum such as on Jack Johnson’s On and On album is what I’m trying to describe. To my ears, there is just a lot of energy in the musical notes and the transient attack and decay of notes is lifelike—whether it be piano, guitar, or percussion. In my own personal evolution in this hobby, I’ve come to the viewpoint that a primary consideration in appreciating whether a speaker is able to recreate the original musical event is whether it is able to approach the dynamic contrast that is inherent in live music. If it cannot, the best that be said about an otherwise impressive speaker that scores high on other attributes such as tonal balance, resolution, imaging, etc. would be something along the lines…“hmm, it has a pleasant way about it.”

I’ve grown fond of Hawaiian music. One album I really like is Facing Future by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. There’s a track called Henehene Kou ‘Aka on which the softer notes and inner detail of the ukulele sharply contrast against the attack of the bass notes and drum and bongo rhythm. The dynamic contrast is really quite striking as reproduced through the TL-D1s, something my prior Audio Physic speakers were just not able to convey with realism.

What does a drum sound like? Of course, there’s the basic character and tone. The initial thwack, followed by an expanding envelope of the note and harmonics, and the ensuing decay which itself depends on whether the venue has a live or dead sound. With the TL-D1, because of its high resolution of low level cues, I can detect whether the venue is a large hall or intimate club, as well as how live or dead sounding the acoustics are. I’m a Patricia Barber fan. I have most of her albums. She recorded in a variety of venues, and it is satisfying to be able to pick this up through the TL-D1s. I really don’t know much about how drums are made. While listening to music with exceptional percussion, the first time I caught myself meditating on a mental image of the drum, trying to zoom in on its size, picturing the drum skin wrapped around the shell, and ultimately the stick’s thwack on the skin and the ensuing vibration was while listening to these speakers. Meditative experience brought to you by: title track on album City of Ideas by virtuoso flamenco guitarist, Vicente Amigo. To me, this is a mark of a speaker that is wholly engaging.

The midrange is authentic, with truth-in-timbre, so I’ll move on. Another facet in which the TL-D1 shines is its treble. Got ribbon? How many of us have heard attempt after failed attempt to integrate a ribbon tweeter with a conventional driver? I envision a room full of hands in the air. There are all sorts of technical traps to fall into that many of you understand better than I do. Tony Minasian—proprietor and designer of Tonian Acoustics—has somehow managed to figure out a way to seamlessly integrate a ribbon supertweeter of his own design with Fostex and Phy-Hp drivers. With integration seamless and a non-issue, there is the question of the quality of the high frequency. You really have to hear it to believe it, in order to recognize what you may be missing. The defining moment for me was listening to Jan Garbarek’s saxophone on any number of tracks on Madar, a beautiful yet haunting album. The highs sail upward without limit with incredible air around the notes. I’ve heard this album with other speakers including my prior Audio Physics and the highs quite simply were boxed in as if they hit a barrier. Like many things in audio, I just didn’t know how this album was supposed to sound until I heard it on equipment that could actually reproduce the recording. And, heh, I thought I was quite satisfied with how it did sound before the epiphanal event…sort of like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. The last thing to say about the treble is that it is textured and saturated instead of being one dimensional. This is one of the hallmarks of all Tonian Acoustics speakers regardless of whether you pay under $2,000 or $17,000+ for his signature TL-M1.

Vocals? Eva Cassidy’s singing on Live at Blues Alley is remarkable through these speakers. There’s a liquidity to her voice that is utterly free of grain. My favorite is a gospel track titled Oh, Had I a Golden Thread. This is actually a great audition track because, in addition to vocals, there’s the percussion brushwork and cymbals that lay down a mesmerizing rhythm in a very lively sounding venue in which the percussion reverberates but then decays into silence. A speaker capable of resolving low level information, with good separation of instruments and vocals, make this song really enjoyable. The wideband design renders vocals and instrumental notes as coherent as one would expect from a wideband design without crossovers in the presence region.

The last thing I’ll add about how they sound, is that piano sounds fantastic. Anyone a fan of Bebo Valdes? The album Lagrimas Negras is very well recorded with “first row” piano throughout. The dynamic shading and tonal purity of the notes is special.

Ok, so obviously I love this speaker. But what are the compromises? Well, the bass extends down to 42Hz. I think I get some room gain due to my room layout. To my ears, the extension and quality of bass is very good. But, if you lust for organ music that extends much below this low frequency cutoff, a wideband design is probably not your cup of tea…unless you pay a lot more for one of the big Phy or Supravox drivers. Also, there are speakers that play much louder. I mainly listen at medium to med-loud levels, but some folks on the Hi-Eff forum with big 4-way horn rigs like music really loud! So there are compromises, and so for each of us, the best design depends on our priorities. The last thing to note that might be interesting to some is how it stacks up against his TL-M1 at 10X the price. I’ve heard this speaker on several occasions for extended listening. It’s the best speaker I’ve yet to hear. The big Phy driver is in one word, incredible. The tone is amazing. The separation of notes is remarkable. It is very resolving. It is coherent. Tony has some remarkable recordings and it is as close to live that I have heard. I’m guessing that one Phy driver cost as much as a pair of TL-D1s. The difference in sound is not as remarkable as the price differential. His affordable line has the same sonic signature and attributes: dynamic contrast, tonal purity, balance, coherence and high resolution. But for those with the dough and inclination, don’t miss this audition.

Enough (probably too much) about my subjective impressions, what of the physical description? The design employs an 8” Fostex wideband driver augmented by a Tonian Acoustics’ ribbon supertweeter enclosed in what Tony calls a semi-open baffle cabinet. Efficiency is 95dB, making it very versatile with a wide range of amp designs. I use 8 watt 300B SET. I’ve heard them with 200 watt mosfet monoblocks. Both sound great. The cabinet itself is constructed of Baltic birch plywood with a shellac finish. The plywood is much thinner than the more common ¾” thickness. The cabinet design is such that resonance is controlled instead of the more traditional approach of attempting to abate it altogether. The cabinet stands 34.5” high with spikes, 10” wide and 17” deep. The cabinet is light. The rear is ported and multiple ply rectangular inserts are furnished so that one can adjust the size of the port to optimize bass given one’s room size and rear-wall placement issues. Adjustable spikes are furnished. No speaker grill. Form follows function. The aesthetics are simple, somewhat industrial in appearance. The shellac finished birch ply appears very similar to a shellac finished guitar. A vibrant yellow-orange hue. Similar to Totem, side mounted spikes are used. The exposed whizzer of the Fostex driver gives it a distinct appearance.

Associated gear
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Great review on a great speaker. I heard the very same ones about 1 1/2 yrs ago at a Vacumm Tube Valley show (I believe in Pasadena) and of all the speakers there, the Tonians were simply the best. The guy had a personal demo of some drum work that had people coming in from out in the halls to see what the hell was going on. After that, he had a recording of some lute playing that was eerie as all get out: it seemed so real. I had just bought some speakers for just a little less and was kicking myself all the way home.
Simply a no brainer for the price.