MAGAZINE: SOUNDSTAGE, USA
EDITOR: SRAJAN EBAEN
First encounterThe Avantgarde Duos are far and away the most fascinating and formidable speakers I've yet encountered. Judging by previous impressions -- at trade events, dealer friends and now in my home -- they also belong to a small group of speakers whose in-room performance, from mediocre to world-class, can vary to the extreme. As tweak maestro Lloyd Walker would say, the devil's in the details.
After initial assembly, Avantgarde-USA's sales manager Casey McKee casually parked the Duos in the same spot my resident Triangle Ventis xs had just vacated. He programmed a New Age ocean-surf CD for endless repeat (much more pleasing than annoying frequency sweeps or pink noise) and excused himself for serious set-up duty until the next morning.
Once McKee had left, I hastily ejected the virtual Fiji hologram from my audio command deck - in went a few of my customary demo tracks instead. If first impressions matter, the Avantgarde Duos remained blissfully unaware of this self-conscious concern. They sounded mediocre and were handily bested by my $4,000 Triangles. Tonal balance was remiss, soundstaging confused and coherence sorely lacking. I restored the peaceful oceanic ambiance of crashing waves, turned off the light and scratched my head wondering.
The morning afterArmed with tape measure and torpedo level, the first order of business was aligning the path lengths of the speakers to within a ¼-inch with my listening seat while doing the same with respect to placement distance from the side- and front walls. McKee then opted for his favored toe-in which turned out to be spot-on: the Duo's two outer upright supports were offset toward the listener's eye such that the tweeter module's outer rear mounting bolt barely touched the inside of the closer pole. This creates approximately eight degrees of toe-in. (see photo). Tweeter alignment was readily confirmed when the outer rear fastener aligned behind the front fastener and verified horizontal on-axis positioning.
Since the Duo's sealed bass module is active, four further adjustments remained – subsonic filter setting (with three options of 20, 25 and 30Hz), relative phase, crossover frequency, and gain. It is with these variables that very subtle actions can spell the difference between impressive HiFi and open-your-zipper revelation. My space has a bass hump in the 35Hz band so the 30Hz subsonic filter setting proved curative to room boom. Reversing polarity on the woofers spelled superior integration. The low-pass setting was next. Its center frequency is 140Hz, with 90Hz in the 9 o'clock and 190Hz in the 3 o'clock position. Additional on-the-hour markers progress by approximately 17Hz each. The knob can be offset in-between for roughly 5Hz steps.
The attenuator demarcations are equally subtle. Differences of 1dB in bass output relative to the horns can significantly affect tonal balance. Having a friend calibrate the controls while you're in the hot seat is mandatory for best results. McKee became my experienced audio slave for an hour. Since the mid-horn's high-pass at 170Hz is rather elevated in frequency, an unadorned vocal track helped determine the woofers' appropriate low-pass setting.
After exploring minute incremental changes – specific settings will obviously vary from room to room – and playing his own music, Casey McKee pronounced his job completed. He left town feeling comfortable that within my system context (smaller room than his own; equivalent amplification in the Art Audio PX-25 and Audiopax 3880s; less cutting-edge source componentry than his personal dcs gear) the Duos performed to their full potential. The next afternoonSettling down afterwards with my lonesome, everything sounded positively mind-bending except for a slight discontinuity of character between bass and midrange. This wasn't a function of speed but textural striations that carved leading edges in the bass too sharply pronounced. It didn't blend with the effortless nonchalance of the horn-covered spectrum. A quick phone call to Avantgarde-USA's proprietor complained about this phenomenon "as bass most audiophiles would kill for". I explained that to my ears, live acoustic bass always features slightly fuzzy contours and a certain warmth, not this dry, razor-edged and slammin' demeanor. Jim Smith understood and laughed. He appreciated my sentiments about over-damped, realer-than-real HiFi bass. He suggested final adjustments to the gain setting. Amazingly, backing the subwoofer gain off by just a few clicks caused this textural discontinuity to recede like a relief melting down into its surroundings. If you prefer ultimate attack and toe curling slam instead, the Duos willingly oblige.
Room logisticsApparently because of their tightly focused dispersion (not to be confused with the hyper-beamy head-in-a-vise syndrome) the toed-in Avantgardes performed exceptionally well within close boundaries. The outer lips of the midrange horns ended up within 17.75 inches of the sides and 56.5 inches of the rear, placing the far corners of the subwoofer module 27.25 inches into the room. At 13' W x 19' D x 10' H (and inspected by McKee prior to picking the Duos as the suitable Avantgarde model) my space proved perfectly adequate – rather shocking when you consider the speakers' size. However, their vertical driver offset mandates a minimum distance of about 11 to 12 feet so that the sound converging at the listener's ears becomes a unified wave front rather than individual events. The Duos distinctly are not nearfield speakers.
Incontestable magic A neighbor raised on Quads summarized his initial impressions best: "These speakers sound so huge and exciting – they force you to pay attention." Indeed. This isn't subdued or polite bonsai audio (though I'm sure that less-than- careful set-up could downplay some of this very tangible involvement). But why complain when thoroughbreds race like streaks of lightning?
My most immediate reaction was one of utter ease and profound naturalness. This not only annihilated any concerns over cupped-hand colorations but also convinced me that distortion levels were astonishingly low - the usual telltale signs of artifice (texture and grit) were keenly lacking. Surely the physical separation of the driver modules eliminated common cabinet fuzz and resonance intermodulation. Also, horn loading obviously avoids any kind of stress since the transducers are barely moving.
The next surprise belied the Duos' obvious size – they remained utterly invisible as apparent sound sources. From a psychological perspective, this was perplexing. My eyes clearly validated what the ears refused to acknowledge – that this wall of sound had to emanate from somewhere, right there. Not!
Another revelation occurred with micro-dynamics. On familiar recordings, the most minuscule of fluctuations in a singer's emphatic nuance, in a bow's pressure or a woodwind's air speed and reed grip were rendered with previously unresolved movement. Beside their marvelous effortlessness, this contributed greatly to the Duos' much-enhanced sense of live listening. The performers weren't merely playing notes. They were communicating intent, purpose and emotions. They were using their temporal sonic substance like plastic, shaping and molding it in the moment to convey subtlety and personality.
Dynamic peaks – depending on recordings – could be downright scary. Unless you listen to classical music or audiophile pressings though, this spooky capability is probably less of a real-world asset than the phenomenal agility and scope of microdynamics. Still, startlingly explosive transients and powerful leading edges, especially with percussive instruments (including piano) and strings, were obvious on all manners of albums.
By virtue of this immediacy coupled to their physical height, the Duos' musical projection is most assuredly tall and very much present. It's easy to forget (and get used to) how most systems scale down the musical event for pocket-sized casual consumption. Because it's been tamed and dynamically homogenized, such playback no longer demands our undivided attention. If (like my Quad-oriented neighbor) you prefer nibbling on your aural buffet, the Avantgardes will remind you of a newborn baby: you'll be promptly awoken whenever you drift off. Don't mistake this intensity for in-your-face sonic attacks. Via my beloved SET amps, soundstaging extended far behind the speakers, never upfront. It was completely organic, without edginess or unnatural holographics.
In totoMy three top-favorite sonic attributes of the Duos were: their veil-less directness; the intense wealth of aural colors and hues that resulted from superior resolution, absentee distortion and their blazing responsiveness to the tiniest of dynamic pressure changes; and being the beneficiary of tightly controlled low-20s bass for those trance and ambient albums whose soundscapes are built upon subterranean cues.
ConsiderationsAny negatives? One side effect of 100+dB speaker sensitivity is potential system noise. While I'm aware of the deleterious effects of dimmer-controlled lights, I never suffered them in my present room. With the Avantgardes, dimmer buzz (despite all components being plugged into a powerline conditioner) was audible even when the dimmer pot was opened all the way. I also had minor power supply grunge from my stock Art Audio PX-25. The manufacturer routinely modifies his amps for Avantgardes in which case (according to their principals who use them) they are deadly quiet. My stock unit was respectably but not perfectly noise-free. The powerful Bel Canto eVo 200.4, even in non-bridged mode, required gain attenuation via in-line load resistors (4-ohm 50 watts) to eliminate audible noise. Only the Audiopax 3880s behaved flawlessly in that persnickety respect. Clearly, the Avantgardes demand superior preceding ancillaries as their awesome efficiency can mercilessly expose upstream blemishes. Incidentally, the low-power Volksamp Aleph 3 and 47 Labs GainCard are solid-staters rumored to be highly copacetic. Still, superior single-ended valves really seem the way to go.
Exceptional performance demands exceptional expectationsThe Avantgarde Duos remind me of something bespoke and hand-tailored. If you've never been fitted for a boot or customized mountain bike, you'd happily buy right off the rack. The Duos' pronounced sensitivity to placement and subwoofer adjustments does indeed offer a path straight into the heartland of bespoke dream gear. The problem lies in unwittingly stopping shy of perfection - you will get shortchanged if you expect instant turnkey bliss. This inherent variability might explain why I've observed Avantgarde speakers at various dealers' perform occasionally less than impressively. The drastic before-and-after changes due to Casey McKee's tireless guidance suggested that a personal audition with one of Avantgarde's principals, in Atlanta or Austin, could be the front-row ticket for hearing their speakers utterly unleashed.
As for me, I am already convinced here-now. If you want the music to grab you by the short'n'curlies, to commune with you most intimately, these Avantgardes might be your personal hotline to the aural deities. They're for folks who want personal visitations, goose bumps, butterflies in the belly and the occasional heart-stopping scare. In short, exactly my kind of breathless dream audio device! The Duos get my vote for personal lust object of the year.