MAGAZINE: HAUTE FIDELITE, FRANCE
EDITOR: OLIVIER CROUTON
AVANTGARDE TRIO - "the Golden Horn"
In the world of speakers that are currently sold through high-end retailers, the TRIO is an extra-terrestrial rarity. This kind of speaker system is really unique. But take a closer look and you will be surprised at how many supporters this extraordinary system has. Because every time high end freaks try to reach the limits of what is possible - without being limited by the design, by the space required and by the complexity of the system - the spherical horn system TRIO finds its raving supporters. The happy ones, who have had the chance to listen to this horn speaker in a perfectly optimized room, will only come to one conclusion:
This is simply the BEST, in practically all areas!
But in general everybody does not share this opinion about hornspeakers, because in the small world of horns, you will find both poor and also excellent examples. But unfortunately there exists many more faulty designs. And mostly the bad sound of these designs directly correlates with the fanatics, as to how certain manufacturers praise their systems. Thus you shouldn´t be surprised, that a lot of music lovers, who have had such "negative " experiences, have developed prejudices against horns. “Hornspeakers have an unnatural sound, are extremely colored with a non-existent high frequency extension and with a bass that does not get low, but is by far too dominant.” Statistically you are right: "with few exceptions, most of all hornspeakers designs are flaws ".
But in this special single case you are absolutely wrong: because if it works, the hornspeaker is the best you can get!
Just as a reminder: a speaker only works when the frontside of the membrane is acoustically separated from its backside. Else, you will get an acoustical short-circuit. The sound waves will delete each other. The air volume, which is theoretically pushed forwards, will only fill the empty space that occurs at the backside of the membrane. Nothing happens, but a little bit of heat at the voice coil. To prevent an acoustical short-circuit of the driver, there are three possibilities: the flat speaker panel, the closed enclosure and the horn (comment: a horn does much more than just to acoustically decouple the front- and backside of the driver).
The flat speaker panel is very simple and very efficient. But as a major disadvantage, the flat speaker panel needs to be very big to reproduce low bass correctly. That’s why mostly closed enclosures are used. In principle this is nothing else but a flat panel with its side walls folded to a box. This more or less sealed enclosure allows that the front and backside of the driver is acoustically separated.
The horn as well separates the emission of sound between front and back. But at the same time it channels the radiated energy, which is generated by the driver, towards the direction of the listening position. As a first advantage of this kind of system, the sensitivity of the radiation is increased, the same as a spot light reflector which beams the light to one point. For this reason hornsystems have a sensitivity above 100 dB (1 Watt/1m), which is impossible to achieve with all other conventional technologies. From a "musical " point of view, this sensitivity is a big advantage, as you can use small membranes who combine light weight and stiffness. These two features define the quality of a membrane. Secondly when choosing the electronics for the speaker, you can fully concentrate on the quality of the amplifier and not on its power.
At the same time a horn represents the ideal interface between membrane and listening room. The air volume that is moved by a driver in a normal speaker is "irrational ". All the time it will be disturbed, reflected and diverted. At close distance by the mechanics of the driver and by the corners of the speaker enclosure. In the listening room by the furniture or even by the walls. Contrary to this, a driver device that is mounted at the rear side of a horn moves an air volume that is "rational ". In the narrow area at the horn throat the air column has very little elasticity (this allows for the higher radiation of energy and the reduced power requirements). The elasticity is than progressively increased the more the sound wave departs from the membrane till at the end of the horn it softly reaches the room. These "stories " about elasticities might sound a little "esoteric " to you. But elasticities of the air have an outstanding importance for the sensitivity and frequency response of a speaker. And before making up your mind on this theses keep in mind that profound theoretical scientific researches haven given evidence on the outstanding audio-physical advantages of horns in the reproduction of music.
But all these arguments are very likely not sufficient to convince you to spend during one year all your weekends to construct gigantic horns with round shapes and to disfigure your living room with thousands of pounds of material. Oh, you are not enthusiastic? I can fully understand.
And this is exactly when the Avantgarde comes into play. In our opinion, this manufacturer from Germany is the only company who is exercising the commercial production of horns to its very logical end. And here it starts getting interesting. Avantgarde systems are not cheap. But their price has to be seen in relation to the achieved musical quality and in relation to what the competition is offering at this price level. The TRIO is quite big, but its looks are everything but upright-minded. In actual fact the design is very intriguing, even beguiling. And unless your interior design is in the style of Louis XV, these horns of the 21st century integrate easily in all different kinds of interiors. But for its price - which is fortunately a fixed and calculable investment - and subject to having the space available, the TRIO will bring you the full musical excitement of spherical horns. And this without the typical difficulties during installation and setup of such a complex High-End system. You order your Avantgarde, you place it in your living room, you connect it to your amplifier (even 7 watts of a 300B is totally sufficient) like any other conventional speaker, you turn the system on and it works! And this is unique in this industry.
The Avantgarde product line consists of three models: UNO, DUO, and TRIO. The latter is available as well in a "Classico " version that is even more futuristic. All models essentially are using the same concept and technology: the horns cover the essential part of the frequency spectrum and the subwoofer supports the system at its low end. The horns are very special as they have a completely round shape. Theoretically this is ideal. Nevertheless this kind of concept is only rarely found in the DIY scene, where high-end do-it-yourselfers design their own speakers. The reason is very simple: a three-dimensional round horn is very difficult to realize if you can not use industrial manufacturing processes. The Avantgarde horns are made of ABS, a plastic resin which combines the advantages of robustness and esthetics. Before listening to the system we were concerned about the sound of this material - our concerns are now completely eliminated!
The TRIO is a three-way horn system with additional active subwoofers. The DUO and UNO only have 2 horns. In comparison to the various constructions of our high-end do-it-yourselfers, the Avantgarde systems unite a lot of unique design characteristics. Avantgarde never uses compression drivers that are normally applied in classical horn constructions. All drivers are carefully matched to its specific horn. Thus the effective size of the membrane always exactly matches the area at the horn throat. Although the elimination of the compression chamber slightly reduces the sensitivity (which is still more than sufficient!), the frequency response gets much more linear. A driver with paper cone is used for the low-mid horn. The passive crossover filter is at 600 Hz. The combination of acoustical and passive filters allows for a very steep roll off and ensures a pistonlike movement of the membrane practically without any friction. The frequency response from 600 to 4.000 Hz is covered by the midrange horn. The midrange driver - as well as the tweeter - have a metal dome. Due to the elimination of the compression chamber the size of the magnets is relatively big, compared to normal horn systems. All driver assemblies are hidden in metal enclosures. They have the shape of massive round cylinders with cooling rips at their end. This ensures sufficient ventilation of all drivers and electronic components even when driven at extreme power levels (which is very unlikely to happen anyway!). The TRIO can easily handle 200 watts. But I do not even dare to imagine what kind of outrageous volumes can be achieved with only 10 watts. This is because the TRIO has the unbelievable sensitivity of 107 dB! This is to say that it is 50 times more powerful than any normal speaker with a sensitivity of 90 dB is. Logically you require as well 50 times less power to achieve the same volume.
This is not applicable to the subwoofer. The bass units are actively controlled and have their own integrated power amplifier build-in. The two 10 inch drivers are specially manufactured for Avantgarde. Logically the crossover filters are active. This is a significant advantage, specifically when it comes down to speed and tightness of the bass response. In a conventional design with passive filter elements the components behave like a resistor in the signal path, causing a soft, flabby and bloated sound in the area the filter works. Everybody who has ever experienced the tightness and precision of a good active subwoofer (or the same applies to a wide bandwidth driver without any crossover) will never want to miss this again. The subwoofer works below 100 Hz. Volume, frequency and subsonic area can be set separately to precisely adjust the system to the respective listening room. But even the people who are scared by the complexity of multi channel amplification systems can relax: Avantgarde has made the installation of the subwoofer very easy. It just needs to be connected to the same amplifier that is used to run the three horns. The input sensitivity of the subwoofer is set in a way, that the amplifier signal can modulate the input of the integrated subwoofer amp with simple bi-wiring speaker cables.
There exist a lot of prejudices about the sound of hornspeakers. Lets just say that this is caused because most members of the hornspeaker family are bad. That’s why most listeners of these systems are disappointed. Let’s start now to broach (remove) these prejudices:
NO, the sound of the horns is not always colored. The contrary is the case!NO, high performance and sensitivity does not always correlate with aggressiveness.NO, the system is not only suitable to the high end freak, who is not interested in listening to fine music but only in loud noise, who is not interested in melodies and rhythms (in all what gives you the emotional impact of music) but only on the "sound ".And NO, the combination of horns and active subwoofer is not like a wedding between a sheep and a wolf, and you will never have the impression that you are listening to two different systems.
As you might expect, the sound of the TRIO is very special. First of all the high frequency spectrum is distinguished by its remarkable smoothness. In this area there are no raises and no exaggerations. No tendency to analytically boost contours. No systematical character in the musical colors which can change with the TRIO radically from recording to recording. In these criteria the TRIO clearly stand out from their competition. And it proves that there is no reason a horn tweeter can not reach this level of quality. The fact is that in the high frequency regions the sound of the TRIO is not "sharp ", not "brilliant ", not "clear ", not "analytic ", but remarkably "global ", "warm-hearted " (tender/sweet) and "lively ". Maybe these characteristics will disappoint the fanatics of the "surgical " analysis. But if these people would pay a little bit more attention to the midrange, they would understand that the TRIO in reality reproduces significantly more information than the entirety of the contingent of (supposed) competitors. In this area the TRIO confirms its overwhelming superiority. You simply hear everything but nothing is artificially exaggerated. Contrary to this, the pretentious analytical capabilities of speakers which sound ostensibly "clear ", are nothing but an illusion. If the treble is exaggerated in such a way then it mostly will mask the midrange. But with the TRIO the treble is "king ". You just need to experience this without being manipulated by the tricks of the competition who magnify the ends of the frequency spectrum to give the impression of bandwidth.
And as well the midrange gives pure pleasure. And let’s not forget that the essential part of the musical signal happens here. In this area, everything is flowing with a wonderfully effortless presence. The energy is fantastically reproduced and it does not matter whether it is delicate attenuation or big crescendo. The variations in colors and tonality are exceptional. To make a long story short: the emotions flow in all areas and with all kind of music.
The low/mid horn requires a special mention. In this frequency area the TRIO achieves a remarkable and unique combination of cleanness and tightness. The innovations in the applied technologies are completely reflected in the originality of the musical result. The low/midrange is "full ", "fat " and "generous ", but at the same time "clean ", "tight " and "clear ". This awards natural instruments with wonderful realistic dimensions and gives human voices a very "erotic " presentation. Paradoxically even violins profit in this low frequency spectrum by the horns and acquire a special "radiant " character. Normally, you might think that violins are not affected by the low/midrange. But the TRIO gives violins volume and density. This obviously shows that the sound of other speakers is too thin, extremely shifted to the highs and as a matter of fact far away from the reality of a live concert. All of these characteristics leave you with a "true " impression. You have the feeling that you are standing directly "in " the music. Ultimately the response of the TRIO does nothing in a pretentious or spectacular fashion, but solely is oriented towards the reproduction of musicality with an unmatched transparency and detail.
The low frequencies with the subwoofers are fantastic. Also in this area the innovations in the applied technologies - active filters with especially real-time control amplification - are completely reflected in the sound. The combination of ultra-low frequency extension, energy and tightness is amazing, but not a surprise for a complex active system of this kind. But the perfect marriage between the active subwoofers and the big spherical low/midrange horn is exclusively reserved to the TRIO. This combination awards the system with an absolutely remarkable performance in the lower frequency spectrum. The TRIO controls the atmosphere of a piece and dominates the air in the room like no other speaker. The level of radiated energy is over-whelming. You want the atmosphere of a nightclub? No problem. But at the same time - thanks to the perfect clarity and cleanness of the world’s best low/mid combination - the TRIO mainly mediates the emotional impact of music.
At the end, after numerous records with all different kind of music, we realized that the TRIO is relatively "tolerant " in respect to "bad " recordings. This seems to be a paradox, as its extreme transparency will logically immediately reveal "errors " of the source material. But its characteristics award all recordings and the integrity of the sound even dominates here. Naturally you will clearly hear the difference between a good and a bad recording. But the bad ones will never become unbearable. This proves that the TRIO is not a machine only for audiophiles, but in contrary a "true " speaker " for real music lovers.
The Avantgarde Acoustic TRIO system is not inexpensive - I agree. Its size might scare you - OK. Its technology far beyond any conventional standard might disturb you - again I agree. But taking into consideration the only criteria that really counts: the capability to reproduce music, the TRIO is an offer without any competition in the top end of the high fidelity panorama. The uniqueness of its design translates into its sound quality. A quality which up to now has only been achieved by a handful of audiophile enthusiasts who have fine-tuned in lovingly detailed work over many years their home-made systems and brought their sound to the highest climax. Finally one has to say, that the TRIO has a very competitive price/performance ratio in the small world of absolute top speakers. Above all this is true taking into consideration that already a small tube amplifier is sufficient to let it play in top form. In any case the TRIO has given us a moment of music which we will surely never forget.
Haute Fidelite, Issue 51, June 2000Paris, FranceOlivier Corton