AvantGarde Uno G2 with Ayon, Viva and VAIC amps
Highly revealing speakers capable of pure magic when matched with the right cables and electronics
The speakers, the tube amplifiers and all cables comprise the system of my friend Jan, who kindly loaned it all to me while he was preparing to move house. This gave me the perfect opportunity to not only hear these speakers at their best, but also to gain some more experience with various tube amplifiers.
Any loudspeaker is highly interactive with its environment, the room that it is placed in. In all but the most perfect rooms, you are listening to a mixture of direct speaker sound and your room, reacting to the speakers. My room is far from perfect and even though I have heard a large amount of speakers in it, my experiences need not be typical of results obtained in other rooms. At the very least though, the results as mentioned as part of comparisons with other speakers, should provide something of a starting point. Ultimately though there is just no substitute for listening to speakers in your own setup.
When I was introduced to the AvantGarde brand some 15 years ago I was highly impressed with their combination of “form follows function” and exciting curvaceous styling. But even then, their price was prohibitive, and these sexy speakers have not gotten any cheaper since. Their most affordable traditional speaker, the Uno XD, is currently listed at 21.900 euro. The Uno G2 under review here, was the most recent model until the XD was launched, and was listed at 16.500 euro. Not exactly peanuts, but going by the relatively large number of music lovers and audiophiles all around the world who own these speakers, not unachievable. An important thing to note is that while these speakers demand high quality electronics, you do not need to invest in many Watts. 12 or so will do just fine. So when shopping carefully, the amplification side could actually go some way toward compensating for the cost of the speakers.
Cost matters aside, my main question is: Do they deliver? The short answer is yes, they really do, but only if matched with harmoniously collaborating cables and electronics. Get this wrong, and the speakers will only reveal what you’ve done wrong, without displaying any of the magic that they are so capable of.
As easy as they are to drive, as difficult it is to get them to sound just right. They are not extremely fussy about placement, their beamy nature takes care of that along with the highly configurable active subwoofer. Their beamyness incidentally does not mean that you always must to sit in the sweetspot: even when positioned 3,5 meters apart the speakers manage to have incredibly tangible focus and imaging between the speakers, along with a very, very wide soundstage. Treble and midrange dispersion really is excellent: 4 people sitting next to each other can all hear the full frequency spectrum. Perfect imaging (a singer standing smack in the middle, with depth perception of the instruments behind him/her) however is only really evident for the person sitting in the middle. Stand up and a portion of the treble falls off, but decidedly less than with Apogee Duetta magnetostatic speakers or Martin Logan Ethos electrostatic speakers, and one can still enjoy music perfectly while walking around.
I was already informed by Jan that the Unos don’t work very well with most solid state amplifiers and that the less Watts an amp has, the better. Another friend with the same speakers had already tried the Pass Labs XA30.8, Rowland 625 and Devialet 120 and while the Pass worked best of the bunch, none of them delivered real magic. Having tried the Unos with my 150 watt Rowland model 6 power amps, I can confirm that the result is sadly unflattering. While the Rowlands portray admirable resolution and refinement, and were actually quite a bit more subtle than the Viva Verona XL triode amps, they somehow sound flat and uninspiring with the Unos. The same was true in an earlier experiment with the Devialet 120 hybrid class A/class D amp: superb finesse and low level detailing, along with impressive smoothness and flow, but somehow still lacking expression and dimensionality, imaging in the depth plane falls flat.
Being relatively inexperienced with tubes, having the Unos on visit made for an interesting journey in the world of tubes. From the first notes, it was clear that I had to agree with the many horn speaker owners’ addiction to tubes. I feel like I now finally understand what tube people are forever going on about in their comparisons between tube and transistor. With the AvantGardes you can really tell immediately when transistors are in the circuit. Compared to even the most musical amps I know of (the Rowlands), all-tube amps I tried simply sound freer, more dynamic, more dimensional and more emotionally involving. The tube power amps tried when off all are really off, not in standby, and so they really do need to warm up, but in my experiences so far after about 20-30 minutes they start to really play music and the longer you play, the better it gets.
I was lucky enough to have 3 tube amplifiers at hand for comparisons: Viva Verona XL mono power amps, VAIC Reference 520 mono power amps and an Ayon Crossfire III integrated amp. The latter’s pre- and poweramp sections can be used independently and combined with my own Jeff Rowland Concerto preamp this made for many possibilities, which I naturally all tried.
I noticed a pattern where the music sounded best on Saturday and Sunday and not so great on weekdays. This has been consistent throughout my tests and this likely has to do with the power quality and the tube amps’ sensitivity to this. Your mileage may vary, but just be aware that this may be a factor. This is important to note because one can easily point fingers at what AvantGardes do wrong technically (see below), but this is just as easily forgiven when they play at their best and one just sinks into their grande, majestic and emotional music delivery.
Coherence is surprisingly good, considering that the speaker marries high sensitive horns with active woofers. Note that encounters with earlier incarnations of these speakers were less convincing for me, where the bass and horn sections seemed to play completely out of tune. This really is not the case here, and even less so with the latest models, judging from what I heard at the AvantGarde presentation in Munchen this year.
Coloration, or lack thereof
AvantGarde claim that their horns have no coloration and I agree that they do indeed sound very neutral. But coming from a full range ribbon speaker, I find that they still do exhibit typical horn loudspeaker behavior. Some horn speakers have significant peaks and coloration and others are relatively flat and clean but all horn speakers that I heard so far, have a recognizable “horn” sound.
On audio shows when I listen to horn speakers, AvantGardes certainly are consistently among the least colored-sounding implementations. For horn speakers, they do indeed have admirably low coloration and they sound refreshingly free from boxiness, in spite of their huge subwoofer.
There still is a certain peakiness in the midrange however that can really stand out when the music that is played triggers this particular frequency range. Maybe it is a phase shift between midrange horn and woofer, maybe it is coloration caused by the horn, I don’t know. But it is something that I always need to get used to again, every listening session. Usually, this takes a few tracks to forget about. Making the best match with cables and amplifiers definitely plays a large role in exacerbating or ameliorating this, and with the right combination, the effect can be reduced significantly. Specifically, amplifiers with a warm, non-forward midrange will work very well.
As expected, AvantGarde speakers are highly dynamic. If you’ve ever visited an audio show where they were demonstrating, you will know that they can play LOUD and that they really rock. But like me, you may also feel that they are perhaps a bit too lively, too forward, too, well, ear-piercing at times. Well, don’t worry because as I found out, they really do not need to sound that way. With the right combination of components, they can sound lush and relaxed, and because they are inherently so agile and spritely, they will remain dynamic, even when using cables that are not advised to be used with these speakers, such as Transparent Reference XL speaker cables. Be careful though not to use highly capacitive interlinks (such as Transparent Reference XL) because as I found, they will reduce dynamics and PRAT.
Above: woofer grille and tweeter horn removed, with the actual tweeter still in place
Above: midrange driver, with the horn removed
Above: tweeter driver with the horn removed. If you look closely you can see that there is another small horn inside
Above: tweeter removed, horn still attached. The actual tweeter dome part is installed backward, with the hollow side facing forward, into the horn. To compensate for this, it is connected out of phase.
Above: tweeter dome seen from the rear (the horn is on the underside). Unlike many tweeters, the backside is entirely open and so the rear radiation can move freely without damaging reflections. The rear sound is ultimately damped with Pritex within the Tweeter’s separate section within the speaker cabinet.
Piano, keyboards and percussion sound absolutely fantastic on the Unos. It’s highly dynamic, lifelike and immediate yet refined in a way that my Apogee Divas can’t match. I find that when the right combination of amplifier and cables is found, most music sounds good with the Unos, but they definitely have a preference for acoustical instruments. Blues, rock, jazz and the like sound incredibly convincing and musical.
Vocals however are a definite divider for them. I think this is to do with the above mentioned “peakiness” in the lower midrange. Vocals apparently tend to hoover around this frequency area, resulting in a nasal quality that detracts from the otherwise highly credible illusion. Warmer voices tend to blend in better than higher-pitched ones. I know that many people find that horn speakers are brilliant with vocals, but I definitely find ribbon speakers such as my Duettas or Divas to sound more convincing when judged on that aspect.
It’s true: AvantGarde speakers have an electrostatic-like level of detailing, but it is presented very differently than with electrostatic speakers. While electrostatics tend to sound ruler-flat in frequency response, the AvantGardes to me sound quite peaky, with the frequency curve seemingly all over the place. However, as is proven time and again, the frequency range is not the most important factor for musical enjoyment. The feeling of transparency also is higher with electrostatics or full range magnetostatics, the AvantGardes sounding more like cabinet speakers, which after all, they are. The feeling of high resolution is enhanced by their immense throw, the way with which they project sound forward, presenting every detail right in front of you to reach out and grab. This is something that you either like of not, but is definitely not unpleasant and apparently even a bit addictive as I found when switching back to my Divas.
This is likely also something induced by the tube amplifiers with which I drive the AvantGardes, but the combination really manages to inject a “magical” quality into the midrange, and this is in spite of the aforementioned peakiness and my reservations with respect to vocal delivery. Especially with piano and keyboards, the sounds are so free-flowing and room-filling, so natural and convincing and so very emotionally appealing that it is hard to switch back to my own speakers.
Above: the floor protector discs turned out to have a large influence on the sound.
Above: the discs that Jan used with the AvantGardes. Some experimentation made it clear that these metal/rubber/felt discs make the bass slower and reduce the coherence between bass unit and the horns.
Above: Artesania discs, looking good and sounding excellent
Think about it: these speakers combine high sensitivity, fast and expressive treble and midrange with low sensitivity subwoofers. It’s amazing that the match can be made successfully! But they really succeed. Even though it can be heard that the bass is not quite as lean as the upper-frequency range, the marriage is very cleverly done, bass being nicely pacey and more than fast enough not to draw attention to itself. What’s more: the subs can really pound out some noise without breaking a sweat! A comparison to the Martin Logan Ethos electrostatic speakers, which also marry a subwoofer to a super-fast upper-frequency range, the AvantGardes easily take the prize. The latter sound so much more solid and confident, so much more tuneful and simultaneously much more even-handed, making the Logans sound decidedly immature by comparison.
Capricious and Picky
Although the speakers can deliver true magic, they can also be incredibly picky. One recording will sound nothing short of amazing and the other can sound decidedly “meh”. This effect can be reduced by choosing flattering equipment, but judging from my experiences these will remain somewhat difficult speakers. It looks like one has to accept that the quality of the recording really comes through in an unforgiving manner meaning that thin-sounding recordings will also sound as such. The upside is that the speakers will not slaughter any recordings. It’s not like you’re suddenly presented with ear-piercing harshness, one can still listen to so-so recordings, but they just won’t sound inspiring. Get the amplification wrong, however, and they can sound pretty unpleasant!
Above: Viva Verona XL mono power amp
The above observations are an average of the best results that I obtained with several amplifier- and cable combinations. I won’t report on all the variations tried, instead I will highlight only the most interesting combinations.
Above: Viva Verona XL
Rowland Concerto + Viva Verona XL
The first amps with which I tried the Unos were tried with were the Viva Verona XL Single-Ended Triode mono power amps, in combination with the Jeff Rowland Concerto preamp. This results in a very lively and upbeat sound with lots of PRAT. It’s a very “rocky” sound. The soundstage is seemingly always huge but the Vivas certainly do not hinder this. They do have a little “transistor-character” in them, they do sound nicely dimensional and really do breathe, but they have no obvious tube sound. Bass is not woolly, midrange is not creamy and treble is not particularly airy or fluid. The resolution also is below average. What’s more, the Avant Garde’s midrange peakiness is most obvious with the Veronas and they seem to add some extra peaks and throughs in the frequency range landscape. Still, because of the sheer enthusiasm, this is an enjoyable sound.
Above: Ayon Crossfire III
XLR – Cinch
An important note when connecting a balanced preamp to an unbalanced poweramp: the Ayon may have XLR inputs but simply shorts pin 3 (inverse signal) and 1 (neutral). Normally this is no problem, especially not when the given preamp has transformer outputs, but the Concerto (which has transformer inputs, but direct opamp outputs) does not like this at all and sounds dynamically compressed when used like this. The solution is to make a cable that only use the Concerto’s pin 1 and 2 and leaves pin 3 floating.
Rowland Concerto + Ayon Crossfire III
The Ayon is an integrated amp of which its pre- and power amp sections can be used independently. Like the Vivas, it is a single-ended Triode design. Used as a poweramp and fed from the Concerto I was surprised to find that the combination while technically excellent, sounds emotionally less engaging than the Vivas. There’s incredible bass slam, yet the bass is tight and articulate, midrange is warm and smooth and the AvantGardes’ midrange peakyness is indeed much reduced, and treble is much more fluid and refined than with the Vivas. Yet, on an emotional level, I prefer the Vaics. I think it’s because of the “very high damping factor” effect. It’s not tube-like at all. There’s simply a little bit too much control, the bass sounding almost as if a Krell KAV300i amp was used. But wait, I was ready to write off the Ayon, but then I listened to it in an integrated fashion, using its own preamp section, and that made a world of a difference.
Above: Ayon A 62B tube
Ayon Crossfire III integrated
All the above mentioned technical advantages remain when used as an integrated amp, but added is a very welcome dose of tube magic. Soundstaging becomes even better, especially in the depth plane and midrange is warmer and more lively and there’s a real emotional connection now. A certain amount of control remains, as if listening to a hybrid tube/transistor amplifier, but the combination is sensibly chosen and really only adds benefits and no downsides. Unless, that is, you crave that stereotypical tube-like liquidity.
Above: the Mad Scientist Tube Toppers: tried just for fun, but turn out to make an easy perceivable difference in sound, with a smoother, more lush mirdange and overall more liquidity.
Above and below: VAIC Reference 520 mono power amp
Above: the logo is lit from behind and changes color according to the amp’s state
Ayon as preamp + VAIC Reference 520
Using the Ayon as preamp only, connected to the VAIC monos using Straightwire Crescendo II interlinks (much better than the ASI Liveline) this is simply the most beautiful combination of all. The VAICs are a single-ended Triode design too, but with a twist: there are two triode tubes per channel, basically doubling the power. The AvantGardes don’t need this, but as the listening tests show, it also doesn’t hurt the sound at all.
Above: a CD is placed on top to indicate the amp’s size
Unlike the Ayon when used as power amp or integrated amp, the combination of Ayon as pre amp and VAIC as power amps sounds much more as you would expect tubes to sound: big, lush, smooth and luxurious. Honestly: I have not heard a more liquid sound than this in my room from any setup, including my own. The sound is entirely free from the speakers and all instruments float between them in a room-filling aura. Even if the sound is very luxurious, detailing is excellent, and the AvantGardes have never sounded more friendly.
Above: FIM Gold connected to the Ayon’s XLR input
Interlinks – Source to Poweramp
First interlink tried, for its nice length, was a Transparent Reference XL XLR cable. Although it displayed its inherent qualities in this setup too, it was quickly evident that it also hampered dynamic expression and treble openness. To the rescue came the incredibly stiff FIM Gold cables. Jan, the owner of the AvantGardes and the cables, has always used these with great success in various setups and here again they indeed work marvellously.
The Wadia incidentally had no problem driving a balanced cable with pin 3 and 1 shorted at the destination.
Above: StraightWire Crescendo II interlink
Interlinks – Preamp to Poweramp
First tried was an ASI Liveline, but once again I don’t really like this cable. It simply sounds too thin and too small and is just too uninvolving. Tried next was a Straight Wire Crescendo II. Jan already warmed me up for this cable but I had no idea. Right away after connecting it I knew it was a fantastic cable. More or less Cardas Hexlink-like, it is big, lively, colorful and positive. It’s even less dry than the Hexlink.
Above: Transparent cable galore
What works very well are ASI Liveline Speaker cables. They provide a very upbeat, open and lively sound, without any harshness. They do sound slightly lean, and if you want to tone down the AvantGardes’s enthusiasm slightly, while adding a little luxurious warmth and enhancing soundstage width, the Transparent Reference XL speaker cable works very well. I also tried a pair of Cardas Golden Reference and although they make for a super-forgiving sound, they really were way too smooth and woolly.
In the end, I just had to know what these tube amps would sound like when driving the big Apogee Divas. The Vivas actually worked better than I thought they would, with a big and colorful midrange and surprisingly good bass, for a tube amp. Although the amps definitely lack the power to really make the Divas sing, they certainly perform admirably and do let a good portion of the magic shine through. The Ayon surprised me again with its interesting combination of a surprisingly powerful and well-controlled bass, and tube midrange magic. The Divas also made it clear that the Ayon is quite a bit more refined than the Vivas but ultimately the Divas are true to their name and they just refuse to really dance to the beat. If tubes are to be used with these speakers, I’m afraid that it takes quite a bit more than the power that single-ended triodes can provide.
While certainly not cheap, the AvantGardes are really not fussy about their placement and don’t require many watts, but they do require quality amplification and carefully matched cables. Get it wrong and the speakers will sound brash and forward or small and uninvolving. Get it right and they will sound majestic and utterly emotionally engaging. While they can be 100% convincing with a vast range of material, they can sound so-so with some material and there is an occasional kind of squeakiness in the midrange. They truly excel with real-instrument music such as jazz, blues and rock, where they are utterly lifelike and amazingly involving but they fare less well with the Smooth Jazz / Fusion genre, for example, the Rippingtons and Pieces of a Dream not sounding very special. Ultimately I would not consider them universal talents, but because they do most everything so very well, if I had to choose a different speaker than my current Apogee Diva magnetostatics, I’d be thinking long and hard about a pair of AvantGardes.