Avalon Acoustics Indra loudspeaker
Jeff Rowland turned out to be such a fan that he bought half of Avalon from founder Charles Hansen's partner. But Rowland soon discovered that, for an electronics manufacturer, owning a loudspeaker company is equivalent to starting a land war in Asiaa classic mistake. Once you're a competitor, all those speaker companies that used to recommend your amplifiers as compatible suddenly forget to mention you. In 1989, Rowland sold his half of the company to its current owner, Neil Patel, who subsequently bought out Charlie Hansen's half. (Charlie went on to start Ayre Acoustics.) Under Neil Patel's direction, Avalon has built a reputation for corporate stability. Patel has also built on those qualities I noticed in that very first Avalon model: faceted, meticulously constructed cabinets and holographic imaging.
What never happened in the years since was my actually spending any time at home with an Avalon speaker. Then Gary Mulder, Avalon's sales manager, invited me to visit the Avalon workshop in Boulder, Colorado, during my visit to nearby Denver to attend the CEDIA Expo. I did so and, almost as an afterthought, also got to hear the final prototype of the Indra ($19,995/pair). Mulder had been trying to pique my interest in the NP Evolution 2.0 ($1995/pair; see JA's review in July 2008), but once I'd heard the Indra, nothing else would do.
Then I see you coming out of nowhere
The cabinet of each floorstanding Indra is sharply raked back and faceted, solitaire style, to eliminate corners at the baffle's top and bottom corners and thus minimize diffraction. A felt pad in the Indra's grille, with openings cut in it for the drive-units, serves the same purpose.
Avalon builds its cabinets by hand, using custom jigs designed by VP Lucien Pichette. Because each Avalon modelthere are 13is designed beginning with a blank sheet of paper, each requires its own jigs and clamps. So in addition to being a genius at precision cabinetry, Pichette is a busy man. Under one of a half-dozen sexy veneers, each Avalon is built of multiple layers of MDFwhich explains the Indra's weight of 112 lbs. The interior is lined with a proprietary fabric that Patel insists is the "best damping material available." The Indra's drive-units are a 1" concave ceramic tweeter with a neodymium drive system, a 3.5" concave ceramic-dome midrange, and two 7" Nomex-Kevlar cone woofers.
Asked about his design philosophy, Patel said, "First and foremost is our commitment to musical truth, where all technique is subservient to achieving an ultimate aesthetic goal. What happens in an actual musical event must be preserved and communicated without destroying the subtleties or nuance. Time, which is absolutely invariable in our universe, must be preserved above all else. Technically, this means not allowing phase distortions within or between drivers. All Avalon Acoustic drivers are purely pistonic, with no driver breakup modes within the passband. Phasing is wholly linear throughout the bandwidth of hearing, including the very low bass. Dynamics must have impact and articulation without ringingwhich is why the Q of each driver is carefully observed and actively damped, giving amplifiers a purely resistive load (which also eliminates back EMF, which can exacerbate time distortions within the amplifier)."
Then there's the crossover: "Realization and refinement of the three-dimensional soundscape takes place within the electrical network. The beginning and end of my crossover is really the basic filter topology. However, filter slopes are only a first step in the control of phase to 60dB. I employ networks to control impedance, and significant manipulation in the passband in order to achieve smooth lobing patterns within the listening environment, and extensive techniques to keep the noise floor to a minimum. Power response and frequency response must track together in a linear manner, eliminating image-size distortions and zones of excessive prominence."
As to his speakers' signature faceted shapes, those, Patel explained, constitute "a functional construct that aids in the transition from 2pi to 4pi space of the driver vibrations." He also explained that, in each Avalon model, the symmetry between the crossover design and the cabinet's shape is what gives the speaker its holographic imaging. "One without the other is ineffective."
A lot of communication in a motion
Setting up the Indras was slightly more complicated than for your average loudspeaker. First, they're shipped together in a single wooden crate that, fully packed, weighs over 400 lbs. As the truck driver informed me before even saying "Hello," his manifest read "CURBSIDE DELIVERY." Fortunately, Gary Mulder showed up with his electric screwdriver and we unpacked the Indras on the spot, moved them into my listening room, and schlepped the box around to the garage. Even empty, that crate was heavy.
While it would be possible for a single person to manipulate an Indra into position, the speaker's sharp rake-back, weight, and finish make it better suited to a two-man crewand getting an Indra to properly perch on its three cone spikes (they aren't threaded) is definitely a task for two.
At first, I sited the Indras approximately where other speakers have worked especially well in my living room, but when I listened to them from my usual farfield listening position, they lacked sparkle. I moved them closer to the sidewalls and to the front wall, but that didn't change things much. I then put them back in their original positions and moved my listening chair closerwhich helped tremendously.
Mulder recommended that I remove the stock grilles, substituting a special "nude" grille that removed the black cloth cover, leaving only the grille framework and the felt mask that covers the baffle surrounding the drivers. This did indeed restore a lot of sparkleperhaps an overabundance. (Simply removing the grille and eliminating the mask as well as the grille cloth is something Avalon insists is a very bad thing.)
A final setup note: Out of the box and powered by cold electronics, the Indras sounded quite ringy and lacking in detail. Running them in for a few hours while Mulder and I retired to Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue for a couple of báhn mì and summer rolls made a world of difference. When we returned, we could hear deep into the soundstage, and details that had earlier been masked were now startlingly vivid.
Over time, I discovered that the blanket dismissal of the speaker grilles was probably a mistake: yup, there was a bit too much sparkle, as well as a slight discontinuity in the handoff from the midrange driver to the tweeter. Had I moved my listening position closer right away, before removing the grilles, I'd have regained the liveliness my distant position had robbed from the Indras and smoothed that transition. Lesson: Keep it simple and use as directed.
When the samba takes you out of nowhere
The Indras certainly were Avalonswith recording after recording, I was transported into different venues, reveled in varying acoustics, and just plain grokked the music. The Indras were easy to listen to, inviting me to settle down and listen to entire CDs rather than cherry-pick favorite tracks and move on.
Marcel Pérès and Ensemble Organum's Chant Mozarabe (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901519) threw an immense soundstage, the group's voices filling the reverberant space the way water fills a pitcherthe sound flowed into the chapel, defining all of its corners, and seeking without ever quite overflowing the top. The Avalons rendered the chapel's acoustic with a thrilling airinessEnsemble Organum didn't quite fill it, but they surely did inhabit it.
"The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), loped along, driven by Harris's burbling Taylor acoustic bass guitar, and floating on clouds of Steve Nelson's vibraphone chording. When Marty Ehrlich enters with his first solo, his alto sax had an almost physical presence, slicing like a knife through the acoustic of Blue Heaven Studios. Later, Art Baron's plunger-muted trombone made me sit up straight in my seatI thought someone was in the room talking to me!
J. Gordon Holt used to call this the "goose-bump factor." We've all experienced it, briefly and sporadically. The Avalon Indras delivered it consistently. U-R-there? They am here? A lot of the time, the Indras got scarily close.