Avalon Acoustics Indra loudspeaker Page 2

Another case in point: pianist (and hand-clapper) Pierre-Laurent Aimard's African Rhythms (CD, Teldec 86584), which intersperses recordings of Aka Pygmies performing their own music with Aimard performing compositions by Steve Reich and György Ligeti—a concept that results in a strangely organic sound, since Aimard has chosen works by those composers that mirror the clapping music of the Aka—Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood, for example, which is simultaneously dead simple and fiendishly complicated. A simple but constantly varying pulse is established at the upper end of the keyboard, and is then accompanied by note clusters, runs, and interlocking and contrasting pulses in the region of middle C. If Aimard is capable of playing this work in real time—and I have to believe he is—he is a marvel.

The Indra presented Music for Pieces of Wood with startling intensity. That mercurial pulse rang like a gong, each repeated plink drilling into the silence like a hammerstroke. The runs, chords, and rhythms that contrasted with the pulse flowed like a mountain stream—rapidly, smoothly, and yes, fluidly. I sat immersed in Reich's musical universe, hypnotized and enchanted by its microdynamics. The Indra delineated minute differences in attack like a champion.

But I knew all that intellectually. Then I played Reich's Clapping Music, which consists of essentially the same thing, only with two people clapping their hands rather than playing conventional instruments. One clapper's position remains fixed, while the other moves around the room. Again, the Indras were remarkable in capturing the hand claps' explosive bursts of sound—and again, their truth in presenting soundstage cues was jaw-dropping as they mapped the movements of the second clapper. Because microphones "hear" changes in position differently than does a pair of human ears, I won't pretend that the Avalons gave me a true map of these movements, but they did tell me with unambiguous clarity that someone was moving around the acoustic.

But here's the thing: Every time I played Clapping Music, I had a goose-bump moment: There were other people in the room. This became somewhat of a parlor trick for me: Visitors would comment on how lovely the Indras looked, and I would sit them down and play some music for them. They'd smile and say something complimentary. Then I'd play Clapping Music and they'd jump, stare at the space between the speakers, and say something along the lines of "That's magic!"

Everybody knows what hand claps sound like. They also know that speakers seldom sound like them.

Yes, the picture's changing every moment
I tend to use the Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 8 loudspeakers ($28,000/pair) as a baseline in comparison with other high-aspiration speakers, partly because I have them to hand, but also because they have become a de facto high-end standard. Most audiophiles have heard at least some iteration of the WATT/Puppy, and those who haven't can easily audition a pair, thanks to Wilson's nationwide dealer network.

The WATT/Puppy 8 made for a fascinating contrast to the Indra. After setting them up, I listened to a wide range of music through the Wilsons, getting reacquainted with them. Music seemed to pop through the WATT/Puppys—it sounded snappier, more emphatic. Music jumped out at me through the Wilsons; the Avalons drew me in. It was a contrast between extroverted and introverted sonic personalities.

With Chant Mozarabe, the Wilsons cast a vast soundstage—the recording venue sounded larger than through the Indras. Within their smaller acoustic, however, the Avalons gave the Ensemble Organum more heft; voices had more body and were less ethereal. I thought the Indras got that righter, but I'd hesitate to predict how another listener might perceive it. Vicious audiophile debates would ensue.

During John Atkinson's mastering of Rendezvous, we debated the recording's bass balance. JA and I maintained that, as leader of the ensemble, Jerome Harris's bass should be featured a bit more prominently in the mix. Jerome demurred, saying that he wanted to be a bandmember, not a "leader"—wishes that JA respected in his final mix. While I've always wanted to hear a "director's mix" of Rendezvous, over the years I've discovered that systems with high levels of resolution tend to get Jerome's bandmember perspective just about right—unbalanced systems tend to bury him behind his veil of modesty.

When I played "The Mooche," the Wilsons brought Jerome's bass more to the fore, putting him out front while delivering Billy Drummond's drum explosions with real pop. And Art Baron's trombone solos were sheer exhilaration. The Indras put Jerome deeper in the mix, which also robbed the track of a certain level of momentum. "The Mooche" almost perfectly illustrated the differences between the two speakers. Below 80Hz—and definitely below 60Hz—the Indra's bass was shelved down, sounding noticeably less out front than the rest of the speaker's response. By contrast, the WATT/Puppy tends to bloat, slightly overemphasizing the 80–100Hz range. That difference probably revealed a great deal about the difference in these speakers' personalities: the Wilson is an attention-getter; the Avalon makes you be quiet and listen.

Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood sounded great through both. The Indra delivered that metallic clatter of the very high piano keys with a little less clatter than did the Wilson, but each speaker conveyed a physicality that was uncanny. Yes, the WATT/Puppy sounded bigger—but the Indra was no less convincing.

Which was better? Both had weaknesses, compared to the baseline of real live music, and both were superb. I'm not sure that, at this level of the loudspeaker craft, "better" is a concept that's very useful. But these two speakers sounded different enough that I can't imagine any listener not preferring one to the other.

The real nitty-gritty is whether or not the Indra's lack of low bass will be a deal breaker. Not for me. I really valued what the Indra did best: the holographic soundstaging and quiet musicality that are its stock in trade. They drew me in every time I listened.

I did try moving the Indras closer to each other than I normally do in my listening room, and they seemed to couple to one another slightly better in the bottom end. The tradeoff was a slightly smaller soundstage, which struck me as a high price to pay for an extra dB or so of low end.

If the bass situation really bothered me, I could buy a heck of a good subwoofer for the difference in price between the $28k Wilsons and the $20k Avalons.

Would you have me dancing out of nowhere?
The Avalon Indra is a superbly built loudspeaker that lives up to designer Neil Patel's design brief of big sound from a small footprint. While it isn't perfect—what speaker is?—its mild sins are those of omission, at least for me. If you enjoy being drawn into the music for hours on end, the Indra might be right up your alley.

It was mine. Once again, as I packed up this latest Avalon model, I thought what I'd thought about the first: I could live with these speakers.

Avalon Acoustics
2800 Wilderness Place
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 440-0422