Avalon NP Evolution 2.0 loudspeaker Page 2

As I had the speakers toed-in to the listening position, I tried reducing the toe-in angle, so that I could see the Avalons' inner edges. This reduced that touch of upper-midrange character, but with male voices, some notes still tended to clump at the speaker positions, while with female voices, some notes still suffered from a slight hoot when I turned up the volume. It was only when Avalon's Gary Mulder stopped by (he was in town to set up a pair of Indra speakers in my neighbor Wes Phillips' listening room for a future Stereophile review) that a better solution was reached.

"Yes, they do sound a bit nasal in your room," agreed Mulder. "Let me try a different setup."

He embarked on an iterative process of moving each speaker slightly, listening to the effect on a guitar-and-vocal recording by Luka Bloom that he'd brought with him, then again moving each speaker, until he declared himself satisfied. The Avalons were now 8" farther away from the sidewalls and 2" farther away from my listening chair. Toe-in was not quite to the listening position, and he'd raised the speakers a little on their cones so that the carpet no longer touched and damped the bottom panels. And he left the grilles off.

The measurable difference was small (see "Measurements"), the subjective improvement staggeringly large. While the speakers still had a touch of character, their midrange was now in better balance with the low treble, and the bass was better defined. The downside was that the enormous soundstage I'd optimized with my setup was now slightly smaller, more constrained by the speaker positions—though the image stability and palpability were still superb.

But the Evolutions' soundstaging excellence was still very much in evidence. Instrumental images that were coincident in space, or almost so, could be readily resolved as separate audio objects. In Flos campi, for example, there is a small figure on the harp doubled by a celeste, both instruments positioned at the right of the soundstage. With some inexpensive speakers, the sounds blur so that you hear what sounds like a single instrument with the tonal qualities of both harp and celeste. Via the Avalons, each instrument retained its individuality despite occupying almost the same point in space.

Even without the grilles, while pink noise sounded as though it had a slightly exaggerated region in the low treble, the NP 2.0's high frequencies were clean and free from grain or etch. Naturally recorded cymbals were well differentiated from one another. On both of my commercially available jazz recordings—the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2) and Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2)—I had used an overhead pair of DPA 4011 cardioid mikes for the drums. These mikes love cymbals, preserving the bronze metallic edge of their sound without exaggerating the sizzle. The Avalons didn't smear the characters of the wide ranges of cymbals used by Billy Drummond (Rendezvous) and Mark Flynn (Merkin). Again, however, the grilles darkened the sound too much; with this kind of music, I preferred the overall balance sans grilles.

At the other end of the spectrum, the low frequencies were slightly shelved down, but with good extension. The 1/3-octave warble tones on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile SPTH016-2), for example, were reproduced with good power down to the 32Hz band, with the 25Hz band still readily audible. The pipe-organ bass pedals on Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D, performed by Michael Murray (CD, Telarc CD-80088), had a good combination of weight and definition. The rather overcooked double bass on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's Raising Sand (CD, Rounder 11661-9075-2) was reproduced at high levels without strain, and the bass guitar on the Beatles' "Come Together," from the Love remixes (DVD-A, Apple 3 79810 2 5), was cleanly delineated without boom or blur. Similarly, my bass-guitar channel-identification tracks on Editor's Choice featured both weight on the low E string and clarity in the higher registers.

It was in the midrange that the Avalon's residual character continued to make its presence known, even after Gary Mulder's careful setup. Percussive piano notes could be heard to suffer a little from excessive midrange overhang, such as on Robert Silverman's muscular performance of the two Rachmaninoff piano sonatas (CD, Stereophile STPH019-2). Similarly, Richard Lehnert's speaking voice on the channel-identification tracks on Editor's Choice acquired too much chestiness. Even so, that CD's "Danny Boy," sung by the male choir Cantus, didn't suffer from this to anything like the same extent, sounding articulate and well balanced.

Two things that continued to impress me during the six weeks I used the Avalons were their capabilities in dynamics and loudness. I found myself playing my favorite tracks at higher levels than I'm used to. Noting a touch of hardness in the speakers' reproduction of the first chorus in the Linn St. Matthew Passion, I realized that the sound-pressure level at my listening seat was peaking at close to 100dB! Similarly with Live at Merkin Hall, setting the playback level to fully appreciate the wide dynamic range of Mark Flynn's drumming, I found myself playing this CD loud enough to be aware of the very faint hiss of Chris Jones' bass-guitar preamplifier. Which is too loud.

Against the Epos
The natural subject for comparison with the NP Evolution 2.0 was the Epos M16i, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Bob Reina in our June 2008 issue. The British Epos costs the same—$1995/pair—as the American Avalon, and is a similar-looking, if slightly slimmer, tower. But whereas the NP 2.0 is a two-way design, the M16i is more like a two-way minimonitor with an integral woofer.

The Eposes were less fussy about setup than the Avalons. However, they were also noticeably less sensitive. My measurements indicated a difference of almost 3dB, but it sounded like more. The Eposes threw a smaller soundstage than the Avalons, but with larger, more robust-sounding sources within that stage. But I could hear farther into the image with the NP 2.0s.

The M16i had a more naturally balanced midrange than the NP 2.0. Even with the Avalons optimally set up in my room, they still sounded a little nasal in direct comparison with the Eposes. While the two speakers' low-frequency performances were comparable, the Epos had more extended high frequencies. However, the M16i didn't sound as articulate as the Avalon, nor did it play as loud without strain.

It's difficult to choose between these speakers; I could live with either.

Against the PSB
At $4500/pair, the PSB Synchrony One costs more than twice as much as the Avalon NP Evolution 2.0. While a tower, the Canadian speaker is significantly larger than the Avalon, and its innovative, elegant industrial design makes the American speaker look a bit mundane in comparison. Used with its lowest woofer's port blocked, as described in my April review, the PSB's low frequencies in my room were more extended and more powerful-sounding than those of either the Avalon or the Epos. "Magnificent weight to the double basses," read the listening notes I took while listening to Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, from the Hyperion CD mentioned earlier (CDA66420). The Synchrony's midrange was the cleanest, most neutrally balanced of all three speakers, and, other than a slight touch of brightness in the mid-treble, its high frequencies were the smoothest.

Going back to the Avalon from the PSB, however, once I'd gotten used to its upper-midrange character, the NP 2.0 had a musically involving quality that I appreciated. By contrast, the PSB sounded a touch laid-back, meaning I had to go to the music rather than it coming to me. And while the Avalon's low frequencies were shelved down in comparison with the PSB's, they were more articulate. For example, the kick drum that starts "Blizzard Limbs," on Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall, sounded a bit too thick through the PSBs.

Overall, if the difference in price was not an issue, I would choose the Synchrony One over the NP 2.0. But it was a closer-run contest than I'd expected.

Summing up
The Avalon NP Evolution 2.0's clean, grain-free high frequencies, extended, well-defined low frequencies, superb soundstaging, and ability to play at high levels without strain, are all commendable. Yes, the speaker has a bit more upper-midrange character than I would have liked, and that lively cabinet continues to bother me. But the NP 2.0 managed to sidestep those problems much of the time, particularly when optimally set up. It's a bit like putting on sunglasses with a slightly colored tint: After a short while, everything looks correctly colored; only when you remove the glasses do you realize the correction your brain has been applying.

My comments should also be put in the context of the NP 2.0's price. You can't expect perfection for $1995/pair; what matters is the balance the designer has achieved between competing problems, given the limited budget at his disposal. In the case of the Avalon NP Evolution 2.0, I'd say that the balance chosen by designer Neil Patel is a legitimate one.

Recommended. But take the time to experiment with setup and placement to get the best from the NP Evolution 2.0.

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