Avantgarde Acoustic Uno Series Two loudspeaker Page 4

A friend who admits to preferring levels considerably lower than the typical audiophile—and who promptly asked me to reduce the volume from the blow-the-man-down demo level—said that he was most impressed by how the Uno maintained a dynamic feel even while playing at a "background" level. At every level, the ebb and flow of musical expression—ie, microdynamics—was communicated with a precision that went beyond any other speaker I've had in my listening room.

Dynamics are all well and good, but a loudspeaker can't be described as a high-fidelity device unless it's able to produce an accurate reproduction of the tonal characteristics of musical instruments and voices. The Uno did. Instrumental and vocal timbres were extraordinarily lifelike, and there was impressive tonal neutrality across the frequency range, bass and treble evenly balanced with the midrange. The tweeter managed the difficult trick of being sweet and revealing at the same time. Bass extension held up well to the low 20s, with lots of power on tap when required.

Matching a direct-radiating subwoofer with a horn midrange is no trivial task, but Avantgarde has done an admirable job, given the size and price constraints. (The $38,000 Avantgarde Trio has a horn woofer and four SUB225 CTRL PRO subwoofers, crossed over at a lower frequency than with the Uno.) After suitable tweaking of the subwoofer controls, the midrange/subwoofer blend was quite good, and the subwoofer came close to matching the midrange in tautness and agility.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Uno's ability to present music was the way it seemed to transcend limitations in the quality of the source material. Poorly miked recordings, worn LPs, early digital transfers that I had dismissed as harsh-sounding—all came across as much more listenable, and at times were stunningly lifelike. The Uno was singularly lacking in hardness and grain, which lent an utter ease to the quality of reproduction. (The associated equipment I used for most of my listening, which included the Cary 2A3SE monoblock amplifiers and Bel Canto DAC 1, made a major contribution here.) A CD transfer of Mario Lanza's radio show, recorded in mono in the early 1950s (When Day is Done, RCA 63254-2), had me thinking that if Lanza were to miraculously appear in my listening room, this is just what he'd sound like. (Actually, this CD sounds better than most of Lanza's later studio recordings.) With every CD and LP I played, the Uno led me to feel that the music, performance, and recording were all better than I had realized.

The Uno's ability to present recordings in a favorable way didn't mean that it wasn't revealing of differences in recordings or associated components. In fact, the Uno's levels of clarity, transparency, and detail exceeded those of any other speaker of my experience. Whatever differences there were in the sound of recordings and equipment, the Uno allowed me to hear them. However, unlike speakers generally regarded as "analytical," it didn't thrust them at me in a way that interfered with the music.

Listening to the original cast recording of Hair through other speakers, I'd always thought that they must have recorded it with bandwidth- and dynamics-limiting filters. Through the Uno, all of this was plainly audible when I deliberately tried to listen for it, but unless I made a real effort to switch my mind into the analytic mode, I was able to simply enjoy the work as a dated but tuneful piece of '60s nostalgia.

The Uno also allowed me to hear the differences among the various dither settings of the Rotel RCD-991, and the beneficial effect of giving CDs the Auric Illuminator (footnote 2) treatment. The nature of the Uno is such that it revealed more clearly the effects of tweaks and component differences that might otherwise have been obscured, but its sound was so involving that I was less tempted to be forever tweaking or wondering if something needed to be changed in my system to get me closer to that ever-elusive live sound.

Being used to the standard-setting soundstaging and imaging capabilities of the Dunlavy SC-IV/As, and knowing that this is not usually considered to be horn speakers' particular strength, I thought I might find this aspect of the Unos' performance disappointing. As it turned out, the Unos were able to throw an extremely wide soundstage, with life-size images well-defined within the stage, lacking only the last bit of imaging sharpness provided by the Dunlavys. Listening position was not ultra-critical; in fact, I was able to get a good semblance of a soundstage when sitting directly in front of one of the speakers. (The soundstage was much better in the sweet spot, of course.) Initially, I had the impression that the images were somewhat larger than life, but this turned out to be an artifact of the tendency to play the speakers at levels louder than usual. The sense of depth and accuracy of placement in the distance was excellent; I was able to differentiate clickers at the 60', 70', and 80' distances in the depth test of Chesky's second jazz sampler and test CD (Chesky JD68).

And what about those infamous "horn colorations"? Virtually absent. The Uno certainly did not have the megaphone-like sound that people associate with horns, nor did it sound nasal, honky, or forward. From time to time I was aware of some resonance/unevenness in the lower midrange that may have been due to the horn loading, but its magnitude was low enough that it really didn't bother me. The fact is that every speaker has some characteristic that you will either get used to or find increasingly annoying. Some speakers avoid coloration in the usual sense, but have a kind of blandness that robs the music of excitement. The music presented by the Unos was so vibrant, so compellingly natural, that whatever coloration was occasionally noticeable (and it was only occasionally) seemed like a small price to pay.

There is a historical association between horns and single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers, an association that continues in the minds of many audiophiles today. But does buying the Avantgarde Uno entail having to get rid of whatever amplifier you're using now and buying a SET? And, in general, is this speaker so fussy about the quality of the associated components that only the best—ie, the most expensive—will do?

The answer I'd give to both questions is "Not necessarily." Because SETs have low power (except for ones using exotic tubes), they have to be used with high-efficiency speakers such as horns, but there's no reason to believe that the converse also holds.

Footnote 2: I heartily agree with Lonnie Brownell's endorsement of the Auric Illuminator in the most recent "Recommended Components" (April 2000). One by one, as I play them, all my CDs are getting the Auric Illuminator treatment.