Avantgarde • Trio/Sub231 Speaker System

by Roy Gregory | December 21, 2013

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As contentious, conflicted and downright opinionated as the audio community is, few product categories divide listeners as starkly or attract their loyalty or derision as quickly as horn loudspeakers. Some listeners can’t bear music presented in any other way, while others deny that what comes out of horn speakers constitutes music in any recognizable form at all. Like all extreme dichotomies, the truth lies somewhere in between, but just finding a middle ground is problematic in itself, because not only do horn speakers do things differently, they place different demands on the driving system and offer different musical answers, a different perspective on the performance. In those differences lie the seeds of discontent, fertile ground for prejudice, but also the possibility of greatness that makes horn speakers such a tantalizing and fascinating proposition.

What’s so different about horns? Let’s start by looking at a little bit of history and what most other conventional speakers share in common. Back in the mists of time, when home audio systems first evolved, the available output from the source was so small that horns were necessary to render it audible. Whether you want to talk wax cylinders or shellac discs, the big trumpet protruding from the player is an enduring image. Even with the advent of electro-mechanical transducers and amplification, the power on tap was so limited that horn speaker systems remained the norm, often built into elaborate, corner-standing cabinets.

The first big change came with the emergence of reliable solid-state electronics, delivering far higher rated outputs. These opened the door to less efficient box-based loudspeaker designs that were more electrically complex and awkward to drive, but also smaller, cheaper to produce, and far more domestically acceptable. Soon, sealed or vented multi-way box systems had become the norm -- speakers that despite their relatively compact dimensions offered greater bandwidth and linearity along with lower levels of coloration. It was a trend that reached its apogee (or nadir, depending on your point of view) in the early 1980s, with the emergence of "ground-breaking" designs like the Celestion SL6. In one sense, this unassuming and affordable little speaker was the harbinger of things to come. It single-handedly put laser interferometry on the map, established the metal-dome tweeter as a must-have component and set a trend for compact two-way loudspeakers with almost impossibly low sensitivity and obdurate impedance characteristics that we are still dealing with today. After the SL6, the notion of getting more and more bandwidth out of smaller and smaller boxes (inevitably using ever-larger amplifiers) became more than just a rite of passage -- it became a cause célèbre.

Now clearly, no loudspeaker makes such an impact without some serious attributes, and the SL6 had a smoothness of balance and lack of glare or telltale ringing that were indeed remarkable for a time dominated by fizzy soft-dome tweeters. The downside, as I’ve already suggested, lay in the sensitivity (82.5dB/W/m -- on a good day and with a following wind) and a drive characteristic that crippled all but the most capable of amplifiers. The SL6 was in many ways the perfect physical manifestation of an ongoing design trend that used heavily damped materials and heavy-handed, subtractive crossovers in the pursuit of ever-wider and -flatter frequency response. It had all the attributes -- and all the problems too, with sensitivity sacrificed with an almost reckless abandon based on misplaced confidence that power was cheap and easy. The problem is that in taking things way, way too far, the SL6 and its contemporaries sacrificed any vestige of real dynamic range or expression, key ingredients in the live musical experience. Suddenly, the gap between live and recorded sound was widening rather than narrowing; for all their neutrality and tonal accuracy, bandwidth and polite manners, the SL6 and its like foundered on the rock of music’s dynamic demands.

The ability to seduce, the right to offend

Music evokes a whole gamut of emotional responses; this is what has made it so ubiquitous and indispensable to human existence since organized society emerged. It can calm or excite; it can uplift, transport or bind; seduce, shock or offend. It holds in its power the whole range of human feeling -- and any system that seeks to offer it must do so too. If we look at the dynamic range of real life and real music, it can travel from the quietest whisper to the loudest, most intense crescendo in a fraction of a second. Such massive swings are impressive and compelling, but what really matters is the speed of response, the ability to mirror the tiny shifts in energy that give a voice or instrument its expressive power and ability to communicate.

Whilst only the biggest and most ambitious setups can hope to approach the dynamic impact and capabilities of a large orchestra or amplified rock band, even a girl-and-guitar recording demands a level of dynamic discrimination that escapes many so-called high-fidelity systems -- simply because the key performance criterion in this respect is sensitivity: how far, how fast and how precisely the system can respond to changes in the signal.

The SL6 represents something of an all-time low (as well as the biggest wrong turn in audio history), although its 82.5dB sensitivity wasn’t that unusual at the time. The current trend in sensitivity is definitely on the up, with most speakers these days rated at or above 90dB and offering significantly easier load characteristics. In part that is down to the inadequacies of many A/V amplifiers coupled to the demands of movie soundtracks, but I’ll take the benefits any way I can. More importantly, high-profile brands like Wilson and Focal are offering flagship speakers that have sensitivities approaching the mid-90s, a clear indicator of a reemerging recognition of the importance of not just dynamic range but also dynamic discrimination.

But even the 95dB sensitivity of the Focal Grande Utopia EM looks pretty paltry when compared to the 109dB figure boasted by Avantgarde’s Trio -- and many other horn systems. And there you have it; if conventional box-speaker design has ignored and undervalued sensitivity for way too long, the ability to play loud with a mere spec of power is almost a given with horn designs. A 6dB step in volume represents a doubling of apparent level. Convert that into equipment terms and a pair of Trios will go three times as loud as a 91dB speaker, given the same input signal. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s certainly food for thought.

Those who reject the horn approach generally do so on the grounds of unacceptable coloration, discontinuities and limited bandwidth -- in fact, all the things that conventional box speakers do so well. But in the same way that not all box speakers are created equal and the genre embraces a host of different box and driver types, crossover topologies and slopes that can be combined in a bewildering array of different configurations, not all horn speakers are equivalent. There’s a world of difference between a Lowther corner cabinet and the Avantgarde Trio and it stems from their very nature and their chosen technology.

Horn cabinets are large; full-range horn cabinets are huge. Take the classic Lowther TP1A corner cabinet as an example; it uses a single drive unit (albeit one with a parasitic cone assembly) radiating in both directions to reproduce something approaching a full-range signal. But the horns required are so long that they are folded and concertina'd into a manageable cabinet that still uses and needs floor and wall reinforcement to achieve any sense of meaningful low-frequency weight and extension. In the case of the bass horn, that means eight turns in a path that resembles the Cresta run. Despite all that intricate (and expensive) cabinet work and with the speakers optimally sited, the bottom end of the TP1A was a long, long way short of stentorian.

But if that wasn’t enough of a handicap, the naysayers will take one look at the folded horn and point out that each turn, each corner, each different material or dimension risks introducing coloration -- the dreaded horn "honk." With that many corners and panels, not to mention a low-tech "whizzer" cone, how can the sound be anything other than hopelessly colored? I’ll leave that one for the Lowther aficionados to deal with (and apologize in advance for any inadvertent inaccuracies I’ve included in my description of the TP1A).

The point I’m getting at is that the TP1A represents a full-range, single-driver, folded-horn design and that in turn represents one extreme of horn thinking. At the other you find Avantgarde’s Trio, a multi-way, spherical horn, hybrid design. Indeed, some would say that its hybrid nature means that it’s not really a proper horn at all, but that’s just another example of audio extremism run wild.

The world really is round, not flat

The simplest horn structures are the gentle flares so familiar from the mouths of brass instruments. These pure horns, with their smooth walls and steady increase in diameter, are the ideal solution to horn loading any driver. In fact, if you look at the wide range of horn- or semi-horn-loaded tweeters on the market, they all use variations on this approach, modified to deliver the necessary gain. It’s an arrangement that also produces a hemispherical wave front (hence the name), another desirable attribute. Why aren’t all horn loudspeakers spherical designs? Because the mathematics mean that as frequencies drop, the length of your trumpet and the width of its mouth will quickly become unmanageable. Which is why you see the approach widely applied to tweeters, occasionally to midranges, but other applications are rare indeed, generally involving some other form of bass loading, either a folded horn or an active subwoofer. But once you’ve seen a speaker that uses spherical horns it’s hard to forget, whether the horns are turned out of multi-layer wood or molded in brightly painted fiberglass.

Avantgarde may not have been the first modern company to produce spherical horns (an honor that probably belongs to Acapella Audio), but they have been consistently the most visible, partly because of their brightly colored trumpets, but also because the Trio represents the only three-way spherical-horn system that makes for one pretty imposing low-frequency horn, a trumpet almost a meter in diameter!

The other big difference between a speaker like the TP1A and the Trio is that the Lowther derives its entire bandwidth from a single driver, always a tricky proposition, irrespective of the driver or cabinet technology employed. In stark contrast, the Trio is a genuine three-driver system, with an additional, active bass leg. Those pointing accusatory fingers at the Lowther corner horn divide the blame for the incipient coloration between the horn enclosure and the drive unit itself; the problem is that any coloration generated by the driver is exacerbated by the horn loading that amplifies it. The Trio sidesteps this problem by using relatively conventional modern drivers and materials that offer very low coloration levels within their bandwidth. Combined with the smooth surfaces and regular, even flare of the horns, the result is extremely low inherent coloration -- measured by the standards expected of conventional horn systems.

But every audio swing has its corresponding roundabout, and the issue that confronts the Trio is the same issue that confronts any three-way loudspeaker -- integration of the different drivers. It’s a problem that is all the more acute because the sheer size and differing lengths of the three horns makes placing the drivers in close proximity extremely difficult. However, the space-frame construction allows precise fore and aft positioning, allowing Avantgarde the opportunity to ensure that the three drivers remain perfectly in phase at the crossover points.

The basic form of the Trio has remained unchanged since the company’s launch, but where the original frames were comparatively crude, the G2 modifications applied across the range have improved the fit, finish and parts quality to a level fully commensurate with the speakers’ price. That attention to detail can be seen in the cast base and beautifully engineered conical feet, so essential to achieving the correct rake angle for the horn array; it can be seen in the tapered rods and knurled thumb wheels that secure the trumpet assemblies to the uprights; it can be seen in the beautiful castings that cap the rear of each driver assembly and the cabling that is threaded through the frame. You might find the skeletal appearance attractive -- or not -- but the detail and care with which the Trio arrays have been assembled is as impressive close up as it is from a distance. One man’s striking and sculptural is another man’s starkly brutal, but I for one really like the way that the Trios look, and their unashamedly Bauhaus minimalism will work in a wide range of different environments, contrasting with the traditional, complementing the modern. With an almost limitless range of color options (ten as standard, anything you like as long as you are prepared to pay for it), it should be possible to achieve an acceptable effect under almost any circumstances.

Plumbing the depths

Of course, until now I’ve been describing the Trios as a full-range system, whereas in reality those big three-trumpet arrays only reach down to 100Hz. That puts them in the same class as the average computer speaker, at least in terms of bandwidth, hence the need for subwoofers -- and serious subwoofers at that. If the problem of integrating a sub or subs with electrostatics is widely perceived as one of relative speed, building a sub that’s quick enough to keep up with the electrostatic driver. Now take that a whole step further and try to build subs that can keep up with horns! That’s quite a challenge, and it’s an area in which Avantgarde have made significant advances since the early models. It’s not an insuperable problem, but as the experience of successful hybrid systems as varied as the Eminent Technology loudspeakers and the Zu Audio designs demonstrate, you need a truly dedicated solution and considerable understanding and experience to pull it off. Avantgarde’s smaller systems use a pair of spherical horns vertically arrayed above an integrated active bass unit sat between the legs of the driver frame, but in the Trios the bass units are freestanding, and there are three to choose from.

Why the option of three different bass units? That is down to the simple expedients of size and cost. In the same way that the Trio horn arrays come in two versions -- the curved, arguably more elegant and certainly more striking Classico and the more compact standard model -- the subwoofers come in a range of sizes (and prices), allowing the user to fit the system to his space and budget. If we start at the top of the range, you’ll soon get the picture. A pair of the Basshorn active subs builds a pair of mirror-imaged, snail-shaped bass horns (similar to but much prettier than the ones you see at the bottom of PA stacks) into quarter-segment cabinets over a meter (40") wide, 740mm (29") tall and each weighing 89kgs -- or nearly 200 pounds! These can be placed in corners, or more usually fitted together into a semicircular array nearly seven feet wide, placed centrally between the speakers. Of course, even horn-loaded bass cabinets this size can’t reach below 20Hz unaided, so the twin 12" drivers in each cabinet are electronically equalized by the active crossover and two channels of 250W onboard solid-state amplification.

But if you are investing in a horn system, then the more horn the better. Stacking Basshorns increases the bandwidth of the horn output, decreasing the amount of equalization required -- up to a total of three pairs! That’s a single stack around seven feet wide and over seven feet tall. It’s an imposing sight, and at €26,000 a pair, an expensive one too. A top-of-the-range Trio/Triple Basshorn setup runs out at a total of €112,000, putting it right up there with the most ambitious mainstream speakers on the planet. But it’s not just expensive to buy; it is difficult and demanding to house as well -- something else it has with other top-end speaker systems.

If the Basshorns are a little rich for your blood (not to mention a little on the large side for your room), then Avantgarde offer the Short Basshorn as an alternative. Essentially the subwoofer from the Duo Mezzo, this is a horn-loaded enclosure with a short front flare and again including active drive. Its nominal bandwidth, reaching down to 18Hz, is the same as the Basshorn’s and it uses the same paired 12" drivers, but here you are getting less horn and more equalization, as well as a more complex flare.

The upside is that the cabinets are more compact, at two feet wide or deep and a little over three feet tall. That makes each one about the size of a domestic washing machine. They are a shade lighter than the Basshorns, a bit cheaper and that combined with their dimensions makes them rather more manageable. Like the Basshorns, they can also be stacked, but in this case only two high. A pair of Trios with a single set of Short Basshorns will run you €56,000, but like the full Basshorn system, it does provide a stepped upgrade path.

Finally, we get to the basic Trio system, a setup that pairs the horn arrays with either two or four Sub231 bass units -- conventional, active, subwoofers devoid of horn loading. Just as the Short Basshorn is derived from the Duo Mezzo’s bass unit, so the Sub231 comes from the next model down, the Duo Grosso. Once again, we find the same twin 12" drivers and electronics package generating the same 18Hz bandwidth, but this time the tall, slim cabinets are barely more than a foot wide, a foot and a half deep and three feet tall -- positively compact compared to horn systems. Of course, in opting for Sub231s you forego the benefits of horn-loading below 100Hz, but the real benefit is in the cost. Run Trios with a single pair of Sub231s and the price tumbles to a "mere" €47,000 -- or broadly equivalent to many brand’s second- or third-tier models. Yet you are still getting the three-way spherical-horn array and the sub-20Hz bandwidth, the adjustability of active bass and the upgradability of adding more (potentially horn-loaded) subs at a later date. Paired with Sub231s the Trio horn arrays are both easier to buy and easier to accommodate. Suddenly the Trio system starts to look not just impressive but like impressively good value when lined up alongside other high-end speaker systems. Anyway you cut it this is an awful lot of speaker for the money.

The Sub231s look rather more impressive than the standard black-box aesthetics of most subwoofers. Being derived from the Duo Grosso, they share that speaker’s narrow grille and color-coded cheeks, painted to match the Trio horns. Personally, I prefer the sound with the grilles removed, but there’s no escaping the industrial-chic appearance that results. Look around the back of the cabinet and you’ll discover the extensive (and very necessary) heat-sinking for the amplification, as well as the controls to tune the unit’s output. These include the option of speaker level or balanced line-level inputs and control of volume, extension and roll-off point and rate. There’s even a small rotary switch to control how bright the power LED appears.

The review units included the optional cast bases from the Duo Grosso, which, with their four wide-stance conical feet, means that the Sub231s could be placed and leveled with considerable precision. The range of adjustment in the feet allows you to alter the distance between cabinet and floor, while the detents on the electronic controls make small repeatable adjustments simple to achieve, the absolute key to successful integration. In fact it’s the key to the system as a whole, because as with all hybrid systems the success of any Trio installation will be built on the foundation of proper bass alignment, a factor that’s clearly not lost on the company.

Feeding and housing the beast

Whilst the audio world isn’t exactly overflowing with high-end speakers that offer place and play positional versatility, the Trios are way towards the more demanding end of the setup scale. In part that reflects their very nature: They’re a full-range, hybrid system that locates the two different propagation technologies in separate cabinets/arrays. But placement aside, there are other factors to consider -- not least that 109dB sensitivity. Describing this speaker as sensitive is an over simplification. Whilst you might think that you understand exactly what that means, at least in electrical terms, nothing really prepares you for the reality. It’s not about the volume capability; it’s got much more to do with the susceptibility to system noise floor and the incredible resolution delivered by the spherical horns. These speakers are genuinely sensitive -- not just to signal but to every nuance in that signal. Change almost anything in the system and you’ll hear it reflected through the speakers. That makes setting up the speakers themselves super critical, but choice of driving system, supports, cabling and grounding arrangements are all equally important. Anything that impacts on system noise floor or dynamic range will be instantly apparent. In the same way, system coherence is equally important. If integrating the speakers is the key to success, any incoherence in the driving system will undermine your efforts before you even begin.

But the good news is that the very qualities that make the Trio/Sub231 system so demanding are the very same qualities that can make it so spectacularly impressive. My favorite Trio anecdote runs like this: If I were to list the ten best systems I’ve ever heard, Trios would be on the end of two of them; if I were to list the ten worst systems I’ve ever heard, Trios would be on the end of two of them. That sums up the reality. This speaker system is capable of phenomenal results, but you will need to get it right to realize the benefits. Get it wrong and the results can be borderline painful. The good news is that getting it right is all about following the rules -- and those rules are pretty simple.

Before you even get to the speakers, the first and most important thing to worry about is the state of your system and its setup. Any flaws or discontinuities in the driving setup will be ruthlessly revealed, so as a baseline starting point make sure: that you have the same cable right through the system (power cords, signal and speaker leads); that you have the necessary matching cables to run the subs (I prefer running them at line level, requiring a long set of balanced interconnects and the appropriate outputs on your preamp); that the system is properly grounded -- ideally to a separate clean ground -- with no residual noise; that the electronics are properly and consistently supported (if you are using a mixture of different footers or cone-type equipment supports, either ensure that they are the same throughout the system or remove them altogether -- you can always replace them later). It is remarkable how few systems comply with these basic requirements -- but hook up the Trios and they’ll tell you exactly why they all should.

The Trio system was installed by Avantgarde, a process that involved initial setup on one day with tweaking and tuning the next. This was something that I insisted upon, as this is one system that I’d really be struggling to set up myself. Not only are you dealing with the horn arrays, but you also have to integrate the subwoofers, so experience really counts. In practice, this is exactly what prospective purchasers should expect from their local distributor or dealer -- and it also reflects exactly the steps that Avantgarde have taken in the home market.

Positioning the main horn arrays was relatively quick and straightforward. They wound up with their inner uprights roughly centered where a conventional speaker would be centered, a placement that bisected the physical offset of the mid and treble horns, but which placed the speakers' visual center of gravity in a slightly wider-than-usual stance. Considerable time was spent on ensuring that the two speakers were symmetrically placed in the room and exactly the same distance from the listening seat before fixing toe-in and in particular rake angle, the frames being lifted significantly at the rear to focus the treble units at listening-ear height.

But by far the most time was expended on the subwoofers. We experimented with a whole range of fore and aft as well as lateral positions and settings before finally opting for a position that was well back between the speakers and slightly wider than the alternatives. Interestingly, it placed the acoustic center of the bass drivers roughly in line with the other drivers, measured on an arc from the listening position. Having fixed the position on the initial setup it was revisited and the settings further tweaked the following day. Indeed, each time I changed amplifier, it was essential to adjust the woofer level and roll-off to compensate for variations in character and input sensitivity.

What about matching electronics? At 109dB sensitivity, surely the Trios are crying out for some flea-powered triode amp. No, no and thrice no! Forget your preconceptions about horn speakers and single-ended tube amps. Remember the two Trio systems mentioned above, the ones that qualified for the "worst sounding" list? Both of them used single-ended triode amps. And guess what? Both of the really great-sounding ones were driven by solid-state amplifiers. In fact, every time I’ve really enjoyed Trios in any of their various configurations, it has involved solid-state electronics. It should also be noted that Avantgarde have been manufacturing amps for some years now, and they’re all solid-state designs too. I’m not saying that you can’t drive the Trios with tubes, but it is definitely easier to get the required qualities from solid state, and that’s the point. What matters is not whether the amplification takes place via glass or silicon, but whether the amplifier can supply the dynamic range and discrimination, speed, clarity, transparency, control and above all low noise that this speaker thrives on. It is the sense of authority that is important, the ability to track the dynamic demands of the signal, stopping just as quickly as it starts. As Avantgarde designer Matthias Ruff is want to say, "The quality of the first watt matters, but so do the other hundred and fifty backing it up!"

I used the Trios with a number of different amplifiers, including the Jeff Rowland 725s, Jadis JA-30s and Berning Quadrature Zs and 12 Watt monos. As beautiful as they sounded, the Jadis amps were simply too noisy to deliver the dynamics, transparency and impact that the Trios are capable of. The Berning 12 Watt monos were remarkable, but both the Quadrature Zs and the Rowland 725s brought a sense of substance and body to proceedings that really let the speakers breathe and stretch their performance envelope.

But perhaps it should come as no surprise that the best results were achieved using Avantgarde’s own XA electronics. Not only does the XA Pre offer a low-gain option and all the necessary outputs to run a Trio system, its battery power supply makes it ghostly quiet. Simple connectivity and gain issues meant that this was my default preamp throughout the review, the unit to which I always returned. But the most interesting aspect of the XA combination emerged almost by accident. Although it was entirely unplanned, I ended up with a pair of the XA Power stereo amplifiers, thus presenting the opportunity to run them in bridged mono configuration. Now, the XA Power already offers 150 watts of very quick, clean and quiet power, so you’d think that adding a second amplifier to the mix, especially when it’s driving a bandwidth-limited speaker (the subs are active, remember) of 109dB might be a waste of time. Not a bit of it. The sheer substance and physical presence injected into the music by that extra amplifier makes a serious and seriously powerful statement about just how to drive these speakers. Even taking the extra connections and cable involved in the necessary Y-adapters into consideration, there was simply no way in which a single XA bettered the pair. The dual-mono setup was better in every sonic parameter, but more telling still was its sheer musical and communicative superiority. The addition of that second XA Power lifted the performance of the system from special to spectacular.

Vive la difference!

The Trios are clearly different -- different in the way they look, different in both their physical structure and electrical characteristics, different in the demands they place on the driving system. But the real question is, How do those differences impact on their sound and the music they make? Are they different as in better, different as in worse, or simply different for the sake of difference? One of the reasons I’ve spent so much time on the theoretical and physical aspects of this speaker is because they impact so directly on its musical performance. When compared to many audiophile benchmark designs their presentation is very different and that is potentially both their strength and their weakness. In the end the equation is the same: Are the strengths that result from the approach real and important, and are any weaknesses reduced to the point where they become sufficiently unobtrusive to accommodate? In the general lexicon of reviewing we have a whole vocabulary dedicated to describing, defining and parsing such differences and distinctions -- partly because we are talking about quite fine delineations in performance, different views or filters applied to the same picture. But with the Trios (as with any good horn speaker) you are observing events from a whole new perspective -- same valley, totally different hilltop.

Recently I attended a concert, attracted by the chance to hear the Philharmonia (of London) conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. Part of the program was the oh-so-familiar Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto played by (the I’m ashamed to admit, unknown to me) Sayaka Shoji. With the opening piece complete, our soloist advanced on center stage, minute even in four-inch heals, so small that the violin clutched in her left hand looked more like a viola. Cue those instantly recognizable opening bars and we were off. Etiquette is not high on the agenda in the inclusive environment of the Festival Hall. The result is a varied audience, but one that is prone to clap at inopportune moments and is seemingly unconcerned by coughs or constant shuffling. Yet three or four notes into the first solo passage, the whole fidgety crowd was immobilized, captivated, silenced by what was clearly an extraordinary performance. Just those few notes were enough to capture the attention, and the deeper we got into the piece the more spellbinding the effect. This wasn’t just a concert -- this was an experience whose power and majesty were reflected in the explosion of applause that capped the finale. Live music at its best, whether rock, blues, jazz, folk or classical, delivers that experience. That’s what makes it special and powerful and compelling. It’s what drives us to try and reproduce that music and that experience at home.

Everybody reading this will have listened to big systems at one time or another -- be it at home, at a friend’s home, a shop or a show. Ask yourself the simple question, How often could I describe listening to any of the many audio systems I’ve heard as an experience? I’m guessing the answer is not too many -- yet the whole point of recordings is to capture great performers at their best, and the whole point of great systems is to re-create those events. But if you’ve ever heard the Trios working as they can, then that’s one occasion that will definitely have registered, because there’s no way that hearing Avantgarde’s flagship speakers, on song and on point, can be described as anything other than an experience. That’s what these speakers do, and it's what makes them different. They are all about the presence and impact, the immediacy, delicacy and intimacy, the directness of communication and sense of energy that characterize the live event -- actual people playing actual instruments.

Now translate that to recordings. It’s a matter of some surprise to me that, with so many companies trolling the back catalogues looking for albums to reissue on 180-gram vinyl, nobody has grabbed the rights for Joe Jackson’s early recordings. Maybe they’re not available, or maybe they’re submerged in one of those convoluted legal swamps that the music industry seems to specialize in, but if I were MoFi I’d definitely be on the case. The early studio albums are well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, combining that ‘80s-era British studio sound and great playing with some of the best and most acerbic writing in pop. But lurking in the background there’s a hidden gem, a live double album that’s as unusual as it is excellent. You see, each of the four sides is taken from a different tour, featuring different songs (with some fascinating overlaps -- notably three completely different and contrasting versions of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?") and different lineups. Called Joe Jackson Live 1980/86 [A&M AMA6706], it’s well worth seeking out.

Play the first side, drawn from the Beat Crazy tour and you hear the original Joe Jackson Band shaped and honed by harsh experience, playing its last-ever gig. The stark energy and attitude of the stripped-back four-piece with its unusual piano-centric balance, the tightness of the band, the ease and confidence with which they venture off piste, dropping in and out of tracks, their interaction with the audience, speak volumes about their shared history. The Trios pick out the post-punk underpinnings and the emerging sophistication too. This performance isn’t all about slam, bam, in-your-face energy -- either the band or the speakers. It’s about controlled, balanced power. Just listen to the agility and fluidity, the anchoring calm of the bass line on the otherwise frantic thrash of "I’m The Man" to appreciate that, right across the band, these guys can play. The drumming is tight and crisp, with a natural sense of impact and tonal distinction between the different pieces in the kit, the additional percussion. But it’s the extended, evolved, almost jazzy entry to "Is She Really. . . ?" that really shows where Jackson is heading. You can argue that his voice was never the greatest, but here you can hear him working its range and understanding how its off-beat style and flaws suit the angst and insecurities in the material.

Now compare that with the same song performed four years later on the Body and Soul tour. The band is almost twice the size, the range of instruments similarly extended, introducing brass, accordion, synth and even violin to the mix. But that signature tune, the millstone that every band seems to create and just has to perform, has changed out of all recognition. Gone is the extended entry, the jazzy space and instrumental gymnastics, the slow build to the chaotic climax. In its place you get a pared-back rhythm track, so sparse it’s almost a click track. The voice is front and center, with small melodic flourishes from the accordion and synth filling the space behind. The positioning, after "Real Men," is no accident either, bringing a more thoughtful and reflective quality to the song, a shift that is reflected across the whole set. Less anger, more resignation.

The musical journey encompassed on this album is fascinating, the more so because the Trios allow each band, each iteration, each set its own character and feel. In part that reflects the change in venues, the difference in the recordings, but this album is all about the music and the band playing it -- and that’s exactly what the Trios give you. The evolution in Jackson’s vocals is clearly mapped -- the band even do "Is She. . . ?" a cappella at one point and that really leaves a singer with nowhere to hide -- the development and shifting perspective on the tracks a remarkable window on the path that really starts (as Jackson puts it) "when the audience stopped throwing garbage."

That a horn system should excel in the reproduction of live rock or pop shouldn’t really come as any surprise. Just look at all those Turbosound cabinets in most PA systems. That the Trios can do scale, presence and the upfront energy of a live concert should be a given. But what’s really impressive is the subtlety they bring to the presentation, the way they capture the very different feel and atmosphere of each concert and each band, the way they pick both the character in the players and the (variable) quality of the recordings. You want live? You got it -- but it’s live as in life, not just loud.

Move to the other end of the scale and Janis Ian playing and singing "Some People’s Lives" from the Breaking Silence CD [Analogue Productions CAPP 027] and the immediacy and delicacy these speakers are capable of are immediately apparent. It’s not just the purity and transparency, shape, inflections and body in the vocal, it’s the incredible definition that resolves the precise weight and spacing of the piano notes. There’s no missing that this is a percussion instrument, but there’s no missing the weight of one note relative to the next either. It’s a distinction that many speakers and systems smooth or blur, but the Trios deliver the information so effortlessly and naturally that the shape and pressure of each phrase, whether it leans into the song or backs off, is beautifully, starkly apparent. It brings a whole new level of fragile delicacy to this recording that lifts it yet another notch. Of course, in its own way, this is a live recording too -- one take direct to two-track -- but it highlights the absolute dynamic coherence of these speakers, their ability to resolve the smallest dynamic shifts as well as to embrace, even welcome the widest dynamic leaps.

This ability to track dynamics allows the Trios to differentiate instruments in even the densest mix. Whether you are talking about full orchestra or a muddy and congested studio production, the Trios inject a previously unexpected degree of life, separation and clarity to proceedings. They have that happy knack of putting the musical performance first, the recording second, and as a result production limitations sit behind the event rather than forming a frame or grille through which it’s viewed. Great recordings sound great, lesser recordings sound better than they’ve any right to -- and you can’t ask for more than that.

Bass, always an issue in any full-range hybrid system, is a joy. Yes, it depends on the time and care that go into the setup (hence the reason we lavished four times as many hours on the subs as we did on the horn arrays), but once you’ve got the subs properly placed and dialed in, the results are excellent. Integration is essentially seamless; there is a subtle textural shift across the boundary, but you need to really be listening for it, and in general listening I’d be astonished if it intruded. But the standout qualities are transparency and articulation. Not only do bass instruments retain their identity and separation, even when the rest of the band cuts loose, you can still hear exactly what they’re doing. It’s another aspect of live music that often escapes audio systems -- this absolute independence of low frequencies and the way they remain clearly audible below the rest of the instruments. There are very few systems that get close to capturing it and amongst that number, the Trio/Sub231 is amongst the most affordable.

At the opposite end of the frequency range the high frequencies are big, bold and solid. There’s absolutely no lack of energy or attack here, while bite and texture are also first rate. The top end doesn’t have the airy quality that comes from the very best diamond or Beryllium units, but its quality and nature are so different that it’s not something you really notice. If you want to hear somebody good really torturing a guitar, this is the speaker for you. Just the same way Ferrari owners taking a friend for a spin just love to drop the clutch, I can see Trio owners turning to The Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here as an alternative. Play the Analogue Productions SACD of the latter [CAPP 33453 SA] (and play it loud), and I can just imagine Dave Gilmour sat on the sofa with a grin like the Cheshire Cat. This isn’t just fireworks or fretboard heroics, it isn’t just seriously solid guitar, played with a searing intensity -- this is what serious hi-fi systems should be all about: the ability to hold a listener, any listener, transfixed, mouth agape with awe. One almost incidental advantage of Avantgarde ownership is never having to apologize for your system to non-audiophile friends again -- ever!

This combination of presence, immediacy, temporal authority and dynamic grip allow these speakers to project music with a confident, controlled abandon that is almost intoxicating. If one measure of a system’s success is the way it sends you rifling through your record collection, then the Trios are a serious contender. Not only do they pull a performance out from under the most cloying and congested production, they’ll do it with any musical genre and any kind of performer. Those horns and the sensitivity might subliminally suggest that these speakers would lean to jazz or rock recordings, and there’s no doubting that they excel in those musical forms. But the very qualities that make music what it is, rather than simply noise, are common across genres, so the same qualities that make the Trios excel on Basie and the B-52s, make them equally successful when it comes to Bob Dylan, Bruckner, Beethoven or Kate Bush.

I could go on, but it is easier to say that, try as I might, I didn’t find a single record that wasn’t lifted or illuminated in some interesting and positive way by its introduction to the Trios. By dealing in fundamentals -- pitch, pace, time and level -- the Trios succeed in being genuinely non-discriminatory when it comes to music. The only grounds on which they object are those of performance. As long as the band can deliver, then so too will the speakers.

The flip side

Okay, so we know what the Trios do, the musical areas in which they excel. What’s the price you pay for those abilities? The first area of examination has to be tonality, the traditional Achilles’ heel of horn designs. First off -- and as already noted -- the Trios exhibit extremely low levels of inherent coloration when measured against horn norms. Indeed, these speakers in this system have tonal deviation that’s well within the range experienced with some conventional loudspeakers, with the added benefit that it is continuous in nature across the horns’ output, rather than introducing discontinuities or steps in the response. That’s pretty impressive, but it doesn’t mean that the way these speakers address tonality isn’t an issue. Like so many things, they have their own particular way.

Let’s look at two recordings of the same piece played by different artists on different instruments. First up, Julia Fischer’s reading of the Bach Partitas [PentaTone 5186 072] played on her 1750 Guadagnini. Poised and precise, this is a performance full of grace and control, with a superb sense of ebb and flow, an almost lyrical quality. Now compare it to Sayaka Shoji’s recording [Mirare MIR 128] (yep, I moved pretty quickly to remedy this particular gap in my collection!) on which she plays the 1729 Recamier Stradivarius. Shoji’s playing is full of drama and intensity, angles and contrast -- so different to the calm-yet-expressive quality of Fischer.

Swapping backwards and forwards between the two, the difference in the playing is so stark and so dramatic that it almost diminishes the difference between the instruments. Yet the tonal qualities of these two violins couldn’t be much more different. The Guadagnini has a smooth richness and complexity that make the Strad sound almost stridently vibrant and lively in contrast, a contrast that most high-end speakers would render all too clearly. Yet, on the Trios, while the differences between the instruments are apparent, they are entirely secondary to the differences between the players themselves. The tonal gap is also slightly collapsed, the Guadagnini lacking a little of its rosy warmth, the Strad a little body and weight, emphasizing its dynamic range and attack. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong -- should primacy go to what is played or who is playing? -- but this specificity of perspective, this concentration on technique and execution, is a constant in the Trios’ musical presentation. It’s not that they don’t do tonality, harmonics or character, but these aspects of the musical performance certainly take a back seat -- a concentration of what is being played and how it’s being played over individual instrumental identity. Given the speakers’ list of strengths, this should come as no surprise, and in many ways it lies at, and perhaps is, the very core that makes the Trio so different and distinctive.

You could run through further examples, different instruments, familiar voices, but the result would always be the same. Much as you hear a violin in one room or another and it still sounds instantly recognizable as a violin, the Trios seem to place the performance in a cooler and slightly livelier acoustic space; almost a case of same instrument, same player, different room. Which leads us almost inevitably to the arena of soundstaging and acoustic space. Given all the time I’ve spent discussing the sheer physical presence generated by the Trios, clearly the creation of individual images really isn’t a problem. In fact, quite the opposite, with the speakers able to locate an instrument or voice precisely in space -- and hold it there with impressive stability. It’s one of the things that makes the Trios so musically convincing -- but it’s not the issue here. What I’m looking at now is not the ability to project convincing images, but what happens around and between those images. In other words, are they impressive, individual and ultimately discrete sound sources, or is the spatial relationship between them clearly defined, creating a single overarching acoustic space in which they all coexist? Again, we’ve all heard speaker systems that, given the right recording, generate almost holographic acoustic spaces, with walk-in-and-look-around dimensionality. Is the Avantgarde Trio one of them? Well -- yes and no, or maybe.

On some material the speakers can produce just such an illusion of space. The carefully crafted studio productions on Suzanne Vega’s Close-Up Vol. 2, People And Places LP [Music On Vinyl MOVLP231] are beautifully solid and naturally proportioned, without any congestion or image wander. They’d never convince you that they’re the real thing, but they are impressive nonetheless. Early Deccas are equally impressive, but these are the exceptions to the rule. Play "Homeless" from Paul Simon's Graceland LP [Sony Legacy 88691914721] and although Ladysmith Black Mambazo are laid out across a seamless stage that extends beyond the horn arrays, the bass voices have a slightly disconcerting habit of hanging low in the soundstage, almost as if the choir is arranged on risers.

Although the Trios excel in locating convincing individual images and expressing the relationship between those musicians and instruments, their abilities do not extend to the realm of spatial coherence. You get lateral spread and excellent depth differentiation, but in my system at least, I never managed to get a consistently coherent sense of acoustic space -- the legendary "walk-in" soundstage. The physical scale and spread of images are certainly convincing enough, but just occasionally and momentarily that positional stability could be disturbed by an instrument (generally spot mic'ed) leaping, fully formed, straight from one of the trumpet mouths. The cymbal work on "Him Dancing" from Throwing Muses' The Real Ramona CD [4AD CAD1002] rests resolutely in the left-hand tweeter, disjointed not so much by the lateral location as by the lifting forward in the musical plane. In this regard the Trios are no respecters of clumsy production or mixing, but such intrusions tend to be fleeting and seldom really distract from the whole. Indeed and somewhat ironically, it would be more of a problem if the speakers were more spatially explicit.

When I put this to Holger Fromme of Avantgarde, his response was typically no-nonsense: "Your point on 'spatial coherence' is well noted. But please keep in mind that this is a physical tradeoff using the significantly lower-speed SUB231s. Try the same tracks using the Short Basshorns or the Big Basshorns and you´ll get a totally different result. This is where the bigger subwoofer options really excel. The combination of the Trio with real Basshorns (and not with normal subs) is not only a question of more 'slam' but a question of more coherence. And that´s the reason we do build them." Unfortunately, and much as I’d have liked to, I couldn’t put this to the test, but potential purchasers certainly could.

But -- and it’s a but so big that it’s almost impossible to ignore once you’ve heard these speakers sing -- for all their cosmetic failings, the Trios have one priceless asset, an attribute so rare that, to the right listener, it is genuinely beyond cost considerations. If their ambivalence to overall acoustic space means that they fail the "musical facsimile" test, that they fail to re-create an impression of the event that’s indistinguishable from the original, where these speakers excel is in distilling the sense of that event. They don’t put you there but they leave you in no doubt what it was like to be there.

There has been consistent debate about the efficacy of live music as a reference for audio performance. Do I want to know how wide or deep the stage was, the precise dimensions of the space in which the band were performing? Personally, I don’t need an audio tape measure -- I want a system that makes that venue recognizable, that makes a familiar voice exactly that, that reflects the specific tonality of an instrument and the way in which its player exploits it. I want the gestalt experience. I don’t want a pale imitation of reality that is afraid to put a foot wrong in case it shatters the carefully honed illusion. For me, an audio system is not about reproducing the event itself -- it’s about reproducing the reasons, the motivations and personalities behind it and how those facets impact on the result. In many ways the Trio/Sub231 system can do that single thing better than any other speaker I’ve used at their price. Put simply, they sound like life -- and that matters.

La vida loca

The Avantgarde Trios are large and visually impressive (or intrusive, depending on your point of view) loudspeaker systems that demand space and carefully honed electronics to work at their best. In many respects they defy prejudice and assumption with equal ease. They are not hopelessly colored or disjointed. They do not require single-watt triode amps to knock the edges off and smooth the sound. They are genuinely versatile and musical performers and they will play anything you throw at them. All of which is good, especially given their price. Ahhh, yes, price. There’s no denying the many seriously impressive attributes these speakers possess, or just how easy it is to get things wrong, destroying their musical integrity and sense of performance. In that, they are not so different from others amongst the best speaker systems available. But with the Trios it is a question of degree. When they sound bad, boy, they are truly awful. But when they’re good, they are genuinely sublime. Yet oddly enough, it’s not that that makes them so special. That comes down to two things and the first of those is price.

As already explained, the Trio horn arrays can be paired with three different subwoofers to create any of seven different systems, ranging from one or two pairs of Sub231s, through single or doubled up Short Basshorns, all the way to the mighty (and for most people, mightily impractical) six-Basshorn system -- at a cool €112,000. Few people can afford such an expensive setup -- and even fewer can accommodate it -- yet it is, perhaps inevitably, the Trio configuration that gets all the attention. When it came to this review I deliberately went to the opposite end of the Trio range, opting not for the biggest incarnation of the beast, but the most affordable. Rather than the six-figure price tag and massive physical impact of the big Basshorns, I wanted to position the Trio squarely in the realm of €50,000 speakers, the most competitive sector of the market and the province of accepted middleweight contenders from the likes of Wilson, Avalon, Focal, Magico, et al. Suddenly the Trios start to look almost affordable and definitely like serious value for money. Throw in a bottom-end upgrade path via different subs or more of the same and it offers a very different take on the serious audiophile speaker system you might actually own.

Which finally brings us to the last, the most impressive and to my mind the most important quality of the Trios -- their sheer ability to impress. There’s no need to explain the acceleration of a Ferrari or the sub-6kg weight of a serious bicycle. There’s no need to explain the size of the screen of a big home-theater installation or the size of your swimming pool. Yet so much of what we value in high-end hi-fi systems simply passes the casual observer by. All too often appreciating high-end audio is as much an educational as a perceptive process. In that respect it’s more like tasting wine -- a process from which we’ve stolen so much of our descriptive language. The difference is that the wine trade has professional qualifications, a massive industry behind it and a fixed installed base of consumers in the shape of restaurants and their customers.

If audio equipment really wants to compete for luxury dollars, then we need to get beyond explaining the benefits; our products need to speak for themselves. In that respect, the Trios are not just a touchdown pass, they’re a sixty-yard completion with the receiver running another twenty, beating three defensive backs and performing a back flip as he crosses the goal line. These speakers don’t just attract attention, they grab it and hold it, precisely because they do things so differently to most audio equipment, viewing the musical performance not just from a different perspective but from one that’s instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever heard or been moved by live music. By putting dynamic range and resolution at the top of the agenda, along with temporal integrity, they also bring immediacy and communication to the party. They do the other audiophile stuff too (and to a far better standard than their critics would believe), but it is the performers and their performance that are front and center. It’s not the speakers that do the talking, it’s the people and instruments captured on the recording.

Should we discard all other speakers and technologies and jump wholesale onto the spherical-horn bandwagon? No, of course not. No speaker can be all things to all people, and the Trio divides opinion as easily as it attracts attention. But what the Trio achieves is a lesson that the whole industry should heed, because this is a speaker that excels where so many of its competitors fail. So what? many of you might be thinking; it’s big, it’s expensive and most people couldn’t or wouldn’t give it house space, even in its most compact Sub231 combination. Just remember that Avantgarde offer a whole range of speakers of which the Trio is the largest. The various Duos and Unos offer far more compact and manageable packages, all based on the same technology, at much more approachable prices. How successfully those models retain the Trio’s magic I hope to discover soon, but in the meantime, it would be a real mistake to dismiss Avantgarde as a one-trick pony. Their impressive and versatile amps and the innovative Zero 1 system (shown at the  Munich show) demonstrate that.

So, am I joining the waiting list for Trio ownership, preparing to write the check and settle down? No -- but not because I don’t want to. The Trios are singular speakers -- in terms of both their capabilities and the demands they place on the driving system. We can debate the extent to which they have got it right and so many others have got it wrong, but the fact is that the majority of the equipment that comes across my threshold dances to a different tune. For a reviewer, the Trios would simply be too specific or narrow in their demands to operate as the sole arbiter over partnering equipment. As a contributor to that process they’d be invaluable, their resolution and revealing nature shining a harsh light on the driving system -- but that would mean being able to swap them in and out. Even if I could shift them, where on earth would I store them?

So no, sadly the Trios won’t be part of the reviewing squad, chez Gregory -- despite the combination of pleading and sulking that realization provoked in my other half. Which again should give us all pause for thought. What this tells us is that while their nature and sheer size means that these are not my ideal speakers when it comes to listening to audio equipment, of all the speakers we’ve had through the house, they’d be my wife’s choice for listening to music. After all, that’s her only concern -- and who am I to disagree?

Am I writing a check? No, but perhaps the true answer is not yet. If I were turning my back on reviewing, sitting back to simply enjoy my recorded music, this speaker system would be right at the front of my thoughts. In fact, it has been in my thoughts since I first heard it all those years ago. It’s not just impressive; it’s also musically compelling, capable of delivering genuine long-term satisfaction and upsetting the neighbors. What’s not to like?

Price: €47,000 per pair with Sub231.
Warranty: Ten years on material fatigue, five years for drivers and color-coating, two years for electronics.

Avantgarde Acoustic
Lautsprechersysteme GmbH
Nibelungenstrasse 349
D-64686 Lautertal -- Reichenbach, Germany
+49 6254 306100.

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Skala and Dorian Mono cartridges; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead; Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i CD player; dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock.

Preamps: Avantgarde XA Pre, Connoisseur 4.2.

Power amps: Avantgarde XA stereo amp, Berning Quadrature Z and 12 Watt monoblocks, Jadis JA-30 monoblocks, Jeff Rowland 725 monoblocks.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are 26"-wide Stillpoints ESS (current and original versions) and LeadingEdge modular designs. These are used with equipment couplers throughout, either Stillpoints or Nordost SortKones. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices. These remarkably simple yet incredibly effective acoustic panels have become absolutely indispensible when it comes to hearing what the system is actually doing.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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