Living Voice Avatar IBX-RW Loudspeakers

". . .by any standard, a remarkably musical and satisfying loudspeaker."

by Roy Gregory | September 9, 2013

pend even a few minutes in the company of the inimitable Kevin Scott, at one and the same time irresistible force and immovable object behind the Living Voice products, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that he stands well outside the audio norm. Spend a few minutes in the company of his massive and massively expensive Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian full-range horn-loaded speaker system -- a setup that could do duty as emergency accommodations for several families in case of natural disaster -- and the performance can only be described with those now-familiar words: not normal. Indeed, there’s nothing normal about what these massive speakers can do -- at least not in hi-fi terms. Their effortless combination of awesome power and scale with the subtlest of nuance and delicacy lets them soar musically, as far ahead of the more “normal” competition as a pharmaceutically enhanced cyclist on a mountaintop finish. Of course, the fact that you need an income that matches the GNP of a medium-sized, mineral-rich ex-Soviet ‘stan to own a set merely adds to the general air of unreality -- a point rammed home rather forcibly by the beatific grin on Kevin’s face as he discusses the logistical challenges of satisfying the outstanding orders awaiting delivery.

Price: 7500 per pair in standard finishes.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Living Voice Ltd.
Stanhope House
Harrington Mill
Long Eaton
England NG10 4QE
+44 (0)115 973

Yep, there’s not a lot that’s normal about business at Living Voice. A quick glance at the products they’ve produced over the years reveals this, starting with the full-range Air Partner and evolving through various iterations of the (slightly) more manageable Scout -- generally used in combination with various totally unmanageable horn-loaded subwoofers. There is just something so gloriously impractical and totally uncompromising about not just the products but the whole ethos that you have to wonder how the business survives; yet it doesn’t just survive, it positively flourishes, in part as a result of feeding that "What if. . . ?" impulse that lurks in the subconscious of every audiophile.

Ironically, the proof of that proposition lies in the almost prosaically sensible and practical shape of the Auditorium-series speakers. What looks on the surface to be an almost boringly straightforward design is actually anything but -- and not because of hidden technology or internal cleverness. A moderately sized floorstanding two-way loudspeaker, the Auditorium might start out on possibly the best-established path to audio-sales success, but it promptly takes a hard left, leaving conventional wisdom flapping vainly in its wake.

Take a look at almost any range of loudspeakers and you’ll see that the designers and marketing department have arranged them into distinct technological families, and within each family, as they get more expensive, they gain more drivers and bigger cabinets -- the most basic form of "The more you pay, the more you get." So, who in their right mind makes a range of six different speakers, spread in price between 3500 and 10,000 that are outwardly all but indistinguishable? Same size, same driver topology, same bandwidth -- yet there is a powerful governing logic here that might not accord with conventional approaches but clearly strikes a chord with its target audience. The Auditorium has been around since 1992 and although in that time it has certainly evolved, the paper specifications, its dimensions and format have remained fixed. In fact, developments have been driven as much by necessity (the need to replace defunct or unreliable suppliers) as by an evolving appreciation of the design itself and its constituent elements -- a sure sign that the basic recipe was spot on to start with.

As a dealer selling the then newly resurgent single-ended triode amps, Kevin’s Definitive Audio store needed a speaker that was efficient enough to be driven by low-powered electronics (a requirement as applicable to affordable solid-state designs as to entry-level tube designs), large enough to offer convincing musical substance and bandwidth, yet small enough to be accommodated in the average European living room. Space is at a serious premium on this side of the Atlantic, making for smaller houses with smaller rooms and fewer of them. Not only do speakers have less space to breathe, but, in the absence of dens or family rooms, they generally have to cohabit with the family, its TV and occasionally the dining table and chairs. Separate listening rooms are a rare luxury, so size and appearance become critical purchasing considerations.

Unable to find anything on the market that met his requirements, Kevin turned to the obvious alternative: roll his own -- especially as he was already manufacturing the massive Air Partner horns, loosely based on an original Vitavox design and sold under the Living Voice brand. And so the Auditorium was born.

Let’s take a look at that recipe. The Auditorium stands 40" tall (including its separate base) and at 8 1/2" wide, is a little narrower than it is deep -- conventionally pleasing proportions and distinctly manageable dimensions. The cabinet is a pure rectangle with no rounding of its edges, no nonparallel faces or visual relief, save for that short, hollow base element that lifts the speaker some 5 1/2" off the floor. Tapped on the underside to accept four M8 spikes, it attaches to the cabinet proper with small blobs of Blu-Tak. The cabinet contains a pair of 6 1/2" doped-paper cone mid-bass drivers flanking an offset 1" silk-dome tweeter in a classic D’Appolito MTM arrangement. The crossover is a low-order, two-way, biwired design and the cabinet is rear reflex loaded. As I said, nothing unusual here, except possibly the choice of drivers, with their distinctly retro diaphragm materials.

If the Auditorium looks outwardly almost prototypically plain, rest assured that its resolutely non-threatening appearance is no accident. Remember the space issues that inform its design and the need for a stylistically muted look becomes clear. This is a speaker that will happily sit alongside furniture of almost any age or aesthetic, and what it lacks in stylistic flourishes it more than makes up for with a wide range of real-wood or lacquered paint finishes. The effect is one of quiet confidence, and that extends to its performance.

But to really get a handle on the Auditorium you need to look at the numbers. Bandwidth is quoted as 35Hz to 25kHz (3dB), which isn’t exceptional for a cabinet of this size -- until you factor in a sensitivity of 94dB, a non-reactive load impedance of 6 ohms and a design that dates from 1992. Speakers have been getting more and more efficient over the last two decades, driven mainly by the inadequacy of most A/V receivers to respond to the dynamic and headroom demands of movie soundtracks. But back in ’92, few, if any, in the Auditorium’s peer group were rated at more than 90dB sensitivity, with 86 to 88dB being nearer the norm. Of course, plastic cones and metal domes were the norm too, which helps explain how the Auditorium managed to balance size, efficiency and load impedance to such impressive effect -- long before neodymium magnets were propelling drivers and composite materials were lightening cones. Indeed, the doped-paper cones and silk-dome tweeter were key to the concept, their benign mechanical behavior able to combine with gentle filter slopes to make for an easy drive characteristic. The real balancing act behind the design was juggling enough bandwidth and dynamic range to deliver convincing musical performance with a drive characteristic that wouldn’t simply wring out the partnering amplifier.

While choosing drivers and a cabinet volume is one thing, lacing them together into a musically satisfying and coherent whole is quite another -- and that’s all about the crossover. The crossover used in the Auditorium is anything but simple, combining a sophisticated, quasi-second-order topology with a conjugate load-matching network that ensures a ruler-flat 6-ohm impedance from 200Hz upward. The combination of sensitivity and bandwidth is desirable in its own right, but it is the crossover that acts as the force multiplier in this instance, actually delivering on the considerable promise inherent in those numbers.

Family values

he original Auditorium quickly spawned a hierarchy of modified and tweaked versions, which is how we have arrived at the current six-model lineup. First was the Avatar (4500/pair), a more expensive iteration that spent its extra funds on proprietary mid-bass drivers, a better tweeter, better crossover capacitors and additional bracing in the cabinet -- changes that lifted the weight by 4 pounds per cabinet, to 44 pounds each, solid but still comparatively light compared to many competitors. It was also the first model to feature the fancier veneer finishes. Next came the Avatar OBX-R (6000/pair) which added an even better tweeter, further refinements in componentry and very unusually, outboard crossovers -- hence the designation OBX. The option to choose internal crossovers spawned the IBX version (5500/pair), saving floor space and additional cable costs. Finally, the RW version appeared, again in both IBX (7500/pair) and OBX (9000/pair) iterations. Definitive Audio’s decision to become UK distributors for the legendary Kondo KSL range of electronics asked new questions of the Auditorium design and resulted in a painstaking reexamination of every aspect of the speaker. The result was further refinements of internal componentry together with a completely new internal wiring harness and cryogenic treatment of many key elements. Meanwhile, running changes in cabinet materials and suppliers mean that the Auditorium itself is currently in R3 status, whilst all other models are essentially revision 2.

So much for the landscape. What about the musical particulars? The model selected for review is the Avatar IBX-RW, finished in a rather lovely satin walnut veneer. (Those attending RMAF or the TAVES shows will be able to examine the review pair in the flesh, as we will be using them in both the speaker setup seminars and VANA’s cartridge-alignment seminars.) The speakers are easily man-portable; the approachable dimensions and large reflex port in the rear make handling them unusually easy. Just as well, as inverting them in order to attach the base elements means bringing those sharply defined top corners into contact with the ground. Take care as they can be easily dented, and once damaged, the sheer symmetry of the cabinet will make any aberration or blemish irritatingly obvious.

The Auditorium-series speakers are all designed for free-space mounting, a factor reinforced by a surprisingly potent and solid bottom end. They are well behaved enough to be tolerant of mild positional indignities, but don’t expect to push them hard back against the wall. Having said that, they are also extended enough to really benefit from precise positioning, care and attention that will deliver a significant increase in overall integration and midband presence. This is one of those speakers that sounds good enough simply plonked down to lull you into a false sense of security. But work with their placement and precise attitude and there’s a lot more to come. I ended up with them just a few inches closer to the wall than I’d normally place a genuinely full-range design, a clear indication of both the depth and linearity of their bottom end. The biwired terminals are not provided with jumpers, and the speakers are certainly intended to be used either biwired or with dedicated, cable-matched jumpers. Again, just as they are picky enough to benefit from proper positioning, they are revealing enough to demonstrate the sonic horrors of those nasty brass plates that most people use to bridge input terminals. It’s not that you couldn’t, but once you’ve heard the results, it’s only too clear that you shouldn’t.

Which finally brings us to the question of matching amplifiers -- what started out as the speaker's raison d’etre. With so few single-ended amps really lighting my musical candle, you might think the speakers would be handicapped if that is what they were designed to partner with. In fact, and as I’ve already suggested, the same considerations that make them work in that context will also play in any low-powered scenario -- remembering, of course, that just what constitutes low-powered is itself a scale that slides with different technologies. I’d happily describe a single-ended 300B, or a push-pull amp with a pair of EL34s aside, or a class-AB solid-state design of less than 60 watts as "low-powered" -- at least in this context. So saying, I was happy to deploy amps as varied as the Jadis JA-30 (one pair of push-pull EL34s), the Icon Audio Stereo 20PP (one pair of push-pull EL84s) and the Lavardin IS Reference integrated (30Wpc solid state). All are well within the speakers’ design brief, and all are capable of demonstrating what makes these speakers special.

But don’t go thinking that the Auditorium speakers are one-trick ponies that you can ignore simply because you have a real man’s amplifier. There’s no doubting the spectacular musical performance and the sonic advantages the Living Voice speakers draw from low-powered amplification, but for all those with bigger amps, what is actually more interesting is what the Avatar IBX-RW tells us about speakers and their place in the system in a more general sense. What price power? And what is the real musical cost of an awkward speaker load? As you’ll see, the IBX-RWs are not afraid of bigger amps; arguably, it’s the bigger amps that should be afraid of them.

Looking for a soft touch?

efore settling down to serious listening I found myself having to relearn a few old lessons. Positioning the IBX-RWs in my listening room, I went through the normal speaker-placement procedure, but even with the speakers working at their best, I was surprised by a smaller soundscape and leaner balance than I’ve heard from these speakers elsewhere -- and far leaner than my memories of the OBX-R2s that I lived with for so long, driven by the same JA-30s seeing duty here. At first I put it down to the revised and stiffer cabinets providing less "padding" around the bottom end, but the longer I listened the more I was convinced that Kevin Scott simply wouldn’t produce the speaker I was hearing.

Clearly, something was awry; I was confident that it wasn’t the speakers themselves, or the amps, so next step was to look at the setup. The solution was remarkable both for how simple and how obvious it was -- once I’d worked it out: move the listening seat closer to the speakers! Originally I’d been sitting slightly farther than normal from the IBX-RWs, a combination of setting them slightly closer to the wall than other larger speakers, and the seat also being moved away from those bigger designs. After I slid the listening seat forward, the sound was transformed, gaining body, color, presence, impact and immediacy -- in fact, all the things I’d been expecting. Setting the position of the seat by ear, I then took the tape measure to it, and guess what? The ratio of distance between the speakers to listening distance was virtually spot on the 1 to 1.1 conventional norm. And I could go closer still.

The rule with the IBX-RWs (and other Auditorium-series speakers) is: if in doubt, move closer rather than farther away -- a stark contrast with many of today’s "high-definition" designs. It speaks volumes about the coherence and integration of the design, as well as the well-behaved top end. Of course, it was only after settling down with the newly engaging and impressively musical system that was now playing that I remembered that I’d always used the OBX-R2s firing across the long, narrow room I was in back then.

Get up close and personal with the IBX-RWs and what should you expect to hear? What I heard was a performance (in the musical sense) that was spectacularly present and communicative. Instruments were rich and substantial, full of character and energy and played with real intent. Voices were remarkably natural and expressive, the intimate details of diction and phrasing adding to the sense that this was a real person doing the singing. The better the singer, the better the results, the performance almost transcending the recording. This was good; this was very good indeed -- and a serious step up in articulation, purpose and clarity over the older R2s that I used to rely on, an observation that strays almost into the realm of audio analysis -- as opposed to simple musical response.

So what does happen when you run the sonic slide-rule over the sound I was hearing? Well, you’d give high marks for tonality and rhythmic integrity, the ability to get instruments and singers not just right but in the right place and with the right proportions -- both physically and musically. The debit column would note a rounding out and bleeding of images into the intra-instrumental space, a bass that while full, powerful and articulate was also short of absolute shape and definition, a top that lacked the last ounce of air and extension -- all of which describes the Jadis JA-30s to a T! Which is exactly the point. The IBX-RWs do have a character of their own, and I’ll come to that, but their most important attribute is to let you hear exactly what the driving amplifier sounds like. It’s a combination of their unobstructive nature and their benign electrical characteristics, attributes that allow the signal full reign and the driving amplifier to get a real grip on proceedings -- perfect if you want to hear just what your carefully selected but less than muscle-bound amp can do, not so good if your previous speaker was papering over the cracks in a less than wonderful relationship.

As I’ve already suggested, it’s hard to overstate just how crucial the crossover is to the IBX-RWs performance -- a key consideration given that its topology is shared across all six speakers in the family. In order to be this unobtrusive the speakers must be musically coherent -- tonally and in terms of time and space -- as well as dynamically responsive at both ends of the scale. They must respond to the smallest change in input -- the ability that allows them to portray the subtleties of a singer’s lips or a violinist’s bow -- and yet in order to be musically convincing they must also react without hesitation and with physical gusto to the sudden dynamic demands of an orchestral crescendo. The passive crossovers used in the vast majority of speakers are referred to as "subtractive filters" for a reason. Along with tailoring the frequency response of the drivers to achieve a (hopefully) seamless transition between them, they match the units for sensitivity by padding their output. Along the way they can also rob the music of much of the life, presence and energy that make it so immediate and engaging when you hear it live. Add to that the fact that any band or orchestra is producing a pattern of interlocking parts and that the pattern must be perfectly preserved if you are going to re-create both the sense and power of the performance and just how those different drive units fit (and are fitted) together becomes increasingly important to the success of the design.

Many a loudspeaker designer will tell you that "There’s no crossover like no crossover" -- often before going on to completely ignore that wisdom! But there are two sides to this equation: how much work the crossover has to do (and how much damage results) is directly related to how difficult a task you present it with. Minimizing the impact of crossovers is as much down to careful selection of drivers and a realistic expectation of system bandwidth as it is to do with the design of the crossover itself. In looking at the IBX-RW’s considerable musical accomplishments we can draw a direct line to the parts selection and execution of the design, and that starts with the drivers. Low-order crossovers are desirable because of their easy electrical slopes and phase characteristics. Two-way crossovers are easier to execute and again (generally) significantly easier to drive than their three-way brethren. So, a two-way design with reasonable bandwidth mandates mid-bass drivers with gentle mechanical roll-offs and good extension into the midband. Throw in the requirement for decent efficiency to deliver credible headroom and dynamic response from modest power inputs, and those doped-paper cones pretty much choose themselves. The clever part is in matching them to a tweeter that will require minimal subtractive padding, and gauging just how much bass extension is enough to convince without hobbling the speaker with unacceptable side effects.

That’s when you realize that simply reducing the crossover to its simplest possible form isn’t enough. All that happens is that you risk revealing the inadequacies of the drivers’ integration. What you need is not the simplest possible crossover, but the simplest possible crossover that still does its job. That’s an important distinction -- at least it is if you want your speaker to step beyond the norm and possess the level of balance and integration that allows it to step behind the music, making recordings seem genuinely natural and convincing. This is exactly what the IBX-RW achieves and what makes it so musically impressive. But it’s not the only card up its sleeve.

Why a nice bottom (end) matters to me -- and why it should matter to you

n many ways the IBX-RW's success is built on getting the low-frequency juggling act just right. The other thing that speaker designers will tell you is that "If you get the bass right, everything else falls into place" -- generally immediately before presenting you with a speaker that is so constipated or overblown in the bottom end as to be unrealistic to the point of being unlistenable. The IBX-RWs are the living, breathing, rhythmically articulate proof of that premise, and that’s no accident.

The IBX-RWs deliver bottom-end weight and authority that are really quite shocking from one so small and unassuming. But what gives it additional power is the even and seamless way it connects to, supports and underpins the midband and ultimately the upper ranges. When you "hear" the crossover in a speaker it is more often than not discontinuities in the dispersion or power band that are the giveaway. The top-to-bottom consistency of the IBX-RW is remarkable, and that starts in the bass. Pick out your favorite audiophile orchestral firework show and let it rip. The Mehta Also Sprach Zarathustra on Decca LP [SXL6379]? No problem: big, bigger, bigger still. That opening isn’t an edifice; it’s a massive, upward-thrusting eruption. No surprise then that the BBC used it as theme music for the Apollo moon shots. The IBX-RWs do a sterling, almost unbelievably authoritative job of building and projecting that sheer power and substance, that sense of uncontainable energy -- and all from 25 watts of tube power. The Argenta/OSR Debussy Images pour Orchestra from the Espana gold CD [Decca 4806154]? Sudden dynamics, crisp tutti, substance and drama, all with a sense of pace and purpose that keeps things rattling along, the dynamic demands never slowing or impeding the music’s purpose, or tripping the amplifiers’ progress.

But it’s not all fire and fury. Listen through the opening of Zarathustra and as the sustained organ note fades you are left with that softly murmuring, sustained bass note. The IBX-RWs deliver it with texture and shape that reflects the gentle but insistent energy in the playing. The crack and snap of Debussy’s castanets are never detached or gratuitous, but always keyed not just to the rhythms of the music but also its accents and emphasis. Now they are essential elements rather than just window dressing, the precision and clarity of the musical patterns resting on the firm foundation of that beautifully weighted and measured bass. In truth, I don’t know where it comes from, and I suspect that even Mr. Scott can’t be sure whether it’s a product of pure design or happy accident (possibly -- probably -- a combination of the two), but these speakers generate bass that goes deeper, with more authority and considerably more musical insight than boxes this size have any right to. Throw in the sensitivity and the ease of drive and you’ve got a genuine conundrum -- not that I’m complaining.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on vocals. "Jubilee Street," from the Nick Cave LP Push The Sky Away [Bad Seed BS001V], is the perfect example, a track that is at once sparse but builds in intensity. The typically deep, almost mournful opening features solid, immediate drums and tactile bass beneath the spaced guitar chords, but it’s Cave’s vocal that grabs the spotlight and holds it, even against the rising instrumental tide. The body and presence in that voice, the vocal inflections, the subtle way it modulates between the breathy, almost confessional quality of the spoken and the painful intensity of the sung, conjures the person and his darkness with a remarkable clarity of character and intent -- and believe me when I say that Nick Cave never does anything without intent! It’s not just that the vocals are tonally natural or redolent with microdynamic detail; it’s that when listening with the IBX-RWs you get it -- you get the song and you get the performance.

So much of this is about the way that a musician uses his or her instrument, be that a voice, a musical device or a complete orchestra. Listening to the Oistrakhs playing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K.364 (Kondrashin/Moscow Philharmonic on gold CD [Decca 48066263]), the tonal and dynamic distinctions between the violin and viola have seldom been so apparent, but what really impressed me was the French horns, the fact that I could hear the restraint in their almost muted fanfares. I often talk about being able to "hear" the conductor -- not literally, not his feet shuffling on the podium, but his influence, his control and his musical intent. That beautifully weighted brass is the perfect case in point. Familiar voices (the ones you’ve heard live or better still, artists you’ve spent time talking to) have a sense of rightness about them that transcends the tired hi-fi terminology of "natural" or "uncolored." This is about expression, and that embraces more than simple tonal and harmonic characteristics.

Having said that, the IBX-RW is graced with a warmth and almost silky smoothness to its tonal palette that’s a world away from the pinched leanness and sharp-edged, almost etched definition of super-transparent transducers. Visually speaking, it’s hard to confuse a soprano and a super model; it should be just as difficult aurally. The IBX-RWs have enough weight and low-frequency extension to reveal the body and presence behind a voice or instrument. They show you both the energy generated and where it comes from. But perhaps more crucially, they don’t add any padding to the signal -- perhaps because they do manage that energy budget so carefully and consistently. There’s no fake warmth or smudging here, nothing to smooth the signal’s peaks or replace what might have been stripped away in the recording process. The IBX-RWs aren’t perfect, but they are evenhanded. Ultimately there are drivers that can deliver more detail and resolution, but the IBX-RWs succeed because they deliver the same resolution across the range and through the note. They don’t tip up the top end to gain air or transparency, suck out the midband for added depth or lean on the front of the note to gain a heightened sense of definition. Because they handle the whole range and the whole note evenly, they don’t cause the intrusive ripples or peaks that draw attention or highlight the particular at the expense of the whole. It’s this that let’s them stand almost unnoticed behind the musical performance.

Now might be a strange time to introduce the subject of transparency, yet in many ways that’s the IBX-RW’s greatest strength. Not "walk in and look around soundstaging"-type transparency, but transparency to the signal, the driving amp's and above all the recorded performance. In some respects it’s not until you put a bigger amplifier on the IBX-RWs that you really appreciate what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

The Aesthetix Atlas is an excellent, genuinely high-powered hybrid design. At 200 watts per channel rated output, a capability that doubles into a 4-ohm load, it is both physically imposing and musically impressive. It also has authority and muscle to burn. Give it an awkward loudspeaker and it brooks no nonsense, bending it to its musical will with apparently irresistible force. Despite its awesome capabilities, it’s no meathead either, with more than its fair share of detail, focus, transparency and agility -- all qualities that you can appreciate as soon as you connect it to the IBX-RW. The already impressive bass goes deeper and tighter than before (enough to mandate adjustments in speaker position), the soundstage extends, especially in terms of depth, while individual images are more separate and more sharply defined, the space between them much clearer. So far, so good -- but for all the gains, you pay a price too, and that price is in the realm of musical flow and artistic expression. The massive power reserves of the Atlas are simply not required and their presence becomes an embarrassment, slugging the amp’s ability to respond to the subtle dynamic shadings, the textural niceties and unimpeded rhythmic elasticity that typifies the JA-30.

Now, let me be clear about this; the Atlas is no Aunt Sally. It is one of my favorite stereo amps, and when I need power, at present it’s the amp I reach for. But the IBX-RWs don’t demand that power, and asking the Atlas to drive them is a little like hooking up a plough to your Ferrari; it’s beyond inappropriate -- it’s just wrong. I’ll allow the Aesthetix to return to its natural habitat, a world in which it’s happier and I’m happier listening to it. But I introduced it into this equation to demonstrate that it really is an equation, it really does have two sides and they really do need to balance. By redrawing the boundaries of the loudspeaker performance envelope (its attributes and its demands) the Auditorium-series speakers -- and other similarly easy-to-drive, high-efficiency designs -- alter the balance of the system as a whole, changing not just the demands on the amplifier but also the performance that results.

What you see and what you get

y treading the high-sensitivity path the IBX-RW offers its own musical perspective, a view that is undeniably attractive and potentially, depending on what you seek from your system, almost irresistible. However, it comes with its own price attached. The attributes that make the IBX-RW so intimate and musically communicative, that lean it towards those aspects of the performance that embrace the individuality and personality of the performers, also lead it away from the more holistic, macro view of the event. Communication and nuance come at the expense of acoustic definition, the re-creation of space and the space in which the recording was made -- something that only comes with genuine low-frequency extension. Taken to its logical (or perhaps illogical) ultra-high-sensitivity extreme, it becomes the elevation of how the band is playing over what they are playing. Let’s not forget that the 109dB-efficient Avantgarde Acoustics Trio system (the review of which will appear shortly) is available in no fewer than six different configurations -- the difference being the scope and quality of the subwoofers employed! The Auditoriums aren’t even close to that extreme -- an extreme that Kevin Scott is all too familiar with, given his creation of the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system -- but they are definitely left of center, with a balance that favors the sense of the performance ahead of the sensation of "being there." It would be easy to suggest that the IBX-RW favors small acoustic music over larger-scale works, but that ignores just how successfully it treads this particular tightrope. It’s not a question of the scale of its reproduction, it’s all about the nature of what it does. Is it as simple as front row as opposed to mid-hall? Maybe it is, but you still need to know where it is you like to sit.

Contentious, even subversive by nature, it’s almost as if these speakers can’t help themselves. As well as challenging conventional notions of system topology, the relative importance of power and the allocation of budget, they almost casually shine a light on one of the most contentious areas of audio performance. A quick tour of the Auditorium series allows any listener to assess the musical impact and relative importance of the traditional engineering elements in a loudspeaker -- changes in drive units and cabinet bracing, the dark arts of crossover component quality, microphonics/intermodulation, wire type and (ye Gods) cryogenic treatment. A pair of OBX-RWs is roughly three times the price of the basic Auditoriums, twice the price of the Avatars.

Can a few bits of wire and a trip to the freezer really make that much difference? The basic form of the Auditorium speakers is a technical response to a clearly defined problem. It adopts a series of technologically and scientifically accepted solutions to achieve a given end. But the evolution of the animal, the emergence of the Avatar, and the R2 and RW (in both IBX and OBX variants) has far more to do with the artistic realm. The Auditorium delivers an exemplary measured response; what the rest of the family do is step beyond those measurements and assess and respond to the speaker’s ability to reflect the nuance and expressive range of the artists performing and the performance they produce. So, can a few bits of wire and a trip to the freezer really make that much difference? Yep, they really can -- but hey, if you refuse to accept the evidence of your ears, you can always opt for the basic model; it’s still one hell of a speaker, the most accessible model in the range and as a result, possibly the most important, because it will place so many peoples’ feet on the proper path, raising expectations along the way.

The Living Voice Avatar IBX-RW is, by any standard, a remarkably musical and satisfying loudspeaker. The Auditorium might have come into being to allow the use of lower-powered amplification, but it has evolved to the point where it has reversed the logic. Rather than facilitating the use of those small, high-quality amps, it now demands them. But the emphasis here is on quality -- not small. Inadequate power supplies, astringent solid-state circuitry or SETs that wrap everything in the sonic equivalent of eight-ply cashmere are all to be avoided, so ruthlessly are they exposed.

That’s no bad thing. You might be able to build an inoffensive-sounding system that incorporates those failings (by papering over the cracks), but it will never be a great-sounding system: it will never speak with the musical authority and grace, the intimacy and communicative range that great audio systems can achieve. The Living Voice Auditorium-series loudspeakers eschew the safety net and comfort blanket of low-risk, rub-along-with-everybody mediocrity; they expect a quality signal and they reveal any shortfall. But feed them right and they respond with a soaring musical enthusiasm, a willingness to embrace artist and genre without fear or favor. They’ll do it with modest power amplifiers, preferring quality to quantity -- and they’ll do large-scale music in small-scale rooms. They rewrite the rules; but play by those rules and they deliver the sort of performance that the hi-fi industry all too often promises yet seldom produces. What you get for what you pay makes them a stone cold bargain in any currency. They are not the only sub-10,000 speaker that really delivers, but what they deliver is definitely special.

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with JMW 12.7 tonearm; Stillpoints LP Isolator; Lyra Titan i, Skala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, van den Hul Condor, Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Blue Heaven and Odin tonearm leads, Connoisseur 4.2, Wadax and Aesthetix Janus phono stages.

Digital: Wadia S7i CD player; dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock; Wadax Pre 1 digital control unit.

Preamps: Connoisseur 4.2 and Aesthetix Janus.

Power amps: Aesthetix Atlas stereo amp, Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, Icon Audio Stereo 60 P Mk III stereo amp, Jadis JA-30 monoblocks.

Integrated amp: Icon Audio Stereo 20PP, Lavardin IS Reference.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Crystal Cable 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 Hutter RackTime with Track Audio Isolation Feet or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle blocks.

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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