High End 2013

Lavardin have long been one of France’s most enigmatic companies. Their resolutely minimalist amplifiers (nothing but source selection and volume control, slim cases devoid of even remote control), a small range of quietly excellent cables and quirky speakers have consistently produced remarkably engaging and musical sound where all about them have failed. Indeed, the calm environment of the Lavardin room is often a refuge from the sonic mayhem of an audio show, in no small part due to the almost-childlike glee with which the effervescent Jean-Christophe Crozel dispenses sparkling Vouvray and arcane audio tweakery -- most recently demonstrating the detrimental musical effect of leaving your headphones on display. The startled visitor had his cans removed from around his neck and deposited magician-like in a handy cupboard. The improvement in musical drive, energy, life and intent was hard to credit but even harder to miss.

In Munich, the company launched two products -- the new Le Contoure loudspeaker and the K-rak equipment support -- although with Lavardin nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. Take the K-rak as an example. For years the company has used its own heavy plywood racks at shows. Looking for all the world like a stack of Ikea Lack tables but with exposed ply edging, such is the company’s cult status that they have generated a small cottage industry and associated Internet discussion as fans and followers have tried to build their own versions. Now, finally, Lavardin have relented and offered their own design to the public, its thick ply shelves separated by solid birch uprights and held together with stainless-steel hardware. Priced at 300 per level, they do supply spikes but prefer the sound without them. Leveling? The question produces a Gallic shrug, pursed lips and a quizzical look. “Just use paper under the feet of the equipment -- it will sound much, much better than spikes under the rack.” With that, the subject is apparently closed. What’s even more scary is that experienced Crozel-watchers just know that if they pursue it further, he’ll prove his point.

Which brings us to the Le Contoure loudspeaker. This is a modular, tubular, part-omni design, specifically intended to overcome the positional indignities to which many loudspeakers are subjected. An upward-facing bass/mid unit is paired with a conventional forward-facing tweeter and then wrapped in a fabric stocking -- sort of like a more contemporary Vandersteen 2C. The speaker is designed to stand against a wall and places its drivers high enough to fire above furniture positioned in front of it -- as J-CC was only too pleased to demonstrate. The basic model costs 3500 a pair, with polished metal or painted finish and wiring options adding to that. Finally, there is a stacked version, using two bass/mid columns -- and rumors of a transparent edition, but don’t hold your breath.

Driven by a simple system consisting of a CEC CD player, Lavardin IT 15 amplifier (10,000) and CML interconnects (1300 per meter pair) and CMA speaker cables (4000 per three-meter pair), the speakers were all we’ve come to expect from the marque. You could point a finger at a slightly lumpy bass and a rounding to the mids, but this setup made a far better fist of This One's For Blanton than most of the systems on display. The bass was tuneful and had timing, the relationship between the two instruments was clearly defined and understood. Glory be, the piano actually sounded like a piano, but what’s more, you could really hear the quality in the playing -- and you could hear it wherever you stood in the room.

At a show that is notable for poor sound, Lavardin once again proved to be a standout performer.

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