Hong Kong Audio Visual Show 2012

Avantgarde Acoustic is best known for their strikingly ambitious hybrid spherical horn loudspeakers, but the company has long been dabbling in electronics. Whilst the 100+dB sensitivity of Avantgarde speakers might lead you to expect some 3-watt wonder, the company's latest offerings are both elegant and versatile -- in application if not operation. In a world where line stages in particular seem to carry ever more facilities and functionality, Avantgarde's XA amplifiers fly firmly in the face of fashion.

Built into the same heavy, nonresonant, cast clamshell chassis, both the line stage and the power amp are as impressive on the inside as they are striking on the outside. The company’s war on structural resonance might be obvious just from picking up the units, but their pursuit of electrical purity deserves closer investigation. The XA-Pre eliminates AC supply problems through the use of a sophisticated, internal battery supply. In “emergency” the unit will run from the mains, but the benefits of the pure DC supply are clearly apparent. “All very well for the line stage”, I hear you asking, “but what about the power amp? Isn’t that going to undo all the good you’ve just done?” This is where Avantgarde have gotten really clever. The XA-Power employs massive filtering and a DC audio circuit that eliminates cross-zero distortion in its solid-state devices; in effect, it delivers the benefits of class-A operation without the heat -- which is just as well, given the 150Wpc power output. This innovative (patent-pending) approach has been applied right through the fully balanced amplification chain, including the optically coupled, resistor-ladder volume control and input selectors -- and talking of controls, that’s your lot: five line inputs (all XLR with no RCA option) and the large rotary volume knob with its illuminated level indication. The remote is equally minimalist, its cylindrical form resembling a light saber more than a piece of hi-fi, while front-panel finishes take in the myriad options available for Avantgarde’s speakers. And for once -- at least as far as a genuine tilt at the state of the art goes -- pricing seems almost reasonable at $174,000 HK the pair (which translates to roughly $22,450 US).

The clear intention here is to achieve the cleanest possible signal path by eliminating both conventional sources of distortion, such as microphony and electrical artifacts from the AC line and within the circuit itself, as well as all “unnecessary” elements from the amplifiers’ functionality. Whether you can live with such a pared-back setup only you can decide, but the XA pairing actually mirrors my own system configuration almost exactly -- apart from balanced operation, that is.

The Avantgarde speakers place a heavy premium on speed of response and dynamic coherence, and if the show system, built around a TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable, Ortofon 2000 MC cartridge, AMR phono stage and digital front-end, and a pair of Avantgarde Duo G2 speakers, is anything to go by, the amps respond with gusto. This system is the embodiment of the "all about the first watt, but with plenty waiting behind it" philosophy, and I can’t wait to try these products at home.

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