March 2000Audio Physic Avanti Century Loudspeakers
by Grant Samuelsen
My first encounter with the Audio Physic line of speakers occurred in 1996 while on a routine scouting trip to my preferred audio salon. After noticing the narrow frame of the Audio Physic Virgo, I commented on the humorous appearance of such diminutive transducers tethered to $30,000 worth of electronics. "Looks can be deceiving" quipped my dealer in classic come-hither fashion. I politely affirmed his comment but rolled my eyes, wondering just when it was that hed suffered his aurally debilitating trauma. No way were these little fellas going to come up with the Boeing-sized bass riffs befitting the caliber of equipment before me. My judgment of speakers to that point was that if they couldnt rattle the windows, wake the neighbors or drop and give me 20, they simply werent invited over to play.
I soon realized that he was surreptitiously maneuvering me into the demo chair for "a listening experience." I relented, but I strapped my cynical hard-hat on tight, deciding to listen just long enough to placate the poor fellow. However, minutes into listening, my "bigger is better" theory began to crumble and reveal its disordered pathology. After an hour of disc spinning, I was hooked. The Virgos captivated with a natural delivery of instrumental tone and timbre. They also had an unnerving ability to bring microdynamic shading and harmonic content to life. Could there be something outside the macrodynamic envelope of speaker performance that connected me to music? Naaahhh. But my positive experience with the Virgos prompted further investigation into the Audio Physic line. I never leave a stone unturned when intrigued by a product, and I eventually secured listening access to the complete line of Audio Physic speakers -- from the Step through the Medea. When I learned SoundStage! had arranged for the Avanti Century review, the fit seemed, well, natural.
The Avanti model began life as an outgrowth of the Virgo's huge success in the US high-end market. Designer Joachim Gerhard noted with interest that US journals were classing his Virgo model alongside speakers retailing at two and three times their $5395 price. He reasonably assumed that if the Virgos were regarded as reference-class speakers, then a more fleshed-out, "cost no object" version of the design could possibly set a new standard of reproduction.
The Avanti Century model is in its third generation, succeeding the original Avanti and Mk II iterations. Resemblance to the Virgo ends with the slender front baffle, four drivers and side-firing woofers. The Century's 44"H x 7 1/2"W x 16"D frame gives them a slight size advantage over the Virgo. The cabinet is dressed out as a standard finish in some of the finest-grain veneer Ive yet seen. Its stressed-skin construction and rounded front baffle are both pleasing to the eye and functional as they reduce cabinet resonance and driver reflections. The baffle is slanted seven degrees from top to bottom to achieve driver time coherence and avoid unnecessary crossover elements. The Avantis midrange and treble drivers are floated from the inner cabinet with the use of elastomer decoupling material and are further isolated from vibration by a double-layered front baffle. Finishing off the elegant exterior, in back are a pair of WBT five-way binding posts. Audio Physic chose to forgo the four-post configuration, feeling the added capacitance on the amp end negated gains realized by bi-wiring their design.
The aluminum treble driver in the Avanti Mk II has been replaced in the Century with the same soft-dome SEAS tweeter used in the $20,000-per-pair Caldera model. The tweeter is rated to go a full octave lower in frequency than its predecessor and has a wider dispersion pattern, allowing for greater flexibility of setup and listening position. The treble-driver change and its concomitant crossover shift was the main impetus for the Mk II to Century re-designation.
The midrange driver in the Avanti Century was specifically designed for the Avanti model and is constructed from three-dimensionally-machined cast magnesium. Its implemented performance so outstripped expectations that Allen Perkins at Immedia (Audio Physics US distributor) feels in essence that the treble driver replacement was necessary so that the treble could "catch up" to the high-performance midrange.
The low notes are handled by a pair each of 6" paper-cone side-firing woofers, implemented in push-push configuration within the sealed enclosure. Rated frequency-range specifications are 32Hz-27kHz -3dB, though my Radio Shack SPL meter measured -3dB at 30Hz. The Avanti Centurys sensitivity is listed as 88dB with 4-ohm nominal impedance. Immedias suggested ideal room size is between 210 and 460 square feet. Audio Physic recommends a minimum of 50 watts be used to drive the Avanti Centuries; however, my experience tells me that the manner in which the watts are delivered can be as important as their number. Experimentation with a variety of amplification is a requirement to get the most from any speaker
The inner cabinet is separated into 26 subsections of different sizes to minimize mechanical losses and improve vibrational diffusion. The Avanti Century's internal bracing is of unique design and concept, and it is part of the key to their sound. Unlike the many over-damped, super-braced designs throughout high-end audio, Audio Physic speakers are braced at critical points where vibration can be tuned away from critical driver/crossover elements but not quashed completely. Gerhard believes over damping, or excess bracing, can create as many problems as it solves. The least resonant section in the cabinets base houses the P-spice optimized, phase coherent crossover. P-spice stands for a high-tech computer program used to maximize crossover-part quality before the crossover is tweaked by hand and ear by Gerhard. Short signal paths, high parts quality and simplified execution define all Audio Physic crossovers. The whole package weighs in at a cash-and-carry 100 pounds each.
Audio Physic and Immedia advocate the use of a nearfield setup for Audio Physic speakers as well and other first-order-designed models. As there has been much already written on this setup method, I would direct the curious to the Immedia website (www.immediasound.com), where it is explained in exacting detail. I will outline my specific setup in a section that follows.
My home system has remained relatively stable over the past months (with the exception of cabling). As usual, it all starts at the electric panel, where I run 8-gauge JPS Power AC cable to a JPS Power Center at the wall. From there I run the revelatory PowerSnake King Cobra power cords from wall to components. My 19'L x 16'W x 8'H listening room was constructed from the ground up for audio with double-layer drywall, added bracing, insulation and textured ceiling. I use Michael Green Designs corner tunes along with DIY traps in room corners and at wall mid-points. I apply Sonex sparingly behind the listening couch and at slap-echo points. Electronics on hand were my Mark Levinson No.39 CD Processor and the soon-to-be-reviewed Wadia 830 CD player. Amps were my reference Essence Electro-Acoustic 200-watt monoblocks. Speakers used to compare with the Avanti Centuries were the Audio Physic Virgos and Avanti Mk IIs along with the ProAc Response 3.8s. Many thanks to Bruce Jacobs at Salon One Audio for the gracious loan of the speakers used for comparison in this review.
Assorted ancillaries and cables I had on hand were JPS Kaptovator power cords, Super2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables. Other interconnects and speaker cables used were prototypes from Shunyata Research, Nordosts Quatro Fil, Synergistics Designer's Reference and Cardas Golden Cross. My racks are the Justarack Deluxe models from Michael Green Designs augmented with a Black Diamond plinth and Lloyd Walker Valid Points under the CD players. I use DIY Corian/sand boxes under the amps.
Music in my room runs the gamut, but there is a slight predominance of jazz, closely followed by blues, folk, classical and popular.
Growing pains: Virgo and Avanti Mk II
By the time I got home with a pair of the Audio Physic Avanti Mk IIs for evaluation, I had read all the specs and knew what the differences were between their design and that of the Virgo. Needless to say, I anticipated that the Avanti Mk IIs would make short work of the Virgo's much simpler, less robust design. For a while, they did.
Funny how sometimes the essence of a component or speaker can be realized (and remembered) within the first few notes played through them. This held true with the Mk IIs when I played the track "A Change is Gonna Come" off of the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon [A&M 5240]. The decay and space inherent in the recording leapt out of the speakers, wrapped around the room and hung in the air in front of me. The weight and tone of Aaron Nevilles voice was spot on and surrounded by recorded studio ambience. The Virgos could reproduce a measure of these qualities, but in contrast, they sounded closed down and two-dimensional. The Avanti IIs also easily outperformed the Virgos in every parameter of scale reproduction, using a broader brush in the re-creation of the body of an instrument or voice. Rather than just hearing all the finely recorded detail with the Virgos, using the Avantis IIs I could also feel the music. Macrodynamic contrasts had increased speed and exposed an explosive element that the Virgos simply couldnt capture. Midbass speed and articulation, midrange expansion, dimension and spatial cueing were all demonstrably superior using the Avanti IIs to play music versus the justifiably acclaimed Virgos.
So whats not to like? Heck, thats all really good stuff, right? Were these Avanti Mk IIs the high ends best-kept secret? Not quite. While I spent the first few days reveling in all there was to like about the Avanti IIs, I was only peripherally aware that there was a slight incongruity as the upper midrange moved into the lower treble. I blamed it on break-in initially, but after a week I was becoming progressively aware of it as a problem related to the speaker. The upper-frequency artifacts were most evident with piano or female vocals that stretched into the upper midrange. Piano notes especially tended to ring a bit and had an upper-case emphasis. Heavy transient music with prominent cymbals also tended to sound overly lean and lacked the Virgo's natural lower-treble coloring. Once I tuned into the slight frequency-related anomaly, I found it difficult to listen around it. I reported my impressions to my dealer and learned that I was not alone in my perception of the Avanti II's problem. I was told that Audio Physic was aware of it and was in the process of implementing a fix. As Id stated in the technical section, the word I received was that the machined magnesium midrange driver was performing at a level so far above expectations that it was apparently eating the mated aluminum treble driver for lunch -- munch, munch.
A new Century
The Avanti Centuries arrived at my home direct from a stint at the Minneapolis Audiophile show, and I quickly got down to the business of setup and evaluation. I began by setting the Centuries up in traditional manner, with drivers facing straight ahead, and found them to sound promising but ever so slightly restrained. Knowing that almost any Audio Physic speaker will spring to life once set up using Immedias nearfield configuration, the traditional setup I initially tried was short lived. The Centuries ended up sounding their best set up along the room's long dimension, at just past the halfway point towards the listening seat from the front wall. The Centuries also ended up a little nearer to the side walls than the 25% recommended starting point. The Centuries found their sweet spot spaced over 9.5' apart, toed in with the midrange and treble drivers pointed just a hair inside my shoulders. Wide set up you think? Oh yes, but listen once to an Audio Physic design in this setting and youll find it difficult to retreat to any other way of listening. The Avanti Centuries, like most high-performance speakers, are very responsive to the attention paid them during setup, and positioning-- an inch here or there -- can be more than just noticeable. For a month after I initially set the speakers up, I would get up occasionally and shift them a little here or there. I was always taken aback by the difference an increment made. Or maybe Im just ever so slightly neurotic. Naaahhh.
OK, enough with the setup. How did the speakers sound? The sonic difference the crossover and tweeter change made to the Avantis sound is profound in every sense of the word. I immediately challenged the Centuries with program material that could (and does) trip up the finest high-dollar speakers in the upper midrange and treble. I played the track "Moanin" off of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Moanin CD [Blue Note RVG Edition 72434 4 95324]. I got past Bobby Timmons' opening piano riffs and braced for trouble from Lee Morgans high, hard trumpet notes and Blakeys frenetic cymbal work. What I heard, instead of the expected upper-midrange splash and slight treble bite, were some of the most natural-sounding timbral signatures and even frequency distribution Ive yet to encounter from any pair of speakers. I no longer had any of my attention taken up by anomalous transient activity and was able to hear into the harmonic structure and recorded decay of the instruments brandished by these giants of jazz. Throughout the review period, I occasionally lost track of my mission, dropped pen and paper and listened from one end of a CD to the other, unable to focus critical attention on anything but the music.
As with the Avanti IIs before them, I found the Centuries to have nearly state-of-the-art bass performance in all areas except the sub-30Hz range. Much praise has been heaped on the Virgo's midbass speed and powers of rhythmic articulation. In my room, however, they paled in comparison to the Avanti Centurys weightier bass drive and taught, lifelike speed and touch through the midbass to the upper bass. "Use Me" off of Junior Wells' Keep on Steppin: The Best of Junior Wells [Telarc CD-83444] has a supporting bass line that makes or breaks the rhythmic intensity of the track and, if poorly delivered, interferes with the fine detail elsewhere on the recording. The Avanti Century simultaneously had me tapping my foot and marveling at the separation the bass line had from the rest of the instruments. The Virgo's bass delivery was stellar on this track also, but compared to the Avanti Centuries, the Virgos sounded slightly soft and ill defined.
Audio Physic speakers have an earned reputation for their ability to map out a deep, layered and defined soundstage. The Centuries' image definition and soundstaging capability has no peer that I have encountered anywhere near their $8000 retail price. Ive read articles criticizing the value of soundstaging and spatial cues as immaterial to musical involvement. I empathize with the sentiment but would encourage detractors to spend an hour or two with the Avanti Century before rendering final judgment. My musical involvement related to the Centuries' soundstage presentation is increased enormously by the way they reproduce the space and air around a transient strike. Multiply that within a crowded recordings soundfield and you realize that with the Avanti Century, its possible to hear each instrument as a distinct musical entity with a place and spatial character all its own. I consider that aural information to be extremely relevant to my musical satisfaction. A great example of the Avanti Centurys reference capability in this regard is the track "Goodbye" off of Steve Earles Train a Comin [Winter Harvest WH 3302-2]. The studio space framing Earles quiet vocals and gently plucked guitar, coupled with the separation and layering around and between the different instruments, drew me into the event of the music on the recording. And that, friends, will always excite my musical jones.
I have always had an affinity for the sound of the ProAc line of speakers. Their big, redolent bass and richly colored lower midrange get me excited every time I hear them. So when I realized that my dealer had a pair of Response 3.8s just hanging around the shop, I picked them up and carted them home under the guise of my professional responsibility as a reviewer to compare the Avanti Century to a speaker of different lineage. I dont think he bought my half-baked story, but he allowed me the loan anyway.
I expended great energy and time trying to set up the ProAcs in their more standard configuration of four to six feet out from the back wall. What I got for my trouble was a rather slowed-down, over-full presentation from speakers I knew were capable of much more. So into the nearfield they went, caution to the wind and all that. I decided that if they didnt work there, I had possibly become too partial to the Avanti Centurys lightening-quick transient execution and micro-detail retrieval to accept another speakers form of music delivery. Fortunately, the nearfield setup of the 3.8s worked like a charm, allowing them to open up and shed dynamic life, body and tonal splendor into just about all the music played through them.
Most who own Patricia Barbers Café Blue CD [Premonition PREM-737-2] will agree that the track "Nardis" has some wonderfully recorded drumming on it that covers the gamut from snare to kickdrum to cymbals and back again. I use this disc as a reference because it highlights a component's or speakers (in)ability to deliver transient speed, weight, rhythm and resolution from the top treble through the low midbass range. The ProAcs moved incredible amounts of air during the drum passage and gave me the physical throttling I craved. They connected me more completely with the scale of the performance. Switching in the Avanti Centuries changed my musical focus slightly away from the dynamic scale toward the harmonic structure and presence of the musician, his instrument and the finely tuned skill with which he played it. Each speaker performed convincingly in all areas, but obviously the 3.8s leaned toward the accurate reproduction of macrodynamic scale, while the Avanti Centuries were champs at capturing smaller-scale harmonic shading and fine detail.
The more music I played through both designs the more appreciation I had for the performance strengths of each. I probably went back and forth between them a dozen times before I had to return the ProAcs to their gracious lender. Each speaker sacrificed a little of what the other did well in order to make its musical statement. I really admired the 3.8s for their ability to fill out the body of an instrument and give me all the naughty 20Hz goodies (remember, Im a bass head), yet quite often the ProAcs would take their sweet time getting into and through transients, making some music sound a tad slow and lagging in pace. In contrast, the Avanti Centuries cut through transients like the finest cutlery and accelerated into the decay like nobody's business, but occasionally Id want to rock and roll or feel the weight of an instrument. They could not approach the ProAcs' skill in this regard.
As much as I liked the ProAcs' rock-it-to-me presentation, it was the goosebump factor of the Avanti Centuries on classical, small-ensemble or solo recordings that won me over. They just had that ineffable, precise way of handling music at its core that pulled me all the way in emotionally, to a performer or performance. While listening to Mendelssohns Concerto for Violin and Strings [Naxos 8.553844], I was so struck by the beauty of the Allegro that I sat quietly for minutes after the final note, enjoying the feeling of having experienced such a fine work of art. Even writing about my memory of the moment gives me pause. I do miss aspects of the 3.8s' full-bodied delivery, but I havent regretted letting them get away.
In the end
In the final analysis of these Avanti Centuries, I believe they have realized the enormous potential that Joachim Gerhard intended for them when he created the design. From the midbass through the uppermost treble, the Centuries are the most musically resolved speaker I have ever had the pleasure of having in my home. The Centuries' presentation of transient speed, linear frequency response and complete restoration of the musics inner structure make them a must-audition speaker for music lovers shopping anywhere near their price range. Are there caveats? Always. Like all finely tuned instruments of reproduction, they require that special attention be paid to setup and will perform their disappearing act most convincingly in a dedicated space. The Avanti Centuries reproduce very satisfying scale and have explosive dynamic capability, but they will not flesh out the full body of an instrument or bass wallop the way the bigger-boxed ProAc Response 3.8s can.
My final thought? Experiencing products capable of conveying the very essence of what connects us to music and performances is what makes this hobby such a pleasure. The Audio Physic Avanti Century fits that description perfectly.
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