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Equipment Review

March 1999

Gershman Acoustics
Avant Garde RX20 Loudspeakers

by John Stafford

gershman_avant_garde.jpg (10807 bytes)
Review at a Glance
Sound Rich, lush sound; full, strong bass; suitable for a wide range of musical tastes.
Features Biwireable; outstanding looks and finish; switched crossover for flexibility.
Use Require plenty of power for optimal results; solid-state amplification recommended.
Value The particular sound of the Avant Garde speakers will make them stick out to many music lovers in a crowded $4000-$5000 field.

A while back when our intrepid Paradise correspondent, Jim Saxon, sent out an e-mail to his fellow SoundStage! writers asking for suggestions of speakers that looked as good as they sounded, the first brand that popped into my mind was Gershman Acoustics. With artful shapes, lacquer finishes and consistent mentions for best sound at many of the major hi-fi shows, Eli Gershman’s products are definitely designed for the eyes as well as the ears, and the Avant Garde RX20s are no exception.

Gershman Acoustics has been in business for six years now and are located in the north end of the greater Toronto area -- Vaughn for those of you who are not Toronto-challenged. The business is the natural evolution of Eli Gershman’s long involvement in audio and his growing custom speaker work, which had started as an avocation to his career in the manufacturing sector as a continuous process improvement quality specialist. At the insistence of many of his customers, Eli and his wife Ofra decided to go whole hog into the high-end speaker business and released their statement-level GAP 520 speakers in 1993.

Description and setup

The Avant Gardes have been in production for a few years now, and at $4400 a pair, they are not cheap, but the build and parts quality are first-rate and easily justify the price tag. When I stopped by the shop to pick up my review sample, Eli was evaluating some cabinets that had just come in from the painters. He explained that he uses a few different suppliers so that he can push them for the best possible finish. He was also evaluating binding posts, as he had decided to switch to posts that fit a greater number of connectors used for various brands of speaker cables.

The drivers for the Avant Gardes, too, are first-rate and include a Vifa 1" silk-dome tweeter that has a double-chamber flexible voice coil with magnetic fluid. The 3" Audax midrange has a carbon-fiber cone and ventilated voice coil, and the Gershman-designed 8.5" woofer has a fiberglass cone and ventilated voice coil. Gershman Acoustics attaches a brass ring to the woofer’s cone to help stiffen it and provide a cleaner bottom end. The four binding posts are five-way solid brass types, and unlike many speaker manufacturers, Gershman does not use brand-name wires internally; they spec their own.

The Avant Gardes look somewhat like a tetrahedron, with a wide, square base and four walls that converge to a 2" x 6" rectangle at the top. The top third of the front face bends to a sharper angle, creating two slopes, one for the woofer and another for the midrange and tweeter. The design reflects a number of goals that all speaker manufacturers try to achieve for sonic reasons. The asymmetrical walls reduce standing waves and the changing slope of the wall on the front face of the speaker helps time align the tweeter, midrange and woofer. Also, diffraction is reduced via two techniques. The narrowing of the front face at the top of the speaker leaves less cabinet to diffract sound from the midrange and tweeter, and what cabinet does show around the drivers is padded to further reduce diffraction.

The interior design is also well thought out. The cabinet isolates the tweeter and midrange from the woofer and is heavily braced to reduce vibration. The woofer is ported in the rear of the speaker, but it is not really a tuned port per se. Eli calls the bass enclosure a "regulation line," which provides a 4" wide, 18" long, circular port to ensure low bass response, which is rated down to 25Hz. You might describe a regulation line as a short transmission line or a long tuned port.

In contrast to the products of many manufacturers, the Avant Gardes come with brass cones instead of spikes. I am sure part of the reason is that the cones will better bear the brunt of the 85-pound speakers. With the small surface area at the top of the speakers, leveling can be a little difficult, but I found that the small round level that I use to ensure my CD player is parallel to Lake Ontario worked quite well.

The crossovers are based on a first-order design with the crossover points at 250Hz and 2000Hz. The crossover is also switched to provide a little more top end or a little more bottom end, depending on your preference. These are subtle changes to the sonics, but I preferred the "on" switch, which nudged the treble a bit. The Avant Gardes are a warm-sounding speaker, and I found myself wanting for more top-end extension when the switch was "off," particularly when listening with tubes.

Placement of the Avant Gardes is fairly simple as they sound good and will image "out of the box." The question really becomes one of refinement and ensuring you get flat response throughout the frequency spectrum. I found that placing them too close to the rear wall will reinforce a bottom end that needs no reinforcement. Some toe-in is desirable, and I ended up with about 20 degrees worth with the speakers about seven feet apart and four feet from the back wall. With the smooth top end of these speakers, on-axis listening doesn’t produce the harshness I have found with some speakers, but I found the depth of the soundstage was reduced in this configuration.

Sound

Overall I found the Avant Gardes to be a rich-sounding speaker with a real ease to the presentation, warmth in the mids and highs, and tons of bottom-end weight and extension. They are also a little difficult to drive, so don’t plan on using them with a single-ended tube setup or cheap transistors. These speakers should be driven by high-end solid state or tubes with a minimum of 40Wpc. The Anthem Amp 1 worked OK, but the speakers really began to sing with the SimAudio Celeste 4150se 150-watt solid-state amplifier. I’d say the Anthem gear is about the limit with these speakers if you don’t listen at high levels on a consistent basis. But if you’re a "loud and proud" kind of listener, go for something with more guts.

It’s ironic that the one thing that had me concerned about these speakers before bringing them in for review turned out to be their biggest strength. I had heard them at a couple of stores where the bottom end was overdone and a little bloated. But it turns out that good placement and room tuning can make all the difference. So often you hear about lush mids or a sweet top end, but rarely do you hear those phrases applied to the bottom end. If it isn’t lean, fast and powerful, it’s not good bass. I beg to differ. A bloated, slow bottom end will destroy the sound of a speaker, but a rich, lush, and articulate bass line will add life to a recording.

One instrument in particular that comes through beautifully on the Avant Gardes is piano. I mentioned this to Eli and he commented that he spends a great deal of time trying to replicate piano properly as it covers such a wide frequency spectrum. He often finds it reproduced with too much top end, but I find that recordings are all over the map when it comes to piano reproduction. One of my favorite jazz recordings, We Get Requests by Oscar Peterson [Verve 810 047-2], goes from one extreme to the other. Most of the disc has piano that is way overdamped, and the last two tracks suffer from Eli’s biggest complaint.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers – Merlin TSM-SE, Totem Model 1 Signature.

Amplifiers – Arcam Alpha 9P, Anthem Amp 1, SimAudio Celeste 4150se.

Preamplifier – Anthem Pre 1L linestage.

Digital – Primare D20 CD player, Rotel 955AX CD player, Assemblage DAC2 DAC.

Interconnects – Cardas Quadlink 5c, NBS Dragon/Fly.

Speaker cables – Cardas Quadlink 5c, NBS Dragon/Fly.

Digital cable – XLO Pro, NBS Mine/Serpent.

Accessories – Blue Circle BC83 PLP power conditioner, NBS Mine/Serpent power cords.

As I had mentioned previously, the imaging produced by the Avant Gardes is first-rate, particularly for a floorstanding speaker. They are certainly capable of projecting a tight, well-defined image with lots of depth and layering. I found that Joni Mitchell’s "Overture/Cotton Avenue" from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter [Asylum 701-2] has some marvelous imaging. In fact, there are couple of incredible effects to check for on this track. First, there are some guitar chords that are played with the reverb out of phase, making the image appear to start in the center and explode out to the edges of the soundstage. There’s also a reversal of this, which is to play the chord out of phase with the reverb in phase. This causes the chord to start out at the edges of the soundstage and converge to a point that is dead-center of the speakers. This is a very cool effect when the system is imaging well. The other effect is at the end of the overture section, where there are a number of individual notes played in fairly rapid succession on a bass guitar. Again, if the speakers are imaging well, you will notice that each note shifts image, not just between the speakers, but in depth as well. "Overture/Cotton Avenue" is a must-have demo track in my book, and the Avant Gardes do it justice.

The top end and midrange lean to the lush, delicate side of the spectrum. There is no harshness or stridency to be found anywhere. This, coupled with the fact that the speakers tend to be difficult to drive, leads me back down the road to solid-state amplification and cables that tend to deliver a clean, almost analytical sound, like Nordost or Nirvana. The NBS Dragon/Fly cables were much preferred over the more round-sounding Cardas Quadlink. With all brands of cable, I preferred the speakers biwired over using the supplied jumpers.

Other than the piano, I didn’t really favor one type of music over another when playing the Avant Gardes. The speakers provide a solid platform for just about any musical taste, including rock, pop, classical, jazz, and blues at any volume level. In fact, I preferred to listen to these speakers louder than normal as they really seem to want to crank the sound out, particularly when the amplification was up to it. The bottom end sounds equally good with a delicately bowed double-bass or an over-compressed electric bass rift, and a badly recorded pop disc won’t leave you fatigued from the screeching mids and highs. The Avant Gardes are one of the more well-rounded speakers I have heard.

Direct comparison of the Avant Gardes to the Totem Model 1 Signatures and the Merlin TSM SEs is a little bit like comparing a couple of roadsters to a touring sedan. Because the smaller speakers lack some bottom-end extension, they tend to have an overall balance that is brighter and cleaner than that of the Gershmans’. Also, I found the smaller speakers to be a little quicker in the mids, which gives them an edge in the clarity department, particularly the Merlins, which are an extremely revealing speaker. They were no match for the Avant Gardes when it came to recreating low-end room ambience. The extra 25Hz or so in the bass could really produce wonderful information about the studio or the concert hall where the recording was made. The Avant Gardes also seemed to add a layer of texture that was not found with the other speakers. This gives a full, rich sound to most recordings.

Conclusion

At this price point, you are entering the realm of the high-performance, full-range loudspeaker. The Gershman Acoustics Avant Garde can compete very easily in this range with very high marks in some key areas like bottom-end quality and imaging. There are some down sides, such as the need for plenty of amplification, but matching the Avant Gardes with electronics should be relatively simple with some very satisfying results.

If you are looking for sophisticated looks and sound, the Gershman Avant Garde RX20s may be for you. With their artful shape and fine-furniture finish, they will fit in even the most pristinely furnished rooms; and with their lush, rich sound, they will let you enjoy your wide range of musical material without having to stop and give your ears a break. For those of you who have gone to the extremes of finding resolution and clarity in your system only to find you can’t listen to more than a few tracks at a time, the Avant Gardes can send you back down that path that we are all in pursuit of -- lifelike sonics that provide hours of musical enjoyment.

...John Stafford
johns@soundstage.com

Gershman Acoustics Avant Garde RX20 Loudspeakers
Price: $4400 USD per pair
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Gershman Acoustics
P.O. Box 81593
North York, Ontario M2R 3X1 Canada
Phone: (905) 669-9554 or (416) 730-0955
Fax: (416) 250-1830

Website: www.gershmanacoustics.com

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