Perk up your ears with this sweet high-end audio system
The Audiophiliac's close encounter with Avalon Acoustics Idea speakers and Naim electronics left him shaken and stirred.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
I've totally lost count of how many Avalon Acoustics speakers I've heard since the early 1990s, but for one reason or another I haven't reviewed one in at least 10 years. So when my friends at the Innovative Audio Video showroom in New York City suggested I check out the Avalon Idea speakers, I quickly agreed.
The Ideas were set up in a well-appointed room, approximately 14 by 17 feet (4.3 by 5.2 meters), with a Naim SuperNait 2 80-watt-per-channel integrated amplifier, and a Naim CDX 2 CD player. I started listening with music from a friend's jazz recording session that was done in a large church, and my memories of the session came flooding back! The speakers all but disappeared as I heard the sound of the band -- trumpet, soprano sax, electric guitar, electric piano, bass and drums -- filling the church! The soundstage had tremendous depth, and I could easily place each instrument within the stereo image. While the speakers are just under three feet (90 cm) tall, the soundstage seemed wider and taller than that. These speakers are incredibly transparent and neutral, so they sounded like a "portal" back to the session, just as I remembered it!
I next cranked up the Battles' prog rock 2007 debut album, "Mirrored", and the band's massively complex rhythmic interplay was revealed like never before. Bass went deep, much deeper than I expected for a speaker of the Idea's size, and definition was super-tight. There's no flab or bloat in the bass -- none at all. Battles' John Stanier's dazzling drum patterns remained crisp and clear; the Ideas are the aural equivalent of a 4K video display!
Frank Sinatra's "Only the Lonely" album demonstrated the Ideas' sweet midrange tonality. Sinatra's vocals sounded natural; he was close up while Nelson Riddle's orchestra were further back in the soundstage. The recording's reverberation sounded more realistic than what you get with most contemporary music, and the Ideas made that perfectly clear.
The speakers feature an Avalon-designed 1-inch (25mm) composite dome tweeter, and two 7-inch (178mm) Nomex-Kevlar woofers (the drivers are made in Germany exclusively for Avalon). Avalon speakers look like no other, and when viewed from the side the Idea's front and rear panels are canted back at an 8-degree angle. The Idea's impedance is rated at 4 ohms, and rather than use conventional speaker wire binding posts, the Idea's connector clamps the wires' ends (banana plugs won't work with the Idea's connector). Standard real wood veneers include maple, walnut and cherry; burled wood veneers and automotive paint finishes are available at extra cost.
Avalon recommends leaving the grilles on for best sound quality, so I did just that for all of my auditioning time. The company's speakers have always featured angled and faceted cabinets, and while the Idea speaker may be one of the company's more affordable models, the craftsmanship is superb. The speakers are made in Boulder, Colorado, and the company documents the measurements of every driver for every speaker the company has ever produced. So if a customer needs to replace a tweeter, midrange or woofer on a 20-year-old Avalon speaker, the service department can provide a matching driver. So while these speakers are expensive, they can provide decades of enjoyment.
This Avalon-Naim system would be a smart choice for a well-heeled, city-dwelling audiophile; Avalon assures me that Ideas can also be used in rooms double the size of the one I heard them in at Innovative Audio Video.
The Avalon Idea speakers run $8,795, or £7,900 per pair in the UK; while the Naim SuperNait 2 goes for $5,695 or £2,965; and the Naim CDX 2 CD player is $7,495 or £4,225.
While I didn't have a set of Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 stand mount speakers ($6,000. £4,500 per pair) on hand to directly compare with the Ideas, I will say this: The 805 D3, being a much smaller speaker, has more limited bass and its dynamic impact is scaled back. I also think the 805 D3 sounds somewhat more transparent than the Idea.