Make Room! Make Room!
"The perfect Avantgarde for smaller environments" – and everything should be clear. The quoted heading from the company's brochure describes the basic facts about the newest speaker design from this German manufacturer. We learn that it is a scaled down version of the smallest, apart from the Solo, Uno Duo speakers from Avantgarde Acoustic. Featuring a smaller midrange driver horn, smaller woofers, and enclosed in a neat, compact cabinet. Why go to all this trouble when it is commonly known that the larger they are the better the sound, at least in theory? The answer to this lies in the location of the speakers premiere – Taiwan. Holger Fromme, head of the company, made it clear: the Uno Fino had been prepared with smaller listening spaces in mind than ever before, such as those found in Asia. We are talking about 20 to 35 square meters (the manufacturer suggests as low as 16 square meters, but that’s really extreme). It just so happens that this holds true not only in Asia but most countries in Europe – my own living room is 35 sq. meters. The speakers thus seem to have found the right place.
When the distributor representatives unpacked them in my apartment, what met my eyes were neat, really small – not just Avantgarde-small – speakers. The midrange driver 20" (500 mm) horn is the widest component. It is, however, recessed quite deeply into the cabinet, so it does not dominate the room. Speaking of which, the cabinets. Speakers from this German manufacturer have been associated with proprietary designs, where the entire speaker system is placed on a base frame supporting horn speakers and a subwoofer. The Picco speakers, however, introduced an alternative, more "home interior-friendly" design. While horns remain its distinguishing feature, they are mounted in a classic-looking cabinet. Although a seemingly misguided combination, in practice it works very well. Knowing, therefore, that the Fino is a smaller version of the Duo, we might have expected only minor changes. As it turns out, it is actually a completely new design. It seemed fitting to ask the head of the company, Mr. Holger Fromme, for a brief introduction.
A few words... Holger Fromme, CEO
So the Uno Fino is a small version of the Uno G2 (same horn, same horn drivers, same subwoofer amp) with the new 8ND250 bass driver in a more compact enclosure.
Summing it all up, we are dealing here with a smaller speaker cabinet, a completely new subwoofer, including a completely new woofer, and a redesigned crossover. What we are talking about is a three-way, semi-active system with horn speaker drivers handling midrange and treble. The new model has been designed to get the best possible integration with the listening room. There is a finish choice of eleven different horn colors and two natural veneer colors. Let me repeat: the speakers look awesome.
The front is dominated by the large 20" (500 mm) spherical midrange horn SH5002, with a small tweeter horn underneath. Both horns are removable and can be exchanged at any time for another color. The smaller 5 inch (130 mm) horn is fully recessed into the front baffle; the large midrange horn only partially. The Avantgarde proprietary 5" (130 mm) M1 midrange driver has a cone made of carbon fiber and a large 3" (75 mm) voice coil. The tiny microfibers coating the cone generate a Velours Damping Effect (VDE) and according to Avantgarde help to absorb high frequency distortions and reduce cone resonances. The driver is coupled directly to the speaker terminals, without any crossover components in the signal path. The idea is based on the mechanical damping. The M1 has a wide bandwidth that extends down to 290 Hz, where the subwoofer takes over, and a controlled roll-off at 3000 Hz. In the center you can see a large dust dome, the same diameter as the voice coil. It is visible through the horn mouth.
The H1 tweeter is based on the same design as the Trio H3 tweeter. The 1.75" (44 mm) voice coil has nominal impedance of 16 Ohms. It is driven by a powerful ferrite magnet, weighing 3 kg (6.5 lbs.). The two powerful woofers driving in parallel the active subwoofer are a completely new design. The 8" (205 mm) 8-ND250l woofers are mounted on the front baffle, below the two horns, and are housed in a sealed enclosure. They feature stiff paper membranes with a fabric made front suspension. All speaker drivers were once built that way. Those applied in the Uno Fino are different in that they are long-excursion drivers, with a + / - 6.5 mm controlled excursion! They employ powerful neodymium magnets.
The woofers are powered by the specially designed PA 107 amplifier with 250 W power output. This is a classic Class AB amplifier, but is equipped with a unique adaptive motional feedback circuitry, compensating for signal deviations in real-time. The amplifier is powered by a large, 350 W toroidal transformer and filter capacitors with the total capacity of 60.000 μF. The entire module is called Sub 221. The user can control the subsonic filter (20/30/40 Hz), cut-off frequency (60 to 350 Hz) and input sensitivity. The intensity of the green LED on the front panel signaling the amplifier on state can also be selected. The Sub 221 can be remotely switched on/off via the 12V trigger signal or can be left on permanently.
The speaker can be coupled to the audio system in two ways. The classic way is to connect the horn mid-tweeter section via a speaker cable to the power amplifier. The horn section features very nice WBT speaker terminals. The subwoofer in this classic connection is fed a low-level signal from the preamplifier, via a balanced interconnect. However, there is an alternative, which I highly recommend. The active PA 107 electronics has two inputs: the XLR connectors and high-level speaker terminals, the same as the above horn section. We couple them with a pair of jumper (a short speaker cable) and connect the signal from the amplifier to the upper speaker terminals. In this configuration, the two sections receive the same signal. The subwoofer amp impedance is so high that the current drawn is negligible and thus the amplifier will not be overloaded by it.
Suffice it to say one word: sensitivity. When it is 104dB/W/m, as boasted by the Uno Fino under review, every single flaw in the audio path, however small, is detected and immediately exposed. Any hum, noise, distortion, is magnified by the horn speakers to the point where it becomes unacceptable. There is, however, another side to the coin – high sensitivity for many music lovers / audiophiles is equivalent with easy amplification. After all, it is all part of a concept, according to which the best combination is that of a low-power amplifier, preferably a few watts, and high efficiency speakers. This provides an instantaneous energy transfer and allows for operating the amplifier with the lowest distortion and losses – within the first watt. Pairing Avantgarde Acoustic speakers and tube amplifiers is therefore quite common. I respect that approach and understand where it comes from. However, my opinion on the subject is completely different: a speaker of this type, but not only, works best if it is driven by a high power, preferably solid state amplifier. I have rehearsed it. I am supported in this by Matthias Ruff, chief engineer of the company with whom I repeatedly talked about the case. Please note that AA has never offered a tube amp, but has always sold solid state amplifiers. Although driving the speakers with a few watts SET, preferably the 300B, provides brilliant microdynamics and great resolution of low-level signals, the sound as such, its scale, consistency, or bass control is guaranteed by high power amplifiers. I’m not saying it’s the only way but – for me – it is the best.
Hence, I used two amplifiers to drive the Uno Fine – the Soulution 710 power amplifier (with the Ayon Audio Polaris III Signature Version preamplifier) and the Ayre AX-5 integrated amplifier. As the source I used the Ancient Audio Lektor Air V-edition CD player and the Kuzma Stabi XL turntable with the RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC preamp. The speakers stood in exactly the same spots as my Harbeths M40.1, against which they were directly compared in an A / B sequence, with the A and B known. The Avantgardes were placed 2.5 meters apart (measured between the tweeters), 1 meter from the rear wall and about 2.5 meters away from me.
I have already voiced one "iconoclastic" opinion: I think that horn speakers, or at least hybrid horn systems with an active subwoofer, reveal their full potential when they are driven by powerful amplifiers with a "rigid" power supply, i.e. doubling their output power with halving impedance. Yes, I agree that this way we lose some of the advantages of SET amps, but for me the gains of a strong "drive" outweigh the losses. This principle, in my view, concerns all high sensitivity speakers, not only horns (see, e.g., the Harbeth M40.1), with a more tube amplifier-friendly impedance.
Such amplifiers are the Soulution 710 used by me, as well as the much less expensive Ayre AX-5 integrated. With both of them the Uno Fino sounded extremely selective. This is a fundamental characteristic of horn speakers, not only the Avantgardes. Swapping them with the Harbeths it was easy to see that these are two, completely different from each other, philosophies of sound. They are probably equivalent in the pursuit of quality, but different in execution. As I say, the German speakers are extremely selective and it is difficult to find something comparable to them in this respect, even the phenomenal Amphion Krypton3. The British speakers, by contrast, boast outstanding resolution. And vice versa – the AAs are not particularly resolute and the Hs too selective. Resolution and selectivity are two completely different sound characteristics. The former is the ability to show low level signals, textures, shapes, and colors in a maximum natural way. The latter is also based on the ability to show small signals, but then it differs: it concerns the most precise differentiation of particular, individual sounds, showing them separately, without merging, without homogenizing the presentation. Resolution does not involve "detailness" while selectivity is all about it. In an ideal world the two characteristics should complement each other; in the real world it is most often the case that one of them dominates, "setting" the whole presentation.
The Uno Fino are extremely selective. They are not, however, hyper-detailed. This is something that sets the German manufacturer apart from other seekers of the "perfect" sound. Since selectivity is largely based on precise wave front, sound attack, it is easy to overdo it, neglecting the necessary fulfillment (the domain of definition), and decay. That is dangerously close to a parody, so to speak. The Fino, just like other speakers from this manufacturer, do not sound harsh, which is the easiest way to "simulate" selectivity, and even detailness. The shape of vocals, be that Peggy Lee on the golden edition of "Black Coffee", Debbie Reynolds on the SHM-CD version of "Fine and Dandy" or, finally, Mel Tormé on the recently issued, historical recordings "Hello, Young Lovers", was accurate, but naturally soft, in that the vocals were in front of the soundstage, as intended (in my opinion) by the sound engineer, but without cutting them out of the background. There was proper weight, saturation and volume.
And the volume of sound is another, after selectivity, characteristic of the Fine which places the speaker on a completely different level than most of the speakers that are used at home. Properly tuned, positioned and driven (each of these is equally important!), they show the scale of sound we have never dreamed of. Even though we deal with the smallest speaker design from the manufacturer, in a small room, sitting close to them, we will not hear a thin, tiny facsimile of reality, but full-blooded sound, strong presentation, and tangible phantom images.
It so happened that the speakers arrived at my house right after the Holy Week, when one of the most important festivals of early music, MisteriaPaschalia, takes place in my home city of Krakow. It's hard to get tickets, but this year I managed to go to three concerts: George Frideric Handel’s "Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno", played by Il Giardino Armonico and conducted by the Giovannini Antonini, Claudio Monteverdi’s "L'Orfeo", played by La Venexiana under the direction of Claudio Cavina, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s "Grosse Messe in C minor, K. 427" (plus two Bach cantatas: BWV 31 and BWV 4) played by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, under the baton of Marc Minkowski who on this occasion was presented with the Key to the City of Krakow, in recognition of his love for the city. Of course, upon coming back home I listened to similar performances, especially the album "Rossini" by Julia Lezhneva and the same rendition of "L'Orfeo" (albeit with a slightly different cast) as during the festival (recorded in 2006).
The Avantgarde speakers are one of the very few designs, regardless of the size, that can show a natural or close to natural size of the instruments. The soundstage is expansive and surrounds us, which is a feature of horn speakers, but the most important thing is that the elements in the center, on-axis with the listener and even slightly to the side, are large, provided they are in the foreground. Not exaggerated, as it sometimes happens with larger designs from this manufacturer, but "natural"; in other words, close to what I remembered from the performances in the Krakow Philharmonic Concert Hall. What's more – the tonal balance can be really excellent. The volume is built through the saturation of lower midrange and bass, as well as their level. Without saturation, filling, with just a simple (not to say simplistic) cranking up the bass, we will get bigger sound, but also buzzing low end, slow and unnatural. And yet, early music ensembles do not have instruments capable of generating low notes that exist only for themselves – they are instead part of a larger structure, something that gives saturation, but without a precise location of its source. And so was shown the album with the Monteverdi's opera: a large scale, momentum, and saturation, without unnatural bass.
I confirmed that listening to the Seven Steps To Heaven by Davis on the Analogue Productions re-release and to Blues On The Rocks by Jim Hall Trio, an album with two sessions, from 1956 and 1960. The double bass on both is quite warm, slightly emphasized by the sound engineers with a closely positioned microphone, but not exaggerated. Although a departure from "neutrality", it fits perfectly my vision of "naturalness", or what is possible to achieve at home. The Fino showed it exactly as I know it from other high-end speakers, first and foremost the Harbeths: the double bass had a slightly emphasized mid-bass range, but it well complemented other instruments, thus meeting the basic postulate – the consistency of presentation.
Before we get to the last characteristic I would like to mention – space – let us summarize what we have so far said about the new speakers from Avantgarde. Despite their relatively small size they build a large volume of sound, their tonal balance is excellent, with a particular nod – let us add – to high energy above around 5 kHz, and their selectivity is simply stunning. There is no trace of harshness or brightening, or a lack of coherence. Soundstage brings to mind what we know from listening to high-end headphones. That is something I tend to hear from time to time, but never with such intensity as with horn speakers. While the Uno Fino is the smallest design from Avantgarde Acoustic, its presentation is no different than that of the largest Trio with six BassHorns; the system I've heard many times, in different locations. The sound seems to be "coming out" towards us. We find a similar presentation with some speakers with boosted lower midrange; warm speakers with a fairly "ductile" sound. The Fino is not, however, based on this type of treatment. The way in which the speaker is "coupled" via horn with the listening room is the only one of its kind. The result of that coupling is a completely new fragment of space, built and brought into our listening room. And, as it is known, this is one of the two possible realizations; in the other one we "hear" our room and the performers are transferred to it.
This has certain implications. The soundstage is not especially deep, but it is very wide. This is the case where we speak about "disappearing" walls. The space is so expansive that it seems to surround us. Interestingly, the recordings with lots of additional events added in counter-phase are not as intense and surprising as with classical speakers. Here those effects seem to be more integrated into main sounds and into what is in front of us. And above and beyond all that there is something that, I think, makes horn speakers so enticing: connective, dense space at your fingertips. Owing to excellent selectivity, even minute changes can be heard in the recording, such as the level and type of tape noise, microphones, interiors, and uneven magnetic tape saturation – if we listen to recordings recorded on magnetic tape. These elements do not distract the listener, but rather enrich his or her listening experience. They are not present in the live musical event, so it would not be difficult to point to them as distortion (which of course they are). In my experience, however, exactly the opposite is true; "clean", sterile recordings sound artificial, and it is such "dirty" tracks that seem to be genuine. The Uno Fino will show it all in one go, without excessive analysis, but at the same time much more accurately and clearly than almost any other speaker on the market.
That is why, for me, the best speakers for listening to music in the AA product lineup, regardless of the price, were the Uno Picco. I could sit close to them and I felt as if I were in a different space, a different reality. Great tonal balance, very good "integration" with the listening room – these were other advantages of the Picco. The Uno Fino repeat the same story: they are excellent to listen to. They require precise positioning and control, and a high-quality amplifier, but it's worth our every effort. Their microdynamics, their ability to convey even the smallest variations in the recording, without hyper-detailness, are amazing. So is their selectivity.
What we do not get is outstanding resolution, which is about average. The Harbeth M40.1, as well as the Amphion Krypton3 and the Esthelon XA (to limit the list to the speakers that were with me recently) offer better resolution. But they are not as selective. I will say more – even the Amphions, the best of the three in this respect, do not show that much recording texture. And what about space? It is the only one of its kind, more expansionary than even from the Sonusfaber Guarneri Evolution. Different, more "ductile" and dense; at the same time not as deep, with not as clearly defined instruments bodies. But once it casts it spell on us, no other speaker will be able to repeat it.
Yes, in many ways, of course in my opinion, this is the best speaker system from Avantgarde Acoustic. That it also happens to be the least expensive? So much the worse for others. I'm sure a big role in creating such a focused and coherent sound has its compact size and, hence, the proximity of all the speaker drivers. The subwoofer section is excellent, although when it comes to speed, the one in the Picco was better. In terms of color and consistency, it is the same league. Small – really! – and graceful speakers offering in smaller rooms most of what the most expensive Avantgarde designs do for a fraction of their price. Mission Accomplished.