“If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.” So said a rider at this year’s Tour De France, days after another dramatic recovery, days before drug testing was to prove him (all too predictably) correct. Such cynicism is well placed in modern sports; with several hundred highly trained and closely matched athletes all attempting the same feat, the sudden elevation of one rider or runner head and shoulders above the norm is both increasingly common and anything but natural. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that we tend to shy away from similar performance step-changes in other fields of activity, yet the logic that governs them is entirely separate.
We are all familiar with the over-used concept of trickle down, often coupled to the word “technology”, so much so that it too gets greeted with scepticism. “80% of the performance for 50% of the price!” is the stuff of marketing dreams, especially in fields where the taking of percentages is at best nebulous. But just for a moment I’m going to ask you to suspend entrenched disbelief and consider that if something is genuinely and consistently different from the run of the mill then there’s likely going to be a reason. There’s no question in my mind that Avalon’s Isis establishes new standards of achievement in musically important areas, a new shape to its performance envelope, if you will: But then, at well the wrong side of £50K so it should. Sadly, history tells us that such extravagant statements are generally more about show than go, and cynicism again becomes the order of the day. But interestingly, at the same time that the Isis first emerged, at the opposite end of the range we saw the NP2, a speaker at around a twentieth the price of its (very) big brother, but a speaker that nonetheless shared the same shape to its performance envelope, the same mix of virtues, even if they exist at a far less exalted level. There’s a definite, recognisable, shared achievement here, despite the difference in price, appearance and overall performance – and it’s equally definitely a good thing.
Which begs the question, what it is it that these Avalons are doing that other speakers aren’t? Well, actually it’s more a case of what they’re not doing – or to be even more precise, what they are not doing to the signal. In short, they’re not getting in its way. In reality that requires a little more explanation, but fear not, for the tools are at hand. Were I to say, “If you want but can’t afford the Isis, perhaps you should consider the NP2” – those that didn’t laugh would probably be outraged. Enter then the Indra, a speaker of such grace and elegance, such obvious physical parallels to the Isis that suddenly the suggestion doesn’t seem quite so extreme. But then its reassuringly expensive price tag probably helps in that regard as well…
This, my third foray into this new generation of Avalon speakers, could easily be presented as a cutdown Isis. The heavily facetted, immaculately veneered and rear tilted cabinet is a given. The downward firing port with its U-shaped egress to channel the output is a familiar marker. The ceramic midrange bowl and twin bass drivers echo the lineup in the larger speaker too. But in many ways the physical similarities in the choice and arrangement of the hard wear are actually little more than superficial. The Indra is very much a little-Isis, but it’s actually the thinking – more precisely, the understanding – behind it that makes it so.
We tend to think about speakers and their performance in terms of what they do – they go loud, they go deep, they image (or not) and all the other hi-fi sub-divisions that inform the review or audition process. Yet, as transducers, along with the source components in a system, they stand to wreak the greatest havoc on the music’s content. Perhaps we’d be better off concentrating on what they don’t do (to the signal) – at least if we want to improve the breed. Where damage is concerned, less is definitely more and you only need to look at the distortion figures on a range of different loudspeaker designs to know that, as a category, they leave a lot to be desired.
Avalon’s speakers have always been lowimpact in nature. Some would say they’ve taken sonic invisibility too far, that lightness of touch infecting the realm of dynamic authority. But that’s to miss the point. There are two major mechanisms at work in a loudspeaker: the mechanical and the electrical. The former is the one that gets the most attention and it’s also the one that’s most visible, concerned as it is with all the bits that you want to move (like the drivers) and all the bits you want to stay still (like the cabinet). But it’s the latter, the electrical element represented by the crossover, where the damage is often most insidious and ultimately critical. It’s also where the designer, particularly the designer using OEM drivers, can have the greatest influence – not always for good. But with speakers, by their very nature, we tend to assume that the bits we can see are the bits that matter, a tendency that’s underlined by their also being reasonably intuitive to understand. So we look at a massive front baffle and can appreciate the role it plays in resisting resonance. We can understand how the sculpted faceting on that baffle reduces diffractive effects that destroy focus. We can look at a drive unit and actually see the fancy diaphragm, or flat surround or whatever it is that makes it so special. And don’t get me wrong: these things are special and they do matter. We can see that from the sonic success of earlier Avalon designs. But something happened with the Isis – something fundamental and wonderful. You can hear it albeit to a lesser extent in the NP2, but boy can you hear it in the Indra. And I don’t know what that something is but it’s to do with how effectively the speaker steps back behind the music and my gut tells me that has to do with the crossover.