Why AVI speakers are intriguing - and why I won't be buying them
I have now been reading this forum for about two years and posting, erratically, for about a year. For the most part I have enjoyed it, and I've become a big admirer of WHF as well. They are an ad-supported magazine and the fact that they are still able to give star ratings in the current media environment is quite an achievement.
But I simply must comment on the bizarre AVI phenomenon that has stricken this place. Every time anyone asks a question, I find myself just waiting for a recommendation of powered speakers from a cacophony of AVI owners. It is remarkable that a company so small can cause such a ruckus.
There are other forum topics with a discussion of this phenomenon, but I thought I would offer my opinion on these speakers, and try to give a more balanced perspective for those who wonder what all the fuss is about. The truth is, I am very intrigued by AVI speakers, in particular the ADM40. But the truth is also that I will not be buying them or auditioning them - I am intrigued, yes, but ultimately not interested. I will explain the reasons for both.
Why am I intrigued? Well, there are two main reasons the ADM40 calls to me. The first is the driver quality. The AVI fans make much of this, and in case you were wondering, they win on this point. The main driver in the ADM40 is the Scan-Speak Illuminator midbass, and it is truly state of the art - arguably the best driver you could put in that box at any price. To a hobbyist a single pair of these drivers is over 600 euros. In fact, the ADM40 is by far the cheapest speaker I have ever seen with drivers of this quality, despite the cost of the electronics inside.
Second, it is absolutely true that there are major advantages to using an active electronic crossover and multiple amp channels, eliminating the capacitors, coils, and resistors in a passive crossover. This is the heart of AVI's marketing and there is truth to it. Electronic crossovers are already all around us, in our AV receivers, sub boxes, high-end car stereos, and pro monitors. They are especially suited to situations in which loud, clear sound in needed in challenging environments - the sound can be equalized with the crossover. Passives can do the same, but they aren't adjustable on the fly, and too much adjustment ruins the already-amplified sound.
AVI have simply designed a regular, non-adjustable crossover, but put it before the amp channels, already adjusted to an 'optimum' configuration, much like a passive design would be, but with the benefits of an active crossover. It's basically a studio monitor approach, and it shares the studio monitor's 'just plug me into the board and I play, accurately' convenience.
Despite these advantages, I'm not interested, and I actually think that neither advantage holds up to serious scrutiny.
So what's the case against the AVI ADM40s? To be fair to this company, they've come up with a great idea, great value proposition, and in fact this all-in-one system is an ideal product for someone who has a bunch of music on a computer and just wants to get great sound from it. I am not doing this to rubbish the product - just trying to explain why I personally, an incorrigible audiophile, would not bother with it, even if it is right for some consumers.
Let's start with the core value proposition, the superiority of the sound of active speakers. If you go and listen to some active speakers, you may agree - the sound has a clarity that is quite striking. But I would argue that this is due to the very poor quality of components used in many passive crossovers more than some kind of absolute superiority of one approach versus another. Always be careful of overgeneralising the findings from a very anecdotal test. Most people auditioning a speaker that costs £3250 are probably upgrading from a speaker that cost between £500-1500 - an area of the market in which decent drivers and boxes are available, but the crossover parts tend to be of extremely poor quality. I took apart a Mission 78 series speaker with a blown driver last year and the capacitors were a complete joke - the kind of thing you'd find in a little transistor radio.
The crossover parts in stuff a little higher up - entry ProAc and the like - aren't much better. And for good reason. Wax coils, super caps, etc. cost a lot of money and speakers already cost a fortune to produce. These companies have to stay in business.
Active crossovers may blow cheap passives out of the water, but there is nothing intrinsically better about actives. The truth about speakers (and everything else engineered) is that there is no free lunch. Actives have disadvantages, too. Most active crossover circuitry is going to contain multiple op amps, a PC board, and many more, smaller capacitors than a typical passive. The only really clean way to avoid that is to mimic the transfer function in the digital domain - given the ADM40s digital inputs I assume that's what they are doing. But now it's a DAC and a full multichannel DSP and a bunch of circuitry. At least with a passive there are only 8-10 parts that the designer can lavish attention on - at a certain price level.
But it's the price, and the great Scan-Speak driver, that is the real deal-killer for me, despite these being two supposedly great attributes. Sorry, it just doesn't add up for me. A pair of speakers with this level of driver tends to cost more than this. AVI can say that they don't have to buy the high-end crossover components or compensate a dealer. And those are big savings. But assuming the company is making some margin from these speakers, and looking at the high-end drivers, and the usual headaches for speaker manufacturers (building, hand-finishing, and shipping heavy and fragile wooden furniture), how much do you really think they have left to cover: a digital volume control/preamp, a digital crossover, a multichannel DAC, and four class AB amp channels? How good can the op amps on the DAC output really be? The power supply transformers? The jitter rejection circuitry?
Although I have no doubt that this product sounds great, what it really amounts to is a fancy iPod dock with garishly posh speaker drivers. It's a closed box - you can't upgrade it or even test different parts of it. It's got a lot of black box digital stuff going on inside of it. You are basically buying something that had better be your last purchase, because to make an upgrade, you are starting from scratch.
The AVI counter-argument is the real giveaway that you should keep your wallet in your pocket. '95% of the sound of your system is your speakers anyway,' they will tell you. 'Even if your amp is demonstrably better than the AVIs', nothing you gain from that 5% will ever be enough to outweigh the huge advantage of being active.' That sounds reasonable - if the first statement is true!
But it's not. Although it's true that what you hear is more influenced by the speakers than anything else - the character, scale, and much of the sound of the system - the amplification is the heart. The speakers will determine more about what it sounds like, but the amp will determine the overall quality. Any product that is predicated on a radical interpretation of either amp or speaker being paramount, is not a company from which I'll be buying the component that they think hardly matters. In other words, I like the ADM speakers, but I'll be damned if I'm buying my amp from them.
I recently added a BAT VK50 SE preamp between a Benchmark DAC1 and a McIntosh MC150 power amp. Since the DAC1 is a perfectly good preamp, and I didn't need more gain, and the music already sounded lovely directly through the amp, you might think that sticking a preamp in there would just complicate things. In fact, it was one of the biggest upgrades I have ever experienced - the soundstage tripled and I've got bass coming out of the wall from little standmounters. I was surprised and delighted - it made a mockery of the 'it's all about the speakers' rubbish. If you don't believe me, find a friendly dealer and ask to hear some modest speakers with a modest amp - then ask him to hook the same speakers up to the best amp he's got in the shop. Then tell me it's all about the speakers.
That's all well and good if you're rich, I can hear you saying. Yeah, well, maybe. My current main system is composed of four main parts:
1. Benchmark DAC1 - bought in person at the factory (long story - was driving from skiing in Vermont to a wedding in upstate New York and they said I could stop by and pick it up. They showed me where they build them etc. - it was pretty cool - it was 2002 and nobody had heard of it yet - brought it back to the UK in my suitcase) - bought new for $895 USD. Full retail.
2. Balanced Audio Technology VK-50SE preamp - bought last month, used, 2200 euros (retail 7000)
3. McIntosh MC150 power amp - bought last year, used, 1000 euros (retail 4000)
4. Homebuilt standmount speakers with super caps and good coils - cost about 1000 euros and several weekends
Now not everyone is going to build speakers - I was using ProAc D18s before. Someone else might buy some nice speakers on the used market instead, as I did with the other components.
The point being: My system cost about 5000 euros, not that much more than the AVI ADM40s. I can't say for sure that it's better (OK, yes I can, it's a better system that I ever dreamed I would own). But I sure had more fun. Each of these four components was added to a system, a piece at a time. Each of the four times it was a massive upgrade. I only spent more than a grand once. And I can keep trying different gear, and maybe someday, it could get even better.
It's great that the AVI offers plug-and-play convenience, and not everyone will want to take the path I chose. The B&W Zepplin offers wonderful sound, too, at its price, just as the ADM40 does at its price. But if you are buying a Zeppelin, ADM40, or any other all-in-one box, you may be a music lover, but I just don't see how it's of interest to an audiophile. You can't upgrade, adjust, or swap out anything - what is there to post about on an audiophile forum? Telling an audiophile to sell their boxes and buy an all-in-one solution is like going on a swinger site and advocating celibacy, or a drinking site and advocating sobriety. Once they buy their AVI speakers, they are done, right? So what are they doing here?
Well, I don't know for sure - some are no doubt happy owners who want everyone to be happy. But I do know something about online marketing. If you are a small company trying to be a giant-killer on the web, it's not like you've got ads on Channel 5. You have a 'social media strategy,' which means finding people to go out on forums and spread the word. I think AVI has done this very well, and I can think of no other explanation for this phenomenon where discussion of one little company seems to pop up in every thread.
I hope that this post will be helpful - I know it took a long attention span. But I know that many newbies come here, every day, and are no doubt confused by all of the AVI talk. If you found this post helpful, maybe you could link to it when they ask for advice, and the discussion about AVI inevitably starts.