Avalon Avatar

It’s easy to forget that Avalon makes floor-standing speakers which aren’t the size of refrigerators. The Avatar stands a manageable 34x9x13in (HWD) and looks positively dainty when standing next to the Radian or the Ascent. Because it features the angular styling consistent throughout the range, the Avatar almost looks like a scale model of its bigger sisters – but size is the only compromise.

Weighing a hefty 65lb each, the Avatar tells you immediately that it’s built to high standards; the magnificent finish simply confirms this. Because the complex cabinet features angled surfaces surrounding the baffle area and the entire enclosure slopes backward, it avoids the boredom inspired by mere boxes. And these angles serve numerous acoustic functions, not least in providing the Avatar (and other Avalons) with small baffles relative to the enclosure, thus eliminating all manner of diffraction problems. Moreover, the rearward slope time-aligns the drive units.

In the Avatar, the driver array consists of a 1in titanium dome tweeter protected by a mesh grille and an 8in Nomex/Kevlar weave coned bass unit. Both reside behind a cloth grille lined with felt “anti-diffraction” material, which – like the seemingly thick grille fitted to the legendary BBC LS3/5A – is a specific part of the design, not an aesthetic afterthought; removing it is not of any benefit. Avatar’s sensitivity is only 85dB/1W and the impedance a nominal 6 ohms, but the speakers worked well with medium power valve amplifiers like the 30W/ch Croft Series V-C and the startling new 40W Quad II-40. But given that these are American speakers more likely to be used with US-made “monster” amplifiers, I also listened to them with Krell’s mighty FPB300 – clearly a more sensible match if you like to play loudly. I used a Krell KPS25sc CD player throughout as my front-end.

Set-up is the only area to criticise, because the speakers are difficult to handle and Avalon chose the bizarre location of the speaker’s underside for the screw terminals. Someone should tell them that there’s a reason why 99 percent of all speakers have terminals on the back: it’s more convenient! Also, Avalon uses screw terminals instead of 4mm sockets which accept banana plugs, so you must have wires terminated in the correct size of spade connector. I used the Avalons in both single and bi-wire mode with the excellent Harmonix wire from the Combak Corporation.

Reviewing the Avatar, or – for that matter, auditioning them in a shop – is tricky, because the speaker truly requires a running-in period. If you do go to a store to hear them, it’s worth asking how long they’ve been on display because Avalon recommends a break-in period of 200-300 hours at realistic levels. Moreover, they’re immensely critical of positioning, and sound best when used with the supplied pointy feet. Fortunately, the Avatar comes with one of the finest owner’s manuals I’ve EVER seen. It runs to 46 pages and tells the user everything about set-up, room reflections, standing waves and more. If you can be patient, and take the time to read the manual before setting up the speakers, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.

In my 12x18ft listening room, I installed the Avatars 3ft from the side walls and 6ft from the back, with enough toe-in to have them firing directly at the listening seat. This opened the sound and provided a large, deep soundstage. In this respect, the unusual styling and cabinet construction paid off: the Avatar, like the Wilson WATT Puppy and the Sonus Faber Guarneri, doesn’t sound like a box-type speaker. It delivers a clear and transparent wall of music more reminiscent of an electrostatic system, especially throughout the midband – particularly important for vocals and piano.

Where the Avatar differs from an electrostatic, though, is at the frequency extremes. The treble will seem familiar to those with earlier experience of metal dome tweeters, the sound exhibiting a tiny hint of artificial sparkle which might seem annoying on strings and some brass. This, of course, can be ameliorated with the use of rich-sounding valve amplifiers or careful cable selection. But it’s down below where the Avatar really strikes it rich, for the bass is truly something to behold, especially from an enclosure so compact.

Regardless of the program material, the bottom octaves always stayed firm and under control, with genuinely impressive extension deep enough to convey the weight, power and majesty of the Kodo Drummers, the Glory soundtrack and even a short spell in my A/V set-up; the recently issued DTS DVD of Jurassic Park showed that the Avatar can take everything you feed it.

There’s no question that Avalon has produced a mightily impressive speaker in the Avatar, and its handsome styling is a bonus. But it does require a fastidious owner, one who will take the time to set up the speakers with precision, and to ensure that the partnering equipment doesn’t exacerbate that slight trace of sizzle up top. For everything else – detail retrieval, imagery, soundstage recreation and a life-like midband – the Avatar is a delight.

(Gramophone Japan, 2000/2001)