Horn speakers, are - historically speaking - probably the oldest kind of speakers. The oldest "acoustic amplifiers" were horns mounted on phonograph needles, from where they shortly came in front of the electromechanical transducers. The horn mounted in front of the speaker had only one purpose: to increase its effectiveness, so it had to help extract as much sound as possible from little power. We should not forget, that in the beginning the amplification was done by weak triodes, with the power of a few watts at maximum. Horns lost justification when more powerful tubes appeared, and when it became apparent, that one can design speakers with a higher than - for example our state - effectiveness. They lost, but not fully. In places, where the need for high levels of clangor still existed, meaning on stage and in the cinemas, horn constructions reign until today, operating mainly in the high and medium frequency range. Since long, the lower frequencies are being entrusted to classic (from today's point of view, because it is not about "classic" but about their dispersion) bas-reflex constructions. But ... there is always a "but". Since years ago, horn speakers are surrounded with a kind of cult, especially in places, where tubes are still used, and especially in the rings of SET (Single-Ended Triode) amplifiers lovers, where 8-10 W per channel can be reached, and when powers higher than 20 W are reached, like in the KR Audio amplifiers, then high treason is announced. SET and tubes point us directly to the Land of the Blossoming Cherry, where a horn driven by a 2A3 (2-3 W) tube, preferably powered by batteries, is the topic, which starts a gentleman's discussion.
Worldwide there are a few serious companies, that deal with horn speakers, among them the biggest are JBL just celebrating its 60st anniversary, and Klipsh. These are the giants. Their niche in the market found also some smaller, independent, companies, among which the most known are Acapella and Avantgarde Acoustic. A special place in my heart has the latter company, both due to their products and the people behind those. I met them years ago - the designers, among them Matthias Ruff, and also the companies representative, a Pole living on the other shore of the Oder river for years, Mr Mirosław Kujawa. It is just so, that always behind good devices are people. In the realm we deal with, slightly related to art, it counts twice ot thrice as much. This is the human aspect, and coming back to the device perspective, I am a bit an "avantgarde", because since a few years I use their Model 5 amplifier.
I listened to the horns made by this company many times, at many occasions and in many different configurations, and since years they made me admire them, but also wonder, what is this "horn" imprint, that constructions like those should impose on the sound. Yes, indeed, some of the horns sound specific, and from the beginning one can hear, that there is something wrong with them. But not the Avantgardes. Speakers from this German company had one weak point, from which only the Trio - full horn construction, was freed, namely the bass. One of the advantages of horn speakers, the one, that among others makes the horns to be used even if we have enough driving power, is the incredible response speed - in the end we deal with membranes of low mass. It is a bit like electrostatic panels, but without the dynamics occlusion of the latter. To adapt a classic sub-woofer to those is hellishly difficult. One can design a full horn system, like the mentioned trio, but it is a large cost, and the bass horn, if it is to play really low frequencies, will be of mammoth dimensions. And this is not exactly what we want, don't we? So only active bass remains. And this is just the element, where in the last 2-3 years Avantgarde made an extraordinary progress.
So we have improved bass. However, the newest propositions of the German company go a step further, in the direction of wider acceptance in home environment. To achieve this, they had to change. In the new constructions: Nano, tested Picco, Meta Nano i Meta Picco the framework, that in the still manufactured classic models supports the separate modules - top range and midrange horns and the sub-woofer, was replaced by an almost classic cabinet. Almost classic, because from the front baffle two horns protrude. The shape of such speaker is much easier accepted by the Homes and Apartments Management. The tested model Uno Picco is from the new breed. Hellishly expensive - it is just the beginning of the way up the price lists of Avantgarde. Weighting 85 kg a piece it does not look that heavy. The two gigantic bass drivers (each with a 9 kg magnet), two 250 watt amplifiers, metal profiles supporting the horns, and the box itself, completely "numb" to knocking let us know what we are paying for. Luckily we don't have to care about that: just like in my case four people bring them, put them in the right places, thank for the drunk coffee (if they still have the strenght). And we just listen.
As I mentioned earlier, the Avantgardes don't sound like classic horns. Actually in their sound there is almost nothing that could point to the technology they use. Maybe incredible speed, but that's it. In any case, this are beautifully sounding speakers. They sound in a slightly different way than most other constructions available on the market. Most of all it is about the way they relay the recording space. Speakers can be roughly divided in the ones that create a new space in front of us, transferring the musicians into our room by opening a "sound window", and others, that transfer us to the new space. The "hi-enders" argue which way is the "right" way, however having heard both ways, I can tell that both have something to offer, but both are actually unnatural, because they do not re-create the real acoustics, but the acoustics recorded on the disk. And this is a huge difference. Anyway, Piccos belong to the second group, these are speakers that take the listener into their world. It is important to understand, because other aspects of sound are related to this. Among them equally important is the way of reaching the smallest particles in the recording. In the hi-end it is all about pulling as much as possible out of the recording (but we are not talking about the hyper-detailing, which is just a boost of the high frequency range). This can be reached in many different ways. The best classic speakers show everything that is needed. Picco do the same, but reach the goal in a different way. To imagine this I have to use an example. Let's imagine the surface of the Earth. Our goal is to see and photograph as many details as possible. One way of achieving this goal is to send out a satellite equipped in extremely powerful and precise optics. One can see even the grass stalks, when the area we see is narrowed to a reasonable extent. A second way is to fly on low altitude, using a wide angle lens. That is the way Avantgardes sound - we have everything in front of us, but without the feeling that something is "pulled out" and processed. Let us take the structurally uncomplicated recording from the disk of Dominic Miller i Neil Stancey "New Dawn" (Naim CD066, CD), a beautiful recording anyway, I recommend it. Two guitars, and below them from time to time a blur of the synthesizer. Best speakers play the guitars in a very clear, suggestive way, exposing every attack, every twitch. Avantgarde sound a bit differently: showing two living instruments, here and now, though without throwing them in our faces, however we are close to them (I mentioned, that the listener is being transferred to the new acoustics). Enclosed in their timbre is everything needed, with the detail, emotions, colors, but everything seems softer, seems slightly warmer. This "seems" returns many times, because you have to listen to the Piccos for some time to understand, what their sound is all about. You appreciate it starting a few moments from hearing it, but this new perspective imposes a re-orientation on our brain, and it takes time to get used to it. The guitars had a large body, saturated, slightly warmed middle range, and even without the slightest shadow of low frequencies, because this instrument does not possess it, they had a very stable foundation. To verify it, I switched off the sub-woofers for a moment. Since they work from around 250 Hz (in the top position of the switch 350 Hz), a part of the information about the guitar's timbre is in the sub-woofers frequency range (low frequency range for the guitar is 82.41 Hz), this impression did not disappear even in the higher frequencies (high frequency range of the guitar - 880 Hz), in moments, where nothing can be there coming from an acoustic guitar. In reality the sound amplified by the acoustics of the place, transmits information outside the main frequency range of the instrument, also in the lower frequencies. After the sub-woofers were disconnected, nothing from the timbre, sound, etc, disappeared, but the feeling of solid support faded away. The sound was still incredibly correct, but without the fullness, without that, that made the recordings from that disk a fulminate impression on everybody, I played them for. Only verification remained, using the new, splendid recording of classical music (viola and support) Vittorio Ghelmi "Full Of Colour. Concierto di Viole" (Winter&Winter 910-119-2, CD), where the impressions were identical, maybe even more intensive, because the acoustics of the recording room has much of the low aura, without which the recording does not make sense.
Probably I should have started this paragraph a bit earlier, but nothing is lost - it was planned to be a paragraph about the bass. A separate paragraph is indispensable in this case, because that what Matthias achieved, is just great by any measure, not only for horn speakers. He designed a sub-woofer, that sounds better than a vast majority of speakers - active, passive - you name them, I ever listened to. I heard better bass maybe twice in my life (ao. From the sub-woofer from KEF PSW50000 and Wilson Audio Alexandria speakers). If I'd tell you that I did not expect exactly that, then I would be telling lies. I heard a version of this sub play together with the Duo Omega, and I was largely impressed. My lie would be somehow justified, because listening to something like that in your own home is an experience, that you cannot prepare for. Bass in horn speakers is mostly bad, independent from the technique that supports it. In older Avantgarde designs bass was a step backwards in comparison to the treble and midsection. But together with the Omega and now also the Picco something extraordinary was achieved. Bass in those speakers has extremely dense, touchable substance, while being extremely fast and agile - fast enough to ideally complement the horns. Nothing is elongated and where necessary it is heavy. I mentioned acoustic instruments: there was no thickening in their timbres, but you could feel the horns were not left alone, that there is something supporting them. I had a similar impression after putting on some older recordings. Wes Montgomery All Stars "A good Git-Together" (Lone Hill Jazz, LHJ10133, CD), where in the low registers, one might think, nothing is happening. With the Picco it became apparent, that the contrabass has quite some verve and can play heavy and outlined, and not anemic, like with passive speakers. Important is the fact, that the same observations can be made with non-acoustic music. Powerful, low descents from Peter Gabriel disk "Security" (Geffen 2011-2, CD/not remastered) were reproduced like in a fairytale - with long lasting reverb and delicate sparks of something that moved together with it. And bass and basedrum from "Enjoy The Silence" Depeche Mode (MUTE, LCDBONG34, SP CD)? The same - fullness and power of a good wrestler and agility of a judoka. The edges of the low frequencies are a little bit more round than in the KEF Reference 205, but the quality of this range is at such high level, that one has to wonder, how the instruments actually sound live, or even more, how the bass was actually recorded.
Now we discussed the two elements that make many horn speakers puny: the way they paint timbres and reproduce bass. Next thing is the space. As i told before, Picco show the world from short distance, like with a wide angle lens. When we look from far away, with a telescopic lens, the contours of objects become minimally sharpened than in reality, an effect is shown, that cannot be fully eliminated, that, in our case, details of an instrument, or a part of it, are slightly extracted from its context. In the best speakers this effect is minimized, but does still exist, one way or another. In the Avantgarde horns the world has a tad softer edge than in classic speakers, maybe as softer as it it is harder elsewhere. In any case, the midrange, as this is our main topic, has a slightly warmer character, than the KEFs and Harpia Acoustics, and has slightly revolute edges. I am not writing about rounding, because they are not the topic here. The edge of each sound is readable and clear, but on the very edge, where it fades into the ambience, it is slightly bending, not allowing the razor sharp edge to be shown. This is the charm of those speakers, and once lived through, for many people there will be no return. Simply the culture of those speakers, their extraordinary presentation of the recordings make the hi-end be filled with living matter, and not to be just a hollow sound. From now on this will be top hi-end for us.
So are the Picco speakers without flaws? Unfortunately not. If it would be so we would not need bigger constructions, like the Meta range, or the majestic Trio. The list of sins is short. I talked about the midrange, so let's talk about the treble. It is not the best upper frequency range I listened to in my life. I don't know, if this is caused by the problematic treble horn placement, or due to another reason the upper range is not as resolved as the rest of the frequency range. The beryllium tweeter, Esotar Dynaudio, or SEAS used by Harpia in the new range Time Coherent are able to play with more finesse. Please do not interpret me wrongly - we are on top of the world and we are looking down on everything, but I cannot let it go. Maybe because the upper treble is a bit laid back in the Picco in comparison to the midrange - not by much, but noticeable. This gives this coherent, full sound, without a shadow of harshness and hissing, what is largely blamed on the horns, but without the last word on clarity.
That's all. If I had the money, I would buy them. Together with the Wilson and the new Harpias. But about the last ones - next month.
The horns Avantgarde Acoustic Picco are big, heavy (85 kg, four people had to bring them to my apartment) floor standing speakers. In contrast to older Avangarde constructions, they do not have a framework, where the separate elements are placed, but a full "body", made from 25mm thick MDF, from which two horns protrude - the high frequency horn at the top, and the midrange below it. The tweeter H2 comes from the Omega family, was wound on a capton carcas and has 25mm diameter. Its coil is wound with a very thin and long wire, what allowed a high impedance, 17-Ω. It is filtered from lower frequencies by a special crossover called CPC - Capacitor Polarization Circuit. It is built from only three elements: additional tape coil and a capacitor. It is not a run of the mill capacitor, but one built by Matthias. In classic capacitors a so called "memory effect" exists - dielectrics polarized permanently some of the loads in one direction, what introduces distortion in the sound. Here the capacitor has three connections - two for the signal and a polarizing one. The signal is multiplied in a special passive circuitry (voltage multiplier) and polarizes one of the poles facing the two with the signal. The voltage reaches 100V, what makes the signal pass "zero" at much higher voltage than usual, what eliminates the memory effect. It does also make us independent from the influence of the connecting cable. The tweeter is loaded with the SH1301 horn (Spherical Horn, 13 mm, type - 01), which makes it reach 900 Hz. The midrange is loaded with SH5003 horn - also from the high impedance Omega series. Its dome (made from paper with glass microfibres) with a 130 mm diameter is drive by a powerful AlNiCo magnet. In front of the dome there is a small chamber, and then the horn. This makes the speaker operate in the 900 - 3000 Hz range and is connected directly to the terminals (in this role WBT, pity, that not from a higher series), without any filtration. Bass is driven by two 30-cm drivers with a paper cone, rigid, like in stage speakers, suspension and big, shielded magnets. The drivers are placed in a closed cabinet and driven by two 250W amplifiers. The manufacturer gives 18Hz as the lowest frequency. In such a cabinet and with such speakers this is impossible. However, the speakers are driven by a servo circuit, being perfected in the last few years, which serves well in the big sub-woofers of the American company Velodyne. Their action is monitored constantly, and corrections are made in a ring circuit. It is not always the best solution, but here it works perfectly. We have regulations of the low frequency cutoff and high frequency cutoff points. This last function i do not understand - it is a complete speaker box, where the low frequency of the midrange speaker is known and bass adjustment to it should be optimal. But the regulations are there. The signal to the woofer section can be delivered by a XLR connection or by speaker cable. Home theatre sub-woofers are usually connected by a low level signal. Here the best effects will be reached when feeding it with the same signal as the mid-and top range. REL, a specialist in this are suggested this for a long time, and this is better. We have the same character of the signal in the whole frequency range, without an artificial split in frequency bands. The amplifier is relieved from the low frequencies in large extents, but still delivers the full spectrum. Even the smallest amplifiers, like the 8-W Tri TRV-300SE (test HERE ) or the 12-W Leben CS-300 (test HERE) will handle them. The Avantgarde horns sounded best with the Polish tube amp RCM Bonasus (test this month). Picco will also phenomenally sound with a good transistor - Audia Flight 100 (test HERE ), Accuphase A30 i A-60, and best with something like Viola Symphony (test HERE). Actually there are no limitations, and in contrast to the myths, horns are not only for the valves. To not to be unfounded - in Avantgarde everything is designed and listened to with two amplifiers - both are of the transistor type... The manufacturing quality of the speakers is ultra-precise and ultra-pricey. The one who knows how the mechanical elements are manufactured (I pass over the sound) and knows how much it cost to have it look like that, will know that the Picco could cost much more, because now there cannot be much gain on them. .
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