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We purposely chose the line out as the preferred output because of its far superior bass response. The headphone socket -- or to be more precise, the headphone amplifier of the iPod -- causes severe bass attenuation below 170Hz. The line out retains a nicely flat response over all of the audible frequency range. Our choice meant that the volume setting had to be performed separately for each Solo. Although this seems a bit awkward, we did not have any problems with this in actual practice.

The Solos come with dedicated stands consisting of a base plate onto which two lengths of thread are mounted. Over each of these one places a hollow tube. The stands come with long plastic bags that can be filled with sand or lead-shot to deaden the uprights. After attaching an end cover to the stands, the Solo -- be mindful of its 60 pounds – is easily placed atop. The construction is such that the Solo can be swivelled on its platform, making it easy to toe in or out or even access the controls on the back.

At this stage, we had set up the Solos on their stands, placed the iPod on a separate pedestal and connected the iPod's docking station to the AC mains to save its battery. Next we put the little plug from the Crystal Piccolo Y-cable into the iPod docking station's line out and the XLR ends

into the Solos. We made sure the Solos' attenuators were at zero (fully muted) and the Crystal power cords connected. Time to fire up the horns. Both switched on without any thumps or transients. The advertised soft-start clearly works to let the 270VA transformers and 2 x 20.000 µF worth of storage capacitance come on song.

In preparation for the playing of music via the iPod Photo, we made some copies of favorite CDs with Exact Audio Copy. We used a Plextor PX712UF external CD reader/writer as the source and set EAC to the slowest and most secure settings. The tracks copied off the CDs were saved as .wav files. For some CDs, we selected "all tracks" and made one big -- some up to 600MB -- file. Most tracks resulted in .wav files varying in size from 18 to 52MB. The iPod Photo from Apple/Holland had a 60GB hard disk. This equates to roughly 100 CDs worth of uncompressed storage. When not saving complete CDs on the disk, you can store over 1000 uncompressed tracks with ease. Compression, even lossless, is no option as choosing between 2000 tracks is just as difficult as choosing from 1000. The iPod arrives with iTunes software to manage the files on the iPod and PC (or Mac if you like but there's no EAC for Mac yet). Dragging and dropping files to be loaded onto the iPod is child's play. The only thing that does not work -- or better, is not allowed due to all manner of legal tangles -- is copying files off the iPod to the PC. If you really want to do that -- and why shouldn't you -- Red Chair's Anapod software is the solution. iTunes also makes it easy to name files and sort the files according to artist's name, genre or whatever other sorting scheme you might fancy.

The fun of using an iPod Photo is that -- at the expense of music storage space -- you can add photos to the hard drive. The iPod's docking station is also equipped with an S-Video jack. Use this to connect the iPod to a television screen and you can run an automatic photo presentation while your music is playing. We tried it once and just like many things Apple, it worked just fine. The Solos now had some time to warm up and the only thing we could hear was a very faint hiss emitting from the tweeters when we were close as is the case when activating the iPod - remember, no remote control. With a high-sensitivity 97dB system like the Solo, some noise is to be expected. Factor into this very compactly built hi-tech chassis a huge amount of magnetic flux mere centimetres away from the amplifier and the results are very impressive indeed.

With no equalization on the iPod but just a bunch of .wav files waiting to be spun, we commenced random shuffle play. The Solos were pointing at a spot just behind the listening position, with no ground lift, high-EQ at zero, low-EQ at 1:00 o'clock, high-pass off and the volume at 4 clicks above ground zero. Without proper break-in time, the initial sound was very Avantgarde. The Solos have the same "hey, I'm playing music here" directness as we're used to with our Duos. The mids and highs conjure up an image in the room that is like a picture taken on a beautiful winter's day: Crisp, well-defined and without any veiling haze. The lower mids just add that winter sun's warmth. You can leave home without a coat.

The iPod's shuffle play does not pause in-between tracks. The tracks follow one another without interruption. This quality was one we appreciated far more later on. For now, we left the iPod, the cables and the Solos playing away to settle in. It's no problem for the iPod to play for 40 consecutive hours without repeating itself. 40 hours equates to only a small portion of its disk capacity with uncompressed .wav files.

After the system had enough time on it, we started listening in earnest. The system was set up in our library close to the long wall. The Solos were spaced about 2.5 meters apart and the listening position was equidistant to the speakers. Our first serious session concentrated on various kinds of music - small group jazz by Keith Jarrett on ECM; complex world-jazz by Renaud Garcia-Fons on Enja; solo piano by Yoram Ish-Hurwitz playing Liszt's Annees de Pelerinage on Turtle Records; Beethoven's 9 Symphonies on Pentatone and Astor Piazzolla's Finally Together on Lucho. The only adjustment we made in situ was a slightly increased toe-in for the smaller group fare, something the construction of the stands made very convenient.

We listened not only at our regular volumes but also at rather subdued background levels. Turning the volume down and selecting a play list with more relaxing music like that of Junky XL and Mercan Dede, the system created a nice musical envelope in which reading and studying was very pleasant. At lower volumes, the Solo loses some of its horn attitude and becomes a little less involving and more docile, albeit without getting dull or lifeless. During the test period, we performed a few additional trials. First, we swapped the power cables for the ones that come with the Solos. Don't. The difference with better cables is big in terms of musicality. With better cables, the speaker sounds far more relaxed, less stressed. The same is true for the interconnects. A generic cable used with the RCA/XLR converter plugs covered the sound with a blanket. The Crystal Cable Piccolo iPod cable removed that blanket and let the details come through. Another test used the headphone connection. Again a major no-no. Although this adds volume control functionality at the iPod, the improvement from using the line out far outweighs the walk to the speakers to adjust the volume there.

Negative findings were very few. First, the iPod at times wasn't all too keen on playing large files. iPods use a 32MB buffer from which music is played. This is done to save battery life. The hard disk only has to spin back up to fill the buffer when that's emptied but otherwise stays at rest. It also makes running and jumping around while listening to the iPod possible without skipping. Once the buffer is filled, the disk stops spinning until the buffer is empty again and needs a refill. When playing MP3 files with a high compression rate, the buffer can hold many
songs and most of the time, a buffer refill isn't audible as a momentary dropout. Playing a file bigger than the buffer size of 32MB can cause an unscheduled pause of a second or less. It would be nice if Apple changed the software a little to prevent buffer under-runs and start reloading the buffer just before it was depleted.

Negative points for the Solos could be the slight hiss when listening from up close and with very soft music. On the wish list would be a remote volume control if a three-piece setup like ours were envisioned. If the budget allowed for an additional component, we'd go foursquare and pick Avantgarde's own Model 5 amplifier. In addition to remote control convenience, the Model 5 also allows the Solo to operate at a higher level and keep its horn identity even at very low volumes, by attenuating the input signal while the Solos' own volume control is set higher.

A compact high-performance system built around an iPod is very feasible with the Avantgarde Solo. Our experience proved two things. First, the iPod is a great source and adds unique functionality to conventional CD sources combined with more-than-good sound quality if fed appropriate files. The iPod outperforms many CD players with alacrity and at a price that's laughable. To all this, the iPod Photo adds some visual fun. The Avantgarde Solo is a loudspeaker that combines stunning looks, cleverly miniaturized hi-tech solutions, high definition, musicality and thoroughly evolved user voicing. At higher listening volumes, it behaves just like a true horn system which is to say, very dynamic, fast and exciting. At lower volumes, it becomes a very well-behaved, more forgiving transducer. Cables here are just as important as with any other serious music system. Cables block nasty RFI and EMI influences from an outside that, as the years go by and cellphones, wireless computer interfaces and sundry
gizmos take over, becomes more and more contaminated with ultrasonic garbage. The Kapton dielectric used by Crystal Cable works miracles of shielding and with the new Piccolo series of cables, they are incredibly easy to work with because of their flexibility.

The 10 guilder -- or rather $15,000 -- question: How did the HiPod system compare to our usual reference rig? The question is easy but the answer is more complicated. Consider that our Duos are at the tail end of a system comprised of the CEC TL5100 as transport, an AudioNote DAC, a TacT RCS 2.0 as preamp/room-correction engine and an Audio Note Meishu with KR300Bs as power amp. Interconnect cables (all on loan for review) are presently Stealth Indra, Siltech SQ88 MKII, Van den Hul Gold Hybrid, Xindak FA Gold, Crystal Cable Piccolo, Harmonix Golden Performance. Our standard cabling is Crystal Cable Reference.

The most obvious difference thus is price. With a Solo, you don't need an expensive power amplifier. One already comes with the package. A decent stereo power amplifier for the Duos will set you back at least $3,000. Subtract this amount from the Solo's list price for a fair comparison. It brings it to $6,000/pr and you even get a bi-amped setup. A pair of Duos in the US is still 20K.

We have been living with our Duos for a couple of years now and only recently discovered our perfect setup. That is, until we started moving the horns around again to experiment with a 22° "DeHavilland" layout. The hardest part with the Duos (and Trios alike) is adjusting the active subwoofers (or Basshorns) to match the hornloaded drivers in the system. Volume and crossover settings can be adjusted with ultimate precision. The attenuators are stepped but there are options for in-between settings. Not only do you have to move the speakers around physically to determine where they sound best, you have critical adjustments to make on the electronics. This flexibility is both the ultimate boon and often a curse since it can be used to obtain perfect results or completely screw things up.

The Solo makes things a lot easier. Placement is much simpler. First is the weight factor and second, the stands offers swivelling. The larger horn systems have flares that protrude into the room and are prone to collisions with humans when placed far into a room. The Solo is happy when placed near a wall or even in a corner, the latter adding some bass reinforcement.

Avantgarde's dual concentric solution for the Solo creates point-source dispersion. On the Duo, the physical distance between midhorn, tweeter horn and the subwoofer needs a lot of air -- space -- between listener and speaker system to gel into an integrated sound source. In our experience, an equilateral triangular setup as most textbooks advise doesn't work. The integration of the tweeter is not complete with this geometry. Another tweakable point is the height of the horns in the rack. The Duo is designed to position the mid horn above the tweeter. With the default rack settings, this fires the tweeter below ear-level. We raised our rack 1.5 inches to compensate. Lastly, don't forget that the subwoofer is crossed over to the midhorn at around 170Hz, a very high handover for a sub. The two slower non-hornloaded drivers have to compete in this frequency range with a lightning-fast horn.

In these parameters, the score is 1:0 for the Solo regarding placement and voicing. When it comes to
heavy-duty listening, the score changes in favor of the Duos. Once their final setup is studied, tried, retried, rejected and the process started all over again to reach ultimate satisfaction, the rewards are phenomenal - first prize with a big wet kiss from all the cheerleaders. The larger system excels at defining and depicting a soundstage. Instruments resume their original size and when called for, the four bass drivers displace a lot of air.

Our final overall score is 2:1 for the Duo, which is not bad at all. The Duo is the ideal transducer for serious listening over very long periods, albeit not for everyone considering the effort required to get everything perfectly dialed in first. The Solo (and only in that regard) is more of a beginner's speaker. It is more user-friendly, doesn't require setup expertise and is very suitable for smaller rooms and in situations where large objects in the middle of the room are a - well, big issue. Also, if you're into multi-channel audio and video, the Solo is the perfect choice. Clearly, five Solos in a room are far more feasible than five Duos and their combined bass power means an additional subwoofer won't be required.

In the final analysis, Avantgarde's Solo is a highly underappreciated technological tour-de-force whose larger colorful siblings have gotten most of the press and attention. That's patently unfair considering what a performer the Solo really is and how it doesn't require a costly supporting cast of upscale equipment to show its true colors. A $400 iPod with some good cables like Crystal Cable's Piccolo iPod is all you need to enjoy a decor-friendly, set-and-forget integrated system that offers a surprisingly potent dose of Avantgarde's colossal speakers. Hats off to Matthias Ruff for shrinking the horns and packing so much adapted technology into so petite a chassis. By now it should be obvious why we coined the term HiPod. Done right -- no compressed MP3 files, some serious ancillary HighEnd gear with quality cables and cords -- the ubiquitous iPod can become the centerpiece of a bona fide audiophile system. With its many available accessories, you can strap it to your belt for jogging or the daily commute in the subway or plug it into your car audio. When you return home, you put it back into its cradle and voilà - a miniaturized multi-tasking system non-audiophiles can embrace as well as fussy 'philes. Now that we call progress, thinking outside the box and connecting with those who aren't dues-paying, preaching members of the audiophile church already. We simply call it the HiPod concept.

PS: For those HiPodsters insisting on remote volume control, the solution is to use the iPod's headphone output in conjunction with one of the various after-market remote interfaces. It then becomes imperative to use the iPod's on-board EQ facility to boost the bass which otherwise will be seriously rolled off.
Avantgarde Acoustic comments:

Dear Srajan,

It was -- again -- great fun to read Marja and Henk's article and their imaginative expressions. This kind of experience report, written by someone who really makes personal use of the setup and not only writes about how everything worked, is a splendid form of addressing this unusual setup.

We're not dreamers here so we don't think that the SOLO will become the "hip" speaker for the iPod. But it still is a very creative experiment to combine an extraordinary speaker like the SOLO with an extraordinary music source like the iPod. Let's see how many people's eyes we can catch, then we probably catch their ears, too.

And this application shows how many talents and tricks the SOLO has up its sleeve...

Best regards (from Holger, too!).
Armin Krauß

Avantgarde-USA comments:

Dear Srajan,

I always enjoy the fresh perspectives of Marja and Henk, and this time it was "Deja vu all over again"!

I am traveling, so I won't take up much time or space.

The iSOLO was originally a brainstorm by Ron Williams, who joined Avantgarde-USA just before CES 2005. Frankly, I didn't take the idea seriously at all.

But then I heard the set-up at his place...

At CES, when we showed the iSOLO/HiPod to folks, they smiled at how cute it was (the way that gas station attendants comment on how "cute" my modified MINI Cooper S is...). But just like when I get out onto the track with my MCS, their reactions changed to astonishment at the transformation from "cute" to this big, powerful, and very compelling sound.

Just the briefest bit of history re the SOLO. It was originally conceived as the center channel speaker to match up with DUOs or TRIOs. But the devil was in the details. It took us over three years to get it right.

Anyone who knows anything about home theater design will tell you that the center and surround channels should have the same dynamic linearity and tonal balance to allow the soundfield to track evenly so that as the the sound track rises and falls in volume, and as well as different sounds appear to move on the soundstage, that the system accurately reproduces what was heard on the production soundstage.

Peter Moncrief and Gary Reber described the effect pretty well in their review (I'd call it a rave) of the SOLOs in Widescreen Review.

Anyway, by constantly tweaking the design to closely approximate the dynamic and overall sound of the SOLO's big brothers, we ended up with a new, lower-priced full-blooded Avantgarde speaker! Today, over half are sold to go into two channel systems.

In fact, I'm delivering a two-channel SOLO system to an old friend in about 4 weeks. It's a Zanden DAC into a BAT preamp, which drives SOLOs through its balanced outputs and a pair of SUB225s (serving as the SOLO stands), also being driven direct by the other set of balanced outputs. What a cool system!

Another cool system I'm hearing about is an Audio Aero CDP with variable analog outs driving SOLOs direct. The flexibility of the SOLOs is enormous.

The iPod phenomenon has another important aspect. Our industry isn't reaching as many younger folks as it once did. So this iSOLO/HiPod concept is hopefully one more weapon in attempts to bring in new converts to the shrinking audiophile community. Not to make them audiophiles, but to introduce them to another realm of beauty and intensity of music reproduction. I'm amazed at how many have no idea of this level of performance, but also how many respond just as powerfully to it once exposed.

Thanks for the opportunity to add my comments.

Best regards,
Jim Smith

Apple iPod website
Crystal Cable website
Avantgarde Acoustic Germany website
Avantgarde-USA website