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AV-1 demo (w/ Ascend and Ref1 comp) (VERY long) (1 Viewer)


Stunt Coordinator
Sep 25, 2002
OK - here it is. I'm not going to bother reformatting it for each forum, but a formatted version is available at http://ucsub.colorado.edu/~judy/Asce.../AV1_demo.html

Warning: What I intended to be a comparative review has grown into a massive narrative with more philosophy and less detail than I set out to convey. Rather than rescuplt it, I will just answer direct questions.

Various caveats and philosophy
Nearly everything about the listening experience is subjective, the few things that can be objectified can usually be found in graphs and spec sheets accompanying equipment: frequency response, sensitivity, power output, harmonic distortion, weight, etc. Debate arise even on the topics of these apparently objective, quantified items - Are power output numbers accurate and even if they are, does it matter? What makes for a perfect frequency response?

What about the subjective items: the choice of music, one's preferred driver type (cone, ribbon, horn, etc.), how loud one likes the music, bird's eye maple or burled walnut, vinyl or digital, tube or solid state, etc. They are subjective for reasons ranging from the emotions and memories evoked to one's own sense of hearing. Do you remember the sound of your father's stereo, the first live performance that floored you, or the song you first danced to with someone you love?

I will try to not personalize my thoughts too much, or at least point it out when I do.

Personal relationships
One of my favorite things about small audio companies (other than the great products they produce) is the fact that they are often staffed with friendly, helpful people. This has given me the opportunity to speak with and/or meet people with a passion for music and for what they do. I have traded e-mails and phone calls with Dannie Richie at GR Research, traded many an e-mail with David Fabrikant of Ascend Acoustics, and traded e-mails and face time with Mark Schifter and Sean Parque at AV123. They are all good people who strive to put out great products, and all of them have succeeded at that task. It is because I find them all to be good people doing a good job that I feel my interactions with them don't sway my opinion.

Yes, I'm one of my own caveats. I just wanted to give a hint of who I am to lend perspective to the review. I am not an audio specialist, in fact, I can't even play a musical instrument. I love music though. I am not what I would call an audiophile for I have no obsession with perfecting my listening experience. I am not a 'critical listener' unless I am listening to buy - my home listening is a relaxing, fun experience. I firmly believe that two things should affect audio decisions - one's enjoyment and one's pocketbook. I used to say one's ears and pocketbook, but for many there is enjoyment in building, tinkering, tweaking, etc. I have owned my Ascend speakers and H/K receiver for about 5 months. Before that I was using an Onkyo 525 receiver and Paradigm MiniMkIII speakers - both of which I still own. My reason for demoing the AV-1s had nothing to do with the search for better sound and everything to do with combining my enjoyment of building things with my enjoyment of music.

Multiple rounds of listening
Please read through all of these experiences as each one reflects different equipment, rooms, music, and outcomes.

First home round
Receiver: Harman Kardon AVR-520
Sources: JVC XV-523 DVD player and Rega P2 turntable w/ Project phono amp
Interconnect cables: Canare LV-77S cable with Canare RCAP-C77 connectors
Speaker cables: Canare 4S8 cable
Out of the box I was impressed by the physical nature of the speaker. Brian Bunge's cabinet work is excellent (cherry veneer on the ones I received) and the speakers have some good heft for their size (3/4" MDG cabinets). I should note that the demo speakers include the Sonicap upgrade and Blackhole 5 lining. Fully constructed ones like the demos run $780 a pair from GR Research directly - AV-1 costs can vary from less than $300 to the full $780 depending on how much work you do yourself and what options you choose. This places it in an interesting position of being compared to a wide range of speakers.

After hearing so many great things about the AV-1s my initial reaction was that I expected there to be more of a difference between them and my Ascend CBM-170s. On my home setup, listening to my music at the levels I normally listen to (~70db), there just wasn't as much of a noticable difference in capabilities as I was expecting. The AV-1 has a bit warmer sound than the CBM-170 and was bringing out a bit more detail. I don't want to give the impression that the AV-1 isn't a great speaker, because it is, I think I was just suffering a bit from overblown expectations.

I listened to a variety of music (virtually all CDs, a few LPs) and this opinion held across them.

At a friend's place
Receiver: Onkyo TX-SV919 THX
Source: Pioneer Laserdisc player
Speaker cables: Monster 12 AWG
Room: wide and shallow - carpeted
I was interested in listening to a few Mapleshade recordings I had received moments before heading over for this listening session. They proved to be a very interesting experience. Mapleshade recordings are known for being high quality and having a very 'live' feel to them. We first hooked up my Ascends and listened to a couple of tracks off of the blue rider trio's 'harp, steel and guts' which has great steel guitar, harmonica and vocals. When we swapped in the AV-1s we were shocked to find the vocals fall into the backstage. We had corrected for the difference in speaker sensitivity and then continued to raise the volume to see if the vocals came forward, but they did not. This experience was repeated on another Mapleshade recording, Monica Worth's 'Never let me go'. We switched back and forth several times including swapping in his Infinity Overture 3s and heard the same thing. (I will jump out of this timeline to say that prior and subsequent listening showed this to be a poor marriage of componenets as the experience was not repeated on other equipment.)

Over the course of about two hours we listened to several pieces of music and found that the difference in vocals was most pronounced on the the Mapleshade recordings and not even noticable on many recordings. Most of the listening was above my normal home listening level (in the 80db area).

At AV123
Integrated amp: Onix A-120
Source: Pioneer 414 DVD player
Speaker cables: garden-hose level Onix cables :)
Room: narrow and deep - carpeted
Due to some unfortunate technical difficulties we were unable to use the normal reference setup in the AV123 listening room (which is unfortunate since it's a great set of equipment), but the A-120 is a good amp and the Pioneer seemed to do just fine. I think some of the AV123 staff suspect I brought bad karma into their offices. :)

A quick note about the Ref1s: The ones we were using were fresh out of the box and not broken in. They were bird's eye maple with a nice high gloss finish.

In our setting up and listening I neglected to ask Sean to bring out some Onix Rocket RS150s and 250s as I had originally planned, so I won't be doing any comparisons to either of those.

While Sean is rather tight lipped about his preferences, he does often giving listening advice for tracks he is familiar with (thing like "listen for the attack and decay of the plucked bass"). This lead to a much more critical listening session than either of the previous ones, and also the loudest (often in the 90db area).

More than any of the others, this session illustrated the AV-1s greater level of detail and handling of instruments than the CBM-170. The AV-1 handled a plucked bass better than the CBM-170, but in a subtle, critical listening way. However, I often prefered the sound of the Ref1 and/or CBM-170 over the AV-1 for vocals. This is entirely a personal preference and not a shortcoming of the AV-1. This difference was more noticable on some tracks than others.

On some pieces the Ascends seemed a bit dry compared to the AV-1s, making the AV-1s seem a bit more organic. This is likely another side of the fact that the AV-1s are a bit warmer in sound.

Back at home
Back at home again I went through some recordings including pulling out some poor recordings intentionally. To this point I had primarily listened to decent to excellent recordings, but not everything I own was done well. I found that the AV-1 seems to be a bit more forgiving of poor recordings than my Ascends. While increased detail usually means more revealing of flaws, I think the AV-1 smoothed some of it back out.

My listening at AV123 showed me that my home listening preferences did not reveal as much of the differences in the speakers. A reminder that certain aspects might not be noticable or matter for 95% of my listening. That said, I was most tempted by the AV-1s during my final home listening days than at any other point.

This experience has really taught me the importance of at-home trials for speakers. Room acoustics and equipment aside, there is just a huge difference in being relaxed and leisurely when listening to music. I think it brings back the perspective in what is important to you and your listening style. Afterall, how many of us would feel comfortable singing and dancing along to the music at our local electronics superstore or audio boutique?

Over the course of all of these auditions I listened to a good amount of music including: Diana Krall, Tom Petty, Tori Amos, BB King, Norah Jones, The Eagles, Alicia Keys, Metallica, Counting Crows, Sarah Brightman, Eric Clapton, Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, the blue rider trio, Monica Worth, Kendra Shank, Melissa Etheridge, and more.

The Bottom Line
So what does all of this mean? What did I come out of this auditioning with? First off, all of the speakers I listened to are great speakers and I would be happy with any of them. While the CBM-170s are probably the least capable of the bunch, they are leagues ahead of most of what you can get pre-made for $330. They are great speakers and this listening has renewed my faith in them.

The AV-1s are also great speakers bringing out some more detail than the Ascends and with a slightly different sound to them. They were more forgiving of recordings than either the Ascends or the Ref1s, but there was the issue of equipment matching with the Onkyo 919. I don't know how they perform without the Sonicap upgrade or Blackhole lining, but for around $300 they are a fantastic deal. I haven't listened to much in the $750-800/pair range, so I can't comment much on their value ordered completed. Brian's cabinet work is definitely above what I have seen on many speakers in that range and having the flexibility of veneers is great for interior matching. (Note: Ordering the AV-1s from Brian at Rutledge will run you just a bit more than from GR Research, but I believe he will do custom veneer requests at an additional cost and he will make custom stands from matched veneers.)

The Onix Ref1s are great, and a step above the AV-1s in detail and extension, but at a $1500 price tag. I did not listen to any bad recordings on the Ref1s, but have heard they are very revealing of recordings and I believe it given their characteristics. They bird's eye maple cabinetry is beautiful and I know many people are fond of piano gloss black (although I cringe at the thought of fingerprints on such finishes).

Bottom line? Did the AV-1s make me want to jump out of my seat more than my Ascends? No. The massive grain of salt for this is what I mentioned before - my listening enjoyment is not derived from being able to hear the fine detail of the vibration of a guitar string, but something a bit more base and visceral.

A big thanks to GR Research, AV123 and Ascend for their help and their great products.


Feb 26, 2003
Great review. As a novice I appreciated your avoidance of jargon for the descriptions of individual speaker characteristics/qualities. I guess people are entitled to paying a bit more to improve WAF or if they enjoy natural woodwork (unfortunately, I fall into this category with an upcoming speaker purchase).

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