Sunday, November 9, 2008

AVI ADM9.1 Review

There is one phrase that continually comes to mind when I think of AVI and its ADM9.1 speakers. The phrase, "Only dead fish swim with the current." In High-End audio there are plenty of magic pixie dust potions and endless discussions about the value of cables and cryogenics. Then there's AVI based in the United Kingdom where manufacturers like Naim, B&W, and Linn rule the roost. AVI's Ashley James has earned a reputation as a very outspoken and somewhat controversial figure. Perhaps this is because Ashley doesn't swim with the traditional High-End audio current. Ashley often urges customers to purchase the cheapest Toslink cable they can find. In fact the new ADM9.1s require this because of some creative design at the optical inputs. AVI's new ADM9.1 active loudspeakers may alter the course of many traditional manufacturers and may lead to a dam downstream for those who chose to ignore this breakthrough product.


From 9 to 9.1

Several weeks before I received the ADM9.1s straight from England, I received the ADM9s from Tom at Overture Imports in Michigan. I spent the weeks leading up to the ADM9.1's arrival listening to the ADM9s and getting very familiar with the sound. The ADM9s are great speakers and I'm glad I listened to them before the new ADM9.1s arrived. The 9.1s are so sonically superior that I won't switch back to the old ADMs unless I have to run a direct comparison for someone else. The original ADM9s were designed to accommodate iPod integration and had some minor sonic compromises because of this design. The ADM9.1s are full of upgrades that unleash the full power and performance of this all-in-one solution. According to AVI there are no compromises in the 9.1s. Sonically there is not one item that doesn't sound better with the ADM9.1s. Highs, mids, lows, imaging and everything else in between. The improvement is very obvious to even the most untrained ears. No offense to the current ADM9 owners, but you now own a pair of inferior loudspeakers. You can blame Ashley and his business partner Martin at AVI for that one.



The Details

The build quality of the ADM9.1s is very good. The speakers are substantial and very solid. I am not a huge fan of the remote control that comes with the speakers. It's a One For All URC - 6541. Sure it does the job, but I found it a little awkward. Of course there was nothing stopping me from using any other universal remote. One annoyance that may be either the remote or the preamp or a combination of the two, is the very long time it takes to turn the volume up or down and the lack of a volume gauge. It's hard to tell if the remote sends the volume commands very slow or the preamp adjust the volume one-thousandth of a decibel increments (only kidding of course). Also, when you turn up the volume you have no idea if you're one notch from the max or if you still have some headroom. A little digital volume level indicator would be awesome.

I see no need to recreate the wheel. Here are the other details directly from AVI.

"ADM9.1 comprise of the highest Audio Quality 24/192 DAC [Wolfson WM8471], a remote controlled three input Preamplifier, two optical digital and one analogue RCA - an electronic crossover and two power amplifiers (75 WPC for the tweeter and 250WPC for the bass drivers). This makes them unique in being a complete Hi Fi system in a pair of stand, wall or shelf mounted speakers. All they need is zeros and ones. i.e. anything with a digital output.

Technical Specifications

Power amplifiers - High speed, linear, analogue bipolar, 75 wpc for the tweeters and 250 wpc for the bass drivers. Distortion typically better than 0.002% and dynamic range 120 dB.
Crossovers - High quality 4th order discrete analogue.
Preamplifier - High quality state of the art analogue preamplifier with two digital and one analogue input. Control is remote and volume settings are remembered for each separate input.
DAC - Up to the minute 24/192, completely jitter free design.
Bass driver - Very high power handling 6.5" paper cone drive unit with 1.5" voice coil and exceptionally broad bandwidth enabling phase perfect crossover at 3.4 kHz. Bass extension better than - 6dB @ 60Hz.
Tweeter - 1" Silk Dome tweeter with -3 dB point of 28 kHz.

System Amplitude response better than + or - 2 dB 100 Hz - 20 kHz.

Max continuous SPL (both driven 1 m 100 hr rating) 108dB with 8dB Threshold.


The Setup

The ADM9.1s are such easy speakers to setup and offer a few different options. During my review I tried three configurations.

1. Optical output from Mac Pro to Optical input on ADM9.1
2. Mac Pro output via AirTunes to Apple TV then from Apple TV Optical output to Optical input on ADM9.1
3. Mac Pro / Lynx AES16e AES output to Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC then single ended RCA to analog input on ADM9.1

Each of these three configurations produced bit perfect output to the DAC as verified by the Alpha DAC. I used 16/44.1 and 24/96 AIFF and WAV files for most of the review. I listened to one mp3 of Chris Cornell singing Billie Jean live in Sweden. The song was great, but the file was sonically compromised. The ADM9.1s reproduced all the effects from lossy compression and I had enough after about one minute.

Configuration 1 - This setup is the easiest and I presume the most popular type amongst AVI users. During setup I ran into a problem that was by design according to AVI. My original Toslink cable would not fit into the smallish hole on the rear of the speaker. The part of the cable one would grip, as they pushed it into the receiving socket on the speaker, was too large. Since the optical socket has been placed a little further inside the speaker cabinet on the 9.1s the physical size of the Toslink cable is very important. AVI says this is by design because several customers using oversized Toslink cables caused damage to the optical input. I think we've all seen cables with serious girth and can imagine one of these hanging off the ADM9.1 without support. However, I have one issue with this new design. People seeking to use a MacBook laptop must use a mini-Toslink to standard Toslink cable to connect from the MacBook to the ADM9.1s. These cables are few and far between even on the Internet. A readily available cable is the Lightspeed 100 from Monster Cable. This cable will not fit into the shrunken cabinet hole on the ADM9.1s. I am not a fan of the mini-Toslink adapters available on sites like Amazon and I cringe at the thought of using one. My recommendation to AVI is they either include a Toslink cable with the current cables or offer one that works with the 9.1s. This may prevent disappointment as the new purchaser connects the new speakers after regular store hours. There is nothing worse than having new equipment that won't work until you can stop at the local BestBuy for a simple cable. I hope none of you give toys to toddlers without the batteries!

Configuration 2 - The Apple TV / ADM9.1 setup worked pretty good. I said "pretty good" because the Apple TV in my opinion has an identifiable sonic signature. I know this can be very controversial, but I am certainly not "trolling" on my own website! I verified the Apple TV was outputting a bit perfect stream and proceeded to run several A/B tests. For now I will postpone this topic for another day as I don't want to steer attention away from the ADM9.1s. So, I used the Apple TV for a short period of time before placing it far away from my listening room.

Configuration 3 - This is a very unlikely setup and I seriously doubt there is anyone in the world using the ADM9.1s in this manner. the sole reason I used this configuration was to test the analog inputs. Fortunately the ADM9.1s do not run the analog signal through an A to D conversion like so many home theater receivers. After some testing I concluded that the analog inputs sounded extremely close to the optical inputs. I can only describe them as a little different from each other. There are countless theories as to why the sound from my $5k Alpha DAC didn't make the ADM9.1s sound better than the optical inputs. I'd rather not go down that path as there is no right or wrong answer that everyone will agree on. Sure you could say it was the Alpha DACs problem or the ADM9.1's pre/amp problem or something entirely different. The bottom line for me is the sound was extremely close and extremely good.


The Playback

AVI's ADM9.1 active loudspeaker is visually identical to the ADM9 but as previously mentioned the 9.1 upgrade is a giant leap sonically from the previous version. I did not baby these speakers in any way. I treated them the same as my larger Avalons. When I wanted to crank the volume I never hesitated, no matter what kind of music I was playing. If these speakers really are game-changers and as good as AVI suggests, it was only fair to put them through the wringer. I played everything from Jay-Z's Dirt Of Your Shoulder and N.W.A.'s classic Straight Outta Compton to Branford Marsalis' Trio Jeepy, and Richard Danielpour: An American Requiem from Reference Recordings.

To be 100% honest, the first words out of my mouth when I listened to the ADM9.1s were, "You've got to be kidding me." Don't get me wrong. These are not reference speakers to replace a pair of Magico M6s and Spectral DMA-360 monoblocks. The ADM9.1s are a great speaker that will replace a vast array of separate components and tidy up a room at the same time. The sound that comes out of them is much larger than a speaker this size & price should be capable of delivering. Listening to The Nearness of You from Branford Marsalis' Trio Jeepy was fabulous. I don't want to overstate anything here, but the sound produced through the ADM9.1s was lifelike. It was one of those situations where someone in another room should have asked me to stop playing my horn. The image was very focused. Possibly a little more than I prefer, but not to a fault. The ADM9.1s are not a forward speaker like some of the popular horns. If anything they are a little laid back. This could be nice for people looking for some very high performance desktop speakers. There's nothing worse than extremely forward speakers on a desktop.

Playing a little Jay-Z and N.W.A. lacked the bass required to really feel these recordings. If you're purchasing the ADM9.1s thinking you'll get full range bass you're probably a little disillusion anyway. The speakers go as low as one would expect. To say it's a fault wouldn't be fair. They aren't designed for low bass. Hence, the purpose of the matching subwoofer available from AVI.

It's a 10" sub with a sealed box and it weighs about 80+ Lbs. The sub is driven by a big bipolar Class B Amplifier. A subwoofer was not available at the time of this review, but hopefully I'll be able to provide a follow-up with impressions of the complete system. Even though these rap recordings really shine with deep bass the ADM9.1s kicked out a very enjoyable sound. I would not hesitate to listen to my whole collection of rap albums on the 9.1s.

A great performance that really showcases the ADM9.1s is An American Requiem from Reference Recordings. Specifically track seven Pie Jesu. This track has a great solo female vocal with a backing chior. The high pitch opera vocal contrasted with the deeper male section of the choir is really enjoyable with these speakers. The soundstage is fairly narrow and deep with this recording and the 9.1s. I had the feeling that I was sitting straight back from the performers in an upper balcony looking down. A unique perspective that is certainly contingent on more than just the speakers and the music. Switching it up to Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's album Bolero: Orchestral Fireworks did show a little weakness with the 9.1s. The ADM9.1s struggled a tiny bit with the first track Op. 24 (Overture). The extension and clarity of the upper most range just wasn't quite there for me. Please keep in mind that I'm not giving these speakers any breaks because of size, price, or design differences from traditional speakers. I'm holding them to a high standard. In totality the experience of listening to Bolero was very involving and enjoyable. This weakness is definitely not a showstopper.

The ADM9.1s can be used in many cool music server configurations. One that I am considering is to pair the ADM9.1s with an HP Touch Smart PC. This combination could really be something to write home about. A great touch screen interface dragging album covers around, all output via a single Toslink cable to the active ADM9.1s. There will be much more to come on Computer Audiophile in terms of the ADM9.1s. They are so versatile you certainly have not seen the last of them around here.


The Cool Down

The AVi ADM9.1 active loudspeakers really are something special. It would be very hard to piece together a system of separates that performs this well and offers this level of convenience for less than the $2999 asking price of the ADM9.1s. Think about that for a minute. An amp, preamp, DAC, interconnects, speaker cable, and speakers all for $2999. If you don't care about quality this would be an easy task at your local Walmart. Add in the level of quality offered by the ADM9.1s and $2999 really is an awesome value. AVI and the ADM9.1s are way ahead of the curve in terms of vision and value. For a chap that has been around a while, Ashley James really embraces new technology when it makes sense. Plus Ashley is one of the more honest and practical people around. Sometimes being straight forward ruffles feathers as does change. Ashley and AVI are pushing both at the moment. I don't always agree with Ashley and AVI but I do respect their scientific approach. You'll never hear Ashley talk about upgrading power cords or placing the ADM9.1s on air suspended platforms. He promotes a purely scientific approach and is a true music lover. He has often lauded over his enjoyment of mp3s as long as the music is good. That's the sign of someone who is truly in it for the music. The value provided by AVI's ADM9.1 active loudspeakers is something strange to some in the High-End audio world. I like $150,000 Wilson speakers as much as the next guy, but I can't say they are a great value. AVI has made audiophile quality sound and convenience available to every Joe Sixpack. At the same time AVI has made every Jane Sixpack happy by ditching all the separate components and cables that go along with them. Highly recommended.




More information available from AVI's website.