AVI is moving inexorably away from being simply one of the better names in hi-fi.
Although AVI still produces its standard - and very well received - range of electronics and loudspeakers, it seems that the company is now intent on leading the charge in bringing computer music into our little fold and, in the process, raising the standards for computer audio in general.
The forward observer for this conquest of digital downloads was the little Active Neutron loudspeaker, however this merely surveyed the battleground for digital's true champion, the ADM9.
On quick inspection, the ADM9 looks and feels like little more than a good, solid stereo standmount speaker, albeit one with active amps built in.
The front-ported two-way with its 25mm soft dome tweeter and the 165mm paper cone bass unit looks surprisingly traditional and works best on 60cm stands when positioned about half a metre away from the side and rear walls.
That said, the ADM9 remains firmly in the 'not fussy' camp when it comes to placement. You could happily plonk them on a bookshelf and still get most of the performance you will get from obsessive 'quarter of a millimetre to the left, please' type installations.
A closer look at the ADM9 reveals some differences from ordinary standmounts, though. The first difference is found in the amplifiers behind those two drive units; two bipolar designs, the first being a 100 watt model for the tweeter, with a 250 watt unit for the bass driver and an active fourth-order crossover sitting in front of them.
Look closely at the back of the right-hand speaker and you'll see the rear panel has five solid gold-plated phono sockets (with just one in the left speaker).
One of these connects the left and right speakers together, and a five-metre length of phono-to-phono cable is supplied for this purpose. Two of the connectors act as inputs for an analogue line source, while the other two are outputs for a slaved speaker and a subwoofer (a matching subwoofer with a front-firing 250mm bass unit is also available).
The speaker also includes a rudimentary one-source preamplifier, which can be controlled by using One For All's Audio Zapper remote control that comes supplied with the ADM9. The controls on the Zapper are limited to volume up and down, mute and source selection, however these are standard Philips RC5 commands if you want to invest in a more fancy remote.
A one-source analogue input active speaker is not going to drive the digital download revolution on its own, but that all changes with the strange square socket marked 'digital input'. This is a USB 1.1 socket and behind it sits a Burr-Brown digital converter. And it's here that AVI has been doubly canny. The
USB port allows you to access anything that is digitally recorded and stored on a PC or Macintosh, be it a quick download of the new Killers song whipped off iTunes, a carefully worked Exact Audio Copy-enhanced, AccurateRip-validated bit-for-bit recording of your CDs stored on your computer, or even a FLAC-encoded Studio Master from Linn.
The 'doubly canny' bit comes in when you connect an analogue source to the ADM9, as it allows the USB port to pass those analogue signals back through to the computer, for ripping and storage. In other words, if you have a good record deck and phono stage, the USB-equipped ADM9 will turn those two into an analogue remastering centre.
A Toslink-only version of the ADM9 (sporting a Wolfson DAC) is also available for those still married to 'tradition' and CD inputs, but you lose the record facility in the process.
When we tested the little Active Neutrons, we considered them to be the crossing point between desktop audio and hi-fi proper. In the ADM9, that crossover has already happened.
These are not desktop speakers, unless it happens to be a studio mixing-desk. The ADM9 is an unashamed front-of-house living room loudspeaker, that hooks up to that computer in the living room that you never talk about, but secretly know that you use more than you care to admit. As such, it's somewhat difficult to describe the performance of the ADM9 without describing what it does for computer audio.
That's because it's a revelation, nothing less. We seem to be unable to think of computer-derived music without thinking of the horrors of tinny laptop speakers, teenagers playing R'n'B through their mobiles on the bus, and Pod phones destroying music on train journeys.
However, this is judging the performance from the worst end of the spectrum. Right now, the ADM9 represents the other end, and shows just how good downloaded and ripped music can be. Far from the usual tinny burble, a good MP3 file (or similar) can sound powerful, incisive... even dynamic when treated with respect.
When you move over to an audiophile source component, it is possible to hear the difference between a 128mbps MP3 file and the CD original... if you compare the two side-by-side under critical conditions. But through the AVI ADM9, the differences are far less pronounced than you might expect.
This is not because the speaker drags the CD source down to the lowest common denominator; it's because the speaker brings downloaded music up to its highest common factor. Ultimately the ADM9 treats music as music, without judging it by its file extension.
The ADM9 sound, from any source, is pin-sharp accurate. There's a sense of musical precision that puts the ADM9 in the lofty company of the better class of studio-monitor.
Sounds appear bolted down, rooted in their three-dimensional space between the loudspeakers, with instruments appearing to have a proper sense of scale and tonality.
Instruments and human voices have an innate sense of rightness about them too, with a treble that extends naturally and a midrange that approaches LS3/5a levels of clarity. There's also a sense of absolute authority, which comes from having active control of the drive units.
This makes the speaker sound dynamically and tonally unflappable, especially in the bass. This is a powerful and tightly controlled box, and only in a bigger room will you feel the need to reach for the matching subwoofer.
We found the active amps to be more mains fussy than their integrated amplifier counterparts at the price; the sound was always good, but it got distinctly better - and the improvement more marked than most - after midnight.
Whether this is really a downside, or an indicator of just how honest these speakers are remains to be seen. One thing is clear, though - if you are after a lush, romantic interpretation of music, look elsewhere. These speakers give you the musical facts, unalloyed and unsullied.
Even without the digital call to arms, this little active speaker would be a real star. It delivers a sound far bigger and more powerful than you would expect, with the sort of musical accuracy and honesty that you don't get at a grand and you might struggle to find even at £5,000.
Factor in that DAC and what it does for computer audio, and the result is a product that's one of the best we've encountered in years. The Revolution begins here...