Avantgarde, Pass Labs, MSB, SME Setup with Accompaniments

By Keijo Tanskanen


Last autumn, I was lucky to meet one more experienced and serious audiophile here in Finland. Why lucky? Well, often these kinds of meetings and visits will give something new for thinking about! This visit was no exception as you can notice from the following text. But before going into a substance, I will handle an issue of “hidden enthusiasm” a bit, although it does not concern this visit, in particular, and the thoughts of the host

There is plenty of the “hidden” high-end enthusiasm. The reasons for this are naturally numerous, but one of the weightiest one is negative pigeonholing. Roughly, if a certain part of a setup or a tweak cannot be explained immediately by the law of Ohm or by other scientific methods, one is typically marked as a fooled one. Additionally, by sceptics, “the listeners” will be usually pressured to do controlled blind tests for proving the listening results being scientifically real ones. So, if one doesn’t want to play on this kind of enthusiasm fields, it is reasonable to stay outside of publicity and social media.

As we all know, imaging and placebo are real and possible phenomena, but they are also too easy and insufficient explanations for so massive amounts of honest subjective listening experiences which have been got in a wide variety of listening environments and setups. In my opinion, snake oil does exist, but so do tweaks and solutions which offer real improvements. However, these improvements are often environment and system dependent, not generally applicable. So, laconic condemning of all subjective notifications, which are scientifically hard to explain and prove to be true, is a very limited and non-developing way to think and act.

My interests in this visit were based on some recommendations and my previous experiences from a couple of the components of the setup. For example, Avantgarde speakers have delivered great sound almost every time I have met them as a part of setups. However, the most interesting components were new ones for me. They were MSB digital source and Avantgarde bass horns.

Digital source: MSB DAC-V Signature, diamond power supply and UMT V player

Analog source: customized SME 20 with SME 5 tonearm and Benz LP-S cartridge


Preamplifier: customized Music First Audio TVC and Cello Audio Palette MIV for EQ

Power amplifier: Pass XA 60.5 monoblocks

Speakers: Avantgarde Trio Omega with Bass horn

Signal cabling: Kimber Select 6068 speaker cables, Transparent Reference MM mm2 RCA interconnects (Digital source), Kimber Select 1136 XLR (Phono), Jorma Origo XLR interconnects(between preamplifier and monoblocks) and DIY (Cello wires)

Power cords: Shunyata Python (bass horn) and DIY (Furutech, Oyaide connectors)

Power line: Silent Wire fuse box and a 16 A fuse, Ericsson power cable, Furutech power socket)   Acoustic treatment: 6 x SMT bass traps, 24 x RPG skyline diffusors, 4 x DIY diffusors, couple of dampening panels Special equipment from Entreq, Stein and Shakti

The acoustics of the listening room was very good. It was clearly anechoic enough and vivid enough at the same time. Besides usual furniture, there was plenty of specific acoustic treatment: bass traps, diffusors and damping material (described above). The form of the room was a bit complex because two smaller rooms were combined and the listening space opened into the other rooms. But, as we know, this is acoustically only an advantage, usually.


By this setup, it was a great pleasure to listen to all genres of music. Smooth balance, a rich and natural like timbre performance, high enough resolution and specifically punchy and extended bottom end ensured that. Treble seemed to be a bit rolled off which back warded and softened some nuances and micro dynamics. However, there was plenty of macro dynamics available. For example, the hits of the drums were impressive without any serious hints of strain.

I have listened to a couple of systems which have been a bit better as a melody maker. Here, I don’t mean that the melodies of the music were lost or monotonic. No, the melodies were there, but the notes of them were just slightly softened when compared to the best setups I have heard in this area. I think that this feature is more or less dependent on the absolute fastness and mercilessness in which this setup leaves some free space.

The consistency of the sound was exemplary, which actually surprised me. The separate speaker elements played together very well, all through the audio frequencies. Also the tones of instruments were very natural like, not horn-colored or otherwise distorted. Actually, this was one of the very few presentations where the horn speakers did not sound like horns. Anyway, some instruments might sound a bit softer than I have used to hear them to be, a fact which I already pointed out in the melody evaluation part.

The bass rich records revealed overwhelming muscularity of the system. Even more importantly, the lowest frequencies were delivered by very high quality control and integration into the upper frequencies. I would bet that no-one will like to have more deep bass than what this setup can deliver. For level adjustments, the bass horns had easy to use trimmers, which are good additions, if one is sensitive to changes in frequency balance of different records. As a whole, the bass horns seemed to be a final solution for low end extensions of Trios!

The sonic view was extensive and very well organized. Surely, the system did not exaggerate any of spatial effects or dimensionality. Instead, it delivered a sonic picture which was more on the side of natural. For me, the organization of the view is more important than the absolute scale of the view. In this manner, the setup just did a great job. If the music sample had such information, it was reproduced faithfully.

We listened also to music samples which had a couple of strong phase effects. It is possible to have tremendous three dimensional listening experiences, even by two channels, if the system does not smudge phasing of signals. These kinds of effects were reproduced very punctually, just like I have used to hear them from a couple of my reference setups. So, the goals of a phase correct deliverance seemed to be achieved as well!


It is necessary to remind that in these kinds of evaluations it is impossible to say anything for sure about the performance of single components. The system is always listened to as a whole! In my opinion, this setup had great harmony. Every component seemed to be carefully thought as a functional part for the rest of the system. The setup was quite complex and several accompaniments were used. Despite of the complexity or even by the help of this, the setup worked remarkably well! Additionally, I met a couple of tweaks which clearly seemed to work at least in this specific case. So, new thoughts and spread attitudes were achieved, although I still will be a friend of minimalism.

How does the setup succeed in comparison to the other reference setups which I have listened to? Actually, it will do very well. If the weighting is on the side of listenability, punchiness and clarity of a sonic view, the setup is very hard to beat. If the weighting is on the side of absolute resolution, fastness and clarity of extended highs, one may prefer some competitors. Naturally, this does not mean that this setup fails in these regions, certainly not. Instead, these specific features are not main strengths of the setup. Reasons for this may be numerous, but I think that one is relating to the speakers. Despite their excellent over all performance, Avantgarde Trios are not at their very best in extended highs and most challenging micro dynamics.

As a whole, a long time and faithful enthusiasm was easily noticed from the equipment and the great listening results. At the same time, the preferences of the host were easily recognized, and so it must be. Personally, I would compare the performance with well-matured and very high quality red wine: It tastes great, rich and delivers plenty of pleasure and fun. This kind of music reproduction gives a real containment into listening, doesn’t it?