If there is a premier icon in the annals of fantasy fiction, arguably it is Edgar Rice Burroughs, who in the course of a 38-year literary career wrote some 70 novels, not least of which were 25 Tarzan adventures and the inimitable John Carter of Mars series. Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first Carter story, The Princess of Mars, Disney Studios released John Carter, a megabudget flopperoo of curious non sequiturs and wooden dialogue. I love it. First of all, Carter of Mars is Burroughs at his very best, even if the movie’s story deviates wildly from the original. Second, not even a director who can’t make up his mind between reinventing pulp or crafting a blockbuster epic can mess up Burroughs. Finally, it’s a lovely test for a home-theater speaker system.
Audio Pro is a Swedish company founded in 1978. The speakers are designed in Sweden, but made in China. The Avanto 5.0 HTS home-theater speaker system ($1499 USD) consists of two FS-20 full-range front-channel towers, a C-20 center-channel, and two S-20 bookshelf surround speakers, each a bass-reflex design with a rear port. The FS-20 tower is a three-way with a 1” dome tweeter, two 5.25” midrange drivers, and a side-firing 8” woofer. It weighs 45 pounds and measures 40”H x 7.5”W x 14”D, its canted plinth sloping it down to 38” at the rear. The S-20 surround is a two-way with a 1” dome tweeter and a 4.5” midrange-woofer cone, weighing 7 pounds and measuring 10.5”H x 6”W x 7”D. The C-20 center-channel, also a two-way, has a 1” dome tweeter with a 4.5” midrange-woofer driver to either side, weighs 10.3 pounds, and measures 16”W x 5.75”H x 7”D.
The side panels are all finished in Black Ash, Walnut, or, like my review samples, High Gloss Black. The front, back, top, and bottom panels are wrapped in lovely, soft black leather. Audio Pro’s literature doesn’t attribute any sonic characteristics to the leather, but it’s attractive enough that the speakers actually look better with their black cloth grilles removed. Each speaker has two five-way binding posts in a rear receptacle.
The Avanto 5.0 system is shipped in one very big box -- to get it into the house, you’ll need an amiable deliveryman or some help from a couple of friends. Audio Pro sells the Avanto only as a complete ensemble because they believe that the best home-theater system is one in which each speaker is tuned to the others. This seems to be an evolving theory. Not long ago, manufacturers, industry observers, and audio pundits felt that the critical match was between the front- and center-channel speakers. The surrounds, because of their role in the playback scheme, were often treated as incidental. However, with the advent of ever more sophisticatedly engineered media formats, especially Blu-ray Discs, that can store all the data for multiple channels of discrete high-resolution signals, and more capable playback hardware (HDMI, HD monitors), the surround channels are no longer the poor stepchildren of the home-theater array. A sampling of some recent offerings, such as The Avengers, Avatar, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, amply demonstrates how essential the surround channels have become. In all of these films, the soundtrack score is relegated almost exclusively to the surrounds, the effect of which would be lost with lesser speakers.
My first order of business was to mount the FS-20s on their plinths, which cant back the towers about 15 degrees. One way designers account for the alignment of different drivers, notably the midrange and tweeter, is to design cabinets whose front baffles tilt back in just this way. The FS-20’s plinth achieves much the same objective. Instead of a slanted cabinet, the entire enclosure is tilted.
I placed the FS-20s to either side of our media cabinet, about 8’ apart and 11’ from the listening position. I placed the C-20 center atop the cabinet, 10’ from the listening position, and the S-20s on 29”-high stands to either side of a sectional sofa, 5’ from where I sit. With each FS-20 having a side-firing woofer and each pair of towers being mirror-imaged, one must decide whether to have the woofers firing toward or away from each other. Audio Pro says that this will be a matter of taste, so I tried them both ways. The bass was a tad more pronounced with the woofers firing toward each other, but more cohesively integrated with multichannel signals when they fired toward the sidewalls. The FS-20s looked better with the woofers firing inward and relatively hidden from view, but on the whole, I enjoyed their sound more when they fired outward, so there they stayed for the balance of my listening.
I calibrated the speakers using the Audyssey room-correction system built into my Onkyo TX-NR808 A/V receiver, and double-checked it with the Onkyo’s white-noise generator and my trusty RadioShack SPL meter. I’ve had mixed results with Audyssey and 5.1 systems, but with the Avanto and the full-range FS-20s, it nailed the calibration on the first pass.
It was great to have full-range front-channel speakers in our home-theater system. Satellite and wooferless tower speakers supported by a well-integrated subwoofer or two can offer an excellent surround-sound experience, given a powered sub’s ability to push system response capably below 40Hz. With full-range speakers, the messy work of managing the crossover integration is done for you, but the lack of an independently powered sub will generally limit the system’s overall output -- only very expensive speakers goosed with a lot of amplifier power can reproduce the full audioband, with a low end that extends with real authority below 40Hz. Indeed, the FS-20s don’t go much below 40Hz -- their claimed frequency response is 40Hz-22kHz -- but I found that to be only a small compromise that sacrificed the full visceral thunder of LF effects while ably capturing their impact. Further, for once I spent less time tweaking my system’s bass output -- taming the bloat -- which I ordinarily have to do with systems that include a powered subwoofer.
One of my frequent criticisms of 5.1-channel systems is that they’re tuned for compressed movie sound -- any chance that they might also play music, especially in unadorned two-channel stereo, is treated as an afterthought. In my opinion, this limits their usefulness for those who have only one system but who value music as much as movies. In this respect the Avanto 5.0 excelled: Its musical capabilities, while not up to the standard of dedicated, full-range stereo speakers costing twice as much or more, were a decided cut above most of the 5.1 systems we’ve had around lately.
One critical test for any full-range speaker is low bass, so I went straight to the acid test: the stygian note that punctuates the bridge of “Orinoco Flow,” from Enya’s Watermark (CD, Reprise 26774-2). I’ve had subwoofers that struggled with that note, and while the FS-20s didn’t resolve it as fully as the best subs (e.g., from Velodyne) or full-range speakers (e.g., my Legacy Classics), they hit it dead on and reproduced most of it. The midrange sparkled with ease and clarity when reproducing Marti Jones’s silken alto voice in “Second Choice” and the title song of Any Kind of Lie (CD, RCA 2040-2-R). Don Dixon’s bowed electric bass in the latter track shimmered with precision, and Willie Gillson’s clarinet in the former glistened with woody truth. The high end sparkled -- as with the tinkling xylophone in “Man I Used to Be,” from Jellyfish’s Bellybutton (CD, Charisma 2-91400), which wafted gently across the soundstage. And the soundstaging was excellent. The percussion bridge in “Mr. Chow,” from Acoustic Alchemy’s Red Dust and Spanish Lace (CD, MCA MCAD-5816), soared above the speakers, while the voices in “Canned Music,” from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks’ Striking It Rich! (CD, MCA MCAD-31187), were properly placed between the speakers: Maryann Price at upper left, Hicks dead center, and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg at lower right.
Because of how home-theater speakers are usually tuned, I’ve become accustomed to resorting to multichannel modes like Dolby Pro Logic IIx for music playback. However, with the FS-20s I found that more of a distraction than a resolution because the FS-20s performed so well in simple stereo. Whatever I found lacking in the FS-20s -- the ability to cast a large or particularly deep soundstage -- was, in the end, less important when considering that these speakers were pulling double duty, and performing at a superior level at each job.
I love to test HT systems with cheesy action films -- some cheesier than others. Sometimes you get a good story well told, but more often you get formula epics of good vs. evil, off-the-shelf characters, mindless rushing about, and enough explosions and out-and-out mayhem to waste a dozen planets. Sometimes you get a gifted actor in the lead -- say, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (for my money, he could win an Oscar reading the phone book) -- but usually you get some B-movie castoff, generously called an “unknown,” which was the case with Taylor Kitsch as John Carter of Mars. Taylor who?
John Carter freely embellishes Burroughs’s original story, putting some motivation behind Carter’s discovery of the Therns’ cavern and their portal to Barsoom (aka Mars). Still, for an unknown, Kitsch (sorry about that name, fella) modulates Carter’s drive, anger, and astonishment with all the skill of a seasoned pro, if not a star. This film version of Burroughs’s wonderful tale begins to gain momentum only in chapter 4, when Carter stumbles on the Thark hatchery and the squeals of the hatchlings envelop the listener, in a deft and novel application of surround sound. The Audio Pro system easily filled the room with a cohesive soundscape. Carter’s introduction to Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his adoption into the Thark community provide perhaps the best, indeed the most human, moments in the film, balancing the barbaric tension with comic interludes. Nonetheless, director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) imbues the otherwise formulaic combat between the Thern-aided Zodangans and the apparently more civilized Heliumites with a wicked steampunk aesthetic. All the machines are mechanical -- vs., say, electrical, combustion, or atomic. With the exception of a spidery blue ray only the Therns control, everything else is deliciously cogged, geared, and levered, from the controls of the aircraft to the weapons: garden-variety guns, cannons, and swords. Pretty cool, especially the rare glimpses of the Zodangan walking city -- a lovely nod to Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Besides ordinary gunfire/cannon fire, the only technology left unexplained is the “light-sailing” ability of the aircraft. All of the various sounds were portrayed by the Audio Pro system with no hint of strain or bloat in the bass, and with excellent clarity across the board.
In chapter 6, we get to see the Barsoomian aircraft in full flower as the Zodangans bear down on a rogue Helium ship carrying the escaped princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). As the ships battle over the Thark stronghold, with the Tharks betting mercilessly on the outcome, Carter literally leaps to Dejah’s rescue, and eventually three ships, with some help from the Tharks, plunge to the desert floor. This sequence amply demonstrated the effectiveness of the FS-20s’ twin 8” woofers. Cannons thunder -- tho’ just how Carter learned to fire a Barsoomian cannon on the first try is a mystery -- and aircraft creak and groan in dismay and finally break apart as they plummet Barsoomward. This skirmish, like almost any, displayed the Avanto 5.0’s splendid ability to place sounds in a seamless arena, regardless of changes in shot or venue or angle: as the fighting raged, the Avanto system kept track of every gunshot, clanking sword, and whizzing bullet.
Throughout, Michael Giacchino’s orchestral score, alternately gentle and threatening, is played principally through the surround channels. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in chapter 9 and the journey of Carter, Dejah, and the Thark princess Sola (Samantha Morton) down the River Iss. Virtually all of the foley effects emanate from the FS-20s and the C-20, while the music plays almost exclusively through the S-20s -- until they reach their goal, the Ninth Ray, a formidable power source/weapon of the Therns. Then, the levels in the front channels and surrounds build subtly, letting the bass power of the FS-20s take over. It’s the integration of the bass, midrange, and treble in this passage that demonstrates how effective good full-range speakers can be in a home-theater array. Audio Pro’s tuning of these five speakers to each other, with the woofers now leading the charge, ensured that the five worked as a unit. There was simply no instance of dialogue, effects, or music that didn’t sound fully integrated with the rest.
John Carter is an imperfect film. Even with outstanding writing talents, such as Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonderboys), the inventive plot devices -- e.g., the murder of Captain Carter’s family -- are subsumed by melodramatic dialogue (“Princess, you hold the power of my life . . .”) and cheesy scene stealing, as when Sola leads the Tharks in a cheer after Carter defeats Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Still, it’s a first-rate action film. Stanton has succeeded in this first attempt at making Carter into a film icon, perhaps without leaving us exactly clamoring for an encore. There are 11 Carter books, after all. Yet the hard lessons learned from this effort can certainly inform another. Sure enough, John Carter: The Gods of Mars is now in development.
Audiophiles will find fault with any audio system that tapers off at 40Hz, and will rightfully point out that you should be willing to take time setting up and tweaking your home-theater system for optimal performance, even if that means spending a few hours getting the low end right. After all, you have to set it up only once. But Audio Pro’s Avanto 5.0 HTS system isn’t aimed at only audiophiles, and just as well -- most of the audiophiles I know wouldn’t even sniff at a five-speaker HT system costing only $1499. No, the Avanto 5.0 system is for most people: audio consumers.
First, for all of the Avanto’s engineering emphasis on movies, it didn’t shirk on music -- something that can’t be said for most midpriced HT systems on the market today. The Avanto’s reproduction of music was flat-out excellent, in two or multiple channels. Second, its movie sound was sublime, close to the best of any I’ve heard. Audio Pro’s tuning and integration of a dedicated five-speaker ensemble has paid handsome aural dividends. Finally, man, do they ever look sharp, especially with their grilles off. I can imagine a Goth aftermarket offering studs or spikes to complement the leather. Most of all, the Avantos are a terrific value. Okay, $1499 isn’t chump change, but if all you want is one system that will perform excellently with music and movies while looking fabulous, you may not have to look further.
. . . Kevin East
- A/V receiver -- Onkyo TX-NR808
- Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player, Roku digital video player
- Display device -- Dell W4200HD plasma display
Audio Pro Avanto 5.0 HTS Home-Theater Speaker System
Price: $1499 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Audio Pro AB Sweden
North American distributor:
Group Madsen Ltd.
504 Malcolm Avenue SE, Suite 400
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: (612) 706-9250
Audio Pro responds:
Many thanks to Kevin East and to the SoundStage! Network for the terrific review of the Audio Pro Avanto 5.0 HTS speaker system. Recognizing, as Kevin does in his review, that the Avanto speakers do an excellent job reproducing both music and movies, Audio Pro will be offering all three models separately as well as in a system.