Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde Loudspeaker

Gershman Acoustics
Grande Avant Garde Loudspeaker

Hi Fi + issue 187
By Roy Gregory

“Gershmans bring living, breathing performers to
your room, with body, presence and a natural
ability to engage and entertain…
… they perform beyond price and beyond
Gershman speakers don’t look like other
loudspeakers – but surprisingly often, other
loudspeakers come to look like the Greshmans.
Estalon’s striking XB caused a stir when it was first
launched a few years ago – but followed firmly in the
footsteps of the Gershman GAP-828, already an
established model when it was reviewed way back in
Issue 44. Likewise, at first glance, many people will
mistake Gershman’s Grande Avant Garde for
Wilson’s Sabrina – even though the original Avant
Garde (sans base – which makes it look even more
like the Sabrina) predated the Wilson model by almost
two decades. It would be a mistake to read too much into these aesthetic
coincidences, but they do illustrate something of the Gershmans’
individualistic and innovative streak. The company’s speakers break more
than just aesthetic moulds – and have done so for years – with conspicuous
musical success, success that has imbued them with long working lives and
eventual acceptance (and even adoption) of their ‘different’ cabinet shapes
and appearance.
These days, the Avant Garde’s tapered, truncated cabinet and sloping baffle
looks almost familiar, so widely has it been imitated. It’s tempting to surmise
that the distinctive oblong base added to create the Grande Avant Garde was
a response to this general acceptance of the speaker’s looks, but in fact it
simply illustrates another essential aspect of the Gershman credo, an attitude
that might best be describes as, “Never stop experimenting”. Even so, this
developmental imperative has always been harnessed to a stable core
philosophy; for all their distinctive looks, acoustically and electrically, the
different Gershman speakers share common and consistent DNA. What
defines a Gershman? Extended low frequencies at the expense of
overall efficiency and an extremely low system signature. As wildly
different as they might look, one to another, all Gershman speakers
have two things in common – inherent musicality underpinned by
surprisingly deep bass. The Grande Avant Garde (or GAG) reviewed here
stands a little under a metre tall (plus cones or feet) but its tapered cabinet
appears smaller and less intrusive than that. The bottom of the cabinet proper
is roughly 300mm square, the oblong base extending back behind it to almost
twice that depth. Its form factor is neat and discrete – yet the specs quote a –
3dB point of 22Hz and 89dB sensitivity. It’s the sort of number that has you
assuming that the small enclosure contains a heavily equalised, active bass
unit – probably pointing downwards. But actually, the GAG is an entirely
passive design, its prodigious and clearly audible low-frequency prowess the
result of clever acoustic design.
The driver line up in the GAG looks pretty standard, consisting of a 25mm
Peerless soft-dome tweeter, a 90mm Audax carbon-fibre coned mid-range
and a proprietary, 180mm aluminium bass unit. What’s not obvious is that the
bass-driver is a Gershman-designed, dual voice-coil unit, making this a threeand-a-half-way speaker. The tapered main cabinets, with their divided,
sharply sloping baffles arrive packed separately from the oblong bases. Their
bottoms feature heavily rebated shoulders and these sit into a square opening
in the top of the base, the junction sealed and decoupled by a neoprene
gasket. Stability is aided by a large, circular weight set into the cabinet’s
underside that also helps create a distributed vent between it and the air
volume enclosed by the base element. Gershman describe this arrangement
as the BCT (Back-wave Control Technology) and as the name suggests,
along with the resistive line in the main bass enclosure, it is designed to trick
the bass units into ‘seeing’ a larger volume than is actually there. The
combination of tuned venting and the interior matrix constructed within the
oblong base helps create a pressure differential between the main cabinet
and the base. That draws the back-wave energy into the acoustically and
mechanically separate base element where it is dissipated, reducing both
intermodulation distortion and re-radiation through the cone.
Despite the not insignificant 40kg weight, the GAG is easily handled and
assembled, not least because of its two-part structure. I have only two
practical complaints. The most serious is that the ball-bearing tipped Delrin
cones supplied lacked long enough threads to allow for proper adjustment, or
locking nuts for proper stability. Instead I used Track Audio feet, which raised
the speakers by a couple of cms (necessitating a small forward rake to
compensate) but made levelling and angular adjustment simplicity itself.
Longer threads and locking collars on the original cones would have solved
this and would be well-worth Gershman instituting (spikes and lock-nuts are
already an option) as height off the floor and attitude are crucial to the
speaker’s performance. My second observation (complaint is too strong a
term) concerns the supplied grilles. These are magnetically attached, slatted
MDF and the best thing that can be said about them is that they are easily
removed. In place and to my eyes at least, they rob the speaker of its
unobtrusive elegance as well as impairing transparency, focus and
immediacy. Despite their robust nature, I’m not sure they even provide that
much protection; isn’t a partially obscured driver, peeking through the slots
even more fascinating to the enquiring juvenile mind? I listened to the
speakers with them; I listened to the speakers without them; I consigned them
to the packaging where they remained for the duration.
Set up was completely straightforward, the bass being deep enough and
clean enough to let you clearly hear the impact of any positional shifts.
With the speakers positioned slightly closer together than normal but with
minimal toe-in, I drove them with the Levinson 585, the VTL S-200 or the CH
Precision A1.5, all you’ll note, capable of delivering a healthy 200W/Ch. That
really is the one proviso to a happy, long-term relationship with the GAGs.
They like power and lots of it, but provided that you feed them their preferred
diet they’ll respond with some serious musical gusto. Unusually for these
days, the speaker is also bi-wirable. That means including a set of decent
jumpers in your cable budget, although it does allow for bi-amping, which
given the Gershman’s bandwidth and modest sensitivity, could be an
attractive option.
I opened the original GAP-828 review with the comment that, “If hi-fi should
be about music rather than the system delivering it then these
Gershmans are a great place to start…” It’s a sentence that can simply be
recycled for this review, over 10-years later, the GAGs exhibiting exactly the
same natural warmth, musical presence and easy, unforced dynamics that
have come to characterise the brand. In that, the Grande Avant Gardes are
(almost literally, given their shape) a real chip off the old block. But that
doesn’t really help if you’ve never heard their other speakers and nor does it
explain how, or how successfully, those qualities have been translated into
such a compact and domestically friendly design.
Listen to familiar recordings – pretty much regardless of genre – and
you should immediately notice how the music steps away from the
speakers. Despite their small size, the GAGs throw a huge acoustic space
that extends out beyond, behind and well above the speakers. Voices
are set at a natural height and the speakers seem to unearth a
soundstage from within the most unpromising of recordings. Not since
the Audio Physic Virgo have I heard a speaker that makes everything image,
but this Gershman gets close and, in many ways does it less spectacularly but
more convincingly. Modern studio mixes, like Michael Kiwanuka’s Love And
Hate (Polydor 4783458) or Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride
(Columbia 19075930141) take on an open, dimensional quality, with
natural spatial separation of voices and instruments, layers and overdubs. Indeed, voices are one of the GAG’s party pieces, whether it’s
unearthing meaning from Steve Earle’s slurred lyrics, or the realisation,
courtesy of Vampire Weekend’s ‘We Belong Together’ that Danielle Haim
really can sing.
But to achieve these results, you are going to have to be prepared to use the
volume control. It’s not that the GAGs need to be played loud, but in common
with many moderately efficient speakers, you’ll find that each album has a
precisely preferred volume level. Too quiet and they sound overly warm and
shut in, too loud and they (or the system) start(s) to flatten and congeal. But
get it right and the sound blossoms, growing away from the speakers to
spread beyond them and fill the end of the room and, if the recording
supports it, pushing out the back wall. Voices breathe, instruments fall
into place and the sense of the song and the sense of performance lock
in. Get the system and the set-up right and these Gershmans bring living,
breathing performers to your room, with body, presence and a natural
ability to engage and entertain. It’s only when you really start to analyse the
sound that you realise just how uncannily natural it is. Playing the Sayaka
Shoji/Gianluca Cascioli recording of the Complete Beethoven Sonatas for
Violin and Piano (UHQCD/DGG UCCG 90824/7) the relative scale of the
instruments is beautifully captured, the weight and body of the piano, as its
phrases flit from playful to authoritarian, the body and intensity of Shoji’s
Strad. And that’s when it dawns on you; it really is Shoji’s Strad – from its
concentrated tonality to her powerful technique, this is an instrument and its
voice that are remarkably reminiscent of her live performance. Not just that,
the Gershmans get the height just right. Shoji’s seriously petite. The first time I
saw her I assumed that she was playing barefoot – only to discover that she
was perched on five-inch heels. And she still looked like a schoolgirl – which
made that massive musical power and the sheer authority in her playing all
the more arresting. Listening with the GAGs, the speakers project all of that
power and musical intensity and do it from an instrument placed just where it
should be – left of the piano and lower than you’d expect. Getting those
voices at the right height was clearly no accident…
This sense of natural perspective, combined with the weight, body and
presence that come with extension into the low 20s and 200 watts doing
the driving is the essence of Gershman DNA. It also defines the speakers
overall balance and presentation. That feeling of warmth and substance
translates to what has euphemistically become known as a ‘mid-hall’ balance
and that too is reflected in the perspective. The GAGs display none of the
shut-in character that bedevils some other traditional soft-dome ‘hold outs’,
but they do lack a bit of top-end bite, texture. So listening to the Shoji
Beethoven Sonatas, you are not doing it from the front row, but several rows
back. Likewise, familiar recordings like Natalie Merchant’s Tiger Lily (Mo-Fi
MFSL 2-45008) present a holistic and slightly distant performance, lacking
some of the separation and stark immediacy that comes with higher-end
pretensions. Is that a bad thing? In no way: in fact, in many cases it’s the
complete opposite, bringing a welcome sense of coherence and musical
integrity to proceedings. Barbirolli’s legendary Enigma… with the
Philharmonia (UHQCD/EMI UCCG 28019) presents an impressively coherent
soundstage and sense of acoustic space, to go with its natural string tone and
lively orchestration, the different instruments all bound into a single purposeful
whole by their almost physical relationship. ..
The Peerless tweeter is certainly sweet enough, but with a stated -3dB point
at 22kHz, there’s no escaping the fact that a little more extension would help
with focus and transparency. I can absolutely understand Gershman’s
reluctance to trade in the tweeter’s considerable virtues in search of sonic (as
opposed to musical) gains, but as a purchaser, you need to appreciate that
it’s a decision that you also are buying into.
By now it should be pretty obvious that the Grande Avant Gardes do big, do
bass and do imaging. They also do natural and naturally expressive. It’s
a particularly impressive overall performance and balance of virtues. It
ain’t hard to get big bass out of modest boxes – if you are prepared to accept
a crippling electrical load, low efficiency and the sort of constipated dynamics
that result in a total failure to emote. The fact that the modestly proportioned
GAGs achieve the scale and bandwidth that they do, while neatly sidestepping the practical and musical pitfalls that so often result is testimony to
the efficacy of their chosen solution(s). The explanation offered for the
operation of the separate bass enclosure is either disarmingly or
disingenuously simple – but there’s no ignoring the speakers’ low frequency
performance. Likewise, the small, non-parallel and heavily braced cabinet
panels suggest a low-storage enclosure, its reluctance to contribute to the
sound or interfere with the music ample recompense for the cost and
complexity of construction. Building a two-part cabinet this shape is never
going to be cheap or easy, but in the end the results justify the means, results
that certainly stand out from the crowd. Just listen to a pianist shape a phrase,
accelerating through it or pausing for affect and the absence of slurring, lag or
hesitation in the notes tells its own story. This is one speaker system where
the music doesn’t have to drag the cabinet with it. Instead, performances
proceed at their player’s pace, fast or, just as importantly, slow. Unlike a
speaker or amp that leans on the leading edge to add pace to proceedings,
the Gershmans allow notes freedom of passage, without editing, cropping or
giving them a push. This lightness of touch is especially apparent in slow
movements, with poise, grace, delicacy and pathos all equally part of the
GAGs musical vocabulary. They deliver the full emotional range, whether
its expressed reflectively or explosively – and they transition from one
to the other with an enthusiastic fluidity that makes most other speakers
at this price level sound stilted and constricted. It’s a sure indication that
as a design, they are sorted, both electrically and acoustically/mechanically.
If you have tired of hi-fi hyperbole and audio’s obsession with ultraresolution, the Gershman speakers are (and always have been) the
perfect anti-dote. Never less than engaging, they wrap you and your
recordings in the warm substance of their musical embrace, celebrating
the sense and the whole rather than the specific (and the all too often
disjointed) parts. Great music comes from musicians working in harmony,
the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The Gershman Grande Avant
Gardes have that happy knack of preserving both those parts and the
relationship between them. It’s the very essence of high-fidelity – and
it’s a rare draft. Not without their flaws or challenges, the GAGs demand care
and understanding – and a serious dose of serious power. But the
combination of musical quality and unobtrusive domesticity places them in an
extremely select group, right alongside the taller, similarly demanding and not
quite as wide-bandwidth Vienna Acoustics Liszt. Like the Liszt, they perform
beyond price and beyond expectations. Compared to your average bigbrand box, the Gershman Grande Avant Gardes do something quite different,
are doing it differently, and doing it really well. In this instance, it’s very
much a case of Vive la difference…

Technical Panel:
Type: Three and a half way dynamic loudspeaker
Loading: BCT composite enclosure with resistive venting
Driver Complement: 1x 25mm soft-dome hf
1x 90mm carbon-fibre mf
1x 180mm dual-coil aluminium lf
Bandwidth: 22Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: 89d