Aavik Acoustics U-300 Integrated Amplifier

What Price Glory?

Equipment report
Integrated amplifiers
Aavik Acoustics U-300
Aavik Acoustics U-300 Integrated Amplifier

At CES 2015 I spent all my time at The Venetian. After burnout from visiting too many rooms playing too many female voices, I wandered the halls kind of aimlessly, thinking mostly about whether or not to visit the Bouchon Bakery on the ground floor. Before I reached the elevator, I heard what sounded like a party in one of the rooms and snapped out of my high-calorie reverie.

The closer I came to this room, the more it sounded like a small club playing loud music. When I saw the “Raidho Acoustics” sign by the door, I was even more intrigued. I had read great things about Raidho speakers, but had never even seen one. So when I entered I heard a system with which I was completely unfamiliar. (That’s what makes CES so much fun.)

This particular room contained a number of listeners tapping their toes to the music, a pretty happy exhibitor/DJ having a great time spinning digital tunes, and a very minimalistic set of audio componentry, too little in fact to account for the propulsive sound knocking down the walls. I decided the chocolate croissants downstairs would have to wait (a while).

I happened to walk in when Raidho principal Lars Kristensen was playing “Welcome to My World” by Depeche Mode. He was playing his own sampler CD and it was rocking—driving bass line, crystal-clear vocals, and a huge sense of space. I expected more gear but I only saw a pair of fairly compact speakers on the floor about ten feet in front of the backwall. Each slender and beautifully finished speaker was just a little over four feet high. The sign said X-3, and I soon realized the X-3 was a new model somewhere in the middle of the Raidho line, at $30,000/pair far from the top but certainly not inexpensive. Each speaker had an array of four 4" ceramic mid/bass drivers, the highly regarded Raidho ribbon tweeter, and one measly 8" bass driver mounted on the side. There was no way two of these were putting out all that bass, so I looked carefully for subwoofers hidden somewhere in the room. None to be found. I looked at the floor around the speakers for the presumably massive amplifiers, but no amps were to be found either. It was either some sort of trickery, or the Raidho guys were really onto something special.

On a stand in the middle of the room was a smallish black component that looked like it could have been designed by Darth Vader in one of his more creative moments. Sleek, black on black on black, solid metal with holes drilled for cooling, it could well have come from the command center of the Executor. It possessed a huge volume-type control on the front, silky smooth in operation and surrounded by a circle of tiny white LEDs. The curved top plane bore the name “AAVIK” deeply engraved in the metal and three small metal buttons above the volume control. Whatever it did, or however it worked, it was undeniably cool.

Raidho chief designer Michael Børresen then took the floor and told us about the loudspeakers. He also answered questions, the general tenor of which was, “How do you do that?” Unassuming and mild-mannered, he described what sounded like a new way of loading the bass drivers. He quietly extolled the virtues of the ceramic drivers and the almost massless ribbon tweeter. He didn’t even mention the Vader box until I asked him about it. Almost nonchalantly, he gave me a brief tour of the device and informed me that he had been working on its design for a while. Aavik is a new company helmed by Børresen and Kristensen, and the U-300 is the first of a new line of electronics they will be introducing. They have also started a cable company called Ansuz Acoustics. Not to be overlooked is their less-expensive speaker line, Scansonic.

In that brief meeting at CES, Børresen explained that the “U” in the U-300 stands for “Unity” and the “300,” not surprisingly, for the power output in watts. It was the component powering the X-3s. He said its output doubled to 600Wpc into 4 ohms, and was stable to 2 ohms. He was distinctly not apologetic that it was a Class D design. The burly amp I had been looking for was contained in the svelte Aavik package. Matter-of-factly, he acknowledged that Class D amplification did not enjoy the best reputation in the high-end community. Nevertheless, he stated that design of Class D circuitry had come a long way in the past five years and, after all, he and Lars were forced to improve upon prior Class D design because they wanted the U-300 to have the ability to drive virtually any loudspeaker. In short, Class D was the only way they could get truly high power into a relatively compact package and not worry about heat dissipation. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me what class the circuit is, as long as it sounds great. I admired his goal of building a take-no-prisoners integrated amp as his first project for Aavik.

Indeed, the U-300 is more than just a preamp and amplifier in one chassis. It also houses an internal DAC which was playing at the time. (He was using a dCS Puccini transport to feed digits to the U-300.) To complete the “Unity” aspect of the project, Børresen pointed out that the U-300 also contains a state-of-the-art RIAA phonostage. Press one of those buttons on top and start turning the volume control, and bingo—adjustable loading for a moving-coil cartridge. Overall, I thought the sound in the room was terrific and went back to visit three or four times during the show.

Fast forward to the Newport Beach 2015 show. Raidho was again exhibiting and this time Børresen was using the U-300 with the superb X-1 monitor speakers. Robert Harley wrote very highly of the X-1s last year and just as that came to mind Mr. Harley himself walked into the room and sat down next to me. After extolling the virtues of the Raidho ribbon tweeter, he and I simply listened to the great sound. Robert had also enjoyed the U-300 at CES and said we needed to review this amplifier. I was mightily interested in doing it, but was concerned about its (possible) limitations. I had a short discussion with Børresen about use of the U-300 with my reference Magnepan 20.7 speakers. I had several issues. First, I’m a tube guy and, through the years, have only really been satisfied with a tube front-end and large tube amplifiers driving the Maggies. Was the solid-state Class D U-300 going to sound thin, bright, and/or two-dimensional on the planars? Second, the 20.7s are power hogs. Simply put, the more (clean) power, the better. They will do a creditable job with 200Wpc, but require (IMHO) at least 300–500 watts, or more, to really sing in a mid-to-large size room. Believe it or not, if driven properly, the large panels will actually disappear, leaving the listener sitting in a pretty vast acoustic space. (My colleague JHb misquoted me when he commented that imaging must not be that important to me because I use the 20.7s. I specifically wrote that the 20.7s won’t image with the best cone-driven systems, but they nevertheless image extremely well and certainly at no less than the same level I hear in a large concert hall, even sitting fairly close to the orchestra.) But could the smallish single Vader box deliver the goods? Michael’s nonchalant response to all of my questions: “Don’t worry about it.”