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 expectations”

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 three-and-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 over-dubs. 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 side-stepping 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 ultra-resolution, 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 big-brand 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
Bandwidth: 22Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: 87dB

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Superior Audio Equipment Review
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Gershman Acoustics

Grande Avant Garde Loudspeakers
Love at first sound.

Review By Rick Jensen

Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde Loudspeakers

I first heard the new Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde loudspeakers at the 2014 New York HiFi show. I was immediately and immensely impressed. Yes, I know that we are not supposed to make discriminating judgments in the variable and often-challenging show environment, yet let’s also agree that such shows have become the major means of marketing for many manufacturers. And a cornerstone of the publishing schedule and content of review magazines (this one included) is the show reports. So we have a widely practiced sport of assessing fine components in that artificial environment.

Some manufacturers manage to get great sound almost every time regardless of the room they are assigned. That may be a function of care and the ability to tweak the room, so to speak. But it also may be due to something inherent in the product(s) they offer. In my own experience I have always heard “real” music in the Gershman rooms, which for me are free of the bombast and hype so often found next door. It doesn’t hurt that Ofra and Eli Gershman, two of the most likeable people I have met in the business, have a modest and straightforward manner in presenting their speakers.

In any event, the Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Gardes loudspeakers ‘had me at hello’ and I was fortunate enough to be able to get a pair to audition. They were delivered in person by the Gershmans, who were visiting the New York area from up in Toronto, and we set them up with minimal fuss (though with Eli doing the lifting, as I was laid up with a knee injury). I should add here that they are not that heavy to lift – which is one of their many charms.

Construction And Technical Details
The Grandes are not imposing, especially for a speaker in this price range, and one that, as we shall see, has both excellent bass extension and good dynamic range. I would add that they are very attractive (an opinion shared by others), extraordinarily well-finished, and will fit into a wide range of home environments.

They have an elegant grill – with vertical bands that look not unlike those of Sonus Faber – that is said to be virtually acoustically transparent. That said, both the Gershmans and I lightly preferred listening without the grills, and that is how all the listening was done. The Grandes look good without the grills, too, though non-geeks might prefer them avec. As noted, the Grande Avant Gardes were very easy to set up. Eli Gershman advises that they can be positioned fairly close to a rear wall, even if three feet or more might be recommended. I quickly had them in a position close to where many other speakers have worked well in my apartment – about four feet off the rear wall, seven feet apart and slightly toed in. My listening position was about 9′ from each speaker. A little wider or without the toe-in left one desiring more center fill, and any closer didn’t enhance the sound or the soundstaging.

Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde loudspeakers

The overall “look” of the Grandes will be very easily recognized by those who know the Avant Gardes (now the Avant Garde R1). The two speakers do look very much alike. And the external dimensions, but for the bass traps, are identical. Compared to the original Avant Gardes, this is a totally new speaker. The drivers are the same models but with modifications. The tweeter is sourced from Peerless, the midrange a carbon-fiber driver from {France}. The woofer is a custom design, Canadian-made and manufactured exclusively for Gershman.

The Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Gardes are constructed of HDF, which is very solid and both feels and sounds very quiet. I should add that the HDF is then beautifully painted — custom colors are available — and then finished in several coats of fine Italian lacquer. (The Gershmans have worked with the same master painter to finish the cabinets for years and he does all the finishing on their products). The overall impression is elegant, compact, and beautiful. And in spite of the non-traditional design, I did not have anyone in my home who did not find the Grandes very attractive.

The original Avant Gardes, which were introduced in 1995, were 36″ high and !2″ square on the bottom, narrowing in a pyramidal fashion toward the top. The pyramidal structure, common to all the higher-end speakers made by Gershman, functions to minimize any possibility of refraction from the front baffle. And so it is with the Grandes, except that they are literally seated into a platform of sorts, a rectangle that comprises the 12″ square dimension of the base, and then extends another 10″ or thereabouts behind the speaker. This platform is the “bass trap” which makes use of a Gershman proprietary technology they call BCT (Backwave Control Technology). The platform raises the Grandes another 3.5″ but does not allow them to dominate a room.

The goal of the BCT structure, which is essentially an external chamber coupled to the Grandes, is to attenuate the rear wave in the woofer. Of course there are many methods of attacking this problem such as a transmission line being among the best known, along with its variants that seek to fold, bend, or otherwise break up the backwave so as to diminish its effect on the woofer. The Gershmans are tireless experimenters, and found that a port-like opening on the bottom of the cabinet, integrated into the channels in the bass trap (called a “regulation line”) gave startlingly good results. There is a mass loading on the woofer and the regulation line is added to that. According to the Gershmans, the regulation line is not as long as the transmission line, but makes it a bit faster along with allowing the woofer to go deeper, other things held equal. The goal of the BCT topology, so to speak, is very simply more control with better definition in the deep bass — in other words, motherhood and apple pie.

The ancillary benefit of being able to achieve such control is less masking of the midrange and highs. Thus, the midrange and tweeter drivers were tweaked to blend as close to optimally as possible with the bass. The Gershmans contend that the mids and highs are “sweeter and more detailed”, an observation that I can heartily endorse. The Grandes are specified at 22 Hz to 20 kHz. I will comment more on the sound below, but they do go surprisingly deep and the highs are quite extended. As a final comment on the construction and appearance: these are fairly compact speakers that are designed to work in even a modest city apartment, all while being able to fill a good-sized room with ease. More about the sound below, but I will confirm that they would fit well into a one-bedroom apartment in New York, and look very good to boot.

Listening Observations
I listened first to the Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Gardeson their own, and then later compared them in some detail, with my reference Ars Aures Midi Sensorials. I know that the latter are not familiar to most American audiophiles, as they have had inconsistent to nil distribution over here, but they are remarkably similar in overall character, albeit almost twice as expensive. (Another reason why the Grandes may have appealed to me from the get-go.) On the superb reissue of Ben Webster’s Soulville [Vinyl Me Please 2015], the Grandes provided an intimate perspective, that of a club or small concert hall, with lots of texture in the saxophone. One could hear each bit of breath passing through the sax. The perspective was that of a small room, as though you were 10 to 12 feet away from the band. I noted that I heard “all the highs of the real world but nothing extra”. The GAG top end is consistently detailed and finely textured, with a hint of sweetness. Imaging is satisfying wide and deep, and maintains the small-hall feel.

That impression was representative of all my time with the Grandes. They are terrific at conveying a real and intimate space, with the attendant emotional connection or “feel” of that space, but are not at all aggressive or clinical. I cannot say how others experience live music versus recorded music at home, but my consistent observation is that live music may have all the detail and nuance that one can possibly hear without ever assaulting the ears in a way that even very fine home systems do. Perhaps that is due to the real space – most listening rooms are very small even compared to small clubs, and tiny compared to concert halls, but it’s a constant for me. The systems that draw me in are those that can replicate what I hear live. Are they as “flat” or accurate? I don’t know. But they give me the music, and pull me into its orbit, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

I can’t remember what brought me to put Jethro Tull’s Benefit on the turntable for the first time in eons. It’s a record I know down into my bones and have played a few hundred times, most of that being way back in the early 70s. The recording perspective is somewhat distant but the transparency and immediacy of the Grandes seemed to bring it closer. I felt as though I was thrown back to 1970, listening to Tull via my Dyna SCA-35, KLH-22s and Garrard Lab-80 (with Shure M-95E)… only better, with all the manic energy but less muddy. I can only chalk that up to the Grandes’ ability to convey the emotional content of the music, because today’s system is far better than that of my college days. Yes, “emotional content” is a vague and fuzzy term, and certainly not replicable via testing, but I suspect it may have to do with a combination of speed, timbral accuracy, good microdynamics, and an utter lack of noticeable flaws. In any case, it is a virtue that the Grandes share with my own speakers, even if neither of them has quite the stunning transparency of, say, Magicos.

While I have started by commenting on the overall presentation of the Grandes, it is important to note the character of the bass. As noted above, the bass traps are an innovative solution to the challenge of deep, accurate bass in an enclosure of limited size. And they work. Yes, they have the ability to go deep on Virgil Fox organ cuts, though perhaps not to subsonic frequencies, and the woofers never seem to lose control. I wouldn’t characterize the bass as particularly “big” or “tight” – it is somewhere in the middle, full, with a natural weight and consistent timbre on acoustic bass or organ. That character is a relative constant, varying only in respect of the music itself. The bass is quite satisfying on electronic music as well, giving an energizing amount of thump to EDM like Super 8 & Tab/Julie Thompson’s “Your Secret’s Safe” (yup, I like that stuff, too). If Eli Gershman’s goal with the BCT was, in essence, to extend and enhance a transmission line, it seems to have worked very well. And let me repeat that the Grandes just don’t take up very much space – I cannot stress enough how much these are apartment-friendly speakers.

Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde loudspeakers

So, with the speakers’ capacity to deliver a lot of good bass, it is worth remarking that on Art Pepper’s Smack Up [Analogue Productions reissue], the piano and acoustic bass lines both impressed with just the right amount of weight and speed. I have had other speakers in my home that bleached out those lines to a small degree. There is not a hint of that here; if anything, the rhythm and the sax pieces are just a smidgen on the rich side (a 51 on the 0 – 100 scale, if you will). As I have never heard any “bleached” coloration in live unamplified music, the balance of the Grandes seems about right to me.

I will offer a quick comment about the efficiency of the Grandes, rated at 89dB. The recommended power is 40 to 200 watts, which seems just fine. I rarely had to turn up my Music Reference amplifier (125 wpc) very high to get satisfying volume. I did not hear any strain at any volume level short of what would get me thrown out of my building, if not all of Brooklyn. I would wager that a well-made 40 wpc amplifier would work very nicely in all but the largest rooms. While most of my listening was to vinyl, I did listen to digital in order to see how it was rendered. On the Shins’ “Phantom Limb” from Wincing the Night Away, via 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, the overall sound was nicely balanced yet with less immediacy than the vinyl. It did still sound rich enough to listen to and sing along with. This likely reflects personal preference, but as long as standard CD is not whitewashed or thinned out, I am very happy. I had no reason to expect that from the Grandes and they did not disappoint.

Overall Impressions
It is difficult to cite any one thing about the Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde loudspeakers that makes them stand out from other speakers at or above their price range, a range where many fine choices are available. They do everything very, very well and are consistently pleasing to listen to. They go deep, they have sweet and extended highs, they image well, and they communicate the essence of the music in the midrange with no noticeable additions or omissions. Most important, music is just more fun with the Grande Avant Grandes than with most speakers, even most very fine ones in my experience. Some of that may have to do with the delight of hearing so much beautiful sound emanate from speakers that are not more than waist-high. And a part of the pleasure derives from their consistency and reliability – the Grandes sound good from the very start and do not disappoint over time.

I am fortunate to have a nice-sized apartment by New York standards, one where my large Ars Aures speakers can fit without much trouble. If I were in a smaller place, I would get the Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Gardes in a heartbeat. As it was, I was very sorry to see them go. For all the above reasons, the Grande Avant Gardes deserve a serious audition by anyone seeking great sound in this price category.

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