Confidence. Transparency. I like my monitor controllers like I like my politicians. I want confidence that I am hearing what is and what is not there. Confidence that the choices I am making in terms of signal processing are the right ones. Confidence that I have chosen the best mic and preamp for the source. Confidence that what leaves the studio is going to translate to the real world. And most importantly, I do not want a spin on it. Dung heap or gleaming golden chalice of light — just give it to me straight. The newly updated Avocet 2 from Crane Song is a device that delivers that confidence and transparency — and so much more.
I have been a fan of Dave Hill and his gear for a long time. From Summit Audio to Crane Song and Dave Hill Designs — many glorious pieces have been produced under these monikers. He is not rehashing or recreating the past, but rather pushing the boundaries of technology and audio gear. Dave Hill was one of the first with the belief that A/D and D/A conversion could be so much more than the status quo, when he created the Crane Song HEDD [Tape Op #26], a converter that to this day is still considered by many to be one of the best. So, when the opportunity arose to review a new version of the Crane Song Avocet, I jumped at the chance.
Crane Song gear is handmade in Superior, Wisconsin, and everything about it says no compromise. Build, look, feel, and sonics are all, well, superior.
The Avocet 2 is an analog monitor management tool, with discrete Class A electronics and a newly redesigned, fourth-generation D/A converter (more on that later). The main unit is an elegant 2RU-height rackmount box with a clean, brushed-metal front plate that has the ubiquitous green Crane Song light and a 1/4'' TRS headphone jack. The back is packed with XLR jacks for three analog inputs, three digital inputs, and three speaker outputs — all stereo. There's also a second TRS headphone output, as well as optical and RCA jacks if you prefer S/PDIF format for digital input 1. On-the-fly gain trim is available for each of the six inputs. The Avocet 2's functionality is controlled by a well- designed desktop remote. The main volume knob is a comfortable size, has a nice resistance, and is stepped in 1 dB increments from -32 to +12 dB. The text around the dial is marked in 2 dB increments, but LEDs encircling the knob display each dB step by lighting one or two at a time. Adjustments of the volume knob result in small clicks from the main unit due to the use of relays, inspiring confidence in the analog audio path, which remains safe and clear inside of the main unit, without need for a detrimental detour down a long remote cable.
Many mix and mastering engineers are already using the original Avocet — and for good reason. The capabilities and sound of the Avocet cannot be beat. Having level-offset on all of the input sources is an indispensable feature that should be standard on every monitor controller. I was able to level-match every source using an SPL meter, allowing me to make real-world judgments between the unprocessed analog 2-mix coming directly from my summing amp; the mix with bus compression and EQ via the digital input from my DAW; and reference sources such as CDs, and files streaming wirelessly via my Airport Express. Additionally, the Avocet offers speaker defeat, polarity flip, mono mode, speaker dim, mute, and talkback. It can even truncate the selected digital input to 16 bits. Moreover, output 3 can be dedicated to an active subwoofer and used in parallel with output 1 or 2. All digital sources are up-sampled to over 200 kHz and jitter-reduced for maximum accuracy. Up to four Avocet rackmount units can be chained together to facilitate 5.1-7.1 surround mixing. Metering is configured out-of-the- box to display input signal from -46 to 0 dB in 2 dB steps, with multiple options available via internal jumpers.
The headphone section accepts three sources: the selected main input; the post-volume/polarity/mono version of the main input; or the aux input, independent of the main input selection. All three headphone sources have dedicated volume trim. The headphone amp in this unit sounds beautiful, is well thought out, and is user friendly. Once headphone sources and levels are set, it is as easy as hitting the mute button to defeat the mains for tracking in the same room or for critical listening sans bleed. Likewise, assigning an artist mix to the headphones is as simple as feeding the Avocet's aux input and choosing that for the headphone source.
At this point, if you want to learn more about what the Avocet offers in terms of routing and control, you should download the manual from the Crane Song website. The unit has many more features than there's room to discuss here — including integration with other devices — and options abound in its control set as well as in the hardware jumpers, trims, and pads inside the main box.
While the functionality of the Avocet 2 is the same as previous versions, what is not the same is the newly reworked D/A converter. Dave Hill has invested over two years of research, trial and error, and countless experiments into his new, fourth-generation DAC, and it was certainly worth the time. Improvements have been made in the quartz crystal reference oscillator responsible for the Avocet 2's clocking, and the result is a significant reduction in jitter. When I spoke to Dave Hill and mentioned I was not an overly technical chap, he laid it out, in what I'm sure were the simplest terms possible:
"We use a sample-rate converter to do jitter reduction, and it up-samples to about 211 kHz. The reference oscillator has ultra-low phase noise, which translates to extremely low jitter. It is very difficult to achieve this kind of performance. Custom parts, custom quartz crystals — let's put it this way, to make it significantly better, when you are using $30-$40 parts, and throwing a bunch of them away due to poor performance, they become $300-$400 parts. I'm not sure at what point you stop hearing things, but I am asking it to do something that is at the edge of its capabilities. The part that is in the Avocet 2 measures a phase-noise floor of about -115 dB at 10 Hz off the center frequency, which is really quite low. As a comparison, I put in a part that was at -105 dB and did a listening test, and you can hear the difference."
What I love about trying to convey what something sounds like with words, is that you have to take the time to listen and train your ears to discern what it is you are trying to hear. In the case of jitter, I have never had a way to effectively identify and judge what jitter in the clock signal does to audio or how it even presents itself. There is an excellent explanation on the Crane Song website called "The Jitter Files." It is a set of critical listening tests that lets you train yourself to hear clock jitter and its effect on various sources. Song examples are presented in their final, mixed form and then with only the artifacts of jitter and inaccurate clocking. What blew my mind was that what I perceived as warmth was actually jitter coloring the midrange. Why is this a big deal? If you are hearing mud or maybe what you perceive as "warmth" in playback that is not actually there, and you reach for EQ as a remedy, you are altering the audio unnecessarily. If playback is not as pure as it can be, you are guessing. Two months ago, I couldn't tell you what picoseconds were, let alone that a reduction from 13 ps to less than 1 ps would make a significant difference in my work, but it does.
This stuff is subtle. And to the average listener on an average playback system, it may ultimately be irrelevant. However, as Mr. Hill noted, "There is always going to be someone with a better system, and the flaws will be evident."
I asked Dave what all of this R&D and the improvements to the DAC would do to the cost of the Avocet 2, and he said that when all was said and done, the price would not increase. Personally, I would pay more, but I quickly realized that Dave Hill is not trying to turn a quick buck. He has dedicated his life to this pursuit of pushing the boundaries of audio quality.
Because of the depth and layers of functionality in this unit, it is not a monitor controller you will plug-and-play out of the box. In advance of my receiving the unit, Tim at Crane Song contacted me to schedule a walkthrough of the unit with their head tech. After a short tutorial, I was off and running. Basically, the unit is set up in layers. Several of the buttons have a second function that is accessed by using the "Shift" button. Some of these include accessing the headphone sources and individual levels as well as optional subwoofer configuration. Importantly, once I understood the thought process behind the unit's design, it all became very intuitive.
When I first started using the Avocet 2, my impressions were very positive, and they haven't wavered since. I like the sonic image both side-to-side and back-to-front; the super-smooth and even response across the entire frequency range at any volume; the stellar transient response that becomes very apparent when listening to a snare drum, because it actually sounds like a snare drum in the room; the deep functionality, level-matching offsets, and other useful options; and of course, the supreme clarity. Sound-wise, everything is so perfectly in focus and defined that it allows you to "see" the mix, which opens new doors to the placement of mix elements. I love watching clients and friends sit in the mix position and reach out between the speakers to touch the top of the singer's head because its location in the sound field is so strongly represented. When a listening experience is that tangible, it is a powerful thing, and it changes the listeners' emotional connection to what they are hearing. This is what making, recording, and mixing music is all about. Put your left foot in.
Moreover, I am convinced that because of the Avocet 2's superior clocking and signal path, my brain doesn't have to work as hard, and therefore, listening fatigue comes much later in the day. At the end of a recent run of 10-12 hour days, I was still making good choices in terms of balances and EQ — and even the end-of- session roughs sounded close to finished mixes.
Over time, I simply became addicted to the unit. The result of all of this time, energy, and technical prowess is the most beautifully transparent and detailed monitor controller I have ever heard. Both analog and digital sources are rendered with extreme accuracy. Integration of the Avocet 2 has been a huge time saver, and its use has produced better results. At the end of the day, none of the tech specs matter one bit. The Avocet 2 with its new and improved DAC sounds awesome. We are humans making music for humans (and maybe some plants too), and the tools that facilitate emotional resonance and assist in translation of artistic intent are indispensable. If a new monitor controller is on your need-to-get or upgrade list, you would be doing yourself a serious disservice by not giving the Avocet 2 a serious look, and more importantly, listen.
Quantum DAC review: http://tapeop.com/reviews/gear/115/quantum-dac-for-solaris-avocet-ii-iia/
April 2017: Geoff adds an update to his original review.
This may be the most indispensable tool in the studio. I hear people say that converters don't matter and that most cannot hear the difference. Bullsh*t!
If you cannot accurately hear what you are doing you are making uninformed choices. They call that guessing and it's not what you want to do when grabbing an eq or compressor. I like the sound of the Avocet and it has with no uncertainty saved me recall time. Yes, good monitors are an important part of the monitoring scenario, but the Avocet's feature set and DAC have become an essential staple in my listening environment. Worth noting is that when updates to the DAC become available it is an easy swap for anyone with basic screwdriver skills!