REVIEW: AVM Inspiration CS 2.2 4T: Audiophile all-in-one

AVM is a new arrival on the SA audio scene, but the German marque’s provenance is widely acknowledged in Europe, where its combination of fine workmanship, ease of use and sonic capability has gained it many friends. The Inspiration CS 2.2 4T is a good case in point.

By Deon Schoeman

Audio Video Manufuktur (AVM) is a German audio brand that designs, develops and produces an extensive array of mainly stereo audio products at its facility in the town of Malsch, near Karlsruhe in Germany.

Its proudly ‘Made In Germany’ tradition means that all its products are manufactured in house, while the majority of its suppliers are also located close by. This benefits quality control and consistency, underpinned by a commitment to craftsmanship that’s evident in the sleek casework and superb finishes typical of AVM’s products.

The AVM catalogue is extensive, embracing everything from turntables and loudspeakers to pre-amps, power amps and media players. However, its most intriguing offering is an array of all-in-one, one-box systems that combine an integrated amplifier with CD playback, FM tuner and media streaming capabilities.

AT FACE VALUE

The Inspiration CS 2.2 4T is one of those. It wraps an extensive array of functions and features in a compact but sleek and meticulously finished, all-metal enclosure that’s attractive enough to be deemed a ‘lifestyle’ device, but with serious sonic credentials.

The 4T is the flagship of the Inspiration range, and offers various enhancements over the standard CS 2.2, including an upgraded phono stage, the addition of Bluetooth connectivity and the latest Wolfson 192 kHz/24-bit DAC.

At only 340mm wide, it’s significantly smaller than conventional DIN-sized audio components, while the screwless casework, seamless panel fit and tactile quality create a sophisticated, upmarket aura.

The front fascia is home to a disc-loading slot, a flush-mounted rotary volume controller and small soft-touch buttons some which change function depending on the operation mode. There’s also a large, blue-illuminated LED display with adjustable brightness and a satisfyingly large, alphanumeric readout.

The rear panel is less minimalist, offering a trio of stereo, line-level RCA input sets, as well as an MM/MC phono input. There also fixed-level record, and variable-level pre-amp outputs, and a USB Type A socket for USB drives, while digital connections are served via coaxial and Toslink optical inputs and outputs.

The back panel offers screw-in mounts for two antennas – one serving Bluetooth 4.2 reception, the other for 802.11 Wi-Fi. An Ethernet socket for cabled LAN connectivity is provided, too.

From a control perspective, there’s a chunky metal remote control handset that looks the high-end part, as well as an RC9 IR/IRF remote which has its own, integrated status screen (another part of the 4T upgrade package).

However, most users are likely to opt for the RC S app, offered free for both iOS and Android devices. It’s intuitive and functional, even if the interface could be prettied up a little.

Using the app also highlights some of the CS 2.2 4T’s less obvious talents. For instance, access to the Tidal and Qobuz streaming services is built in, as is an Internet radio tuner with literally thousands of stations to choose from.

The Inspiration will also stream from DLNA and UPnP-compliant NAS devices on the same network, with the app again the best way to navigate through the content of NAS-based music libraries.

UNDER THE COVERS

It’s hard to fathom how AVM has managed to squeeze so much functionality into such a compact box. Certainly, the casework is filled to the brim with circuitry and cabling, although the execution expresses the same level of craftsmanship and commitment to quality as the exterior.

The slot-loading disc-reading mechanism is CD-specific, rather than a generic DVD drive, and is purpose-built by Teac for AVM. The drive is said to be much more accurate and reliable than generic drives, with commensurate gains in quality.

The in-built DAC is AVM’s own design, employing an unspecified, but latest-generation Wolfson DAC chip. All incoming digital signals, regardless of resolution, are upsampled to 192 kHz/24-bit using digital signal processing, before being converted to analogue.

In LAN streaming mode, the DAC is compatible with lossless FLAC, WAV and AIFF files at up to 192 kHz/24-bit. ALAC files are also supported, but only up to 96 kHz/24-bit, while lossy formats include MP3, WMA, AAC and Ogg Vorbis.

Part of the secret behind the Inspiration’s compact size is the fact that it uses a pair of Class D output stages, which are not only smaller than conventional Class A/B designs, but also run a lot cooler.

The CS 2.2 T4 has a rated output of 110 watts RMS per channel into 8 ohms, and 165 watts RMS per channel into 4 ohms.

SETTING UP

The AVM can be customised to suit personal preferences in several areas. For instance, the tone control can be deactivated, and if activated, tone control adjustments (bass and treble) can be made for each source individually.

Other adjustments include loudness and balance, while inputs can be renamed, or even deactivated if not in use. Input sensitivity for all inputs (but not for the CD or tuner sources) is individually adjustable between -9,5 dB and +10,0 dB.

You can also choose to bypass the output stage if the Inspiration is being used as a pre-amp in conjunction with a separate power amp.

The AVM is not compatible with the Roon music management system, nor with MQA files – although, I suspect the logic behind this omission is a belief that the Inspiration already offers its own streaming and source management, while the benefits of MQA remain controversial.

After all, the AVM’s all-in-one approach is focussed on ease of use, without any sonic compromises, and without the need for too much in the way of high-tech know how. For many, the attraction of the CS 2.2 4T will be its plug ’n play simplicity.

I used the AVM in conjunction with my Vivid Audio V1.5 reference speakers, with a PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Network Bridge II providing a digital counterpoint.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The Inspiration CS 2.2 T4 delivered an instantly engaging, accessible sound that invited the listener to sit down and simply enjoy the music. Its approach was smooth and slightly warm, with a particular focus on texture and timbre, which allowed the music to take on an almost palpable quality.

However, it never became so warm and fuzzy that it interfered with the AVM’s ability to retrieve and present the finer details and nuances of the music: rather, the sound had an almost organic quality that seemed to bring instruments to life with conviction.

The soundstaging was tidy and incisive, with succinct placement of individual components, while the AVM was able to spatially contextualise the music – from the intimacy of a jazz quartet and the clubby exuberance of a blues ensemble to the majestic scale and impact of a symphony orchestra.

The AVM never overstated or exaggerated its musical fare, but still seemed to make the most of the music. It created enough sonic room to accommodate every facet of a performance, and while it always kept a close rein on the music, it never did so to the detriment of the music’s energy or impetus.

Tonally, the AVM delivered a rich sonic bounty, with a generous foundation of bass, a smooth and almost organic midrange, and clear but slightly sweet trebles. The sound was by no means rolled off, but ensured instant approachability and engagement.

The result was a compelling and fatigue-free delivery that encouraged extended listening, regardless of source. Also, the inherent character of the AVM was maintained regardless of source, be it from its internal CD drive, from the music library on my Synology NAS, or streaming from Tidal, the sonic results remained musically accessible and engaging.

Elvis Costello’s Look Now sees the popmaster returning to the lucid charm and songcraft of his early work, but infused with a maturity and heft that adds unexpected musical gravitas.

The AVM captured the intimate ambience of the recording and age-burnished timbre of Costello’s vocals with an engaging accuracy that grasped the essence and thrust of the music, rather than merely analysing the sound.

There was an inviting lucidity and approachability to the sound that invited close and extended encounters with the music, regardless of genre.

The CS 2.2 4T was as at ease projecting the brooding atmosphere, the broad sonic expanse and the rich complexity of movie soundtrack maestro Hans Zimmer’s ‘Black Knight Trilogy’ (from his Live In Prague set) as it was bringing the stand-up bass and abrasive vocals of Casey Abrams on ‘I Put A Spell On You’ from the same-titled album vividly to life.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There was a certain ‘rightness’ and authenticity to the way the AVM handled the music that just sounded right, and put a smile on my face (and everyone else who heard the CS 2.2 4T).

It always sounds larger, more incisive and more musical than you expect from a compact, attractively styled one-box system, proving that aesthetics can be more than skin deep.

Importantly, the app makes navigating the unit’s considerable feature set intuitive, ensuring that you don’t have to be a technophile to use and enjoy the AVM.

Built like a tank (albeit a very pretty one), and with a compact footprint that will make it easy to accommodate in even smaller rooms, or minimalist décor schemes, the Inspiration CS 2.2 4T finds an impressive balance between lifestyle design, a versatile feature set and true sonic appeal that also vindicates its asking pride.

VITAL STATS
Power output: 2x 110 watts (8 ohms), 2x 165 watts (4 ohms)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 96 dBA (25 watts/4 ohms)
Frequency response: 50 kHz (4 ohms)
THD: Integrated sources: CD, FM Stereo tuner
Analogue inputs: 3x stereo RCA, 1x MM/MC phono input
Analogue outputs: Pre-amp out, Record out
Digital inputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical
Digital outputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11, Ethernet
DAC chip: Wolfson, upsampling to 192 kHz/24-bit
Streaming services: Internet radio, Tidal, Qobuz
Network services: UPnP, DLNA
Dimensions (WxHxD): 340x 80 x 350 mm)
Weight: 10 kg
PRICE
R86 000
SUPPLIED BY
HFX Systems

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream DAC + Bridge II
Naim Uniti 2 all-in-one system
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Synology DS 213+ NAS

SOFTWARE
Casey Abrams – Put A Spell On You (Chesky)
Elvis Costello – Don’t’ Look Now (Concord)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Eagle Records)