AVID; the big company you know little about

Here is a company that is surprisingly unknown to many in the UK hi-fi industry yet, which has outstanding engineering resources and a real story to tell.

A view of just part of the machine shop where turntable components are made at AVID

When you first visit AVID you are in for a series of surprises starting with the fact that they are now located on an ultra-secure industrial zone on the former USAF base at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire. Then when you finally gain admittance it is to discover that what appears to be a tiny high-end audio company on the outside is just the visible bit of very capable high-technology enterprise.

Founder Conrad Mas admits that his company has kept a fairly low profile as befits a man who showed his first prototype turntable 20 years ago and subsequently spent years at a time researching and solving each and every problem he found along the way. Indeed at one stage he seems to have almost taken up residence at Cranfield College of Technology, so much use did he make of their advanced research facilities; a relationship that continues to this day. But now assisted by his wife Sharon on the marketing side and with an experienced team of assemblers he is ready to demonstrate to the hifi-industry that AVID is now probably the leading manufacturer of high-end turntables in the UK.

Established for some 8 years, AVID has distribution in something like 14 major countries and is particularly proud of its relationship with TEAC who distribute the line in Japan and who have been very active in stimulating the development of the recently launched and very affordable DIVA turntable. Conrad undoubtedly has an uncompromising approach to design, from concept and choice of materials to finish and execution. The result is a turntable that many listeners find sets new standards in vinyl replay. He also seems to have had the same step-by-step approach to distribution of his products but now with a wide product line and several exciting new products in the not-to-distant future he is ready to appoint a few more outlets.

Established for some 8 years, AVID has distribution in something like 14 major countries and is particularly proud of its relationship with TEAC who distribute the line in Japan and who have been very active in stimulating the development of the recently launched and very affordable DIVA turntable.

The AVID facility is in a fully RF-screened and bug-protected building that was once occupied by the people who sent U-2 and TR-2 spyplanes from Alconbury to fly over the Soviet Union. One nice side effect in that Conrad can enjoy listening to music in a sterile environment with no electrical interference. Here the team assemble and test their products and Conrad does development work on the next generation of products. Scattered around the building in other areas are a number of racing cars ­ AVID are the co-sponsor of AVID-CPI motor racing ­ and a number of pieces of high-tech. machinery including items used for QC of components and a remarkable laser machine which etches text or even ultra-fine photographic images onto metal components. The more time we spent at AVID the more we realised that here was a company whose engineering resources far outstretched those of the average UK audio company.

Conrad Mas holds a turntable component whilst a CNC centre machines another one behind him

There is no doubt that the capabilities of AVID have really benefited from his part-ownership of a precision engineering company which has now re-located to a new factory in nearby St. Neots. The Cambridge Precision site is filled with row upon row of modern computer controlled machining centres; some of which turn metal components; some mill components into complex shapes whilst others do both operations in one machine. In addition to the AVID components, we saw parts being machined for Lola race cars; Sony cameras (the only company outside of Japan to be licensed to make parts for Sony); parts for Jaguar and Aston Martin and, most impressive of all, components for high-speed medical centrifuges which not only have to be made to precise dimensions but which must have a finished weight tied to a tiny tolerance.

The existence of this sister facility really benefits AVID in ensuring that all components are made to a consistently high standard and that there is never any shortage of key assemblies. Indeed AVID must be one of the few high-end companies that can normally deliver its products from stock or, in the worst case, with a delivery time measured in days not months.

The Acutus turntable leads the AVID product line, which is totally uncompromising in its ability to fulfil its design function yet extremely beautiful in form and construction. Everything about the design of this turntable was re-assessed from scratch taking nothing for granted. To judge from recent reviews it appears to set a standard of musical reproduction that others must now aspire to reach. It is a belt drive, sprung sub-chassis design with all external vibrations being isolated by a unique suspension system. The intention is that the minute vibrations caused by the stylus during playback are transmitted to the sub-chassis directly through the bearing and not absorbed into the platter. This is achieved using a unique matting material and clamping system. A purpose designed power supply coupled to a unique hand made motor, 10 times more powerful than normally used, drive a massive 10Kg platter. Incidentally during our visit we were able to compare the motor as delivered by the manufacturer and the modified and rebuilt motor used by AVID. The former shakes and vibrates to an alarming degree whilst the rebuilt motor gently whirs virtually free of any vibrations or roughness.

The Volvere turntable uses most of the unique design elements of the Acutus turntable but at a more affordable price. Again this is a sprung sub-chassis design, built to the same engineering standard as the Acutus turntable and incorporating a similar clamping, Tungsten Carbide/Sapphire bearing and suspension design. A purpose designed electronic 2-speed built-in power supply is coupled to a high torque motor, which drives a heavy 5Kg platter.

There is a developed version of the Volvere and this is the aptly named Sequel. This model uses the power supply and is motor from the Acutus to give an improvement in sound quality that is instantly noticeable with improved dynamics, imaging and information retrieval.

AVID's most affordable turntable is the attractively priced DIVA model. It uses the same sapphire bearing and a simplified, yet elegant clamping system to ensure that the vibration caused by the cartridge during replay is effectively channelled to the main chassis. The platter, constructed from glass and MDF, ensures an impedance miss-match with the record and with the aid of the clamp prevents energy entering the platter avoiding sound colourations. The unique suspension system allows each spring to be tailored to the correct frequency, giving optimum mechanical isolation of the playing surface, resulting in better information retrieval and resolution. The DIVA also has the option of fitting more than one tone-arm. Most arms from 9" to 12" length can be mounted, allowing favourite arm/cartridge combinations to be mounted at the same time. The external power supply feeds a powerful stand-alone motor, which ensures excellent speed stability.

Avid also hand-build their Super Conductor Technology cables at Huntingdon. There are two analogue interconnects, the Blue Standard and Black Reference. Both are co-axial designs using a directional "Super conductor" material for the signal with, in the case of the Black version, a full copper jacket screen and return. These cables are said to offer a neutral, wide-bandwidth, dynamic sound that fully reveals the capabilities of source components and pre/power combinations alike. They are terminated with high quality connectors from WBT and beautifully packaged within wooden presentation cases.

The next product in the pipeline is a radical new tone-arm, which is expected to appear at the 2004 CES in January. Conrad explained many of the design decisions he has had to consider and his explanations confirmed that here is a man who is fanatical in the pursuit of eliminating every problem area no matter how small. If he finds something that could, just possibly, degrade the performance of the system then he is onto it looking for solutions. With products like the AVID tone-arm and the redesign he is making of the much loved Decca London cartridge we are talking of microscopic vibrations; resonances and effects that are able to change the sound. Yet Conrad does not seem able to compromise his designs; he will just take more time to solve the engineering problems. No wonder his turntable design is the result of 20 years of prototypes and development.

And the success of this approach can be seen in the assembly area where there are very few tools. Such is the accuracy of the components that they smoothly fit together like an ultra precise jigsaw. No sign here of the mallets and files so many small companies use to "knife & fork" their products together. It is Conrad's proud boast that should a spare-part ever be needed at some future date it will fit in with no need for adjustment; matching or trimming. Without doubt AVID products are quality products able to stand comparison with those made anywhere else in the world.