- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Sunday, 01 July 2012 00:00
- Written by Doug Blackburn
Vandersteen Audio is one of the survivors: a now-classic audio brand whose first product was the Model 2 loudspeaker, in 1977. In all those years, many flavor-of-the-month loudspeaker brands have come and gone, and most that have gone have deserved that fate.
A company doesn’t stick around for 35 years by accident -- it lasts because it makes products that people want, and has stood behind its products all that time. For many years, with his Models 1, 2, and 3, founder-owner Richard Vandersteen focused on maximum performance for the dollar. Updates for these models were issued regularly over the years, and for a long time they were Vandersteen’s core business. All featured essentially the same look: top and bottom caps of wood, and four side panels covered with an acoustically transparent cloth sock. Vandersteen’s thinking was that good-looking wood cabinets are expensive and add nothing to a speaker’s performance. Avoiding expensive wood finishes let him engineer better sound into his speakers than other companies could put into speakers at similar prices with real-wood finishes.
The market then changed in two ways. First, home theater became a huge force. Virtually every manufacturer with any resources at all, including Vandersteen Audio, came to market with center-channel, surround, and subwoofer models. The other thing that happened was a rather remarkable falloff in sales of speakers in the range of $500 to $5000 USD per pair, while business above $5000/pair remained pretty good. That spurred Vandersteen to develop the Model 5 (the current Model 5A costs $18,995/pair), which debuted to universal raves, and the recently introduced Model 7 ($48,000/pair), which has also been acclaimed in reviews and by audio-show attendees. The Quatro ($9400/pair) got a little lost amid the kudos heaped on the Model 5/5A/5A Carbon and the Model 7, but it uses the same tweeter as the Model 5A, and a smaller version of the 5-series’ powered, two-driver low-bass system.
The newest Vandersteen speaker, the Treo ($5995/pair), was released this year. It uses the same tweeter, midrange, and woofer as the Quatro, but replaces the Quatro’s tunable, powered low-bass system with a 6.5" woofer and an 8" subwoofer.
Getting to know the Treo
The Treo can be thought of as Vandersteen’s top all-passive loudspeaker, or as the entry-level model of the company’s newer speakers. Its subwoofer has an 8"-wide, flat-faced "cone" of carbon-loaded cellulose, a long-throw motor assembly (magnet and voice-coil), and operates from 36 to 80Hz. A downfiring, QB3-aligned port helps boost the sub’s bass response at lower frequencies. The 6.5" woofer has a woven-fiber cone, a high-precision magnet assembly, a copper Faraday ring, and operates from 36 to 900Hz. The 4.5" midrange driver’s cone is made of a tri-woven composite material and has a curvilinear profile. Its die-cast basket and magnet system have an aerodynamic shape designed to minimize the backwave energy reflected back at the cone’s inner surface, and its voice-coil is cooled with ferrofluid to keep the coil’s operating characteristics linear over the driver’s wide operating range of 900Hz to 5kHz. The tweeter is the same driver used in the 5A: a 1"-diameter, ferrofluid-cooled, "critically damped" dome of ceramic-coated alloy with dual chambers and an operating bandwidth of 5kHz to 30kHz.
Vandersteen claims for the Treo a frequency response of 36Hz-30kHz, +/-3dB, and a lowish sensitivity of 85dB/2.83V/m. The impedance is 6 ohms, +/-3 ohms. The crossovers are all first-order, time- and phase-correct -- a Vandersteen hallmark since 1977 -- at the frequencies of 80Hz, 900Hz, and 5kHz (all 6dB/octave). Each Treo stands 43"H x 10"W x 15"D and weighs 80 pounds (shipping weight is 90 pounds).
The Treo’s narrow width makes it a bit tippy on Vandersteen’s preferred three-spike setup: two spikes at the front, one spike at center rear. To compensate for this, Vandersteen includes two additional rear spikes, to be screwed into two more threaded inserts at the rear. The extra spikes are intended to be set just a little shorter than the central rear spike: They shouldn’t actually touch the floor. However, if a Treo begins to tip, an outer spike will almost immediately come in contact with the floor and stabilize the speaker before it can tip any farther. Although the Treo is tall, its narrowness makes it compact in appearance, which is likely to please spouses. The side and front panels taper toward the top, and the front slopes slightly back.
Behind the Treo’s tweeter and midrange are transmission-line structures, as in other Vandersteen designs. You may be familiar with transmission lines that work like very long ports, but Vandersteen uses them very differently. The transmission-line path itself is long, convoluted, and heavily damped, to meet Vandersteen’s two goals for it: 1) to have little or no sound emitted at the end of the line; and 2) to eliminate backwave energy as completely as possible, to prevent sound from being reflected off the inside of the enclosure and hitting the back of the cone, thus causing the driver to emit time-delayed, decorrelated sound that might smear the directly radiated sound. The irregularity of the transmission-line path keeps any backwave energy from being returned to the driver’s inner surface. As you sit in your seat listening to music at a respectable level -- say, 85dB -- remember that an equal amount of sonic energy is being produced inside the speaker. You don’t want any of that internal energy messing up the directly radiated sound you do want to hear. Getting rid of all that energy radiated into the inside of the speaker cabinet is a big job, and has been one of Richard Vandersteen’s design goals from the beginning.
Another thing that has been consistent for many years is that Vandersteen speakers with biwire connections always sound better when so wired. Using jumpers, I’ve single-wired speakers with cables whose manufacturers swore would sound just as good as biwire, but Vandersteens have always sounded much better biwired, and that was the case with the Treo. Richard Vandersteen designs his crossovers to be biwired; whatever he does, it works.
All time- and phase-correct loudspeakers have a limited vertical window of 15 degrees within which the sound actually is time- and phase-correct. If your ears aren’t inside that window as you listen, you’ll very likely find the sound ordinary and unimpressive. You never want to audition a pair of time- and phase-correct speakers while standing or sitting on the floor, unless the speakers are tilted enough to place your ears within that 15-degree window. Vandersteen builds its speakers so that, when set up level, the ears of most normal-size people sitting on normal-size sofas or chairs fall inside that window. For other situations, the manuals for all Vandersteen speakers describe how to tilt them to ensure that your ears are within that window. You do need to know how high your ears are from the floor. Don’t guess -- I’ve guessed in the past, and have always been several inches off. Have someone measure the distance as you sit in the seat you’ll be using. Then you’ll know.
My reference speaker is Vandersteen’s 3A Signature ($4495/pair), and the Treo was definitely from the same designer. But the Treo’s sound was a bit quicker, with tighter bass that was a bit less extended. Each sound was rendered a little more purely through the Treo. It was like a video projector outfitted with a better lens. Everything was still there, but it was now just a bit more clean and precise. There was no tendency at all toward the sound being etched, excessively bright, or aggressive in any way -- nor was it slow, dull, or lacking in detail. The differences between loud and soft -- the recording’s dynamic range -- seemed greater through the Treo.
A number of times in "Goodbye," from Emmylou Harris’s terrific Wrecking Ball (16/44.1 FLAC, Asylum), her voice trails off to almost nothing on the last word of a phrase. The 3A Signature clearly reproduces this, but through the Treo, the difference in volume between the louder beginning of the phrase and its soft, quiet fade seemed greater. I doubt that, through the Treo, Harris’s voice would measure any louder or softer at the beginnings and ends of those phrases than through the 3A Signature, but something was producing in me that impression of greater dynamic range. It was as if the launch or initial attack had a bit more energy, and the trailing-off to nothing was a bit more obvious. This might indicate that the moving parts of the Treo’s midrange driver and woofer, which cover Harris’s vocal range, have less mass than the Signature 3A’s.
The Treo’s sound produced a general feeling of less mass and more agility. The title track of Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman (16/44.1 FLAC, A&M, 2000 remastering) begins with very well-recorded piano. Through the Treo the piano sounded pure and clean, with noticeably better agility of attacks, decays, and note changes. The 3A Signature makes the piano sound weightier, more purposeful, less light-footed. The Treo’s sound was a bit more spacious -- as if the piano were being played in a room filled with light. The 3A Signature’s sound is more dramatic, as if the piano is spotlit in an otherwise darkened room. Choral voices enter at the end of the track; here the Treo was more dynamically alive, but the 3A Signature blunts the attacks just a bit. These kinds of differences aren’t obvious unless you pay close attention, comparing the same tracks with the speakers’ volume levels matched. The differences in sensitivity and efficiency between the Treo and the 3A Signature were significant enough that I had to take extra care in matching levels when I swapped out the speakers. Even the method used to match levels affected my perception of the sound: a single frequency and pink noise produced different results. I settled on using pink noise averaged over five seconds.
"Rio Grande," from Brian Wilson’s self-titled 1988 album (16/44.1 FLAC, Rhino), exercises the upper midrange and treble octaves. The Treo’s delicate capabilities evoked a purity and refinement that pulled it ahead of what the 3A Signature could muster. The Treos made spaces seem larger, the soundstage wider. The illusions of perspective and distance were similar, but the Treos were a bit more "widescreen" than the 3A Signatures. I have no complaints about the sound of the 3A Signature, but the Treo had a lighter touch, quicker transients, and a cleaner, purer sound, even with complex mixes.
Yet with all that lightness and quick reflexes, the Treo’s sound was definitely not lightweight. When I played something angry -- such as the movement Mars, from just about any recording of Holst’s The Planets -- the Treo was right there, as aggressive and as threatening as needed. As much as I enjoy the sound of the 3A Signature, it was clear that the Treo had surpassed it. Given the advances in materials and crossover components, and the increased knowledge and expertise of Richard Vandersteen, in the ten years since the launch of the 3A Signature, it’s hardly surprising that a new design might outdo its predecessor. On the other hand, for $1500 less per pair, the 3A Signature is still impressive.
MartinLogan’s Theos ($4995/pair) is also an all-passive design, with a narrow, curved electrostatic panel mated to a dynamic aluminum-cone woofer in the bass enclosure, which also serves as the speaker’s base. The Theoses were here for a portion of the Treos’ visit, and being a brand-new model themselves, also represent their manufacturer’s latest thinking and materials. The Theos has curved, unevenly spaced spars that divide its large panel into 17 radiating surfaces of different sizes, and give the membrane a curved shape that improves its dispersion.
I could immediately identify the Theos as sounding more airy -- something you often hear about electrostatic panels when they’re compared with dynamic speakers. I don’t know why electrostats sound so different from a good, low-distortion dynamic speaker such as the Treo, but they do. Some say that this is because an electrostat’s radiating surface is so much larger than that of an equivalent dynamic driver, and so must move only a very little to reproduce the same sound. Others feel that electrostats’ bipole radiation pattern contributes to that sense of extra "air." Still others would blame the underdamped surface of an electrostatic panel for producing extra sound that’s not actually present in the recording. You either prefer the difference or you don’t. I tend to feel that electrostats add something to the sound that’s not naturally there, because I don’t hear it in live performances. Still, I don’t find the sound of electrostats actually unpleasant.
The Theos’s bass extends to only 43Hz, -3dB. Between the airy sound of the panel and its limited bass extension, the Theos sounded distinctly more lightweight than the solider-sounding Treo. Although the difference between the MartinLogan’s low-end limit of 43Hz and the Vandersteen’s 36Hz doesn’t look like that much on paper, when a recording contained bass below about 45Hz, it was easy to hear that the Treo had the more convincing and authoritative bottom end. Through the Theos, timpani weren’t full-bodied enough for me; the Treo got them right.
In general, I preferred the Treo’s less cluttered sound. The Vandersteen also seemed to convey more of the colors of the sound -- not coloration, a bad thing, but natural musical colors. The difference between the sounds of the Theos and the Treo reminded me of the difference between a watercolor and an oil painting of the same landscape. Each medium has its appeal: The richer tones of oils may more closely replicate the in-person experience, but some may prefer the lighter palette of the watercolors.
The Vandersteen Treo brings down to the lowest price yet much of what Richard Vandersteen has learned from the development of his Models 5, 5A, 5A Carbon, and 7. While not inexpensive at $5995/pair, the Treo delivered terrific sound quality in a sleek, modern shape that should complement any room. Its pure, uncluttered, low-distortion sound had a highly musical character that invited frequent listening sessions that remained immersive and enjoyable for as long as I wanted to listen.
The Treo added nothing that wasn’t present in the original recording that I could hear, nor did it omit anything that was there. Some people seem to need a sound that is hyped up in some way before they can convince themselves to get a new pair of speakers. You won’t hear any of that from the Treo. Its focus was on the natural reproduction of sound -- the result was a sound that got as close to the live experience as is possible at the price.
As I wrap up this review, I’m listening to Stars and Satellites, the latest album from Trampled by Turtles (16/44.1 FLAC, Banjodad). I’m mesmerized by how natural the banjo sounds. It’s as if I’m listening to my own banjo being played by someone else. This doesn’t happen very often -- it takes a loudspeaker that gets everything right to sound this convincing.
I love the sound of the Vandersteen Treo. I will hate sending them back.
. . . Doug Blackburn
- Speakers -- Vandersteen 3A Signature, MartinLogan Theos
- Amplifier -- AudioControl Savoy G3, Crestron Procise
- Preamp -- Belles/Power Modules 28A
- Digital sources -- Apple Mac Mini computer with solid-state drive, 8GB RAM, Western Digital 1.5TB drive in FireWire 800 enclosure; Wavelength Proton USB DAC
- Speaker cables -- Audience Au24e biwire
- Interconnects -- Audience Au24e analog; AudioQuest Diamond USB and FireWire
- Power cords -- Audience Au24e (amp and preamp); AudioQuest NRG-1.5 (computer)
Vandersteen Audio Treo Loudspeakers
Price: $5995 USD per pair.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor; five years if speakers are registered within 30 days of purchase.
116 W. Fourth Street
Hanford, CA 93230
Phone: (559) 582-0324