Vanatoo Transparent One Powered Speakers
What is this thing? well, it's a DAC, but it does not have a DAC in it, it's got 4 inputs, but limited ability to switch between them.. it's a powered speaker, but it's not a studio monitor, and kind of oddly it's got an A/C outlet for powering other devices. This is an attempt at a great sounding all in one device that is ready to sit behind a computer, phone, television, or a music streaming device like a squeezebox. Key here is to bring music and your own volume control.
Making the right kind of powered speaker.
1 inch silk dome with surround dampening around it that makes it look huge. I did notice that the coating on the dome is a sticky substance that will pick up dust and hairs and hold them in place if you plan on keeping the grills off it's just something to keep in mind, they are going to get hairy over time.
The woofer is a 5 1/4 inch unit that looks a bit like a Fountek driver, but I'm assured that it's a custom piece that has some fancy driver technology in the voice coil/magnet structure to keep it from breaking up when the driver approaches it's excursion limits.
The passive radiator on the back of the speakers is the same size as the front woofer and seems pretty stiff, with big fat roll surround. It makes moving the speakers around kind of strange as you really need to watch where you put your hands when grabbing these little boxes.
Tiny, itty-bitty, not much there in regard to taking up space - at 6.5 inches wide, 10 inches high and about 8 inches deep.. these are very, very small. When moving them around you tend to look silly, it's similar to lugging around 2 car batteries, these things are dense. I'm really not sure if there is much air inside of the enclosure. They weigh in at 12 pounds for the speaker that has the amp and 11 pounds for the passive one. To put it in perspective that's about 40 pounds per cubic foot.
Lots of inputs.. we got an SPDIF Coaxial input, USB, Optical, and the one thing that was kind of disappointing a 1/8 inch connector for the analog. I understand the back of this speaker is all ready full to the brim, but it's hard to take these things seriously when you are looking at this 1/8 inch jack instead of a proper pair of RCA connectors or even a pair of balanced connectors like many powered speakers use. It's an "are you kidding me" moment that you get right out of the box.
An unexpected treat is a left/right switch on the powered speaker so you can work around power outlets and other setup limitations.
Like the $35,000 Meridian DSP7200 and my bargain basement $15,000 reference system these are DSP corrected. This is cutting edge technology that is just starting to trickle down to everyday setups like these speakers which use a parametric equalizer that is set at the factory, no you can't get in there and mess with it, but it corrects the speakers damn close to flat.. while I would have made a few changes to the initial settings these are pretty dead on to what I look for from tone out of the box, something so many speakers just can't get right because they are still working with limited driver selection, inductors, capacitors and resistors to correct for tone instead of a clean digital parametric equalizer.
- Tone control measurements of the left speaker from listening position in living room.
If you are unhappy with the sound there are very capable bass and treble knobs that actually adjust the digital parametric EQ inside of the amp circuitry, so it's about as clean a tone control as you can get. The measurements for the tone controls look almost fake as it's a ultra clean slope that keeps everything nice and tidy as it raises or lowers sections of the graph.
Direct digital Amp
If this was a standard class d amp the signal would be converted from digital to analog using a DAC, then run through a series of op amps to buffer the signal and get it to the strength needed, then chop up its' analog input signal at some ridiculous sample rate to make the pulses for the actual amplifier section to build. This unit instead takes the digital signal and intelligently constructs the pulses directly, this has the effect of skipping the digital to analog conversion, op amps, and all of the stuff that would normally be messing up the signal with their own sound signature. Think of a DAC that can output 60 watts of power per channel right off of the chip without any op amps, that means that there is no delicate low level analog signal that would normally be susceptible to interference. You can see this kind of technology in NAD's top of the line $6,000 M2 direct digital amps. Because the amp chip wants a digital signal the analog input actually converts the input signal to digital... it's crazy mad insane, but the results are very nice when you skip the analog input and instead feed it digital directly.
Passive crossover/ Bridged balanced amplification
While many popular active speakers take the approach of using an extra amplifier for biamping the speaker, these do what I think is a very smart move and take advantage of the DSP and use a simple passive crossover at 2.5Khz using the extra amp channels to run in a bridged balanced configuration, feeding the speakers along with a positive signal a true negative signal instead of a ground. This has the effect of removing any interference from the high level analog signal as it gets canceled out at the voice coil of the speaker.
All of this put together means you are left with an ultra clean system that when fed a digital signal you can put your ear literally on the tweeter and crank the volume all the way up and not hear anything, no hiss, no hum, no anything.
Living room Listening Notes
Setup in 12.5ft x 16ft living room on the long wall, on top of the subwoofers with some books added underneath to get the height correct. Running "flat" at 3 o'clock on the bass knob as recommended by Vanatoo for setups that are not shoved into walls and corners. I have it running directly from my Logitech squeezebox using the SPDIF input.
Highs are rolled off slightly, mid bass a little much. Drums cannot translate at volume. Highs are not quick, but because of that they come off as fuller.
Dispersion and off axis is great. In a living room setup I recommend running them with grills on, it seems like they were corrected for this, and it helps with ceiling reflections.
Piano and sax from DSOM is very good.
In a living room setting these do not sound like studio monitors, they are very accurate but not going to rub your nose in your bad recordings. Tracks like The Go Team's Panther Dash are still awful, but they can be listened to and enjoyed.
The tone is flat outside of a roll off on the very top and a hump in the mid bass that your average reviewer would call a hair muddy. While flat sounding they also seem to be honking a little in the upper midrange giving a taste of that "studio monitor sound" and making me want to reach for the DEQX correction, but I'm not going to be using that in this review as there are tone controls here let's see what we can get out of them with a little tone adjustment. Turning down the treble does not help.. damn
Keep reading for how the tone gets fixed
Imagining while dependent on positioning, these things can hold a center image a mile apart and with less and less toe in it still works.
At this point I let them play for about 5 hours just chilling in the background while I took care of things around the house, and they did not offend me at all during this time.
- Living room listening position measurements
Time for a road trip.
I needed to test out the sub integration, because my subs are passive and have no gain controls on the amps. Setting up a late night listening session I brought the t1's over to my buddy SCG's house that has a pretty decent rig. Using my old custom built Madisound DIY speakers and an HK3490 as an amp along with a Cerwin Vega 15 inch sub to fill in the bottom and rattle the house. SCG is a hell of a guy, but out of all of his flaws the one I was concerned about today is that he likes his music loud with bass, lots of bass. Setting these speakers up I was a little worried about what was about to happen to them.
This is a larger space than my living room, but listening distance is about the same. We set the T1's on stands ear level and set the tone controls in the "flat" mode with 3 o'clock on the bass knob. We tried moving the speakers further apart than anyone would think is possible and while they did not lose the center, it just got too spread out, sounding like three speakers instead of a sound stage. Putting them back to reasonable positioning we gave it a listen.
Running through a pretty eclectic arrangement of songs before hooking up the sub I thought the tone was a little forward in this room, but super clear top end, with stellar imaging.
Time to hook up the sub, the 120Hz crossover on the Vanatoo must be at a pretty low order, seeming like a first order crossover instead of usual hard cut that you get from a receiver. We found it's ridiculously easy to integrate the huge sub, probably because SCG already had the sub in a good position for the room, so it was just plugging in the RCA cable, setting levels and giving it a listen.
We flipped back and forth from sub to no sub a good bit. At some point the Vanatoo's started making attempts to jump off of the stands as deep 40Hz tones rattled walls, doors, windows, as well as my head. After securing them down we gave a listen to some of the more silly things to do with a good stereo, listening to movies.. Vocal clarity was great, with and without the sub there is of course a huge difference in tactile feel, but as far as notes getting played it was only a hair more information.
After a few more laughs and BSing we did some headroom tests, pulling 93dB average in the listening position without the sub before a little crackle from the woofer on the Vanatoo gave us the hint that it was done and that we were idiots. Putting the sub back in raised the SPL's, but that all felt like bass information, the Vanatoo's still topped out at the same place, loud... but not my kind of house party loud.
At this point I walked outside to get something out of my car and realized just how loud the music was, a good 40 feet away with a wall and windows in between I could still clearly hear the Vanatoo's jamming out.
I left the speakers with SCG for a few days so he could play around with them and try them out in his bedroom setup. I was supposed to get a review from him, but I completely understand being too busy to put it together as this review is late by a month or two.
Speakers are on books about 7 inches off of the desktop and pulled out 12 inches from the back wall. The room is 8 ft x 11ft setup on the short wall. Using this configuration I turned the bass almost all the way down to get it flat with them about a foot off of the wall. They still sound very healthy and full. I decided to run through a few tracks on MOG.com and FLAC files from my collection using Foobar 2000 media player and the USB connection.
Near field these drivers still have a cheap sound to them in comparison to ultra high end Scanspeak drivers, but it's only there if you go really digging for it, these are pretty average drivers made great by the implementation of the system as a whole.
I'm having issues where the speakers cut off for a split second when I get power fluctuations. I'm not talking about black/brown outs, specifically my office setup is very near the washing machine, and every time it goes to switch cycles the speakers cut out. It also happens with other things in the house turning on or off. After a question to the Vanatoo guys they inform me that it's not from the power line, but EMF interference from the motor on the washing machine that is causing the digital signal to drop off of the USB line. They suggest using an optical connector to solve the issue.. I don't have one handy to test it out, but if I come across one I'll check it out and update the review.
These are sounding a little too much like studio monitors, with over emphasis on the upper midrange really starting to bother me.. I do something counterintuitive and turn up the treble knob just to see what happens.. wow that's better... with a little maybe a 1 o'clock setting on the treble the speaker actually warms up nicely, fixing all kinds of tonal issues and making the vocals sound way more natural in the process. Now things are starting to sound good!
- Near field flat according to knobs measurement.
Not wanting these gains to be the last, I get the idea of placement limitations of a desktop, and throwing them out the window. I open up my placement calculator and plug in the room measurement in inches to the rule of thirds 29% option and break out the measuring tape. I can get the left to right perfect, but the desk is not deep enough to pull the speakers out the full 36 inches.. so I bring them all the way to the front, 26 inches from the wall and lift them up a hair to 8 inch high by adding books to the stacks, putting my ear at a level between the top of the woofer and bottom of the tweeter. They need more bass now, I put the bass knob at 3 o'clock as a starting point.
I try them out first toed in at 30 degree angles and the imaging is a bit of a bubble in front of me, slowly I get to where there is only 5 degree toe in.. and I need to bring up the treble a hair more to compensate for being so off axis.. but now the walls are singing, a truly coupled room. When finished I can actually spin around in circles in my office chair and the stereo image stays put as I rotate around like an idiot.
Now I have something to write about, something to listen to... let the marathon begin:
- Near field with a little treble bump measurement.
Near Field Positioned in Rule of Thirds Marathon Listening Session
Here I sit in my 8x11 room with the speakers on the front edge of my desk about 42 inches from my head.. and the Vanatoo's are cranked up putting out 98dB peaks playing Chemical Brothers Come with us - without error. This is something I can do with my main rig only if I want to the neighbors thinking that the apocalypse has begun in my living room. Because they are not as fast as the ribbons on my main rig it is actually more visceral, with my main rig you can hear space between the samples and it all sounds kind very simple and a little dull, with these speakers in this configuration it's just a different beast, this is how I remember hearing this song when I was younger, full of attack and chopping your head off with figure eights of stereo imaging and drum samples designed to specifically destroy speakers just punching me in the face. I could not be happier.
Recently I was asked, what frequency the bass was in Slam by Pendulum, the fella with the question was sure it was 30hz or lower.. so checking on my main rig I found by ear it to be about 55Hz with a little bit of freak out stuff around 100-150hz, nothing to write home about, well the Vanatoo's just don't get excited by this track and neither do I, half way through the voice over asks the question, is this bass strong enough... well the Vanatoo's say nope. Let's do something really stupid, jump off that cliff with me.. we are going subsonic, just to see... enter Chemical Brothers We are the night.. the first track is the intro, and, I can hear the light fixtures rattling behind me, it's about the get real.
Damn, I guess there is a subsonic filter on these, almost no cone movement and they should be exploding with inaudible energy. My main rig will shake the concrete foundation of my house playing this tune and it's 18 Hz Full signal strength surprise at volume. While that was a bit anticlimactic I'm still getting some good stuff going on with the bass on All rights reversed.
Let's try something relaxing.. grab a beer and queue up Orbital's Dwr Budr.. well, that was strange, if you close your eyes there just happen to be 15 speakers lined up around me all with at least 10 inch woofers... I open my eyes and all the speakers just disappear, leaving strange little boxes precariously balanced on top of stacks of books... good placement makes these sing.
Electronica is great fun for imaging because it's easy.. Let's try something hard... Enter the Maestro, Sir George Solti getting down with Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform the second movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony. It's not a very loud recording so I crank the Vanatoo's all the way up.. Well the details are there, not as clear as they could be, but I can hear page turning and shuffling people. The imaging is all over the place, but not in a bad way.. My attention is getting pulled in a direction that feels right for each moment. Instead of served a platter of here is everyone in the orchestra just hanging out, plain as day - pay attention to whomever you want. These speakers they can't do that trick, they just are not fast enough, what they can do is play the instruments together, with feeling and emotion. It's very good, something left on the table, but maybe not missed.
Time for some fun, let's play some oldies at 95dB... Kraftwerk's The Mix album.. all of it.
Well, I hate my living room, I hate hallways, kitchens, couches, TV's all of it, just burn it to the ground. After tone, symmetry and placement is the most important.. then speed.. and last would be phase... with my main rig I have tone, speed and phase, better than just about any system in the world... but unless I build a 20' x 30' listening room which my speakers really need to sing I'm stuck with limited symmetry and placement. For shear enjoyment these Vanatoo's in a 8x11 room are destroying my $15,000 stereo in what I will now refer to as the worst listening room in the world.
Next up the crunchy distortion known as Led Zeppelin II... Well, circles, circles around my head.. down the drain and punched in the gut.. perfect imaging for Whole lotta love.
I'm not sending these speakers back, this is going down like the cold dead hand over here.. those Vanatoo guys better bring their guns cause I'm a fighting.
George Thorogood is queued up.. I'm in the bar.. it's a small bar, but there he is threatening me, full size in my face telling me to drink.. damn it George, I'm not thirsty!
Kid Cudi's Pursuit of happiness... night terrors of $500 speakers and small rooms making other things look silly. I've got the bass turned up a little too high.. just need to bump it down a hair.. there it is.. golden.
Enter depeche Mode with Waiting for the night to come.. got two electrical pops and cut outs on this song.. need to get that optical cable, I'm going to put that on the shopping list.
Daniel Barabon sounds horrible unless it's high rez, and I don't have any way of ripping my dvd audio's to my computer.. poop.
Switch gears.. Everlasting Hitman's Bounce Baby Bounce.. triggerman and brown beat sound proper and fresh, can even hear the tone messing up like the master tape got wound wrong when they made the CD, but it doesn't matter it's wonderful in its own old school way.
Time for disco.. enter Abba for SOS... nope, vocals are god awful.. if you hear this song I swear there is a setup that makes these vocals sound good.. I've only heard maybe three pull it off.. one is sitting in my living room, not powered up because I'm here in this little dungeon enjoying everything that is good about these speakers.... NEXT!
Beck... your paper tiger never sounded better... this bass heavy track holds together and has some of the most amazing studio violin mixing work I've heard. I can hear the samples moving from bottom to top, it's like being in the mixing room.
For $500 you can get quality sound in a tiny package that is smaller than most speakers while providing bass extension down to the very upper 40s, but the 40s never the less. And in room sound that won't shake the walls much but can dig even deeper into the lower 40's.
What would it take to best these speakers in a small bedroom or even small living room setup? Well, a hell of a setup. We are talking about above average speakers with ridiculously designed crossovers, maybe a kit from Zaph Audio. Then you would need the accompanying gear, a very nice balanced DAC and preamp to get close to the noise floor of these speakers, and a then a good clean class D amp. And if you want to match them for size you definitely would need a subwoofer added to that list. All that and you may still fall short.
It's not all good news, here is where the compromises lie. The output, is one of them. It's not going to knock stuff off your walls, or be the talk of the town after a house party. Also the speed of the tweeter is an issue, it smears a good bit of information out of the performance, but you would really need to spend money to do better, and unless you have spent a good bit of time in front of electrostats or ribbons you probably don't know what you are missing and while electrostats and ribbons can make neat things happen with speed, their dispersion patterns make them awkward to position and either have very narrow sweet spot, or very short one, or both.
For bedrooms and dorms I can't recommend these high enough.. If I was confined to a small room for the rest of my life and had only one set of speakers to take with me, this would be them.