MP3zzzzz on an iPod + tiny white wires in yr ears aren’t the biggest roadblock to good sound. I’d contend there is something far more insidious in our midst: laptop listening. Portlandia lampooned the very same in the third episode of their first season (it’s the one featuring Aimee Mann). If you’ve not seen it, read Sophie Heawood’s brilliant piece for The Guardian “Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop”. Heawood articulates the laptop listening problem better than I ever could:
“Listening on my laptop wasn’t so much making me think music shouldn’t take up physical space – it was making me forget the aural space that music was supposed to take up. My ears stopped expecting so much from the sound. The songs were compressed; the quality decreased; the speakers just two little discreet areas on either side of my typing hands. The music sounded about as deep as an oatcake on there.”
I feel similarly about Bluetooth boxes and soundbars. I know CNet’s Steve Guttenberg will be with me on this. Most of them sound pretty darn poor and it’s not just down to the limitations of the Bluetooth protocol: cheap drivers and cheap internal electronics make for a sound that lacks any semblance of aural (and emotional) nourishment.
Meet my mate Paul. He’s spent much of the past few years listening to music via the laptop speakers on his Macbook Pro. After much cajoling from me, Paul ‘upgraded’ his home listening experience to a portable Bluetooth solution from TDK – heavy sigh. He did so despite my a priori advice to consider something from Epoz or Audioengine. Paul doesn’t need portability – he just wants ‘a good sound’. I guess I’ll never know why he went for the TDK Wireless Boombox (AU$248, discounted online). Even the name solicits the same kind of cringe you feel when your wannabe-cool Uncle cracks yet another Dad-joke over Sunday lunch.
So – if you don’t need portability what should you buy if not a Bluetooth or Airplay speaker? The separates challenge lays itself down: DAC + amplifier + loudspeakers + interconnect + loudspeaker cables = $500 (tops). Aaaaaaaaaaaand GO! I’ll wait here….
…it ain’t easy, is it? I’d probably start with those annoyingly awesome TAD-designed Pioneer SP-BS22 standmounts (~US$100 at BestBuy). A Schiit Modi (US$99) DAC. Amplifier? A Trends TA-10 (~US$200). Cabling from Blue Jean.
Relative newcomers Vanatoo offer a product for people don’t wish to make such splintered decisions. The Transparent One are powered loudspeakers for those who just want to plug and play – that’s my mate Paul.
Vanatoo sell direct to the USA only where free shipping and a 30-day home trial are at the customer’s disposal. The standard ‘black on cherry’ finish sells for US$499 whilst the natural cherry finish will run you an additional fifty sheets. Fit and finish are spectacularly good for the price.
One speaker is active, the other passive. A single length of speaker cable (supplied) joins the two. With the flick of a switch you can tell the active box whether it’s on the left or the right – very clever. Amplification here is 60 wpc Class D, wedded to the drivers via a DSP. Therein lies one of the key advantages of active/powered loudspeakers – custom amplifier matching.
Overseas buyers who just can’t help themselves should know that I acquired this review pair whilst in Los Angeles and had them air-freighted back to Sydney, which ran me an additional US$250. The step-down transformer needed to get them playing nicely with 240VAC was sourced from Tortech in Sydney’s west – another AU$80.
A total cost that nudges AU$800 should see prospective Australian and European buyers first consider the (previously reviewed) KEF X300A. If you don’t require the abundant digital connectivity of the Vanatoos – if USB-only suits you, Sir – know that the KEFs are a better-sounding loudspeaker: better imaging, better top-down layering, smoother, more refined up top.
Feeling low. Bass-fiends should also note that the KEFs don’t mine as deep as the Transparent One. The Vanatoo’s standout talent is an ALMIGHTY kick below the waist. They go down loooooow, bro. How low? Vanatoo’s website copy says 49Hz. Proprietary ClearBassTM technology makes this happen: the basics of which are a 5.25” woofer and a rear-firing passive radiator.
I don’t wish to sound like a reviewer wheeling out the old cliché about being surprised by the amount of bass from a standmount loudspeakers – surely we’ve all heard enough of them now to know that reasonably low/good bass reproduction is fairly standard (?) – BUT the Transparent One go lower than ANY pint-sized bookshelf I’ve ever heard. (Except perhaps a Mark & Daniel). These diminutive boxes put on some great sonic fireworks when watching movies. Home theatre fans will find much to like here. Desktop users will likely reach for the rear-mounted bass control to keep desk rumble to a minimum.
Thankfully Kernen and Gesellchen don’t reach for that tired “Where’s the sub?” routine when presenting at the 2013’s T.H.E. Newport Beach Show. For those who simply must bring in yet more low-end theory, there’s a subwoofer output that auto-senses the presence of your bass bin and makes adjustments to the cross-over on the fly; anything below 125 Hz is sent to the sub. Smart, huh?
The other kicker is connectivity: USB a PC/Mac, Toslink an Airport Express or AppleTV, coax a Squeezebox. There’s a 3.5mm analogue input for connection of any line-level source (cable supplied); a Pro-ject Debut Carbon and iFi iPhono joined the digital party for my listening sessions. Buyers looking to shave more dollars from this kind of vinyl front-end would find ample satisfaction from a Pro-ject Essential ‘table and Pro-ject Phono Box pre-amp. Spinning Giant Giant Sand’s Tucson showed the Vanatoo’s talents with vocal clarity and detail dig. Both are well above average for the price point.
A word about the DAC. All digital inputs top out at 96kHz but USB handles only 44.1kHz, 48kHz and 96kHz. For 88.2kHz sample rate coverage AND a slightly better sound you will need a USB-S/PDIF converter. You don’t need to spend big. Consider either the uLink from Wyred4Sound (US$299) or the DI v3 from Audio-gd (US$150).
The natural, emotional response for most audiophiles hearing the Vanatoos for the first time would be disbelief that such a great sound could be had from a complete hi-fi system for $500 – I know it was mine when hearing them in Los Angeles in June. Hearing them for considerably longer back at home, nothing has changed. However, there are some compromises when stepping down from a pair of KEF LS50 (AU$2000) and a REDGUM RGi60 (AU$1800).
Volume. Listeners that like to play super loud might come unstuck. Quieter recordings and vinyl playback had me operating within the upper quartile of attenuation. With the volume at the three quarter marker, Redshape’s Redpack II EP measured a steady 80db at the listening position – approximately 2 meters from the loudspeaker plane. Everything is fine and dandy for medium-sized rooms (like mine) and I reckon the sucker punch would be had in a bedroom, study or garage – although some considerations would need to be given to bass containment.
Getting fuss(y)ier. Out in free space on Atacama stands, imaging is as one might expect from standmounts – superb. The silk-dome tweeter makes for a lively presentation that brings home the detail – transients are crisp-fried defined. Think: sizzling bacon? Think: a Guy Fawkes Night sparkler. Sat next to the LS50, the Vanatoo sound sharper and a little too eager to please. A second rear-mounted tone control allows you to dial those upper frequencies back a notch or two.
Things can get a little congested/hard in the mid-band when music gets all busy with lo-fi buzzed guitar parts (Weekend’s Jinx). Just as the Martin Logan Mikros 90 headphones are NOT suited to the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, the Transparent One loudspeakers emphatically are. They are longer on bombast, impact, punch, dynamics and clarity. Similarly, the innate price-point compromise means they come up shorter on tone, timbre and all-round refinement. A pair of Wharfedale 10.1 (or similar) and a Rotel RA-06SE (or similar) will probably sound more refined but they’ll also run your wallet further around the block; and that’s before you even get to a DAC and cabling.
I’m being super-picky here so as not to run away with myself. The target market probably won’t have such anal-retentive nits to pick. Vanatoo aren’t aiming at seasoned audiophiles like you and I but that doesn’t mean they won’t be appreciated by such folk – they’re a gateway drug into the world of better sound.
Rick Kernen and Gary Gesellchen are shooting first for people like my buddy Paul; someone who too readily submits to the retail store convenience of a Bluetooth sound bar. The Vanatoo Transparent One will smoke ’em all (Bose and B&W included) for fewer dollars down. You buy the Transparent One for their flexibility with connectivity, their deep bass handling and their perspicuity – all of which have been wedded to a traditional loudspeaker aesthetic that makes them look like they cost way more than five hundred bucks. Paul – wake up, time to buy*.
*Apologies to Blade Runner fans.
- WireWorld Starlight USB cable
- Pro-ject Debut Carbon
- iFi iPhono
- Tortech 500-watt stepdown transformer
- Weekend – Jinx (2013)
- Redshape – Redpack II (2013)
- Blamstrain – Selected Ambient Dub Works (2012)
- Lou Reed – New York (1989)
- Giant Giant Sand – Tucson (2011)