Quatro Wood Impressions.
In the search for better speakers, thirty years to be exact, I finally found a worthy product to fit my needs. More than likely, this product will fit yours, too. I went through ADS-810’s, Dahl Quist DQ-10’s with two DQ-1W subs and then B&W 801’s (1983 models) before I purchased a new set of speakers. This is a long review, on an expensive and complex to understand product. I would imagine, someone spending over $11,000.00 on a set of speaker, would enjoy some insight. If that’s you, read on. Here is why I bought this product. Speakers are probably the hardest component to purchase, and I enjoy everyones comments
After the 801’s I ran out of candidates on several fronts, or money on about all of them! Stereo just got WAY expensive in the intervening years, so the B&W 801’s soldiered on. Not a bad speaker, but not really the plateau I was looking for. The ADS-810’s were fast, but bright and had poor imaging. The DQ-10’s mirror imaged with KEF tweeter mods, stereo DQ-1W subs with Kenwood LO-7M mono amps had great bass transients but again, lacked soundstage detail. OK, the DQ-10’s tried to ALIGN the speaker driver voice coils, but I’m not sure to what extend it helped, imaging was only OK. The B&W 801’s imaged better, but the bass fell off substantially over the DQ010’s and lacked the POP of the ADS-810. The B&W 801’s do have a silky smooth sound that wasn’t fatiguing, however. Probably far flatter in response than either of the two previous efforts are responsible for that.
Then along comes the Vandersteen Quarto Wood Signature III speaker. OK, I read about it, and it was priced fairly considering the alternatives at thousands to tens of thousands more (really), and then I had to listen for myself. $10,700 isn’t cheap, and you need to add the balanced or unbalances low-pass filters for the subs at about $599.00 each. But, the product is more remarkable for how it sounds than how it reviews. Why the Woods verses the standard Quatro? I went for the newest driver design, cost be damned for better sound. You see, the newest signature woods use upgraded model 5A drivers from the mid bass on up and that coupled with the stiffer case structure material stolen from the 5a net an improvement in over all sound and looks. The firmer cabinet materials were deemed necessary by Richard Vandersteen to eclipse the cloth Quatro in performance, not just looks. So, the work didn’t stop at the finish until Richard was satisfied that it exceeds the standard Quatro in spectral performance. The mahogany and black grill cloth versions I picked are outstanding to look at, and seamlessly blend into my room decor.
The 43” tall 110 pound rectangular speakers are VERY easy to fit in a room for a darn near full range product (they go to 30Hz verses 20Hz). The attractive sloping front seamlessly blends in a tapered shape from the base to the top of the speaker. There is nothing “strange” looking about this speaker. The upper third of the speaker, where the mid bass, mid range and tweeter are placed is covered in a grill cloth, color of your choosing. The balance of the surfaces is wood finished and several options are available. Where are the subs? They are vent loaded out the sides and back bottom of the speaker. The base is flat, and easy to slide the speaker around for initial placement. Once placed, you attach the three “spikes” that hold the speaker firmly in place. The rear spike uses simple washers to adjust the tilt, which tunes the high-frequency arrival times based on seating distance from the speakers. The spikes really do improve the mid and upper frequencies as the speaker play rock and roll, but don’t rock and roll, like you! Small tweeter motions significantly disrupt the arrival times of the music, something this speaker design worked hard to perfect. The footprint is smaller than my 801’s and the 43” height is less an issue than the base footprint in most rooms. I can argue performance all day, but if I can’t fit it in a normal home, why bother? True 20Hz base will generally make you design a room first, and the rest of the house second, those product can be pretty BIG. The smaller foot print makes it easy to the Quatro 3.5 to 4.5 feet away from the rear walls (critical on most speakers for imaging) and not feel like two elephants are in the room.
There are a lot of speaker designs on the market and most are really modifications of a singular theme. Take a number of drivers and use a cross-over that keeps all the speaker drivers from interacting at the same frequency. This is done because it is very hard to make drivers that are different materials and sizes, sound the same. It isn’t any different than your tonal balance in your own voice. Imagine of your voice was composed of three peoples voice all cutting in and out as you talk or sang. If two voices were going at once, that were of different fundamental timber, it would sound odd. So, the current, and most popular, solution is to keep the speaker drivers from crossing over into the next drivers range. You have color, but it is blue, light blue, then white for bass, mids and highs. There is a sharp transition between the colors. A speaker like this is also referred to as a high-order cross-over design, which is a fancy way to say one driver never plays music where another driver is playing music. 12, 18, and 24dB slopes attenuate out the drivers sound so there is essentially no overlap. This type of product can sound pretty good, but it has the deficiency that time and phase alignment of the music can’t be done for electrical reasons in the cross-over. But steep crossovers do have advantages. Each driver plays less music (no overlap) so they can play louder, play a larger dynamic range, and drivers that can’t see one another can’t resonate and make ugly sounds. This makes drivers easier to design and / or cheaper. Yes, good version of this philosophy can match the drivers well, too. But, they can’t match a phase and time aligned system for sonic placement. This is simply by design.
The Vandersteen Quatro is an unusual first order cross-over speaker. This uses a mild 6dB per octave slope between all the drivers. What this does, is require all the drivers to be of the same “person” as two drivers are playing at the same time at the cross-over points and up or down about one octave. If this speaker was color, it would fade from blue to light blue to white in one smooth continuous transition. The gradient overlaps have to be near invisible for this to be done. So, special care has to be taken on the driver design and materials to prevent unwanted resonances and such between the two active speaker drivers. The advantage to this approach, although harder to do, is a more seamless sounding speaker, that seems as if it is but one driver. A high level of integration of all the components is required. This isn’t a design by committee product where one person buys or makes a tweeter and the next person makes another driver and the X-over keeps them from fighting one another. The Quatro is a seamless sounding speaker, with excellent phase and time alignment. The power handling of this design is largely irrelevant at home. This speaker plays PLENTY loud with a 150-200 watt amplifier.
Is time a phase important in music? THAT is the question. Few do it, so it can’t be worth it, right? When I cross a street, my brain is tuned to hear WHERE traffic is FIRST, and what it is SECOND. Time and phase alignment tells you that. Once I KNOW where it is, only then do I care if it is a truck, bus, or car. If I need to get away, I need to know where it is and how close. I’ll worry about identification after it whizzes by. Your brain is wired this way from eons ago to escape predators FIRST, and THEN maybe see what it was AFTER. Knowing your being hit by a car or eaten by a lion is a small advantage to getting away and maybe not seeing the threat at all. Your ear wants to hear time and phase alignment for this reason. It is NATURAL.
What is harder to understand than that is what a speaker is really doing. Well, it is really doing NOTHING if it can. Analog recordings already has all the time and phase captured, the speakers job is to send it backwards again to you in front of it, with no coloration and proper arrival times of all the sounds. Digital mastering is more hopeless as technicians mess with the data so bad as to remove most phase and time coherence for “sound” verses locality of the sound. Some digital music has no real sound stage at all. But proper phase and time alignment is not easy to do, or people to understand. Imagine a piano in a musical setting with support instruments all around it. In my example this is about the piano. It is “center stage” and defines the center of the “sound stage”. The mics capture the piano as “center” and all the other mics are secondary, tertiary and down the line in general amplitude and placement. What is missed by people listening to speakers is that the location of the center stage microphone is where the true reference of the recording is. This is the “sweet” spot. If I move around the piano, the sound will change along with the balance of every instrument around it. When you listen to this recording on good phase and time aligned speakers, the sweet spot SHOULD exist as it did in the original performance. In reality, and at home, you can’t take the “center” mic and walk around the stage with it listening to a speaker. Speakers that try to maintain correct and required, in my opinion, time and phase accuracy will indeed sound different as you move left to right in front of them. There is an optimal spot, and one that was created when the recording was made. Does an orchestra sound the same seated to the far left, the far right, or up high or too low? No, it doesn’t. Why would you expect a speaker to? Speakers that try to be “sweet” everywhere never has as well defined “stage” presence. They can’t. A piano has a very specific sound dispersion pattern, as do all the other sounds and that are only correct when you converge where the center mic was is in your living room. If you change a piano to disperse in a fully uniform pattern, it won’t sound like the recording meant it to, or even a piano so much. Quartos are designed to give you that realistic sound stage. Does this mean that seated to the far left or right of one of the speakers is bad? No, not at all. I’ve sat through plenty of live music off to one side and it was great. But it can’t be as good as the original “center”. The Quatro’s are better sounding than the “even” dispersion pattern sounding 801’s, for instance. The 801’s sound “good” everywhere, but not much greater than that anywhere. The Quatro’s left to right sound stage is very strong, but best at the alignment center. This is as it should be, just like being seated in front of the orchestra. Few speakers try to capture this “accuracy”.
The last general point is a design should evolve to a specific end (perfect reproduction) and not change dramatically on model to the next. Vandersteen products have been around 30 years, and upgrades have been offered to older speakers to move them along the development path. It is nice to know that a product is not made to catch your attention today, and do it fundamentally differently tomorrow. That this single order approach has taken awhile to be as good as it is today, and compared to ANY speaker on the market, shows that fundamental development has its advantages. No one will argue single order speakers are not harder to make. But make them Richard Vandersteen has.
The DQ-10 experience taught me that the musical foundation provided by good sub woofers is really nice, and the B&W 801’s taught me that again when they took that aspect away from the music. They just don’t go deep at all, not the 1983 model, anyway. The response graph of a B&W 801 is flat to 40Hz, but sound far worse than that in any room I’ve had them in. The Quatro’s use a very sophisticated set of 250 watt CLASS B amplifiers in each speaker sub woofer that make sure that the sound can never be distorted as the electronics moves the lowest end response to mitigate clipping (running out of powered and adding just distortion). So if you’re inclined to be too aggressive with the volume, the subs will help prevent system damage. It can happen in a hurry with low-frequency music, too. The speaker’s overall 87db 1-watt measured at 1-meter (I think that’s the right distance) sound pressure levels is plenty good for home use. Over 90dB extended SPL can hurt your hearing so realistic home room SPL’s are fine.
Each sub woofer amplifier has an eleven band equalizer for sound below 100HZ. Your ear can’t really tell room reflections from direct sound below 100Hz, so the room tends to “blend” into the signal and can cause some lumpy responses. The more direct sound above 100Hz is easily filtered by your ears and the room so it is less a problem unless the room is way too live or dead. The eleven adjustments allow a not too aggressive smoothing of the bass response to match the speaker to the room after you pick the best spot for sound imaging. This is a super advantage where it really helps. EQ above 100Hz just doesn’t really work. Trust me, I used a Soundcraftsman EQ pre-amp in the day and EQ flat response was Mr. YUCK. You can’t fix a bad room by making your speaker bad, too. Above 100Hz is better suited to fixing the ROOM. The Quatro speaker is already good. But bass, it’s the rare exception to the rule. But even here, it is best to smooth not flatten the response curve. The last two controls are the Q-factor (damping) and level. The level is used to adjust the overall bass sound level if your room is very dead or alive. The Q-factor adjusts the bass to suit your taste to the amount of overhang (boom) or tightness. But, once you set everything use your tone controls on your pre-amp or you’ll tweak yourself to death. Set it right per the set-up by the dealer, and just remember that these speakers will vary depending on your source material. The source material is at fault, not the speaker.
The use of true bi-wire really helps, too. The Quatro’s upper frequency amp is relieved of the bass amp current, and subsequent distortion that clipping (running out of power) can cause. Every 3dB of volume increase, about the minimum you can say, that’s louder, takes about twice the power. The special cross-over filter also insures that the “tone” of your upper frequency amp is provided to the lower frequency amp to blend the subs tone to the upper drivers. Again, this is done to make all the drivers sound like the same “person”.
I listen to about all types of music, and the speaker had to get out of the way of the performer as much as possible. The more real an instrument is, the better the Quatro’s allow you to hear THEM, and not your speakers. Electronic music is a hard call. I don’t know what it was supposed to sound like, so how do I judge it? Some like speakers with a little color, but this can get distracting over time for my musical uses. The Quatro drivers are extremely neutral compared to what I’ve used before. Yes, all speakers will sound like the materials they are made of, so you better make sure the materials are sounding off quietly. Each driver tapers off into the next driver with a single order slope X-over so two drivers are playing more so than most speakers. Again, this requires some pretty sophisticated drivers that sound like they are in the same cohesive sounding family at the X-over points. Since Quatro’s use four drivers, the limitations of the single order X-over are far less than the advantages, which are superior phase and time alignment. Quatro’s will reveal detail like no other in a time and space location in a well defined space between and well behind the speaker and across the listening area.
Some will say that the listening area is restricted in time and phase aligned speakers. Yes and no. It only suffers limitations if you lie on the floor, or stand up listening to your music. The sweet spot is about 30-40 inches off the floor, and can be adjusted with tilt (owners manual allows easy tilt amount on a simple to use chart). The sound stage is wider than the spacing of the speakers. I can sit on a couch off to the side of the left most placed speaker and hear excellent center speaker imaging that eclipses any speaker I auditioned straight and center. You do lose that incredible front to back imaging that is fantastic in the more or less center position, but hey, nothing else I listened to gave me a BONUS in the sweet spot like these speakers do! I get both front to back and the standard left to right imaging. Time and phase aligned speakers can only provide this benefit to the level I hear in these speakers. In short, I hear no issues with the listening sound stage with these speakers.
What do they sound like aside from the fantastic imaging? Detail. Strings of any sort are simply wonderful. The sound off of the wood resonance with the string itself to from a vibrant and alive sound that few speakers at any price can match. Piano, violins, guitar, string bass ETC are hard to believe on Quatro speakers. Vocals are precise and never “blended” with other instruments. Minute detail of voice inflections is amazing. I hear vocal textures that my 801’s just flat don’t play. The 801’s are not terrible speakers, either. But the Quatro’s simply take-off and go where the 801’s can’t even get to. The sound can be descried as “fast”. Nothing gets left behind the driver type of sound, yet they are SMOOTH. Fast sound is usually synonymous with bright treble. The Quatro tweeter is pure bliss on the high-end. The bass extension is tight, and isn’t just one note. It isn’t a note at all; it is the extension of the instrument that started the whole harmonic structure of the tone you are hearing in the first place! This is simply NOT what people think of as “bass”. Quatro’s go where the music goes in a fluid natural way that is 100% enjoyable.
When you listen to the speakers, use your CD’s FIRST. The Quatro’s are so good that source material variation will curse your audition. The difference between good and bad sources is dramatic. My older 801’s compressed bad (radio) and good (records) towards a common centroid that masked their limitations with a sweet air brushed sound, not so the Quatro’s. The Quatro’s, on the SAME source material, were ALWAYS were better sounding than the 801’s, the frustration is that your ears hears the larger DIFFERENCE between the source material on them. Once you hear a record, CD’s won’t due anymore. CD’s are much harder sounding than records. Yes, there are crappy records, but a good CD is a far cry from a good record. I used an OPPO BDP83SE CD player and the Saber D-A chip helps, but in no way does it steal the thunder from my Accuphase AC 2 moving coil cartridge and a record.
What we have, is a speaker that pulls my entire past speaker purchases efforts into a tightly run harmony. Considering what even the Quatro woods cost compared to alternative speakers and this product about HAS to be auditioned. Speakers have to be judged by what they do, and not what we say about them. Grab some records and go!
Critical Associated Equipment
McCormack MAP-1 pre amp
McCormack DNA-225 amplifier
Ariston RDIIS turntable
SME Series III tone arm
Moon / Sim Audio LP-3 Pre amp
Accuphase MC phono cartridge.
OPPO BDP-83SE Blue-Ray player.