"forward' vs "laid back" speakers

Over the past few months I’ve auditioned a number of speakers, with a view—eventually—to replacing my current ones. I’m content with their overall presentation, but they are getting long in the tooth and I’ve also been hankering for a little more bass.

Models that I’ve been able to hear (as for many of us, there are geographical challenges) are, in no particular order, B&W CM10, Dynaudio Excite X38, Vandersteen Treo, Sonus Faber Venere 3.0, Devore Orangutan O/93, Dynaudio Focus 380, Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition, Sonus Faber Liuto. Although not on my list, I also happened to hear along the way Totem Sttaf, Golden Ear Triton 2, Neat Classic Elite SX, and Vienna Acoustics Liszt.

It’s probably naïve of me to say this, but one thing that surprised me was how little my own listening impressions aligned with published reviews that I’d read of these speakers. Another thing that was a little surprising was my eventual ranking of them.

Two caveats in regard to the following observations: (1) de gustibus non est disputandum—these are purely my personal tastes and preferences (which seem to be in a minority); (2) all speakers were driven by highly competent and sometimes megabuck electronics, but I’m not going to get into every variable of the audition, otherwise this post will turn into a short novel.

The most salient characteristic (to me) is that the acoustic presentation of some of these speakers seemed quite forward (row D), whereas that of others was really quite laid back (row M). There was also, quite often, a second correlation between that forward presentation and a (relative) brightness in the treble. As far as I can tell, these features are often preferred and indeed seem to be aimed for in the voicing of many models during their development. To my ears, speakers in this category were the Treos, O/93s, and Veneres. Somewhere in the middle were the CM10s and the Liutos. A bit more laid back were the Dynaudios and the Vienna Acoustics.

I have to say that I like row M. I like the soundstage to start at the plane of the speakers’ drivers, and extend well behind them, with the speakers pulled well out into the room to achieve that sense of depth. And I don’t like bright.

The X38s, which I heard a while ago, were overall “polite”, and now I’m thinking they may not have been fully broken in. The Focus 380 sounded good but somehow a little homogenized or artificial; the timbre and the presentation were pleasant, but it was harder to forget that you were listening to a stereo system. The Baby Grands were a clear favorite among the models so far (only surpassed by the Liszts, as was to be expected). They were natural, relaxed, with all the characteristics I’ve been looking for, save that ultimate few hertz in bass extension.

I conclude from this that I am in a distinct minority. So be it. I haven’t been able to hear the VA Beethoven Concert Grands (that experience suggests should fit the bill), nor any models from Harbeth, Spendor, Silverline, Aerial, or Joseph Audio that I suspect—but cannot be sure—I might also like.

And so the search goes on; paradoxically, my experiences so far lead me to put little to no faith in reviews, but it’s only reviews (and on-line audio forums like this one) that allow me to construct a short-list of what to try to audition in the future.
You're not in the minority, and your experiences mirror those of many of the rest of us. This is the challenge with electronics. If we were evaluating the quality of a pizza, it likely wouldn't matter whether we were evaluating a particular pizza while sitting in a dining room or on someone's front porch, or whether it was served on stainless steel plates or Japanese porcelain - it's going to taste how it's going to taste. But electronics can't be evaluated in a vacuum - too many variables completely independent of the item in question affect the item in question.

I use reviews to gather ideas, learn about features, and at most to get relative comparisons. If a reviewer is comparing speaker A vs. B in the same room on the same amp, and one is much brighter, that's helpful to me and it gives me a parameter to investigate further. But I've seen forum posts that really highlight how crazy and illogical peoples' evaluations can be. A couple of days ago I read a forum post where someone called one amp exciting and referred to another amp as lifeless - but the two amps were in two different places, and he heard them through two different kinds of speakers!! Even leaving aside the differences in how we ear things individually, think about the insanity of that comparison. So no, it's not surprising that you're hearing very different things than a reviewer in a different room with different ears. Happens to all of us, all the time.
I like tannoy for the reasons you like Vienna. I too feel I'm in the minority.
"one thing that surprised me was how little my own listening impressions aligned with published reviews that I’d read of these speakers."

A very astute observation. I think you will also ultimately find that the speakers you end up with in your listening room will sound surprisingly little like they sounded in the dealer's showroom. Sure is an interesting hobby!
The number of variables in our hobby is almost infinite. I think a lot of audiophiles have channeled (no pun intended) obsessive-compulsive impulses into the pursuit of their, or somebody else's definition of "the absolute sound."

If I had deep pockets, I likely would be among the "worst offenders." :) Fortunately, I'm usually able to understand and appreciate value, so I tend to keep components that please me for a long time.

I recently auditioned a number of completely different, favorably reviewed speakers in my home based on those reviews. Neither my golden-eared wife nor I could live with them.

This hobby is the most rewarding for me when I can forget about the equipment and simply listen to the music.
I've no doubt you heard what you heard, but really there are far too many variables to really make any definite conclusions. As others mentioned, upstream electronics and especially the room can trump what you think you're hearing from the speakers themselves. For example, Vandersteen speakers pretty much all do a great job with throwing a deep, layered soundstage. So your experience of them being more forward sounding makes me really question that room and setup. And Vandy's in particular will be very sensitive to proper setup.

Anyway, given your preferences you should manufacture a business trip or whatever's necessary to get to a good Joseph Audio dealer. Reference 3A and Verity may also be worth traveling to hear. Best of luck in your search.