Review: Vaughn Loudspeakers Cabernet Speaker
Vaughn Cabernet Loudspeakers
Boy, equipment reviewing is tougher than it looks! I just wrote 1868 words, reread what I had, and realized I sounded like a bloviating dork. Here goes on a second try… but this is most definitely not my day job, so please be kind.
I’m not the biggest believer in the idea of a single “absolute sound” for everyone. Listening is very much an individual experience. Your tastes in music likely differ from mine; your ideal sound may also be different. As far as I’m concerned, everything from super-detailed solid state to the lushest tubiness has its place. As long as it gets you where you need to be, it’s the best possible sound. It may be helpful for you to know a little about what appeals to me, however, to aid in understanding my review of the Vaughn Cabernet loudspeakers.
I’ve been in the hobby for about 30 years. My musical horizons have broadened, and my sonic preferences have shifted over time to better serve that broader range of music. I’ll spare you the agonizing boredom of retracing that long journey, and just inflict a little pain to try to explain where I am, now.
I generally favor tube electronics for expansive soundstage, 3-dimensionality and solidity of images, more complete rendering of the harmonics (and for lack of a better term) the flow of music. I am definitely not in the “lush tubbiness” camp, however. I favor vinyl over digital for the same reasons, but I’m definitely not an iconoclast. I’m currently using computer audio as my sole source (a long story), and I’m very satisfied, for now. I plan to add vinyl again when my son is a little bit older, and less prone to messing around with my gear in my absence.
The sound needs some spark, some life. Quick transients, macro and microdynamics help define this for me. Many speakers will come alive at higher volume levels; not as many will at a lower volume. I do like detail and treble extension, but not at the expense of a harsh, shrill or sibilant sound. I like balance from bass to treble. In the bass, speed and articulation trumps sheer quantity, but there needs to be enough. I don’t do pipe organ much, but when I do, I’d like it to sound like a reasonable facsimile thereof. I do love the human voice and acoustic instruments; brass, woodwinds, strings. The more realistic the presentation here, the easier it is for me to get lost in the music. The music needs to speak with one voice, floating free of the speaker box. If I hear the woofer, the mid or the tweeter as individual entities, or the sound coming from two boxes, it really pulls me away from that special place, and dumps me unceremoniously back in my listening room.
I realize some of my sonic preferences are a bit contradictory. Based on what I’ve written, you could make a good argument for big-watt solid state, or flea-watt SET, panel speakers, line source speakers, horns, etc, etc. Just as I’m not a big believer in an absolute sound, I don’t believe any one speaker / system is capable of everything, or at least, I haven’t heard it, yet! I do believe it is possible to artfully compromise, and reach that elusive goal of forgetting all about the sounds being reproduced, and emotionally connecting to the music itself.
Whew! 505 words… not exactly pithy, am I?
The Vaughn Cabernets are the top of a range of loudspeakers manufactured by Jim Jordan. Jim long ago fell under the spell of what single-ended triode amplification does right. For those who have never listened to SET amplification, I would define this “rightness” as a certain purity of the sound; an absence of artificiality that interferes with the ultimate believability of recorded music; a wealth of harmonic detail; a waterfall of sound. Words, even though I use a lot of them, fail me in truly articulating this. When I first heard an SET amp, I couldn’t explain it, but I recognized it instantly. Instead of actively using my brain to listen through something, or around something, to get to the message in the music, I was able to shut down on some higher cognitive level, relax, and readily connect to the emotion of the music.
Jim recognized the problems inherent in pairing low power, zero negative feedback amplification with many of the loudspeakers on the market: lack of dynamic impact, inability to play at satisfying levels without distortion, and flabby bass. He set out to find a pair of speakers that would work well with SET, and ultimately came up short of his ideal. He then did what any self-respecting audio nut / perfectionist would do… he decided to build his own. He worked with Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio (a longtime designer and manufacturer of many highly-regarded SET amplifiers, and fellow – traveler on the audio nut / perfectionist path) on the initial loudspeaker designs, and then spent the next 6 years further developing and refining the original concepts. In 2008, Jim and Gordon began showing Jim’s prototype designs with Wavelength Audio electronics at major shows. After another year or so of further speaker development, Jim was finally happy enough with the results to begin production for retail sale.
Vaughn loudspeakers are not sold through a dealer network; they’re only available direct from the manufacturer. This saves a significant amount of money on dealer markups, but also makes it problematic to listen before making a purchase. When we last spoke, Jim said he was working on trying to establish a few locations in the United States where auditions would be possible year round. Big shows will also provide some opportunities to listen. You may want to contact him for further details.
Why was I willing to buy a pair of loudspeakers sound unheard? Jim Jordan was a Wavelength Audio dealer for many years before embarking on his loudspeaker venture. I bought a used Wavelength DAC from Jim in 2005, which took me a big step further toward liking digital sound (I had been through 7 different digital sources in the prior 4 years). I talked extensively with him before and after the purchase, and realized he liked the DAC for the same reasons I liked it when listening. This led me down a slippery slope to a Wavelength USB DAC, a very big step forward for me in digital audio, and to Wavelength SET monoblocks, which had that SET ‘rightness” with my speakers, but also some of the problems (even though based on specs, the amps and speakers should have paired fairly well). I decided to try some truly SET – friendly speakers about the same time I read some very favorable press on Jim’s prototypes paired with Wavelength electronics. It was pretty easy for me to take a chance on someone whose tastes seemed aligned with my own, on a product developed with electronics very similar to my own.
Hey, 1076 words, and finally time to talk about the speakers!
Jim Jordan has designed all his speakers around the same basic set of sonic goals: transparency, resolution, excellent soundstaging, bass and treble extension, and the ability to specifically work well with low powered amplifiers. Some computer modeling was employed, followed by exhaustive listening tests using different cabinet materials, damping materials, drivers, loading schemes, brands of crossover parts, binding posts and wire compositions and brands. The quality of the sound was the final arbiter for the Cabernets, not some predetermined footprint or price point. As a result, the form here very much follows the function.
The Vaughn Cabernets are floorstanding loudspeakers 42 inches high, 14 inches deep and only 9 inches wide. The cabinets themselves are of a newer design you may not have seen pictured anywhere before. The carcase is solidly constructed of ¾” bamboo plywood with a 13 ply Baltic birch face and back, with internal damping materials and minimal internal bracing. Minimal internal bracing is employed to minimize interference with sound wave propagation within the cabinet itself. The cabinet is divided internally into an upper sealed compartment that houses the midrange and tweeter, and a lower sealed compartment (further reinforced with MDF) that houses the side – firing bass drivers. When rapped sharply with a knuckle, the cabinets give a “pop” rather than ringing or echoing, or yielding a dull thud. It would seem the cabinets are designed for the rapid release of energy, rather than attempting to freely resonate it or completely absorb it.
The new cabinet sides and top now display some of the distinctive ray pattern seen in bamboo, rather than the simple vertical grain pattern of the earlier cabinets. Jim has made very clever use of the internal ply structure of the bamboo, exposing it on the face edge and the rear edge of the speaker. The alternating grain patterns of the internal plies, when finished, yield a half inch wide margin of narrow bands of varying hues from a pale almond to a rich chocolate, which give the appearance of marquetry inlay. This adds greatly to the visual appeal of the cabinets.
The joinery and sanding of the cabinets are done to a high level of quality. The wood is amber finished to somewhere between satin and semi-gloss using a low VOC material that has near the clarity of lacquer, but much greater durability, according to Jim. I find no finish flaws in my cabinets. If you like quality woodworking, you’re going to like these cabinets.
The lion’s share of the front and rear faces of the cabinets are now both covered by gloss carbon fiber panels. The rear face previously had a Marmoleum surface. The Accuton wide range driver and split ribbon tweeter are protected by mesh screens, which means these drivers are visible on the front face. Four black circular metal grills cover the two bass drivers and two bass passive radiators per speaker. This is my one quibble with the speaker design. The grills serve an important protective function if you have small children or pets (we have both), but interfere a bit with the clarity of the bass reproduction. I currently listen with the grills off, and replace them when I’m finished. Jim said he is considering some possible alternatives that might still offer some protection while maintaining sonic clarity. The midrange passive radiator, located high on the back face of the cabinet, has no cover.
The cabinets are available standard with a bamboo plinth equipped with spikes. For an extra charge, some heavy gauge anodized outriggers equipped with heavy brass spikes and leveling knobs at all four corners are available. I’ve had hands-on experience with both, but not listened for sonic differences between the two. The outriggers definitely add to the stability of the narrow Cabernets, and for my tastes, improve the visual appeal.
The overall visual effect of the speakers is one of subtle interest and elegance. They definitely do not dominate a room. I could easily envision this design fitting well with many different furniture styles. The look works well enough in our living room (with a large stone fireplace and arts and crafts style furnishings) that my wife actually told me she was very happy with how they fit the room. This quite surprised me, because she does not share in my enjoyment of “The Hobby”.
The heart and soul of the loudspeaker is a 6.5” Accuton ceramic driver, used to cover the range from 80Hz to 5,000Hz. This means a tremendous amount of the musical information in any given recording is presented without interference from a crossover. An LCY split-ribbon tweeter covers the range from 5,000 Hz to 60,000 (!) Hz. This design uses side-by-side, paired ribbons to form the driver, creating a device twice as wide and half as tall as a conventional ribbon tweeter. Vertical dispersion is much improved over a conventional ribbon, while maintaining the excellent lateral dispersion, accuracy, effortless extension and refinement that a good ribbon is capable of delivering. Two 10” woofers per speaker cover signals from 80 Hz down to 34 Hz.
Jim has also made extensive use of passive radiators the Cabernet design. The Accuton driver is paired with a 6.5” passive radiator on the back face of the cabinet. Each of the woofers is likewise paired with a 10” passive radiator. The active and passive bass elements are set up in a mirror image on the two Cabernets. This allows placement of active woofers facing out toward the sidewalls of the room (Jim’s recommended arrangement), or active woofers facing in (smaller rooms, and / or problematic bass within a room). Jim feels that passive loading of the midrange and woofers frees them up to provide improved dynamic response at both high and low listening levels.
Another of Jim’s design goals was to integrate the drivers using the simplest crossover possible. By selecting drivers with complementary sensitivities and roll off characteristics, he has managed to build the Cabernets using a crossover comprised of only two inductors and one capacitor. The crossover parts and internal wiring are high quality: Mundorf, Alpha Core, Nordost. A single pair of WBT 5-way binding posts are located 32 inches up from the floor on the back face of the speakers. Keep this in mind when considering speaker cable length.
Bybee Large Purifiers are added internally to the positive and negative legs of the crossover, with the option of adding a Large Gold Purifier to the positive leg for an additional $500.00. Initially, their use would seem to fly in the face of the “simplest crossover possible” design goal, but this is another case where listening made the choice to include them quite simple. Jim tried them first on a pair of Cabernets, and had what he called a “Holy Cow!” moment. He describes the Bybee Purifiers as “ removing all kinds of grunge and phase abnormalities from the sound, leaving you with nothing but the music.” After listening to the speakers with the Purifiers, he said the speakers without them almost sounded broken. He liked the Cabernets with Purifiers enough to decide to add the Bybees to his entire line of speakers. What does the Gold Purifier add above and beyond the standard Purifier? According to Jim:” The Gold Bybee is more of a refinement than a change in the sound. Everything is clearer and more defined, with more naturalness to the sound.” Is it worth it? Jim said: “I’m going to have Golds on my own pair, and I think it is an upgrade most serious audio guys would feel is worth the price, if able to A/B them.” “Once you get to this level, smaller improvements can be very significant, and unfortunately are expensive.”
Do the Bybee add-ons really make a difference? From my own perspective, the answer would be an unqualified yes. I was a very early adopter of, and remain an enthusiastic user of a wide range of Bybee products in my system. Of all the Bybee products I use, the greatest effect has been from the speaker cable tails. In my experience, they do exactly what Jim describes; they strip away layers of grunge, making it much easier to sort out complex musical passages, and dramatically increase the sense of a reality in solo voice or instrument. In short, brain disengages, music happens.
Is the Gold Purifier worth it? Again, from my own prior Bybee experience, the answer would be an unqualified yes. I’ve had Bybee Slipstream speaker cable tails (roughly analogous to internal Large Purifiers) and Bybee Golden Goddess speaker cable tails (roughly analogous to the Gold Purifier) in my system for years. The Golden Goddess tails were an improvement over the Slipstream tails in exactly the way Jim describes. For me, the Golden Goddess tails were well worth their $1000 price. Both Slipstream and Golden Goddess tails are now, unfortunately out of production. The only external option currently available are the Bybee Super Effect Speaker Bullets, at $4200 per set. I’ve heard them, they’re definitely even better, but I can’t justify, in my own mind, that price / performance tradeoff. My Cabernets have the Gold Purifier option, which I consider a bargain at $500.
There’s not a local dealer involved here, so how responsive / trustworthy is the manufacturer? Jim’s gig before speaker manufacturing was audio dealer, and he has carried the ethos of a guy who really cares about his customers forward into this venture. Over the 5+ years I’ve known him, Jim has always been very easy to talk to, always willing to take a phone call, and always responded quickly to emails. With the Cabernets, he kept me well informed through the build process for my speakers (which was happening at the same time he was experimenting with carbon fiber and Bybee). He gave me the opportunity to upgrade my Cabernets “on the fly” during this period, then shipped quickly, with tracking information provided.
FedEx thoroughly thrashed that first pair of speakers (imagine the force necessary to bend a steel mounting plate and break a stout binding post, among a laundry list of other injuries). I let Jim know, and he basically took care of everything. He dealt with FedEx, made arrangements to pick up the damaged speakers, and had a new pair of Cabernets in my possession in 10 days. I’ve had enough problems with enough equipment over the years to realize how rare this level of service is. Jim also provided a second outer box for each speaker. All Cabernets now ship double boxed. I suspect FedEx would now have a very tough time repeating their “Dance of Death and Destruction” on any new pair of Vaughn speakers.
I plunked the Cabernets in my room in the same spot that had worked well with my last two pair of speakers and hooked up with a brand new pair of speaker cables (my old ones were too short). I sat down and started one of my longtime equipment test songs, intending to begin the tedious process of dialing the Cabernets in and breaking in a new pair of cables. I had, as Jim would say, a “Holy Cow!” moment of my own. I did say “Holy”. I didn’t say “Cow”. Discretion (and an ongoing fear of the nuns from my parochial school youth) precludes me providing a direct quote.
What struck me immediately was a wider soundstage than I’d ever experienced in my room. I really had little sense of the sidewalls of my room. Depth did not truncate, but did not seem subjectively any deeper than my other speakers had been. The next thing that struck me was BASS. More than I imagined possible from 300B tubes, and particularly the Western Electrics I had in the amps at the time. The next thing that struck me was the tenor sax player wailing away right in front of me. The next thing that struck me was “I’ve been here for 45 minutes”. I had stopped paying any attention to the sound, and had simply been reveling in the music. This was a process that was repeated many times early on in my listening. I’d try to get something productive done on improving the sound, and the darn stereo would just force me to sit and listen.
I eventually came to feel the bass was a bit overblown and not as well defined as I would have liked, and I wondered about the possibility of improving the soundstage depth. I threw on a test disc, and rediscovered a couple of things I already knew from prior testing in my totally untreated room (with the typical California crappy suspended floor). My floor has a sympathetic vibration at 80Hz, and the fireplace has a strong hooting resonance at around 40 Hz. I briefly considered asking my wife if I could brick up the fireplace and reinforce the floor. My medications finally kicked in, and I opted for a less controversial approach.
I removed the woofer/ passive radiator grills, swapped the Cabernets so the woofers now fired toward each other, and replaced the spikes with Finite Elemente Cerapucs to try to isolate the speakers from the floor. The test disc went back on, and I found the Cabernets going +/- 3 dB at my listening position from 80Hz – 20KHz. From 80 Hz to 40Hz, I still had a pronounced response rise, but the floor wasn’t trembling, and the fireplace was barely grumbling. Jim rates the Cabernets to 34 Hz. I still had plenty of usable bass at 25 Hz at my listening position. I put on some music. The bass was significantly improved: much better balanced, tuneful, and well articulated. I messed around with speaker position for about 30 minutes and wound up about 6 feet from the back wall, 3 feet from the side walls, 9 feet between the speakers, and angled to fire over my shoulders at the listening position, about 9 feet away. This was within about 18 inches of my starting position, but made a world of difference. Everything just clicked.
Before this, I’ve never written a review of anything I’ve owned. I don’t think I’m particularly prone to blind love at first sight (or listen), with new equipment, and I’m long past the point where I seek any validation from others regarding a stereo purchase. I did want to be certain of my thoughts about the Cabernets before I committed them to paper, possibly influencing someone to spend their own hard-earned money on a pair of speakers they might not be able audition before buying.
I’ve lived with the Vaughn Cabernets nearly 6 months at this point, long enough to ease any concerns about speaker or speaker cable break-in. Please feel free to check my profile for details of my system. If I wrote it all here, I’m fairly certain the few of you strong enough to read to this point would be pushed into a catatonic state.
I’ve used solid state and tube preamps, and my 300B and 845 amps. I’ve listened to music of just about every genre. I’ve listened loud. I’ve listened soft. My preferred combination is the Sequerra preamp and the Wavelength monoblocks with the Western Electric 300B tubes. I have Sophia Princess Mesh plate 300Bs, as well. They were my preferred 300Bs when I used the Wavelengths with my last speakers. I’m sure I’ll try them, some day. Right now, I’m so happy with what’s happening, I just don’t have the desire. Here’s what I hear:
The widest, and deepest soundstage I’ve ever heard in my home, and equal to any system I’ve ever heard, save one. The soundstage height reaches above what I would expect from a speaker only 42 inches high. I suspect the vertical dispersion of the tweeter is playing a significant role in this. Images are layered on the stage, palpable, 3 dimensional, and appropriately sized.
Imaging and soundstaging are not confined to a tiny sweet spot. Instead of “head in a vise”, I find myself able to relax in many different positions in my listening chair, or sit on the couch and be happy, if I don’t feel like pulling the living room apart to get my chair in the right spot.
The speakers disappear as a source of sound, even better than my mini monitors did. I hear no cabinet sounds. I don’t hear a woofer, or a midrange, or a tweeter. The Cabernets speak with one voice, like a good panel speaker.
Because I think of the Cabernets as having one voice, I almost hate to try to analyze the individual drivers, but I feel compelled to comment a bit more. I’ve long favored ribbon tweeters for the absence of the shrillness I hear in so many dome tweeters, and for their effortless, shimmering extension. Having said that, I’ve heard good ribbons, and ribbons that are too polite, too wispy, too lacking in detail and nuance. The Cabernet ribbon is definitely a good one. Another downside to ribbons of my prior experience is the lack of vertical dispersion. Slouch down below or stand up above the axis of the tweeter, and the treble goes missing. This just doesn’t happen with the split ribbon. In the bass, I hear great impact, yet with speed and definition that marries beautifully with the other drivers. In the midrange, I hear a combination of transparency, tonal purity, detail, palpability, and harmonic complexity I simply haven’t experienced before, ever.
Can the Cabernets play loud on 16 watts of 300B? Heck yeah! Only occasionally, in big crescendos, in big symphonic pieces, did I get any sense of congestion or soundstage collapse. Even then, this happened only at levels much higher than my ordinary comfort level in my 18 x 28 room. Can they play louder on 60 watts of 845? Heck yeah! No congestion, no strain, even at stupid loud levels. I do, however, like my neighbors and my hearing, and I lost that SET magic. Can they play even louder with bigger power? Probably. Jim recommends 8 – 120 watts for the Cabernets. Am I going to test this? No way.
Can the Cabernets play soft? An emphatic yes once again. Much of my listening is done at lower volume levels, after the family has gone to bed. My living room is mostly open at the back and partly open at the side; sound carries throughout the house. The Cabernets are alive, and extremely engaging, even at low volume levels.
Most importantly though, what the Vaughn Cabernets do in my system, better than any other system I’ve heard save one, is to free my mind from the work of listening to sound, and easily, consistently connect me to the emotion and meaning of the music itself. I can, and do listen for hours at a time, and consistently feel refreshed, uplifted, energized. Even now, after 6 months of listening, I’ll occasionally pull myself out of the music, shake my head and think: “Wow, these are really, really outstanding speakers!”
Keep in mind that this all happens in a very difficult environment, without the benefit of any room treatment. I can imagine how much better the Cabernets would sound in a more favorable environment, but I really don’t long for it. I am finally ecstatically happy with my system, as is, where is.
Your goals for the sound of your system may differ widely from mine. You might not have the limitations I do on room treatment or familial acceptance of big panels or horns in a shared domestic environment. The Vaughn Cabernets are not the very best speakers I’ve ever heard, but they’re not far off those benchmarks. The system I experienced with superior soundstaging was over $150K, using $50K speakers. The system that was more emotionally engaging was again well north of $100K, used vinyl only as a source, and had $67K speakers. In both cases, the speakers were of a size that would simply not work in my home. If space and money were no object, I might consider pursuing one of these other systems. Reality, however, dictates otherwise.
The Vaughn Cabernets are not inexpensive, but I believe they’re extremely fairly priced. On a very rough estimate, the drivers and crossover parts alone would cost over $2,500. This ignores the cost of the cabinets themselves, which often exceed the cost of the drivers in quite a few other manufacturers’ offerings. It also ignores the expenses for workspace, assembly, shipping, and service, let alone a few dollars for Jim Jordan to be able to feed his family. Frankly, I don’t know how he can sell them for their asking price.
In relation to other speakers I’ve listened to, the Vaughn Cabernets are by far the best loudspeakers I’ve ever heard at anything even remotely close to their price. For what I value in sound and music, they are simply superior to any other speakers I’ve heard at up to 28,000 dollars a pair. The few speakers I’ve found superior to the Cabernets are 5 to 7 times their price, and would require a significantly greater investment in quality high wattage amplification. The size and appearance of the Cabernets also provide a great degree of acceptance in a shared domestic environment, which these other speakers did not provide.
In short, (if 4,750 words can be thought of as short), I believe the Vaughn Cabernets are an absolute screaming deal.
I’m finished with my search for sound. I’ve finally found the music.
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Vaughn Cabernet loudspeakers
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Tough question... in terms of design, they're probably most like Coincident, but I haven't heard them
The Cabernets replace $14K Talon Khorus in my system.
Speakers I've heard, anywhere from somewhat to very extensively, but with very different design:
The design is somewhat similar to Red Rose Music Standards; the sound is clearly superior.
I find the sound superior to Wilson Sophia and WP 7, superior to Von Schweikert VR4SR Mk II, superior to Analysis Audio Omega and Amphytrion,
superior to Usher BE-20, superior to Dali Euphonia MS4 and MS5, superior to Reference 3A Grand Veena.
Speakers I could probably be happy with: Aerial 20Ts
Speakers I would definitely be happy with: Dali Megalines
Speakers I would probably sell my soul for: Shindo Latours, in the context of an all-Shindo system, spinning vinyl.