Richard Vandersteen at Audio Connection
Yesterday, I traveled to the NYC area to visit Audio Connection in Verona, NJ. It's a tony little town in the more hilly part of NJ; very beautiful. The store was hosting Richard Vandersteen, and the event was more or less to show of the Quattro loudspeaker, of which I have not yet heard.
I must commend John Rutan's store, he had every model in the line set up and playing, which allowed me to get an overall feeling for not only each speaker, but the entire marque. I've previously met John at Russ' (Rcprince) home, and he struck me as one of the better people in the audio business. Then again, knowing Russ, since they're good friends, why would I ever think otherwise? John and company did a most excellent job yesterday - thank you again, John!
You may or may not know, but I'm not the biggest Vandersteen fan in the world. And, it's strictly product related, as I find the speakers, at their worst, can be dark, muddy, and a bit less than ultimately resolving. I should also say perhaps the most impressive feat of Bill Legall of Millersound, in my opinion, is that a lot of his customers have had him upgrade their Vandersteens (Model 2, especially), and the sonic improvements are more than quite significant. I can think of no negatives regarding the company, their track record and brand loyalty they've developed over the years speaks for itself, and the audio world would be a far better place if more companies emulated Vandersteen.
That being said, this was the best I have heard the entire line ever sound. Again, credit John Rutan. A good dealer should show the line off in the best possible light. Otherwise, in my opinion, he simply is not a good dealer. I should point out that if my recollection is correct, I awarded my "Best Of Show" at HE2001 to the Vandersteen 5/Cary V12 monoblock room - it was very possibly Audio Connection's.
Though it was an "invitation only" event, far more people showed up. Twice as many, in fact. I guess good news travels fast. People even arrived at 1PM. I was just sitting around here for a few hours, waiting for the right time to leave, as I didn't want to get there too early. Had I known, I would have just gone an hour earlier. There were so many people that they decided to break the day up into two showings. I was part of the so-called second group, so I hung out with a few others in the main building, delved into the goodies, talked to everyone, and waited. Of course, if you know anything about audiophiles, you know they're not leaving when their time is up. After a while, they just told us to go over, as it didn't look like the first group was ending.
In the main building, where I was waiting, I was able to hear the Model 1 and 2, and, in a second building, across the street, the 3, Quattro, and 5A. Here are my impressions - please don't have a baby if my recollections on price are inaccurate:
Model 1 ($900), with Rotel integrated. Astounding value! In fact, I was pretty much borderline flabbergasted that a speaker at this price could sound so nice. Don't get me wrong, they are not perfect. Like any and every loudspeaker, they are far from perfect. They become congested at higher volumes, and a lot of my feelings regarding Vandersteens are present here, but I know of no speaker at $900 that sounds better than this. Or, probably even close to it. Their value is not even approached, much less exceeded, by the low cost Chinese offerings these days - a striking point for those who believe products in the USA cannot compete. Even the smallest model allowed the Vandersteen family flavor to come through in full regard. You just get a bit less of everything.
Model 2 ($1800), with Pass X150 power amplifier. The worst sounding set up of the day. In fact, it was not even close. Credit the room for a lot of it. None of the rooms were spectacular there (you work with what you have), the 5A being the best in that it was probably at least pretty good or more. This set up featured the worst of what I hear in Vandersteen speakers, coupled with some serious glare and shrillness in the presence region. Considering the Model 1 in the next room easily smokes it in many regards, I'm left thinking the speaker is clearly in the wrong room. Still, because of everything I heard over the course of the day, I'm left wondering, is there a better speaker at the price?
Model 3 ($3500), with Audio Research solid state stereo amplifier. The best sound, dollar per dollar, I heard. For me, this is definitely the sweet spot in the lineup. Particularly, for people like me, who appreciate a big, macho sound. My friend Vytas later told me the Vandersteen line had a driver upgrade about a year ago, and perhaps this was what I was hearing. I haven't heard the 3 sound like this before. Don't get me wrong, they weren't the most open or spacious sounding loudspeakers, they're Vandersteens after all. Were I ever to buy a pair of Vandys, it would likely be the 3 based on price and what I heard yesterday.
Quatro ($7000), with ARC (didn't see which, sorry) amplification. The reason I showed up in the first place. Though the sheer number of people made it difficult to spend as much time as I would have liked. I did jump into the sweet spot for a song or two, fortunately. Like just about everything the company makes, I feel they have a true winner on their hands yet again. At what is now a very midlevel price for a pair of loudspeakers, they offer a lot of performance. You get more resolution and refinement than the 3, which you should at twice the price. I didn't get a chance to REALLY hear them the way I would like, as we couldn't "open them up". But, I'm pretty well convinced of the continued success of the company; it's what they have to have in terms of a speaker that slots between the 3 and the 5A.
Model 5A ($12000? and up, depending on finish), with ARC tube monoblocks. The company's flagship did not disappoint. The 5As, and the system they were paired with provided the best sound of day. You get more of everything in the positive way, along with the powered woofer section that allows one to run tube amplification effectively. Sitting in the high end of the high end in loudspeakers today, they strike me as offering tremendous value. In fact, you probably have to spend twice as much to match them.
Regarding Vandersteen loudspeakers in general, in my estimation, they offer great value for money across the board. The Model 1, 3, and 5A especially. They also seem to work best with solid state amplification, which true devotees to the brand normally say, the 5A (and Quattro?) notwithstanding. I'll also put forth that using more upfront and engaging cabling pays dividends in having them sound not as dark and muddy as they can otherwise. In general, though they haven't exactly been MY flavor, I can certainly recommend them to many audiophiles, as they'll suit them perfectly.
A few thoughts on Richard Vandersteen... Though he carries somewhat of a reputation for being surly or curt, after seeing him in action, I would say it's more or less a case of mistaking directness for something else. Yes, he can answer a question in a few, emphatic words, but I found his responses thoughtful, honest, on the mark, and without any tinge of malice. Some of the attendees offered up LOOOOOONNNGGG, obtuse streams of consciousness, without any discrenible question or point. A real waste of time for everyone, Richard and the rest of us - to me this is far more egregious than any short answer he provided. Nevertheless, Richard displayed incredible patience and tact. He's the kind of guy whose products I would be interested in; if for nothing more than you understand his bent is towards meat and potatoes, not fluff. I was quite enamored with the way he handled himself.
A case in point, after being asked what kind of wire he uses inside the Vandersteens by one of the attendees, he answered the question thoroughly via manufacturer, compsosition, construction, etc., without giving a treatise. In other words, perfectly, in my opinion. Most manufacturers answer every question along the lines of everything they have is proprietary, and are quite offended one even had the temerity to ask. I contrast Richard with a tremendously well respected manufacturer who, at a social event, I asked to recommend to me a wire for general audio use - three times no less (I had to keep steering him back off of his tangents). I put up with his line of BS until it was clear I was not going to get anything beyond an offer to pay him a lot of money to sell me what he uses at a tremendous markup.
Thank you, John and company for a terrific event! Thank you, Richard for coming out to the other coast to make yourself available to us!