Vandersteen Model 3A Signature Review

Category: Speakers

I’ve been living with the Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeakers for about 9 months now but have been holding off on writing a review until the last piece of my system was put in place (a recently acquired Cary SLP-05 preamp). The SLP-05 completes the “Cary trifecta” – 306 SACD/CD player, SLP-05 preamp and CAD-211 AE monoblocks. Now I can assemble a complete picture of the capabilities of the 3A Sigs (I opted for beige cloth with walnut end caps for my pair).

My dedicated music room is small – 12 x 13 x 7.5 ft. Despite the small room, the 3A’s work very well though the room can be overloaded if I get carried away with the volume control. The dealer brought them over and did a nice job of setting them up and getting the right tilt angle for my listening position. Since their original placement, I’ve only tweaked them a bit here and there to lock in the soundstage. One very nice feature of these speakers is the inclusion of midrange and tweeter adjustment pots. These have been extremely useful in establishing just the right instrument timbres for my particular room and set-up. What sounds best in my room is with the tweeters at -1.0 dB and the mids at +1.0 dB. I love this feature and don’t know why more loudspeaker manufacturers don’t incorporate it. I suppose the purists will say that the extra circuitry adds to the complexity of the crossover network and unless handled exactly right will compromise the sound. Vandersteen has figured out how to do this with no sonic degradation and it results in the ability to really lock in the timbres.

Almost all of my listening is to classical music with an occasional jazz disc. My primary sonic criterion is that the system must reproduce acoustic instruments with a real-life timbre. My secondary criterion is realistic dynamics and third is getting the low end foundation right. Other “audiophile” criteria (like soundstage, imaging) come in much lower in my priorities. Through the 3A’s, violin sounds very true-to-life with the harmonics being properly balanced with the fundamental. There is NO listening fatigue when the violin reaches the upper register – a problem that I have heard on the majority of “HI-FI” speakers I’ve heard (and owned) over the years. Cello’s exhibit the right amount of heft in the lowest cello octave coupled with an engaging and natural sounding mid/high end.

Piano provides a good test for both timbre and dynamics (piano being classified as a percussion instrument after all). The somewhat mellow, rounded midrange tone of a Hamburg Steinway comes across very realistically while the attack of the notes on ff passages is crisp. The prodigious bottom end of a Bosendorfer is portrayed in all its full glory.

The recent Mahler 2nd on Pentatone conducted by Ivan Fischer is among the best sounding large-scale orchestral recordings I know. It is also a supreme test for a stereo system because of the wide tonal and dynamic range. My expectation when listening to an orchestral recording is to be transported to the recording venue to a good seat in the house. I think the 3A’s do a very good job of that. It’s still not quite like being there but it’s a very good facsimile of a real event. From the opening bars of the Mahler I am drawn into the performance. Just listen to the cellos and basses digging into their opening motif. The 3A’s get the orchestral foundation right and that goes a long way to creating the illusion of being in the hall with the orchestra. The brasses possess the right amount of metallic bite with none of the shrillness that is prevalent on so many “Hi-Fi” speakers. Loud percussive outbursts are thrilling to hear. When the orchestra is going full-tilt it sounds exciting. The 3A’s have a -3 dB point of 26 Hz. In my small room there is certainly no need for a subwoofer to convey the low end realistically though those in a much larger space might benefit from adding one (or two) of Vandersteen’s subs. When the chorus enters in the last movement it sends chills down my spine. The voices emerge pianissimo from behind the orchestra in one of the most sublime passages in all of music IMO. The soundstage portrayed by the 3A’s is reasonably wide and deep. I’m not one who looks for “pinpoint imaging” or “hyper-detail” because these attributes are simply not present at a live concert. Next time you attend a concert, get a good seat, close your eyes and see (hear) for yourself. The 3A’s don’t provide pinpoint imaging or hyper-detail; if that’s what you are looking for, you ought to look elsewhere.

During my time so far with the 3A Sigs I have found them to be utterly musical reproducers. The 70 class A triode watts of the Cary 211’s are more than enough power in my room (and I suspect even for a significantly larger room). I NEVER tire of listening to music on this system. You get all of this performance for a mere $3549/pair. This is one of the true audiophile bargains extent. Furthermore, Vandersteen has made these speakers to be fully upgradeable if/when Mr. Vandersteen discovers ways to make them even better. Since a system is the cumulative results of all the pieces in the chain, I know that the all-Cary front end and the interconnects/cables also contribute to the overall excellent results.

The few nits I have to pick with the 3A’s are ancillary in nature. These speakers are not beautiful to look at being tall rectangular monoliths. In my room, the beige cloth makes them a bit less conspicuous but still they are not works of art by any means. But I didn’t buy them for their looks. I bought them for their truthful and realistic sound. I wish they had more conventional connectors rather than the barrier strip with screws. I understand that Richard Vandersteen believes this to give the best connection (they must be biwired, by the way) but I still think one can use a high quality 5-way binding post without any significant loss in sonics. Other than that, I can’t think of anything to gripe about.

One last anecdote. I filled in the product registration card to secure the 5-year warranty offered by Vandersteen and returned it along with a comment that I was a bit disappointed that it took about 9 weeks to get the speakers from the time they were ordered. The dealer kept telling me that they were backed up at the factory. About a week after returning the warranty card, I got a voice mail message from Richard Vandersteen himself. He thanked me for buying the speakers and wanted to set the record straight that there was no long factory delay but rather it appeared that my dealer had dragged his feet in actually placing my order for the speakers (something the dealer conveniently never told me). It should have only taken 3-4 weeks as it turns out. This told me two things: 1) Mr. Vandersteen truly cares about his customers and 2) when its time to buy any more stereo gear, I will do so at another dealer. Happy listening!
Oops. The Fischer Mahler 2 is on Channel Classics, not Pentatone.
Very nice review! I agree with everything you said as it mirrors my experience with the 3A Signatures. I too have a small room, 13x14x7 (the room is actually 17x14, but a half wall cuts the room down to the smaller dimensions) and can relate to that aspect of performance. I think the speakers are capable of better performance in a larger room, but I don't have a larger room available. One problem I had was boomy bass, attributed to the small size of the room. I solved most of the problem by using a single 2Wq in the corner. The level of the 2Wq can be adjusted separate of the main speakers plus corner placement offers a little smoother response in the bass.
Pmotz - thanks for the kind words.
Nice review. As a not-completely-satisfied Vandersteen owner (including 3A's) for the last 7 years, I'd recommend paying close attention to Krisjan's system-matching. Based upon what I've heard and switched around in my own system, I think Cary equipment mates very well with Vandersteens. The Vandersteens pretty well play what you feed them, in my experience, and if you feed them analytical-sounding electronics, that's what you'll hear. My best results were with a Linn CD12, Cary SLP2002, and ARC VT100 on the 4 ohm tap, all wired together with Cardas Cross. Had I kept going, I would have ended up with a Cary amp, too, but the "monolith" quality of the appearance (an unfortunate characteristic well-noted by Krisjan also) was leading to domestic issues, so I switched to Harbeth M30s.

Very fair review. Thanks.