When properly set up than can be amazingly good. You're going to spend that kind of money without hearing them first? Not a good idea.
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I think they are one of the finest speakers available that are not some obscene amount of money. I would caution on buying them used--dealer set up is key since the bass equalizer needs to be dialed into the room. You MAY be able to get it right but I'm not sure you will get the most out of these speakers if not properly set up.
Can they really make two different people feel that differently?
In one word, yes.
That shouldn't come as any surprise. You can pick any speaker on the face of the earth that has a respectable following and find those who simply don't understand what the fuss is about. A quick summary of the situation might be this:
1. No speaker is perfect. All have different strengths and weaknesses. This applies to the very expensive models, too.
2. Different people listen for different things. You might be impressed by dynamic range while someone else feels that comes off as too forward. Another person swoons over a speaker's ability to throw a razor sharp image yet his friend finds that razor sharp image unrealistic. Yet another person is struck by the incredibly smooth and neutral midrange while a fellow listener finds that smooth neutrality "dull" and leaden sounding. Examples like these could continue endlessly.
My take on Vandersteens is they are very good and I could happily live with them. They are a smooth speaker with lots of good points and no great flaws. That said, they've never quite had the magic for me they do for some others. I've got a pair of Spendors that do the trick for me right now.
However, you're going to have to be the judge on this subject. If you can get them at a good price and you know the pair in question is in good shape, it is a reasonable plan to just buy them for the sake of an audition. If you get a fair deal, they shouldn't be too hard to resell if they are not your cup of tea.
I bought my Ayre equipment from Rick in Ft. Collins (he had a trade in for sale) so I am familiar with him. He's a nice guy as you said Tom. He doesn't have any 5a's and would only therefore be an option for new. Either way he doesn't have any 5a's to listen to. I'm sure he could arrange a demo but as Narrod aptly pointed out that's not fair. I try to stay away from new because for one your money can go a lot farther used (usually close to 2x), and secondly when I get the bug to try something else I can basically swap out for little or no loss.
I say go for the used Vandersteens. Pay Rick a reasonable fee to drive to your place to set them up properly. Provide Rick a nice meal with preferred alcohol drinks of choice and after dinner have an enjoyable evening listening to your new(used) Vandies. If the hours go by quickly and embibement goes into excess, have Rick stay the night and drive back home the next morning. Sounds like a fun weekend to me.(o:
Mmike84: what speakers have you owned in the past and what did you not like and what did you like about each... This would help people to understand your tastes...
If you get the 5a's make sure you buy the external crossover tails, otherwise you will be replacing blown bass drivers at $$$$.
If you can hear any version of the Vandy's; you will get an idea about the basic Vandy House sound..... you will either like it or not... hence all the different preferences.
If you can't pull the 5a's out into your room, then I would stay away from Vandersteens, they really need room behind them to breath to sound their best. Just like Magnepan speakers need at least 3 feet off the back wall.
I'm going to have to disagree with cyctocycle on a couple of points.
1) While the 5As share some of the same sonic characteristics of the other Vandersteen speakers they aren't just larger/more expensive versions of the other models. I've had the 2ci sigs, 3A sigs, Quatros, and now the 5As and find the 5As to be in another league as far as overall accuracy and dynamics. The nice thing is that they can do this without losing the musicality that they are famous for.
2) Distance from wall... My 5As are about 14" from the back wall due to domestic constraints and they sound wonderful. After they were broken in and I had a free day I moved them into the "ideal/textbook" position (about 3 feet away from the wall) and noted very little change. Soundstage depth became a bit more consistent, but overall tonal balance was about the same (after I re-eq'd the bass). I've found that slight bit of toe-in is needed in my room to even out the midrange response and solidify the center image, but I don't consider the sonics to be at all compromised in this position.
While my 5As were on order my dealer (insert shameless plug for Gary @ Esoteric Audio) loaned me his demo Quatros for about 2 months. I experienced similar near-wall performance with these but they needed to be slightly farther from the wall. Since the Quatro is a shallower speaker the drivers actually ended up almost exactly the same distance from the walls as they are now with the 5As.
With 2s and 3s I completely agree that the speakers need to be moved well away from the wall. Part of this has to do with the orientation of the bass driver and room loading.
All of this is room dependent and I did design the construction of my room to be audio-friendly (couldn't specify dimensions, but could go through a rather elaborate finishing process). In other words, in your room you may have a completely different experience.
When I was researching the purchase of the 5As I spoke with a number of people (and a couple of dealers) who all had very good experience with near-wall positioning.
Finally, should you buy the 5As I recommend you run them for some time with the bass eq set flat. You may find that you really like the way that they sound in that configuration. In my case the only real anomaly that I have is a bump around 50Hz. I found that trying to eq that out made the rest of the response lumpy and everything sounded worse. To steal words from Richard Vandersteen the bass sounded "equalized." After a couple of conversations with Richard he recommended leaving the EQ flat... I gave it a shot and am happy that I did.
Bofh: When I said the Vandy's sound similar that was a compliment not a dig, I meant like magnepan's sound similar in flavor in which bigger versions definitely sound more dynamic and more detailed... So people don't like magnepans... Just like some people don't like the Wilson flavor.
All the demos I have heard of Vandersteen 5a's and Bel Amps have been 3 foot off the back wall. Thanks for clearing this point up.
Thanks for all the comments. Ive been running B&W Nautilus 802's for the last 5 years. I like them, but I find some of the top end resolution to be lacking, and the soundstage is not particularly impressive. I used to run Levinson gear, but recently switched to Ayre and I just don't think they go well with my 802's. I've listened to a lot of speakers in the last month or so and my favorite by far has been the Avalon Isis. Hardly a surprise at $65k/pair, but they did open my eyes that resolution and HUGE soundstage don't have to be mutually exclusive. I've heard the Wilsons WP8's and they are great in many ways, but I found the bass exaggeration to be un-real, and the soundstage was no where near the Avalons. I have also listened to the Dynaudio C-2's which I like as well, extremely detailed (could be too bright in some systems) with a similar soundstage to the Wilsons, but I still wonder if my amp (Ayer V-1xe) has enough juice to get the most out of the next jump up which are the C-4's. Anyway that might help explain what my tastes and preferences lean to. Music choices are everything jazz, rock, folk, but very little classified or orchestral music.
Mike, there is a dealer in Salt Lake city named Aris audio ask for scott. I think he has a website as well. Tell him you heard from charles in audiogon from draper utah. If you can get there which isnt too far from denver, you can somtimes find flights under 75.00 round trip. Travel zoo always have specials going on between the two cities. Just a thought that might help.
I have to agree generally with Bofh, but with a slight twist. The Quatro's and the 5A's are the only Vandy speaker that can be taken seriously. Below the Quatro's it all goes bloat, overripe, limited dynamics and very unrealistic. The Quatro is a very good speaker. The 5A is one of the best out there regardless of price. I know there are a lot of Vandy fans out there but if I couldn't afford either of the top models I'd be looking somewhere else.
Aris Audio in Salt Lake City has Vandersteen 5A's in place for you to addition. The set up is actually real as Aris Audio occupies a portion of Scott's home. Scott (the owner) is a great guy and I am sure you will find him more than helpful.
Maybe make a trip out of it drive through the Vail Valley, stop for some skiing, head over to Park City Mountain Resort in Park City Ut. for some more skiing, then on to Salt Lake for a speaker audition.
Aris Audio = http://www.arisaudio.com/
I just wanted to compliment mlsstl's response above as maybe the most insightful remarks ever written about speaker quality I've ever read. (They are really words to live by, so take every review with a grain of salt.)
To go even further, as I gained more listening experience, my own likes and dislikes have evolved, so what I liked 10 years ago may be painful now.
I'm an American currently assigned to the US Embassy in Australia. I ordered the 5A's from The US and as such, had no dealer support here. So I hired an audio engineer who owns his own recording studio. He brought another audio engineer friend and a calibrated mike with real time analyzer to properly adjust my 5A's to my room. The fee was to be $66 per hour. We spent about 2-3 hours dialing in the speakers, then broke out the CD's and Belgian beer for some serious listening. They stayed for 3 more hours, then refused payment because they had never heard such a good system and had such a good time listening! That's how good these speakers sound. If you want to spend less, the model 3A Signatures with 2WQ subs are also outstanding. I was quite happy with them until the terrible and wonderful day I made the mistake of hearing the 5A's.
Unless you view buying and selling big speakers as a trivial event, you really should listen to the 5A speakers. The Vandersteen speakers I've heard sound to me as though they are behind an acoustic veil. I auditioned an Ayer C-5xe CD/SACD player at a dealer who used fine Ayer electronics with a pair of 5A speakers, but the audition was too colored by speakers that seemed to hide the detail I was looking for. I have since heard the C-5xe with other speakers and understand what the raves are about.
I would not find selling, packing, and shipping a pair of large speakers an experience I want to add to my life.
When I have heard them, and it has always been at the dealer here in Houston, they have been simply sublime. I am a Magnepan guy, and I still love them!! I must repeat the condidtions though, the room and electronics where they are set up is close to perfect, and the guys in the store know how to get the most out of them, but I think they are about the finest speakers I have ever heard. I actually like them better than the Maggie 20.1's.
If you are interested in a speaker that reproduces the signal as faithfully as possible, without collorations or emphasis, and has incredibly accurate harmonic rendering and complete transparancy, I believe the 5A is just about the best there is.
The engineering in this speaker takes into account a flat response, stable impedance level, time and phase accuracy, superior drivers and crossovers, highly rigid cabinets, and the ability to adjust the subs to match the room. The test data confirms this speaker is as accurate as possible with today's technology.
I purchased them because they made instruments and voices sound more real than anything I have ever heard before. I have played the trombone and piano all my life and when I heard such a combo on the 5As I was just astounded at the realism.
My advice is to listen for yourself and don't be misled by speaker reproduction artifacts that appear to add interest but are not present in the source and will become wearysome over time.
The 5A is a world class speaker at what in this hobby is a real world price, my father owns the Wood Quatro Vandersteens and has decided to not go to the 5A as he is planty happy with his choice. However, we auditioned them at both shows, dealers, and private owners and these speakers are just amazing and makes one start to wonder exactly why a speaker needs or should cost 2, 3 or more times the price. I have heard them as close as 2 feet from back wall and as far as 8ft from wall and never was disapointed most likely in no small part due to the 11 band bass EQ adjustment, that along with the Phase and time coherence, minimum baffle interaction, superior cross over network and other key features along with powered woofers that allow your own amp to work to its best potential all combine to a crazy good speaker that I can only hope one day I may own, Richard Vandersteen both on phone and in person is a no B.S. representative of his company and has a wealth of knowledge combined with an honesty not always found in audio. best of luck in your search, what a high class delima you have on your hands!