Vandersteen 2C loudspeaker John Atkinson May 1989 part 2
Amplification was provided by either a pair of VTL 100W Compact monoblocks or a Krell KSA-50 power amplifier, each bi-wired with Monster M1 speaker cable. The preamplifier was either the combination of the Mod Squad Line Drive Deluxe AGT and Vendetta Research SCP2 phono preamp, or the Conrad-Johnson PV9 (also reviewed in this issue). Source components consisted of a 1975-vintage Revox A77 to play my own and others' 15ips master tapes, a Linn Sondek/Ekos/Troika setup sitting on a Sound Organisation table to play LPs, and the new Philips LHH-1000 two-box CD player, its transport section also used to drive the Sony DAS-R1 D/A convertor. Interconnect was AudioQuest LiveWire Lapis.
Finally! With the April issue gone to bed, I could get down to some serious listening.
My first impression, not changed by any later experience, was that the 2Ci is one hell of a fine speaker at its price. Particularly impressive was the generous extension to the bass, double-bass and organ pedals having true weight to their sound. A current "hot" organ recording I feel to be that of the Bach Goldberg Variations on Dorian (DOR-90110). The 2Ci reproduced the full weight of this modern French organ—great reed stops—without blurring any of the spatial definition so well captured by recordist Craig Dory. And the contrabassoon on Tony Faulkner's recording of the Dvorák Serenade for Winds in d (ASV COE 801) was delightfully fruity. It seems that Richard Vandersteen has achieved that chimera of modern speaker design, the optimal balance between low-frequency extension and upper-bass clarity. And, again, in a $1200/pair model! Anyone selling a speaker more expensive than the 2Ci is going to have to achieve great things in the other areas of reproduction to justify the price if its low end is less well-extended.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, the treble balance with the contour controls set flat was a little tilted down, lending the 2Ci somewhat of a "classical" balance. Raising the tweeter level with the appropriate control, however, revealed that the tweeter has a modest degree of liveliness in its top octave, adding a slight "fffy" quality to sibilants. I ended up with the control set at +1dB, which added a suitable amount of air, without overemphasizing the tweeter's HF peakiness. I have to say that, given my unfortunate formative experiences with doped-fabric-dome tweeters, I never once was irritated by the Vandersteen 2Ci in this region during my entire auditioning. Maybe it's not so much the quality of the ingredients that go toward making a gourmet meal but the skill of the chef...?
I understand that much of Richard Vandersteen's research effort has gone into the midrange drivers used in the 2Ci and 4A. Paradoxically, it was the midrange where I ultimately became a little dissatisfied with the 2Ci. Not that it was bad—if anything, it was still head and shoulders above most of the speakers in this price region—but I think this is the range where the compromises necessary to keep the 2Ci affordable have had most sonic effect. It was also apparent that the midrange voicing of the speaker is very dependent on the listening height. Move down even slightly, and the treble rapidly depresses in level; above the tweeter axis, the high treble is left isolated by a suckout that develops in the bottom of the tweeter's passband.
On the optimal axis, the best integration between the drive-units can be heard, though some 3kHz emphasis is audible, violin tone taking on some added plangency. Brass instruments had the appropriate degree of blattiness, however, and drums and hi-hat cymbals reproduced with reasonably accurate tonalities, though there was a slight "cardboardy" coloration noticeable on snare drum. Crash and orchestral cymbals were also a little too splashy in the top octaves. Voices, both spoken and sung, came over as being very natural, men having the right balance between chest and throat, and women only occasionally sounded too dry, too throaty. Some sibilance emphasis was noticeable, however.
As so often is the case, it was naturally recorded piano that best showed up the 2Ci's slight midrange problems, with a degree of boxiness rendering the sound a little too small. The left-hand registers were beautifully defined, and the highs clean, with air around the image. The upper midrange, however, was pushed forward somewhat, there being less image depth apparent in this region, and the instrument sounded a little too reedy. And scale passages in my own Chopin piano recording on Test CD 1 revealed some raggedness, some smudging of the notes F#, G, G#, and A both above the treble stave and an octave higher, these corresponding to the frequency ranges 740-880Hz and 1480Hz-1760Hz. Ultimately, I reduced the midrange level by 1dB with the contour control to minimize these colorations, piano then having less of a hooty quality on the problem notes, with a positive benefit on lower-treble image depth. Lower the midrange level too much, however, and the sound starts to lack immediacy. This balance has to be very carefully struck.
To put the levels of the colorations noticed into context, I only spend part of the auditioning deliberately listening for such tonal aberrations. With a good loudspeaker, they can be relatively easily ignored; for much of the time, the sheer musical sweep of the sound presented by the Vandersteens submerged such critical thoughts. Having noticed that, in absolute terms, the low treble was a little ragged when compared with the rest of the range to the slight detriment of recorded voice, didn't prevent me from reveling in such choral works as Arvo Pärt's Passio (ECM 1370/837 109-2), where processions of slow-moving, mainly diatonic chords, set off with delicious suspensions, are underpinned by a weighty organ. (My Christmas present from Richard Lehnert, this recording has spent a disproportionate amount of time on the CD player this winter.)
One reason to forget the Vandersteen's minor tonal idiosyncrasies was its ability to throw a wide, deep, well-defined soundstage. While the lateral imaging precision was not quite up to the holographic standard set by the Celestion SL700 or the Rogers LS3/5a, there was never any feeling that individual images were clumped around the speaker positions. Using some copy master tapes of some of his crossed-figure-eight recordings loaned by Water Lily Acoustics' Kavi Alexander, I never failed to be struck by the natural size of instrumental images. And the details of different recorded acoustics—so big, so reverberant—were made easily decipherable. It was perhaps only in the presentation of ultimate depth that the Vandersteens were outclassed by, for example, the Celestion SL600Si, particularly in the midrange. One thing that may correlate with the time-coherent design philosophy is that I was consistently being struck by detail that I had not previously been aware of, even on recordings that I thought I knew well.
Finally, the 2Ci was a little polite at low levels, and only showed a good sense of dynamics when driven reasonably hard. It did go loud, however, and even the 50W Krell proved adequate to raise the listening-room roof, when necessary.
I must say that I just don't understand how Richard Vandersteen can sell the 2Ci at a hair under $1200/pair and expect to make any money. Always musical, with an easygoing nature that will match a wide variety of sources and amplifiers, it offers such a well-balanced mix of virtues, with no vices more severe than any other, that, along with the Thiel CS1.2 and Magnepan MG2.5/R, it redefines the level of performance that should be expected from a loudspeaker in the $1100-$1600/pair price region. Enthusiastically recommended, therefore, as an affordable loudspeaker for Everyman.—John Atkinson