When I describe the Thiel CS7.2 to friends, the word that gets the biggest reaction is "simple." Veteran audiophiles protest, noting the big Thiel's multiple drivers, complex cabinet, and elaborate, zillion-element crossover. Nonaudiophiles just glance at the 5'-tall speaker, smile sympathetically at Bonnie, and roll their eyes.
These speakers inadvertently managed to put me in a good mood even before I listened to them, because of a dumb little gaffe committed by Thiel's packing department. Each speaker came with an Owner's Information sheet, which is nice. Each sheet included Unpacking (and Repacking) Instructions, which is nicer. But each sheet came packed inside the carton, underneath the speaker, where it was not accessible until after the speaker was dumped out of the box, which is pretty silly!
Those who have read this magazine regularly over the past five years know that Canadian designer Vince Bruzzese has been marketing his small, two-way loudspeakers under the Totem Acoustic brand name. Every review of one of these designs has raved about their strong bass response and three-dimensional imaging, but ends with a "but": "the sound is totally awesome, the imaging is holographic, and my wife thinks it looks terrific in the living room, but..."
I don't know whether Sam Tellig or I first discovered the delights of some slightly idiosyncratic loudspeakers made by Triangle—Tree-ON-gle, if you add the relevant accent—in the northeastern corner of France. I do recall feeling quite relieved to find that I wasn't the only hi-fi writer who liked and wrote about them.
Whenever I think of cone speaker systems, I think of three brand names: Snell, Thiel, and Vandersteen. There are many good loudspeakers and many good designers and manufacturers, but it is these three who, in my opinion, consistently produce the best cone loudspeaker systems. All three companies produce full-range systems, transparent systems, and systems which mate well with a wide range of equipment. Their systems can be owned and enjoyed for years. Long after some fad or special feature has given a competing designer brief notoriety, these are the products you turn back to for music.
There are three requirements: You must invent a very good loudspeaker that sells for between $1000 and $2000/pair. You have to make enough of them, over a long enough time, to achieve a certain level of brand recognition and market penetration. And you must create a dealer network of reasonable size, with an emphasis on well-promoted specialty shops.
In the Beginning Was the Word... At first blush, the sound of the Vandersteen Model 2Ce Signature transported me to a bucolic nature trail in the Berkshires on one of those high, dry August days when the amber stillness of late afternoon imparts a sense of otherness against the endless vistas of green and brown and blue. In my Wordsworthian reverie, as I made my way up the mountainside, remembrances of venerable loudspeakers past called out to me from the sturdy stands of New England foliage. Mark you the lofty maple and the supple white birch; the noble pine, the mighty oak and humble larch; there, on the crest, an Acoustic Research AR3a; farther up the ridge, a copse of Advent, KLH, and Allison—and finally, high on yonder peak, beckoning like God's own flip-top, crush-proof box, the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature.
Eighty thousand pairs. According to Vandersteen Audio, that's the number of Vandersteen 2s of various generations which have been sold since the loudspeaker—and company—first saw the light of day in 1977. The 2 has been continually refined along the way—a new driver here, a new crossover change there, heavy-duty stands—more changes, in fact, than the occasional changes in model designation would indicate. The 2's main calling card has always been a high perceived value for money. If anything, this calling card has only been enhanced over the years as its price remained remarkably stable while the cost of high-end audio in general was perceived—rightly or wrongly—as being on a dizzying upward spiral.
High-end-audio manufacturers are both more and less adventurous than their more mainstream contemporaries. While mainstream-audio manufacturers will almost invariably change their models every year, the changes are more often than not cosmetic—at least in between successive models. High-end manufacturers, on the other hand, will keep the same model in the line for several years, but make cosmetically invisible refinements along the way.
Record playback could have been designed to go from the inside out instead of the other way around. With most pieces of music ending louder than they started, doesn't it make more sense to end the side at the widest circumference, longest wavelength, least congested part of the groove spiral? Compact discs read from the center hole out, and they don't even have to.
In one sense, Richard Vandersteen has been the victim of his own success. His Model 2 loudspeaker (footnote 1), introduced at the 1977 Consumer Electronics Show, put his company on the map but proved a hard product to improve on. Based on the idea that the HF and midrange drive-units should have the minimal baffle area in their acoustic vicinity, both to optimize lateral dispersion and to eliminate the effects of diffraction from the baffle edges, the Model 2 also used a combination of a sloped-back driver array and first-order crossover filters to give a time-coincident wavefront launch.
The Vandersteen 3A is a higher-end variation on the theme established by the company's first loudspeaker, the 2C. The latter is still available, though much updated into the current, highly popular 2Ce. A four-way design, the 3A has separate sub-enclosures for each drive unit; the whole affair is covered with a knit grille-cloth "sock" with wood trim end pieces. A rear-mounted metal brace allows the user to vary the tiltback—an important consideration for best performance with this loudspeaker.
It's difficult to believe that the former top model of Vandersteen Audio's line of loudspeakers, the Model 5, has been in production in one form or another since 1997. Time passes quickly when you're having fun. Like all Vandersteen speakers, the 5 was and remains a good value and performance proposition. For all the 5's high technology and excellent performance both measured and audible, its price now starts at under $20,000/pair (up from about $10,000/pair when the 5 was introduced in 1997), including a built-in, proprietary powered subwoofer in each cabinet, and a sophisticated equalization system for room compensation.
Richard Vandersteen was in good form at the 20th-anniversary seminar held by retailer Advanced Audio on November 11, 2006. When asked about his priorities in loudspeaker design, he sat erect in the seat next to me and thundered, "I will not [slams table with open hand] spend one red cent on cosmetics that I could have put into improving the sound of a loudspeaker!"