Vandersteen Audio 1B loudspeaker Page 2

Speakers used for comparison purposes included the $1275/pair Spica Angelus, $1000/pair Harbeth LS3/5A, and two new models from NHT: the $4000/pair Model 3.3s and the $230/pair SuperZero minimonitors, the latter augmented by NHT's $650 SW2P powered subwoofer (full review to come soon).

The 1Bs needed a lot of break-in before they started sounding decent. Like, weeks. The only speakers in my experience to require such a long break-in period were the Spica Angeluses, which were surprisingly similar to the 1Bs in this respect. Both speakers sounded very closed-in in the highs, recessed in the mids, and had no low bass at all until they'd had several weeks of The Who's Live At Leeds pumped through their guts.

I won't beat around the bush with this review: I was not blown away by the 1B, or even very impressed. I kept hearing raves about the littlest Vandersteen from dealers and other hi-fi folk, but I found the 1B to sound pretty subpar in most areas of performance.

Its biggest problem was in the midrange. This is traditionally the one area in which simple, affordable speakers can easily excel. The Spica TC-50 and Angelus, NHT 1.3A, Thiel CS1.2, and Epos ES-11 are examples of mid-priced speakers that get the midrange right. But no matter where I placed the 1Bs in the room, which vertical and horizontal axes I listened to them on, or what gear I had driving them upstream, the Vandersteens failed to get the midrange right.

The main midrange problem was what I call a "hooded" coloration, a combination of an upper-bass hump and a lower-midrange congestion that tends to make singers sound as if they're singing down into their shirts. The clear-as-a-bell gospel vocals on the Fairfield Four's Standing in the Safety Zone acquired a significant amount of chestiness, while the upper part of their range sounded muffled, even stifled. I don't expect sub–$1000 speakers to let me see Allah, but the 1B's level of midrange coloration was higher than I'm used to with mid-priced speakers. This stuck out as the speaker's most immediate shortcoming.

I was equally disappointed with the 1B's low level of resolution. I've found this to be my reaction to Vandersteen's larger speakers as well, but not nearly to the degree I heard from the 1B. Large portions of the music signal just didn't get resolved by the 1B, and I spent a lot of time listening for certain details that weren't coming through in well-known music. Los Lobos' Kiko is a masterpiece of interwoven instruments played by a band of consummate virtuosos, but much of the low-level rhythmic complexity running through most of the album's songs remained undecoded by the Vandersteens, which only seemed able to pass on the larger-boned aspects.

I continued to hear low-level details obscured with all the music I played, be it Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland—especially "1993: A Merman I Should Turn to Be"—or the Cooder/Bhatt A Meeting by the River disc, in which much of the wonderful acoustics of the church used by Kavi Alexander to record the session were minimized and obscured. The Vandersteen 1B is definitely a "low-rez" transducer, and not what I'd recommend to listeners who wanna hear everything that's happening in their music.

Moving down the spectrum, while the diminutive 1B had an impressively extended bass response for such an inexpensive speaker, this extension has been achieved at the expense of speed and articulation. Again, you can't expect Bass O'The Gods from a smallish $695 speaker, but the 1B differs from most sub–$1000 speakers in clearly trading low-end clarity and definition for an overall tonal balance that more closely resembles a true full-range speaker. The pulsing bass lines throughout Kiko were reproduced with surprising weight, but without the taut low-end control of the other speakers I had on hand. This had the effect of slowing down the music, the bass seeming to lag rhythmically behind the rest of the music. In addition—and this is a problem I find with all small two-way speakers, not just the 1B—program material with strong bass like Kiko and the Masters of Reality Sunrise on the Sufferbus CD (footnote 2) caused the mids to become overly furry and congested. The poor li'l 8" woofer's upper range became compressed and coarse when the bass line kicked in.

In terms of treble cleanliness, the 1B was fair; cymbals and other HF sounds were reproduced with good sheen and clarity. But the 1B's treble remained shut-in and airless at the very top, even with the tweeter control cranked all the way up. The two acoustic slide guitars on the Cooder/Bhatt A Meeting by the River CD had good low-treble presence, but the highest harmonics and associated string noises were noticeably more muted than with the NHT SuperZero/SW2P combo. The speaker got brighter in the low treble with the control set at its highest point, but the 1B's sound never really opened up and breathed in the way that a good high-end speaker—even a very inexpensive one such as the NHT SuperZero—can.

The 1Bs' refusal to open up and breathe extended to their reproduction of recorded space. CDs that knock down the boundaries of my listening room—such as the Cooder/Bhatt disc or the lame-music-yet-wowie-sounding Roger Waters Amused to Death CD—sounded much more cloistered around the Vandersteens than with any of the speakers I had on hand for comparison. The "outside-the-speaker" images on the QSound-enhanced Waters CD or Larry Archibald's handclaps on track 10 of Stereophile's Test CD 2 refused to move beyond the speakers' edges, giving the overall sound a closed-in character that mirrored the 1B's tonal signature.

One characteristic that's linked all the high-end speakers I've known and loved has been their ability to truly disappear when I close my eyes. Not coincidentally, the best in this regard have served as my reference speakers throughout the years—first the Spica Angeluses, then the cool-man ProAc Response 2s, and now my current He-Man references, the NHT Model 3.3s. Although I still value tonal accuracy over space-trippin,' I can't really get into speakers on a long-term basis if they can't really disappear when I close my eyes, leaving only a vividly defined soundscape hanging in the air to happily diddle my brain's right side.

I mention all this because this is an area of performance in which the Vandersteen 1Bs singularly failed. The 1Bs were capable of a very distinct and palpable phantom center image if I sat right on the optimal vertical axis and dead-center in the Sweete Spotte, but moving my head even slightly in any direction created a weird comb-filtering effect that "jiggled" the image, much the way heat squiggling off hot pavement makes objects shimmy. I suspect the blame for this—and the 1Bs' overall poor performance in the area of soundstaging—lay in mounting the dowels on the cabinet face. I toed-in the 1Bs so they fired directly at the listening position, but the effect remained, consistently preventing the Vandersteens from disappearing in either of my two listening rooms.

Footnote 2: All hail reader Malcolm Alcala, who wrote me a letter that kicked my butt into going out and buying this too-cool CD—it rocks WAY HARD, and the sound's just as almighty. Good call, Malcolm!
Vandersteen Audio
116 West Fourth Street
Hanford, CA 93230
(559) 582-0324