Vandersteen Audio Quatro loudspeaker Page 2

Well-recorded, simply miked orchestral music produced dramatic front-to-back layering and pinpoint lateral delineation of individual instruments and whole orchestral sections that often exceeded what I normally hear in a concert hall, but the information had clearly been picked up by the microphones. Rather than being a distraction, the enhanced spatial resolution proved an engaging listening enhancement.

During the month or so the Quatros were in my system, the finest, most simply miked live recordings in my collection found their way to the front of my "must listen" list in short order, and my expectations for them were always met and usually exceeded.

Unfortunately, I've dished out well-deserved imaging and soundstaging superlatives over many years of reviewing some outstanding loudspeakers, and chances are they've ended up on your review-reading plate like so much prison slop—so please forgive me when I say that, in most ways, the Quatro set new standards of imaging and soundstaging in my room.

Staging and imaging are not the most important performance parameters for every listener, especially those more interested in overall "musicality" than in sonic theatrics. But the Quatros' image clarity, focus, and solidity, combined with the blackness of the "dropoff" just beyond the bounds of the projected images, were so unusually pronounced that they demanded attention.

For well over 35 years now I've been playing Pentangle's superbly recorded Sweet Child (2 LPs, Transatlantic TRA 132), disc 1 of which was recorded live in June 1968 at the Royal Festival Hall by Damon Lyon-Shaw (who mixed The Who's Tommy). The Quatros reproduced this spacious recording with exceptional clarity, transparency, and three-dimensionality. Getting a "wow" experience from a recording you've been enjoying for 35 years is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this hobby—and this job.

Side 2 opens with "Three Dances"—short dance dunes from the 14th and 16th centuries, played by Terry Cox on glockenspiel and John Renbourn on guitar. I had never before heard the musicians so compactly and finely focused to produce images that almost glistened, framed by a vast expanse of clearly delineated hall—nor had I heard the cool, bell-toned attack of the glockenspiel reproduced with such crisp, delicately nuanced precision.

In short, what I thought I'd heard in Indianapolis was confirmed at home. With the exception of stage height, which I thought flew a bit under the radar, the Quatros' organizational talents, and their ability to project three-dimensional spaces and array precisely focused, solid images within those spaces, bested those of every other speaker I've reviewed, including my reference Wilson MAXX2s, which sound somewhat vague by comparison.

Tonal balance? Detractors like to say that Vandersteen speakers tend to sound thick and somewhat slow on bottom, and lacking in bloom and harmonic development in the midrange. That's how the big Vandersteen 5 has always sounded to me at trade shows, perhaps due to less than ideal setup.

Not so the Quatro, either during that Indy encounter or at home. Instead, once I'd achieved a proper blend of woofer midrange drivers—and leaving the Q control centered—I found the speaker's bottom end to be deep (down to around 30Hz), well controlled, and, most important, not noticeable as "bass" but rather as an integral part of the musical picture. The well-damped, powered bottom end never intruded into the midbass, so the sound never became noticeably thickened or slowed-down. In fact, rhythmically, the Quatro was lithe, fast, and involving from top to bottom.

As bassist John Atkinson discovered when listening to Jack Bruce's performance on the stunning three-LP edition of Cream's Royal Albert Hall, London May 2-3-5-6 2005 (Reprise 49416-1), mastered by Stan Ricker, the Quatro provided generous yet supple and nuanced deep bass that transitioned seamlessly into the midbass to produce an impressively uncongested musical foundation. Of course, playing these discs on the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable didn't exactly inhibit the bass presentation!

The midrange was equally open, smooth, and uncongested, allowing subtle musical expression to pass unhindered, though those used to more midband richness may find the Quatro's mids a bit reticent and less than fully fleshed out. I found that my favorite piano recordings, ones easily capable of revealing an overly warm or threadbare midrange, sounded neither boxy and overripe nor recessed and lacking in harmonic development. As hands made their way up and down the keyboard, the piano's image neither expanded nor contracted, indicating smooth response from the lower midband up.

One evening I played a stereo LP of trumpeter Lee Morgan's seductive The Sidewinder (Blue Note BST-84157) that I've heard countless times. I was startled to hear a long, familiar Morgan solo expressed with a level of delicacy, subtlety, and mike savvy—the way Morgan approaches and backs away from the recording microphone, depending on the intensity of his output—that most speakers gloss over. I found the balance of air and metallic brassiness to be about ideal, though the physicality of the trumpet's bell was not as prominently expressed as I've heard it.

On top, the Quatro's ceramic-coated, metal-dome tweeter sounded airy, extended, smooth, and free of obvious grain or audible peaks, though not quite as supple and silky as, say, Dynaudio's Esotar tweeter, which remains one of my favorites (though not everyone's). The Quatro's treble performance may strike some as too honest—it could easily reveal a too-heavy hand on the top-end EQ of many recordings, and often did.

The 180gm LPs of Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat—cut from the ½", 30ips analog master tape—arrived during the review. While I found the sound stunning (especially after a month with the CD), I thought the cymbals were somewhat hard and unrelenting. With the Wilson MAXX2s back in the system, the cymbals settled farther back into the mix, which made them easier to take, though at the cost of some detail and dimensionality. Which was "right," which "wrong"? Unfortunately, unlike video, there is no standard. I'd have to get Fagen or engineer Elliot Scheiner down here to tell me.

Put it all together and, tonally, the Vandersteen Quatro is an effectively balanced loudspeaker that places a premium on honesty and even-handedness. Given that too many recordings are mixed to sound bright, this honesty is occasionally at the expense of listenability. However, because the Quatro laid it all out well back in physical space, it never sounded aggressive or in-your-face, even when the recording was bright. Yet there was sufficient immediacy and presence to keep listening involvement at all times on high alert—the balance was anything but laid-back. When just kicking back and enjoying music (as opposed to analyzing sound) without applying a microscope to any particular region of the frequency band, I found the Quatro's tonal accuracy, harmonic richness, and rhythmic spring convincing, appealing, and emotionally involving with every genre of music.

In terms of dynamics, I couldn't fault the Quatro, at least in a room of small to medium size such as my own—though it also did an excellent job in ARC's large room at the CEDIA Expo.

I wish I could live my speaker-reviewing life (so far) backward. In the past few years I've reviewed many speakers, some noteworthy, some not. I'd relish the luxury of writing the reviews after first having listened to them all for the perspective it would provide, but that's impossible.

I gave the $6495/pair Audio Physic Scorpio a well-deserved positive review in June, and now here I am doing likewise with a $7590/pair speaker featuring sophisticated powered woofers, and imaging and soundstaging capabilities second to no speaker I've heard at any price. Unfortunately, I hadn't heard both before reviewing the first.

That said, the Scorpio gives you very impressive imaging and soundstaging and sleek, gorgeous, well-veneered good looks, while the Quatro gives you state-of-the-art imaging and soundstaging wrapped in a black sock (again, there's also a more-expensive "all-wood" version). Making these comparisons involves tradeoffs beyond the realm of sonic performance.

After my review of the Wilson MAXX2s was published in August 2005, after I'd bought them (I owe the bank another $235 at the time of writing and then they're mine), and after I'd asked to review the Quatros but before hearing them, I got involved in an online tiff with a Vandersteen Audio enthusiast/reviewer who basically dismissed the MAXX2, and Wilson designs in general, with what seemed a doctrinaire diatribe that I found alternately amusing and disturbing. You can bet the folks at Wilson Audio were not amused.

Now that I've had a chance to spend some serious time with the Quatro, I can agree with the Vandersteen protagonist that, overall, the Quatro at $6995/pair does image and soundstage better than the MAXX2 at $44,900/pair, and better than just about any other speaker I've heard at any price.

When I reviewed the MAXX2, I noted that its high-frequency resolution wasn't the state of the art but, as with any speaker, was the result of a series of design and performance compromises that reflect its designer's preferences and philosophy.

The Quatro—like all of Richard Vandersteen's speakers—is designed to retrieve as much recorded information as possible by providing phase and time coherence, as well as reliably flat amplitude response at the listening position. We'll see if JA's measurements fulfill that promise.

As an analytical tool that can reveal nearly everything about a recording—including, in most cases, where the microphones were placed—the Quatro is near the head of the class, and at a cost that makes it among the best loudspeaker values that I am aware of. While its impedance curve is claimed to be amplifier friendly at between 4 and 8 ohms across the audioband, its 87dB sensitivity means the speaker will require some power to reach high levels.

I found the Quatros' sonic picture extraordinarily detailed and musically convincing, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I also found myself often watching and listening from the outside—enjoying, observing, and admiring, but not particularly engaged emotionally on a visceral level. Those were times when the speaker suffered from a "distortion" I call TMI, or Too Much Information. Some would say you can never have too much information. I disagree. The recording art aims at creating the illusion of reality. When the actor flies, I'd rather not see the wires.

Overall, however, the Quatro struck me as accomplished sounding and impeccably designed, and almost a full-range loudspeaker. Considering its price of $7590/pair with in-line filters, it's also an incredible value—if not the greatest value in a loudspeaker that I can think of today.

Vandersteen Audio
116 West Fourth Street
Hanford, CA 93230
(559) 582-0324