Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II loudspeaker & M7-HPA monoblock power amplifier Page 2

These review samples were much-traveled, having been used at last fall's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and in subsequent photography sessions and dealer demos. "We have very recently discovered that this failure is related to an issue with the crating/packaging that the amplifiers ship in," Richard Vandersteen e-mailed me. "While they are packed sturdily and rigidly fastened to the crates, they are too rigidly held to withstand the constant shaking of shipping over a period of days as shipping invariably requires."

At the time of writing, the repaired amplifiers have been continually powered up for more than a month, other than being switched into standby when I am at the office. Neither has turned itself off or suffered any repeat of the failure.

Vandersteen Audio warns that the M7-HPA takes a long time to break in—the dielectrics of the internal components and the DC-biased cables take about six weeks to fully form—after which, the amplifier will reach its full sonic potential some 15 minutes after being switched out of standby. That was my experience.

When I had auditioned the original Sevens in Michael Fremer's room, the low frequencies had a somewhat disconnected quality, with an elevated low bass. In my room, the low-frequency warble tones on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) were a little elevated between 125 and 200Hz through the Seven Mk.IIs, compared to the levels immediately above and below that region. Overall, however, the tones were relatively evenly balanced, and were strong down to the 25Hz band. I couldn't actually "hear" the 20Hz warble tone, but was aware of a pressure on my ears that ceased when I paused playback. This suggests that Vandersteen's subwoofer has low distortion. The half-step–spaced tonebursts on this disc spoke evenly, with good articulation, which was confirmed by the evenness of the bass-guitar lines in the Commitments' version of "Nowhere to Run," from The Commitments: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA/Tidal stream).

The Seven Mk.II's excellent low-frequency extension could be appreciated not only with pipe-organ recordings—such as my as-yet-unreleased recording of Jonas Nordwall performing the Toccata of Widor's Organ Symphony 5 in Portland's First United Methodist Church (24/88.2 AIFF)—but also with the awesome synth bass line of "Royals," from Lorde's Pure Heroine (Republic/Tidal stream). Some years ago, I recorded erstwhile Stereophile staffer Ariel Bitran's band; in the mixes of those songs, I tried to re-create the low-frequency magnificence of live rock. The Vandersteen system was sufficiently transparent in the bass that I could readily hear how the dCS Vivaldi kept the intentionally phat bass-guitar lines better differentiated from the kick drum than did the PS Audio DirectStream DAC, especially when the bassist drops an octave at the start of a phrase.

Moving higher in frequency, Richard Lehnert's spoken introductions to the "Channel Identification" and "Channel Phasing" tracks on Editor's Choice sounded uncolored. Dual-mono pink noise sounded evenly balanced, though if I sat upright so that my ears were above the tweeter axis rather than level with the upper-midrange unit, a narrow band of brightness became audible. But on the optimal axis, with my ears 36" from the floor, there was delicious solidity to the sound even when the recording was mono, such as the Wilson Pickett hit "634-5789," from The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (Atlantic/Rhino/Tidal stream). And again, the evenness and weight of the bass-guitar lines in this classic recording were impressive.

The Vandersteens' high frequencies seamlessly blended with their midrange. I usually kept the rear tweeter turned off, but it did add a useful degree of air in the top octaves with naturally balanced classical recordings or old mono recordings, such as Nathan Milstein's 1951 performance of Dvorák's Violin Concerto in a, with Antal Doráti conducting the Minneapolis Orchestra (CD, Naxos Historical 8.110975), which John Marks had recommended. However, when the recording was itself a little hot in the highs, as in Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony's of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (CD, Decca), the rear tweeter was too much.

But even without the rear tweeter, the Seven Mk.II's treble transparency was impressive. The improvement offered by an expensive AudioQuest Diamond USB cable over a Belkin Gold USB cable was distressingly audible, even when the latter was helped by an AudioQuest JitterBug at one end and an UpTone ReGen USB at the other!

When I sat in the listening chair, the Vandersteen system threw a detailed, precisely positioned soundstage. The central image with dual-mono pink noise was appropriately narrow, and didn't splash to the sides at any frequencies. Equally important, the system made recorded reverberation more apparent than I usually hear it. On my 2006 recording of Cantus singing Stanford's Songs of the Sea, from Cantus's There Lies the Home (CD, Cantus CTS-1206), the image of solo baritone Kelvin Chan hung there between the speakers, but the acoustic of the Great Hall in the Washington Pavilion of the Arts and Sciences, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was more evident than I remembered when I recorded this album there.

Similarly, the inspired conversation between Jon Hassell's trumpet and Jacky Terrasson's piano in "Suite de Caravan," from Hassell's 1999 album Fascinoma (24-bit/88.2kHz ALAC file, Water Lily Acoustics), sounded more distant. I can only conjecture that the Vandersteens' time-coherent behavior on their optimal axis allows the brain to more readily make sense of the aural cues in the recording to reconstruct an internal model of the recorded acoustic.

Speakers Alone
As I'd been sent a pair of Vandersteen's passive balanced low-pass filters for use with amplifiers other than the M7-HPAs, I tried driving the Model Seven Mk.IIs with my longtime reference amps, the Pass Labs XA60.5 monoblocks, adjusting the filters for the Passes' input impedance of 17k ohms. This combination worked very well, the amplifiers preserving the positive aspects of the speakers' performance. However, the mid-treble was a little more emphasized than it had been with the Vandersteen amplifiers, and the overall sound was both a little drier and a tad less forceful. There did seem to be a certain synergy between the Vandersteen speakers and Vandersteen amplifiers.

Amplifiers Alone
Although the M7-HPAs are dedicated to the Vandersteen speakers, I did set them up with a pair of KEF LS50s, to get a handle on their intrinsic sound. The amplifier's inherent low-frequency rolloff was not too much of a problem if I chose the music carefully, and I spent a pleasant afternoon with this combination of a $52,000 pair of monoblocks driving a $1500 pair of speakers. My basic impression was that the M7-HPA sounded sweet without any attenuation of the high frequencies. The midrange, in particular, complemented the KEFs' natural presentation of female voices. Whether it was Lorde's "Royals" or the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's 1998 Wigmore Hall recital (ALAC file ripped from CD, Wigmore Hall Live 0013), there was a compelling palpability to these ladies' aural images. I would love to hear what a full-range version of the M7-HPA might sound like.

At the end of the 1980s, my system was based on Vandersteen's 2Ciloudspeaker. Priced at $1195/pair (plus $220/pair for the optional Sound Anchor plinths) in 1989, this tower speaker typified what I quoted Richard Vandersteen as saying at the start of this review: The 2Ci offered greater value than the customer would expect at its price. And it still does—last year, I spent a pleasant afternoon in Oregon listening to the pair owned by Stereophile's longtime copyeditor, Richard Lehnert.

But with the combination of the Model Seven Mk.IIs and M7-HPAs—which, at $114,000/system, cost 95 times the late-'80s cost of a pair of 2Ci's—the concept of "value" is much harder to quantify. All I can say is that I greatly enjoyed my three months with Vandersteen's flagship system. The combination of true full-range sound, superb transparency and soundstaging, and a magically palpable way with recorded voices, is hard to beat unless you spend a lot more money. Which sort of puts the system in the same category as the Model 2. Sort of.

ctsooner's picture

What a great review of an amazing powered speaker system with what sounds like some first ever experiences, especially with some of your own recordings. I must admit though that after reading the conclusion I wondered why you withheld any recommendation for this system. I read your first paragraph and you spoke about getting more that you expected. After rereading your review, I get that same feeling you had with the original 2's. Can you highly recommend this system? Thanks I value your response.

John Atkinson's picture
ctsooner wrote:
After rereading your review, I get that same feeling you had with the original 2's. Can you highly recommend this system?

Yes Indeed. It broke my heart when the shipping company picked it up last week to be returned to Vandersteen. And a full-range version of the Vandersteen M7-HPA monoblock would be a wondrous amplifier indeed!

But there is a certain relief in being back in the land of audio components that I can actually afford!

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

ctsooner's picture

John, thanks so much for responding and sharing your thoughts. The best thing about Vandersteen is that they DO have affordable for nearly anyone as they have a trickle down, signature sound. I converted to them a few years ago as a lower cost of admission and am very happy with them.

Sea Otter's picture

Good to see a designer sticking with his inordinate design criteria, and taking it to it's logical extremes. I believe he has developed what may be the best cone construction in the industry with his carbon/balsa drivers.

While his speakers aren't quite my cup of tea, I certainly respect him as one of the most diligent and talented designers in the industry.

Alpinist's picture

I recently purchased the Vandersteen Model Seven Mk II Speakers and Vandersteen M7-HPA Mono Amps from John Rutan at Audio Connection. John positioned the speakers in my family room using laser sighting and tuned the speakers' powered subwoofers with their 11-band equalization to give an even response in my room across their frequency range.

The ability to tune the bass on these speakers has made them integrate into my room better than any of the other speakers I have previously owned. Consequently, the bass creates the perfect cohesive foundation for the midrange and treble in my listening room. John was also nice enough to loan me an Audio Research Reference CD-9 Digital Player, Audio Research Reference 6 Preamp and AudioQuest Fire Interconnects.

The synergy of the Vandersteen speakers and mono amps, combined with the Audio Research preamp and digital player, has resulted in the highest sound quality I have ever heard and it is occurring right in my non-dedicated listening room!

The Vandersteen/ARC/AQ system is producing amazing tonality. Midrange body, weight and bloom. Tremendous ease without a hint of solid state or digital edge. Vocals and instruments are holographic and float in space with wonderful separation between vocal and instrumental lines. The soundstage, depending on the recording, can be very wide and deep, extending well beyond the walls of my room. Bass is very robust and lifelike with wonderful texture and goes down to subterranean levels. Deep pipe organ notes are felt to the core. It feels like I'm in a cathedral. Female jazz vocals are as smooth as silk with zero sibilance. Trumpets really have that blatt sound. Violins sound like wooden boxes, not glass ones. Dynamics are lightning fast and powerful. The pure silver AudioQuest cabling enhances detail and nuance with no additional treble or midrange brightness.

To sum it up, for the first time ever, I am totally content with the world class sound quality I am enjoying. The system sounds so lifelike, I forget about the components and become totally immersed in the music. I often listen very late into the night, mining my music collection to rediscover old favorites. Mr. Vandersteen, you hit it out of the ballpark with this speaker/amp combo!