Vandersteen Quatro Wood loudspeaker Page 2

The percussion and brass fortissimo in Variation VII almost propelled me physically deeper into the room. If you want to hear orchestral power, the Quatro Wood ought to rocket onto your list. At the same time, the strings had delicacy, sheen, and gloss that were convincing and extended.

That high-frequency smoothness and extension were put to the test with the Hot Club of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Bounce (CD, Reference RR-109CD). On track 1, "Mystery Pacific," violinist Evan Price and solo guitarist Paul Mehling leapt into the stratosphere with flurries of notes over the chugging rhythms of bassist Ari Munkres and guitarists Jeff Magidson and Jason Vanderford, and never came down for air until the disc was done.

Price's quicksilver fiddle was bright and bold, but never astringent. Oh, there were gobs of harmonic overtones shooting off the fundamentals, indicating beaucoup HF extension, but Price's tone was sweet and plangent. And, oh momma, is Mehling ever one fast-fingered guitarist! Whooowee, what runs, what flurries —and the Quatro Wood sorted them out with panache.

For female vocals, I've heard few speakers that equal the Quatro Wood. Jacqui McShee's pure soprano on "Willy O'Winsbury," from Pentangle's Solomon's Seal (CD, Castle 555), was butter. Its purity and transparency were rivaled only by the solidity of the sonic image —which was life-sized and present. If you can remain unmoved after hearing this Child ballad through the Quatros, you've a heart of stone (and ears to match, I fear).

Male vocals, particularly baritones, did not fare quite as well. Listening to John Cale's "Sylvia Said," from his The Island Years (CD, Island 524235), I found his voice lacked body. Cale's voice may be an acquired taste, but it's one I acquired in 1970, and I know that voice about as well as I know that of anyone I have never actually met. It may have vast crevices, but it's rooted in a definitely physical body —and that body was less than present through the Quatros. Cale's bass burbled and bubbled along at the bottom, quite full of zest and punch, and much of his upper range sounded perzackly as it ought, but his chest tones lacked a degree of punch and, oddly, drive.

That slight loss of propulsion was also evident on Sugar Hill: The Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (SACD, Chesky 333), particularly in Javon Jackson's tenor saxophone sound, which is quite warm and full-bodied. It continued to have warmth and heft through the Quatro Woods, but was slightly smaller —the burr of Jackson's upper octaves was intact, as was the growl of his deepest notes, but there was a loss of energy that seemed to diminish his contribution ever so slightly. Tony Reedus' drums do have heft and drive, and Paul Gill's bass digs deep and pushes along splendidly, so I'm not talking about a complete loss of physicality or drive —just an area where the Quatro is neither as transparent nor as invisible as throughout the rest of its range.

One other minor quibble —and I do mean minor —is that you optimize the Quatros for your seated listening position, which is fine: That is, after all, where I do my critical listening. One afternoon, however, I decided to listen to The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East: 1970 (CD, Grateful Dead 4063), and once Duane kicked into "Statesboro Blues," I couldn't sit still any more. I ran downstairs and grabbed my Telecaster out of my office, deciding (immodestly and illogically) that what the recording needed was a third guitarist.

Standing, attempting to find a rhythm groove, I found myself much less compelled to move, bop, and participate. The high frequencies were more pronounced, and much of the "presence" had evaporated. Hmmm, I thought. This is the difference you get when you become a participant rather than an observer. I sat down to ponder that, and suddenly everything popped back into focus and I leapt to my feet —only to sit back down again.

Yes, Vandersteen's adherence to "waveform preservation" does lock you into an optimal listening position, but, as he pointed out to me one day, many loudspeakers don't even give you that. The reason it took me so long to notice that the Quatros lost some of their magic when I stood up was that they pretty much pinned me to my seat when I was listening.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
I've had a passel of high-end speakers pass through my listening room in the last year, but the obvious point of comparison for the Quatro Wood was the Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy 8; not because the two speakers are similarly priced (the W/P8 costs $27,900/pair), but because they're almost identical in size and, I suspect, aspiration —meaning both offer optimum balances of excellence and price within their respective lines. Also, I hadn't yet shipped the W/P8s back to Wilson.

Elgar's Enigma Variations sounded immense through both pairs of speakers, but more forward through the Wilsons; the Quatros weren't so much more laid-back as smoother. Part of this was the more relaxed sound of the Quatros' highs, but a mild loss of upper-midbass energy may have also contributed. In terms of deep bass and slam, the two were amazingly close, although the Quatros' deepest tones were noticeably tighter.

The Hot Club of San Francisco's "Mystery Pacific" chugged along with a tad more immediacy through the W/P8s. They reproduced a sense of momentum that the more relaxed Quatros did not quite match. On the other hand, the Wilsons put a little more rosin on Evan Price's bow, giving his fiddle a sharper sound than did the Vandersteens —which, without reducing extension or harmonic overtones, made him sound sweeter and smoother.

"Sylvia Said" sounded more like the John Cale I know through the W/P8s —his voice projected his size and power, while the Quatros slimmed him down a weight class. The Vandersteens delivered a smoother, calmer Cale —which, oddly enough, has actually happened over the years, but had not when he recorded this track. I did think the sound of the organ and Cale's viola had a more plaintive sound through the Quatro Woods, however.

Sugar Hill had more Javon Jackson through the WATT/Puppys —not an immense amount, but there was more honk in his tenor. It didn't change his sax into a soprano, but there was a difference in perspective and power through the Vandersteens. Gill's bass did seem more propulsive through the Vandersteens, although in general, the Wilsons had a bit more bouncy energy throughout the comparison.

And yes, I did manage to add a Tele to the Allmans' Fillmore East: 1970 with the Wilsons. I can't play rock'n'roll sitting down —I don't develop the full extent of my guitar face sitting down, so I have to stand, which the W/P8s accommodated better than the Quatros. Strangely, my playing still sucked.

By and large, the Vandersteen Quatro Wood is a worthy competitor to the Wilson WATT/Puppy 8, which is high praise. In fact, if you've auditioned the Wilson and found it a bit too present and punchy, the Quatro Wood might be precisely the speaker you're looking for.

Heap on more wood
I adored the Vandersteen Quatro Wood. It isn't perfect, but no speaker is. The slight tonal shift in its lower-midrange/upper-midbass area was noticeable, but no more annoying than other highly lauded loudspeakers' HF tilt or slight bass bloat —indeed, to some ears, far less so.

What the Quatro Wood did well, it did so well that I find it easy to forgive its shortcomings. When the speakers were tuned to my room, they had deep, tight bass that really recreated the majesty of music's foundation. They delivered a huge, detailed, transparent soundstage that gave me all of the music without obscuring any of its details. And I found the speaker's representations of female voices, stringed instruments, and ambient detail about as good as those of any speaker I've ever heard —which, from an old Quad owner, is high praise indeed.

Factor in price, and you've really got something. Eleven grand ain't cheap, but the Quatro Wood is essentially handmade, and its levels of build and engineering are extremely high. All of its drivers are designed and/or built by Vandersteen, and it features unique technologies, such as its transmission-line backwave loading, that other speaker manufacturers haven't even thought about. All of that come at a price, but the other speakers to which I would compare it cost two and three times more.

Richard Vandersteen, an American classic himself, has come up with a speaker as forthright and down to earth as he is. That's really saying something [slaps table with open palm].

Vandersteen Audio, Inc.
116 W. Fourth Street
Hanford, CA 93230
(559) 582-0324