Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition loudspeaker

I was stationed in Germany in the Air Force for two years in the 1980s, and for one long weekend off had to decide whether to visit Berlin, or travel to Austria and see Vienna. I was told that Berlin, then still divided by the Wall, consisted of late-20th-century high-rises (West) and Concrete Collective Chic (East).

I went to Vienna. It was and is a beautiful city, with much of its late 19th- and early 20th-century character still intact. And while there will always be other claimants to the honor, it's arguably still the classical-music center of the planet. I managed to score standing room for a performance of Puccini's Turandot at the Vienna State Opera (as I recall, standing room at the time was the equivalent of about $1 US). Act 1 was so rough that it evoked catcalls from the unforgiving Viennese audience, but after that, things settled in nicely.

Vienna is also the headquarters of Vienna Acoustics, says Capt. Obvious (though today you can't always be sure of such things). Peter Gansterer, who remains both its head and chief designer, founded the company in 1989. My first experience of listening to their loudspeakers was some 10 years ago, at a Consumer Electronics Show. When I walked into VA's room, the speakers I spotted very much resembled, at least physically, the company's current Concert Grand Series—the same slender cabinets populated by several drive-units, the largest of which was about 6" in diameter but looked smaller, and the same transparent plastic cones, ribbed to enhance their pistonic movement.

But it wasn't the beautiful cabinets and unusual-looking drivers that seized, then held my attention. It was the sound. In a sea of speakers humming away in other rooms at that show, many of them apparently designed to sound polite and laid-back in the fashion then and still popular, the Viennas jumped out and grabbed me with their punchy, quick, even vivid sound. But they weren't just impressively dynamic; they sang to me. The audition was far too brief—though I've long forgotten most rooms at most audio shows, that one I remember.

But while I've been reviewing speakers longer than the company has been in business, never, until now, had I had the opportunity to live with a pair of Vienna Acoustics for an extended period. The planets were never quite in alignment, perhaps because by the mid-1990s I had become occupied with Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, and Vienna Acoustics didn't enjoy wide visibility in that part of the audio market. Much later, Steven Stone reviewed their Strauss surround-speaker package in SGHT, but I never heard the system. Currently, Vienna Acoustics offers the Maestro Grand center-channel model, an on-wall speaker in its Concert Grand series that's also suitable for surround use, and the Poetry, a center-channel for its upmarket Klimt line.

All of the final assembly for Vienna Acoustics speakers takes place near Vienna, but the cabinets are actually made in Italy. The company also designs its own drivers, and has them built to its specs elsewhere in Europe, by companies such as Scan-Speak and Eton. Driver design and speaker system design are very different skill sets, and while many speaker makers say that they design and sometimes even build their own drivers, that's often a bit of a stretch. But I can confirm that the woofer and midrange drivers in the Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition ($6000/pair) look like nothing I've seen elsewhere. I'm quite familiar with the stock catalog drivers made by companies such as SEAS, Scan-Speak, Vifa, Eton, and others—many are first-class products, and you might be surprised by the pedigrees of the companies that use them. But some manufacturers want something more exclusive, or have ideas of their own they want implemented. Vienna Acoustics is clearly one of the latter. For example, the tweeter used in the Baby Grand is new with the Symphony Edition but is also used in some of VA's pricier designs. It looks generic, but the secret sauce of any driver is seldom revealed by looks alone.

Vienna Acoustics calls the unique, transparent material used in the Baby Grand's woofer and midrange cones X3P—it's a combination of the thermoplastic TPX and three polypropylene-based synthetics. The stiffening ribs in the woofer cones are clearly visible—Vienna Acoustics call this their Spider-Cone design, for obvious reasons. But the midrange driver omits the ribs. This must have been a deliberate design choice—the midrange in the earlier version of the Beethoven Baby Grand (the non–Symphony Edition)—does have the ribs. The speaker's crossover network employs first- and second-order filters at 150Hz and 2.3kHz.

The cabinets aren't all that large by the standards of $6000/pair floorstanders, but they're solidly braced and beautifully made. Of the four available finishes, Piano White and Rosewood are extra-cost options. The review samples were in a Piano Black that would likely meet with Steinway's approval. The cabinet is narrow, but stabilized by outriggers fitted with spikes hefty enough to secure the rails on the first leg of California's planned high-speed train to nowhere (with apologies to Fresnoans and Bakersfieldians). They can be easily adjusted and locked from the top.

Around back are a single port and a single pair of binding posts; Vienna Acoustics is no fan of biwiring, but these are some of the best posts I've seen. They can accept banana plugs or spades, are well spaced and not recessed, and can be easily tightened with the fingers. Grilles are provided, but were not used in the review.

Room, Setup, Gear
I set up the Beethoven Baby Grands in my listening room, which is 27' long by 15.5' (at its widest) by 8' high. All of the windows are blocked with lightweight soundboard (Homasote, or something similar), installed to accommodate the video-projection chores I was doing for SGHT when I first set up shop here, in 2000. (SGHT was retitled Stereophile Ultimate AVin 2004, and was combined with Home Theater magazine in 2008; the latter morphed into the present Sound & Vision in 2013.) The soundboard does have some acoustic effects in addition to its primary purpose of blocking light for daytime video evaluations, and it's certainly more acoustically dead than the glass window itself, which occupies much of the long wall adjacent to the right speaker.

The setup I still employ was judged optimal when I acquired this room in 2000, and since then has changed only slightly—mostly with a wider loudspeaker spacing to accommodate a new, 96"-wide projection screen (retracted and out of the, um, picture for this review). The front speakers sit about 7' out from the short wall behind them, firing down the room's length. The left speaker is about 4' from the left wall, the right speaker about 3' from the right, and both are toed in toward the center listening seat. A carpet covers most of the oak floor, which is laid over a crawl space, not a concrete slab. With the carpet, the soundboard, and a few additional acoustic panels, the acoustics of the room are a bit better damped than a typical domestic room of this size. Shelves full of LPs, CDs, SACDs, DVDs, BDs, and even LDs (laserdiscs!) provide useful diffusion. The walls are lath and plaster, not drywall. A doorway to the kitchen opens to the left of the left speaker; two other doors are generally left closed during listening.

The Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Editions arrived in two shipping boxes joined at the hip. Each box was little wider than the speaker inside and, by itself, very unstable. Unless the two boxes are lashed together, they can easily fall over in shipment. Both speakers bore the same serial number, which suggests that they were matched at the factory (though Vienna makes no such claim).

I drove the Viennas full-range with two-channel sources, at first using my resident Integra DTC-9.8 surround-sound processor strictly as a 2.0-channel digital preamp, and later swapping it for a strictly analog Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate preamplifier. The primary power amplifier was a Parasound Halo A 51—a five-channel amplifier, though for this review I used only two channels. The source was a Marantz UD7007 universal Blu-ray player connected to the Integra with a coaxial digital cable, or to the Consummate via analog interconnects.

V.A. Lautsprechermanufacktur GmbH
US distributor: VANA Ltd.
778 Third Street, Unit C
Mukilteo, WA 98275
(425) 610-4532