[SoundStage!]SoundStage! Interviews
December 1998

Richard Vandersteen of Vandersteen Audio: Part Three

by Doug Blackburn (db@soundstage.com)

Continued from Part Two

dB: Let’s change the subject a bit. What’s different about the Model 5 loudspeaker compared to other $10,000 loudspeakers that don’t have power cords coming out the back of them?

RV: [laughs] First, the Model 5’s starting point was everything we learned doing all of our other loudspeakers. If you take the five-sided grille cloth cover off the head of the Model 5 and ignore the beautiful wood finishes we use, you’ll find that the working structure of the 5 is an evolution of every Vandersteen loudspeaker ever made. The head of the 5 is a Star Wars-looking thing with a tweeter, a midrange and a woofer. Each driver has a separate transmission line that is better at damping the back wave off of the drivers than any loudspeaker enclosure we’ve been able to create before. The tweeter and midrange driver are in terminated transmission lines, which means they are sealed, labyrinth-like passages that contain damping materials. The shape of the transmission line is very irregular. This combines with the damping materials to reduce the energy in the back wave from the drivers. The woofer is in what we call a resistive transmission line, which I don’t want to go into too much detail about. It’s a very special enclosure that lets us do things with the woofer that we could not do otherwise. We do as many things as we can to eliminate the baffle, the flat areas around the drivers, to minimize the size of the baffle in relation to the size of the driver. Like all the other Vandersteen loudspeakers, the crossover uses only time-and-phase-correct filter networks.

The real essence of the Model 5 is that it is a cost-no-object Model 3A with a cost-no-object 2W powered subwoofer, all built into a single very elegant package. The cost-no-object factor let us do some more extravagant things to make the enclosure as inert as possible. We were able to play with dimensions and get a width and depth that make the speaker very stable in all directions. Of course we were able to do things with the drivers that go beyond even what we are able to do at the price points of the 3A and 2W subwoofer. We believe that the Model 5 contains the most advanced drivers in the world.

We were able to enhance the power and performance of the amplifier that powers the self-contained subwoofer. We retained the connection for the subwoofer to the main amp that we use with the 2W. This way, no matter what main amplifier you use, the bass of the Model 5 will maintain the same character as the bass of the main amplifier making the subwoofer section more coherent with the rest of the loudspeaker. We were able to spend some money on tooling to build some of the proprietary pieces for the Model 5 that help to make it something really special.

We have what we like to think of as a buyer-protection plan. The Model 3A and 2W for example, we promise customers that they will be able to upgrade both of those products in the future as improvements are made. Because of the way the loudspeakers are made, this usually means the speakers have to be sent back to the factory for the updating. So it isn’t something people will do often, but it is there and we do this kind of work regularly. Many pairs of Model 3 loudspeakers have been upgraded to Model 3A, which is a significant upgrade, for example.

The Model 5 continues this upgrade/update guarantee path, making it a solid long-term investment, but we made it even better. We guarantee Model 5 customers that all upgrades and updates, whether to drivers, crossovers or amplifier are able to be performed in the customer’s home with a Phillips screwdriver and a soldering pencil. We realize this is a very expensive purchase for many of our customers and we believe that protecting the customer’s purchase with an in-home update/upgrade program is something our Model 5 customers deserve. Most audiophiles who have been doing the high-end thing for any length of time have been through the pain of not being able to get more than half of their original purchase price for a component that is only a year or two old. Doing that very often with products costing $10,000 or more would tire me out, so I did as much as I could in the Model 5 to avoid putting our customers through that.

All the things the Model 5 does so well have been dealt with in our other loudspeakers. It’s just that in the Model 5 it’s all taken to the extreme.

dB: I’ve heard comments from people a few times about a couple of things they don’t like about the Model 5. One criticism was having the 9-volt batteries that bias the capacitors in the crossover soldered into the circuit so that owners can’t access the batteries and change them themselves. The other thing was the setup of the bass response of the subwoofer, which apparently requires some special training to do correctly. The concern being that if owners want or need to move the Model 5s after the dealer has installed them, they wouldn’t be able to get the bass right without the dealer coming back to adjust the many poles that help contour the response of the subwoofer.

RV: We have been able to refine the setup of the bass contour controls significantly since the introduction of the Model 5s. The owner’s manual now contains what we think are very clear instructions on how an owner can do these adjustments himself. It does require the use of a real-time analyzer, which is easy to rent from many sources in many cities -- even by mail. But our belief is that the customer who spends that kind of money on a loudspeaker deserves to be able to call the dealer and have him come by within a reasonable time window and do the setup. It isn’t like the bass is going to completely fall apart if you move the speakers six inches or a foot, so you don’t necessarily need 911 bass paramedics to show up every time you change the speaker position a little bit. We couldn’t get the subwoofer to integrate properly without doing the bass contouring the way we did it. So basically there would have been no Model 5 without the bass contouring the way it is. Other manufacturers chose to make essentially non-adjustable bass response in their flagship products. We chose something more complicated that might be a small inconvenience a couple of times over the life of the loudspeaker, but the results are unlike anything else on the market.

We felt that having the dealer do the bass setup on the Model 5 was the best route to take because it does take some time. You get better at it with practice too. Since dealers see many more pairs of Model 5s than the owner of a pair, the dealer is the person who is going to get all the setup experience. But our instructions in the owner’s manual do work and we do have customers doing their own bass alignment using a rented or purchased real-time analyzer.

The crossover bias batteries have an expected lifetime of at least five years. There is no current draw on the batteries. So the lifetime is essentially the same as if the batteries were sitting on a shelf in their unopened package. The batteries must be soldered in because any noise at all at that connection produces a 9-volt transient. If you put 9 volts into any modern amplifier, the amplifier thinks you are trying to reproduce an earthquake and it will do its best to bring down the house. This will cause serious, serious damage to the loudspeaker. Most amplifiers are driven to full power with 1.5 volts or so. So you can only imagine what 9 volts would do to the subwoofer amp. I have no problem with knowledgeable customers soldering in replacement batteries into their Model 5s as long as they understand what they are doing. They need to have soldering skills and realize that they have to unplug the Model 5s from the wall so that the subwoofer amplifier is off when the batteries are changed. Model 5 owners without the technical skills to replace the batteries should ask their dealer. Again, nothing catastrophic happens if the batteries die. The Model 5s keep on working fine. There is a very small degradation in sound quality, but certainly nothing serious. The bias batteries are one of those cost-no-object things that enhance performance a little bit.

Nobody has complained to me about either one of those features of the Model 5, by the way. [laughs]

dB: Must be some picky audiophiles looking for excuses. [both laugh]

dB: Today you see a fair number of loudspeakers being made with minimalist crossovers, perhaps a single capacitor to roll off the bottom end of a tweeter and a single inductor to roll off the top end of a woofer. Or in some cases, no crossover components at all, relying on the characteristics of the driver and enclosure to roll off the bottom and/or top end of the driver’s response. What’s going on with these kinds of designs?

RV: If they use good basic drivers, it would certainly be better-sounding than a poorly done complex high-order crossover. That’s a fact. One of the reasons these kinds of designs are so popular is because they remove tens or hundreds of opportunities for the engineer to make severe mistakes. Because of that, these minimal designs will tend, as a group, to sound pretty good. On the other hand, that minimal approach will never be a substitute for a properly designed complex crossover with good parts quality combined with excellent drivers. When you take the time to design the complex crossover well you can do more things. You can control things better. Nowadays with good film capacitors and air-core inductors it is possible to make crossovers for 150Hz and higher that have no insertion loss. You have to know how to engineer crossover in a different way though. You have to be able to design the crossover, treating the acoustic properties of the driver and the electrical characteristics of the crossover as elements of a single entity. Even the wire connecting the driver to the crossover is part of this entity and has to be accounted for in the design. You can actually surpass what you can do with biamplifying and an outboard electronic crossover.

[dB notes: This is the first time I’ve heard anyone who actually knows what is possible in both passive and active crossover realms make a claim like this. No longer are passive crossovers, 150Hz and up, necessary evils as we have been led to believe from our earliest audiophile days.]

Below 150Hz you have some problems because the magnitude of the impedance swings is large. You’re looking at very large inductors, which get very cumbersome. You’re also looking at probably having to use electrolytic capacitors because the capacitance values you need are so high. We overcome that by building the crossover response we need right into the amplifier that powers the subwoofer in the Model 5 and 2W and using simple capacitor as high pass filters for the bottom-end roll-off of the woofer. These low-frequency passive crossovers are still very difficult to do even with the best parts that are available today.

But above 150Hz, today’s parts let you design a passive crossover that is far, far better than active crossovers if you know how to design the crossover to account for the acoustic properties of the driver and the electrical properties of the crossover as a single entity.

dB: Do you have any favorite music, CD or LP, you use for evaluating loudspeakers or systems that people could go out and buy today?

RV: I don’t have anything special that comes to mind. But I have found that what gets you closer to the truth is getting familiar with a broad spectrum of music.

We use our own master tapes, not because they are so great or so well done, but because I know exactly what was going on when they were made -- that makes them the ultimate reference. I can’t imagine being a speaker designer or manufacturer and having to rely on commercial recordings to reveal whether design A or design B in the speaker is more right or more wrong. You don’t really know what the commercial recording sounds like -- you have no reference to it. You weren’t there when it was recorded and mastered. We did turn two of our master tapes into CDs and LPs. They aren’t as revealing as the master tapes, but they are pretty good. Chico Freeman Saudades [Water Lily WLA-CS-16-CD] and Terry Garrison Only Love [Vandersteen Audio VA-CD1]. Their biggest merits to me are that I was there when they were made. I setup the recording system myself and sent clicks though it to verify that I was polarity correct through the entire recording chain. I also used a single stereo microphone to do the recordings to insure that there were no time and phase errors.

dB: Let’s switch to home theater for a bit. What problems are people going to run into when they are trying to get a home theater that sounds good?

RV: A significant difficulty is getting people into five speakers and five amplification channels. Most people try not to increase their budget over what they’d be willing to spend for a two-channel system, so they usually end up with something pretty mediocre. People’s financial situations haven’t changed since we went from two channels to five channels, so their budget hasn’t changed. My recommendation for them is that they build on the two-channel system they already have and not start all over again unless there are real problems or limitations in their two-channel system.

There are some people in the two-channel and home-theater worlds who believe that home theater is somehow completely different from two-channel music. To the point that they think good home-theater speakers have to be different than good music speakers. Sometimes they even think the electronics for music and home theater need to be different. I don’t understand that thinking and I’m very much opposed to that approach. Movies are full of synthesized sounds, explosions -- who knows what they are really supposed to sound like. There’s also a lot of dialog, a lot of music, people clinking glasses toasting one another, sounds that we’re all very familiar with. We take the principals we’ve applied to the music world, especially the time-and-phase-correct nature of our loudspeakers, and extrapolate that out to five channels. We can do that movie more realistically than what the industry is trying to put on people with this mistaken notion that you need something different for home theater.

Home theater does need good subwoofers. Even our full-range loudspeakers cannot handle some of the cone excursions that result from some of the movie soundtracks. So even when you have really good full-range loudspeakers, for home theater you still need the subwoofers. The subwoofers give you the full force of the soundtrack and also protect your loudspeaker investment. That doesn’t mean you can get a couple of mini-speakers and a subwoofer or two and that will do the job. People forget, or don’t realize, that to get the best integration of a subwoofer, you have to have a full-range speaker to begin with -- a speaker that has good flat response at least one octave below the crossover point. 80Hz is a very common crossover point for subwoofers. With an 80Hz crossover point, the main speakers need to be flat out to 40Hz. You can do it differently, but there is more and more compromise the farther you get from the ideal.

We’ve been asked why we don’t build a minimonitor. Quite frankly, bass is the foundation of music and I serve music, not equipment or people’s ideas of what equipment they think they want. I haven’t found a way to make a mini-speaker that goes down to 40Hz. I don’t think mini-speakers are a legitimate way to reproduce music or to build a home theater around -- at least not at a quality level. People wouldn’t be looking at Vandersteen loudspeakers unless they were looking for some level of sonic purity, and I don’t know how to deliver that in a mini-speaker. Some critics think I’m naive on this point, but I think the market bears me out. If a small speaker could blend with a subwoofer, if that wasn’t impossible to do well, wouldn’t the market be dominated by little speakers with subwoofers? I wouldn’t be messing around with 100- and 200-pound loudspeakers if I could make little lightweight speakers and subwoofers do the job. We already have what is renowned to be one of the world’s best subwoofers, so that part is already taken care of. But the laws of physics don’t play out that way.

dB: What are the newest Vandersteen products available today?

RV: Well, the Model 5 still feels new to us, but it’s over a year old now. We have a video version of the 2W subwoofer, the V2W, for systems where there’s a need for driving the subwoofer directly from the subwoofer outputs on a surround decoder or home-theater receiver. For serious home-theater systems and music systems we still recommend a pair of 2Wq or 2W subwoofers. Both continue in production. The 2Wq is sort of new. The Q of the subwoofer is adjustable, giving it the ability to sound like a music subwoofer for music and like a movie subwoofer for movies. We also have a 2Ce Signature and Vcc Signature center-channel speaker. The 2Ce Signature adds the tweeter and crossover parts from the 3A to the 2Ce. We also change the speaker-cable connections from the standard banana-plug sockets to screw-down barrier-strip terminals like we use on the 3A and 5, which are the best speaker-cable connections known to man in my opinion. The 2Ce Signature is $1500. The Vcc Signature has a different tweeter dome and crossover parts of the quality used in the Model 5. We go through a lengthy manual tuning process on each Vcc Signature. We basically customize the crossover to match the drivers in each Vcc. The individual tuning process is the same labor-intensive process we use with the Model 5. The result is that the Vcc Signature sound quality is an excellent match for the Model 5 and is even a step-up center-channel for a serious system using 3As and a pair of 2Ws. All the parts and manual labor it takes to create a Vcc Signature has a real impact on the price of the speaker. The standard Vcc retails for $495 while the Signature Vcc is $1099. We think the standard Vcc is fine for most people. But those with Model 5s will appreciate the close match in sound. So will people using 3As with subs if they are picky about their movie sound.

At this point we were running out of gas. A nice fresh-fish dinner in landlocked Hanford, California was a comfortable end to a long day of driving, touring the factory, listening, and interviewing.

One last stop to clean the incredible number of San Joaquin Valley bug smashes off the windshield and I was on the way back to San Francisco. On the way home it was interesting to reflect on the day with Richard Vandersteen. While we’d spoken before on the phone and at shows, this was the longest period of time we’d communicated face to face. He strikes me as one of audio’s nice guys -- not angling for anything, just willing to talk honestly about what he thinks are the right ways to do loudspeakers and what led him to those conclusions. One thing is certain, he has optimized a lot of things on a lot of levels because he’s been doing these similar and inter-related designs for so long. I was tempted to ask Richard for full details on each of the drivers in the 2Ce, 3A, 2W and 5 loudspeakers just so you could get an appreciation for just how special those drivers are compared to off-the-shelf drivers. However, we would have needed another 10 or 15 printed pages worth of space!

Years ago when the Vandersteen 2Ci was very popular, there was an insider joke going around:

"Why do Vandersteen speakers have those short legs on the stand?"

"I don’t know. Why?"

"It’s easier for them to walk out of the store when they have legs."

This alluded to how easy it was for dealers to sell the 2Ci compared to other high-end loudspeakers. Today that’s still true for the 1C and 2Ce. Vandersteen loudspeakers are one of those crossover products, a high-end product that does very well in its arena, but that sells well to non-audiophile customers too. And that’s just the way Richard Vandersteen likes it.

...END


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