Vanatoo Transparent One Powered Monitors Review
By Andre Marc, Audio|Video Revolution, April 4, 2013
Active speakers have had a tough road in the audiophile world. They are fairly commonplace in recording studios and other pro sound environments. I have heard several theories for this, including the fact that powered speakers are not as tweakable. Certainly, audiophiles seem to relish in the ability to independently choose every element of a system, and maybe most importantly, the amplification.
Powered speakers do offer several distinct advantages over passive speakers. In a nutshell, amplifiers inside powered speakers are usually matched to the specific characteristics of the drivers, enclosure, impedance, and frequency response. Another obvious advantage is the shorter signal path, and there is no need for speaker cables, which account for huge cost savings and other technical shortcomings.
There is one market active speakers, especially monitors, have taken a foothold, and that is in desktop computer audio set ups. The obvious reason for this is the limited space the desktop offers. But another development has also helped, and that is the inclusion of digital inputs by several manufacturers on their monitors. One such company -- Vanatoo, out of Federal Way, WA -- has their own unique take on powered monitors, and they have already racked up multiple positive user and pro reviews.
Rick Kernen and Gary Gesellchen, the two founders of Vanatoo, sent me a pair of their Transparent One monitors finished in natural cherry. The speakers are also available in black. They are sold direct and through a modest dealer network for $499, with a $50 premium for the cherry finish. They are also available through Amazon.com. The last powered monitors I reviewed were the similarly-priced Paradigm Shift A2. I thought they were well designed and easy to integrate. The Transparent One, while on the surface is a similar product, seems to have a very different feature set. It also seems to reflect the designers' emphasis on some very specific performance parameters.
First here is an overview of the features, and then we will look at some of the design characteristics:
- 1 Analog input (direct connection to your player´s headphone jack)
- 3 digital inputs: USB audio, TOSLINK® optical, and Coax
- 60 watts per channel
- D2Audio® Class D amplifier with integrated Digital Signal Processor (DSP)
- Patented 5 ¼ inch XBL™ 1 inch silk dome tweeter
- Custom long-excursion passive radiator
- Volume, treble, and bass controls
- Left/Right switch
- Auxiliary AC power out connector for your Apple Airport Express other powered device
- Optional subwoofer output
The speakers are packaged very nicely and are shipped with good quality, unterminated speaker wire, an AC cord, 3.5mm cables, and a Y adaptor. This is everything you need to get started outside of a source and digital cable. I am a big fan of companies that ship products with “starter” kits. Kudos to Vanatoo. Certainly, once you settle in, you can upgrade some of these elements. More on that later.
Let’s look at some of the proprietary design elements. First, Vanatoo touts the bass quality of these relatively small speakers as a major selling point. They use something called ClearBass Technology™ in which a 5 1/4” woofer enabled with patented XBL™ technology, is enhanced by a custom passive radiator and coupled with a silk 1” dome tweeter. Lastly, there is custom DSP (Digital Signal Processing) used, which according to Vanatoo, matches the built-in amplifier to the drivers, for a flat frequency response. The way the Transparent One handles incoming data is quite interesting, and see my interview with the design team at the conclusion of the review for an in-depth overview.
Set Up and Listening
I used the Transparent One in several ways. First with a Windows 7 laptop running JRiver 18 and plugged into the Vanatoo’s USB input via an Audioquest Forest USB cable. All music was in lossless FLAC format. I used the supplied AC cable and speaker cable, with the speakers on Atacama 24" stands. The speakers are set up in a master/slave configuration, so running one cable from your source into the master, and one speaker cable to the slave is all you need.
The master speaker also lets you decide which unit will be designated Left and Right channel, and there are treble, bass, and volume controls. There is also an AC receptacle for what I gather is charging portable device or a source component. Lastly, there is a subwoofer out. I did not have occasion to use it. That is because after cueing up some familiar source material on the laptop it became clear this was a speaker with superb bass output, definition, and grip.
I can honestly say that no other speaker of this size has performed at this level in my home in the bass department. Geez, bass guitar on rock recordings was just in the pocket, and filled up the room without strain. I ended up with bass control around the 1 O’clock position, and the treble control very close to that, with variations depending on the source material. The quantity and quality of the bass did not in any way smear the midrange or treble. As a matter of fact the midrange was open, with no overhang, and the treble was clear and smooth.
I then decided to move the Transparent One to a tabletop, with a Squeezebox Classic on a wireless network as a source. I connected the Squeezebox via Toslink to the speakers, and streamed tunes from my entire collection stored on hard drives connected to a Mac Mini at the other end of the house. I found this set up to be very fun to use, and it sounded terrific. I had to adjust the bass and treble controls just a tad to accommodate the new setup, but not much.
The first album I streamed was an underlooked collaboration between Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale, The Road To Escondido. This 2006 release features great tunes, stellar guitar playing, and very tasteful rock-based arrangements. I was a bit taken aback by how big the speakers sounded in this configuration. From the next room it literally sounded like I had floorstanders installed.
I should note that, at this point, I tweaked the speakers a bit by using a PS Audio C7 power cord instead of the stock cable, and I also substituted the supplied speaker cable with a single run of QED silver plated copper terminated with bananas. These items elevated the performance of the Transparent One a notch, but note the speakers sounded very fine with supplied ancillaries.
I continued to hear what I found to be an extremely clean and grain-free treble, and a very transparent midrange. This was apparent when playing albums with lots of ambient content, like world music fusion master Jai Uttal’s Thunder Love. The exotic Indian instrumentation, dub beats, and studio embellishments flowed organically and really showcased the very natural balance of the speakers.
Comparing them to the Paradigm Shift powered monitors was tricky since they left my house six months ago, and they don’t include a digital input. However, working strictly from memory, they were cut from a similar cloth. The Vanatoo probably offered up the more authoritative bass and sounded “bigger” over all.
The Vanatoo’s also work with an Apple Airport Express, which allows you to stream music from iTunes on any Apple device, or any computer running iTunes. It works with Apple TV, and just about any portable device, Apple or not, from what I gather. Connectivity options are very impressive, to say the least.
We may be entering a new era for active speakers with the popularity of computer audio, and proliferation of digital connection options available to consumers. The huge improvement in wireless connections and their wide spread integration into home entertainment is another important factor. I believe relative newcomer Vanatoo has leveraged much of this sea change into their exciting, and excellent-sounding Transparent One active speakers. This reviewer believes they are very much a super buy at $499 a pair.
As a matter of fact, the Vanatoo speakers have caused me to rethink a few things. I had already been along this path, but I have come to believe that simplest is best, and the shorter the signal path the better. Going forward, I will recommend a pair of active speakers, preferably with a built in DAC, like the Vanatoo for certain types of setups. For those seeking to set up secondary systems, systems for a smaller space, or for those looking to graduate to high fidelity on a budget, a pair of Vanatoo’s, with a either a computer or streamer, is the ticket.
I believe a pair of Vanatoo Transparent Ones, digitally connected to source component, pays dividends over a “budget” set up with an amplifier, cables, and source. If you have analog source component, like a turntable or a tape deck, no problem, there is an analog input. If I have one nitpick with the Vanatoo, it is that it would have been nice if it handled up to 96 KHz source material natively (it is down-sampled to 48 kHz). This is an absolutely minor consideration, since 99.9% of source material is 44.1/16 bit standard CD resolution. That aside, I can easily call the Vanatoo Transparent One a Best Buy for 2013.
1) Avrev.com:Can you tell our readers what the impetus behind starting the company was?
Gary: It was one of those itches that you just have to scratch. We each have had a long-term love affair with both music and technology. It became clear a few years ago that the music industry was going through a major change with the advent of legal downloads, and that the technology for moving music around your house and controlling it from the palm of your hand was emerging. This was very disruptive to the way music had been enjoyed more-or-less since the time of Edison. Disruption always spells opportunity for new businesses. And when that opportunity crosses with long-held passions, you just have to take the plunge! We saw the possibility of bringing truly high-fidelity sound with easy control into the mainstream, and couldn’t resist.
2) Avrev.com: Can you describe how the Transparent One handles incoming digital data, from input to output?
Rick: The first operation that is performed is by a dedicated microprocessor which, among other tasks, is responsible for detecting and routing the appropriate audio source to the amplifier chip based on a programmed selection algorithm. The digital music files are fed into the Transparent One Class D amplifier directly in S/PDIF format. The amplifier then resamples all inputs to 48K samples at 24 bits. Embedded within the amplifier is a 24 bit wide Digital Signal Processor (DSP) which performs all the necessary file conditioning like tone control, high pass filter, low pass filter, parametric equalizing, left/right channel swapping, summing the left and right channels for the sub out, and volume control. Once these digital manipulations are completed the amplifier converts the digital information to a Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) signal with a switching frequency of about 385Khz. This output is then filtered with a simple analog low pass filter and sent to the drivers. With this type of digital Class D amplifier your music stays in the digital domain from your hard drive through the cable to the speakers, and on through the DSP and Class D amplifier itself before it is finally converted to analog at the moment just before it is sent to the speaker drivers. No external DAC is needed.
3) Avrev.com:What are some of the challenges of selling active speakers to audiophiles?
Gary: I would say there are really three main obstacles. The first is that most audiophiles like gear (we like gear!). They usually prefer a stack of components that they can mix and match and experiment with in different ways. While the Transparent One still lets you choose your file types, sources, and cabling, we have combined some of the hardware with which people like to fiddle. The second is probably our price point; many people who are serious about music just don’t believe that a respectable job of reproducing it can be had for $499. Lastly, most people don’t understand that a smart designer with control of both the amp and speaker can do things not possible with separates. Our answer to these challenges is pretty simple. We are probably not a candidate to replace main systems costing $3-5K or more. However, people with expensive main systems often have need for a good second system, or have friends and family who need an entry level quality system, and typically appreciate that system being less complicated. As far as the sound we can deliver for $499, you kind of have to hear it to believe it. We truly have industry leading bass extension and clarity along with terrific top-to-bottom balance from a miniscule system. The kind of performance we can offer from this small of system is not available from separates, no matter the price. Having control of both the amp and the speaker can do that for you, if you know how to take it to maximum advantage.
Rick: I would add that Audiophile or not, our biggest challenge is getting discovered. We’ve experienced a pretty good conversion rate once people have actually heard the speakers. Thus we feel pretty good about offering our 30 day audition period. Like Gary said, you really have to hear them to believe it.
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