Vanatoo Active Speakers: My Experiences
By wgscott, The Ill-Tempered Audiophool, Computer Audiophile, May 31, 2013
My Rating: *****
- Active bookshelf speakers that don't suck
- Advertising is actually understated
- 24/96 capable, with analogue, USB, Optical and Coax inputs
- Internal direct digital DAC/amp
- Honest DSP implementation
- Pleasing fit and finish
- Moderately priced at ~$500
- No remote control
For the last couple of months I have been playing around with the new Vanatoo active bookshelf speakers, in my bedroom, and then in my office. I've formed a very favorable impression. (I also have a couple of minor quibbles, but I will leave them for the end.)
Briefly, these are smallish (~10" high) speakers that can sit on a desk flanking your monitor, or sit unobtrusively in the house (eg: my bedroom, where I am intolerant of clutter and electronic junk). I opted for the red cherry finish, which adds a touch of elegance for an extra $50. (An ugly set of speakers in the house would buy me a quick trip to divorce court.) Their sound quality is quite good. They are a very clear step up from my $600 Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, my equally over-priced B&W MM-1 speakers, and even my AudioEngine A2's paired with a Dragonfly DAC. (Perhaps A5's with a Dragonfly would be more of a fair fight). If you are a bass-head, supplementing these with a competent subwoofer can certainly help.
Like the B&W products and some others in this class, Vanatoo speakers employ digital signal processing. To the audiophile purist, this might appear to be off-putting, but even a brief listen made me less skeptical. DSP technology can be deployed for good or evil. At the latter extreme, we have Bose. Vanatoo's DSP is used for the greater good, i.e., to flatten the response curve, thus correcting limitations inherent to the speakers (imposed by their small size, crossovers, etc):
The result is a completely neutral speaker down to about 49 Hz. That is quite impressive, if you stop to think about it.
Equally important is what the DSP does not do, which seems to be a manifestation of the overall design ethos: do something well, or don't do it at all. Whereas the B&W and Bose systems use DSP to augment the bass, artificially compensating for the physical limitations of small speakers, Vanatoo just doesn't go there. The result is authentic bass reproduction down to 49 Hz. When I first compared the Vanatoo speakers to my Zeppelin, I thought the bass sounded a bit thin, but as I listened more carefully, I realized what we have here is very competent, articulate bass reproduction that doesn't pretend to be deep. The Zeppelin, on the other hand, pretends to be a subwoofer, with the net result that you have something rather more thick, muddy and inarticulate that can, nonetheless, dislodge the fillings from your teeth. In other words, DSP used to fake the lowest frequencies may initially sound better, but after a few minutes of listening and comparing the two, you will realize that you are being had. Vanatoo's approach to DSP and bass reproduction is simply more honest.
If you really need that lower bass, the Vanatoo active speakers are designed to mesh rather seamlessly with subwoofers. I tried it with my Velodyne microvee, which I currently use in conjunction with my A2's (which really need it). Although it is a bit of an improvement to the Vanatoo’s, I could easily live without it.
One of the truly pleasant surprises for me is that the Vanatoo active speakers are direct digital technology, meaning that the class-D-like amp is also the DAC. (If you require analogue input, there is a small subsidiary ADC that first digitizes the input.) This guarantees the shortest signal path between digital source and the speakers, and this enables the speakers to live up to the name "Transparent Ones". I've been playing around with the NAD C390DD, which is built on the same idea, and am now convinced that those who truly embrace digital music playback without reservations or romantic notions about tube warmth and vinyl analogue sound will be rewarded richly from a direct digital playback route. You won't find this in their advertising, but they told me about it over the phone. I asked why they didn't make more of a point about this, and they said they didn't want people to get bogged down in technical details. That certainly is a judgment call, and although I am no advertising executive, I am a bit of an audio geek, and these are precisely the details that speak to me. This is one of several examples that lead me to the conclusion that their advertising is a bit under-stated, something that is rather refreshing relief from the sea of bullshyte that the audio world can sometimes seem awash in.
The speakers are rather well-built, with a lot of nice thoughts to detail. I've already mentioned the red cherry finish on the speakers I have been listening to. A left-right switch allows you to select which side the powered speaker will be on. Three digital input options (USB, coax and optical) means that I can use this with a computer, an airport express, Apple TV, or just about anything else you can think of. Although the ATV was my default input option, it doesn't really do the Vanatoo justice, since it is a 24/96 capable DAC. It also has an "optional" subwoofer out, and connecting such a beast automatically activates this and the circuitry that handles the crossover seamlessly. The amp is essentially a 60 W Class D, which limits its utility for cooking eggs, but is truly welcome for those of us concerned with energy conservation and not having a spurious room heater. I could not even detect its power consumption when left on and idle, which is good since the direct digital circuitry is dead quiet, and the only indication that you have left the thing turned on is the blue LED at the back that screams out for a little piece of black electrical tape. In fact, the only significant design oversight that I found is the lack of a remote control. With an ATV input in "zone player" (rather than streaming) mode, there is no way to control the volume, apart from getting up off your fat arse and walking to the speaker and turning it down using the volume knob at the back. I guess most people don't use it in this way, but I found it was a shortcoming, especially while recovering from a broken ankle.
Overall, I give this a five star rating (out of five). Although it is tempting to ding it for a lack of remote control, that seems a bit unfair, given how much you get for your $500. I think this is an absolutely ideal system for a desktop, for a bedroom, or a college dormitory room, especially when paired with an Apple TV or Airport Express, although high-res audiophiles will find direct connection to a computer or other high-res capable playback device even more rewarding. For a mid to large size living room, it probably isn't quite enough, but for any of those other applications, it seems ideal. Supplemented with a reasonable quality sub, it would even make a great main system in a smaller room.
Apparently, I am not alone in arriving at this conclusion. I just looked on Amazon, and of 20 reviews, 19 give it five stars. (The other apparently dinged it because they don't include an optical "cord").
In summary, this is a nice, conservative, honest, good-looking and exceptionally neutral and highly competent audio system that won't set you back much more than $500. They will even give you a 30 day audition.
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