Reviews

Stereomojo – Stereo For Cheap Bastards

By Michael Zisserson, Stereomojo, January 29, 2013

Vanatoo Transparent One:    $499/Pr. Black   $549/Pr. Cherry

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I listen to a lot of music. Anywhere from Megadeath to Miles Davis, and I often think about what it takes to get music to an appreciator. An artist looks at life, situations, and the human condition and translates it in to what is truly a universal language. This language is not strictly in time signatures and staves, but in purpose and meaning. I always find it funny when music is written on a page and there is everything from squiggly lines to “fff” to try and allow anyone who may want to reproduce a work of art, to produce its breadth of meaning. A lot can get lost in interpretation through this process and the chain of reproduction is no better. The artist plays their music and a recording engineer has to make it sound like music. Scary how little music sounds like music at the end of the day and how over compressed garbage runs rampant because in this world of NOW, if a song is not catchy in seconds, or louder than its nearest flash of light and neighboring song it can be lost forever.

This road is the exact parallel of audio equipment. There are so many products battling for attention for sake of making a buck, there is little left for the quality that once was. So many companies trying to jam every feature they can sacrificing quality and craftsmen ship two things happen: The price gets driven to psychosis, or quality get driven to the dump. Until you stumble across something like the Vanatoo Transparent One and you realize that passion, and breadth of meaning can be used in the modern world to create something that is truly unique and wonderful.

Vanatoo is named after, well the isle of Vanuatu! It is a small island in the South Pacific know as “the happiest place on Earth”. Gary Gesellchen and Rick Kernen are the technical masterminds behind Vanatoo. Not only have they set out on a five year mission to bring unparalleled performance for the dollar (which us cheap bastards salivate like Pavlov’s dog at that statement), but like the isle of Vanuatu provide an amazing and happy experience for their customers. Their comprehensive website is proof of this measure. Honest, well organized information and transparent to their mission in this world of high-brow HIFI. I spent a good hour and a half just absorbing the information on there. Every tidbit is pertinent and thoughtful and unlike Gary and Rick with a combined lifetime of mechanical and electrical engineering experience the site reads elegant and honest enough for any level audio enthusiast to enjoy.

To begin the rather lengthy list of features, the Transparent One is a powered speaker system. This allows for several flexible options and you do not need an amplifier to power them as they have one built in, 60 respectable class D watts at that, which are fully utilized. More to come on that. At just 6.5”W x 10”H x 8.125”D, they are small enough to fit on a desktop or a bookshelf, or TV Cart? Yup, but more on that later. They are available in Black for $499/pr. or a very handsome and truly furniture grade real Cherry for $549/pr. They do come with grills and one speaker looks as any other passive speaker, the other has a myriad of inputs, switches, and controls on the back. Being a powered speaker, you need access to a wall plug for power, and a speaker wire runs from the active unit to the passive.

Here is a teaser of how well thought out these are and this made my inner geek just light up: There is a little switch on the back of the active unit that tells if it is the left or right speaker. Sure does not mean much until you set them up in your office next to your computer and only have access to a plug on the right side. If there was no choice, I would have never made the plug without an extension cord and making a mess.

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Continuing the cool, let’s talk about what makes the Transparent One tick. The bass duties are covered by a 5.25” woofer and passive radiator on the back of the unit. Vanatoo claims bass response down to 49Hz, and I buy it. Furthermore, it will do 49Hz in room with honest strength. They do so without the fluber-bubber boom of the typical micro-bookshelf, where the company talks of low bass by tuning a cabinet way too low, ultimately sacrificing quality for a marketing scheme. Something you will notice in the measurements is a very sharp roll off below about 40 Hz, and this is another brilliant design aspect of the Transparent One. Since the lower octave (20Hz-40Hz) is the toughest to reproduce and most taxing on amplifiers. Vanatoo understands that a small speaker’s bass output is displacement limited and no matter how much “stuff” you want to shove into that bag, only so much will fit, so eliminating these frequencies from the picture altogether will not be missed. This clears the way for strong and accurate bass in the key range of where it occurs in most music, which is from 40Hz and up. Furthermore, without the woofer flapping in the breeze trying to hit notes it cannot, the excursion is controlled lessening distortion and clearing the way for the midrange.

Even in this aspect this is not Vanatoo’s only trick. The woofer possesses the patented XBL™ motor. This driver technology allows the force of the woofer’s motor system to remain more linear through its excursion, thus significantly lowering distortion. The tweeter is an “off the shelf” unit as described to me by Vanatoo, however they felt its linear response and low distortion fit the profile well.

The back panel of the active unit looks like a space station. However, fear not! It is easy to follow and understand; there is order to the chaos. There is a 3.5mm analog for connecting an iPod via the headphone out, or with a 3.5mm to RCA adaptor you can connect right out of a DAC to them. Basically anything with an analog out and you are set to go with the right cable. Since you can connect something to each input and the Transparent One will auto-magically switch the inputs based on signal, the analog in takes highest priority.

Toslink optical is next, then Digital Coaxial, and finally a USB. A very cool combo if you have a wireless transmitter like an Airport Express is the USP and a power plug on the back of the unit. You can plug the transmitter in for power and go digitally without needing any more power cords. The volume knob speaks for itself, but then there are the bass and treble knobs! What are these doing on a unit marketed as HIFI, cheap or not? Well wait, you can remove the paper bag from your head and breathe normal, they are more of a means of adjusting for environment. Turns out they really are useful and necessary.

My wife is more of a techie geek than I. While I can do without clouds to put things in, and smart-phones to stare at for hours on end while doing menial tasks like eating dinner or driving (luckily she does not exhibit these behaviors, but most seem to who own them) she was absolutely drooling to get her hands on the Transparent one. As you can imagine she despises this god awful hobby that is a large black hole I seem to throw a chunk of our resources into so any interest is not only genuine, but truly a show of a company such as Vanatoo’s ability to cross the extremely hard to touch gender boundary. As soon as I received them in their “box in a box” packing, I started to set them up on the dining room table and was literally thrown from my chair by her with her iPad to plug in and go. It was really that easy, too. Power, hook up the passive speaker, the included 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable and she had full range, clear and honest sound from her iPad.

We watched the beginning of “The Lion King” on the Disney Digital Copy online which comes with the Blu-Ray. I was struck immediately by the resolution and effortlessness the Transparent One had to offer even though they were in a far less than ideal situation and not even broken in! My wife was thrilled as well and was amazed at their clarity with coherency. While I pouted in the chair next to her since she stole my toy, she ripped through some of her music collection. Zac Brown Band was fun. Decent recording and ripped to WAV from my CD (at least I taught her that much). The little mites never missed a beat or failed to sort out any part of the band.

On the side of the Transparent One’s box, I noticed a little blurb I felt compelled to follow. It stated “Your Vanatoo speakers can go where you go with this collapsible carrier box”. My thought? Challenge accepted. Why not test these in the myriad of environments in which they can be used? When my wife was finished capitalizing on them I was anxious to get them packed up and have them take a trip with me to my day job to be used on my desktop for a week. Interestingly enough, I hastily grabbed the 3.5mm jack before turning the volume down or powering the Transparent One off and popped out of the iPad. As slow motion as the General Lee jumping some clay pile in Hazard County while I saw the connector pulling out I dove (and came up short) for the power button waiting for that lovely ground buzz blaring through a pair of very capable powered speakers and waking my four year old sleeping on the couch. What I got was nothing. A slight and very faint pop was all. I actually said this is a very good quality as I pictured my two nieces trading an analog jack back and forth comparing One Direction songs on their iPhones. I digress…

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In my office they sat well next to each side of my monitor which sits near a wall and in a corner. This presents challenges for speakers due to early reflections and an enhancement of the bass due to a phenomenon called boundary reinforcement. This is where a slight tweak of the bass and treble knobs proved to be very useful in eliminating the challenging setup. As the handsome looks of the Transparent one began to catch eyes – and ears! I used music from Bill Evan’s “Live at the Village Vanguard”, and Patricia Barber’s “Café Blue” to raise eyebrows. After spending five days listening for four hours a day to mostly well recorded jazz and blues I was really starting to grow some affection for these lil’ guys. Their resolving power was extremely impressive and they were neutral in tonality almost to a fault.

Sonically they remind me of any high precision speaker which normally presents itself as boring, but for $499 to start and being so compact with everything you could ever need is actually very impressive. Once more, they gave this impression on a desktop, in an office, shoved where they fit and NOT in a dedicated music system with set-up to help.

Time to get hi-end serious as I packed them back up for the journey to my listening dungeon. It was time to put these through some real paces and test if they could truly be considered hi-end. Understand this is a lot to ask for a speaker of $499/pr at retail, let alone a powered mini-monitor. stereomojo-vanatoo-review-4.jpgI uncrated them and put them on my 80lb, lead shot filled Target 24” stands. I had to giggle since this was blatant overkill.

Round one took the coaxial digital out straight from an Audio Research CDT-1 transport through an MIT digital reference cable and into the Transparent One. I threw on a very dynamic Bruce Katz Band “Three Feet Off the Ground”, and went to town. The amp was a shining star and I never once felt these were going to run out of room at reasonable volumes or perhaps, some may feel, even unreasonable.

During my conversations with Gary and Rick we discussed how when going digitally into the speaker, the DSP up samples the data and delivers it directly to the class D amplification. This in turn sends a “digital” signal to the drivers themselves hence truly maintaining a truly digital signal through to the drivers themselves. Very cool if you ask me, and it sounded good too.

I found it a tad bit clinical as I have found them before (bass and treble knobs set flat). To fill in the bottom end a bit and on recommendation by Vanatoo, I turned up the bass knob to about 2 o’ clock from 12 o’ clock and it did fill in quite a bit. Likely I was compensating for Baffle Step which occurs when frequencies longer than the width of the baffle no longer reflect off the baffle so there is a 6dB shelf that forms lowering the bass output of a speaker. Normally “in room” speakers already have this accounted for in one way or another. Vanatoo had to balance for this knowing they will likely be on desktops and bookshelves, and chose a little less compensation so they did not boom when in these environments. Good call I would say. So after listening for a while it became apparent these truly were serious speakers than could be used in a second system, or even primary system for listening to music in an apartment. There were no errors, or blatant sins, anything they were missing were minor omissions rather than glaring failures. The only major point is while I found them to have amazing soundstage precision in width, they did lack some dimension to the soundstage which was a hair annoying at times. I feel borderline foolish mentioning this seeing as they perform so well, but alas we at Stereomojo are here to pick nits about our music since ultimately, it is #1 in our obsession.

Since I was already satisfied, it was hard to find the next direction. So to keep up the HIFI theme I decided to go analog in from my Eastern Electric Mini Max DAC. This was a good comparison against the Transparent One’s ability to essentially keep a digital signal through to the drivers, and a more traditional HIFI setup. Ironically enough, since the Transparent One operates in a digital realm due to the class D topography/DSP combo, the analog signal “in” has to be converted from analog back to digital. By all accounts and definition of signal purity and retention this is a far less than ideal situation. As usual, nothing is ever as straight forward as it seems and I found myself actually preferring this setup. It seemed the typical traits of the Mini Max which is owned by multiple Mojo Reviewers due in large part to its nearly unbeatable value, shined through in abundance. Perhaps this is attributed to the Wolfson ADC used in the lil’ Vanatoo which is a much better quality ADC that normally found in standalone DAC’s that sell for the price of this entire music system. Again, another example of the attention to detail that makes the Transparent One a heck of a value.

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This just leaves the USB. I got freaked out several months back when I was at one of my more distinguished audiophile friend’s houses who had decided to rip his library of CD’s to digital files. You can come out WAV or FLAC, even hi-rez completely digital into a DAC….. No spinning disc, quick access, entire libraries at your fingertips, what can go wrong? I will tell you what, iTunes vs. iTunes with Amarra. The difference was not subtle, and ever since that day I have been very wary about going digital with my library. So I had to load up a couple of CDs on the ol’ ‘puter. Opera Singer Patricia O’Callahan’s “Real Emotional Girl” and The Mojo Test Disc II went on for a little demo. Off of Patricia’s Album she does a wonderful rendition of “Hallelujah” with her and piano. I honestly did not find a dramatic difference going from my transport to playing this WAV off my computer via the USB. The Transparent One’s did a fine job of it. Same for Michael McDonald’ s “You’ll Never Know Me”, which is slightly larger with strings, deep bass, and a big finish. It was very easy to just listen to the music and enjoy as you would any good quality mini-monitor which again, becomes amazing when you think it is plug and play with all the processing you could practically need, an amp, and high fidelity speakers all in one.

What else is there to say about the lil’ Vanatoo? Not much. These many, many little details add up to a heck of a value starting at $499/pr. Sure, they suffer small speaker syndrome as any small speaker does, but they are surprising and honest in their capability. Bass heads could use a sub, but really, for a majority of the music I listen too they had plenty of bass. If you need to play lower than 49 Hz or you want to play louder than the physics of a speaker this small allows, use the sub-woofer output to connect to any subwoofer. The Transparent Ones amplifier will detect the presence of the subwoofer and automatically adjust the crossover for you. Just set your subwoofer to run wide open (or set for the highest possible crossover frequency) and adjust the subwoofer volume as desired.

More nits? Fine… They really need to come with rubber feet. Ok, I have run out of things. Just get a pair and enjoy; the Transparent One is worth every penny and then some, which makes it’s a cheap bastard like me very happy!

There is a 30 day evaluation with free shipping!

Here are some of the possible connections:

APPLE DEVICES

  • Connect my Apple iPod, iPhone or iPad or Dock directly
  • Connect my Apple MacBook, Mac Pro, or Mac mini directly
  • Play music wirelessly from an Apple iPod, iPhone, or iPad using the Apple® Airport Express ®
  • Play music wirelessly from an Apple iPod, iPhone, or iPad using the Apple TV ®
  • Play music wirelessly from an Apple MacBook, Mac Pro, or Mac mini using Airplay and the Apple

Airport Express

  • Play music wirelessly from an Apple MacBook, Mac Pro, or Mac mini using the Apple® TV

MP3 PLAYERS, ANDROID DEVICES, and PCs

  • Connect my MP3 player, mobile phone or Android device directly
  • Connect to a PC or laptop directly
  • Play music wirelessly using Bluetooth
  • Play music wirelessly a PC running iTunes using an Apple Airport Express or Apple TV

NETWORKED AUDIO SYSTEMS

  • Connect to a Sonos wireless network
  • Connect to a Logitech Squeezebox Touch

FLAT SCREEN TVs

  • Connect to a Flat Screen TV directly
  • Connect to a Flat Screen TV using Apple TV

TRADITIONAL STEREO SYSTEM

  • Vanatoo powered speakers can be connected to an existing amplifier using the pre-amp out connection.
  • Vanatoo powered speakers can be connected to an existing turntable using a phono preamp.

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The Vanatoo Transparent One is at home in any discerning system. “Connectivity" seems to be the word of the new millennium and the Vanatoo’s can be connected any way imaginable, from wireless to Bluetooth, USB, digital, analog, SPDIF...Got a device? These will make them sing beautifully. Their flexibility and all-in-one capability with very few flaws both sonically and operationally lend themselves to a second system, a high rez desktop system, a primary music system in an apartment, and even as studio monitors based on their neutral characteristic and resolving power. They are easy to use, and truly are what I would consider High Fidelity. Sure, they do not hit the bottom 1.5 octave, but then again, not many speakers do, including many floorstanders. So to that I say well done Vanatoo! I look forward to seeing more products in the future!

Because of it's amazing self-powered sound quality as well as it's unparalleled connectivity at a price that would be unbelievable if we hadn't verified it, we enthusiastically give the Vanatoo Transparent One our rare

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Feature Overview

  • Four input options:  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) for superb sound, exceptional frequency response, and high efficiency
  • Smooth and extended frequency response - 49 to 20,000 Hz +/- 2 dB
  • Patented 5 ¼ inch XBL™ woofer for deep bass and clear midrange
  • 1 inch silk dome tweeter for smooth, sweet highs
  • Custom long-excursion passive radiator for extended bass response
  • Volume, treble, and bass controls lets you adjust the sound to your liking
  • Left/Right switch lets you select the position of the active speaker for proper stereo imaging
  • Convenient auxiliary AC power out connector for your Apple Airport Express other powered device
  • Optional subwoofer output (and we mean optional!) with automatic subwoofer sensing and crossover switching
  • Automatic low power sleep mode consumes less than a standard nightlight
  • Real cherry wood veneer in black or hand rubbed natural stain
  • Compact size - 6 1/2" W x 10" H x 8 1/8" D
  • Thick, ¾ inch resonance-free MDF cabinet for better acoustical characteristics
  • Ships with the following cables: AC power cord, 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm cable (plugs into headphone jack), 3.5 mm to RCA "Y" cable, Speaker wire
- Michael Zisserson
Stereomojo


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