Update Number 3
This weekend I visited a local A/V shop called Ultra Fidelis located in downtown Milwaukee; the shop with the largest selection of speakers, preamps and power amps in the metro area. Along with me came a good friend of mine (Justin) and my brother, both whom will be accompanying me on my road trip to Craig(sub)'s home next weekend and both of whom have a very good ear for sound.
Before we left for the shop we grabbed our new audition CD previously created a few weeks ago; a CD created by picking out a few of our favorite tracks, narrowing down those tracks to between 30 and 90 seconds of our favorite parts and then creating a medley which clocked in at just under 20 minutes. The medley included everything from hard rock to vocal heavy music to jazzy blues - a good test of the capable dynamics of a speaker. This was the CD used for the remainder of the day.
When we arrived we were greeted by the friendliest salesman I have ever experienced, one whom entertained us for the next 2.5 hours and never gave us the impression that he had had enough and wanted us to leave. We briefly explained we were on a mission to find the best speaker available within reason and would not stop until that mission was completed. He got a delighted look on his face because he knew that we had no real budget and that we were going to be able to listen to a wide variety of equipment.
We started off (at the salesman's request, not mine) with the Vandersteen 2CE Signature II's. This was cool with me since I was most familiar with the Vandersteen sound (due to having spent much time with the old 2CE Sigs) and because they were at the bottom of the price tree.Vandersteen 2CE Signature II
The 2CE Signature II now shares the midrange and tweeter with the model up, the Model 3A Signature. In lieu of this, this is a killer speaker, especially for the money (retail is around $2200 with the stands). It's not pretty to the naked eye at all, but that just ceases to matter once you hear the music brought forth by it. It's a speaker that is very transparent, has a very large soundstage and easily disappears into the listening room. It's definitely more refined than the 2CE Signature I was used to. The midrange is lusher, the soundstage is wider and it just sounds more "right." The treble is very extended and revealing but didn't fatigue my ears (nor the other two gents' ears listening with me). That "airiness" was very present as if you were listening to a live performance with the band being right in front of you. I was very impressed to say the least with but one exception: when really cranked, and I do mean really cranked
, some compression occurs. For me this would not be an issue as I rarely listen above 82-83dB (in order to save my hearing and not cause permanent hearing loss), but it may be an issue for those who want to listen at reference levels. However, though this is certainly a flaw inherent with any loudspeaker once its limit is found, the 2CE Sig II did handle the compression better than other loudspeakers I have heard. In other words, it didn't completely ruin the experience, which is more than I can say for many other manufacturers, especially in this price range.
Was this speaker perfect? No. Was it close? For me, perhaps. I will say one thing though: this is the kind of loudspeaker that will make or break this hobby for you. What I mean is that if the majority of your listening material is poorly recorded, this speaker may have you wishing you were raised on classical or jazz; some other genre in which the recordings are all generally decent. I know this is how I felt when listening to certain parts of specific tracks (such as Led Zepplin's "Rock and Roll"). These speakers will immediately make apparent a poor recording, and as I mentioned earlier, that could make or break your decision to purchase them. For me, it made me love them even more because the truly well recorded music captivated me, while the poorly recorded material was still enjoyable (thought not nearly as much) without the experience being ruined, which is more than I can say for the Sonus Faber's that I listened to (more on that later).
In summary, the Vandersteen 2CE Signature II is the best speaker I have ever heard for the mere asking price of $2200. And you should know that when I decided to rediscover my passion and restart my journey, I had fully convinced myself there was something better out there (in that price category) than the Vandersteen 2CE's I was so familiar with. If I didn't believe this I would have never re-begun my quest. This is also why I saved Ultra Fidelis for last, knowing that they carried the full Vandersteen line. After all, I wanted to try to find a reference before I listened to the Vandersteen's once again. Unfortunately (or was it), the 2CE Sig II's remained a reference for me for most of Saturday's audition.
Next up was the Vienna Acoustics Schonberg.
This is a very interesting speaker because, as explained by the salesman, they are designed to be placed against the wall. This is certainly a unique design because we have all been taught to keep our speakers at least two feet from the side and back walls, especially if they are rear ported. This is not the case with the Vienna's.
We fired up our second round of the same test material and the results were initially pleasing. The room was a smaller corner room off to edge of the larger main room that contained the Vandersteen's, so naturally the soundstage wasn't as large. In fact, I could easily place where the sound was coming from, but again, the room was very small. One thing that this speaker excels at is acoustic guitar and vocals. The voice sounded fairly natural and flooded the entire front of the soundstage, making the vocals the only part that I couldn't easily place when my eyes were closed. And the acoustic guitar piece that was played sounded just good enough to fool my ears once or twice.
I had an epiphany when listening to these speakers and it was that the designers at Vienna must have had piano on the brain when they engineered this speaker. The keyboards and piano intertwined all throughout our audition CD sounded very natural and lifelike; impressive. I have heard many speakers botch the sound of a piano and it was nice to hear a life-like sound being conveyed. This is more than I can say for the symbols from the drums, however, which sounded a little too laid back for my tastes, though a lively room may help accentuate the high frequencies and give that extra ting. Finally, the bass of the Schonberg was very impressive for such a thin and small speaker, but it sounded a bit bloated and distorted at times which prevented me from hearing all of the background harmonics and quiet nuances of the audition tracks.
All in all, the Schonburg started strong but in the end I couldn't get passed their slightly laid back quality and bloated bass. At this point we switch back to the Vandersteen 2CE Sig II's for comparison and all agreed that the Vandersteen's presentation was more realistic and believable. However, if someone is looking for a smallish sized speaker for a less than averaged sized room and can't be finicky with speaker placement, the Schonburg's may be your speaker. I think they retailed for around $2250 so they definitely won't break the bank. This may also be the speaker of choice to be used in a lively room.
Our third event for the afternoon was the Sonus Faber Concerto Domus speaker.
I had read and heard a lot of positive things about Sonus Faber, so I was eager to get a listen. While the salesman was hooking up the speakers I noticed how nice looking the speaker's finish was. I could see that a lot of time and effort had gone into the cabinetry so I only hoped that they sounded as good as they looked, but unfortunately this was not the case.
When the speakers were fired up we were engaged for about 30 seconds or so before we started talking amongst each other. The words, these sound odd, echoey and hollow were muttered. After more extensive listening (not actually that long at all) it just seemed that something was very wrong. After a few minutes the salesman walked back into the room and I mentioned that they just didn't sound right. He briefly walked near the speakers and seemed to be quickly double checking to be sure he didn't wire them out of phase (he was a very knowledgeable guy and really seemed to know what he was doing, so I doubt this was the case). We all exchanged a few more dismays, one being that the speaker just lumped everything together rather than presenting each instrument separately, and then the salesmen threw on the 2CE Sig II's again for comparison. Sure enough that hollowness was gone and the music just flowed from the soundstage before me.
I have to admit, my (our) experience with the Sonus Faber's was disheartening. My sole purpose in visiting Ultra Fidelis was to find a speaker that could best the Vandersteen sound (or at least match it) while paired with a much more aesthetically pleasing cabinet design (WAF). So far the two speakers that easily sent the Vandersteen's to their grave in the looks department failed miserably during the listening comparison. Having accepted that fate it was time to hear what else Vandersteen offered (a unanimous decision based on how blown away we were by the $2200 offerings).
In the end the Sonus Faber's were the worst sounding speaker of the day, and perhaps the worst value considering the price. Sure they were oh so sweet to look at, but that's not what is important to me (I'm not my wife).
The second to last speaker of the afternoon was the Vandersteen Quatro.
I had previously heard these when they were first released, but the listening environment was less than ideal. I remember being happy with the classic Vandersteen sound, but they didn't wow me. Fortunately my time with them this go around proved to be a better experience, but not as good as I expected.
The Quatros have a much slimmer design than the typical Vandy and would probably be better accepted over the 2 and 1 series speakers in the WAF department. Still, all I could think about was how do they sound? Well, they sounded a lot like the 2CE Sig II's but with better bass response. There was certainly more bass impact, and when in the sweet spot the imaging was a tiny bit better, however the sweet spot was small and proved to be more of an annoyance than anything else. When switching between the three seats (left, right and center) the soundstage collapsed some when sitting anywhere but the latter. It also collapsed some when I stood up. Now I know these speakers are Vandersteen's most finicky concerning setup and implementation, so this may have played a role in what I was hearing, but who knows? Nonetheless they sounded nice, and a bit better than the Model 2's, just not as much as a speaker with a $5000 increase in price should (Edit, this statement only applies to Vandersteen's speaker line. The quatro still bested most speakers in its price range, but made me realize how much of a bargain the Model 2 is). While listening I couldn't help but wonder how comparable a pair of Model 2CE Sig II's would be combined with dual 2Wq subwoofers. I even asked the salesmen that very question and he actually recommended trying it (much to my surprise).
In summary, the Vandersteen Quatro did add that extra bass extension that I craved while listening to the 2CE Sig II's, but everything else was very similar or only slightly better, including the imaging, soundstage, accuracy, realism and dynamics. For the $5000 premium over the Model 2 I expected more. Still, this is an exceptional speaker when compared to what other manufacturers offer in this price range.
Our last speaker of the day was the Vandersteen Model 5A.
Let me tell you, this speaker needs the proper listening environment to really shine, something that was missing the last time I spent time with it. My opinion has completely changed concerning this speaker which I had previously felt was a tad dark. I can now some it up as near sonic perfection.
Upon firing up the beginning of our audition track I was immediately engaged. The snare drum, acoustic guitar, piano and male vocals really stood out due to their realism. The next thing I knew, 20 minutes had gone by and the audition CD was over, this being the first time we had listened all the way through. I recall numerous times looking at my arms to see goose bumps, not to mention having felt the many chills that shivered down my spine. I had never heard anything this realistic, everother than the real live event, of course. This speaker imaged like I had never heard before, no matter if I was standing, sitting directly on axis or 30 degrees off axis. I never lost focus of the presence of each individual instrument, something I cannot say about the previously auditioned speakers. This speaker proved to be well worth its price tag and fully made me understand why it cost $15,000 more than the Model 2 and $10,000 more than the quatro. The soundstage was enormous and easily overwhelming. When I closed my eyes and pointed to where the boundaries extended my fingers where pointing almost straight to my right and left, 90 degrees. What more can be said? Plenty!
The treble extension was as perfect as perfect can be defined for me; airy and detailed but never fatiguing. I had heard things in the upper frequency range that I had never heard before; things I never knew I could actually hear. Symbols and high hats had just the right amount of zing and/or ting. The high frequency had just the right amount of sparkle and pizzazz. I was truly a believer! Wow, what else could go this right?
The midrange was just flawless! Never has any speaker I have ever heard conveyed this much realism. And if you don't believe me, just ask my pal Justin (Shadow Hunter). Near the end of our audition track was a piece that was heavy on the vocals, one of Justin's favorite singers. This piece more than anything knocked my socks off, and I wasn't even familiar with the artist besides what I had heard that vary day coming through the other speakers. I don't know who the artist is (Justin you can answer that question), but it was a blend of very impressive piano, bass and a very talented male singer. This track had us feeling bass that we couldn't hear, discovering nuances that had thus far gone uncovered and had us dropping our jaws in dismay. Never had piano or the male voice disappeared and just existed before me! How could it get any better? Ba ba bass!
The depth that the bass reached while listening to the Model 5A's in two-channel was astounding. I can officially say that a separate subwoofer is completely unnecessary for music and probably even movies. Again, I felt bass that I couldn't even hear - that's just crazy! And this was not bloated, boomy bass; it was very musical, tight and deep but never out of control. And when the signal stopped, all this kick you in the chest bass immediately ceased to exist; astounding! I would love to see the waterfall plot of this bad boy!
In the end, I wish I had never had an in depth audition of the Vandersteen Model 5A. All other speakers I listen to will be compared to this one, a speaker of which I just cannot afford. It is certainly the best speaker I have every had the pleasure to sit down and spend time with, but due to it's $17,000 price tag I cannot officially give it the award for My Perfect Speaker. However, it will certainly be my reference until the day I die or the day I find something better. Is this the best speaker in the world? That's a very subjective question. Does it have the best performance to price ratio of any and all speakers? Doubt it. But is it the best speaker every created that I have had an opportunity to audition? YES! Why do I wish I'd never heard it? Because I'll never own it, so I hope I didn't ruin my journey (because I'll never get that "perfect" sound out of my head).
To conclude, my time spent at Ultra Fidelis was the most fun I have had auditioning speakers sincewell, ever! Although I did not get a chance to hear everything I wanted to, I finally found a reference to compare to. I finally found a speaker that could get down and rock out, seduce me with life-like piano and vocals, convey that airy detailed high frequency extension that I have always craved and manage to be dynamic enough to send ripples of Symphonic sound waves through my body. The only fault I can find with the Vandersteen Model 5A is the price, which is unfortunately a deal killer for me unless something traumatic happens to me or my wife financially. AhhI can still hear James Labrie's soothing whispers fill the room followed by the greatest guitar and keyboard duo known to man Pure audio bliss!
So I guess its back to the drawing board Oh well, a man can dream.
The journey continues