Review: Vandersteen 3a Sig Speaker

Category: Speakers

First, a little about me. I've been an audiophile for 30 years and have been listening to and playing music ever since I can remember. My tastes run to classical and jazz, but I've got quite a bit of rock, from classic to alternative, in my collection. I came of age with the "West Coast Sound" of JBL speakers, moved through more gear including Cerwin Vega noisemakers, maggies, original B&W 801's, and EPOS ES14's. My systems are generally what I would call "Value" audiophile given that I cannot afford the expensive stuff, but I think I have been able to put together musically satisfying systems.

Two years ago, after shelving my audiophile hobby for about 5 years to have kids, buy a house and so on, I got back into the gear and the music. My EPOS ES14's (great speakers) couldn't perform well in my large living room so I dusted off my ears and ventured out on a qwest to find the next best thing. My wife was understanding and let me foray into high end stores to listen over the course of several weekends spread out over months. Since there is no way for any normal human to listen to all the great speakers out there, I had to make my decision based on what I could actually listen to within a reasonable distance from my home.

I auditioned the B&W nautilus range, dynaudio speakers, Totems, Audio Physic models, some monitor audio speakers, and a smattering of others informally auditioned. This was not an easy task. The hardest thing was to maintain the "sonic signature" of a particular speaker from one dealer when trying to compare it to a speaker at another store. I could not A-B speakers so had to gradually listen for specific elements in the sound to eventually determine which speaker(s) did things I liked.

Certain patterns emerged as I did my listening. The B&W nautilus line was almost uniformly "tizzy". It is unfortunate that this fine brand seems to have degraded its quality. The sound was quite hard in the midrange, even in the Nautilus 801. Another pattern I observed was degraded low bass performance in speakers with ported designs.

A few things made the 3A's standouts compared to the other speakers I auditioned:

1. Bass performance is excellent. The Vandys have had a reputation for boomy bass, Not so! The speakers produce bass when its there, and don't when it is not. The 3A's go very low and maintain the tonal character of the bass instrument better than any of the other speakers I auditioned. They actually produce a "resonance" below the tonality of the instrument, creating a much more realistic and believable reproduction. For example, the very low bass drum hits in the early "Gladiator" soundtrack resonated beautifully with the 3A's. The clincher for me was the descending bass line in Led Zeppelin's "dazed and Confused" track. This is a very powerful bass line that goes quite low. The Vandy's handled it and I could define the bass as a fretted instrument even on the lowest tone. Every other speaker (with ports) turned the bass into more of a low bass "tone" as it descended. The 3A's go low, but maintain instrument definition. Plucked accoustic bass sounds incredibly real on the vandys.

2. Midrange. Very smooth. While some complain of a "laid back" quality to Vandersteen speakers, I think it is just the absence of distortion coupled with a flatter reponse than that found in many other speakers. A lot of manufacturers brighten up the mids and highs to improve definition and create a sense of "presence". This also creates listener fatigue. The 3A's incorporate very low distortion drivers. Everything is there, its just that the 3A's don't hit you over the head with the detail, as many other speakers do. I experience almost no listener fatigue with the 3A's.

3. "Musical" preformance. There are times when the Vandys simply produce an extremely realistic representation of an orchestra. Also, vocals, jazz, and piano all come across with superb tonal accuracy and realism. Again, detail is there, but in a real way. For example, when the orchestra is playing at moderately loud levels, it sounds like an orchestra, not a collection of overbright instruments - midrange detail is present, but not exaggerated as it
is in so many other high end speakers.

4. Sound-stage. This is very good, although many of the other speakers I listened to also performed well here. The Vandys work well for me because of my large living room - the drivers are placed fairly high up so the speaker produces a nice "tall" soundstage.

5. Non-fatiguing. My ears never hurt with the 3A's. With some of the other speakers I auditioned, the fatigue was very bad and I couldn't listen more than 25 minutes or so.

Are they perfect? Well no, nothing is. There are a few things to note about these speakers:

a. Overall, they tend to have a warmer tone. If you love super detailed sound or "sizzling highs and thunderous bass" the 3A's may not be for you. They are accurate speakers that sound their best, in my opinion, with classical music, jazz, and acoustic instuments. They can go high and low and produce good bass output, they just don't do it all the time as many "forward" speaker designs do.

b. Rock and Roll. This is a tough genre to reproduce on any speaker because of the stress of the music and the horrible engineering and production values on so many rock sources. The Vandersteen 3A's change their sonic character dramatically to reflect what's coming off a CD. Since Rock is frequently compressed and otherwise mangled by engineers, some rock CDs sound horrible on the Vandys since the speakers are completely unforgiving of low quality source material. If you have a big collection of unremastered rock cds and listen primarily to rock, audition these speakers very carefully. Of course, I tell everyone to buy a PA system if you want your rock CDs to sound like rock played live - PA systems are great for playing rock!

c. Size and weight. Each speaker weighs 90 pounds and they are tricky to move because they aren't made with wood cabinets so one has to take care not to puncture the grills when moving them. Logistically they are difficult to set up because of their weight and dimensions.

Since I bought the Vandys, I have listened to more speakers, incuding Cantons, Gallo Acoustic, Acoustic Energy AE-1's, Triangle Titus 200, Elac, Definitive Technology, Avant Garde, Linn Ninka's, and a few low-fi brands. The Triangle and Avant Garde brands are worth auditioning. I can't say for sure that I would switch from the Vandys even if money were no object. Eventually, yes, there are some great speakers out there that I would like to own. However, the 3A sigs are fantastic all-around speakers that aren't too fussy about cables and electronics. Ease of ownership is important to me.

Overall, it is difficult to find a full range speaker with the performance of the 3A's especially at their price point. Leaving wood cabinets off the speaker helps to dramatically reduce their cost. Although this is an overused phrase, the 3A's do sound as good or better than many speakers costing 2 or 3 times as much. My system is modest, so I have a long way to go to really tap into the sonic potential of these speakers.

If you have the room and want a high performance full range speaker, you should listen to the 3A's

Associated gear
Two channel Preamp - Adcom GFP-750
Surround processor - Rotel 965
Amp - Rotel 985 MK11
CD - AMC CDM7 with tube DAC

Similar products
B&W 801's (originals), EPOS ES14, B&W Nautilus 805, 803, 801, Dynaudio Contour 3.0, Audio Physic Tempo and Virgo, Totem Forrest.
I have had a set of Vandy 3A Signature speakers for about 2 years, and I think your description of their strengths (and minor "weaknesses") is pretty accurate. In many of my posts, I have also stressed the point (maybe ad nauseum) that I have a strong value orientation to audio gear, and I think the Vandy 3A Sig's offer extraordinary value (price vs. performance).

For future reference, you can improve the 3A Sig's even more -- to the point where they offer 85-90% of the performance of the Vandy Model 5's -- by adding a pair of Vandy 2Wq subwoofers. I added a pair of these subs late last year, and frankly have been amazed by how much they improved the overall sound quality of my system. Not only has the deep bass improved (not too surprising), but the mid-range and lower treble experienced substantial improvements in clarity, transient response, and dynamics, as well as further refinement in imaging and sound staging.

My other suggestion is to audition the Alpha-Core Goertz MI2 speaker cable (in bi-wire configuration) with your Vandy 3A Sig's. My local Vandersteen dealer talked me into trying these speaker cables, saying that they seemed to have excellent synergy with Vandersteen speakers, and I can only agree emphatically. They are a wonderful match with the Vandy 3A Sig's, perhaps because the cables feature very low impedance, thereby extending the frequency response and also yielding better damping by the amplifier. The Goertz MI2 (copper) cables replaced my long-time value leader, Kimber Kable 8TC, and I'm so pleased with their performance that I really encourage other Vandy 3A Sig owners to try the Goertz MI2 (copper). The MI2 cable sells for slightly less than the Kimber 8TC, and is thus -- in my book -- a very high value product.
I too own a pair of the Vandersteen 3A Signatures. I have found that every step up in associated equipment has made a impact in the sound. Tara Labs speaker cables(bi-wire Master Generation 2) work extremely well with these speakers. I have also found that biamping offered a more than suttle improvement.
In reading other peoples comments about these speakers, one common thread seems to be the slight warmth imparted. I really believe this is a bi-product of set up and room management. In my dedicated listening room, you can actually move the speakers around and go from warmth to a moderately lean sound. Alot depends on how the low end of the speaker is set up. If you go for maximum low energy, then warmth is imparted. But go for soundstaging and clarity and you will find a slight leaness through the bottom that gives just unbelievable clarity through the mids and highs.
It took me about a month of allowing the speakers to break in and various room locations to arrive at a ideal balance. At this point, sound wraps around the room almost like a multi channel system. The speakers are no longer there, just a huge soundfield in both height, width and depth. I really haven't heard anything that I would trade at this point for the sound I have now. I too have been through the B&W Nautilus line, Martin logans, Maggies and others. Each has its strong points but to me lost out in the TOTAL sound reproduced top to bottom. I have been at this "Hobby" for about 35 years and finally have gotten close to my ideal.
I'm about to embark on a pair of Vandersteen 2WQ's and see what happens. I really feel this could be it!
My equipment is a pair of upgraded McCormack DNA .5's, a Meridian 508-24, Audible Illusions L-1 linestage and Tara Lab's "The 2" interconnects and Master Generation II speaker cables.
I've owned Vandersteen 2ce Sig.s for about 6months now and am very pleased with them except for the aspect mentioned by others inthis thread-- that a fair amount of volume is needed before they really sound like much.My solution for now was to use a y-connector out of tHe Musical Fidelity A3 cd player into a MF A300 integrated for the vandys and at the same time into Antique MGSI 15DT 5/15 watt tube amp into Triangle Titus 202s This way I've got high/normal volume and low volume covered. At present am using Sonic Horizon shotgun biwires with the vandys but am curious about hearing mapleshade. As you can see, value is a big deal with me. ---John
Limited clarity in the mids is definitely a limitation of my Vandersteens, compared e.g. to the exquisite Avalon Opus
(which retail for 3-4 times as much) However the Vandersteen's have the same heft, tight bass presentation and sweet highs as the Opus to my ears and present classical music to the listener quite well.

Cables to consider: I recently purchased the Magnan Signature speaker cables (a flat ribbon design; you have to be eclectic to like their looks). The Vandersteen's benefit significantly from the reduced skin effect design. Their already excellent coherence improves.
Thanks to all for your responses to my review. Lots of great suggestions and I am thinking about adding another subwoofer. I am using a Vandersteen V2W sub for my home theatre but don't recommend it stand-alone for music as it has only line level inputs. I spoke with Richard Vandersteen before buying the sub and he indicated two subs were needed - he was right - a V2W and a 2WQ would work better. The Vandersteen subs are built on the original philosophy of imparting more presence to the bass, rather than crushing you with tons of output as many theatre oriented subs do.

I upgraded my sources with a Rega turntable and added jitter correction to my 3 SONY 400CD jukeboxes and the sound is much improved. More detail, leaner presentation. So it is clear that the Vandy's will reflect the quality of sources and associated equipment.

I just bought a pair of 13 year old Vandy 1B's for the bedroom - they sound fantastic - beautiful mid-range!
Fsabella: I have spoken to Richard also.. I think what he meant was that he recommends two (2Wq) subwoofers to reproduce music.

I owned the Vandersteen 3A Signatures for 2 years and played them with good equipment. I agree with the earlier reviews that they are probably the best buy under $4,000. The speakers sounded best when biwired in my setup. They like lots of clean power. I found the imaging to be very good, the mids to be sweet and true to the recording, the highs to be somewhat subdued but pleasant, and the bass to be slow and lacking when placed more than 24" away from the rear wall. They sound good at low to mid volume but not very good at higher volume. They do not distort or become harsh at upper volume but the music becomes muddy. The clear distinction in instruments, which is present at low to mid volumes, blends as the sound level increases. That said, they are wife friendly and do nothing terribly wrong. Richard Vandersteen is an approachable and friendly man who is very dedicated to the quality of his products. Like the 2ce before it, the 3a sig is a great buy for the money.
My setup with the 3a Sig:
Wadia 861
Audio Research Ref. 2
Mark Levinson 332
Transparent Ultra cables
We have been living w/3a-sig's for about 6 months now and I agree with most of what has been said, esp hi value. The money is spent on stuff that impacts sound quality: drivers, xover and cabinet + overall high level of engineering, not on exotic veneer. I listen to a wide range of music and find spare accoustic to Jazz. Recordings that are well done and that include spatial info sound great. Very natural and at ease esp at low to mid levels. Less than stellar recording work is obvious. Setup is slow but worthwhile. Sound Anchor stands are a must. I am using AudioQuest type 6 (or maybe it's 4?)in bi-wire and Cardas for line level. System: Mac Attack: C-15, MC-202, MC-240 (1961!) and MCD-205...all bullet-proof, remote controllable and frankly fairly neutral:)I am just returning from 15 years away from audio: last system I owned, and this will date me: CJ-Prem 2, SOTA w/ET arm, Dynavector ruby, CJ MV45a's, stacked Quad 57's... The new system gives up something in mid sweetness...but memory is a fickle those of old girlfriends...Also I agree with input on Richard V, long ago I sold his stuff and he is a neat guy. Finally 1b's have to be the absolute best value ever in speakers:)
I read most of your comments. Do yourself a favor & listen to the vandees 3 sig. with tubes. This is pure musicality indeed. I was thinking about buying them. But I opted for ththe Maggies 1.6. Listen to these sometimes. The vandee is a good speaker but the midrange needs tubes.What do you think? aoljer
I have heard the 3A's with Audio Research tube gear. They sound very good with these electronics - I just cannot afford the stuff.

I did sell a few pieces recently and bought a Lexicon MC1 preamp/processor. Used MC1 prices have dropped like a stone since Lexicon implemented their trade in program, and an MC1 can be bought for $1300 - 1400 (originally $6000). My local deal gave me a great deal and sold me a demo unit with full warranty.

I mention this only because I am using the MC1 as my 2 channel preamp now. Although not as warm or involving as my Adcom GFP-750, the MC1 does produce "audiophile" sound, and is superior to the Adcom in midrange detail and high frequency extension. I have to say that the 3A's have a dramatically different sonic character with the MC1 - very airy and open - extraordinary detail in the midrange. The highs are much more detailed and extended - and very smooth.

I guess my point here is that the Vandy's really benefit from high quality electronics, and don't, in themselves, necessarliy present a warm tonal structure. I can't say that I want to use the MC1, long term, as my two channel preamp, but is does create a much leaner sound in the Vandy's.
Aniticipation can be a torment, especially if patience is not one of your virtues. I had made a trade for the Vandy 3a's. I don't know what was lacking in my system at the time and I don't know what the Vany hype was or is all about. It was probably the most disappointing trade that I have made. Flat lifeless sound with boomy bass! I moved the speakers in several hundred spots hoping to resolve the problem but it was to no avail. Sometimes systems are just not compatible and this appeared to be one of those times. At the time I had an Aragon 4004MKII, Audio Research LS15, and Meridian 588 cd player. I used Transparent Wave Super bi-wire. A modest system but good enough to have the ability to produce good results. The end result was the Vandy's had to go! I still don't know what the problem was but like I said it was one of my most disappointing trades.
I completely understand your frustration with the 3A's. On some source material they can go quite flat. Obviously, good sound is highly subjective. I know some of my friends prefer more detailed and forward sounding speakers. I like the smooth 3A sig mid-range and am personally very sensitive to mid range grain and distortion - its probably the response curve of my ears! So I like the Vandys. But I can certainly understand why their sound would not appeal to all listeners.
I also have been living with 3A Sigs for quite some time. I used two Vandy subs for awhile and it does make a difference. They allow you to place the speakers way out in the room which is best for imaging, mid range, etc. and at the same time place the subs in the corners that can maximize the bass. However, by far the biggest improvement I got from these speakers came after I sold one pair (yes, I was using a second pair as rear surrounds) and took the now available amp and vertically bi-amped the speakers. The improvement was so profound that I disconnected the subs as the speakers now sounded better without them.
It is all in the speaker positioning and setup with these speakers. Very subtle placement changes can improve these speakers 20-25%, much more than most other brands. Moving either of the speakers even a couple of inches, the distance from room boundaries, the degree of tow-in and tilt-back can significantly affect the sound, changing it from that lifeless, warm, muffled, no jump factor quality that everybody complains about to a sound which is midrange-pure, transparent, natural, dynamic and extended at both frequency extremes. In my opinion, it is difficult to make the 3A Signatures sound bright or harsh, unless using very badly matched electronics, but if they sound lifeless, unfocused, or not dynamic, this is probably due to your setup. It will take a lot of work to correct these issues, but it will be worth it in the end. I must admit that I didn't find Vandersteen's comments on placement all that helpful. They were much harder to tune than other speakers and I spent my first 6 months dissatisfied with their sound until I did the extra work. I am now extremely happy and don't see making a change for a long time to come.
Yes they do work great with ARC gear.

I have a pair of 2Ces that are hooked up to a pair of Audio Research
Classic 120 monoblocks and the sound is wonderful!
A quality Dealer can and should set these up for you. Mine had them sounding awesome in about an hour.
I owned a set of 3a Sigs for 6 years and Mod 5s for a bit. While bass was ok it did not hit the bottom octave so I used them with dual Vandie Subs. It was able to reproduce ANYTHING. As I recall they were always easy on the ears sometimes a bit unexciting, but never irritating. They did not "slam" and were kind of a warm sound. To get the best out of them you must experiment with the X-5 crossovers. It is not always as the factory states the value is that should be used. I Used them with 150 watt VTL Mono blocks and tube preamps. I would switch back and forth with a McCormack 250 for some music when the speakers needs some extra sparkle. I liked the overall sound with the McC amp better than the VTLs. Eventually, I found that that I liked the sound of von schweikert VR-2s and some of the bigger VS speakers but always with tubes. Always thought they did more, and traveled that fine edge of excitment and fatigue. The 3A Sigs are a great speaker, good value and Rodger Vandersteen is always there to support.