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.
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!