I don’t change reference speakers casually. The Vandersteen 5A Carbon, however, is a truly exceptional speaker, both in sound quality and in providing the adjustments that allow it to function near its best in virtually any listening room. It is one of the finest point-source speakers I have heard, and it provides a remarkable mix of dynamics, accuracy, and truly deep bass for any speaker its size.
The Vandersteen 5A Carbon may not have all of the performance capabilities of the Vandersteen 7 that Robert Harley reviewed in the October, 2010 issue, but it comes extraordinarily close and it is much easier on the pocketbook. The Vandersteen 5A Carbon sells for $24,000 in standard finishes (custom automotive finishes also available), while the Vandersteen 7 sells for $48,000. Moreover, if you are the original owner of a Vandersteen 5, you can upgrade it for $11,150, and if you have a Vandersteen 5A, you can upgrade for $8650 (again, for original owners). These are scarcely bargain-basement prices, but they will bring you amazingly close to the limits of what a speaker can do for the money.
Moreover, this is a speaker that can be adjusted to work at its best in even difficult listening environments. It is compact enough to fit into real-world living rooms without dominating the décor (something I take quite seriously given that I have postmodern medieval décor with MOMA and Ringling overtones). I want a reference speaker that is compact enough and looks good enough to fit into a living space, rather than one that needs to be pampered in a dedicated listening room or that forces me to use an assortment of devices to limit room interactions.
I also want a reference speaker that can be set up in ways that allow me to enjoy listening with a friend, and I want a speaker that does not favor a given sound signature or type of music and gets the best out of ordinary recordings as well as great ones. The Vandersteen 5A Carbon meets all of these tests, and it is one of the “must-listen” speakers you have to audition if you are considering a speaker in anything like its price range.
“Carbon” or “Pistonic”
If you are familiar with the Vandersteen line, or own the earlier Vandersteen 5A, you may wonder about this level of praise for a speaker which is the third generation of a design that has already been around for four years and which earned outstanding reviews in each of its earlier incarnations. The key changes, after all, are “just” the midrange and tweeter.
Cone speaker technology has been around so long that it existed even when Paris Hilton was a girl. More seriously, the Model 5 and Model 5A are advanced designs even by the technical standards set by most of today’s competition. Vandersteen was one of the first companies to use FFT computer analysis for the design and quality-control of time-and-phase-accurate loudspeaker systems. In fact, Vandersteen claims that it delivered the first full-range, time-and-phase-accurate, minimum-baffle, vertical-array speaker system with the introduction of the original Vandersteen Model 2 loudspeakers in the mid 1970s.
The active subwoofer in the Vandersteen 5A Carbon is the same design as in the original Model 5 that was introduced in the mid-1980s. It still provides the same multiband bass-equalization, which allows bass response to be tailored to a variety of speaker positions in a variety of rooms and does so without processing in the signal path above bass frequencies or the use of DSP.
That said, the change in the tweeter and midrange driver technology to a carbon sandwich of carbon and balsa wood cones still makes a tremendous improvement in sound quality. Granted, we have all heard similar claims about drivers in the past, but this time you can really hear the difference! Moreover, the upgrade in drivers allows you to hear more of the merit of all the other features of the Vandersteen design. The Model 5A Carbon provides remarkable transparency without “edge” or distortion at any rational—or even reasonably irrational—listening level. It does so with smooth and flat frequency response almost regardless of the dynamic levels and contrasts, and it manages to do so without sacrificing even the finest levels of musical detail.
The 5A Carbon builds on the strengths of the original Vandersteen 5 and 5A. The construction, alignment, and positioning of the midrange and treble drivers allow a pointsource wavefront, maximizing the phase coherence of the loudspeaker at the listening position and minimizing time smear. This is helped by the use of first-order crossovers to achieve perfect phase coherence, and by the high-quality components and high-purity silver internal wire in the crossovers.
As is the case with most Vandersteen designs, these features are coupled to the use of the same minimal baffle and diffracting surfaces for the tweeter and midrange as in the Model Seven, and you can hear the result in a clarity equivalent to the best electrostatics like the Quad 2905s or ribbons like the Magnepan 3.7s.