Life, too, would be better if it ran that way. You'd begin existence old and feeble, knowing everything, and just get younger. You'd still wind up near the end crawling on all fours, gurgling and eating baby food, but soon thereafter...what a way to go!
Audio reviewing would be much more accurate if one got to hear everything before reviewing anything. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
Because Vandersteen Audio has been around for so long, because it doesn't reinvent itself for marketing purposes every six months, and because, while the speakers it builds are attractive enough, they don't exactly qualify as eye candy, the brand is sometimes taken for granted. Richard Vandersteen's loudspeakers uniformly get respect, but they're rarely the objects of audio lust. I've been doing this for 20 years and somehow, until now, I'd never reviewed a pair. My bad.
I first heard Vandersteen's new Quatro at last year's CEDIA Expo home theater extravaganza in (of all places) Indianapolis, Indiana, during a visit to the Audio Research room. The Quatro is a small, graceful, tapered box less than 4' tall, with a footprint of 10" by 19". As is typical of Vandersteen designs, the baffle is wrapped in black cloth, which cuts both costs and visual appeal. (A more attractive, all-wood version, the Quatro Wood, was recently introduced; prices start at $10,700/pair.) On the other hand, if you want a speaker that can seem to disappear in a room, the cloth-covered Quatro fits the bill.
Yet despite the Quatro's bland looks, there was something so right—tonally, spatially, and dynamically—about the sound I heard that day in the Audio Research room that I blurted out right on the spot that I'd like to review them. That's the first time at a trade show that a Vandersteen speaker has elicited such a response from me.
The Quatro is a four-way design with a subwoofer system comprising two 8", long-throw, carbon-loaded cellulose cones powered by a 250W class-B amplifier. The sub's 20–100Hz bass response is room-customizable via an 11-band low-frequency equalizer as well as level and contour controls. The idea is to place the speakers where the imaging and soundstaging are best, then dial in the optimal bass afterward.
All of the Quatro's crossovers are first order (6dB/octave), which Vandersteen says maintains time and phase coherence. But because of the shallowness of the rolloff slopes, such designs require drivers of the highest quality, capable of linear performance over a wide bandwidth.
A newly designed 6.5" woven-fiber cone unit produces midbass and lower-midrange frequencies (100–900Hz); Vandersteen's patented drive-unit design, a transmission-line–loaded, curvilinear, mineral-filled polycone unit handles the upper midrange and the low treble (900Hz–5kHz). Richard Vandersteen explained that the design of this unit eliminates backwave reflections caused by its magnet structure, which can smear transients and diffuse images. A tapered, transmission-line–loaded dome tweeter of ceramic-coated aluminum alloy handles the high frequencies, from 5kHz to beyond 30kHz.
Setup began with the insertion of the passive high-pass filter boxes between preamp and amp. These cost $595/pair for unbalanced operation, $795/pair for balanced, and while they are priced separately, they must be used with the Quatro to provide the necessary bass rolloff for the passive woofer. Its first-order filter action, –3dB at 100Hz referenced to 1kHz, is set by matching its impedance via internal DIP switches to the amplifier's input impedance.
The amplifier's output (with its bass rolled off) feeds two pairs of screw-terminal barrier strips mounted on the Quatro's rear panel: one for bass/midbass, one for midrange/tweeter. Richard Vandersteen recommends true biwiring, using two separate runs from each amplifier (or channel of a stereo amplifier) to each speaker. He claims that old-fashioned barrier strips sound best, but because of their narrowness, many modern spade lugs will be too wide to fit them. That proved to be the case with all the cables I had on hand—enough to build a suspension bridge. Fortunately, he'd brought along biwire sets of AudioQuest Volcano speaker cable (AQ also makes the filter box's output cable) fitted with sufficiently narrow spades to fit the Quatro's strips.
The powered subwoofer takes its input from the speaker terminals, with an inverse first-order filter restoring flat response. This allows your power amplifier's sonic character to determine the final sound of both the powered woofer module below 100Hz and the midbass-midrange-tweeter array above that frequency.
The Quatro sits on three floor spikes, one of which can be used to adjust the rake angle in order to optimize the placement of the speaker's 6" "vertical listening window" at ear height. This adjustment is critical to achieving an ideal tonal balance, as moving above it produces too much treble, and moving below it produces too little.
That accomplished, Vandersteen used a test CD and a RadioShack SPL meter to measure each channel's in-room bass response with the 11-band room-compensation controls set to flat (this adjustment should be left to your dealer). The Quatro comes with a most detailed and informative instruction manual.
Richard's SPL readings indicated that very little compensation was needed in my room. In fact, the left-channel Quatro required only slight tweaking of two of the 11 controls; most of the irregularities were minor dips, which are best left alone. The right channel was not quite as flat, but the entire procedure took less than half an hour, which Vandersteen said was unusually brief. He indicated both that my room was acoustically excellent and that the masking tape did, indeed, mark the ideal speaker locations.
The goal, Vandersteen told me, is not to perfectly "flatten" in-room bass response; his research shows that doing so results in amusical sound, and that overequalization, even when the result is flat response, becomes audible.
After calibration, the Quatros' bass level and contour controls needed to be set by ear, preferably using a recording of an acoustic double bass. The level control sets the relative subwoofer output, the contour control adjusts the Q to provide a range from tight to linear to sloppy-bubby-kiss bass. Providing such a range of options often proves problematic to obsessive audiophiles, but once placement and room compensation have been properly accomplished, dialing in these two variables is easily done, even if leaving them alone might not be.
The Quatro—like all of Richard Vandersteen's speakers—is designed to retrieve as much recorded information as possible by providing phase and time coherence, as well as reliably flat amplitude response at the listening position. We'll see if JA's measurements fulfill that promise.
As an analytical tool that can reveal nearly everything about a recording—including, in most cases, where the microphones were placed—the Quatro is near the head of the class, and at a cost that makes it among the best loudspeaker values that I am aware of. While its impedance curve is claimed to be amplifier friendly at between 4 and 8 ohms across the audioband, its 87dB sensitivity means the speaker will require some power to reach high levels.
I found the Quatros' sonic picture extraordinarily detailed and musically convincing, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I also found myself often watching and listening from the outside—enjoying, observing, and admiring, but not particularly engaged emotionally on a visceral level. Those were times when the speaker suffered from a "distortion" I call TMI, or Too Much Information. Some would say you can never have too much information. I disagree. The recording art aims at creating the illusion of reality. When the actor flies, I'd rather not see the wires.
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