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3A Signature loudspeakers
as reviewed by George Papadimitriou
For many years now, there has been a lot of talk by the media and from other audiophiles regarding the famous Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeaker. You have probably heard much of the talk…"greatest bargain in high end audio; very warm and musical to listen to; excellent bass for a relatively inexpensive speaker", and many other comments.
The 3A Signature is essentially wrapped in fabric grill cloth on all four sides. The grill cloth is available in different colours. There is a wooden bottom cap as well as a wooden top cap located above the tweeter. A substantial portion of the middle section of this top wooden plate is cut open and has grill cloth installed in it. This is to allow the tweeter's dispersion to go through most of this top plate. The top plate is a fair distance from the tweeter, and likely does not affect the dispersion characteristics of the tweeter to any great degree. Because of the use of fabric grill cloth cover, the look of the speaker is what I would call "Plain Jane". It definitely is not the most beautiful speaker on the planet, but at the same time it doesn't look weird or crazy like several other speakers I can think of.
At the rear of the back panel are two screw terminal strips for fastening speaker cables. This speaker was designed to be bi-wired according to Richard Vandersteen. The maximum width of spades that the terminal strip will accept is half an inch, meaning it will accommodate a lot of spades, including the normal size Cardas, Audioquest, WireWorld, and Vampire, plus many others. The screws on the barrier strips can be tightened with a Phillips screwdriver. In speaking with Richard Vandersteen, I was told that the reason he chose to use this barrier strip connection is to minimize the use of metal in the connectors. Even though this is an unusual fastening system, I found it very practical. It was very easy to tighten the spades on the barrier strip. For your information, this barrier strip will not accept banana plugs.
Also on the back of the rear panel, close to this barrier strip, are two rotary controls that adjust the mid-range and tweeter volumes. This is such a welcome feature that I wonder why a lot of other manufacturers do not use it. It allows you to control the tonal balance of the mid-range and the tweeter to suit your room, your preferences, and your system. The reason why they are not generally used is that most normal controls are actually L-pads that are inserted in series with a driver. According to Richard Vandersteen, these controls are "across" the drivers and as such are technically known as being "in-shunt" with the drivers.
The 3A Signature comes with the incredibly sturdy Sound Anchors brace, which bolts to the back of the rear panel, making it a very solid, stable platform to support the speaker. Attached to this brace are the three conical spikes. The three spikes on this speaker are actually very substantial cones. Two of these cones are located on the bottom of the speaker, and the third is at the rear part of the Sound Anchor metal brace. These cones are sharp enough to go through a carpet, as well as large enough so they don't resonate excessively when the speaker is reproducing music. I found them a total joy to use. The cones also have a hole through the side of them. This allows you to insert a small screwdriver so you can actually torque the cones down, so that they are securely bolted to the bottom of the speaker. Vandersteen also includes washers of various thicknesses, which can be installed between the bottom of the speaker and the cones to properly level the loudspeaker. Although this method requires you to remove the cones to insert the metal washers, it allows you to really tighten the cones to the speaker, better than the standard locknuts that most manufacturers use. I think Richard Vandersteen made a good design choice here.
The advantage of having three spikes or cones is that the speaker is always stable. If you are trying to position the speaker for best imaging and tonal balance, you are usually moving the speaker in incremental movements. Almost every time you move a speaker that has four spikes it becomes unstable, which means you must readjust it, which is a royal pain in the neck. It was nice to move the Vandersteen 3A Signature speaker from position to position and know that it was rock stable in any position. With this feature, you can truly listen to the changes from speaker positioning with the spikes installed, which is the right way to hear them. This speaker, once in place, is rock solid steady!
The crossover design of the speaker is a 6dB per octave first order crossover filtering system. This speaker is a true time and phase coherent design; though not all speakers that use 6dB per octave crossovers are as such. In order for the speaker to be truly time and phase coherent, it must have both of the following things. First, it must use 6dB per octave first order crossovers on all the drivers. Secondly, the individual drivers have to have their acoustic centres aligned so that their outputs arrive at the listener's ear at exactly the same time. Therefore to truly have a phase and time coherent speaker, it has to have both 6dB per octave crossover slopes as well as staggered drivers; drivers that are set back so that their acoustic centres are aligned. If the speaker does not have both of these, then the speaker is not truly time and phase aligned.
The Vandersteen 3A Signature also uses several "zobal networks." Zobal networks are designed to flatten the impedance curve of the driver so that the crossover can accurately roll-off the output of the drivers.
One thing that I found to be very important is that there is only one driver for each frequency range; all located each directly vertical over the other. Some speakers that I have heard have multiple drivers handling one particular frequency range. This generally results in a diffused sound and reduces the transparency and immediacy of the speaker. Richard Vandersteen told me that his company actually glues the drivers onto the front baffle and uses screws just to keep them tight while the glue sets. This makes for an incredibly rigid mounting for the drivers onto the front baffle, but I would assume this makes changing drivers rather difficult …assuming one ever needed to be changed.
The driver complement is as follows: handling the high frequencies is a dual chamber design metal alloy dome tweeter; the mid-range is handled by a 4" polycone mid-range driver; an 8" polycone driver produces the bass; the lower bass is handled by what Vandersteen calls a ten-inch active acoustic coupler. This is actually an active ten-inch bass driver which handles the very lowest of frequencies.
Richard Vandersteen also told me that he uses solid core wiring inside the speakers. He prefers the sound of solid core wiring for his speakers. All connections in the crossover are soldered, according to Richard.
As with all time and phase coherent speakers, the angle of the speaker is critical for proper phase and time alignment. Richard Vandersteen has designed the speakers so that you can adjust the backward tilt of the speaker so that all the drivers are perfectly synchronized, thus their signals converge at the listener's ear. The angle of tilt depends on how far the listener is from the speaker. In the owner's manual, there is a graph that tells you the required amount of "offset" in relation to the distance of the listening position. The manual makes this easy by showing you how to put a string with a weight (like a plumb bob) from the top of the speaker and measuring the horizontal offset at the bottom of the speaker. This is very easy, and an effective way to determine the tilt of the speaker. This is also convenient because the rake of the speaker can be changed by adjusting the single cone at the rear of the Sound Anchor stand. Very clever …very ingenious.
In fact, the entire speaker is very well thought-out and engineered in a practical manner, and the fact that this speaker sells for a relatively low price is a credit to its designer.
How It Sounds
When I spoke with Richard Vandersteen about the 3A Signature he said (I am paraphrasing here), "Our speakers are not for audiophiles, they are made for music lovers. Generally audiophiles don't buy our speakers; they are purchased by people who love music." I find this a valid comment with the Vandersteen 3A Signature speaker. It is very musical, easy to listen to, and not the least bit fatiguing. It is also very smooth without being veiled. Because the speaker produces very good bass, the sound is especially full bodied, warm, and robust—all of which are common criticisms. That is the speakers are seen as being slow, veiled, and syrupy …that they definitely are not! I definitely disagree with comments like these. They are simply very well balanced from top to bottom. It was also very cohesive from driver to driver, making the sound very engaging, as well as relaxing.
There was also a great weight and heft to the sound from this speaker. The 3A Signature has the "oomph", mass, and power of live music. It is such a wonderful departure from the thin, massless, overly detailed sound of so many speakers these days. I agree with Richard Vandersteen; if you love music, you will like this speaker very much. Even though the overall balance of the speaker was very good when the mid-range and tweeter controls were set to zero, you could increase or decrease the loudness of the midrange and the tweeter by rotating their respective controls. These controls made it very easy to get even greater sound from the speaker, because you can "dial in" the sound that is best to your ear; depending upon your listening preferences, and the type of amplification and speaker cables you are using. If, for example, you inserted an amp that was a little bit "lean and mean", you would just lower the level of the mid-range and tweeter as a counter balance. These level controls work like a charm and make fine-tuning the sound very easy.
The 3A Signature has excellent bass. It is so nice to have and feel the fundamentals of music. Richard Vandersteen feels that you need deep bass in a loudspeaker because it contains the foundation of the music. I would totally agree with his point of view. Even so, the bass was just a touch, and I mean just a touch, loose instead of the other extreme of the spectrum: being too tight and controlled—like much of its competition. The quality and depth of the bass was apparent when I was listening to several tracks from the LP by the LA Four titled Just Friends. On this LP I heard great body and heft to the music, as well as excellent texture and body on the saxophone. The bass on the speaker has not only great weight, but also good extension as well. This sucker goes low. Very impressive for such a modestly priced speaker.
The mid-range is smooth, yet articulate. These speakers don't have the artificial "highlighting" to give the false illusion of more detail; like so many current speakers. The mid-range is very smooth and well matched to the frequency ranges above and below this middle range. In comparison to my own speakers—Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i—the mid-range frequencies are better balanced and more tonally correct. The mid-range on the Green Mountains are more pronounced than the rest of the frequency range, and to a lesser degree, the highs are also a little bit more pronounced than the bass and mid-bass frequencies. Overall, the Vandersteen 3A Signature speaker is much better balanced than the Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i.
I found that the mid-range and the treble had a slight, very slight, textural difference from the lower parts of the frequency range. The tweeter and mid-range sounded more open and transparent, which didn't quite match the lower frequency range; which by comparison, was warmer, less transparent, more closed in, and slightly diffused. This is not a major criticism of the speaker, just an observation that was obvious after listening to the speaker for a fair amount of time. I have also found this tendency in other speakers that are designed with first order, 6dB per octave crossover slopes. I hear this tendency in my speakers, the Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i, as well as in all the models that I have heard from Thiel and lastly, the Meadowlark Heron 1. This is strictly an observation, and not an engineering fact.
The sound of the high frequencies is very clear and very articulate. The volume level of the high frequencies is also well balanced with the rest of the frequency ranges. The metal alloy dome tweeter used in the Vandersteen 3A Signature brings a crystal clear tonal clarity and a transparency to the music. This can be clearly heard in percussive instruments like drums and especially the cymbals. As a general statement, I find metal dome tweeters to reproduce the shimmering effects of the cymbal on average better than most fabric dome tweeters.
The disadvantage of many metal dome tweeters is that there tends to be a slight metallic coloration, since the diaphragm material is in fact metal. I heard this with the Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers as well. I found that the sound of the high frequencies and the upper mid-range sounded clear, transparent and crisp, with very good detail, but at the same time I heard a slight metallic sound, as well as a slight hardness to the music. The metal dome tweeter didn't fully, and I mean fully, integrate with the rest of the mids and low frequencies; it had a slightly different signature—it was not cut from the same "cloth" as the mid-range frequencies.
With all the great advances in tweeters in the recent years, I wonder why Richard Vandersteen didn't choose one of the many fabulous fabric dome tweeters out there, which have a much more controlled ringing behaviour than metal domes generally do. In fact, one can clearly see the resonant peak of the metal dome tweeter in the Stereophile review of the Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeaker. Stereophile's frequency response graph reveals a resonant peak at approximately 26kHz. When I spoke to Richard about this resonant peak, he said that he chose to handle this by creating a circuit in the crossover which lowered the magnitude level of this resonant peak. This is generally a good idea, but it does not eliminate the ringing resonating nature of the metal diaphragm. It just lowers the volume level a little bit. This correlates very well with what I heard sonically. I don't want to make too much of this because it is not a significant shortcoming, just something noticeable. It is no worse than what one hears from other speakers using metal dome tweeters.
On a good note, I found that the "esses" on voices to not be sibilant at all. This is quite an achievement for a loudspeaker that uses a metal dome tweeter. But, I have noticed that this is also generally the case when speakers are time and phase coherent; the high frequencies reach you at the same time as the mid-range and low frequencies, so any sibilance is drastically reduced, all in the service of the music.
This speaker had very good attack characteristics as well. In the Shirley Horne LP entitled Traveling Light, the piano had an excellent percussive attack as well as having a piano's wooden body resonance. Very nice, especially since the piano is, in general, such a difficult instrument to reproduce.
Like I said earlier, some of the audiophile "talk" out there about the Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeaker, as well as some other Vandersteen loudspeakers, is that they are not detailed nor very articulate. This was not my experience with the Vandersteen 3A Signature, as it is a revealing and detailed loudspeaker. Except this detail is not thrust at you—this is not an "in your face" sort of sound. The articulation, resolution, and detail are all there, it is just that they are not highlighted and separated from the rest of the music. So it may feel that the detail and articulation are missing from this speaker, but it ain't. In my experience, just like live music, it is integrated into the fabric of the music in a natural way. This characteristic of the articulation and detail being correctly integrated with the rest of the music is typical of a well-designed time and phase coherent speaker. I have heard this in just about any 6dB per octave time and phase coherent loudspeakers that I have encountered.
Describing the resolution of the 3A Signature is a little difficult. In comparison, this Vandersteen loudspeaker is not as resolute and detailed as, for example, my Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i speaker, or other speakers I've heard, though I can clearly hear any changes in swapping components or cables. However, at the same time the Vandersteen also exhibits less hash, grunge, and distortion than what I hear from the more "detailed" Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i speakers. This "perceived detail" can be a result of driver misbehaviour or crossover problems. Many times it can actually be harshness and distortion from the driver diaphragm material as well as from the driver itself. These problems can sound like there is more "detail" which creates a false sense of resolution and transparency. I find this is generally the case when I listen to a badly designed higher-order crossover design.
I also found that the music and actual performance does not quite "flow" out of the box as well as the Green Mountain speaker, though the imaging of the Vandersteen 3A Signatures was very good. Even so, it did not quite have the spaciousness, the openness, and the imaging precision of my Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i loudspeaker. This was not a great shock to me, as very few speakers can produce the soundstage and imaging that the Green Mountain Audio loudspeakers can, and they are considerably more expensive as well—$10k when last produced. The Green Mountain Audio Continuum 2i excels in this arena, yet, at the same time, the Vandersteen 3A Signature was overall easier to listen to, more harmonically correct, and much more musical in the best sense of that word, than my Green Mountain Audio loudspeakers.
Like all time and phase coherent loudspeakers, the 3A Signature is very critical when it comes to the alignment of the drivers in relation to the seating position. The "tilt back" of the 3A Signature is very critical to get the best imaging and spaciousness, as well as tonal balance. If you do not set the correct rake angle, you are not hearing the full benefits of this loudspeaker. It is in your best interest to set the tilt angle of the loudspeaker according to the graph shown in the owner's manual. You may also want to experiment a little bit; that is try a steeper or shallower angle until it sounds best to you. You might think the set-up of the Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeaker is fussier than most other speakers, but if you thought that, you would be incorrect. I found this speaker to be no fussier than most other loudspeakers I have reviewed. In fact, it is even less fussy and critical of placement and alignment than the majority out there!
The Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeaker is a very well thought out, designed, engineered, and executed loudspeaker. This is obvious from listening to the loudspeaker. That you can get this level of sonic performance for so little money is a revelation to me. This is one very musical, very easy to listen to speaker …it just sounds like music to me. It does not have any major shortcomings, or any major flaws; sonically or functionally.
The sound is very full bodied, with great bass and very good resolution and detail. The imaging and soundstage are quite good, being typical of time and phase coherent loudspeakers. There is detail and resolution in this loudspeaker, contrary to popular opinion, but it is not thrust at you or shoved in your face like so many other non-time aligned loudspeakers.
My only minor, and I mean minor, criticism of this speaker is that the texture of the mid-range and high frequencies do not accurately match the rest of the frequency range. As I have said above, I have found that this is a common characteristic with other 6dB per octave time and phase coherent loudspeakers that I have heard.
One can criticize a speaker for not doing this or doing that, but keep in mind that no loudspeaker is perfect. Considering the price of this speaker, its sonic prowess is nothing short of amazing. Someone once described this loudspeaker in print as being the "best bargain in high-end audio". I'm not quite sure if it is the greatest value, but I can tell you this …it is one of the top few greatest values in all of high-end audio.
If you are considering a loudspeaker in this, or even a higher price range, you would be an utter fool to not include it on your short list. This loudspeaker is not only a great bargain, but a great, well-designed, sonically excellent achievement as well. Well done, Mr. Vandersteen. George Papadimitriou
Upgradeability: The Model 3 series speakers are designed for complete upgradeability. As future technological advances improve the model's capabilities, cost-effective updates will be available to upgrade existing speakers to the latest components, performance and specifications.