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Vanatoo Transparent Zero Loudspeakers

04-10-2018 | By Adam Goldfine | Issue 96

Vanatoo Transparent Zero Loudspeakers

I first heard the Vanatoo Transparent Zero (T0) speakers at the Los Angeles Audio Show last year and was immediately smitten. The sound quality I was hearing from speakers—available at an introductory price of $299 (now $359)—had me scratching my head wondering how so much could cost so little. Add to that 2 x 48 watts per channel of bi-amplification, a 24/96 DAC with USB and Toslink Optical inputs, Bluetooth wireless and analog input, as well as a full featured remote and the value equation goes up dramatically.

The T0 is an idiosyncratic product that is remarkably flexible in terms of placement and usage. The speakers can be placed directly on a desktop as computer speakers, where they will be angled up, pointing at the listener's ears, due to their trapezoidal shape. Flip them over, and the included supports allow the speakers to fire straight ahead for stand mounted in-room usage. The magnetically attached grills can be mounted either side up to accommodate each position. Each speaker also contains a ¼"—20 threaded insert for mounting on a console, or even a pair of tripods if you so desire. A choice of two digital signal processing (DSP) settings tailors the bass response to either flat or shelved, depending on the speakers proximity to walls, corners, desktops, etc. Shelved sets the -3dB point to 56Hz and the subwoofer output's fourth order crossover to 125Hz.The flat setting extends the -3dB point to 52Hz and sets the crossover at 80Hz.

Additional controls adjust bass and treble, can change the control speaker from left to right or vice versa, set limiters, and more. Making the adjustments consists of unplugging the power, setting a dial, flipping a switch, holding down a button, plugging the power back in, releasing the button, and waiting for an LED to flash confirmation of the new setting. This effective but rather awkward approach (complete with reference chart) seems more engineering than user experience driven. Fortunately the engineering is spot on and works flawlessly, contributing, in no small part, to the Transparent Zero's exceptional flexibility.

Taken together, the above features and attributes might lead one to conclude that the T0 is a typical, mass market Bluetooth speaker, tarted up with some extra features and a unique look, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Deep within the DNA of these speakers is the audiophile genetic heritage from which they hail. 

Lately I've been spending a lot of time wondering what aspects of sound reproduction distinguish high end audio from plain old, everyday mass market audio. Particularly when it comes to extremely affordable, by high end standards, products, there is a huge performance gap between mass market and products whose intent is recreating music. On my frequent trips to Costco, and less frequent trips to Best Buy, I often find myself loitering in the audio area checking out the latest offerings from Bose, Vizio, Samsung, Sony, etc. and while some of those products are initially engaging, even exciting at times, I always come away scratching my head wondering what is missing. Why don't they draw me in and invite me to stay in the way the best high-end audio products do?

Vanatoo Transparent Zero Loudspeakers

The Absolute Sound magazine defined High End Audio as, “the sound of un-amplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space." Paul McGowan of PS Audio broadened the definition to include modern multi-track music, “the natural, lossless, uncolored, reproduction of recorded music." I would broaden the definition further to include that which faithfully recreates a credible illusion of the original performance, preserving the emotional intent of the artist(s) and the resulting emotional impact of the music itself. In a word, transparency; the equipment gets out of the way and allows the music to flow through.

Can that be accomplished for $359? There is a great deal of competition at and around this price point, but in my experience, very little that meets the above definition of High End Audio. You can get impressive bass, ease of use, multiple wired and wireless connections, remote control, but the credible illusion of the original performance in a self powered, highly affordable system is mostly absent with a few and not particularly well known exceptions.

I did the majority of my initial listening with the speakers sitting on my desktop with the analog output of my MacBook Pro's 3.5mm jack feeding the 3.5mm analog input of the Vanatoos. I attached the subwoofer output to a PSB Speakers SubSeries 100 subwoofer, leaving the Vanatoos in shelf mode, and the sub crossover at 125Hz.

Listening to a variety of material from iTunes, YouTube, Skype calls, high resolution recordings of my own drum tracks made via the excellent Zoom H6 Handy Recorder, it was immediately apparent that the Transparent Zeros bested the PSB Alpha PS1s which have lived on my desk for the last several years, and are an audiophile gem in their own right. Greater refinement, greater dynamic range, a more convincing illusion of the original performance, all led to my preference for the Vanatoos. I wouldn't say it was a night and day difference but a clear difference nonetheless.

I experimented briefly with the T0s' Bluetooth input streaming from my iPhone 8 Plus, and it worked flawlessly with a minor but still noticeable quality hit. iOS does not support aptX and Vanatoo makes no mention of AAC (Apple's preferred Bluetooth codec) support. If Bluetooth is your thing, there is a plethora of products that support aptX including modern MacBooks and iMacs.

For more critical listening and to really ascertain the quality of the T0s, I flipped them over, removed the grills and placed them on stands about two feet from the back wall of my secondary listening room. Inverting the speakers puts the tweeters and the volume control on the bottom meaning you need stands that are a bit higher to position the tweeters at ear level and adjusting the volume control is a pain in the ass. Alternatively, the supports can be moved to the other side of the speakers by removing four screws with the supplied Allen wrench and repositioning them to  other side of the amplifier plate. In this way everything is right side up, and the tweeters remain on top as does the volume control.

Make sure your speaker stands are large enough to support the entire depth of the speakers. Because of the design of the supports, the T0s will only contact the top plate of the stands at the very front and very back of the speakers. Anything smaller simply won't work. Aesthetically the T0's are probably better suited to a desktop but on the stands was where they sounded best. Vanatoo will soon offer an adapter kit which consists of two acrylic plates and some Blu-Tack that will adapt any speaker stand top to fit the Transparent Zeros in either the desktop (angled up) or room (right angle to mounting surface) modes. The cost of this adapter kit is $25.

I changed the response settings from shelved to flat increasing the bass extension from 56Hz to 52Hz. As long as nothing is plugged in to the subwoofer output, the speakers run full range but attaching a subwoofer automatically engages the 4th order crossover circuit with a center frequency of 125Hz on the shelved setting, and 80Hz on the flat setting.

I compared the T0s to the PSB Alphas via the analog input to level the playing field (the PSBs have no digital input.) And while a sub woofer is almost a requirement for this type of system to have real impact, I did most of my analysis without the sub. A subwoofer has such an overwhelming transformational effect it would have made it much more difficult to distinguish the real character of each speaker. That being said, I found the sub to be much less of a requirement with the T0s than with the PSBs. The PSBs' specified 80Hz -3dB point versus the T0s' -52Hz (in flat mode) -3db point would seem to support that impression. I added a subwoofer to the T0s only at the end to get a sense of how they might perform in a wider range but still budget conscious system.

First up was “Just A Little Lovin'" from Shelby Lynne's wonderful Just A Little Lovin' (CD, Lost Highway 0602517448254). Both sets of speakers performed admirably on this track though the T0s were a bit more articulate with a bit of growl in the bass that I did not notice through the PSBs. I found the T0s a bit shouty in the louder passages compared to my reference (and almost 50X more expensive) Wilson-Benesch speakers, but overall very natural sounding. I had to keep the amplifier limiters engaged without the subwoofer attached as playing them in the room on stands, I found myself pushing them to the point of shutting down. (Even with the limiters disengaged, they never once shut down with a subwoofer attached either on stands or on my desktop.)

Next was Nils Lofgren's “Keith Don't Go" from Acoustic Live (CD, Vision Music, Inc VMCD 1005). Again, both speakers performed well with solid imaging, a compelling sense of the ambient space, and the steeliness of the guitar strings, but the T0s were more transparent, more articulate; they created a more convincing illusion of the performance taking place live in the room. Both sets of speakers were adequately dynamic, if nothing like the real thing, but the T0s did a better job of keeping things sorted when the track got more complex.

One of my favorite bass torture tests is Marcus Miller's “Cousin John" from M2 (CD, Telarc CD-83534). This track confounds most systems but both sets of speakers did a surprisingly good job of unraveling the complex bass lines that trip up a lot of set-ups. That may be due, in part, to the fact that both sets of speakers roll off before things get too hairy, basically solving the problem by eliminating it altogether. Again, the T0s proved to be more articulate and more dynamic.

“Jazz Variants" from The O-Zone Percussion Group's La Bamba (CD, Klavier K 77017) will push the limits of all but the most dynamic systems. Think 110dB or greater peaks with no compression. That kind of effortlessness takes a lot of do re mi, and at $299 and $359/pair for the PSBs and the T0s respectively, they were no exception. Though both speakers were polite sounding in comparison to what this track demands, the T0s played with greater authority and impact. They had more of a startle effect, more of a sense of notes forming in space out of a black background, greater contrast. There was some compression on the loudest passages, but the T0s still managed to rattle the ceiling fixtures of the floor below the listening room. Micro-dynamics were improved as well; I got a greater sense of the mallet on the head of the concert toms that was missing with the PSBs. Clearly, this is not bookshelf speaker music, but even without the subwoofer, the track was more than a little enjoyable through the T0s.

I repeated this comparison with about a half dozen more tracks, piano, acoustic jazz, female vocals, male vocals and always the same result. The T0s have no business producing this kind of sound quality let alone adding a built in DAC, DSP, bi-amplification and wireless input all for $359.

As I mentioned earlier, a subwoofer isn't strictly necessary with the T0s, 52Hz is a respectable -3dB point. And if you are building a system on the cheap, getting everything you need except the source and stands, including the cable, for $359 is a pretty fantastic way to start. But when it comes time to get serious, for not a whole lot more money, you can turn this little gem into a whole other animal. Judging from the configurability of the subwoofer output, this is what the designers had in mind.

Enter the SVS SB-2000. At $699 it's probably a bit of overkill for the T0s. Then again, I don't think there's such a thing as bass that's too good. (Notice I didn't say there's no such thing as too much bass.) This sealed box sub has a -3dB point of 19Hz with 500 watts RMS, 1100 watts peak of amplification. Mating it with the T0s, the results were pretty spectacular. Handing off everything below 80Hz allowed the T0s to play louder and more dynamically with the sub adding a greater sense of space as would be expected. Voices and instruments were more present and more emotionally involving. With  the amplifier limiter turned off I could not get the system to shut down no matter how hard I pushed it. Everything took on a more relaxed and musical feel. Again no surprise.

The big bass drum whacks on “Jazz Variants" had real floor shaking and chest thumping impact with no loss or overshadowing of the subtle shadings that bring this recording to life. If anything, the whole presentation was more transparent. “Cousin John," on the other hand, as it has many contenders before, confounded the SVS somewhat, turning the interwoven, complex, deep bass lines into a bit of mush. The track was better off without the sub as the T0s alone were not muddy in the least. To be fair, the only speakers that can both reproduce deep bass and sail through this track effortlessly tend to start in the high four figures and only go up from there.

As a final step I connected my MacBook Pro's digital output to the USB port on the T0s utilizing their internal DAC. The difference was not subtle. What had been a somewhat close contest between the PSBs and the T0s became no contest at all. The slight hardness I heard in some piano recordings and the slight shrillness in some voices largely disappeared. The sense of the performance taking place in the room improved by an order of magnitude.

Using the analog inputs I had to work harder to maintain the illusion of the real thing and listening fatigue would eventually set in after a couple of hours. Via the USB input, I never grew tired of the sound. Paul Simon's “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes", Graceland (CD, Warner Brothers W2-25447) had sounded pretty lackluster on both sets of speakers via the analog inputs. Via the digital in it finally sounded layered and airy, deep, and punchy. Images became both more tightly focused in sharper relief, precisely located and more well rounded and fleshed out. A layer of haze disappeared. Bass was tighter, deeper and more impactful both with, and without, the sub.

Switching to digital in, I had the distinct experience that the entire system had crossed a threshold from really good, affordable self-powered speakers, to truly high end sound. It was entry level, but high end sound nonetheless. (It's entirely possible that a very high quality analog source would close or even eliminate the gap between the T0s digital and analog inputs, but they are also unlikely to be used that way.) In that regard the Transparent Zeros are an important product. They put true high end audio well within reach of music lovers of modest means by simply adding a digital source. And if you want to take it up a notch, just add a subwoofer.

The future of our industry depends on exposing the next generation of potential audiophiles to high end sound, and the T0s provide the means to do that financially, technologically, and most importantly, musically. Idiosyncratic controls aside (which should be a set once and forget it affair) nothing could be easier than to connect a source to these speakers and have at it.

Whether you put them on your desk or stands, if you want high end sound at a ridiculously low price, buy the T0s, attach a sub, and connect a digital source to the onboard DAC. You will achieve a level of musical satisfaction far in excess of the cost. 


T0 Loudspeakers

Retail: $359/pair





  • 4 inch aluminum cone woofer with 1 inch underhung voice coil and shorting ring
  • 4 inch long-throw passive radiator
  • 1 inch soft dome tweeter


  • 2 way bi-amplified active speaker
  • Assisted passive radiator bass reflex system
  • 8th-Order DSP derived Butterworth high-pass at 58Hz
  • 8th-Order DSP derived Linkwitz-Riley crossover at 2200Hz


  • Bluetooth with aptX for wireless connection
  • USB audio up to 48kHz at 16-bits
  • Toslink optical up to 96kHz at 24-bits
  • 3.5 mm (1/8") analog input, ADC sampled at 48kHz at 24-bits

Amplifier & DSP

  • Direct Digital Class D
  • 2x48 watts per channel
  • DSP resolution of 48kHz at 24-bits
  • Thermal, short circuit, over current protection

Frequency Response

  • 56Hz – 20kHz ±3dB (Shelf Mode in room)
  • 52Hz – 20kHz ±3dB (Flat Mode in room)
  • Subwoofer Crossover 4th-Order Linkwitz-Riley at 125Hz (Shelf Mode)
  • 4th-Order Linkwitz-Riley at 80Hz (Flat Mode)

Power Requirements

  • 120 VAC±10% at 60Hz or 220 VAC±10% at 50Hz


  • 7.5"H x 4.75"W x 7.75"D (w/o support)
  • 7.5"H x 4.75"W x 9.75"D (with support)
  • 4.5 lbs active / 4.0 lbs passive
  • Shipping: 7.75"H x 13.5"W x 17.75"D and 14lbs