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Gryphon Diablo 300

Reviewers' Choice“Arguably, in the last few years, the most competitive segment of the ultra-high-end speaker market has been models retailing for $50,000 to $70,000/pair. This price range includes such prominent models as Wilson Audio Specialties’ Alexia ($52,000/pair), Magico’s S7 ($58,000/pair), and Vivid Audio’s Giya G1 ($68,000/pair), to name just a few. In short, there are lots of tough competitors.”

That was Jeff Fritz in February 2016, in his review of the Rockport Technologies Cygnus loudspeaker ($62,500/pair). I wasn’t entirely surprised to find missing from Jeff’s short list of contenders my own longtime reference speaker, the Vandersteen Model Seven, even though I could spend some time expounding on the ways it outperforms the speakers he names. Vandersteen products have a way of flying under the radar. Undoubtedly, had Jeff first floated his list by me for my thoughts, the Vandersteen Model Seven might well have made his list. It does beg the question: What does it take to return a speaker system like the Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II ($62,000 USD per pair) to the awareness of audiophiles -- and why does it so often go unnoticed?

Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II

Nothing to overlook here

I have a few ideas. First, familiarity breeds contempt. Vandersteen Audio has been building speakers for 40 years, and many of their models have outwardly looked unchanged throughout that period. Richard Vandersteen is famous for investing his R&D and build costs in drivers and crossovers, not showy exteriors. While the current incarnations of the Models 1, 2, and 3 may look much as their ancestors did in the 1970s and ’80s, each has undergone myriad revisions over nearly four decades that have rendered them completely new speakers under their socks (Vandersteen speakers often lack cabinets). Even the Models 5A Carbon, Quatro Wood CT, and Treo CT look essentially unchanged from the day each was released, again despite significant insertions, over the years, of newer, cutting-edge driver technology, and improvements in sound. Second, the value proposition all Vandersteen speakers represent makes them susceptible to being damned with faint praise. So often they’re described as “great for the money,” with the implication that their performance goes “only so far.” Third, many associate the brand with the $2000-$5000 price range, within which Vandersteen has sold literally tens of thousands of pairs of Model 2s and 3s. Given the vast body of Vandersteen’s work in the more populist segment of the hi-fi hobby, I suspect that elitists gloss over the brand, forgetting to associate Vandersteen with the rarefied air breathed by speakers costing $50,000/pair and more.

There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Vandersteen, the brand or the man. Both hail from unassuming Hanford, California, a farming community just outside Fresno. Hanford doesn’t conjure images of cutting-edge, 21st-century Silicon Valley (Magico), or the exotic reaches of South Africa (Vivid), or the idyllic luxury of lakeside Maine (Rockport). Richard Vandersteen is the salt of the earth, more reflective of neighboring farmers than of such speaker savants as Dave Wilson (Wilson Audio) or Alon Wolf (Magico), and more apt to undersell the noteworthy technology and performance his designs offer.

Undersell and overperform. Substance over style. Both are Vandersteen trademarks, and have earned man and brand a loyal if perhaps less vocal following -- owners of Vandersteen speakers are more likely to be listening to their music than blogging, or frequenting Audiogon to chase down the audio flavor of the day. Maybe it does take an upgrade to remind everyone just how far the Vandersteen Model Seven extended the pursuit of Richard Vandersteen’s passion: To fully realize this speaker’s potential, he developed the M7-HPA monoblock amplifier.

Vandersteen M7-HPA

Re-creating music à la Vandersteen: original waveform integrity plus room interaction

The dominant concept in the Vandersteen approach is the pursuit of a perfectly accurate -- and thus perfectly musical -- re-creation of the original input signal’s waveform. Richard Vandersteen believes that this is achieved with the use of first-order crossovers, the time alignment of driver outputs, the use of a single drive unit for each range of frequencies within the audioband, and minimal baffles. This recipe for an all-analog, time- and phase-coherent loudspeaker, once commonly shared, in recent years has lost some staunch proponents, notably John Dunlavy and Jim Thiel. It is still pursued at Vandersteen.

Vandersteen readily admits that his approach isn’t about first impressions, but rather extended enjoyment, truthfulness, and emotional engagement:

When a speaker is time and phase correct, the illusion becomes [the] instruments or performers [being] transported to a sound room and the listener is in the room with them. To do that correctly, magnificently, and more realistically, a speaker should be time and phase corrected. It’s a learned experience; it’s not the first thing people listen to. However, by the second or third demo, the listener begins to perceive that the music is real. I think it’s that realism that lets the music speak to the listener.

All Vandersteen speakers are designed to reproduce sound based on the principles of time and phase coherence, but both iterations of the Model Seven represent Richard Vandersteen’s most extreme efforts to fully realize the full potential of this approach, from both a technical and “real world, real room” perspective. For a detailed technical description of the key components and subassemblies of the Model Seven Mk.II, please see my review of the original Model Seven, from May 2010. The two seemingly small changes in the Mk.II originated from Vandersteen’s explorations of a possible new, larger flagship model. The first consists of a mechanical alteration to tighten the acoustic centers of the tweeter and upper-midrange drivers onto their shared baffle, thereby enhancing waveform integration and improving the “acoustic lens” pairing. The resulting improvement in physical and acoustic alignment allows for less crossover compensation, and eliminates a small notch in the passband region. Comparing the MLSSA measurements of the original and Mk.II versions confirms this objective result, but while looking small on paper, the audible improvements were surprising: an increase in image focus, and soundstages that were taller, wider, and deeper. The second change, too, is seemingly minor: weaving the voice-coil leads into the spiders of the Seven’s built-in, powered subwoofer. The result, according to Vandersteen, is supercharged linear excursion and authority. Sounds about right to me.

Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II

There has been a recent trend to add room-integration capability to loudspeakers, especially for the lower frequencies. Examples include the Paradigm Persona 9H, several models from Legacy, and Kii Audio’s Three. As explained in my review of the original Seven, Vandersteen early recognized that proper interface with the listening room is essential to realizing a large portion of a speaker’s potential. Accordingly, the Seven Mk.II, like the 5A Carbon and Quatro Wood CT, has a built-in subwoofer system featuring all-analog, 11-band equalization for the 20-120Hz range. The efficacy of this approach was evident when I moved my family to a new home. My old listening room had been a large shared space in which the speakers were placed along the long wall and were more than 7’ from sidewalls; the new space is a much smaller but dedicated listening room only 11’ wide, with resultant boundary problems. The Model Seven’s bass EQ was a godsend. While higher frequencies were addressable with RPG Diffusor products at the first- and second-reflection points on the sidewalls and ceiling, without the low-frequency tuning adjustment of the Sevens’ subwoofers, the low-frequency readings at my listening position still looked like the Rocky Mountains -- and the booms and suckouts those readings predicted were what I heard. After adjustment, except for one narrowband room mode, the bass fell within a flat (+2dB/-3dB) response all the way down to 20Hz.

Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II

Real performance for real rooms is a philosophy extending beyond such room-tuning capability. The Model Seven Mk.II should work in most rooms: at 44”H x 14”W x 20”D and 200 pounds, it’s dense but not immense. Contrast this to the space-dominating monoliths topping other manufacturers’ lines, some of which seem to require cavernous, purpose-built audio temples in which to breathe.

Listening: evolutionary enhancements

All of my comments about the sound of the original Model Seven in my 2010 review also describe the Mk.II, with two differences. First, soundstages were bigger in all directions: from side to side, from top to bottom, and from front to back. I surmise that the better physical and electrical integration of the tweeter and midrange driver, as indicated by the Seven’s spectral-decay plots, has freed the ear/brain interface from having to overcome a low-level artifact of waveform reconstruction, thereby enabling an expansion of the presentation to the mind’s eye.

“Cucurrucucu Paloma,” from Harry Belafonte’s At Carnegie Hall (2 LPs, RCA/Analogue Productions APF-6006), is the sort of sonic gem I often turn to when looking for a dose of vocal reality and magic, and it provided a wonderful example of the refinement enabled by the Model Seven’s Mk.II upgrade. Live recordings have a way of demonstrating both soundstaging and the reverberant space or “air” around the musicians that defines their placement on the stage and the sonic signature of the auditorium itself. This recording, especially in this new remastering by Ryan K. Smith of Sterling Sound, is instructive. In this magical performance, the beauty, control, and subtlety of Belafonte’s refrain of “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” as well as the various voices and positions of his backing singers echoing that refrain as Belafonte holds his final note, spread palpably across the tableau captured in that famous hall on those April nights of 1959. With the Mk.II upgrade, the sonic immersion is more immediate, the stage noticeably bigger; Belafonte and his accompanists, the spaces between them, and the hall itself were more palpable and better defined.

Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II

With “Throw It Away” -- from Look Sharp! (1979), Joe Jackson’s first solo album (LP, Intervention IR-005) -- the snap and definition of the bass anchoring and driving Jackson’s catchy beat had a hint more aplomb with the Mk.II upgrade. Only when hearing this album with fresh ears did I bother to discover that Jackson was a percussion major at the Royal Academy of Music. This made me refocus on his new-wave beat, which captures the sensibility of late-1970s London shared with Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, but in Jackson’s own inimitable, cleverly snarky way.

Listening: the M7-HPA as emotional supercharger

A picture can give a sense of Vandersteen’s M7-HPA monoblock amplifier ($52,000/pair) -- its shorter, squatter form is strongly reminiscent of the tapered surfaces of its intended mate, the Model Seven speaker -- but not its 120-pound weight. Nor does that picture tell you much about the innovations lurking below the surface that form the structure. In designing an amplifier to be part of a single, already extant active loudspeaker -- from the M7-HPA’s input receptacle to the Seven’s carbon-fiber/balsa-core cones -- Vandersteen can control every variable, and even cheat a bit (at least compared to designers of general purpose amplifiers). The “HPA” stands for High-Pass Amplifier: the M7-HPA powers the upper frequencies while rolling off frequencies below 100Hz with a first-order (6dB/octave) high-pass filter, to properly interface with Vandersteen’s powered-bass speakers and subwoofers -- the Model Seven Mk.II, Model 5A Carbon, and Quatro Wood CT -- in which dedicated subwoofer amplifiers reconstruct the signal integrity from the attenuated input.

Vandersteen M7-HPA

Constructed like a metal jigsaw puzzle, each machined-from-billet structural component of the M7-HPA is kept from resonating with constrained-layer damping, the entire amp resting on three footers of machined stainless steel. Inside, the active circuitry floats on a suspended, vertically oriented raft, itself constrained-layer damped. To maximize decoupling, a liquid cooling system featuring a supremely quiet, variable pump, connects the transistors’ metal block raft to what are essentially radiators (as opposed to the traditional method of attaching the output devices directly to the inner surfaces of outwardly visible heatsinks). Beyond the benefits of damping vibrations and microphonic resonances, a liquid cooling system such as this can also more precisely maintain an optimal operating temperature, regardless of load demands.

Richard Vandersteen had been pondering various approaches to optimal amplification for decades, based on hearing how his dealers were driving his speakers with exceptional amps, from tubed models from Audio Research to solid-state champs from Ayre Acoustics, Dan D’Agostino, Constellation Audio, and others. Vandersteen himself was in charge of the overall design and architecture, but enlisted engineer Dean Klinefelter to help design the balanced, zero-loop feedback circuit, as well as the ten separate power supplies and advanced power conditioning and protection systems preceding that circuit. A hybrid amplification circuit, the balanced input stage features one 6N1P-EV and one 6H30 tube, which feed a pair of single-ended output stages featuring identical NPN bipolar transistors. (The speaker itself is connected to those output stages in a manner inspired by the 1954 patent of the Circlotron amplifier, in a scheme Vandersteen has been cogitating on for decades.) The design omits any emitter resistor, and its ultrashort signal path comprises only five very costly parts, such as electrolytic and film capacitors. The amp’s output power is specified as 600W into 4 ohms, to match the loading of the Model Seven Mk.II. Connecting the output stages to the speaker are two pairs of solid-silver speaker cables made for Vandersteen by AudioQuest; these are about 1m long, to encourage placing each amp next to its speaker. Also included is a long, heavy-duty power cord with a 20A IEC plug.

Vandersteen M7-HPA

Nothing in the picture or the foregoing description prepared me for the transformative nature of the release of the potential lurking within the Model Seven Mk.II. The experience reminded me of when my wife and I auditioned the original Vandersteen Quatro Wood against the then-current Model 5A. I was out of the room during the changeover, attending to my infant son, but when I returned, my wife said that I’d have to hear it for myself. As had she, I heard an unambiguous shift in emotional energy. The noise floor dropped, along with audible distortions, while there were increases in the amounts of information and detail conveyed. In a nutshell, we both perceived less artifice and more reality. Moving from the Model 5A to the original Model Seven, it was déjà vu all over again -- but this time the change was even more surprising, given that the starting point was so much higher.

From those experiences, and the familiar quality of sound through the original and Mk.II Model Sevens, I considered such a revelation impossible from a mere change of amps. I had recently had some excellent amps to work with, from Ayre Acoustics’ MX-R monoblocks, to the Aesthetix Atlas Signature and Mola Mola Kaluga monoblocks, and finally to Ayre’s MX-R Twenty upgrade. While each prior change may have modified my perceptions of smaller-scale differences and a resulting textural flavor of system playback, these were not transformative differences. However, with the insertion of the M7-HPA, the elimination of previously unidentified cues of artificiality and the addition of new levels of detail resulted in a newfound sense of ease and all-encompassing envelopment every bit as significant as my experiences of the increases in quality from Quatro Wood CT to Model 5A, and from Model 5A to Model Seven.

Vandersteen M7-HPA

Many great sound systems seem to make time travel possible, taking me back to the era and place of an original performance -- in the case of Harry Belafonte, to Carnegie Hall in 1959. Much rarer, in my experience, is the sound system that seems to transport me to my own past -- the reliving of an earlier moment and feelings triggered by hearing a piece of music that ties to the present that prior time and the sensations I’ve associated with it.

With Roon in Radio mode, grabbing selections from the late 1980s from my NAS library, one such event floored me. “Kingdom of Rain,” from The The’s Mind Bomb (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Epic), immediately opened the floodgates of sense memory. Clear as day, mental images and associated sensations transported me to Santorini and Florence, Anna Karenina and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, rural bus rides and urban train depots. It was an evocation of the relationships among people, places, events, and music that only truly outstanding systems can make happen -- a distinction that separates mere hi-fi, with its attention-grabbing razzle-dazzle, from the high-performance gear that can nourish, sustain, and even expand our quality of life. The Model Seven Mk.II, driven by the M7-HPA amplifiers via Vandersteen’s dedicated AQ cables, was less about impressing from moment to moment than uncovering moments that took my breath away.

From hypercars to hyperspeakers

When I was a kid, certain awesome automobiles were my “dream cars.” From the McLaren F1 to the Ferrari F40 through the turn of the 21st century, the term supercars described vehicles that pushed the boundaries of sports-car performance and cost. In the current decade, as bleeding-edge prices routinely exceed $1 million, hypercar has come to define those cars in which F1 technologies -- from active aero devices to kinetic energy-regenerative systems -- are adapted to road-legal rockets. Of these, the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and Ferrari LaFerrari have been called the Holy Trinity of hypercars. From what I’ve seen and read about them, each is a marvel of engineering expressive of a unique essence. The McLaren has been described as a wild and thrilling ride, but with technical requirements (from its launch control system to active aero activation) apparently derived from NASA. LaFerrari blends its mechanical sophistication with sexy swagger, but may best be appreciated at dedicated event days with other similarly situated owners and a cadre of official Ferrari support personnel on hand. Leave it to the German entry, Porsche, to avoid most of the flash and instead invest most of their effort into systems that enable 90% of the 918’s likely drivers to extract 90% of the available performance on all manner of byways, at roughly a third the cost of the other two.

Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II

These ruminations resulted from considering the Vandersteen system of Model Seven Mk.II and M7-HPA in the context of Richard Vandersteen’s past experiences as race-car driver and airplane pilot. At $114,000 for the complete package of amplification and transducers, this combo lives at the hyper end of audio -- and yet, setting aside the “luxury” side of high-end audio, I can easily count multiple, technology-oriented speakers that break six figures without amplification, let alone cables, power conditioning, and vibration control. Others may exude more flash or sizzle than the Vandersteens, or provide a wilder ride, or induce more awe with their physicality. Yet Richard Vandersteen’s 40 years of perspective, and his unending exploration of the technologies that have become available for use in his hyperaudio system of waveform re-creation, have resulted in this audio version of Porsche’s 918. With it, I’m confident that most music lovers will be able to realize in their listening spaces, whether shared or dedicated, a higher level of sound quality than they could expect to attain with mix-and-match combinations of amp(s) and speakers.

The M7-HPA amplifiers have joined my Vandersteen Model Sevens, now upgraded to Mk.II status, to form the backbone of my reference system. The quality of sound I’m hearing from them is beyond what I could have hoped for, let alone expected, even a year or two ago. Overlook the Model Seven Mk.II at your peril -- and if you already have Model Sevens, whether originals or Mk.IIs, and want to unleash their full power, a pair of M7-HPAs is a no-brainer.

. . . Peter Roth
peter@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II
  • Digital sources -- CAPS Server Zuma running Windows Server 2012 R2 (with AudiophileOptimizer treatment) and Roon 1.3 Core; Synology NAS
    Analog sources --  Brinkmann Balance turntable, Tri-Planar Ultimate II tonearm, Lyra Etna cartridge, Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono preamplifier
  • Digital-to-analog converter -- Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty
  • Preamplifier -- Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty
  • Amplifiers -- Ayre Acoustics MX-R Twenty (monos), Aesthetix Atlas Signature (monos)
  • Interconnects -- AudioQuest Wild Blue Yonder
  • Speaker cables -- AudioQuest WEL Signature and Vandersteen (included with M7-HPA)
  • Power conditioner -- AudioQuest Niagara 7000
  • Amp stands and rack -- Harmonic Resolution Systems MXR rack with M3X shelves
  • Room tuning -- RPG Diffractal, Omniffusor, and BAD panels

Vandersteen Audio Model Seven Mk.II Loudspeakers
Price: $62,000 USD per pair.
Vandersteen M7-HPA Mono Amplifiers
Price: $52,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: One year, parts and labor; five years with timely submission of warranty card.

Vandersteen Audio, Inc.
116 W. Fourth Street
Hanford, CA 93230-5021
Phone: (559) 582-0324

Website: www.vandersteen.com