My advice to speaker shoppers who prioritize sound quality is go for a good set of big speakers. They conjure the sound of music more realistically than tiny ones. I know all too well that most folks settle for something smaller, and usually it's a case of the smaller, the better. That's why designers are always trying to get bigger sounds out of smaller speakers. Enter the Vanatoo Transparent One, a 10-inch-tall powerhouse armed with a 5.25-inch aluminum woofer, a separate rear-mounted 5.25-inch passive radiator, and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter. This little speaker made a big impression when I first heard it at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver in early October. Calls were made, and the nice folks at Vanatoo sent a pair of Transparent Ones to me, and I'm glad they did.
When I unboxed the speakers, their substantial build quality surprised me; they trump the Audioengine, Emotiva, and Adam Audio equivalent speaker stereos I've tested. They're available in black for $499 a pair, or sumptuously finished real cherry wood for $549. One Vanatoo speaker houses a 60-watt-per-channel Class D amp that connects to the other speaker via the included cable. Connectivity options include a 3.5mm analog jack, optical, coax, and USB digital audio. Onboard digital converters handle up to 96kHz/24-bit data. The Transparent Ones can be hooked up to an Apple TV or AirPort Express via the optical input, and there's also a RCA subwoofer output jack. Like other powered speakers of this type, you can hook up the Transparent Ones directly to a computer, TV, phone, MP3 player, CD player, and so on. The powered speaker's rear panel also has volume, bass, and treble controls.
I started my listening sessions with the Transparent Ones sitting on floor stands, placed on either side of my TV, and connected to my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player's analog output jacks. I used the BDP-95's variable analog output to control the speakers' volume from the player's remote. Whoa; Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" floored me with its prodigious low bass impact. Then I noticed just how lively the sound was overall, but the bass was the star. Vanatoo claims that the bass goes down to 48 Hertz, that's deeper than other similarly sized speakers I've had at home. The Transparent Ones clicked as a home theater 2.0 system, no need to add a sub. They're a viable alternative to sound bars, and unlike most 'bars, the Transparent Ones also sound great with music.
On my desktop, hooked up via USB input, their sound was crisp and clear. There's a direct quality to the presentation, and LCD Soundsystem's thumping beats had terrific impact. Considering their compact dimensions, the Transparent Ones' bass punch and power is amazing; I'd even put it ahead of the three-piece PSB PS1/SubSeries 100 desktop subwoofer system I recently reviewed. That's impressive.
I felt that the Transparent Ones' highs were a little bright, so I eased back on the treble control, and that smoothed out the sound balance to my liking. Ah, but then I replaced the Transparent Ones with $349 a pair Emotiva Airmotiv 4 self-powered speakers and they were somewhat clearer overall. The 4s' soundstage was more expansive and the midrange and treble were clearer, but the Airmotiv 4's low bass didn't reach as deep as the Transparent Ones'. There is one other catch; the Airmotiv 4s don't have built-in digital converters.
Still, size matters, so when I played the Transparent Ones really loud their limitations intruded; they distorted, and large-scale soft-to-loud dynamic jolts couldn't touch what you get from larger speakers. So if that's what you want, don't kid yourself; buy bigger speakers, like the $600-a-pair M-Audio M3-8s.
So we're back where we started: most folks can't accommodate big speakers. If that describes you, the Vanatoo Transparent Ones are worth an audition.