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The Ill-Tempered Audiophool

Vanatoo powered speakers: my experiences

Rating: 3 votes, 3.67 average.
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Vanatoo powered speakers

My Rating: * * * * *



  • Powered bookshelf speakers that don't suck
  • Advertising is actually understated
  • 24/96 capable, with analogue, USB, Optical and Coax inputs
  • Internal direct digital DAC/amp
  • Honest DSP implementation
  • Pleasing fit and finish
  • Moderately priced at ~$500 (black)
  • No remote control
  • Resamples to 24/48 for DSP
  • Packaging is a bit of a crap-shoot (see Aug 19 2014 comment).

My Review:

For the last couple of months I have been playing around with the new Vanatoo active bookshelf speakers, in my bedroom, and then in my office. I've formed a very favorable impression. (I also have a couple of minor quibbles, but I will leave them for the end.)

Briefly, these are smallish (~10" high) speakers that can sit on a desk flanking your monitor, or sit unobtrusively in the house (eg: my bedroom, where I am intolerant of clutter and electronic junk). I opted for the red cherry finish, which adds a touch of elegance for an extra $50. (An ugly set of speakers in the house would buy me a quick trip to divorce court.) Their sound quality is quite good. They are a very clear step up from my $600 Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin, my equally over-priced B&W MM-1 speakers, and even my Audioengine A2's paired with a Dragonfly DAC. (Perhaps A5's with a Dragonfly would be more of a fair fight). If you are a bass-head, supplementing these with a competent subwoofer can certainly help.

Like the B&W products and some others in this class, Vanatoo speakers employ digital signal processing. To the audiophile purist, this might appear to be off-putting, but even a brief listen made me less skeptical. DSP technology can be deployed for good or evil. At the latter extreme, we have Bose. Vanatoo's DSP is used for the greater good, i.e., to flatten the response curve, thus correcting limitations inherent to the speakers (imposed by their small size, crossovers, etc):


The result is a completely neutral speaker down to about 49 Hz. That is quite impressive, if you stop to think about it.

Equally important is what the DSP does not do, which seems to be a manifestation of the overall design ethos: do something well, or don't do it at all. Whereas the B&W and Bose systems use DSP to augment the bass, artificially compensating for the physical limitations of small speakers, Vanatoo just doesn't go there. The result is authentic bass reproduction down to 49 Hz. When I first compared the Vanatoo speakers to my Zeppelin, I thought the bass sounded a bit thin, but as I listened more carefully, I realized what we have here is very competent, articulate bass reproduction that doesn't pretend to be deep. The Zeppelin, on the other hand, pretends to be a subwoofer, with the net result that you have something rather more thick, muddy and inarticulate that can, nonetheless, dislodge the fillings from your teeth. In other words, DSP used to fake the lowest frequencies may initially sound better, but after a few minutes of listening and comparing the two, you will realize that you are being had. Vanatoo's approach to DSP and bass reproduction is simply more honest.

If you really need that lower bass, the Vanatoo active speakers are designed to mesh rather seemlessly with subwoofers. I tried it with my Velodyne microvee, which I currently use in conjunction with my A2's (which really need it). Although it is a bit of an improvement to the Vanatoos, I could easily live without it.

One of the truly pleasant surprises for me is that the Vanatoo active speakers are direct digital technology, meaning that the class-D-like amp is also the DAC. (If you require analogue input, there is a small subsidiary ADC that first digitizes the input.) This guarantees the shortest signal path between digital source and the speakers, and this enables the speakers to live up to the name "Transparent Ones". I've been playing around with the NAD C390DD, which is built on the same idea, and am now convinced that those who truly embrace digital music playback without reservations or romantic notions about tube warmth and vinyl analogue sound will be rewarded richly from a direct digital playback route. You won't find this in their advertising , but they told me about it over the phone. I asked why they didn't make more of a point about this, and they said they didn't want people to get bogged down in technical details. That certainly is a judgement call, and although I am no advertising executive, I am a bit of an audio geek, and these are precisely the details that speak to me. This is one of several examples that lead me to the conclusion that their advertising is a bit under-stated, something that is rather refreshing relief from the sea of bullshyte that the audio world can sometimes seem awash in.


The speakers are rather well-built, with a lot of nice thoughts to detail. I've already mentioned the red cherry finish on the speakers I have been listening to. A left-right switch allows you to select which side the powered speaker will be on. Three digital input options (USB, coax and optical) means that I can use this with a computer, an airport express, Apple TV, or just about anything else you can think of. Although the ATV was my default input option, it doesn't really do the Vanatoo justice, since it is a 24/96 capable DAC. It also has an "optional" subwoofer out, and connecting such a beast automatically activates this and the circuitry that handles the crossover seamlessly. The amp is essentially a 60 W Class D, which limits its utility for cooking eggs, but is truly welcome for those of us concerned with energy conservation and not having a spurious room heater. I could not even detect its power consumption when left on and idle, which is good since the direct digital circuitry is dead quiet, and the only indication that you have left the thing turned on is the blue LED at the back that screams out for a little piece of black electrical tape. In fact, the only significant design oversight that I found is the lack of a remote control. With an ATV input in "zone player" (rather than streaming) mode, there is no way to control the volume, apart from getting up off your fat arse and walking to the speaker and turning it down using the volume knob at the back. I guess most people don't use it in this way, but I found it was a shortcoming, especially while recovering from a broken ankle.

Overall, I give this a five star rating (out of five). Although it is tempting to ding it for a lack of remote control, that seems a bit unfair, given how much you get for your $500. I think this is an absolutely ideal system for a desktop, for a bedroom, or a college dormitory room, especially when paired with an Apple TV or Airport Express, although high-res audiophiles will find direct connection to a computer or other high-res capable playback device even more rewarding. For a mid to large size living room, it probably isn't quite enough, but for any of those other applications, it seems ideal. Supplemented with a reasonable quality sub, it would even make a great main system in a smaller room.

Apparently, I am not alone in arriving at this conclusion. I just looked on Amazon, and of 20 reviews, 19 give it five stars. (The other apparently dinged it because they don't include an optical "cord").

In summary, this is a nice, conservative, honest, good-looking and exceptionally neutral and highly competent audio system that won't set you back much more than $500. They will even give you a 30 day audition.

Updated 08-20-2014 at 12:18 AM by wgscott



  1. jhwalker's Avatar
    Thank you so much for this! I'm actually looking for an "upstairs" rig to use with my iPhone / iPad, and there are almost too many options these days. The new Peachtree deepblue, the Vanatoos . . . it really becomes a case of what is most convenient and sounds great. Sounds like these are another contender.
  2. wgscott's Avatar
    Thanks for the feedback. I do about 75% of my bedroom listening with an iPad, but I use it as a controller (via Apple's for an Apple TV set top box (without the actual TV, which we won't allow in the bedroom). This gives the option to use wireless airplay streaming from the iPad itself, from my main system, or as an independent "zone player" that sources my main system (the latter two using iTunes as a server). I actually never tried wiring in my iPad directly, except once with the USB camera adaptor to show that you could, at least in principle, use the iPad/USB route for direct digital playback from the iPad. I think if I were to use it that way under ordinary circumstances, I would probably invest in a proper digital iPad dock, but it is kind of cool that you can do it with the (now obsolete) USB adaptor.

    (You could also do it with the much more user-friendly 3.5 mm analogue connection, but that defeats the direct digital coolness factor.)
  3. jhwalker's Avatar
    "Digital coolness factor" is important ;)

    Amazing how much I enjoy slick gadgets, almost for their own sakes - and it's all for my own amusement / entertainment, as I don't have friends over to show them / make them jealous, etc. I just get a kick out of it, every time.
  4. askat1988's Avatar
    Heard these yesterday in Newport and have to agree that they are a bargain for the price and sound very nice.

    I think any 24/96 gets down-ressed, pretty sure that's what they told me.
  5. wisnon's Avatar
    Good review!
  6. wgscott's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by askat1988
    I think any 24/96 gets down-ressed, pretty sure that's what they told me.
    I didn't know that. What's the story with that?
  7. askat1988's Avatar
    The Stereophile review explains it well.
  8. christopher3393's Avatar
    Thanks for writing this. It is a service to all involved.
  9. Boris75's Avatar
    The Zeppelin, on the other hand, pretends to be a subwoofer, with the net result that you have something rather more thick, muddy and inarticulate that can, nonetheless, dislodge the fillings from your teeth.
    Your words accurately describe my experience with the Zeppelin Air. I had to set the bass to -3 to turn the Zeppelin into a device with which I can listen to acoustic music. But even so, I am only moderately pleased with the Zeppelin Air and much prefer the Libratone Zipp that I purchased later: less powerful, but much more natural-sounding. The only instance when I would prefer the Zeppelin is when listening to electronica or dance music.
  10. christopher3393's Avatar
  11. Bob Stern's Avatar
    My comments after listening to the Vanatoo for about 30 minutes connected to my DVD player via Toslink (so the source material was at the 48 KHz native sampling rate of the Vanatoo DSP):

    The midrange and bass are amazingly good for such a small, inexpensive speaker. Both have excellent clarity and effortless power. The bass is seamlessly integrated with the midrange. However, to achieve this I had to turn the bass knob almost all the way down, to about 8-oclock. (This was listening to a DVD of the beginning of Act 3 of Siegfried.)

    The treble is another story. The John Darko review linked in the preceding post said the treble was somewhat excessive. I think it has a more serious problem that is not addressed by simply turning down the treble control. Even with the treble control at 10-oclock, it has a conspicuous resonance or breakup mode that adds a spitting character to speech transients and adds what I describe as a “shattering” sound to treble in music.

    Please don't assume my treble complaint is a deal-breaker because it may be as good as you can get for $500. I haven’t heard any other powered speakers in its price range.

    A week ago I heard two speakers that were half the size and half the price ($250) of Vanatoo, and they were a definite step down: Audioengine 2+ (powered), and Orb satellite (passive). The Audioengine sounded muffled across the entire frequency range and had non-adjustable boomy upper bass. (Although the bass was better if you connected the passive half of the pair to a separate amp to avoid the bass boost of the internal EQ.) The Audioengine treble avoided the peakiness of the Vanatoo by being rolled off and indistinct. The Orb was a joke for the price. It had a very non-uniform midrange and treble, with apparent resonances at multiple frequencies.
    Updated 07-30-2013 at 02:04 AM by Bob Stern
  12. wgscott's Avatar
    I wonder if the toslink might be the source of the treble trouble? (I didn't hear anything like that.)
  13. wgscott's Avatar
    I just got a pair of these for my "home office" which is a rather small stand-alone structure with an iMac in it. These excel at near-field in a way that I was not previously aware of (I was reporting impressions from my bedroom). My best initial attempt at describing this is like having an exceptionally good pair of headphones on, but without the encumbrances and irritations that come with having little speakers clamped to your ears. The amount of detail is stunning.

    For those who care, this is with a cheesy $2 USB cable and an old 2007 iMac, so who knows, maybe it could do even better.

    Listening to this at the moment, no added sub, the bass is remarkably good. The sound effects are extremely realistic.

    I'm a bit less thrilled about the delivery and packaging.

    I decided I would order the speakers from the Vanatoo website itself, instead of through Amazon (I'm a prime member, and would have got two-day free delivery), so as to save the Vanatoo guys a few bucks by cutting out the middleman. Or so I thought. When I placed the order, I was a bit surprised to get an email saying Amazon was shipping the package and I would get it in a week or so. It came via FedExp Smartpost, which sort of combines the worst aspects of both organizations. Yesterday's "delivery" was a postcard in my mail box telling me to drive 15 miles to the post office the next day to pick it up. It was in a big old beat up cardboard Amazon box, and I almost tripped over a couple of our local heroin addicts passed out on the front steps while carrying it to my car.

    I opened up the Amazon box to find the Vanatoo box inside, and it was immediately fairly clear it was an "open box item". (I had contemplated saving $50 by getting one of the "B" grade versions that had been returned, but I decided not to and ordered what I thought would be new at full price.) The top of the box had been re-taped, but the side was just split open:

    The speakers were re-packaged with a similar approach:

    The instructional quick-start card was water-stained too.

    Fortunately there was nothing obviously wrong with the speakers that a bit of polish could not cure. (The USB connection seems a bit loose, but it might have been that way from the beginning, and it seems to work ok.)

    This is a problem with Amazon I have had before. Their return policy is generous, but they have no qualms about sending you open-box stuff as if it is new.
    Updated 08-20-2014 at 12:01 AM by wgscott
  14. wgscott's Avatar
    I just did the Perfect Sense Q-Sound imaging test with the Vanatoos. The effect is better and more focused than with any other speakers I have tried this on (including my main system, where at the moment something is wrong and it isn't happening at all). This, among other things, suggests that the DSP is doing much more good than harm for phase coherence/imaging.

    The dubbed voice of Hal (from the movie 2001) saying "Stop, Dave" gives the illusion of being 90 degrees to the left of the listening position. When something goes awry (as it apparently has on my main system), the image collapses to the center of the soundstage.