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The Vandersteen Treo CTs, diminishing returns, and the end of (audio) history

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Lattiboy

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Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you look around a room and realize, “I don’t belong here and everybody knows it.”? Growing up lower-middle class in the US and being in constant economic peril until about the age of 30, I sure have. This is the story of how a pair of speakers re-surfaced my class anxiety.

The Treos cost $10,000 new and are at the “low end” of Vandersteens “high end”. I paid a fraction of that price used, although still about as much as I’ve ever paid for a piece of audio equipment. For reference, I see people purchasing power cables for significantly more than I paid for these impeccably constructed speakers.

This hobby is weird. We all kind of know you can construct an incredible system for about $300 and some Craigslist browsing. However it becomes a fetish pretty quickly if your mind biases towards obsessions.

You stop listening to music, and you start analyzing sound.

Instead of connecting with the emotions of a song, you find yourself looking for flaws in the recording or errant artifacts in a live performance. You construct playlists of “reference songs” that you don’t even like, but are engineered extremely well.

I hate Dire Straits. HATE THEM. I could write 10 pages on how I find their music dull and droning and the very definition of midlife-crisis dad rock, but because of this hobby I have listened to Brothers in Arms more times than anybody should have to. Goddamn you Neil Dorfsman.

All of this rambling to get to this point: When you grow up poor, there are simply places you do not belong and things you shouldn’t own.

I had that sense of dread the day I set these Vandys up. All of a sudden I noticed my perfectly fine DAC/pre had a channel imbalance and a (previously undetectable) bit of distortion. “That’s weird” I thought, and wrote it off to coincidence. The thing must’ve developed it recently and I haven’t been listening to nearly as much music because works been busy and so on.

No biggie, I’ll go find an utterly transparent piece of kit! So, off to ASR I went. Next thing I know I’m holding a Topping E50 DAC.

Digression #1

Yes, Audio Science Review is mostly a joyless place full of angry nerds who repeat the same basic argument ad infinitum. “Never mention how something makes you feel, feelings are forbidden here. This is a house of science! If you enjoy the sound of something it is simply a product of marketing and bias. Do not believe your ears, for they are liars. Stare with us at this oscilloscope, for therein lies the holy truth!”

HOWEVER, after reading countless audio reviewers pretend to have an engineering degree breathlessly transcribe how “Dr. Bullshit” at Conspicuous Consumption Audio has a new technology where he smashes faberge eggs and then puts the debris (along with a splinter from the One True Cross) into a diamond-encrusted vial which he attaches to each speaker terminal and how this has allowed said reviewer to truly appreciate “the dynamic flutter” on Diana Kralls newest snooze-fest….. I can kind of understand them.

/digression #1

My power amp is and always will be my Denon POA-2200. I bought it at a garage sale for $25 a few years back and will use it until it dies. Produces more clean power than a speaker could ever need, runs cool, and kind of looks like a Cylon who just wants to party. I’ve had a fully-serviced Marantz 510M and mono-bridged Carver 500 THXs. All power amps sound basically the same and I will fight anybody who argues with me.

The end system is a Raspberry Pi 4 running Volumino outputting into a Topping E50 DAC (also acting as a preamp) feeding a Denon POA2200 into Vandersteen Treo CTs. Mostly using Tidal and local FLAC and HiRes files. Basically as revealing a system as could be imagined.

Digression #2:

yes, I have Tidal Hifi Plus and the Topping can do MQA and DSD. They are both an absolute waste of time, money, and hard drive space. I use Tidal because the suggestion “mixes” are great, the app is pretty, and they pay artists a reasonable amount of money compared to Spotify. Anything past CD-quality in the digital space is an affectation and/or an industry-funded attempt to re-sell the public the same goddamn music for the 15th time.

/digression #2

I’ve got a few sections of songs that act as markers for how speakers act and #1 with a bullet is Willie Nelson “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain”.

It’s mastered very quietly, so when Willie first comes in with “IIIINNNNNN the twilight glow, I seeeeeee her” it is either one of the most beautiful male vocal performances of all time or an ear splitting nightmare. I have listened to this song approximately 7 billion times on every speaker and amp I have ever owned. A surprising number of very good and expensive pieces of equipment fail this test, but the Treos did something different: they were too good.

It is not a secret Willie sings with his “head voice”, it’s kind of his whole deal. With the Treos it was like I was IN HIS THROAT. I could feel his soft pallet and hear his creaky guitar and my god is that rhythm guitar a little out of tune?!?? Nobody wants to hear any of this, including the artist who recorded it!

Nora Jones “Seven Years” up next. For sure a “reference song”, but one I’ve come to actually enjoy. Recorded with extreme intimacy, you feel like you’re at a campfire listening to some wildly talented hippies who just sold you the best mushrooms of all time. With the Treos? All I can really think about is how both of these fucking guitar players need to spray some Fret Ease on their strings before recording or I’m going to smash their guitars like John Belushi in Animal House.

Julian Lage’s Arclight (Live in Los Angeles) is one of my favorite live recordings. For me “Nocturne” is the standout track. With the Treos? At about 2:34 somebody on the recording sounds like they’ve having a stroke or an orgasm or both. I’m assuming this is Julian as he is so deep in sync with his band mates that they’re basically on another plane of existence.

Ok, enough with this audiophile bullshit, let’s listen to some bangers!

First up is a favorite of mine, “Lightsaber Cocksucking Blues” by McClusky. This is some pretty raw early 2000s punk by a band too awesome to stick around very long. The Treos suck with this. There just isn’t the body and presence this kind of music needs. Everything is crystal clear, but to a fault. This was clearly recorded under the influence of a raft of awesome drugs and the Treos feel like a fuckin Narc showing up.

Lastly is some hip hop.

Begin digression #3:

I will be honest, I really don’t even like bringing up hip-hop on audio boards because there will inevitably be some guy who thinks music stopped existing after Frampton Comes Alive came out and will say some, uh, “dog whistle” stuff about how it’s not even music and how “simple” it is and you get the basic gist.

If this little hobby of ours would like to maintain even a shred of relevance, perhaps including the dominant form of music for the last three decades in reviews might be a good idea! The fact that I have seen more references to Nils fuckin’ Lofgren than Kendrick Lamar in audio reviews is, uh, indicative of something mildly too “political” for an audio forum.

/digression

Pusha T has flow. Such ridiculous flow that it’s embarrassing to most other rappers. I think his best stuff is still off the 20 year old (holy shit I’m so old I’m practically dead!!!!) album “Lord Willin”. If you’d like to hear one of the greatest rappers of all time talk about selling cocaine for roughly 1 hour, this is your album. The big single was “Grindin’”, which I think has one of the greatest beats in history courtesy of Pharrell Williams. The Treos have a shocking low end when things aren’t “busy”. The vocals are way too forward here and it feels like I’m being lectured to. The pulsing synth sounds are distracting and feel too holographic. C+ performance.

Little Simz dropped one of the best albums in a decade this year with “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”. She is absurdly talented. An absolute beast of a rapper, a producer, and a very capable singer. “Point and Kill” is my favorite track off the album. The Treos absolutely murder this track! The mid-bass line is perfectly articulated, the voices are super clear but not domineering, it feels so right I can hardly believe it.

Finally, I put on “Show Me How” by Men I Trust. This is some truly Gen Z bullshit. Lifeless, wandering vaguely 80s synth rock that has the rise and fall of an ocean down pat. I am ENVELOPED by every frequency my system can put out. Like a mothers embrace, I am warm and at peace. Is this “a vibe”? Do I get Gen Z?!?? No, I don’t, but goddamn this is satisfying. I can’t understand a single word and don’t care if it’s just feeding instructions for a pet turtle. I’m hitting “favorite” so hard I crack my phone screen.

So goes my relationship to these speakers. I cannot possibly fault them technically, but I sure can fault them emotionally. They are designed almost outside of music itself. Sometimes they accidentally produce a jaw-dropping rendition of a song, but that doesn’t seem like their intent, just a byproduct of psychotic engineering and a huge budget.

So, yeah, I think there comes a point in all of this where you have to decide what it is you’re even aiming for anymore.

With the introduction of Hypex and Purifi modules a few years ago, amplification has been “solved”. For about $600 you can acquire a pure, perfect amplifier which will produce an amount of power formerly available only to the military for ICBM interception.

For under $300 you can then purchase a bit-perfect DAC and preamp that will pass along every bit exactly as it was recorded with limitless headroom.

What are we even doing anymore? Why do both sides of this quasi-ecclesiastical schism still pretend any of this matters? You can’t hear the difference between a SINAD OF 85db and 124db! Your cables aren’t doing a damn thing except making you feel like a special boy. Tubes are just tuning devices for personal preferences, not spiritual gateways into a soundstage that doesn’t exist.

The Vandersteen Treo CTs have my highest recommendation if you’d like to be thrown into an existential crisis. Six stars, no notes.
 
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Lattiboy

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And before you start with “you just need better matching components!!!!”, I pulled out every. Single. Piece. of audio equipment I own and bought some new ones. There is an intrinsic “deal with it” these things throw out that can only hoped to be contained, but not overcome.
 

VMAT4

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TL;DR, Have you read this? Maybe you'll send one in for measurements?
 
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Lattiboy

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TL;DR, Have you read this? Maybe you'll send one in for measurements?

Did you catch the part where I think you’re all joyless nerds who don’t even care about music anymore and are wasting your life looking for some undetectable 3db of performance in order to prove to the audio bullies (who have replaced the actual bullies from your childhood) that you’re all grown now?

There’s a chance that got clipped out.
 

BDWoody

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Did you catch the part where I think you’re all joyless nerds who don’t even care about music anymore and are wasting your life looking for some undetectable 3db of performance in order to prove to the audio bullies (who have replaced the actual bullies from your childhood) that you’re all grown now?

It's pretty clear this place is a source of distress for you. Maybe some time off would help.
 
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