Compact desktop audio is creeping upon us in the speaker realm in much the same way drastic product launches have taken over the computer and portable headphone market. Gone are the days when searching for a computer speaker meant you ended up with the Altec Lansing package that came free with your oversized Gateway tower. I do still miss the degauss button as a quick form of entertainment, but the days of CRTs are now long behind us, I digress. Upstart speaker company Vanatoo has recently released a new all-in-one speaker package called the Transparent One ($500). The “all-in-one-ness” I’m referring to in this case includes a two-speaker setup with amp and USB input in one tidy enclosure. Connect to a computer and your desktop is ready to rock.
The Transparent One was released into the wild last August and seems to have its sights set clearly on the digital-focused crowd. The TO can also be used in shelf applications or as an iDoc of sorts, given you have a source like a Squeezebox for the former and a Line Out Cable for the latter. I did test the line out capabilities of my iPod Nano (6G) with very pleasing results. I was really impressed with the input diversity of the unit. All digital mainstays made the design cut including coaxial and optical. The Tenor TE7022 USB input leads directly to a DSP which also regulates the EQ through two controls for bass and treble. The 60 watt class D amp drives the 5 – ¼ inch woofer and 1 inch silk dome tweeter to respectable levels in a small room. Vanatoo also included an additional 5-¼ passive radiator on the back of each speaker to increase the bass output.
Each speaker cabinet is solid. The TO is about the weight you would expect from a traditional speaker in this size range given all the extra goodies contained in the one channel. My pair came incased in a cherry finish ($550), which I enjoyed very much. Black is also available for $50 less. Rather than go for the studio-monitor look of many of its close competitors, the TO boasts a front grill cover, making it a little more presentable for the mantle in the living room in addition to your office of solitude. Ascetics such as this are really a matter of personal preference but might serve as a point of compromise if you are the type who has to sell in the idea to your significant other. I found the look to be a very subtle addition to the shelving in the lab, much more classy than many of the iDoc stations that have been around for years. The automatic input switching worked quite well although occasionally a 15 second delay was needed to reset the connection. I tested each of the input types and was very impressed with the results. I suffered no major connectivity issues and the USB input was very much plug-and-play with no drivers needed. There is also a very handy left/right switch that allows you to put the source speaker on either side.
As you can image, one of the standard issue hurdles with a speaker this size is bass. The Vanatoo Transparent One did a very respectable job reproducing bass, more so than I originally expected. Speaker placement becomes paramount when it comes to bass. I found the passive radiator design of the TO lends itself to a better overall tonal presentation when it has a little room to breath behind it. When placed directly against a wall the TO pushed out a higher volume of bass. The tonal controls was able to alleviate this to some degree, but for the tightest bass response I would recommend giving the unit at least 7 inches of space to perform its best. When positioned in such a manner the overall tone presentation was surprisingly flat. Of course the tone controls let you salt to taste, but I found the suggested settings to be fairly spot on. The bass presentation is lovingly full and contained choice cuts of low-end slam given the size. For even more LFE-love, bass heads will appreciate the sub out connection. The internal DSP I mentioned earlier actually provides a frequency cutoff when a cable is attached to the output. If your subwoofer has a crossover control of it’s own I suggest you adjust it to it’s highest frequency setting and allow the DSP to manage the reasonability. Outsourcing the low frequencies affords the main drivers a little more leeway to handle rest of the spectrum.
In a desktop setting, I preferred the sound of the Transparent One when it was at close range with each speaker pointed directly at my ears. Changing the angle of the cabinet so it was directly facing me (both vertically and horizontally) left me with a more realistic holographic soundstage where center vocals seemed to hover just behind my computer screen. In this position my desk did shake quite a bit from the bass, but nothing that really bothered me in the long run. The overall resolution of the Vanatoo system was less than my reference setup but not quite a fair comparison considering the full-size components dwarf the TO in not only in terms of cost, but physical size as well.
The Vanatoo Transparent One is an interesting specimen. Definitely something you should look into if you are searching for a classier version of an iPod dock, in terms of both ascetics and sound. You also might want to check it out if you are looking for a remote setup to connect to your Airplay-friendly Apple TV or Airport Express via the TO’s optical input. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages for all-in-one desktop and office application is how cost effective it is when you add up the talent pool that TO brings to the game. Even a modest USB DAC, amp and speaker setup will likely run you more than the $500 asking price, and then you will still have to contend with all the real estate that comes along with separate components. While the overall sonic delivery doesn’t share the same polish as top-tier reference systems, I think many will find the musical output (from a wide range of digital source scenarios) worth the money.
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0080K2KUK