American-made floorstanding loudspeakers offer a taste high-end audio for under $2,000.
I know I’ve been harping on “affordability” a lot recently on eCoustics. Boring. Yawn. I get it. But as I was watching a superb video from Cheapaudioman the other night at 3 a.m., I realized that there is a growing movement within the community that understands that high-end audio can’t grow without a serious conversation about affordability and teaching people how to properly build a system within a budget that doesn’t involve selling a kidney.
I’ve been there. On the other side. During 7 years of insanity in my mid-30s, I spent more than $70,000 on high-end audio/video equipment.
How much of it do I own today? Zero.
I feel pretty stupid about it to be quite frank. I had multiple pairs of perfectly fine MartinLogan loudspeakers that I am on some fanatical quest to reclaim and start from scratch with again.
Do you want to know why?
Because there was nothing wrong with them.
None of us hate really expensive high-end products. Some of them really push the performance envelope and that’s a good thing if the technology eventually trickles down into products that are more affordable.
But is that really happening on the loudspeaker side?
I see it on the digital front with better quality DACs getting more affordable; Schiit Audio, Denafrips, Helm Audio, and many others should take a bow.
People getting into high-end audio for the first time do have a lot of quality affordable loudspeakers to select from in 2021, but once you get out of that category, the prices escalate rather quickly.
How many people jump from $500 speakers to $2,000 or $5,000 speakers?
The more I think about it — the more I understand the interest in used high-end and vintage components, but the flip side to all of that is that demand is pushing prices a lot higher.
I desperately want a pair of MartinLogan Aerius i (oak finish) in great condition; but I’m not going to pay a stupid price for them because I will need to replace the panels almost immediately because they were designed to only last 15 years.
What about Vandersteen? I wrote about the Vandersteen 1Ci speakers in my recent Audiophile System Builder column and the feedback from a number of readers was that it was about time that someone in the audio press covered these speakers which are still in production.
The Vandersteen 1Ci speakers are not old enough to qualify as vintage audio (give them another 12 years and they will) but these American-made floorstanders are almost 8 years old at this point and still very much in production. The Vandersteen 1C were available back in 1996 so the earliest versions of the speaker are almost as old as the generation who probably need to listen to them the most.
The Vandersteen 2 (and all of its variants) loudspeakers have been in production since 1977 with more than 100,000 pairs sold; a remarkable number that very few high-end brands could ever hit with even their entire lineup.
The Vandersteen customer is a loyal one; most started with the Vandersteen 2 or Vandersteen 1 and have moved up the food chain over the years at great expense. The top Vandersteen loudspeakers now retail for almost $65,000.
What makes the Vandersteen 1Ci so compelling is that you can find it used rather easily if you are prepared to look and you are unlikely to spend more than $900 for them even if they are in excellent condition. A brand new pair costs almost $1,700 so consider that 48% discount to be a huge bargain.
Richard Vandersteen did some creative things with his original designs and that thought process has continued with the 1Ci that still don’t have a loudspeaker cabinet; a huge cost savings for both the manufacturer and customer.
Since its inception, Vandersteen has always focused on putting better quality woofers and tweeters and crossover components into its designs and less on the cabinet
Richard Vandersteen has always taken a performance-first approach with the Model 1Ci focusing on the internals, with a first-order crossover, minimum front baffle, and time-aligned design.
The Model 1Ci is a time- and phase-correct speaker constructed in such a way that the alignment and positioning of the drivers allow a point-source wave front and maximize the phase coherence of the loudspeaker at the listening position.
The listening position and loudspeaker setup are critical with every Vandersteen design but the Model 1Ci benefits from very careful set-up; more than most speakers I’ve tried over the years regardless of cost.
Nuts & Bolts
The active components used in the Model 1Ci combine classic strength and durability with innovative design and construction. The 8-inch woofer uses the same type of cast-metal basket used in costly esoteric loudspeakers. The cast-metal basket’s inherent rigidity and superior vibration resistance increase cone movement accuracy and reduce sympathetic resonances for cleaner and more natural sound.
The 1-inch metal alloy dome tweeter is a dual chamber design to improve range and linearity. It is critically damped to extend the high frequencies past audibility without the excessive ringing associated with open or underdamped metal dome tweeters.
The specific alloy used for the dome was chosen for its superior strength and resistance to break-up compared to common fabric and plastic domes. The quality materials and advanced features of the Model 1Ci’s tweeter result in smooth and accurate response throughout the audible range.
The 1Ci no longer uses traditional banana posts but screw-down terminals instead which are directly wired to the crossover.
The Vandersteen 1Ci are a chunky 44 pounds and 36″H x 12″W x 10″D; making them a rather hefty 2-way floorstanding loudspeaker on custom stands manufactured by Sound Anchors.
So why are we so impressed by these speakers that have dozens of competitors below $2,000 new?
The 1Ci are 90 dB and a relatively benign 6.8 ohm load making them a very easy loudspeaker to drive. Tubes and solid state work great with these speakers.
Can you drive them with 35-50 watts of power? In a smaller room, you won’t need any more power than that and the focus should be more on the quality of those watts versus looking for a blowtorch to open these loudspeakers up. A slightly larger room can work but 50-100 watts might be a better scenario.
There are some excellent vintage amplifiers that will work with these speakers but I would focus on those that can output a minimum of 35-50 watts if you lean in that direction.
The Vandersteen 1Ci can sound dreadful if you get the setup wrong. I’ve heard them go from simple average to great with 20 minutes of proper setup.
The setup requires very careful attention to the distance from both the side and front walls; make sure they are never the same dimensions. The key with these speakers is getting the time-alignment right and that requires some math and experimentation with the rake. You will find very clear instructions inside the manual and my advice is to follow them because they work.
More than most speakers in the category, the Vandersteen 1Ci have a unwavering sense of balance. No part of its tonal balance is tilted either way and it’s definitely more neutral than warm sounding.
The absence of a cabinet also increases the transparency and soundstage depth and width.
With proper setup and the right amplifier, the 1Ci can sound quite large and recreate a huge stereo image. Get the rake of the loudspeaker wrong and the midrange can sound slightly closed-in and the treble slightly harder; a warmer sounding amplifier helps tame the tweeter with rock and EDM.
You can certainly crank the 1Ci but I think that’s a mistake; moderate to conversation levels work better and allow you to discern more detail and hear more of the amplifier and the rest of your components.
Vandersteen makes better sounding speakers but the price grows rather exponentially as you move up the ladder and you can pay over $2,000 for a used pair of Model 2Ce Signature speakers.