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John's 5A system (and how I got there, more or less . . .)


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Greetings all, I thought I’d introduce myself and my system. As I said in my maiden post on the music thread, Bob (aka gdnrbob when appearing on Audiogon) suggested I join in on this forum.

Before I get started on this embarrassingly long post, (a bit too much context maybe?), I’ll give you a quick sketch of where I’m coming from. I grew up in coastal Connecticut in the 60’s and 70’s, moved to California in ’84 and currently live in Altadena, CA where my wife and I have been for the past 20 years. Our one daughter is a sophomore in college. We have two cats and two dogs. I like to say that I fell in love with my wife, we met when we were in college, because she had no musical skeletons in her closet; she was into Roxy Music, Bowie, Patti Smith, XTC, etc, and, when the emotional chips were down and other girls pulled out that Fogleberg/Weisberg Twin Brothers of Different Mothers record to be morose to, she pulled out Iggy Pop. In terms of my relationship with my stereo, it didn’t really get serious from a sonic standpoint until about 15 or 16 years ago. But I do still have the Thorens TD145 turntable I bought when I was 16. And, I never got rid of my records.

I’ve been to exactly one audio show. I’ve heard exactly one pair of 2ce Sigs - the pair I owned, and one pair of 5As - the pair I now own. I have not heard another Vandersteen model. I can say the same about amplifiers, pre amps, turntables, etc. The gear I’ve heard has pretty much been the gear I have owned. And since I seem to replace or add components every 10 years or so, that isn’t a whole lot of gear. But, like many of us, I’ve read lot’s and lot’s about all kinds of gear on audio sites and in Stereophile, et al. To paraphrase my good friend Bill, I realize I know only a little . . .

. . . About a month ago, in early January, I purchased a 10ish year old pair of 5As from their original owner. I’ve been engaged in a slow motion upgrade of my system over the past three years and I wasn’t yet in the market for speakers to replace my 15 year old 2ce Sigs, BUT, Jack, the 5A’s owner lives just a few blocks from me in Altadena, CA and the price ended up being very attractive, so, they are now in my system. (Coincidentally, both Jack and I had bought our Vandys from Brooks Berdan in Monrovia, CA)

It’s been an entertaining few weeks getting them set up and integrated into the system. The 9v batteries in the high pass filters and crossovers had not been changed since the speakers were purchased, but before I had them replaced, I just had to get the speakers up and running in my room to get an idea of what they sounded like. I was rather queasy to discover that they didn’t sound great . . . dark, and . . . not great. (Uh oh, have I made a big mistake?) But, as I did more reading - I’ve been reading everything I can on every forum about the 5As for the past month and basically memorizing the manual - I found an exchange in the Ask Richard forum where he said, Yes, you can run the speakers with dead 9v batteries, but they will sound DARK and LIFELESS. Exactly! Phew! After having had the 9v batts replaced last week by Brian Berdan of Audio Element, (Brian is Brooks’s son), the speakers now sound VIBRANT and ALIVE.

I was happy to have a Fluke multimeter on hand from my Bottlehead building days to do the high pass filter double check for impedance values. My amp, a VTL S-200, has a 45k input impedance according to its manual. Setting the 5As high pass filters at 50k confirmed this as the correct setting to set the dip switches for. (Along the way I also set the HPFs for 33k, 75k and 100k, just to hear. But it was the 50k that sounded best.)

I followed Richard V’s low frequency calibration procedure, (love his video), using the SPL Meter app, by Studio Six Digital, on my iPhone. I’ll get my hands on a RS meter at some point and take another pass through the process, but so far it seems like I’m in a pretty good ball park.

My system is setup in our living room; living proof that my wife loves me. The room’s dimensions are about 25 x 13.5 x 8. I have the system on the short wall firing the length of the room. You’ll see in the photographs that the rack sits in the bay window cut out at that end of the room, there is a built in bookshelf to the left and 4’ wide opening into our entry hall on the right. My seating position ends up about 12 to 15 feet from the speakers, depending on which chair I’m in, with the rear wall 5 to 8 feet behind me, again, depending on the chair I’m in. (Those chairs are light and easily moved. When not engaged in listening, that chair in the center ends up in front of the fireplace facing the couch.)

Initially I placed the 5As in about the same spot I had my 2ce Sigs, about 60 inches from the back wall, 3’ from the side wall on the left side and about 4.5’ from the right side wall/opening. This placement is based roughly on the room division formula in the Vandersteen manual. (I’d listened to the 2ce Sigs in a lot of positions over the years, using various methods, but at the end of the day it was the Vandersteen setup procedure that sounded best.) I’ve also set up the tilt with the washers, using the formula in the 5A manual.

This week I’ve spent a few hours on Tuesday, and a few hours today moving the speakers around  in search of the best of all possible worlds. On Tuesday I separated the speakers a few inches, moving them a bit closer to the side wall. That sounded great. Focused and articulate. But last night, while playing a track from Bobby Hutcherson’s lp, The Kicker, I heard a disturbing low frequency resonance from the right side that seemed to feed back into the turntable. I adjusted the low frequency levels on both speakers a couple of notches lower thinking that might be the culprit. But, as I walked around the right speaker, I noticed that when I stepped heavily, the floor itself seemed to boom and resonate. I'd never noticed this before. (Ours is a one story wood framed stucco house, built on a foundation, with a crawl space beneath. Built in 1949 the walls and ceilings are lathe and plaster.) I made a few more exploratory stomps and came to the conclusion that the right speaker had ended up at exactly the most resonant spot on the floor. A foot or so in any other direction, closer to the underlying supporting structure I suppose, and the floor sounds deader and less loaded.

So, this morning I got up determined to find a more effective placement for the speakers. Having seen a lot of photos on this site of 5As and Quatros closer to rear and side walls than I would have considered; after all, the Vandersteen mantra all these years has seemed to be “Minimize side wall reflections, and for god’s sake, whatever you do, get the speakers at least 4’ out into the room!”, I thought I’d take a pass at moving the speakers closer to the corners. After all, between the bay window notch to the rear and the big opening on the right side, I’m not living in a symmetrical paradise.

After a couple of hours of trial and error I think I’ve found a spot that I’m happy with. At least I’m satisfied enough to live and listen with it for a week to see if I like it for the long term. I’ve ended up with the following set up:
Left speaker - 34”ish from rear wall to acoustical center, 24” to side wall
Right speaker - 34”ish from rear wall to acoustical center, 36” to side wall / opening
Width between the speakers - 8’ 4”
Toe In - 2.5”

This presentation yields a broad and articulate sound stage that still maintains focus and has some fore and aft dimensionality. Although that fore and aft aspect seems to be a bit less than when the speakers were a little further into the room. Widening the speakers from about 6’ to 8’ lessens the solidity of the sonic presentation a little, which makes sense, but, it occurred to me, as I was listening to a Debussy sonata for piano and cello a little while ago, that the slightly more diffuse quality sounds maybe a little less hi-fi and maybe a little more like live music. Well, if my memory of the Disney Concert Hall is still intact, that is - it’s been about a year since we were last there.

Anyway, this will keep me entertained for now. It’s easy enough to slide these things around as long as I’m very careful about it. (“Audiofool dies when crushed beneath 185 lb speaker. ‘He just wanted to bring Blossom Dearie a few more inches into the room,’ his resigned wife commented, as she quietly considered what she would do with all the new found space she would have in her living room.”)

It’s a real gift to live with speakers and gear of the quality I’ve ended up with. Our musical sessions really are magical these days. As my old friend Dave likes to quip, “It’s a pretty good life.”

Rock on, John

PS - Comments and optimization suggestions welcome!

My system - VPI Scout & Hana SH cart, VTL 6.5 phono stage, Bluesound Vault 2i, Chord Qutest Dac, BAT VK 30 pre, VTL S-200 amp, Vandersteen 5A speakers, mainly Cardas cable throughout,  Quadraspire SVT rack.

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Nice set up.  Where in CT did you grow up?  I'm sure that you will have a blast reading and catching up on the threads.  This really is a great place to learn in a fun way and to meet others who love music and not just the gear.  That's what often separates a Vandy owner and many others.  

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jkmcc, beautiful system, room and set up!  It's no surprise you cherish spending time there.  

I'm just about to leave for the airport to visit our daughter in Oregon; I didn't read your entire post yet.  The one thing you might consider is putting curtains on the back wall to eliminate any reflection off of the glass.  Looks like you have enough wall on each side, so when your not "in the zone", you can pull them back and enjoy the nice view of your back yard.  

Looks like your Lab enjoys the room too!  Awesome color choice on your 5As.

Play on

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Thanks all,

Tomstruck, yes, I know I am in the market to upgrade my speaker cables from the 15 year old Cardas Twinlink that I bought along with my 2ceSigs. Just taking a financial breath for a moment. (The speaker purchase followed the phonostage purchase by just a few weeks.) I'll definitely give the Audioquest a look.

Steve, you are absolutely correct about installing curtains to tame that wall of glass. It would keep us quite a bit warmer in the winter too. My wife and I remember to talk about that very thing every year or two and then . . . well, you know how it goes. Yes, Esmé, who has some Lab in her, along with some terrier and god knows what else, likes to hang with me on the couch during our listening sessions. As for the color of the 5As, which are very nice indeed, thank you so much, I can thank Jack, the neighbor I bought them from last month. 😆

CT, I grew up in the Rowayton neighborhood of Norwalk, down on the Long Island Sound and just an hour by train into Manhattan. From what I've read it looks like you're up in central CT near Hartford. I have to say, I miss New England. One of these days . . . You know, regarding music vs gear, I was thinking about that equation as I was walking the dogs this morning. I am one who was into music long before I was genuinely serious about my stereo system. Sure I always had a system of some kind, but typically a haphazard collection of components. The one constant, and probably the best piece of the bunch, was the Thorens TD145 turntable mentioned in my post. So I suppose that it was the music that got me off and it didn't matter where it came from; being bowled over hearing Purple Haze for the first time in the spring or summer of 1967 coming out of a transistor radio, or Suffragette City through non-descript headphones out of the non-descript family hi-fi - what is going on here? Who is this Bowie person? Drunk, late at night in my college dorm room with my buddy John, singing along to Ventilator Blues with Mick and Keith through my Bose 301s, weeping to Duane's solos on Live at Filmore East . . . Well, you get the idea. The realization that the quality of the playback could match the emotion of the music didn't make itself apparent to me until my buddy Rich and I got it in our heads one weekend to take a little audio tour of the shops around town. "Let's go listen to some tubes," said Rich for some reason. Ok, said I. This would have been 16 or 17 years ago. I think we ended up at GNP in Pasadena and heard a pair of big Martin Logans driven by some impressive looking amps and cables. But it wasn't the gear that grabbed me, it was the presentation; vivid, transparent, ethereal, dimensional, holographic! I'd never heard anything like it. Thinking back on it now, it seems it would have made sense for me to figure out how to replicate that system. But, that set up was so far out of my price range at the time, (How much for those cables?!), that it didn't bear consideration. Instead, one of us asked a question about turntables, maybe I wanted to have the Thorens serviced, and the guys there told us to go see Brooks in Monrovia - he's the king of analogue. So off we went to Brooks Berdan's place. Rich ended up buying a used pair of Audio Physic Sparks that Brian had for sale, he'd upgraded to Watt Puppies as I recall, and I started haunting the shop for the next several weeks until I pulled the trigger on the 2ce Sigs because I could hear that three dimensional quality in them that I was after. And, I considered them just barely affordable. Tubes didn't re-enter the discussion for another four or five years. I suppose the dragon I've been chasing since then is a presentation that's transparent, dimensional and effortless. Over the past few years my wife and I have heard a lot of music at the Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. It's a great venue and its acoustics are indescribably good. I've come to realize that my current goal, however Quixotic, is to get the stereo in my living room to sound like Disney Hall. Ha!

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I used to go to GNP in the early 90's when I stayed in Pasadena for at least 8 days a month.  I actually met Charlie Hanson there once.  Very cool stories you have and they bring back some memories, that's for sure.

I strongly recommend looking at the Audioquest cables before the others.  Richard uses them as they are very neutral from top to bottom.  They are also time correct in that Garth Powell (designer) have figured out a way for the highs and lows ot reach the speaker at the same time (please correct me if I'm wrong, but this is what I was told).  

 

 

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jkmcc, I installed curtains in the back of my listening room (affectionately referred to as Studio V) on the other side of the horizontal beam that separates that room from the dining room.  I’ll post a photo when I return from visiting our daughter in Bend. 
Bed, Bath & Beyond (if they’re still in business) had a pretty nice selection of two layer curtains, as well as all the hardware.  It wasn’t a big project.  I leave ‘em drawn back except when Studio V is in session. 

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Also jkmcc, I experiment with toe-in; it is a relative element of setting up Vandersteens.  I shared a method of matching toe-in elsewhere in this forum that John Rutan taught me.  If you’re interested and can’t find it, I’ll locate it & bounce back.  

Anyone going to be watching the big game today?  It might be a good one. I would also love to see Jordan Spieth get back in the winner’s circle. 
 

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After looking at your pictures again, I just thought of something else.  I believe the hoods on 5s are covered in fabric.  If you don’t want to put any tape on them (don’t think I would), the top of the cabinets , right below the hoods, would work just as well.  It’s just getting the distances to match.  

Also from the second photo, it appears you are quite a bit farther away from them than they are from each other.  If they could be spread out more, and / or move your chair a little closer, I think you’ll realize a lot more of that “musicians right there in the room” sensation that produces those goosebumps we all seek. 
 

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Hi Steve, yes, I just used a little blue tape and a length of yarn I found in my daughter's room - she's a knitter. Then used a ruler to measure the gap. Easy peasy. I was pleased to find that I had gotten the speakers' toe in within a 1/4" of one another by ear, using a Japanese mono re-issue of what I think is Blossom Dearie's first record. With mono switch on, I center Blossom's voice, and voila, I'm there.

Peter, here are a couple of photos to give you an idea of what the string method looks like. Dead simple and takes no time at all. Presuming of course that one is satisfied with the way the toe in sounds.

And yes Steve, I do tend to listen a bit farther from the speakers than some recommend. I typically find my self between 12 and 15 feet away from the speakers, which are 8' 6" apart (102"). Some of that is a function of the room; when I move the chair closer to 9' to 10' out, I'm in a bit of a no man's land in the room. But I find I'm just a little more comfortable with the music presenting at a little bit more of a distance. (The phrases RV uses in the manuals about speaker placement - "domestically acceptable", and in his bass eq setup video - "adjust to taste", come to mind)

What was interesting as I was settling on the current speaker placement is that I found that when they were closer to the back wall, Blossom's  and Linda Ronstadt's voice, I was also using Prisoner in Disguise as a set up reference, had a grainy quality to them that smoothed out to what I consider their natural presentation as I got the speakers farther out into the room to where they are now. I've got them at 44"-ish from the back wall. (I say -ish because of that bay window behind the rack that angles out making any rear measurement  a bit of an estimate. )To pull them any farther out into the room would start to test the limits of, shall we say, domestic acceptability.

Rock on, John

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wow, without even looking it up, I was easily able to figure out the tow in deal.  Thats' so simple and genius.  Yes, I'll be doing that.  What about setting up the speakers IRT how far apart they are etc...  Mine were set up by Rutan. They are 12' 4" apart.  he set them up in the corner of the room just inches from the walls behind and side.  I sit around 9' or so from the speakers.  

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Good morning, because I am between jobs right now, (I’m going to start on something in a week or two,) I get up and turn the amps on early. I’ve already listened to Chick Correa’s record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, while drinking my morning pot of  tea. I had never heard it before. Man is it good. And again, the thing that gets me going with these speakers is the piano sounding like a piano.

At the moment, my left speaker is about 23 inches from the sidewall which is a built in bookcase, the right speaker is about 35 inches from the opposite side wall which actually opens into the entry hall. They are about 44 inches from the back wall and they are 8 1/2 feet apart. The sidewall and back wall dimensions are in the ballpark of the dimensions described in Vandersteen’s set up chart. I suppose I could push them little wider apart to see how they sounded, but then I would be limiting access to the bookshelf as well as impeding passage from the entryway into the living room.

It finally occurred to me, over the past few days, as I’ve been moving these speakers around on the hardwood floor in search of their optimal setup, that instead of putting down pieces of tape to mark spots to keep track of where I’ve been, that I could simply make pencil marks on the floor that are easily erased and quite a bit more accurate than the tape. I don’t know why I never thought of that before. (Let’s face it, none of this speaker measuring and moving activity should be done in front of civilians. They would clearly think you had lost the plot and would be wondering whether you had gone off your meds. 🤣)

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