Vanatoo Transparent Zero Review

Merica for scale

Welcome to the world premier review of the Vanatoo Transparent Zero. The guys at Vanatoo were kind enough to send me one of their final design samples. It may not be from the production run, but it definitely smells like China, and I imagine the ones coming off of the boat later this month will be identical in operation.

While Vanatoo did grace me with this opportunity, they definitely let me down with this product launch. I specifically told them that their next speaker needed to be a destroyer of worlds. A 4-way behemoth to knock all the old guard audiophile brands on their ear. I firmly believe these guys have the chops to do that if they wanted. Instead they did something harder, which is to make a smaller and cheaper speaker that sounds as good as the Transparent One.

The Transparent Zero is a sign of where the market is at, only lunatics have proper sized speakers anymore. The rest of the market wants a speaker that is unimaginably small, plays loud, makes that "bass stuff" people sing about and can be heard in various distorted forms at movie theaters. Sounding good is just a bonus feature.

While it is my role to look down on the masses and judge them for their faults, I am not immune to the shift from living room listening sessions to the antisocial hyperpersonalised entertainment found on the desktop. The Transparent Zero is here to fit nicely into this new way of life. It is here to serve the market segment of the uninitiated audio consumer, while having some unlockable features that allow it to be used by people that obsess about accurate sound reproduction.

For those wandering into this review from the Google, if you want to know if this is a good speaker, yes, it is more than likely the best speaker in its class - now go buy it. If you want to know a few things that only insane people care about, feel free to read on - Just know that crazy is a communicable disease.

Component Overview:

Tweeter

Look at that pretty 1 inch soft dome. A tweeter this size is something I have not seen on any other 4 inch speaker. This driver choice should make for good sounds. Standard 3/4 inch domes found on most small speakers tend to disperse a bit too much at the top end of the frequency range and end up making those speakers sound bright and toy like.

Gone are the horizontal bars the cover the Transparent One's tweeter. Instead the Zero has an inset tweeter, so that the dome is ever so slightly below the face height of the speaker. This would allow the speaker to sit flat on its face while not touching the dome. Because the loading is so narrow it should not have much of an audible effect, but it might make the sound coming from the tweeter slightly more directional.

Back of the tweeter reveals that it uses a button magnet. These tweeters are becoming very common as they are usually good performers for the price, and can fit in just about any space.

Woofer

The woofer is a fancy custom aluminum 4 inch driver using an underhung voicecoil. Underhung voicecoil just means that it uses a coil that is shorter than the magnetic field, so more of the coil stays inside of the field.

Once outside of the box we can see that the woofer has a big magnet with some shine on it. The spider looks nice, and the lead wires are quality braided copper. The only hint of the budget on this driver is the stamped steel basket and integrated trim ring. Interestingly absent is a vented pole piece on this driver.

A vented pole piece is a hole that goes through the stacked magnet to let air normally trapped behind dust cap vent out. The Vanatoo guys say that the driver has enough leakage paths to get air out from behind the dust cap, and that venting can have some negative effects. My recent experience with ELAC's B5 speaker and its silly large vented pole piece leaking sound through the dust cap gives credence to this decision.

Passive Radiator

Passive radiators are floppy bits that can be tuned via adding weight to the cone. This will produce bass extension in the same way as a port would without taking up space inside of the box. The Zero uses a radiator that matches the size of the woofer, small. It is usually recommended that passive radiators have twice the area of the active driver, or two radiators per active driver. Vanatoo's work around is to use a radiator that has twice the xmax of the woofer. Basically its floppy potential is twice as much, so it does not need to be twice as big.

Back of the radiator shows a block of cork like material on the back of the flat cone providing weight for tuning and keeping the driver from leaking high frequency sounds.

Input/Output and Controls

Welcome to the world of tomorrow, a real - not wired remote control. This is a feature I have been requesting for a very long time. While the feature may be a huge step forward for an active monitor, it's not perfect.

Let's go through the buttons.. top left area is source selection with an additional button to turn on Auto switching and let the Vanatoo guess what input it should be using. Top right is mute and volume functions. The volume control can be a little flaky moving up/down too much or not enough. The bottom area has a button for bluetooth pairing as well as tone controls, any button in this area needs to be preceded by pressing the enable button - which is a little weird. The tone controls are basic bass and treble with the "mid buttons" acting as a reset to flat function.

Back of the powered speaker shows inputs for Power(it uses a big power brick), Optical, USB, and Analog... which is still a 1/8 inch phono jack instead of RCA inputs. Outputs are limited to Subwoofer, and a RJ50 connector to get sound from the powered speaker to the passive speaker.

RJ50 is not sending data, but instead uses 6 conductors for the woofer and 4 for the tweeter. The wire Vanatoo included with the Zero uses a heavier than standard network cable 24 gauge wire. I asked and Vanatoo says that a standard straight(not crossover) RJ45 terminated ethernet cable will work in these jacks, so if you own an RJ45 crimper you should be able make custom speaker cable lengths with relative ease.

The two oddballs standing out are the Pair/Prog button used for pairing with bluetooth and the V-T-B switch which determines the function of the knob at the top of the powered speaker - Volume, Treble, or Bass.

This is where things get real weird.

This is a multi function knob, but not just for Volume Treble and Bass. This knob in conjunction with the V-T-B and Pair/Prog button on the back of the speaker can be used to change software settings on the speaker.

Here is a quick example: Unplug the speaker from power, set the volume knob point at the three dots, and switch V-T-B to the B position. Now hold the Pair/Prog button while plugging in the power. Release the Pair/Prog Button and the light on the front of the speaker will blink, and now... the Vanatoo Transparent Zero is in mono mode, and you can use the powered speaker by itself as a bluetooth portable(as long as you have access to a power outlet).

I can't imagine a more convoluted way to access these features. I would be happier with a set of dip switches on the back of the speaker, or even jumpers. Well, at least you get to imagine yourself as a kind of safe cracker with bizzarro combinations unlocking features like flat DSP settings, retaining input selection in sleep mode, and more.

Here is the full list of combinations
FunctionKnob PositionV-T-B Position
Reset to default1V
Enable sleep mode1T
Disable Sleep Mode1B
Enable must be pressed on remote before changes to VBT/Pair2V
Enable must be pressed on remote before changes to VBT/Pair/Input2T
Shelved DSP(for close to walls)2B
Flat DSP(for stands)3V
Stereo3T
Mono3B
Auto input on sleep1.5V
Keep input on sleep1.5T
Limiter On1.5B
Limiter Off2.5V
Powered speaker on right2.5T
Powered speaker on left 2.5B

There are some useful options there no doubt. Some that put the Zero way ahead in versatility, but the need to keep a cheat sheet like this around to access these features means that most of them won't get used.

Plate Amp

You see that little black box in the back of the cabinet... that is the amp. It's a 4 channel D2Audio Class-D amp, which puts out 48 watts to each driver. The back plate gets stupid hot, but I never had the speakers shutdown from thermal protection in testing.

Crossover

The Transparent One uses passive crossover parts. With the Zero, Vanatoo chose to biamp for great justice and implement an insano 8th order 48dB/octave active crossover slope at a very low 2200Hz. The 2200Hz crossover point means that it will easily integrate well with the 4 inch woofer. This will minimize off axis null found at the crossover point as you move off axis vertically with two way speakers. (something very important in a desktop speaker) This low crossover point on the tweeter would normally cause distortion issues, but the high 48db/octave slope keeps it in a comfort zone and protects it from damage at higher volumes.

Cabinet

Nice touch - The passive speaker has a void built into it so it will have the same internal volume as the powered speaker.

Cabinets are very sturdy with 9mm(3/8") thick MDF and a rubberized coating inside and out, but the speakers weigh about half as much as the slightly larger, but massively overbuilt Transparent Ones. The cost cutting here seems to be well placed, as the largest panel on the speaker is only slightly above postcard sized and a knuckle wrap dead center sounds extremely "thunky."

Now for the elephant in the room. The speakers are not square, in fact they are quite angley. This geometry tilts the speaker back when placed on a flat surface, as well as hiding from ears the nasty bits of sound that can reflect off of the top of cabinets. So, for audio performance reasons this is a huge win, for functional purposes means no more stacking beer cans on top of the speakers. The "Kickstand" you see propping up the speaker can be moved from one side of the speaker to the other or removed completely with an included allen wrench. This opens up the option for using the speakers with traditional speaker stands.

Grills

Grills are magnetic and clear from any interference with the drivers. The edges of the frame are beveled out to avoid diffraction issues with the tweeter.

Isolation Pads

The included isolation pads are nice, and are very much required. If the kickstand is used without the pads the speakers will start bouncing around and rattling. I think a better option would have been to coat the bottom surface of the speaker in a heavier rubber, and do the same with the kickstand which is just a hard ABS plastic.

Flat on desktop setup

The Transparent Zero has multiple setup options, but because this configuration is so much of the physical design of the speaker I wanted to try the default configuration first before moving on to desktop stands. The speakers were plugged into the USB port and all settings set to default values for this testing.

Listening Notes:

This configuration has what I call a romantic sound. This is a elevation in the lower midrange which can make vocals and fundamental frequencies more engaging.

Treble seems a little elevated, sizzle in top octaves

Imaging is excellent considering the speakers are off axis and sitting on a reflective surface.

Not hearing any issues with reflections from the top of the speaker, the design is working.

Bass is extended beyond what you would expect from a small speaker, but not over done.

I'm get more bass feel from the keyboard/desk vibrating than from the sound of the speakers. Not sure if the vibration is from the orientation of the passive radiator, or the speakers just being so solid that it's transferring the vibrations instead of absorbing them. The Vanatoo Zero's are definitely more finger numbing than any other pair of speakers I've tested given the same volume level, even compared with the stupid large JBL LSR308's, and Behringer Truth Monitors.

As I've stated, the Vanatoo Transparent Zero speakers are very accurate, so why is that not translating into performance in this configuration?

A quick primer on ground plane reflections:

Yes, I have snakeskin carpet.

This is what you hear. The desktop surface reflection creates a virtual speaker under the real speaker. This type of reflection happens with most boundaries. The reason why this example is particularly nasty is because the reflection is so close the source, meaning that the sound from the reflection is pretty much just as loud as the source and will cause massive comb filtering. Another artifact is that because the real woofer and virtual woofer are so physically close, they will couple at much higher frequencies than what is normally called "room gain or boundary gain". This coupling is when the woofers are producing sound waves bigger than the distance between them, and act as a single large driver producing 6dB of gain over the effected frequencies.

You can tell from this photo that I've gone full crazy town.

This is a method I came up with the measure ground plane interference without having other boundary issues effect the measurement. This setup simulates an infinite ground plane that is perfectly reflective. The reason for going to this trouble is that without doing anything other than turning on or off the left speaker I can measure the right speaker, and show you the effect of the reflection in a fancy looking graph.

Ground Plane Interference Measurements

This measurement looks like shit. This was taken with the speaker on my desktop in its regular position and microphone on axis with the tweeter. It's very hard to figure out what is the effect of the desktop surface when looking at all of this mess.

Using the new measurement setup gives much better results. The blue line is the speakers set to "Flat" with the reflection speaker active, and the Pink line is with the reflection speaker off. The Microphone was a little off axis of the tweeter in these measurements, but it was not moved between measurements.

The blue line shows the coupling of the two woofers creating a rising bass response way into the midrange, and the comb filtering is canceling and combining from 1kHz all the way up the spectrum. The combining parts of the comb filtering are what is giving the treble response a sizzle sound in the top octaves.

The top line is an average of measurements with the speaker set in "Flat" Mode and the reflection speaker active. The bottom pink line is the speaker without the reflection speaker. The bottom green line is again with the reflected speaker on, but with a DSP correction I created to remove the tonal effects of the reflection.

Ground Plane Corrected Listening Impressions:

Instead of sounding like little speakers on a desk, they sound like big speakers. The desktop surface and it's virtual speakers are a constructive instead of destructive part of the speaker system now.

Tone is good, I do think there may be too much taken out of the midbass in the correction. Sounds like a flat speaker far away from walls.

There are still occasionally harsh bits in the treble, and the imaging is a little lower vertically.

While not perfect everything sounds balanced, and much better. This is a more than acceptable solution for people that do not want to use stands.

A little bit of Toe-In helps bring the music into focus.

It's never going to 100% sound right with a speaker this close to a surface, but I think this as close as it will ever get.

Performance on stands:

Needed to soup up my stands. The kickstand and front edge of the speaker need to be supported, and my stands were not deep enough in the tall configuration, so I used the low setting and add the soup cans.

Enough dicking around with speakers on a desk surface, let's see how these sound properly setup. I put the Kickstands onto the speakers so that the tweeter is on top, or as I like to say, the way God intended it, and perched the little things 10 inches up in the air on my "custom" desktop stands. Set the speakers to "Flat" using the secret handshake combo, plugged in the USB connector, and had a listen.

Desktop Listening Impressions:

These are good.

Really good.

Narrow baffle,
smooth response,
big tweeter,
low distortion,
solid build quality,
clean and clear DAC and amplification,
wide but ever so slightly controlled dispersion...

It's all very good.

Measurements:

This is an on-axis measurement with 1/12 smoothing blended into close mic of the woofer at 800Hz and a sum of woofer and passive radiator close mic output at 170Hz. The Hump in the bass response is a result of the close mic measurement technique, and not an artifact of the speaker.

Only thing worth noting here outside of how ridiculously smooth the response looks is that there is a slight 1dB hump centered around 9kHz, and a small sharp 1.5dB dip at 8.5kHz. The hump at 9kHz is going to give the sound just a hint of some sparkle and speed. I would not change anything in this speakers response.

Final Thoughts:

Just in case you are new here, this is not the normal mode of operation. It's a rare day when a speaker gets a passing grade in my reviews. These speakers are so uniformly unoffensive that I can't find anything bad to say about their performance. Downsides are all easy to work around or live with. We are talking about the bizzarro setup, strangeness with the kickstand, rattling if the isolation pads are not used, and the enable button on the remote. All worth the asking price just to get access to this level of sound quality.

The main competition for these speakers is probably the iLoudMM studio monitor(which I'm reviewing next), the AudioEngine A2+/HD3 which are jokes, and the JBL LSR305 just for price/performance as they are easily three times the size. The Zero's don't play as low as or as loud, but they are built better and sound better than the JBL LSR305's to my ear.

As for the step up to the Transparent One's, they only at play a few Hertz deeper and in many ways are not as good as the Zero. Might be time for Vanatoo to make a Transparent 1.5, but I'm still hoping for a towering monster speaker for the living room... They could call it the Opaque Infinity.

I'd like to thank Gary and Rick at Vanatoo. Gary answered all of my dozens of questions, ran simulations in Mathcad for the ground plane section of the review, and best of all put me first in line to get this product. It takes guts to send a new product my way.

Click here to buy the Vanatoo Transparent Zero Speakers

Check out the system finder to see what else I recommend.



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