Second Take: Vaughn Loudspeakers Pinot Monitor

Jim Jordan of Vaughn Loudspeakers has been building SET-friendly speakers for over a decade now. He uses top-notch parts, like Bybee in-line filters, in most of his designs and includes as a matter of course some beautiful cabinetry and stylish fit and finish. All assembled-in-the-USA from top-shelf components, Jim’s speakers have won various awards and have been the object of love, lust and envy by … well, by me.

I first came across Vaughn Loudspeakers at RMAF in 2010, where Wavelength’s Gordon Rankin was demoing a pair of Zinfandels. I recall marveling at all the bottles, bits and bobs, and kinda basking in the music in this room.

I guess it was just a curious coincidence that when Jim and I connected this past year, he’d send me a version of that speaker. Well, sort of a version.

What is it?

The Vaughn Pinot Monitor is $2,000/pair. It’s also an easy 8 ohm load, 94dB sensitive, Fostex-plus-ribbon speaker with a passive radiator on the back panel. Of course, the Zinfandel uses a bigger mid range driver and a larger ribbon, but the design is pretty similar — sans the big powered woofers, of course.

Okay, it’s not the same at all. Fine. Spoil the moment.

Anyway, at 17″ tall, the Pinot Monitor is not exactly tiny, though I admit, it was kinda fun to have them sitting on my desk as near field monitors even though they ate that desk for lunch. Hey, it was an experiment! Live a little, I say.

As I mentioned the first time through, there’s a 6.5″ Fostex FE168EZ Sigma “full range” driver on the front. I put that in quotes, because Jim does not actually run them that way here, but instead, couples it to a Fostex FT7RP ribbon for the high-end. Why? Simple — so that the driver won’t have to get all unsettled at those high frequencies — something many full-range drivers are well-known for.

Fostex drivers are pretty common in high-sensitivity designs, and for good reason — this (banana!) pulp cone does tremendous things with the mid range, and vocals specifically. This is my first Fostex-speaker, so I can’t speak from a ton of experience here, but let me say this — there’s a reason that they’ve been wildly popular. It nails vocals. I mean nails them.

The speaker also has a 6.5″ passive on the rear of the cabinet in lieu of a port. This makes placement tricky — but no trickier than with a traditional rear-ported bass-reflex design. To wit — don’t put them right up on the front wall.

I tried them that way, though, just for giggles. In my listening room, the bass seized control of the sound stage and shook it like a dog with a wet rag.

My recommendation? Give the Pinot’s about 3′ or more off that front wall and you’re in for a treat. Just bring some bigger tubes.

Amps!

I had great luck with a variety of mid-powered tube amps, including a 50wpc Triode Corp TRV-88SER and an over-achieving 32wpc LMA EL-34 amp. Bass was tight and fast and the mid-bass took on a meatiness that was intoxicating. Chris Jones’ “No Sanctuary Here”, a go-to cut off of his Roadhouses and Automobiles, really does some stunning things when pushed through a good transducer. Here, the room shook with the ominous bass line. A full range speaker would have been quite proud.

And no, it wasn’t simply a matter of more power = better sound. Swapping in a 21wpc Audio Space Reference 3.1 300b amp also lit the room up with finesse and tremendous bass. Just don’t expect wonders with your flea-powered amp! My 3.5wpc Miniwatt N3, for example, struggles a bit when I’m trying to fill the room — the bass gets flabby and the sloppy and the treble goes a bit flat. That said, it’s just great in the near field (at moderate volumes)!

Just an aside, but I thought I’d mention an amp that Jim Jordan recommends for his speakers — the Almarro 318b. This integrated uses the big Russian Foxbat tubes that I found exhilarating in the Joule Electra OTL amps, but alas, I was unable to make this combo happen as Almarro seems hard to get on this coast. That said, should you be so inclined, I think this might be a “magic” amp for this speaker — check it out.

In the spirit of experimentation, I did run this speaker with my solid state amps, too. I tried the Luxman L-505u and found the match to be suboptimal — the Luxman, being a rather linear Class A/B amp, didn’t really fill out the Vaughns in a way I found happy and joyous, but rather, the result felt a bit relentless. Not good. Switching over to the rather pricey Plinius SA-Reference amp, I got some distance from relentlessness, but only when I flipped the toggle to go full Class A — and then only a bit.

My suspicion is that a “tonally dense” amp like a Hegel or a Bel Canto will probably fit the bill better than my amps, but I have to say that I was thrilled with the synergy with my loaner Red Wine Audio Signature 15. With a tube input-stage, a MOSFET output stage, and good for a whopping 15wpc into 8ohms, you could feel the steel in the glove as the bass smacked you in the face. 15wpc? Yep! Worked a treat, and most of my critical listening was done with this amp.

What’s that sound?

If I had to liken the Pinot Monitor to a vacuum tube, I’d be very tempted to call it a 300b instead of, say, an EL84 or a 2A3. Why? Well, it’s all a matter of strengths … and analogies are fun to write even if they’re usually terrible guides to truth. Okay. Anyway. What’s the strengths of a 300b? Mid range! Some say that this tube is all about the mid range. I disagree — I’ve heard some 300b’s with some surprising bass control and treble extension. But, to bend a stereotype, the 300b is a luscious, delicious tube for jazz, female vocals, small groups, and anything that centers it’s focus on the middle part of the spectrum. So, let’s not start there. Let’s start with what a 300b isn’t awesome at.

Given that every design is a compromise of sorts, the compromises that a 300b brings to the table are pretty distinct and generally well understood. First, and most noticeable, is the treble. As with a 300b, the emphasis in this Vaughn is just elsewhere in the audio band. Not to say that the treble is a problem, because it isn’t, it’s just not as extended. No glare, no hardness — ever — but there is a small reduction in sparkle and air that other designs, like the Joseph Audio Pulsar, might bring to the table. Now, this is less than what I heard with the Audio Space Reference 3.1, a parallel SET design that leverages two 300bs per channel, but it was still there. Just a hint of rolloff.

This may account for it’s middle-of-the-road performance on detail retrieval. I use the Cricket Test, off the title track of Roadhouses and Automobiles, as a good way to tell how clearly information present in the track comes through the transducer chain. With the AKG K-701 headphones, my reference for detail retrieval until I got to spend some time with the Tidal Sunray, the crickets in this particular track fairly leap off the disc during the opening sequence. Played back through the Pinot Monitors on half a dozen different amps, I never got more than an average amount of cricketiness during playback. Not bad — at all — but below my reference, and perhaps a function of the overall sweetening of the treble.

For those of you that are all negative about “tube bass”, relax. I don’t think the Pinot Monitor has “tube bass” — that was an analogy, and as such, it’s an illustrative way to make a point — or not. Where that analogy fails, totally, is bass. This “monitor” is a big box — you’re going to see it and say, “whoa”. Big box = big bass, and here, your intuitions will land you right on the money. This speaker quite capably filled the room. See those comments, above, about “No Sanctuary Here”. This is a hard tune to get right, but the Pinots do bass. Of course, they’re monitors and not full-range floor-standers, so that reach into the lowest octave isn’t going down into your nether regions to smash them with an iron skillet. You need that, and have a room that can handle that, Jim has several larger boxes with powered woofers that will too that horn for you.

Okay, now the good news.

What a 300b does best, and arguably better than any other tube, is the mid range. For many, no other tube comes close. And here, we’re back in full analogy-mapping land again — the mid range on the Vaughn is creepily, breathily alive. It’s full and weighty in a way that so many speakers just can’t or won’t emulate. That full richness extends way down, easily into the mid bass, and gives this speaker some serious presence. It sounds like a bigger speaker, if that makes sense. Big cabinets bring big sound.

I’ve had a battalion of small speakers through here that do great things with mid range heavy material. I think it was Stereophile’s Gordon Holt who said that mid range is a kind of table stakes for a speaker — you have to get it right. And most do, but of that recent suite of small speakers, not a one of them pulled off the impact, depth and magic that the Pinot Monitor did. This $2,000 wonder is a show-stopper. I can easily imagine buyers cozying up to a pair, pouring themselves some wine, and passing otherwise productive hours spinning LPs. I did.

For those keeping track, this version that I have is not the same as the one shown on his website. The version I have here, which is priced at $1,000 less than the one shown with the bamboo cabinet and carbon fiber fascia, is obviously a deliberately scaled-back redesign and one that brings the Vaughn speaker a bit more in reach of the 99%.

It lacks the expensive Bybee filters that the rest of speakers in the Vaughn line carry, and yes, the upscale version also has some better wire and an upgraded crossover. I haven’t heard this speaker, so I can’t really comment on what those pricier bits do to the sound, so if you choose to go there, I fully expect that my comments here may not apply.

Drinking Pinot

I’ve had a lot of fun with my time with the Pinot Monitor. Finding a small speaker with sensitivity this high appears to be wildly problematic for some poorly understood (by me) reason, so this was a great excuse to play with a boatload of tube amps that normally lie off the beaten path for me. And with a sensitivity that high, I got to get a full dose of the dynamics, jump and slam that the monitor space usually doesn’t let me indulge in.

In short, I really like this speaker and heartily recommend it. It’s not perfect, no, and it does take a bit of care to “coax it to it’s fullest expression”, to borrow a phrase. But, well, easy and straightforward = boring and lifeless. Sometimes, you need to give a little to get a lot.

I’d pair it with an amp from Red Wine Audio or your favorite middle-power tube amp (think 30+ wpc) and get comfy. If you’re indulging, pour yourself a glass of something tasty. Though, I’d probably skip the Merlot.