RMAF 2013: Tannoy and VAC











Hi, everybody. My name is Mal, and I have a Tannoy problem.

I have it mostly under control these days. I accept that there may be other speaker brands. I can even say nice things about some of them. Heck, I’ve ditched all but one pair of my own Tannoys, and I don’t even listen to that one every day. I stopped scouring eBay and Craigslist constantly. There are only parts for one DIY project lying around my house. I’ve turned the corner. I’m on the road to recovery.

Well… I was.

When I heard that VAC showed up toting a pair of Tannoy‘s flagship Kingdom Royals, I almost fell off the wagon. When I cued up Count Basie and the Kansas City 7 on the Esoteric P-02 spinner, I leapt decisively off the wagon.

But first: a digression. For a Tannerd like me, listening to any Tannoy at shows is usually an exercise in painful disappointment. For some reason, people see a big Tannoy’s easy efficiency and sane impedance and *just can’t resist* powering them with some damned triode exotica that barely bumps out 20 single-ended watts. Specs be damned, Tannoys generally demand power. Tannoys at shows, then, tend to be warm, syrupy messes that lack any dynamics or tonal contrast. Tannoys at shows generally put me to sleep.

Kevin Hayes and the crew from VAC don’t make rookie mistakes like that. They brought 450 watts of amp power to bear on each speaker. If I was already off the wagon, the first notes of “Oh Lady Be Good” had me dousing the wagon in gas and lighting it on fire.

First off, there was the Tannoy Honk. The Kingdom Royals have reduced the honk to not much more than a hint of its classic prominence, but there was enough honk to let me know that these were definitely real Tannoys. That honk may be a flaw, but hearing it out of this system was not unlike coming home to a wagging dog. It may not be clean, but it’s utterly comforting.

The dynamics — both macro and micro — were convincing. The 12″ driver moved plenty of air in the midrange, while the 15″ woofer gave plenty of heft to the bottom end. The Kingdom Royal, unlike classic Tannoys, uses neodymium magnets on its drivers. That translates to an unfamiliar, but wholly engrossing, transient speed. This was delicacy without romance, and the system was surprisingly lifelike as it reminded everyone in the room that the piano is a percussion instrument. If the tone wasn’t quite as subtle as what you’d find from an Alnico Tannoy, the realistic precision and speed more than made up for it.

But Kansas City 7 is an excellent album, and I wanted to hear more than “excellent.” I wanted to hear lousy albums. Kevin Hayes was kind enough to accommodate that. That’s how Scot, Kirsten and I found ourselves ending the show in this room.

First up was Dizzy Gillespie performing “School Days” from “Live at Newport.” The performance is a classic, but the recording is more of an object lesson. Sure, I carry it around with me because I love it, but it’s also incredibly useful if you’re looking to find out if a system is likely to rip your face off. I’m happy to say that playing it here left my face intact. Unfortunately, playing it here captured the fun of the performance so well that I may have found myself standing up, bouncing around, and tapping my feet. While the Esoteric front end may have contributed an unnecessary digitalness to an already unnecessarily digital sounding cd, the amplification communicated the energy of the performance in a way that I’ve rarely heard. The speakers, on the other hand, betrayed that they were in fact more modern than the old Tannoys by their fairly tight sweet spot. The soundstage collapsed completely and the bass took on an unhealthy prominence as I bounced my way a few feet to one side.

Next up, though, was “Atom Tan” from the Clash’s Combat Rock. I could make a claim that this ancient, compact disc makes a worthwhile test track. I could claim that the interplay of voices and depth of soundstage on the track is a useful indicator of what a speaker can do. I could also be honest and just tell you that cranking the Clash on a Sunday afternoon reminded me of every reason I got into this hobby in the first place.

So I still have a Tannoy problem. And now I seem to have a VAC problem.

Thanks a lot, Kevin.

System listing:

  • Tannoy Kingdom Royal ($70,000)
  • VAC Statement Preamplifier ($46,000)
  • Vac Statement 450iQ monoblocks ($58,000 each)
  • Esoteric P-02 transport ($24,000)
  • Esoteric D-02 dac ($23,000)
  • Esoteric G-01 master clock ($23,000)
  • Shunyata provided the power treatment and cabling.

There was also an analog system here that featured an AMG Viella turntable, a Clearaudio Goldfinger, and a VAC Statement Phono Preamplifier. I didn’t listen to it. I suspect that Kevin Hayes might still be trying to pry me out of the room if I had.