[Part-Time Audiophile is pleased to introduce our newest audio reviewer, Graig Neville! We’re busy loading Graig up with gear to review, but in the meantime he’s out and about in the Chicago area, digging deep into the audio scene. A longtime Vandersteen lover, Graig decided to check into Ultra Fidelis, a high-end audio store in the Milwaukee area, to listen to the new Vandersteen Kēnto Carbon loudspeakers.–Ed.]
“Hi, my name is Graig. It’s hard for me to say this and I haven’t been shopping for speakers or electronics in years, but I’m an audiophile.”
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
I had settled on my “forever” system about five years ago and my forever speakers about 15 years ago. I settled on a used pair of Vandersteen Model 3s. Sure it’s an eclectic choice and you could argue the virtues of other speakers, but Vandersteen was my brand that I always came back to and I thought my audiophile days were behind me.
I fell off the wagon. When I get my copy of Music Direct, I first go to the close-outs, then check out all the gear: speakers, preamps, integrated amps, power amps, sources, cables and even music streamers. I’m a gear geek. At high-end audio shows I always made it a point to listen to my next holy grail speaker, the Vandersteen Model 5, in its various iterations. It was a speaker that did so many things I liked and maybe, just maybe, it would be attainable someday.
When I heard that the Vandersteen Kēnto Carbons were replacing the esteemed Model 5, I was excited. I have heard the Treos a few times and knew the Quatros were an evolution of trickle-down research of the Model 5. So, I did a little research on the Vandersteen Kēnto and found this q&a session with Richard Vandersteen, hosted by Ultra Fidelis during the Kēnto’s “release into the wild.”
Ultra Fidelis is my closest Vandersteen dealer, so I gave Jon a call to come up for a listen in their showroom. The trip to the Milwaukee area was uneventful, but I was excited to hear what Richard Vandersteen had cooked up with the Kēnto’s. From the Vandersteen website:
“The KĒNTO Carbon represents a ground up re-thinking by Richard and Nathan Vandersteen. The answer came in a totally new design at the historic Model 5 price point. This speaker brings together the Model 5A carbon tweeter and the patented Carbon/Balsa core midrange from the Model Seven MK II, the Mid-Bass from the Quatro CT with the all new built-for-Vandersteen side-firing pistonic opposing powered bass drivers. The result is a level of adjustability unlike any other speaker.”
When I arrived, I spoke with Jon about the Vandersteen Kēnto and the M5-HPA amplifiers running them. The Kēnto is a 4-way floor standing speaker, including built-in powered bass. The carbon midrange is a sandwich of dual layer carbon fiber and a special lightweight balsa wood. It’s similar to the Model Seven midrange but has some slight differences. The cabinet size and shape is basically the same as the lower range Quattro Wood CT but rests on an integrated plinth.
Like all Vandersteens, the Kēnto is time- and phase-aligned with first order crossovers. The woofers are 9” Scanspeaks, modified and constructed to Vandersteen’s specifications. The bass is driven by an internal 400 W Class B amplifier with an 11-band bass EQ to optimize bass loading for a variety of rooms and speaker locations. Vandersteen has decided not to pursue using bass DSP in any of its speaker lineup, preferring the more traditional 11-band EQ.
Amplifier duties fell to the M5-HPA balanced input monoblocks feeding the Vandersteen Kēnto through Cardas Audio binding posts. Richard Vandersteen and Dean Klinefelter collaborated on the design. The M5-HPA is unique in several ways. The amplifier has a built-in adjustable high-pass filter that can be set at 200, 100, 80, 40 or 20 Hz. It was designed to drive any Vandersteen speaker and many other speakers when set to 20 Hz. The M5-HPA is a solid-state design using all NPN bipolar signal transistors, zero-feedback with duel single-ended circuits connected by the speaker load. Richard Vandersteen felt this sounded better and avoids the asymmetry that occurs when using both type of transistors. The M5-HPA generates 300W into 4 ohms, and because of the unique circuit is effectively a Class A design.
Ultra Fidelis has had the Kēntos for a little over a year in their demo room. As seen in the photo, the speakers are placed far apart and toed in towards the listening position. This is a little different than most speakers are placed, but with the 11-channel bass EQ the speakers can accommodate some non-traditional locations that a non-powered bass speaker would not be able to handle. I listened to a variety of music both streamed, local hard drive and vinyl. I came away with the following impressions.
The Sound of Kēnto
With the Vandersteen Kēnto, the center image was stable and solid. The speakers did a good job of disappearing, except for when the recording had instruments that were hard-panned left or right. I have only heard one or two speakers that still do the vanishing act with hard-panned material. Even with the Kēntos spaced so far apart the image spread evenly across the soundstage, there were no gaps in the presentation and the soundstage extended to the center line of each speaker.
There was minimal room treatment in the demo room. At home, my Model 3s can extend beyond the outer limits with some minimal room treatment at the sidewall reflection points. Here, even without sidewall treatment the soundstage width was great. Instruments were held well in space. I listened to Rodrigo y Gabriella’s Tamacun and the guitars were easy to place in space. Playing “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets, orchestral music had good portrayal of depth as I could hear the low brass off to the right and in the back above and just inside the speaker. Orchestral music, especially played loudly can cause the soundstage to collapse and just become smeary. No evidence of that here with the Vandersteen Kēnto!
I did play some music known as “hot tweeter material,” and like all Vandersteens the Kēnto’s treble is relaxed and never harsh. Don’t mistake this for a rolled off response, because it’s not. One of the qualities of Vandersteen is extended listening. When I hear a hot and lively tweeter I
know that after an album or two it will get fatiguing. I’ve listened for hours at moderately high levels with Vandersteens and have never suffered listener fatigue.
Vandersteens are known for their bass. Richard is definitely a bass head and Vandersteen Kēnto did not disappoint. The Kēnto played low and deep, even revealing anomalies on a familiar Prince recording which are normally inaudible because they’re so far down that most systems can’t play clear, fast, and deep enough to reveal them. The bass had good integration with the rest of the speaker. Powered bass systems can have difficulty integrating properly due to amplification differences, tonal differences, crossover issues and driver matching. Bass integration was seamless and I couldn’t tell when the subwoofer handed over duties to the mid-bass driver.
The most enlightening note for me while listening to the Vandersteen Kēnto was the single stomp of a kick drum that I heard from an unfamiliar recording. The attack and subsequent decay was amazing. Most speakers, even good ones can provide a simple “thump” with the time of the attack being equal to the decay. The attack was fast and immediate, with a solid but tight body. The decay was about three times as long as the initial attack and just sounded right and realistic.
I decided to see just how bassy the Vandersteen Kēnto could be. I queued up Boris Blank’s Electrified in hi-res just to see what would happen. The presentation by the Kēntos was authoritative, and the bass pressurized the large listening room. The panning of the music and body of the sound filled the room. I know it’s all EDM, but that track alone was worth the trip. The Kēntos could stand up and have fun as well as being accurate.
My experience with Vandersteen speakers are that they tend to be audio chameleons. They are very sensitive to the electronics paired with them. If you put warm syrupy tubes on them, they sound warm and syrupy; harsh solid state, you get a harsh solid-state presentation. I think the Vandersteen Kēnto is similar. I was listening for tonality of the Kēntos with the electronics and struggled to hear anything–especially with the M5-HPA. It didn’t sound like solid state, it definitely didn’t sound like tubes, it didn’t sound like anything.
I’ve heard some kilobuck amps that sounded amazing, but the M5-HPA was a completely different beast. It was accurate and revealing without being harsh, it wasn’t clinical or antiseptic, it wasn’t warm and it didn’t give that silky smoothness of some tube amps. It was one of the most neutral amplifiers I have ever heard, the closest to “wire with gain.”
Richard Vandersteen has developed his technology and refined it over the years, all in pursuit of accuracy. The Vandersteen Kēnto takes the line to a new level. My impression is that the Kento is much more accurate than older Vandersteen models, and by a significant margin. They no longer have the warmth of the Model 2, 3 or 5, but are instead an evolution into a new species.
The Model 2 and 3 are polite, warm, relaxed and they like to give you a hug while still being truthful to the music. The Model 5 is the natural evolutionary end game of that era of Vandersteen. The 5 was everything of Models 2 and 3 with more bass, more detail, more air and gravitas, the evolutionary pinnacle of that Vandersteen-era DNA. But the Model 5 would still give you a hug, too.
Richard Vandersteen’s pursuit of accuracy, I think, has achieved a far more accurate speaker with the Kēnto than his prior models. (That’s barring the Model 7, which I have not heard set up well, nor have I heard the VLR CT). The Vandersteen Kēnto is the English gentleman who is sincere, polite, and refined. Highly respected, impeccable, and well regarded, but you’re not getting a hug. Not ruthlessly revealing, though they will show shortcomings of the other system components or music recordings, not dry, not warm, not really any audio cliché. They could still be called laid back in the sense that you could listen to them for hours at moderately high volume levels and not suffer fatigue. But neutral is really the right word for them.
Even more so than the Model 5 that it replaces, the Kēnto is a chameleon. No matter the material or the source electronics, the Vandersteen Kēnto faithfully reproduces what is asked of it with grace and refinement. Definitely worth a listen, and a more in-depth review.
Graig Neville has always been into music. His parents listened to lots of jazz, including Ellington, Gillespie and Peterson. Singing in choir in his youth (as an excellent soprano), playing a little trumpet, and listening to Police, the Beatles, and Led Zepplin on his AM/FM clock radio had a profound impact on his love of music. Graig is a civil engineer (and a really nice guy), a race car driver and instructor, a martial arts teacher, a CrossFitter (he promises not to talk about it), and a war gamer. Graig’s hometown is Chicago, where the pizza is deep and nobody puts ketchup on their hotdogs.