When Ultra Fidelis sent out the notice that Richard Vandersteen would be visiting Milwaukee with the new flagship Vandersteen 7XTRM loudspeaker, my brain immediately began planning how I could be there. Making the two hour trek up from Chicago on a weekday took some coordination, but on October 27, after a few emails with Jonathan Spelt, the proprietor of Ultra Fidelis, we developed a game plan and I hit the road.
I attended a Richard Vandersteen event at Ultra Fidelis once before when I had a chance to listen to the Kento. Jonathan is a master at setup and has been a Vandersteen dealer for many years.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
The Quattro, Kento, and the Vandersteen 7XTRM all have an 11-band bass EQ, allowing these speakers to adapt to the room in astounding ways that would not be possible without DSP (more on that below). The flexibility of such a system is amazing, but in less than artful hands and without measurements it can result in less than ideal results. Ultra Fidelis, fortunately, has set up many of these speakers. Jonathan is an exacting maestro, so my expectations were high for this $86,400 pair of speakers.
Vandersteen 7XTRM: Associated Gear
Besides the Model 7XTRM, the Vandersteen M5-HPA amplifiers were driven by the Audio Research Reference electronics which included a phono pre, linestage and DAC. An AMG Turntable with Lyra cartridge and Turbo tone arm handled vinyl duties. Digital duties were by Innous and Audio Research, but tonight was all about the vinyl.
Vandersteen 7XTRM: Listening
The first notes from the Vandersteen 7XTRM reminded me of the best aspects of the Model 5 I’ve heard over the years. There was a slight sense of warmth (less so than the Model 5) with a slightly relaxed tweeter. Vandersteens, in my experience are highly listenable for hours on end without fatigue, and I think this slightly relaxed tweeter is the largest contributor to this ability. My impression of the Kento, for example, was that the speaker was a proper gentleman and that you weren’t getting a hug. The Vandersteen 7XTRM is more like meeting a cousin for the first time and you immediately develop a lifelong bond. There’s an intrinsic familial connection the deepens that bond.
I think the Vandersteen 7XTRM conveys more emotional content than the Kento, Model 5, or any other Vandersteen I’ve heard.
Imaging for time- and phase-aligned speakers often creates a very narrow sweet spot. I was astounded by the width and sharpness of the imaging, even while standing way off axis. As I moved in towards the sweet spot, the image was wide and had 3D imaging qualities. Sometimes the image was back behind the speaker and sometimes slightly forward in front of the speakers. It depended, of course, on the recording.
On orchestral recordings, I could identify the rows of the orchestra as well as the different instrument locations in a way that I rarely hear. I recall that one of the tracks of a piano that had perhaps the most realistic sense of size of the instrument I’ve experienced. I could hear the piano strings from the left to right as the player struck the various keys and it was darn close to what size the piano would fill in that space.
The placement of the Vandersteen 7XTRMs was very close to the sidewalls and toed in, and imaging went to the edge of the speakers, but not really much beyond those limits. I’m not sure it really needed to go beyond the speakers, as the soundstage filled the entire room. No sense of compression or congestion, however, was detectable. Large orchestral music can collapse into a wall of sound on lesser speakers, the Vandersteen 7XTRM just yawned as the volume was turned up and they continued playing perfectly.
Timbre and breadth on vocals generated a sense of realism that is often elusive for many speakers. Female vocals were lush and preserved the intimacy of the recording even at louder listening levels. The Vandersteen 7XTRM also had a great sense of rhythm and pace as I found myself toe-tapping and head-bobbing on several tracks. These speakers really convey a sense of groove on good jazz recordings, and on more contemporary music selections including Big Audio Dynamite, the bass was like a gut punch. It was tight, fast, and immense, filling the room as the waves of bass passed through your body from the 11-inch side firing woofers. I’ve heard large speakers and subwoofers provide similar bass volume, but without the fast taught punchy character of the Vandersteen 7XTRM.
In summary, the bass was voluminous and superb, eliciting pure musical excitement for this bass head.
Vandersteen on Vandersteen
Richard stated that the side-firing woofers address some of the backwave issues of the bass drivers, effectively cancelling out some of that energy that would otherwise go into the cabinet. It’s difficult to argue with the results and the Vandersteen 7XTRM I think have better bass punch and tonality than the Kento, which was exemplary.
As Vandersteen approaches 50 years in business there have been evolutions, introductions of new models, and advances in materials. I think all of this has been necessary to develop the 7XTRM. There aren’t too many speakers at this price point. There are likely speakers that look better, but in my experience these products that approach summit-fi often have divergent characteristics.
The Vandersteen 7XTRM is not the most neutral speaker I’ve heard, but I find that it is a speaker that balances musical enjoyment and accuracy. You owe it to yourself to take a listen if you are looking for a speaker approaching six figures, or if you want to better understand the mountain Richard Vandersteen is trying to climb.
Because all of us deserve to go to extremes once in awhile.
While Jonathan was developing the evening playlist and tweaking the phono preamp, I had a chance to sit with Richard Vandersteen and Brad O’Toole, Vandersteen’s sales representative. For those who haven’t met Richard Vandersteen, he has strong opinions based on his world experience.
He left a lucrative job in the early ’70s to build speakers. His first offerings ended up in discos, and they do not resemble the designs that later became the foundation of his family business. He then hired a marketing team to help guide him on product development, but after a meeting with his marketing staff where his consultants were discussing East Coast versus West Coast “sound” and which Richard should pursue, he realized that letting the market drive the product was not his way. He needed to do something different.
Richard chatted about how most audiophile electronics were gravitating toward a common point, with tubes approaching the best of solid state and solid state beginning to incorporate some of the best qualities of tubes. When it comes to loudspeakers, however, Vandersteen thinks the industry is diverging instead of converging. We discussed whether that might be influenced by the recording industry and the diversity of music and how different genres have different needs from a system to sound great. As consumers, folks will naturally gravitate towards a system that makes their favorite music sound the best.
Richard wanted to avoid chasing the trends of the music scene as recording techniques change over time. So, he hired a bunch of musicians and recorded his own live music and various other sounds in a church. Besides music, sounds such as dragging shovels on concrete, were committed to master tape.
Having the luxury of master tapes of all this he set out to develop a speaker that best emulated the sounds he heard on his tapes. This culminated in the Model 2, one of the best-selling audiophile speakers of all time and the backbone of his family business. Every speaker from Vandersteen is based on measurements and playback of these master tapes.
Vandersteen 7XTRM–What’s New
Next, I asked Richard what changed in the Model 7 to make it XTRM. The most significant changes were to the bass drivers and how they are coupled to the speaker cabinet. The original Model 7 has a downward firing 14-inch woofer. Typically the flagship is the reference that all models try to emulate, but Richard noticed something in the Kento that he felt was better than with the Model 7.
Upon further investigation he realized that as heavy as the Model 7 was, the downward firing woofer could move enough air to lift the speaker up and cause resonances in the Model 7 that smeared the sound. The XTRM upgrade takes the side-firing woofers and the granite plinth concepts from the Kento and tweaks the crossover for the new drivers.
I asked Richard, “When does an upgrade become significant enough to warrant a new model?” Evolution of several models have occurred over the years and Richard stated that if the character of the model remains intact with an upgrade, then it keeps the model designation. If the sonic character of the speaker changes enough, he creates a new model. The best example of this is probably the Kento, the evolutionary successor to the highly successful Model 5.
I also asked Richard why he settled on an 11-band EQ for the bass instead of DSP or another method. Richard unabashedly prefers analog over digital. In his opinion Class D amplification is getting better, but the switching power supplies are still a problem. Digital processing, in his opinion, just lacks something in character and does not have the continuity of analog. So his powered subs in the Quatro, Kento, 7XTRM all use Class B amplification (400W in the 7XTRM), which Richard feels is fine for bass signals.
Finally, Richard also teased that besides his current offerings of amplifiers, there is a preamplifier on the way. All of Richard’s children are involved in the family business and he will likely have grandchildren joining the payroll in the future. Vandersteen is looking to expand their business, and all I can say is that I look forward to hearing what Vandersteen will bring in 2023 and beyond.
What wonderful equipment 💖