VAUGHN CABERNET SPEAKERS
Price: $8,495 sold direct
Upgrade to Bybee Gold Purifiers $500
includes free shipping in the US
JAMES L. DARBY
This type of review is what Stereomojo is all about – discovering those precious unheralded gems in a minefield full of components and speakers that are highly advertised, highly hyped and oft reviewed in other publications. These type are lovingly hand made by individuals who have a passion for music and strive to express it through their own creations.
Vaughn’s motto is “High efficiency speakers designed for tube & solid state amps without the compromises found in most high efficiency speaker systems”. The man behind the speakers is Jim Jordon. Why the “Vaughn” moniker then? “Vaughn is my middle name (James Vaughn Jordan)”, Jim told us, “And since there was already a Jordan speaker in the UK, that was out. Also my great grand father produced the Vaughn automobile (only made a few) so it would keep another family name alive”.
On their website, it says this about the company: “It all started in 1999 just after opening a high end store in Indianapolis, Indiana. A new speaker manufacturer brought a high efficiency speaker and an older Wavelength Cardinal 300B SET amplifier in attempts to convince me to carry his speaker line. The speaker did some things well but was also flawed in a number of areas that kept me from taking on the line. Before he left the store he asked if I would sell his older Wavelength amp as he had a new one coming in. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to get more familiar with the SET sound I gladly accepted.
I hooked the amp up to my reference speakers and once I got my jaw off the floor, sat mesmerized listening to the sound I had searched years for. After just two songs I looked up Wavelength’s contact information and called begging to become a dealer. Once that was taken care of I quickly discovered that my speakers as well as the rest of the speakers in the store were not able to fully satisfy all musical needs with such low power. (The Cardinals put out 12.5 watts per side – publisher)
My next mission was to find one or more compatible speaker lines at the upcoming 2000 CES show. Unfortunately the only thing I was able to find that had the efficiency, compatible impedance, and sound quality was the Avantgarde speakers. I immediately became a dealer and was one of the top dealers in the US but there was still the need for a less expensive and smaller speaker that would be able to reveal the magic these amps had without the compromises.
Since I knew very little of speaker design I was fortunate to get Gordon Rankin of Wavelength to do the initial design that I subsequently spent the next 6 plus years tweaking and fine tuning until we got where we had three designs ready to introduce at the 2008 CES show. Not nearly as soon as we had hoped for but we did not want to make just another speaker. We wanted truly special designs that would be able to take advantage of all of the musically superior qualities of the best low powered amplifier designs while not revealing their weaknesses.
We went down several paths, always trying to keep the designs as simple as possible. First we tried full range drivers but they were peaky in the upper midrange, lacked top end air, and had pitiful bass response. A ribbon super tweeter added the top end we were looking for but the aggressive midrange was still there. After getting the upper mids tamed and real extension on top it became obvious that we needed flatter and deeper base for the foundation of the music. Not wanting a complicated 3-way crossover we ended up successfully mating a woofer with a simple three-part crossover that would handle all three drivers in a way that is very amplifier friendly. The end results are 8 ohm designs that are very tube friendly.
The Cabernet is a slightly different design as it's ceramic midrange does not cover quite the range of our other full range drivers but it still goes from 80 Hz to 5000 Hz. It presents 12 ohms in the bass with 6 ohm minimum and just three crossover parts! Now SET, OTL, push/pull, and low powered solid state amps had tight deep bass, glorious midrange, and a clean, clear top end that revealed the soul of the music. Then there was the long process to voice the speakers by picking cabinet materials, wiring, and crossover parts. Hundreds of parts and cabinet designs were tried finally settling on what we felt best represented live music. What you hear now is the result of this labor of love. The ear was always the final judge on what was used in each design. Measurements were taken along the design path only to ensure we were not creating electrical or acoustical abnormalities. Our latest additions (as of July 2009) are Bybee in line Purifiers on both the positive and negative legs plus real carbon fiber front baffle covers. The Bybees were a revelation taking the performance of all of our speakers to even higher levels. Expensive yes, but well worth the cost by bringing the listener closer to the music".
All Vaughn speakers are 100% made in the USA, though drivers, like almost every speaker, are sourced in China.
A SIP OF THE CABERNET’S
As floorstanders go, the Cabernet’s are rather small and look even a little smaller. They stand 42” high, only 9” wide and 14” deep. The come in any color as long as it’s amber bamboo. The bamboo ply is thick – ¾’ to be specific. Jim went through many different cabinet materials and choose bamboo simply because it sounded the best. “We used computer modeling in the design process, but all the decisions were ultimately based on what sounded the best”. The front panel is made from carbon fiber over a 13 ply Baltic Birch that he says enhances the appearance as well as the sound. Much attention was applied to making the cabinet as anti-resonant as possible. The back panel is made of Marmoleum, an all natural material that consists of linseed oil, cork, limestone, tree rosin and other natural minerals. Everything has a clearcoat finish for durability and easy cleaning. If it matters to you, the Cabernet is one of the “greenest” speakers ever made. They weight a hefty 86 lbs each.
There are no grills to cover the complement of a split-ribbon tweeter and a 6 ½ inch ceramic mid, so you’re going to have naked drivers. This is the least expensive speaker we know of that incorporates a ceramic driver. Curiously, there is a 6.5” passive mid on the back of the speaker, however not ceramic. We have reviewed speakers that have active drivers on the rear for enhanced soundstage, but not a passive. When questions, Jim said, “In trying all types of loading options one of the advantages of passive loading is better dynamic contrasts at both low and high levels. Passive loading will obviously move more air with the additional radiating area but also seem to free up the active driver as well. This works on both the Ceramic mid and bass drivers. I also use cabinet dampening and solid construction rather than a lot of bracing in efforts to keep turbulence within the cabinet to a minimum. Turbulence within the cabinet can smear the sound to a greater degree than most would think. Passive loading along with minimal internal bracing have yielded results dramatically superior to anything else we have tried.
The bass section is its own enclosure that also has an MDF inner due to the greater force exhibited by dual bass drivers along with the 3 layer dampening. It was also a big plus to keep the bass drivers rear waves away from the critical midrange, hence the two individual cabinets within one”.
Jim uses all of the limited real estate by placing two active 10’ woofers on one side of the cabinet and two passives of the same size on the opposite side to achieve a claimed very low 28 Hz on the bottom. The ribbon tweeter is said to extend to 60,000 Hz, so we can easily state that the Vaughn Cabernet is decidedly a full-range speaker. It is very rare to find a true full-range speaker under $10,000, and many speakers that cost far north of that figure don’t go nearly that low. With the side mounted woofers, they can be placed either with the active woofers pointing out or pointing in, depending on how they sound best in your room. According to Jim, “For best bass results you will want to face the woofers out (the clear cones). For small rooms or bass problems you want to face the woofers in as there will be some canceling in the low frequencies.” The main room here is rather large and open, so the woofers were pointed out for this evaluation.
Jim uses premium, matched drivers with the simplest crossover design possible using the best crossover components available, Mundorf capacitors and Alpha Core inductors, he says. Nordost silver plated copper micro monofilament and pure copper wires were chosen for each driver to provide the most natural response and blending with the other drivers.
A wire mesh protects the white-coned ceramic on the front. It not only protects the driver from probing fingers, but also the listener in the case of an amp malfunction that would send an uncontrolled massive spike into the speakers that might cause the driver to explode into a shower of white shards. It happened at an audio show once with a different very expensive speaker brand. It wasn’t pretty.
Around back is a single pair of five-way binding posts; no bi-wire or bi-amp needed. Jim claims the speakers have a 93db sensitivity with an impedance of 8 ohms nominal; 12 ohms in bass region, minimum 6 ohm overall for a very amp friendly load. We’ve written often about how critical it is to match speakers to amplifiers. Many if not most audiophiles are listening to distortion because their speakers are making their amps work harder than intended by virtue of steep and wide impedances. They thought, “Hey, some guy wrote good things about this amp on Audiogon, so I bought it. Then someone else said these speakers were the best, so I bought them, too”, paying no attention to how they matched up together. To us, it makes more sense to choose a speaker that has an easy load that will work with practically any amp. Even megawatt amps work better with well designed speakers that don’t make them work so hard. Then you have much more latitude in finding an amp that fits your price range and the type of features you need. You can concentrate more on those and higher quality with less attention (and dollars) paid for ultra high outputs. Does that make sense?
Vaughn provides two options on the bottom of the cabinet. Standard is a matching wood platform with spikes on which the Cab’s are placed. For 200 bucks more you can have black aluminum outriggers with large brass spikes that attaches directly to the bottoms of the cabinets. I tried both. I preferred the outriggers for three reasons: They sounded better, especially better defined low end, they also looked better and they were much more stable and less likely to be accidentally tipped over.
You may have noticed above that the Cabs feature Bybee purifiers inside. Completely coincidentally, our Mike Peshkin was reviewing two different models of Bybee’s at the same time I was working with these speakers. Mike found that they not only worked in his system, but to a great enough degree that he bought them. Mike hardly ever buys such things, preferring to add even more records to his 10,000 plus LP collection…
I first read the manual (a rather unique practice among other reviewers in the industry), which consists of three pages. Jim recommends that the Cab’s are placed at least 3 feet from the back wall and 7 -10 feet apart, toed in so that they fire over each shoulder. Mine were placed 9 feet from the back wall and 5 feet from the sides (exactly – I measured them), well out into the room, toed in as recommended, woofers out.
Selections from various test CD’s, both tones, sounds and music were used to make small adjustments. Since the cab’s are purported to be 93db sensitive, the evaluation stared out with the Triode TRV-A300SE, a very fine Japanese 300B tube integrated amp that puts out 12 watts per channel, especially with the replacement Grant Audio “Black Bottle” 300B tubes I rolled in, one of my favorites of the dozen or so 300B brands I have. The pair of Cabs I was sent was a show demo pair, so they had lots of hours on them, even more than the 200-400 hours recommended for optimal performance. Still, I let them cook for a good 50 hours before serious evaluation began.
GULPING THE CABERNET
Usually, when I turn the lights out and sit down with pad in hand to listen seriously, there are one or two qualities that jump out immediately. Deep bass, smooth mids, detailed soundstage, speed – all the things that speakers do or don’t do well. In the case of the Cabernet’s, perhaps for the first time this was not what happened. It was the overall oneness of the presentation that made me say “WOW” out loud. I think I was a bit stunned actually. I didn’t expect to hear what I was hearing, much less feel what I was feeling. This is going to sound weird, but over the years of playing and writing music, working with various musicians and groups live and in the recording studio, I’ve kind of trained my brain to listen in one of two modes; either critical, rather clinical, tightly focused scrutinization sans emotion or just the opposite where I just let the music happen and respond to the emotional impact (or lack of it) without any focus on the system’s sonic attributes. Initial listening sessions always start in “mode one”. With the Cabs, I found it difficult to stay in that mode and found myself quickly slipping into “mode 2” where I forgot I had a yellow pad in my lap.
Listening to the first cut on our Stereomojo Ultimate Evaluation Disk, Johnny Adams' “Won’t Pass me By” from "One Foot in the Blues" on Rounder, as much if not more than any speaker, including small stand-mount monitors, the Vaughn’s completely and utterly disappeared. There was no sense of electronically generated music emerging from two 42” boxes. No beaming, no sense of “speakerness” whatsoever. The sound and the soundstage was huge in scope, more like a speaker over 6’ tall. The Triode’s measly 12 watts was propelling these speakers to near realistic volume levels in a large, well damped room, placed 11 feet from the listener. If you prefer to listen REALLY LOUD though, you’ll need more horsepower.
Adams’ big baritone voice, recorded like the rest of album with little or no compression, was well separated out in front of the band, reproducing his rich, chocolaty texture in lifelike sound and proportion. When he whispered or growled, so did the Cab’s. When he reached for his big power, the little Cab’s went right with him. The complexity and sonority of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Hammond B3 was rendered immaculately, revealing his nuanced accompaniment and roaring solo as well as I’d ever heard it – here at home or at any show through any priced speaker. When the drummer started using his drumstick on the bell of the ride cymbal, the clarity made my eyes dart to it – even in the dark. The pitch of the cymbal and the woodenness of stick were both easily discerned. Bass on this album can be and usually is quite muddy and ill defined because it is being played by Dr. Smith on the pedals of the B3, not and acoustic bass or electric – not plucked strings at all. But here it sounded just as it was intended, clear as the cymbal’s bell. That’s when I realized how deep and full those pedals were. The bottom octave was all there, powerful and pitch perfect without a trace of slowness or bloat. This was more than a little surprising coming from these smallish cabinets, twin 10 inchers and all.
Speaking of organ pedals, the next cut is “Les Septs Paroles du Christ” on Fidelio, an operatic soprano voice accompanied by pipe organ in a small cathedral. The organ starts out way to the back left and features very low pedal notes. The soprano is center but again, far back on the stage. Loads of natural cathedral reverb. Here, the organ sounded as if it were in back of the rear wall, far to the left of the outer edge of the speaker. Completely disembodied, as it should be. The low rumble of the 16’ pipe as it struggles to gasp for air was perfectly represented as if there was a hidden subwoofer back there in the dark. Again, it wasn’t like “wow! Listen to these speakers play those organ pedals”. No, it was just “Wow, listen to those organ pedals!”
For me, reverberation is the telltale heart of system evaluation – it’s difficult to reproduce well. This cut has it like Hugh Heffner has busty girlfriends. It was thick with no grain and seamless as the organ and voice bounced around the stone walls of the church. It was this clarity and refinement of this reverb that drew my attention to how clear and smooth the overall sound was. No congestion or murkiness, no “pixelization” of the sonic picture. It was such that it was much more than expected from a speaker this size or price, or even the “Black Bottled” Triode amp. The whole system just sounded a couple of grades higher than it should. The width and depth of the soundstage was, well, amazing. This is one of the speaker’s most outstanding attributes. That and the complete freedom from electronic noise and grunge.
I recalled that these speakers came equipped with “Bybee inside”. Could those little devices be what were giving me this unexpected purity? I can’t swear by it, but I can say that what I was hearing was exactly what Peshkin heard with the Bybee’s in his system. I gotta ask Jack for some of those to go between my components.
Linda and I listened for a couple of weeks with the Triode doing the dirty work. Vocals were rich and detailed, with just the right amount of warmness. Electric bass was snappy and the low end of string bass on jazz recordings was better than most driven by an SET. No chestiness at all on the guys. Dynamics were good but not stupendous.
LSA weighs about 80 pounds. At 150 wpc, it is also one of the best sounding integrated amps I’ve ever heard. Heck, it’s one of the best amps I’ve heard, period. We have reviewed all three models of the LSA lineup. You should check them out.
The big LSA took the Vaughn’s to a whole new level. They just took off like a greyhound that had just spotted a squirrel. All of the openness and cleanness was still there, the marvelous midrange stayed intact, but the soundstage was now much more detailed and delineated with large scale orchestral exhibiting even greater power and solidity in the bass. If you’re a fan voluminous yet detailed soundstages, the Vaughns are true champs.
The biggest surprise however was the dynamics. While the range between the quietest sounds and the big snaps and wallops of drums, screaming trumpets and even the thwack of all types of acoustic and electric bass instruments was much better than average for a 12 watt amp, the added big LSA’s added power propelled the demure floorstanders into punctuation piranhas. I don’t want to get overzealous here, but the dynamics that the Cabs produced were astounding. And I don’t mean outstanding for a small, $9,000 speaker, I mean for any speaker of any size and at any price.
One of my favorite recordings for evaluating dynamic range is the ubiquitous Flim and the BB CD, “Tricycle”. This one of the very first digital recordings and it showcased the supposed superiority of digital dynamics vs. analog. A jazz piano trio starts out with a steady, very quiet eighth note pattern with a simple piano melody that lulls you for a minute, then there’s a silent pause after which every hits one note as loud as they possibly can. The sudden “big bang” has the potential to snap your head back and kick you in the chest at realistic levels, even when you’re expecting it. I have only heard that effect three times and never in my system. The first time I’ll never forget. It was Carver’s “Amazing” panel speakers being driven by big the biggest Mark Levinson monoblocks playing this “new” at the time CD. That was maybe over 20 years ago, but it was so stunning that I’ve never forgotten it. Since then I’ve played this recording thousands of times at many shows and at home, rarely hearing what this cut really sounds like. With the big LSA, the Cabernet’s delivered that experience. It’s too bad Bob Carver glommed the “amazing” moniker, it would be very appropriate for the Vaughn Cabernet.
Even more exciting is the new Reference Recordings of Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony. Playing the HrX version (WAV files at full 172/24 resolution) through my Perfect Wave Transport and DAC at native bitrates, the sound with big dynamic hits were truly frightening. They made me and Linda physically jump. Genuine goose bump stuff. Still, there was no congestion or congealing of the image or individual instruments. They just went along as if nothing unusual were happening at all with no signs of stress.
The Vaughn can be compared pretty closely to our 2008 Speaker of the Year, the Coincident Super Victory. It’s almost identical in size and sells for $9,499 per pair. It also uses a single (though not ceramic and though no passive in the back) midrange and a ribbon tweeter. It also uses a side mounted woofer, though no passives and only one where the Cabernet employs two. The Vaughn outperforms it, particularly in the areas of bass, clarity and dynamics. You might note that Coincident helps us some with an ad. Vaughn doesn’t. Advertising has no effect on the outcome of our reviews. You might keep that in mind when you read other publications.
The Cabernet’s play no favorites either. They are equally at home with rock, (oh do they rock!), pop, jazz and all forms of classical. A friend of mine who is an emergency room trauma surgeon heard them and commented that they sound good a lower volume levels where he prefers to listen. He said that is the mark of a great speaker for him. He’s right. They do sound very good at lower levels.
I briefly tried the Cabernet’s in the small room (10x12x8) with the woofers on the inside and they worked perfectly. Big bass. Big soundstage from an invisible source in a small room. No bass overload. There’s only been two other floorstanders that work well in that nearfield room, usually only small monitors will sonically fit.
Want a woman’s point of view? Here’s what Linda says. Bear in mind she was a top interior designer for many years: “These speakers in my opinion are visually rather plain, not large in size and do not dominate a room. The bamboo is non-descript and may fit into many decors, though some women won’t like the visible drivers. The sound on the other hand is another story and far from ordinary. Sitting next to Jim to the right of the sweet spot, I could still hear a great stereo image that extended far in every direction. One of the best I’ve heard in that department. I did not feel musically deprived at all and they were a joy to which to listen. The sound filled the room and I felt like I was in a concert hall. There was no harshness at all, not offensive to my ears. Not too bright or cutting, yet I could hear intricate details very clearly. I wanted to listen to them for hours – and we did”.
I could go on. And on and on, but you get the picture. The Vaughn Cabernet is one “amazing” speaker in overall performance and therefore a screaming value at $8,495. And that includes shipping in the US and a 5 year parts and labor warranty. They will play well with low-powered tube amps and easily handle higher powered amps. They easily managed levels of 100db plus cleanly. I’d suggest somewhere around 40-80 watts, depending on room size, to get the most out of them.
If you like large, airy soundstages, you can’t do much better than these at any price. If you like big dynamics, your search can end here. There are few speakers this size and price than will give you full–range bottom end. If they are out there, I haven’t heard them – and that’s saying a lot. They will work well in large (maybe not cavernous, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do) rooms as well as small. They exhibit no obvious weaknesses. If cleanliness is next to Godliness, the sound of these is Divine. If you’re hearing grain, it’s your amp, source or cables, not the Vaughn’s.
These are a reference quality speaker and I’m putting my money where my mouth is with that one. These speakers are staying here. Even though there’s no typical big discount since these are sold with low margin direct to you with no middleman markups, these babies are going to be mine. I’ve been looking for a speaker that will work in both rooms, friendly to both low and high power amps since I review and have no glaring weaknesses and high strength in all areas. A speaker whose attributes will hold up well in comparison to other speakers at significantly higher prices. A speaker that is as musical as it is “audiophile”. One that appeals to my analytical side as well as my emotional. Oh yes, and doesn’t cost a fortune, too. The fact that Linda likes them goes a long way as well. In other words, a true reference speaker. I have found it.
The designer sums it this way: “All of these unique design choices are significantly more expensive than many speakers costing two to three times as much which is why Vaughn Loudspeakers, while not inexpensive, perform way above their price points”. It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.
Bestowing our Maximum Mojo Award on the Vaughn Cabernet is a no-brainer.
Picking it as our 2009 Speaker of the Year was just as easy.
Congratulations to Jim Jordan, Synergistic Sound and Vaughn Loudspeakers on this truly outstanding accomplishment.
Tweeter: Split Ribbon
Mid Range: 6.5" Ceramic w/ 6.5" Passive
Woofers: Two 10" w/ Dual 10" Passives
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, 12 ohms in
bass region, minimum 6 ohm
Sensitivity: 93 db
Response: 34 hz - 60,000 hz
Power: 8 - 120 watts
Weight: 86 lbs
Size: 9" x 14" x 42"
Warranty: 5 Years
Cabinet: Amber Bamboo
Front Panel: Carbon Fiber
Rear Panel: Marmoleum
Bybee Filters: Large both + & - Standard
(Gold purifier on + add $500.00)
5 year parts and labor guarantee – Free shipping to USA
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