Vanatoo, a company new to the audio world, has released its first product, the Transparent One Powered Speakers. Made of cherry with a black finish ($499 per pair) or natural-cherry finish ($549), these powered, bookshelf-style speakers offer an amazing amount of input flexibility and, for speakers of their size, solid sound.
I tested a natural-cherry-finish Transparent One, and I have to say the speakers are beautiful to look at. Although on the small side at 10 inches high, 6.5 inches wide, and 7.5 inches (right speaker) or 8.13 inches left speaker) deep--the left speaker contains the amplifier and connections and is a bit deeper--the speakers are hefty at 12 pounds (left) and 11 pounds (right). Each speaker hosts a 5.25-inch woofer and 1-inch silk-dome tweeter along with a 5.25-inch rear-facing passive radiator. The aforementioned amplifier is a D2Audio Class D model that provides 60 watts per channel and features an integrated digital signal processor (DSP). The amp also incudes a power-conservation feature: After 10 minutes of inactivity, the system goes into a low-power sleep mode.
In regard to inputs, Vanatoo couldn't have crammed many more options on the back of the left speaker. Here you find a 3.5mm analog input and three digital inputs: TosLink optical, coax, and USB. Only one input can play at a time, but you needn't choose the source. Instead, the inputs are assigned a priority: The analog input has highest priority, then TosLink, coax, and USB, in that order. So, for example, if you have an iPod connected to the analog input and a Sonos device attached via TosLink and each is playing audio, you'll hear the iPod through the Transparent One because the analog input has the higher priority. However, if you stop playback on the iPod, after a delay of 15 seconds you'll hear the Sonos device's audio. Clever.
Additionally, the left speaker's back panel includes a line-level output for connecting a subwoofer. The Transparent One senses that connection and automatically sets its digital crossover to send bass frequencies to the subwoofer.
Rounding out the items on the back of the left speaker are an On/Off switch, a volume knob, bass and treble controls, a switch for reversing the left and right speakers--for example, if your setup requires you to put the amplifier-equipped speaker on the right--speaker connections (which accept banana plug, spade, and bare-wire connections), and an AC-power outlet that allows you to connect an AirPort Express Base Station directly to the speaker. (Unfortunately, if you connect an older Express--one with the power plug built right into the Express's body--the Transparent One's USB-input port is blocked.)
That's a lot of flexibility for a single set of speakers. In particular I like the bass and treble controls and the AC-power outlet. The speakers sound quite good right out of the box, but Vanatoo's designers understand that we all have particular audio likes and dislikes, and I appreciate their willingness to allow me to tweak the speakers' sound to accommodate my preferences. And shoehorning in that power outlet is a terrific feature for those who wish to play music from their computers and iOS devices via AirPlay.
Solid sound, not too much fury
Although this description will likely enrage audiophiles by its vague subjectivity, the best description I can come up with for the speakers' sound is polite. They're not brash, they lack obvious coloring, they put out a respectable amount of crisp bass without trying to sound three times their size, and though the highs they produce aren't as sizzling as you get from larger, more-expensive speakers, they're present enough that you don't feel like you're missing a lot. Volume is such that you can fill a medium-sized room with sound. And if you want more bass, you can always connect an optional subwoofer.
I tested the speakers with compressed and uncompressed files using both Sonos components and an iPod classic. I played a variety of music including rock, jazz, classic, and hip-hop. The speakers held up well to nearly all of it. For club tracks with gut-wrenching bass, you'll want to look to another set of speakers or to add a large subwoofer.
Again, if you're not entirely pleased with the speakers at their default setting, you can adjust the treble and bass knobs. When doing so, I was pleased to find that twiddling the knobs didn't add or remove obscene amounts of lows or highs. The Transparent One's designers clearly intended for you to tweak the sound a little one way or another, rather than to radically alter it. When I desired a bit more treble, an eighth turn of the Treble knob to the right gave me much of what I was after (within the limits of what the speakers could reasonably produce). Twisting the bass knob full on was more than I wanted from the speakers, but it didn't produce entirely unmusical results.
Macworld's buying advice
The Vanatoo Transparent One speakers have a lot going for them--multiple input sources, a built-in AC-power port for use with an AirPort Express Base Station, subwoofer auto-sensing, and good sound--all in a beautiful, compact package. Though these speakers may not be appropriate replacements for your big, higher-end primary stereo system, they'd do very well as a secondary set in a den or rumpus room. For apartment dwellers who can't afford or accommodate larger speakers, they're also a good way to produce accurate sound from today's various digital devices. If you like speakers that artificially pump up certain frequencies, the Transparent One may not be for you, but the only way to know for sure is to live with them for awhile: Vanatoo offers a 30-day audition period. It's absolutely worth your time and effort to take them for a spin.