Vaughn Triode Mk III Loudspeakers
Unheard, Unknown, But Unbelievable....
Dim the Lights and Get Ready
Think about a romantic evening with lights dimmed, fine wine and your honey snuggling at your side and you have an idea of how the Vaughn Loudspeakers Triode IIIs make you feel. The Triode IIIs have a very intimate presence and ease about them. I didn’t expect these little known babies to sing like they did, and compete with speakers twice their $8,000/pair price, but they did indeed. I kept saying to myself as they improved day after day, “Are you kidding me?” No loudspeaker at this price should sound this good. For those outside of this hobby that price tag may sound like a lot of “ka-ching,” but we know better now don’t we? Especially for a quality loudspeaker that does it all well from top to bottom. Excellent, smooth high frequency extension, check. Deep articulate bass, check. But their biggest strength is beautifully textured, weighty midrange, highlighting subtle nuances in vocals. A bit of toe-in and the Triode IIIs completely disappear leaving voices dead center with instruments hanging in the air. Only a low powered SET amp is needed, since there is a built-in 300 watt class-D amp driving a 12 inch subwoofer. Yet, the Triode IIIs are smooth as silk and well integrated from top to bottom.
Happenstance or Serindipity
I had never heard of the Vaughn Triode III speakers or even heard of the company until I saw a used NAT Plasma R preamp on the web and began exchanging emails with its owner. I happened to notice during one of those exchanges that the email was signed Jim Jordan, Vaughn Loudspeakers, so I checked out the Vaughn website. The speaker line looked interesting, especially since they consisted of high efficiency speakers using full-range drivers, but with built in amps for plenty of bass. High efficiency speakers have had a special place in my heart, since owning a pair of Audio Note ANE SPE HEs, which when paired with a nice flea powered amp takes you to audio nirvana. I was also interested in trying a speaker that incorporated a full-range driver. So I asked Jim if he would send me a pair of his speakers for review. Jim gave me the thumbs up, but explained that he was working on a new version III of his Triode model, and would have them done soon, so I waited.
The Big Day Arrives
The Vaughn Triode III speakers arrived a few months later and to my great delight they were not only rock solid in construction but beautiful to behold. The exotic bamboo finish with inlaid accents on some edges was attractive, but as I mentioned to Jim, I would have preferred the same bamboo on the fronts. However, I really didn’t mind the marbleized laminate finish that came on the front of the review sample, but just liked the Bamboo better. “Hmmm…” I thought as I unpacked the speakers. If these speakers sound half as good as they look and felt I was in for a treat. The Triode IIIs did not disappoint. Especially when I figured out that I needed to turn on the built-in subwoofer, which I thought would automatically come on in the standby mode.
Initial Impressions are Telling
Once I had the speakers correctly up and running I was immediately struck by their gorgeous midrange. And this was fresh out of the boxes. What was to come was nothing short of breathtaking. While it took a fairly substantial break-in period (300 plus hours) for the Triodes III to really sing, once they were broken in I was awestruck by the extreme musicality of the speakers. While the top end and bass were exceptionally good, the midrange absolutely took the cake. Surprisingly, the voices were textured and palpable, and the nuances in vocals were mesmerizing, even right out of the box. How many hours do these bad boys have on them? Only 50? Impossible.
In fact, they sounded so good from the get go, that I couldn’t resist the temptation to drop the needle on some vinyl. My first exploration of what the Triodes could do with vinyl was with Van Morrison’s regular commercial pressing of Common One. I was taken aback by the articulation in the bass on the first track of side one, “Haunts of Ancient Peace.” And the distinguishable inflections in Van’s voice were impressive even when compared to some tough competition, such as the far more expensive Revel Salon 2s, Sun Union Dragon Princes, and the ultra-revealing rebuilt vintage Quad ESL 63s. So, I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. I couldn’t wait to put some time on these babies, since they already sounded more than decent without yet settling in from shipping across the country.
I was drawn into my listening room day after day to get another taste, even though I wanted to wait until full break-in… and it kept getting better as the days went by. Where would it end? Uhhh, do I really have to send these babies back? Maybe not. Besides, I justified to myself, these speakers are way smaller, and lighter than my main two sets of speakers , even at over 100 pounds apiece. And they sound pretty good, nah, much better than good, particularly in the mids and pretty close to other tough competition in other respects, and they need more break-in. How can that be? The anticipation of how much better these speakers could get was killing me.
It Keeps Getting Better
After about 100 hours of break-in, the Triode IIIs sounded so musical that I kept running upstairs to my reference system to see if I was imagining how good these speakers were or if they really did sound more musical than I remember. CD after CD confirmed my initial impression that the Triode IIIs were more engaging than my three times more expensive reference speakers. Perhaps they were not as refined sounding but they were more engaging and simply drew you into performance after performance.
With about 200 hours on the Triode IIIs, one of my favorite female vocalists, Eva Cassidy, entered the picture, and boy did she ever. I was mesmerized by the interaction of Eva’s voice with the acoustic guitar on “Water is Wide,” track 3 of the American Tune CD. And as “God Bless the Child” began I was floored by the inflections and subtle nuances of Eva’s songbird voice. I was transported to the performance and forgot about the review. What more can I say. I had to stop taking notes and just listen and then listen again to take down my critical listening points. As the guitar solo began I could hear the echo of the venue; probably the studio walls. I was so drawn into the performance that I had to snap myself out of a trance after the echo from the pluck of the last guitar note. Track after track I was pulled into the musical performance, transporting me from my listening room into the enjoyment of the music. Little did I know, the fun was just beginning, as the first amps, heavily modded vintage Eico HF 60s (about 50 wpc into the 8 ohm load of the Triode IIIs) were great, but the sound would soon get much better with other amps I had on hand.
Let the Serious Listening Begin
Once the Triode IIIs had about 300 hours on them, and they seemed to reach maximum improvement from break-in, I hunkered down for some serious critical listening. First with the Eico HF 60s, then a prototype of the new 9 wpc Wavelength Duetta v3 Stereo 300B SET amp ($5k) that Vaughn sent along with the speakers. The Triode IIIs were voiced with a Wavelength amp, so I suspected they would sound good together. But, what I didn’t expect was how good they would sound. These babies were really singing with the Duetta. But after a day of listening I decided to try some toe-in (pointing about a foot to each side of my ears) and was immediately floored by how much the speakers did a disappearing act. The singers were now more focused with the voices dead center and instruments hanging in space around the room. It was shocking how much album after album sounded like live music not just good music coming through speakers. The Duetta added weight and texture to the midrange that was not there to the same extent with Eicos. And the presentation was ohhh sooo relaxed. Sweet.
I Put the Triodes Through Their Paces and They Rose to the Occasion
Enter the new Carver Cherry 180M mono blocks (200 watts @ 8 Ohm, 230 watts @ 4 Ohm and 215 watts @ 2 Ohm) that had recently arrived for review. Why not give them a listen since I wanted to put some break-in time on them. But, I did not expect what happened next. A whole new level of details, nuance and weighty depth and warmth not previously present to the same extent as with the low power SET amp. Yeah the SET was excellent and was admittedly more intimate sounding and its power more suited to the Triode IIIs, but the Cherry180Ms in some respects seemed to propel the Triode IIIs to a different stratosphere. Lovely warmth with detail gently flowing into the room, like with the Duetta but with an added umph. More weight and texture. Wooo. One caveat from the much more powerful Cherries is that I had much less control of the volume especially through the remote since a small touch would jump the volume substantially on my NAT Plasma R preamp. So, owners of Triodes would likely want to go with a lower powered amp like the Duetta for maximum flexibility.
Weeks later when the Carver Cherry 180Ms were fully broken in they really made the Triode IIIs sing. Stay tuned, a full review of the Cherries will be forthcoming. But, the bottom line with the Triodes was they sounded great with both a flea powered stereo amp and a pair of powerful tube mono blocks. So how about on a medium powered amp you might ask? Surprise, surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle once said.
The next test for the Triode IIIs was the moderately powered, but fabulously articulate VAC 30/70 Renaissance Mk III Signature Mono Blocks. The VACs are push pull amps putting out 70 wpc, but the nice thing about them is they have negative feedback controls that effectively reduce the volume sensitivity, if needed, and are loaded with wonderful vintage tubes; four Western Electric 300Bs per side driven by two Ken Rad VT 231s with two RCA VT231s as input tubes. The result is a surprisingly articulate, detailed but refined sound for tube amps, with a wide and deep soundstage. I just didn’t expect the Triodes to be able to convey the attack, sustain and decay of notes that the VACs are capable of conveying on much more expensive speakers. I was wrong. On track 11, “Tired,” of Adele’s 19 CD, my mouth was literally hanging open on the bass notes and how precisely they were communicated with both weight and articulation.
Two days later after the VACs settled in from the move into the basement listening area, and with 5 hours of continuous warm up I wandered down to give a listen and almost fell off my chair. The Amy Winehouse Frank CD was playing and the bass on track 10, October Song, was so tuneful and distinct, something I thought was heretofore a bit lacking from the Triode IIIs. Not anymore baby. On the next track 11, What Is It About Men, the music was so engaging that as I started to take notes I had to stop typing and just listen, getting drawn in by Amy’s voice and its unique inflections. Then I heard the reverberations of instruments that I never previously noticed on this CD, hanging in the air, no speakers just instruments. Pretty cool. How much are these speakers? Really?! So musical, so involving, so un-box-like. My legs were moving to the beat, as I was continuously pulled into the music, track after track. One of the last tracks ended with the announcer giving directions to the doors, which took me right into the venue with trumpet playing in the background and the snare drum hanging in the air. Was it time to leave? Nah, I want to start the CD from the first track. So I did.
Many little nuances on Amy’s Frank CD literally jumped out that I never heard before. Where was all this stuff? I didn’t remember hearing most of it on my reference speakers which are way more expensive. Perhaps they were subtly in the background, but I just didn’t remember the details coming out this way. From the crispness of the snapping noises, to the kick of the bass drum, track 2, “You Sent Me Flying,” highlighted the resonance of Amy’s tone. Again, I didn’t recall hearing into the music with the voices like this before on my reference speakers. I closed my eyes and just took it all in; then pulled myself back out so I could take some more notes… musical… real music in space,… lots of air around the instruments… speakers gone and just hearing the music, etc. etc. etc. Back to the feet moving… I really like these speakers… end of notes, back to listening. More distinct note interplay on track 3 between kick drum and sticks hitting the top edge, then in comes that articulate bass, lots of stuff going on here and I hear it all in a new vibrant and distinct way. But, not over the top or edgy way, very musical….like live music… Next up, “When you walk in the bar And you’re dressed like a star” Amy was singing while I am looking around for something else to throw into my CD player, but wait…I stop in my tracks as the guitar comes in on track 5 (Know You Know), then Amy’s voice and they are both right in the room. I hear the reverberation of the strings yet again. Pretty sweet. All I hear is music baby and I like what I hear…as I floundered through the stacks of CDs another song comes on and draws me in yet again. “There is no greater love than what I feel for you…” is just beautiful, as the flute floats in and out, then the Sax. The interplay is just gorgeous so my eyes close again. Amy’s voice is dead center and so involving. I love the mids. The rest is really good but the midrange is to die for. And this is not really an especially well recorded CD, so I know the best is yet to come. And it did on every well recorded CD I threw into my player. But, the remarkable thing was that even the ok CDs sounded excellent, with a hint of warmth thrown in for good measure, which seemed to hide the edginess of not so good CDs.
Weeks later when I was sure that the Triode IIIs were completely broken in, I decided to do head to head listening between the Wavelength Duettav3 and the much more expensive VAC mono blocks. While the music experience was great on both, I consistently noted on vinyl after vinyl and CD after CD that the VACs could be characterized as more on the articulate side of the equation, while the Duetta was more laid back and in the euphonic camp. I liked both and they both definitely had their strengths, but I believe that the ultimate decision on which amp is better with the Triodes is really a matter of personal preference for the type of sound you may prefer long term. I personally leaned toward the Duetta because I prefer a warmer more relaxed presentation. But, every time I fired up the VACs I was happy to hear all the subtle nuances brought a bit more forward, and the attack, sustain and decay of notes being more readily discernible. These were details that were just not that noticeable with the Duetta. I really enjoyed hearing the Triode IIIs sing, albeit in different ways, with both amps. So, in the end, perhaps with speakers as good and chameleon-like as the Triode IIIs, you might like to have your cake and eat it too by having the flexibility of having several high quality amps on hand to change the sound character based on your mood for the week.
What I noticed as the most distinct impression left by the Triode IIIs was their extremely musical relaxed character and beautiful midrange. No matter which amp I mated with them, the Triode IIIs did a virtual disappearing act after they were properly toed in, leaving only the music for your listening pleasure. What could be better? That is why the Triode IIIs are a very easy speaker for me to wholeheartedly recommend. Even better, Vaughn offers a free in home trial, so you may want to bit the bullet and give the Triode IIIs a listen if you are in the market for a speaker anywhere near this price range. I suspect you won’t be disappointed.
Jim Jordan, founder of Vaughn Loudspeakers, was a pleasure to deal with and was always responsive to my questions. He provided me with the history of how he started Vaughn, and his design philosophy, which I have provided below in its entirety for your reading pleasure.
Vaughn Loudspeakers– The Story
Provided by founder Jim Jordan
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. 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 have a very tube friendly 14 ohm bass region. 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 speaker 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. Listen and let us know how we did.
Tweeter: 5” True Ribbon
Full Range: 8” Banana pulp w/ 8” Passive Radiator
Woofer: 12” Powered w/ 12” Passive Radiator
Crossover: Only two parts, phase coherent
Impedance: 8 Ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 97 db 1 watt @ 1 meter
Frequency Response: 21 – 40,000 hz
Power min / max: 2 / 120
Weight: 114 LBS
Size (inches): 11(w) x 16(d) x 44(h)
Warranty: 5 years parts & labor
Cabinet: Bamboo Multi Core Ply
Front Panel: Marmoleum over 13 ply Baltic Birch
Tweeter: Arum Cantus G3 - 7,000 - 40,000 hz
Wide Range Driver: Fostex FE208 EZ (proprietary mods) - 80 hz - 7000 hz loaded with 8" passive radiator
Subwoofer: Dayton Reference HO 12" with 12" Passive Radiator Loading
Subwoofer Amplifier: Bash 300 watt class D with adjustable crossover and volume (Vaughn modified)
Bybee Purifiers: top line OEM SE Internal Bullets
Internal Wire: Nordost Micro Monofilament
Inductor: Jantzen Cross Coil
Capacitor: Clarity MR
Binding Posts: WBT
Internal Cabinet dampening: Triple layer multi density foam
Cabinet: Bamboo Ply hybrid with separate chambers for bass and mid treble sections. Marmoleum covered 13 Ply Baltic Birch.