AOM Logo August 1998

The Vandersteen 2Wq Subwoofer

Jon T. Gale

Bass - The Final Frontier
The bottom octave is the most difficult portion of the musical spectrum to recreate. Faced with the daunting challenges of high cost (it is the most expensive octave in audio), huge speakers, large slow woofers and, of course, the problem of excitation of room modes, the audiophile usually throws his hands up in disgust.

Vandersteen 2Wq Subwoofer

Unfortunately, once exposed to even mediocre reproduction of said octave, it is very hard to live without. Recent theories (in which I am in complete agreement) have promoted the value of this octave as being necessary to the reproduction of lifelike sound. Soundstaging is greatly enhanced (especially in orchestral music) as the sense of the hall's volume is more fully conveyed. More importantly, the ability to recreate the movement of the vast amounts of air displaced by a full orchestra is crucial to a listener's suspension of disbelief. What we real-world audiophiles have settled for is, at best, a miniaturization of the real thing.

All for One - or - Divide by Two
Hey buddy, got $30K on ya? Didn't think so! Very few of us can afford a state of the art speaker. In these, the designer has free reign to cover the full frequency spectrum without size and cost constraints. In calculating for a more modest transducer, the first casualty will be the lowest octave. So what's a poor boy to do?

To gain the bottom octave in our listening rooms, most of us will require the addition of a quality subwoofer. Unfortunately, adding a subwoofer into a system is wrought with it's own difficulties. Blending disparate transducers and their crossover topologies is extremely problematic. Ad campaigns be damned, one will not be able to simply drop a sub in a corner and live happily ever after.

One sizable advantage to using a separate subwoofer is the added flexibility of placement. Usually the best location for proper imaging and midrange articulation will never be the best for bass coupling in-room. The flexibility that a separate bass enclosure affords can be a real boon when tuning the system to a room. Coupling a relatively full-range main speaker with a thoughtfully designed sub and crossover, the real world audiophile can bite off a large chunk of state of the art speaker systems.

HT? We Don't Need no Stinking HT!
As the juggernaught of home theater advances into the traditional two-channel arena, the market is becoming flooded with cheap, poorly designed high Q (resonant) subwoofers. "Just hook it up kid, and you're all set!" Yeah, right. Sadly, the requirements for home theater fall far short of the needs of a true high-end playback system.

Most subwoofers sold for the home theatre market will be adequate for the odd dinosaur footfall or fiery explosion. When evaluated in a musical context, however, they will quickly expose themselves as the slow, plodding under damped devices they are. What the audiophile needs is a subwoofer built for musical refinement, not bombast. Which brings us to the subject of this review, the Vandersteen 2Wq subwoofer.

It's About Time
It is about time. And phase for that matter. Richard Vandersteen believes (and count me amongst the converted), that for proper system integration, both time and phase should receive equal billing. As the 2Wq uses three eight-inch drivers rather than a single large woofer, the cone area is equivalent to a fourteen inch driver, but with superior transient ability. To quote the manual, "Each of the drivers uses a heavy-duty 1½", four-layer voice coil engineered to withstand high temperatures. Each voice coil is within a massive 40 ounce, high gauss magnet structure for increased control and efficiency. Critically damped, long fiber cones with environmentally stable butyl rubber surrounds are used for excellent rigidity and linearity. The frequency and phase responses are more stable and predictable throughout and beyond the operating range of the drivers. This increases flexibility in crossover design since a steep-slope, high-order crossover is not necessary when the drivers perform well several octaves past the crossover frequency." Crossing over to the main speakers at 80Hz with such a shallow slope (6dB per octave) necessitates good transient ability, as the subwoofer will play well into the midrange. That the 2Wq added just a touch of hooded coloration to the lower midrange attests to the transient ability of its drivers. The 2Wq's drivers are downward firing in a front slot-loaded, second-order configuration, a design known for superb bass detail and dynamics. The system Q is .5, which optimizes the balance between transient response and bass extension. It is this system Q that adds the second of a one-two punch to the superior delineation of the 2Wq. The absence of cabinet transient overhang aids further in the lack of midrange coloration.

The 2Wq's drivers are connected to a built-in 300 Watt amplifier incorporating feed-forward correction. This powerful amplifier provides the benefits of bi-amplification, while its innovative design maintains the sonic characteristics of the main amplifier through the range covered by the Model 2Wq. These benefits include the ability to run the main speakers sans bass. Articulation and dynamics improve as the main amplifier and speakers are taxed to a much lesser degree.

The crossover of the Model 2Wq is divided into separate low-pass and high-pass sections. The WX-2 high-pass crossover is inserted between the preamplifier and power amplifier, while the low-pass crossover is integrated with the 2Wq's amplifier. Both sections of the crossover are transient perfect, 6dB per octave designs. It is this crossover topology which enabled a substantial simplification of my system hook-up, replacing a Bryston 10B electronic crossover and two interconnects, along with the requisite amplification for the passive subs used previously.

The cabinet of the Model 2Wq is constructed of Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), a wood product more dense and acoustically inert than particleboard. FFT analysis and listening tests refined both the shape of the enclosure and the placement of the internal braces. The subwoofer's entire structure is designed to prevent cabinet resonance from intruding upon the music. As with most of the Vandersteen line, cosmetics are not at all lavish, helping the company maintain its commitment to value for dollar. Consisting of four rounded fabric-wrapped dowels with nicely finished end-caps, the 2Wq visually recedes into the background. For a product that commands a rather large amount of square footage, this is a high complement.

The Model 2Wq should be compatible with a wide range of main speakers. For proper blending and frequency linearity, it is suggested the main speakers should be reasonably frequency and phase correct down to 50Hz. The output level of the 2Wq can be adjusted to match speakers with an efficiency rating of between 82dB and 94dB.

Many powered subwoofers use negative feedback or servo control error correction, which samples the amplifier's output, or the movement of the driver, and compares it to the original input. When a deviation is detected, a correction signal is generated to counter it. Vandersteen believes that such a system is flawed since an error must occur before the correction process can begin. The negative feedback and non-linearities of the correction signal create their own audible distortions which compromise the musicality of the subwoofer. The 2Wq uses a Feed-Forward Error Correction, (FFEC), technique, which Vandersteen says eliminates the errors before they begin. Extensive testing was performed on the 2Wq to determine the range of errors that would occur during musical reproduction. The inverse of these errors was then designed into the 2Wq's built-in amplifier in order to eliminate the errors before they occurred. Errors resulting from coupling, loading, driver phase and frequency non-linearities, as well as thermodynamic box loss, are said to be eliminated by FFEC.

Let's plug this bad boy in!
The 2Wq uses a connection method which other manufacturers have begun to emulate. Using the supplied set of speaker cables, the 2Wq is connected in parallel with the main speakers. This does not supply power to the drivers, however, but to the internal 300 Watt amplifier. The internal amplifier is designed with a sufficiently high input impedance that it merely samples the signal of the full range amplifier, while having no effect on its load.

Because the 2Wq receives the input from the full-range amplifier in parallel with the main speakers, the low-frequency sonic signature of the main amp will be retained. This should, in theory, dramatically improve the seamless integration of the sub and main speaker.

The high-pass portion of the crossover consists of nothing more than a high-quality blocking capacitor between RCA M/F jacks (Balanced jacks are also available). This capacitor is simply inserted at the business end of the main amplifier and connected to it with an interconnect. The 2Wq is initially shipped with a small crossover box containing a multi-levered DIP switch. This is used to fine-tune the crossover to your main amplifier and speakers. Using the known output impedance of the main amplifier, Vandersteen's well-written calibration directions may be followed. Evaluating the many possible settings takes some time - two 4-6 hour listening sessions, in my case. Once the settings are established, the user orders hard-wired caps of appropriate values. As this product was purchased through the normal consumer channels, I was not blessed with reviewer amenities. After ordering the proper blocking caps, I waited. Then, I waited some more. Four weeks after placing the order, I called and was lucky enough to speak to Mr. Vandersteen himself. He explained that he alone makes the caps and that none were in stock, stating that I should receive them in two to three weeks. Two weeks later I called and was told that Mr. Vandersteen was out of the country on vacation! I wish to publicly thank the receptionist (whose name I neglected to obtain), who handled this problem with a high-degree of grace and class. The caps arrived a week later. In my opinion, not having the ability to fully utilize a product seven weeks after its delivery is unacceptable.

The first serious listening (post break-in and initial calibration), was very promising indeed. Breaking out the low-frequency torture tests proved extremely illuminating. Starting with Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition (Dorian-DOR-90117), I was surprised at the sustained power this relatively modest-sized cube generated. While capable of shaking the room (and furnishings!), I initially suspected a slight lack of power in the upper bass. As I acclimated to the 2Wq, I began to realize that this was actually the result of a dramatic increase in clarity through the midrange and treble. The reason for this increased clarity became obvious upon listening to material with fast bass transients. A loping bass line opens Real Blues from The Ray Brown Trio-Live at the LOA (listen also for the phone way off in the background, and the audience reaction!). The initial pluck of the string was clearly delineated from the sustained resonance. The room seemed energized by the small bursts of transient energy which loaded it, with little or no signs of overhang. I believe this is where the three ten-inch drivers and critical system Q come into play. With incredible transient ability and extremely low cabinet resonance, the drivers ramp up and the cabinet lets go of the signal without the energy storage, and subsequent release, which results in smearing of musical information in the vital midrange. This lack of overhang is what first led me to suspect the 2Wq was lacking in power, and why I believe Vandersteen added the "Q" control. The user can alter the 2Wq's "plumpness" via this control, resulting in a presentation with more bass boom (good for home theater, perhaps, but not for faithful musical reproduction). In the showroom, this control can be turned up in order to make the 2Wq more appealing to the boom crowd - Vandersteen will probably sell more 2Wqs as a result. I, however, ended up with the sensitivity control just a hair above the Alon's rated efficiency and the Q control one stop above its minimum setting (a note on this control's calibrated markings: Not marked with the usual linear 1-10 scale, it is instead marked in decibels relating to the efficiency of the main speakers. As this control seemed spot-on in its calibration, one can quickly obtain the optimum level).

Breaking out the newly remastered Stevie Ray Vaughan The Sky is Crying (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 723) I was simply stunned by the clarity and articulation of the bass. Even the lower registers of Vaughan's guitar seemed more powerful and better defined. The 2Wq, being crossed over using a shallow slope, is a big contributor to this sense of power. That it can play this high up in frequency and not degrade the midrange is a wonderful testament to Vandersteen's low Q approach.

It is because of the 2Wq's shallow crossover that I disagree with the manufacturer's placement suggestions. The manual suggests that the 2Wq be placed in a corner. While corner loading will, theoretically, result in the most powerful and even loading of the room, I strongly suggest otherwise. Because of the shallow crossover, the Model 2Wq runs up rather high into the midrange. One can clearly hear image shift if the 2Wq is not placed in a central location. It is possible that I have been spoiled by the low crossover/steep slope of my previous sub system, but I found the 2Wq's image shift to be plainly audible when placed off center. This problem could be remedied with the addition of a second 2Wq, with corner or near main speaker placement. As a firm believer in stereo subwoofing, this is something I would be anxious to try. (Richard, are you listening?!).

The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, the Vandersteen 2Wq subwoofer is a product that might fail to impress in the showroom when placed alongside lesser thumping boxes. The music lover, however, should take the Model 2Wq home for a thorough audition. Astonishingly fast and tight, the 2Wq is a truly musical subwoofer. Occasionally adding a slight chestiness to the upper bass (that being highly signal dependant), the 2Wq will, as Vandersteen's ad copy says, "Rock the foundation". In my case, the Model 2Wq entered a room fully treated with ASC Tube Traps, and replaced a stereo pair of subwoofers. That it managed to elevate the overall performance of its host system is a testament to Richard Vandersteen' design acuity.

I often find myself staring in disbelief at this demure box, wondering how Vandersteen could bring so much performance to market at this price point. Providing outstanding performance and tweak-free set-up in a very sanely sized package, the Model 2Wq is most assuredly a best buy.

2Wq Subwoofer
Manufactured by Vandersteen Audio
116 West Fourth Street, Hanford, CA 93239
phone: (209) 582-0324
Price: US$1250
Source of review sample: Reviewer purchase

Technical Highlights:
Crossover: 6dB per octave at 80Hz.
Amplifier: 300 Watt with no current limiting. Adjustable sensitivity to match main speakers with 82dB to 94dB efficiency. Input impedance more than 100,000 Ohms. Uses 10 Watts at idle.
System: Second order, slot loaded. Q= .5. Pulse overshoot less than ½ cycle. -3 dB at 24Hz and 80Hz. 18.5" high x 18" wide x 17" deep. 90 pounds gross, 80 pounds net.

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