Powerful Voices and the Vanatoo Transparent Zero

March in the United States is Women’s History Month. Complementing International Women’s Day on March 8, the month is meant to honor and recognize the many significant accomplishments of women today and throughout history. The celebration dates back to 1981, when Congress authorized the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” Then, in 1987, upon a successful petition by the National Women’s History Project, Congress agreed that a week was not nearly enough, that, instead, women would be honored throughout the entire month of March. Between 1988 and 1994, then, Congress passed additional resolutions to maintain the status. Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have issued proclamations announcing March as Women’s History Month. And, somewhat surprisingly given his own words and actions, even the current president has followed suit. You can read his proclamation here. (If you’re into it, you can compare and contrast with President Obama’s proclamation.)

On one hand, I love special occasions—give me a reason to celebrate and I will most likely jump all over it. (New Music Friday? You know it. Record Store Day? Yes, please. National Donut Day? I’ll take two.) On the other hand, I think it’s a shame that we need a reminder, a proclamation, for this particular special occasion. Great women, like all great people, should be loved and celebrated every day. This should be obvious, but, of course, it is not. There are people who don’t understand the reasoning at all—a sad fact that only underscores the need. As long as we continue to see others as inferior or secondary, then we must find ways to improve.

To the extent they’ve been hushed throughout history—by the law, by our gaze, by our raised voices, hands, and fists—women are the music of culture, the deep and magnificent silences between our many brazen notes.


But of course I would take this view. I grew up around a number of boys and men who seemed to enjoy neglecting and mistreating women—as long as those women weren’t their mothers, sisters, or daughters, of course, and sometimes even still. Sensing the obvious hypocrisy, to say nothing of the obvious ugliness and stupidity, I chose to distance myself from that behavior, instead surrounding myself with kind, thoughtful, intelligent people—men and women—basically, those who strike me as being more complete humans.

Here’s a secret: I almost never really know what I’m going to write before I sit down and actually start writing. (Maybe that’s obvious, too.) And, in that process, I’ll usually reach a point where I have to stop and wonder if I’ve gone too far in any particular direction. I just reached that point. So, instead of continuing, I took a break to scroll through some open web-browser tabs. I landed on Twitter and a recent Tweet from outstanding writer Celeste Ng. It reads: “Lady behind me told me I dropped my coat. Man behind me said he’d wanted to say something but was afraid—‘You know, sexual harassment.’”

This is the world we live in—a world where grown men still can’t tell the difference between sexual harassment and a dropped coat. Nope, I haven’t gone too far.


But something interesting and important is happening in our society. Apparently, in a direct response to our current administration, the powerful voices and stories of this country’s many disenfranchised, disrespected, and otherwise abused communities are being amplified. This is a great thing, but, again, unfortunate that it should even be necessary. Recent events have shown that we are never stronger or more truly American than during times of tragedy and horror, and, as far as I’m concerned, so long as the current administration retains its power, we stand face to face with an unusually tragic and horrifying reality. Our president is, among other things, an accused sexual predator and a defender of an alleged wife beater.

It is fair to ask, though: What has any of this got to do with hi-fi?

Well, hi-fi, as you might have noticed, has some problems. It lacks a little diversity, for one. It often fails to reach beyond itself. It could stand a bit more sex appeal.

This all came to mind upon unboxing the Vanatoo Transparent Zero powered desktop loudspeakers ($359/pair). As eager as I was to hear them on my desktop and with my music, I was immediately disappointed by one rather unavoidable thing: their looks. In fact, in terms of their overall appearance, all of Vanatoo’s products strike me as: sorta plain, sorta boring, and, heaven help me, sorta utilitarian. I mean, where are the curves? Out of the box, based on looks alone, the Transparent Zeros seemed more at home in a recording studio than in our apartment. They even have handles. I didn’t really want to look at them, much less display them. Was I being petty? Stereotypical? Or was I placing objectification where it belongs—on objects?

And this was all before I read John Darko’s excellent “Global Feedback: Death to WAF”—the strongest, clearest argument I’ve read in opposition to our industry’s unfortunate, antiquated, and downright sexist measuring stick, “Wife Acceptance Factor.” As its name suggests, WAF aims to describe an audio component’s chances with the ladies in our lives. A high WAF suggests better odds for adoption and toleration. It means we shouldn’t have to hide our purchases inside closets or shred their receipts. It means the loudspeaker or amp or whatever will rest comfortably on a scale somewhere between INVISIBLE and PRETTY. It means our wives won’t mind if we bring it home. It takes for granted that the women in our lives care only about appearances and have no interest in function or performance. Similarly, WAF assumes that we, the manly, rational men, care only about sound.

I’ve long wanted to know: What about my acceptance factor?

John Darko concludes his piece with a poll, asking readers if they think it’s okay to use the term WAF in 2018. I wasn’t sure whether I should be disappointed or encouraged by the results: Of the 526 voters, 44% gave the correct answer (No).

There is a lot of technology packed into the small (7.5” H x 4.75” W x 7.75” D) Vanatoos. Viewed from the side, their enclosures resemble the horn end of a megaphone: wide at the front, tapering toward the back. Inside each enclosure is a 4” aluminum-cone woofer with a 1” underhung voicecoil, a 4” long-throw passive radiator, and a 1” soft-dome tweeter. While the rear panel of the passive speaker carries only a RJ50 input connector for the included speaker cable, the rear panel of the active speaker is crowded with options and possibilities: RJ50 output, Power input, Volume/Treble/Bass selector switch, Pair/Program button, Sub output, and three inputs (USB, optical, and 3.5mm analog).

In addition to all of the necessary cables, the Vanatoos come with a pair of thin foam isolation pads, black cloth speaker grilles, and a 2.5mm Allen key, which I promptly used to remove the speakers’ plastic handles. I felt much happier afterward. Over email, Vanatoo’s Gary Gesellchen explained that he and his business partner, Rick Kernen, worked closely with industrial designer Joseph Ullman, then of Seattle design firm Stratos, “to come up with a design that would work equally well on a desk in the nearfield and in a room in the farfield.” Gesellchen and Kernen believe the desktop user should be rewarded with good sound, even without having to purchase dedicated stands. I like that. “Most rectangular box speakers point at your chest when you put them on a desk,” Gesellchen continued. “The shape of the T0 gets them pointed up toward your ears when on a desk, without stands, which is a step in the right direction.”

My PSB Alpha PS1 desktop speakers ($299.99) accomplish this feat to a lesser degree with their own stands—sleek rubberized bases that screw neatly into the bottom of their cabinets. These stands are included in the purchase price and, although they are deemed “optional,” I consider them absolutely essential. Indeed, in a direct comparison against the Vanatoo Transparent Zeros, I find myself wishing that my PSBs aimed more directly at my ears.

“When you want to use [the T0] in a room,” Gesellchen elaborated, “you have the option of flipping them over, so they point out into the room instead of at the ceiling. And the little plastic bracket that supports them in this configuration makes for a great handle when you want to move them to the patio!”

I get it, and I appreciate it, but I’ll never like the look or feel of those plastic brackets. And notwithstanding our 450-square-foot, patio-less, one-bedroom apartment, I really can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d think to myself, “Damn, I really wish these little speakers had plastic handles.” But enough about that. In a future column, I’ll turn these Vanatoos on their heads for use in our TV system. Let’s see how I feel about the stands then.


Industrial design stands alongside acoustic design, which, in the case of the T0, was defined by achieving the best possible sound in the smallest and most affordable package. “This led us to the passive-radiator enclosure,” said Gesellchen. The company’s work on the larger, more traditionally shaped Transparent One taught them that decent bass from such a small enclosure could not be achieved otherwise. Vanatoo wanted more and deeper bass. Gesellchen designed the woofer to reach his target response. The underhung voicecoil improves the driver’s magnetic behavior, he explained, “keeping it operating in the linear zone, with minimal inductance change, under all but the loudest playback scenarios.” The passive radiator exhibits twice the excursion of the woofer. Meanwhile, the 1” tweeter crosses over at 2kHz, “which is really low for a 4-inch two-way system,” Gesellchen said. The combination of the small drivers, small cabinet, and 8th-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover, accomplished in the 24-bit DSP, was designed for both nearfield and off-axis farfield listening. As Michael Lavorgna explained in his formal review of the T0, treble and bass response, as well as subwoofer crossover, are adjustable.

“The design goals were ambitious,” Gesellchen said. Indeed!


For all the Vanatoos offer, setup was fast easy, thanks in part to the well-written manual and handy Quick Start Guide. Snap the speaker cables in place, plug in the AC adaptor, connect to an audio source, and you’re ready to go. I listened to music through Tidal, Spotify, Bandcamp, and Roon, from two different MacBooks, my iPhone, and my wife’s Pixel.

I installed the speakers without mentioning anything about them to Kathryn, and then I waited. And waited. Had she even noticed them? One day, when I couldn’t wait any longer, I asked her to try pairing her phone to the Vanatoos.

“Oh,” she said, “I was going to ask you about those.”

So, she had noticed!

“Oh, you noticed?!”


“What do you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you have any feelings about their looks?”

“They’re fine.”

“That’s all?”


“I mean, do you think they’re pretty? Handsome? Ugly? Boring?”

“It’s hard to say.”

“Okay. So, that’s all you’ve got for me?”


“Thanks for the material. This has been very helpful.”

Pairing the Vanatoos to a Bluetooth-enabled device is simple: Open the Settings app on the device, go to Bluetooth, select “Vanatoo T0.” In a matter of seconds, Kathryn was streaming something—I forget what it was exactly, some naughty disco music or whatever—from Spotify. That afternoon, and, for whatever reason, only that afternoon, Bluetooth through the Vanatoos was sort of a mess, exhibiting random fluctuations in volume. I was disappointed, mostly because I wanted Kathryn to like the speakers enough that she would actually use them, rather than pump digital noise directly from her phone into our apartment, as she occasionally does.

And there still may be a chance. Since that afternoon, the Vanatoos’ Bluetooth performance has been troublefree—not as bold, clean, or clear as when streaming Tidal or Spotify from my MacBook, but perfectly acceptable. Played over Bluetooth from my iPhone, “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra” from Anna von Hauswolff’s outstanding new album, Dead Magic, wasn’t as terrifying or brash as it should be. That big, powerful bass drum lost its weight and impact, acoustic guitars lost some sparkle and depth, and Anna von Hauswolff’s voice lost some violence and fire, but, overall, it was totally fine. If I was, say, cooking dinner or scooping cat poop, I probably wouldn’t know what I was missing.

Vanatoo uses the highly regarded apt-X audio codec for its Bluetooth technology. There are other ways to approach wireless streaming. For instance, Gesellchen also uses Google Chromecast with an optical connection to his T0s to stream bit-perfect CD-quality files from Tidal. “But Bluetooth,” he explains, “is the only universally supported wireless connection.” Gesellchen acknowledges that apt-X does not technically achieve the “CD-quality” playback for which it strives—“there’s still lossy compression”—but it’s nevertheless serviceable. “So we incorporated the wireless technology that is most widely supported and then added the best-sounding version of it.” Smart. Bluetooth through the Vanatoos isn’t a high-performance solution, nor is it intended to be, but it is one hell of a cool convenience—a fun and easy way to share music with family and friends. Can you think of anything better?


For the most part, though, life at home is just me and the cats, and they don’t have Bluetooth devices yet, so I listened primary from the analog output of my MacBook. In a future column, I’ll also explore USB and optical connections. While I greatly appreciate the fact that the Vanatoos come with generic interconnects, as always, I recommend upgrading. Good cables can make a big difference in the overall sound quality of an audio system—and, of course, that can be a lot of fun. (And here’s where I’ll remind you that I used to write ad copy for AudioQuest, so do with that as you will. A liberal and a cable lover? Yep, I’m definitely going to hell.)

Vanatoo uses a class-D amp from D2Audio—a company that will be familiar to longtime readers of Stereophile and AudioStream.com, and whose technology can be found in innovative products from other popular brands. The front-end of the amp runs in the digital domain. Gesellchen borrowed a phrase you might’ve heard before: “direct digital.” He explained, “Digital audio comes in, goes through the DSP and all of the processing steps, and gets converted to analog right at the driver terminals”—a process that, when using a digital input, minimizes conversions, which is always a good thing. In any case, the amp needs a digital signal. “Therefore, the analog input must get converted to digital before it goes to the amp.” Vanatoo uses a Wolfson ADC. Interestingly, and again intelligently, Vanatoo also sends the digital output of the Bluetooth module directly to the amp, thereby bypassing the Bluetooth module’s inferior DAC.

I spent a little time with the Bass and Treble settings, finding that I preferred the treble flat and the bass halfway between flat and fat. I was surprised and slightly disappointed to hear a subtle loss of high-frequency delicacy, extension, and detail—an overall softening and darkening of the musical edges—when using the included cloth grilles. Over time, I realized that what bothers me most about the T0s’ looks are its shiny aluminum cones, and I was hoping to get over this by covering them up. Ultimately, however, I decided that I’d rather live with the visible aluminum and enjoy those last bits of breath and clarity. (Does this mean that I prefer sound over style? I dunno. It’s complicated.) I was again surprised, but this time happily, to hear a slight improvement in sound—blacker backgrounds and tighter, better-controlled bass—when I placed the speakers on the included foam isolation pads. I wasn’t expecting to hear a difference at all, but the differences were clear: Without the pads, bass could sound robust and dramatic or boomy and exaggerated. With the pads, bass was consistently more enjoyable—taut, defined, and clear.

And was that improved sense of overall clarity and detail partly due to the fact that the pads had actually raised the level of the speakers’ tweeters? Curious, I reached for my old set of AudioQuest Q-Feet—the same samples that I reviewed for Stereophile back in 2011. I placed one Q-Foot under each Vanatoo, so that it rested no more than a half-inch from the speaker’s front baffle, thereby elevating the bottom edge of the speaker approximately 1.5” from the desktop. Now the bass sounded just as tight and controlled, but the noisefloor seemed even lower and the soundstage opened further, with voices more precisely rendered and coming from locations both higher and deeper in the stage. The only thing I didn’t like about using the Q-Feet was that the speakers’ foundation had become unstable, creating a situation in which a particularly clumsy cat might easily send a speaker toppling. It made me nervous, which is no way to enjoy music. So, while I ultimately preferred the sound of the Vanatoos supported by Q-Feet, I went with only the isolation pads. (See? Complicated.)

Does it seem as though I’m crazy for bass? What can I say?

Even with the Vanatoos’ healthy bass output, I liked the sound of music best when the T0s were partnered with the PSB SubSeries 100 compact subwoofer ($249.99). In their default setting, the Vanatoos employ “shelved” rather than “flat” DSP, the former optimized for placement on a desktop or near room boundaries. With a subwoofer connected to the T0s in shelved-DSP mode, the crossover to the subwoofer is set at 125Hz, resulting in the loudest possible output.

The first thing I noticed about the Vanatoos is something that, weeks later, continues to impress me with each listen: These speakers make music in a calm, easy manner that makes listening especially fun and compelling. Music flows naturally and beautifully, with no aspect of the overall presentation spotlit or unduly emphasized. The Vanatoos draw me into the music even as they immerse me in sound—a powerful trick. The second thing I noticed, right on the heels of the first, was the Vanatoos’ exceptional transparency and detail, which initially revealed itself in the opening breath of “Palmyra” from Nadah El Shazly’s remarkable Ahwar. I love every moment of this thrilling album and it’s never sounded better in my home than through the Vanatoos, which expertly and respectfully trace every colorful twist and turn.


We can be a real bunch of self-centered, shortsighted grumps. We overlook the magic in hi-fi as often as we overlook the magic that exists in beautiful people, places, and things everywhere. How is it that I can sit here at my computer and not be absolutely overwhelmed by Stella Donnelly’s dagger of a voice?

In “Boys Will Be Boys,” the young Australian singer-songwriter confronts society’s inexcusable tendency to blame the victims of sexual assault, singing, “Your father told you that you’re innocent / Told you, “Women rape themselves” / Would you blame your little sister / If she cried to you for help?”

And singing, “Like a mower in the morning / I will never let you rest / You broke all the bonds she gave you / Time to pay the fucking rent.”

Through the Vanatoos, Donnelly’s guitar has just the right amount of brass and wood, and her voice—her trembling, searching, multicolored miracle of a voice—cannot be ignored.

And now that I've spent some quality time with them, I realize the Vanatoos aren't as unattractive as I originally thought. As in all the best scenarios, the more I get to understand them, the more beautiful they become.


Weird New Pop, Vol.11

Design: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this month’s Weird New Pop playlist is made of 37 tracks—one for each year the celebration has been held—from some of today’s most powerful voices.

  1. Sophie: “Faceshopping”
  2. Madalean Gauze: “It’s Okay I Have a Boyfriend Now”
  3. SZA: “Anything”
  4. Haley Heynderickx: “Show You a Body”
  5. Elza Soares, Nidia Minaj: “Pra Fuder”
  6. Lea Bertucci: “Accumulatations”
  7. Grouper: “Parking Lot”
  8. H.C. McEntire: “Wild Dogs”
  9. Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid, Silvia Bolognesi: “Cultural Differences”
  10. Kelela: “Turn to Dust”
  11. The Breeders: “All Nerve”
  12. Chloe x Halle: “Warrior”
  13. Kelly Lee Owens: “More Than a Woman”
  14. Lucy Dacus: “Body to Flame”
  15. Eleanor Friedberger: “In Between Stars”
  16. Natalie Prass: “Short Court Style”
  17. Mhysa: “Tonight”
  18. Janelle Monáe: “Make Me Feel”
  19. Yazz Ahmed: “Misophonia”
  20. El Perro Del Mar: “Mirrors”
  21. Anna von Hausswolff: “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra”
  22. Zoë Mc Pherson: “Inoui (and Free)”
  23. Soccer Mommy: “Your Dog”
  24. Abyss X: “Humiliation”
  25. Lost Girls: “Drive”
  26. Pan Daijing: “The Island Within”
  27. U.S. Girls: “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?”
  28. Park Jiha: “Communion”
  29. Stella Donnelly: “Boys Will Be Boys”
  30. Svitlana Nianio: “Episode 5”
  31. Leslie Winer, Jay Glass Dubs: “Woodshedded”
  32. Lucretia Dalt: “Tar”
  33. Bunny Michael, Eartheater: “Lazarus”
  34. Nadah El Shazly: “Palmyra”
  35. Kelsey Lu: “Empathy”
  36. Jlin: “Holy Child”
  37. Sharon Van Etten: “Much More than That”
Weird New Pop: The Mega Mix (Tidal Version)

Weird New Pop is also available in CD-quality sound from Tidal.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

Loved every word of this Stephen!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you very much!

HJC001's picture

cus we's goin to Hell together!!! Though I normally hate socio-political stuff in such articles, the necessity of what you wrote is supreme. Thank you. And, the stuff about the speakers was nice, too.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you! I imagine we'll enjoy that bus ride together. :)

bubblewrap's picture

Surely the point about "WAF" is that it is a self-deprecating joke, made by men who
(a) know their own weakness and obsession for not-very-important stuff
(b) are the opposite of the unpleasant *sub-group* of men who dominate women

Jokingly paying attention to "WAF" is, I would suggest, an indication of a considerate man who actually has a partner and is prepared to work with her despite his desires to fill the living room with junk.

Only an audiophile could think that the desire to spend $1000s on ridiculous junk is something that women secretly want to do but are being shut out by powerful, bullying Alpha males. Wrong on all counts!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Surely the point about "WAF" is that it is a self-deprecating joke, made by men who
(a) know their own weakness and obsession for not-very-important stuff

It's possible that this was once the case, but, judging entirely from what I've seen up close in this hobby for almost 20 years, most audiophiles who discuss "Wife Acceptance Factor" do so very seriously, and completely miss its limitations and abuses. These people do not know their own weaknesses, and, if they do, they're not making fun of them.

In my opinion, I've actually been too soft in my opposition to the phrase. I wrote "Wife Acceptance Factor" takes for granted that the women in our lives care only about appearances and not about performance or function. I wrote it takes for granted that men care only about sound. But I failed to mention that it also takes for granted that we even have women in our lives. It inherently disregards queers, homosexuals, and so many others who might enjoy listening to music through a high-quality audio system.

(b) are the opposite of the unpleasant *sub-group* of men who dominate women

I really don't think so.

Jokingly paying attention to "WAF" is, I would suggest, an indication of a considerate man who actually has a partner and is prepared to work with her despite his desires to fill the living room with junk.

While I acknowledge the very real importance of not taking things too seriously, some things simply aren't funny. As far as I'm concerned, the joke is on those who insist on using language that is inherently flawed, limited, useless, counterproductive.

In our daily lives, we are constantly presented with opportunities to make the world better and happier, or make it uglier and more difficult. We should all make more intelligent, more considerate choices.

Only an audiophile could think that the desire to spend $1000s on ridiculous junk is something that women secretly want to do but are being shut out by powerful, bullying Alpha males.

There's a lot here. I'm not sure that I can properly address this comment, but I'll say that I find it more or less equally disrespectful to audiophiles, audio engineers, audio designers, audio marketers, audio salespeople, and women.

HJC001's picture

it would be "self depricating" if it was exclusively uttered by women. silly people who study these things for a living (sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and my cat [RIP]) would point out that simply using "wife" reveals a fundamental misunderstanding that is not fun but totally mental for the people in question. Think of the word's etymology, its history, its reflection of ownership, etc. Nonetheless, i commend you for recognizing that there could be a problem with "WAF". anyway, what about those speakers? it's fabulous that they can be had for such a fair price.

bubblewrap's picture

The more I think about it, the more offensive I find the conflating of men pursuing a peaceful hobby with actual crime and violence - because that, in your virtue-signalling way, is what you are doing.

This is identity politics in a nutshell, and why society is so deeply fractured. It is probably one of the main reasons why you have the president you do.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Think less about it. Or, change the way you think about it. Unless you enjoy getting worked up for no reason.


gareneau's picture

Stephen, I share your sentiments in terms of the fairer sex. I have a more mundane question/topic: how would you compare the Vanatoos to other desktop speakers? Or is that coming up in a future article? By the way, I saw a pic of these speakers on the Isoacoustic stands - way cool. Anyway, be interested in your thoughts.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for reading and thank you for your question. The Vanatoo Transparent Zeros are the best-sounding, most sophisticated, and most versatile small powered desktop speakers I've used. They sound clearer and more dynamic than the PSB Alpha PS1s, more naturally detailed and transparent than the B&W MM-1s, and simply larger and more powerful than their size suggests. To achieve this sort of impact and scale, I think I'd have to consider the Audioengine A5. There are, of course, other outstanding options, but they're usually much larger and far more expensive. At $359/pair, the T0s are a remarkable value.

ijoel's picture

I have the NAD 8020s which are basically the same speaker but passive not active. I opened them up and added some patches of 2mm silent coat bitumen from the car audio world to the interior walls to add mass and decrease resonance. I also found some heavy marble slab in an interior design shop, that raises the speakers off the desk by 4.5inches. This really improved the sound by getting them more towards ear level, effectively adding mass by tack coupling and reducing comb filtering. I would recommend you do the same as angling speakers upwards can only do so much for reducing comb filtering. I have recently heard about the IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitor speakers they are also highly regarded, with bass deeper than the Vanatoo Transparent Zeros.

Vanatwo's picture

Great review, one that aided in my decision to pick up a set of the T0's. I already had my eye on the PSB 100 you utilized too, so looks like I'm after the same combo! One question (and audio novice caveat)- were you connecting straight RCA-RCA on the sub, or RCA> 2 RCA 'Y' splitter? Any benefits to one over the other? Thanks for the great review!