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Speakers

Here’s a pint-size speaker with a big sound

The little Vanatoo Transparent Zero speaker has a big heart, says the Audiophiliac.

The Vanatoo Transparent Zero is a terrific little speaker, and when you unbox a pair you can't help but notice that a lot of thought went into the design. They're unusually versatile -- you can use them with a vertical orientation with tweeters on top, which is advised when you place two Transparent Zero speakers on a desktop. That way, the speakers' sharply-angled cabinets will direct the sound up toward the listener. Alternatively, with the tweeters below the woofer the sound fires straight ahead, which is what you need when the Transparent Zeros are on speaker stands in a listening room.

Vanatoo Transparent Zero speakers.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

One of the two Transparent Zeros hosts an analog 3.5mm stereo input, an optical digital input, a USB port and an RCA subwoofer output. That speaker connects to the other Transparent Zero speaker with a cable. Wireless fans will appreciate aptX Bluetooth, so the Transparent Zero is equipped to serve on a desktop, stereo music system or a stereo home theater. The speakers are beautifully built, and they're sold with a three-year warranty.

The Transparent Zero is a bi-amplified speaker system with built-in twin 48 watt Class D digital amplifiers. One amp drives the 1-inch soft dome tweeter, the second drives the proprietary 4-inch aluminum woofer, and there's also a 4-inch passive radiator that augments the little speaker's bass output. An onboard digital converter supports up to 24 bit/96 kHz PCM digital audio. The Transparent Zero measures just 7.5x4.75x9.75 inches -- that's awfully small for something that sounds as good as this. The small remote control lets you adjust bass and treble on the fly.

The Transparent Zero also includes a sleep mode, the two speakers can play in mono. There are DSP settings, etc., but despite my best attempts I never figured out how to use any of those features. The poorly written owner's manual was of little help, and I'm guessing most Transparent Zero owners will just use them as I did, without those extra features. If you need them you might eventually figure them out.

Setting up the 'Zeros was easy enough. I had them on my desktop, plugged in with a USB cable to my Mac mini computer, and started playing tunes. I also listened with them on speaker stands in my small bedroom with the optical digital input connected to my cable box and the speakers sounded even better.  

Listening

The Transparent Zeros are sweet, very refined and the midrange is terrific, so voices, guitars, horns and strings sound just right on my desktop streaming lossless tunes from Tidal. For such a small speaker the bass is generous and definition is more than decent. I did note the bass was strong enough to make the shelf above my computer rattle and buzz. Placing the speakers on small stands or platforms will eliminate that problem. If you crave more bass, feel free to add a subwoofer.

The 'Zero on the left is angled up for desktop use, the 'Zero on the right fires straight ahead for placement on stands.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Rocking out with Alt-J's "An Awesome Wave," the Transparent Zeros belied their wee size and played surprisingly loudly, but maximum volume may not satisfy headbangers -- they are tiny speakers after all. I will say these speakers play louder and make more and deeper bass than the Audioengine A2+ speakers. The Transparent Zeros' treble isn't clear or particularly clean, but it still manages to be mostly inoffensive.

The Transparent Zeros belted out Kraftwerk's newly remixed "3-D The Catalogue" with gusto, and the pulsing beats and swirling synths inhabited the space on my desktop. The speakers were spaced just 30 inches apart, but the soundstage spread wider and floated free of the speaker locations.

On acoustic fare like Eriks Esenvalds' just released "The Doors of Heaven" with the Portland State University Chamber Choir, the Transparent Zeros sounded absolutely heavenly. Voices and strings were natural, and the speakers really shined with Ryoichi Fijimori and Kyoko Takemoto's "Chopin: Works for Violincello and Piano." Audiophile bliss indeed!

The Vanatoo Transparent Zero ($359 per pair) comes highly recommended for folks seeking quality sound from a very small pair of speakers. If you can accommodate something a little larger, check out the original and still available Vanatoo Transparent One speakers ($499 per pair), which I reviewed back in 2013.