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VanL Speakerworks Silhouette speaker Review

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When I was a young boy, my father, who traveled the world extensively, brought back from Japan a Sony short wave radio the size of a paperback novel. That country made some cool audio electronics back then. John Van Leishout, the owner of VanL Speakerworks, must have thought so, too.

The year was 1968 when John was in the army and his ship blew a main bearing on a propeller. He had some time to look around in Japan and noticed fine audio gear one-third the price of console furniture systems back home. He bought separates and sent them home; his friends were amazed at the quality in comparison with console stereos.

Once home he went to work at an art studio. An elevator operator told him about some parts in the basement, “about a lot of raw drivers that were left in the basement by an old jukebox company, for thirty bucks he gave me about a hundred woofers and mids, nothing was high quality but I went to Radio Shack and bought books on speaker design and x-overs.”

John was strolling through a mall one day and heard KS Audio speakers. He liked what he heard, so inquired about employment at KS Audio’s factory. He quit his job at the art studio and went to work for the speaker manufacturer. Years later he bought the business and began to design his own speakers. His business morphed into a storefront audio salon selling his own speakers as well as other audiophile products, mostly vacuum tube electronics.

The company was blossoming until in 1979, a fire destroyed the factory. The insurance company only compensated at 20%, so the business was eviscerated, reduced to a factory with a store inside. It was called Chicago Speakerworks. He recalls painfully, “We took home no income for months in order to start replacing the equipment needed to carry on.” Carry on he did, eventually renaming the company VanL Speakerworks, still operating in Chicago and producing smaller, form-factor audiophile speakers.

We see in this retelling of John’s life both the opportunities afforded him, the will to explore and take those opportunities, and the dogged determination to build something wonderful. John has lived the one-time American dream (pathetically, surveys indicate the American dream now is to win the Powerball jackpot), tuning the twists and turns of life into success.

Even if John had not eventually produced a surprisingly erudite audiophile speaker, he would be considered a success. He chased his dreams, made smart decisions, overcame adversity, in business supported his family and others, and has seen his work bring pleasure to audiophiles. Though not widely known, John has produced a notable audiophile speaker, which is why you are reading this. The unvarnished truth is that if John’s speaker was average I would have politely passed it by, and we would not have learned his story. Since I find the speaker enchanting and review-worthy, we are blessed with not only an introduction to it but also to his inspiring account of small business success.


Broken amps and new speakers

My introduction to VanL Speakerworks was precipitated by my inquiry for repair of an amplifier. I had an older Belles Theatrix amp that was in need of repair and called to get an estimate on the fix. Speaking with Mark Adler, VanL’s tech, the conversation developed into a plan to update and enhance the Theatrix’s capabilities. Before the conversation was over, Mark introduced me to the owner of the company, John Van Leishout. About twenty minutes later, as John and I discussed the Silhouette speaker while I looked at it online, I agreed to a review. The wooden cone of the proprietary main driver hooked me. Better known is the balsa cone of the Vandersteen upper line models, but this was a shaped sliver of a harder wood. What audiophile can resist assessment of a wooden driver that is not meant for golf?

It had been quite a while since I handled a smaller, tower speaker. My favor tends toward the big floor standing variety as they have a lofty soundstage and are fuller sounding, with a broader frequency reproduction range. I also liked the idea of working with a soft dome tweeter again. The soft dome may be my sentimental favorite tweeter over the years. Until the advent of some bracingly tight ribbons, the soft dome was in my mind the most “true” tweeter. The last speaker I worked with that had a soft dome was the Deadalus Ulysses – two tweeters per side, in fact.


Long time, small business success

John has had regional success but has not yet broken into the big time. Pity, he has a glamorous sounding transducer in the Silhouette. His local success reminds me of some other speaker makers, such as Stewart Chapman Jones of Chapman Speakers and Ryan Scott of Vapor Audio. There are some very talented designers who for a variety of reasons are making crazy good sounding speakers but haven’t found the right combination to become major players in the industry.

Whether consolidation in the industry is good or bad can be debated. Lots of mom-and-pop shops support clans and I suspect that if the smaller manufacturers were chased out, quality would suffer for lack of competition. Artisanal speakers can still be found, but it’s getting harder for these manufacturers when the hype of the latest Andrew Jones ELAC budget speaker draws raves. These do not perform on the same level as the artisanal products, if they did, ELAC would not need to pursue a higher end line, but it is difficult to roll back widespread public perception.

Frankly, I wasn’t overly impressed with Jones’ first flight of low-end models for ELAC. I wasn’t moved to consider them for a review and feel they have been fawned over too much. Meanwhile a stunning brand such as the Ryan Speakers is overlooked by too many. I feel the same about the VanL Speakerworks Silhouette. This is a speaker that for whatever reasons has been largely overlooked, and it deserves more attention. Likely, that is because it costs about $4K, not $1.5K. It’s easier to delude one’s self into reaching for the low hanging fruit than to work harder and get the real peachy speakers. To be clear, that is not a judgment of the audiophile with budgetary restraints but of the chintzy audiophile.


Allusions to the PureAudioProject Voxativ

I spent considerable time with the Voxativ version of the PureAudioProject Trio15 over the past year and became accustomed to the tight, coherent sound of the Voxativ AC-1.6 driver. Doubtless one reason why my favor rests upon the Silhouette is due to its primary driver reminding me of the Voxativ. In an odd twist the open baffle PAP Voxativ is less incisive than the wooden coned Silhouette with cabinet. For clarification, as there are several models of the PureAudioProject Trio15 speaker, the Trio15 Horn 1 is a different, altogether superior creature than both the PAP Voxativ or the Silhouette in several parameters of performance. Consider my review of this model to gain insight. Those results are due to it being a significantly different technology, in a different price category, etc.

For the driver in the Silhouette to be compared favorably to the AC-1.6 is a big honor. Voxativ makes world-class full range drivers, and the maker of the Silhouette’s 6.5-inch wooden coned driver is Misco of Minneapolis. The driver is a dual voice-coil mid-woofer. It seems sturdy; John said none have failed due to abuse. That cannot be said of more costly ceramic cones.


Technical discussion

A light discussion of the Silhouette’s placement, build and aesthetics is in order. The speakers were placed well into the room in nearly the identical location used for the Kingsound King Tower omnidirectional speakers. A full, eight feet separated the speakers from the head wall, and they sat forty inches from the sides. I thought this would weaken the bass performance, but some surprises were in store. The speakers were toed in at first directly to the respective ears, but I widened them to a position between that location and being perpendicular to the head wall, as it conferred superior expansion of the soundstage without unacceptable disintegration of the phantom image. I have always been a “tweeter in” guy, and prefer offset tweeters to the inside of the mid-bass drivers as opposed to the outside of them. The review progressed on that basis.

In terms of build quality the first impression I received from assessment of the Silhouette was the sense that it was “real.” So much of what is offered today in popular audiophile mass-produced speaker cabinets are glossy finishes or thin veneers covering up a lack of even average construction quality. One can tell the woodwork on the Silhouette is not cheap and the cabinet not thin. The front baffle is solid wood, the review pair Cherry. Alternatively one can select at the base MSRP Maple or satin black over MDF. John is open to special designs: “Almost any other wood can be used as long as there is a veneer available“ Pricing is by consultation. Rapping on it with the knuckles elicits a similar dead tap as with a $100K Tidal speaker.

There is a holistically natural sense to the speaker due to the wooden cone, as it looks fitting, so much more pleasing to the eye than a dire black cone. This driver has a second voice coil that is used in what VanL Speakerworks calls the “Ambient Recovery” circuit; more about that below. The skinny parallelogram cabinet shape reminds me of the Vandersteen Treo CT and Quatro Wood CT Speakers. There is some worthwhile discussion of the character of the bass between these others and the Silhouette’s 6.5” mid-bass. As the Vandersteens utilize dedicated 8” woofers the Vandy speakers would win the low-end presence comparison handily.

But it is surprising what low end can be elicited from the Silhouette.

The Silhouette started out as a traditional, folded transmission line design but has been altered so that the back wave fires into a large chamber, after which it is loaded into a restrictive chamber almost three feet long. Before it exits at the slot at the bottom rear of the speaker, longhair lambs wool filters out the mid frequencies before they can exit the cabinet. This construction results in a surprising amount of low-end reinforcement.

One Response to VanL Speakerworks Silhouette speaker Review

  1. Kevin Frank says:

    Having owned and enjoyed a pair of Silhouettes for two years, I want to say that your review is spot-on. For what it’s worth, I am thrilled w/ the ambient recovery technology. Human voice, acoustic music, or really any music that doesn’t have bone-rattling bass or excessive volume levels, sounds amazing on these speakers. The Silhouettes are beautiful works of art, and Van L’s customer service is top notch as well.

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