Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Volent says that their goal for the Paragon VL-2 Signature Edition ($8500 USD per pair) was to improve on the strengths of the original Paragon VL-2 ($5500/pair) in order to produce a state-of-the-art, stand-mounted, two-way speaker. The Signature Edition looks largely the same as the basic model, whose performance has gained Volent some fame. I’ve reviewed lots of stand-mounted, two-way speakers over the years, and the VL-2 SE is one of the most interesting. It’s one of the biggest, heaviest, most expensive speakers of the type that I’ve had here, and it’s the first Volent product I’ve reviewed.
Paragon is Volent’s top-level speaker series, and the VL-2 models are the smallest Paragons -- and the only stand-mounted two-ways. The rest are floorstanders with three- or four-way configurations.
The VL-2 Signature Edition might be the smallest Paragon, but for a stand-mounted speaker it’s huge: 16.7"H x 10.1"W x 14.5"D and 36.3 pounds. The cabinet is made of MDF and has no parallel walls -- the bottom is flat, the front panel is smaller than the rear, the sides are curved, and the top angles down toward the front. According to Volent, the side panels are just under 1" thick; the bottom, rear, and top panels are 1" thick; and the front baffle is almost 2" thick.
The workmanship is extraordinarily good. The sides are finished in a veneer of bubinga pomele topped with a thick, clear lacquer. It looks gorgeous. The top, bottom, and rear are finished in high-gloss black polished to a near-perfect mirror finish. The front baffle is covered in leather, and the plate on the rear panel to which the internal crossover is affixed is of black-anodized aluminum about 0.25" thick. Pure wool is used inside as damping material. The only ho-hum feature is the rather ordinary grille, which attaches with standard pins. That, though, is a small criticism -- the VL-2 SE’s overall fit’n’finish is to a luxury standard.
On that rear plate are the only visible clues that distinguish the standard Paragon VL-2 from the SE: a pair of WBT binding posts. I’m not sure what kind of posts the standard model has, but they’re not WBTs.
The standard and SE models also differ subtly in their drivers and crossover frequencies. The 7", Italian-made midrange-woofer used in both models has a cone of "syntactic polymer" with an outer layer of nonwoven carbon-fiber coated with sprayed-on titanium. I didn’t know what a syntactic polymer might be; according to Wikipedia.com, "Syntactic foams are composite materials synthesized by filling a metal, polymer or ceramic matrix with hollow particles called microballoons, ‘syntactic’ meaning ‘put together.’" Volent chose carbon fiber and titanium for their various qualities of elasticity and stiffness. This driver is ported to the rear.
Volent says that the 3.8" ribbon tweeter with waveguide -- a patented design created by sister company LCY -- can go up past 50kHz, which is extremely high. The main difference between the standard and SE versions is the thickness of the ribbon -- according to Volent, the SE’s ribbon is 0.5µm thinner, which they say translates into improved transient response and detail.
Volent also says that the SE’s crossover is configured slightly differently from that in the standard VL-2, due to the thinner ribbon, and that higher-quality parts are used. They claim that the Paragon VL-2 SE’s sensitivity is 88dB/2.83V/m, its nominal impedance is 4 ohms, and that its bass response extends down to 30Hz. Most likely, a reasonably powerful (100Wpc or more) solid-state amplifier will be the VL-2 SE’s best partner.
The tweeter is crossed over to the midrange-woofer at 1.9kHz, which caused me some relief as well as some concern. I was relieved because I know the dispersion characteristics of a 7" cone driver, and that if you try to "ride" it too high, its dispersion will narrow -- that is, the driver’s output will "beam" -- making unlikely a good acoustic integration with the unique dispersion characteristics of a ribbon tweeter. Volent’s choice of 1.9kHz seems a good spot for blending the drivers’ outputs, at least in terms of on- and off-axis frequency response.
My concern stemmed from my experiences with other speakers with ribbon tweeters, and knowing that while ribbons can deliver outstanding performance in the higher frequencies, they aren’t well suited for lower frequencies due to the distortion that can arise. Was 1.9kHz too low? Luckily, I had on hand two test sets for the Paragon VL-2 SE: my ears, in my own listening room, with a system I’m extremely familiar with; and the measurement facilities at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), where we can take actual distortion measurements in an anechoic chamber (we’re one of the few publications in the world that can).
I set the Paragon VL-2 SEs atop 24"-high Focus Audio stands, which put the tweeters precisely at the height of my ears when I’m seated. The only problem with the Focus stands is that their footprint is fairly small and the VL-2 SEs are big and weighty -- the combination was a bit top-heavy. Nothing ever fell over, but if you’re shopping for stands for the VL-2s, I suggest something with a wide, sturdy base.
I used the VL-2 SEs with a wide assortment of equipment (see "Associated Equipment," below), but got the most remarkable results with the amazing JE Audio VL10.1 all-tube preamplifier (which I reviewed last May) driving Ayre Acoustics’ new VX-R stereo amplifier (review forthcoming). At the front of the chain was a Sony laptop running J. River Media Center 15, feeding Ayre’s QB-9 USB DAC via an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. The analog interconnects were all balanced Nordost Valhalla, and the speaker cables were Nirvana S-L. If the Ayre VX-R is too rich for your blood (it costs about 15 grand), Bryston’s 4B SST2, for about a third the price, also worked very well.
The first thing I noticed was that the blend of the outputs of the Paragon VL-2 SE’s ribbon tweeter and midrange-woofer was seamless -- at no point did the lows not sound like the highs, as I’ve heard from some inferior hybrid designs. Marrying dissimilar transducer technologies is no easy feat, but the interaction of the VL-2 SE’s drivers was splendid, the sounds from each clearly cut from the same sonic cloth.
The upper bass through the upper midrange was also well balanced and relatively neutral overall, which made male and female voices sound wholly natural and very realistic. I say relatively because the Paragon VL-2 SE was not absolutely neutral through this region. My reference Revel Ultima Salon2s ($21,998/pair), which I’ve used for some time, and Vivid Audio’s Giya G2s ($50,000/pair), which I’ve just received for review, are accurate -- ruthlessly so -- throughout this range. The VL-2 SE was not linear to that extreme, but it sounded well-balanced enough across this part of the audioband.
Another thing was the VL-2 SE’s bass, which went extremely low for a stand-mounted speaker, even one this big. The VL-2’s overall sound was big, ballsy, and more in line with that of a moderate-sized, three-way floorstander. This surprised and impressed me. Mention "stand-mounted two-way" and many people think "limited bass, lightweight sound, stunted and small." My best guesstimate for these speakers’ in-room bass response with authority was just under 40Hz -- far more than most would expect from a stand-mounted two-way. Such a deep-bass response gave the music real weight, and made for a deeply satisfying sound.
For example, the drums near the beginning of "Grim Travellers," from Bruce Cockburn’s Humans: Deluxe Edition (16/44.1 FLAC, True North), sounded deep, tight, and very well controlled. In "Rumours of Glory," the drums are even weightier and fuller, and the VL-2 SE reproduced them with the heft and impact of a speaker twice or more its size. "Mining for Gold" and "Misguided Angel," the ultra-bass-heavy tracks that open the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA), had the kind of reach I usually hear only from a well-designed three-way floorstander. I can’t imagine anyone buying a pair of VL-2 SEs and wanting a subwoofer, particularly in a room of small to medium size -- unless, of course, that someone is a bass freak who absolutely must have extension to 20Hz. For the rest of us, the Paragon VL-2 Signature Edition should sound full and rich enough.
The VL-2 SE’s extreme highs were just as prominent as its lows. This ended up being mostly a good thing -- it gave this speaker its lively, spirited sound -- but not when a recording had been recorded too "hot." For example, there was no doubt that the upper frequencies of Cockburn’s guitar and Hugh Marsh’s violin in "Grim Travellers" were far more prominent through the Volents than through a typical dome tweeter with ruler-flat frequency response, such as the tweeters in my Revel Ultima Salon2s. Cymbals also sounded slightly louder. But despite the Volents’ tilted-up top end, Humans: Deluxe Edition still sounded very good through them, and sometimes even great, largely because this album’s recording and mastering are quite good, and the speaker’s prominent higher frequencies were more exciting than off-putting. Ditto for something like pianist Ola Gjeilo’s Stone Rose (16/44.1 FLAC, 2L), which sounds very good on disc, even better in a rip played by my PC, and sounded damn near extraordinary through the Volents. The ribbon tweeter’s immediate, pristine renderings of the piano’s upper frequencies sounded not only exciting but very real. Again, this is a very good recording.
But if a recording was inherently bright or edgy in the highs, as are any number of current and past pop recordings, the Paragon VL-2 SE teetered toward being too bright. The Volent was never unlistenably bright, but it certainly wasn’t as pleasant to listen to anymore. This is the catch-22 of a tilted-up tweeter: It can make a speaker sparkle with life, but it can also sound bright, particularly if the recording itself is bright. I found I could tame the Volent’s top end a bit by playing with speaker positions and toe-in angle (a ribbon’s high-frequency response usually drops off pretty dramatically at or around 30° off axis), or you can try different amplifier and/or cable combos. What’s important to take from this review is the fact that this speaker’s very highest frequencies are pronounced, at least on axis and in the listening window around the front of the speaker, and, for better or for worse, depending on the recording, that’s likely what you’ll hear.
The overall balance of the VL-2 Signature Edition was distinct: a fairly neutral, natural-sounding midrange; very deep, rich, tight bass; and clear but prominent highs. The VL-2 SE sounded ballsy and lively in my room, more like a floorstanding three-way than a stand-mounted two-way, and that alone had great appeal -- it’s not often that you get a stand-mounted speaker that sounds so big.
Those qualities aside, I believe that this speaker’s pièce de résistance is not so much its tonal balance as its transparency and resolution -- the way it let me see into recordings was extraordinary. I won’t say I’ve never had such a crystal-clear view on the music, but I will say that what the VL-2 SE delivered in this regard was rare, approaching what I heard when I used the awesome Devialet D-Premier integrated amp to drive the Revel Ultima Salon2s. It was also akin to what people rave about with electrostatic designs: a quick-on-its-feet sound with no veiling whatsoever. Once you hear such transparency, such pristine rendering of the smallest details, it’s difficult to go back to speakers that are less resolving and immediate.
What’s more, I didn’t need pristinely engineered audiophile recordings to hear these traits. Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl (16/44.1 FLAC, Righteous Babe) is a decently recorded album from 1995 with an overall natural sound and a surprisingly well-laid-out soundstage. Through the VL-2 SEs, DiFranco’s voice in "Tiptoe," a spoken-word track, sounded so clear, and hovered so starkly in space, that I felt I could touch her. Her placement on the stage at the beginning was easy to discern: dead center, behind the plane described by the speakers’ baffles. After DiFranco speaks for a time, she walks forward, toward the microphone, and speaks some more. Through the VL-2 SEs, her footsteps were startlingly clear, the forward movement of her every stride toward the front of the stage unmistakably precise. Overall, the sound was so immediate and unobstructed that I felt as if I were there.
One might argue that some of the detail I was hearing was attributable to the Volents’ tilted-up top end, and that’s partly true. But the VL-2 SE didn’t sound detailed only in the highest highs -- it sounded detailed and thoroughly transparent all the way down to its lowest lows. "32 Flavors," also from Not a Pretty Girl, revealed a remarkably well-fleshed-out soundstage with extremely good depth and ultraprecise image specificity. Once again, the Volents presented a crystal-clear view of the recording, making the tiniest details a cinch to hear. In many ways, they made "normal" speakers sound veiled in comparison.
But while the Paragon VL-2 SE had serious strengths, there were some weaknesses. Most noticeable was a hard, edgy quality through the midrange and upper frequencies that reared its head when I played the music very loud. When I did, violins went from sounding clean and well-textured to steely and strident, voices went from rich and robust to coarse and hard, and electric guitars went from visceral and exciting to edgy and shrill. When that happened, my instinctive reaction was Turn it down! I believe that this behavior was due to one thing: distortion from the ribbon tweeter around the crossover region when the speaker was driven too hard.
In the VL-2 SE’s defense, that distortion became a problem only at what I consider to be above-normal listening levels: really loud. Nor do I believe that flaw to be specific to the VL-2 SE’s design. Every ribbon-tweetered two-way I’ve heard with a crossover frequency at or near 2kHz has suffered the same fate, so it’s more or less what comes with the territory of the technology. Monitor Audio’s two-way, ribbon-tweetered Platinum PL100, which I reviewed a few years ago, sounded like this. Ribbons have some exceptional qualities -- the extreme extension and lightning-quick response that seem to translate into the exceptional detail and transparency that I heard from the Volent -- but, as with almost everything in speaker design, there’s a trade-off. For two-way, ribbon-tweetered hybrid speakers, the biggest trade-off seems to be midrange distortion.
The Volent Paragon VL-2 Signature Edition is a seriously big two-way speaker, and quite an expensive one. It’s also a seriously good speaker with exceptional build quality, terrific looks, and a wonderfully distinctive sound: deep, rich bass that will have you believing you’re listening to a much larger speaker; a well-balanced midrange that’s wholly natural and seamless, despite the very different technologies of its two drivers; and clear, prominent, lively highs that can sound spectacular with well-recorded music, but can veer toward brightness with "hot" recordings. In my opinion, where the VL-2 SE stands tallest is in the areas of transparency and detail. In my room, the speakers opened a clear view onto recordings that rivaled the very best there is. Where the VL-2 SE fell down was where many two-way speakers with ribbon tweeters do: distortion in the midrange and highs when pushed beyond what most will consider normal listening levels.
When I say that a product is "interesting," that usually means that I also like it a lot -- things I don’t like are rarely of any interest beyond a cursory glance. I really liked listening to the Volent VL-2 Signature Edition. Although I can’t say it will be the perfect speaker for everyone, I can say that its sonic strengths and topnotch build quality are exceptional enough that it will be the ideal two-way speaker for some. If what I’ve said about its sound interests you, be sure to check it out.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Revel Ultima Salon2, Vivid Audio Giya G2
- Amplifier -- Ayre Acoustics VX-R
- Preamplifiers -- Simaudio Moon 350P, JE Audio VL10.1, Lamm Industries LL2.1 Deluxe, Eximus DP-1
- Digital sources -- Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC, Hegel HD10 DAC, Sony Vaio laptop
- Digital converters (USB to S/PDIF) -- Blue Circle Audio USB Tunnel, Stello U3
- Digital interconnects -- AudioQuest Diamond USB, i2Digital X-60 coaxial
- Analog interconnects -- Nordost Valhalla, Nirvana S-L
- Speaker cables -- Nirvana S-L
Volent Paragon VL-2 Signature Edition Loudspeakers
Price: $8500 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Volent Corporation Limited
FT, K&L, 17/F, Blk 1, Golden Dragon Industrial Centre
152-160 Tai Lin Pai Rd, Kwai Chung
Phone: (852) 3427-2308
360 Southbury Road
Roxbury, CT 06783
Phone: (860) 355-4484