Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Vera-Fi Audio isn’t well known to most audiophiles, but the company sells an interesting range of products, some of them designed in-house, others sourced from outside vendors. A few of these products border on the bizarre. For example, there’s the Meow ($165, all prices in USD) from Tombo Audio in Thailand. The Meow looks like a cartoonish sculpture of a cat. Put a Meow on top of a component, and it “will omni-directionally reflect the sound in good order,” Vera-Fi says on its website. “After the noise is cleared, the frequency bandwidth is easily separated. The micro-detail and harmonic could be instantly perceived.”


But Vera-Fi has conventional offerings as well—at very attractive prices. These include the Vanguard Scout bookshelf speaker ($299/pair) and Vanguard Caldera 10 subwoofer ($199), the subjects of this review. Vera-Fi is a relatively new entrant into the audio field, led by industry vet Mark Schifter. Schifter doubles as product development manager of Underwood HiFi, an online retailer based in Hawaii. Dr. Viet Nguyen is the chief designer.


Measuring 11.9″H × 6.3″W × 9.9″D, the Scout is diminutive—it’s one of the smallest speakers I’ve ever reviewed. If its bass port weren’t on the back, the Scout would easily work on most bookshelves. One aspect of its design that sets it apart is its “lustrous” (Vera-Fi’s description) rosewood-veneer cabinet. Very few speakers in this price range have such lovely wood finishes.

The Scout is a two-way speaker with a 5.25″ treated-paper-cone woofer, crossed over at 1.7kHz to a 1″ silk-dome tweeter. The rear of the speaker holds a pair of good five-way binding posts. The crossover has an asymmetric slope with positive polarity for both drivers; this optimizes transient response, Vera-Fi says. In an email exchange, Nguyen told me that he spent more than a month optimizing the crossover to achieve his goals.


The Scout has a rated sensitivity of 84.5dB at 2.83V/m, which is low but not out of the ordinary for small-box speakers. It is said to have a -6dB point of 60Hz, which is decent for such a petite reproducer. Rated power handling is 50W and rated impedance is 8 ohms.

A pair of Scouts can use some help on the bottom end, and for that Vera-Fi has introduced the Vanguard Caldera 10 subwoofer, which measures 14.5″H × 12.75″W × 15.25″D. Sporting a crinkled black finish, the vented enclosure houses a 10″ driver with treated paper cone and rubber surround; it’s powered by an onboard class-AB amplifier specified to output 200W into 4 ohms. The only thing I didn’t like about the Caldera’s looks was the overly large branded plaque on the lower front of the unit.

The back panel contains low-level inputs and outputs, as well as speaker-level inputs and outputs for people like me who prefer that operating mode. It has a power switch, of course, but that’s accompanied by a power-mode switch with three settings: Auto (sub turns on when it senses a signal), Stby (keeps the amplifier in standby with the signal feed turned off), and On (power is on all the time). It’s important to note that the Caldera’s power indicator glows red when the sub is on and green when it’s off. Next to the power-mode switch is the phase-adjustment switch. If the sub is placed very close to the main speakers, leave the switch in the 0° position; if the main speakers and sub are widely separated, the 180° setting may result in a smoother blend between the sub and main speakers. There are also controls for output level and crossover frequency. The latter control implements a low-pass filter for the sub between 20Hz and 200Hz, depending on the setting.


Both the Scout and Caldera 10 are sold direct-to-customer and carry a three-year limited parts and labor warranty.


The Scouts and the Caldera 10 are well packed with foam frames to hold them in place during shipment. The boxes offer enough room inside that it’s very unlikely the speakers could be damaged during transit.

I placed the Scouts on my sand-filled 24″ stands. The speakers seemed to work best placed about 6.5′ apart and toed in slightly. I placed the Caldera 10 between the Scouts, as that’s the only space I have for a sub in my music room, and connected the Scouts and the Caldera 10 to the outputs of my NAD C 275BEE power amplifier. Source components included my Music Hall Stealth turntable and Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, Cambridge Audio Azur 650C CD player, Dell Precision 3630 PC, and iFi Audio Zen DAC. All signals were fed through my Apt Holman preamplifier.


I initially listened to the Scouts on their own, but found their bass output quite low, so the Caldera 10 was a welcome addition. After some experimentation, I set the subwoofer’s level at nine o’clock and its low-pass filter control just shy of the 12 o’clock position—which corresponds to a crossover frequency of approximately 90Hz. Those settings resulted in a seamless blend between the speakers and subwoofer. If I cranked the sub output much higher, the sound became unduly bass-heavy.


I used several pieces to help dial in the sub during setup, but the track I kept going back to was “Bali Run” from Fourplay’s eponymous debut album (CD, Warner Bros. 9 26656-2). Nathan East’s five-string bass digs incredibly deep and Harvey Mason’s insistent kick drum can easily disturb the neighbors. Once I was happy with the blend between the sub and speakers, I sat down and listened to this track intently. The Scouts/Caldera combo threw out a much bigger sound than I expected, given their size. The soundstage was reasonably deep and quite wide, and the positioning of the instruments was precise. However, the Scouts seemed to have a small bump in response between 1 and 2kHz—this manifested itself mostly on Bob James’s piano and synths, both of which sounded a little strident. The cymbal crashes sounded fine, as did Lee Ritenour’s electric guitar. Snare strikes were very taut, as they should be. Overall, excellent sound.

For my customary symphonic performance, I played “‘Cool’ Fugue” from a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conducted by David Zinman (CD, London 452 916-2). I was impressed by how cleanly the brass section, which plays a major role in this number, was reproduced. The percussion—bongo drums, xylophone, snare drum, timpani, and bass drum—form the backbone of this intensely rhythmic piece, and the Scouts/Caldera setup reproduced these instruments with outstanding speed and dynamics. Although I wasn’t quite transported back to Joseph Meyerhoff Hall (the home base of the BSO), I have rarely heard small speakers put out such big sound.


On Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Greatest Hits, Etc. (CD, Columbia CK 35032), the Scouts and Caldera did a fine job bringing subtle detail to the foreground, like the three-note motif on the acoustic guitar just before the first chorus, and the gentle-but-constant beat of the hi-hat. There’s some sibilance to Simon’s voice on this track, but it’s there on most of Simon’s recordings. The Scouts/Caldera combo let it through, but didn’t emphasize it.

The first CD I ever bought was The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby and the Range (RCA PCD1-5904). On “Mandolin Rain,” one of my favorite tracks on the album, the Scouts created a broad and fairly deep soundstage, with Hornsby and his piano dead center. I’ve always loved the struck wood block and how it’s smothered in echo; it sounds as if it is being played in the world’s largest chamber, and this came through very effectively on these compact speakers. This recording is bass-shy, but what bass there is, the Caldera reproduced. One negative point is that Hornsby’s voice naturally has a strident quality, and true to the recording, it sounded a little jarring through the Scouts. I love the entrance of the mandolin during the last verse; it puts a fitting final touch on the song.

In 2003, a resident of the upscale Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill bought himself an extravagant 50th birthday present: a Bösendorfer grand piano. The proud new owner decided to celebrate his birthday and his instrument by inviting a few friends and many of Cincinnati’s best pianists in for an evening of music. That evening was captured on 82hundred brill (CD, Strugglebaby SBD-2302). One of the best cuts is Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” performed by Phil DeGreg (head of the jazz department at the University of Cincinnati’s renowned College-Conservatory of Music) along with Dave Cliff on semi-acoustic electric guitar. Despite the recording taking place in a living room and not a studio, the sound is extremely good and the precision both players demonstrate is captured well. There’s not an extremely broad soundstage, as it’s obvious the players were closely miked. The Vanguard Scouts/Caldera combo showed off what a fine recording this is. The piano’s sound was phenomenal—authoritative bass notes and lightning-fast attacks. I’ve heard DeGreg live (but on a Baldwin piano) and he was outstanding; the Bösendorfer’s sound takes his performance to another level sonically, and the Scouts/Caldera combo revealed all. The guitar had good rhythm through the speakers and a lucid sound. The Scouts/Caldera combo beautifully rendered the quality of the piano’s sound and the technique of the pianist.


Back in 2002, Carlos Santana returned to prominence with a couple of hit albums and singles. My favorite is “The Game of Love” from Shaman (CD, Arista 14737-2), which features vocals by Michelle Branch. Beyond Santana’s soaring guitar solos, I particularly like how his guitar mirrors Branch’s voice, with little licks inserted as some extra flavoring, joined by trumpets near the end. Santana and Branch take the middle stage among the plethora of backing instruments and voices. However, there were instances when both Santana’s guitar and Branch’s voice overwhelmed the Scouts and their sound became harsh. It didn’t sound as if the speakers were being overdriven, just that they weren’t particularly pleased with the upper midrange and high tones they were being asked to reproduce. This added an edgy quality to the sound.


A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a pair of PSB Alpha B1 bookshelf speakers for his secondary system. He found their sound a little too mellow for his tastes, so he passed them my way on a semi-permanent loan. The Alpha B1 has long since been discontinued, but sold for $279/pair when available—quite close to what a pair of Scouts costs today.

In comparison with the Scouts, the PSBs had a more mellow presentation and their highs were not as prominent. They were also more sensitive, delivering higher sound pressure levels at a given volume setting. The Scouts, on the other hand, lived up to Dr. Nguyen’s desire for speakers that produce “fun” sound. They were more revealing of mid- and high-frequency detail and had a zingier character. For pop music, I preferred the Scouts. For jazz and classical, I preferred the PSBs.

One of my favorite test tracks when auditioning speakers is “Rhythm Is Our Business” from John Pizzarelli’s Our Love Is Here to Stay (CD, RCA 07863 67501-2). Here, Pizzarelli is joined by the Don Sebesky Big Band—and a very hot group they are. During the song, Pizzarelli has the saxophonist, bass player, trumpeter, and drummer take solos. Reproduction through the Vanguard Scouts was highly detailed, though the high notes from the trumpet were just a bit too edgy. But overall, it was a most lively performance.

The PSB Alpha B1s sounded very different—much smoother with less emphasis on highs. There was no apparent distortion on high trumpet notes, but these notes weren’t as prominent. If I had my druthers, I’d have speakers that fell someplace in between the enthusiasm of the Scouts and the mild manner of the PSBs. Both sets turned in very acceptable performances; it just depends on what sonic character you prefer.

I also ran some tones through the system to get an idea of how deeply the Caldera sub can play. Its response was tighter and more solid down to 40Hz than my 20-year-old Advent ASW1200. But the Caldera delivered much lower output at 31.5Hz than at 40Hz. Still, there aren’t many instruments that produce notes much below 40Hz, so I found the Caldera a worthy companion to the Scouts and PSBs. Also, the Caldera’s tighter bass made it sound deeper in many cases than the Advent.


I found a lot to like about the Vanguard Scouts. They’re very attractive—my wife thought they looked great in my music room. At times, I was amazed by how big these small speakers sounded. My only complaint was some stridency in the upper midrange, which was especially noticeable on high trumpet notes. At lower volumes than I normally played the Scouts, that disharmony was less apparent. For $299, I think they’re a very fine value and are perfect for a second or starter system.


The Caldera 10 subwoofer is a winner. During my listening, this little box put out impressively large-scale sound. It enhanced the rhythm and pace of bass guitars and drum kits very well. Although it’s smaller than my Advent ASW1200 subwoofer, it delivered cleaner and tighter sound. It worked well with the Vera-Fi and PSB bookshelf speakers, and even provided a little more oomph down low when paired with my Acoustic Energy Radiance 3 floorstanders. At $199, the Caldera 10 is a steal of a deal.

. . . Thom Moon

Associated Equipment

  • Loudpeakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3; PSB Alpha B1.
  • Subwoofer: Advent ASW1200.
  • Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
  • Preamplifier: Apt Corporation Holman.
  • Analog source: Music Hall Stealth turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge.
  • Digital sources: Cambridge Audio Azur 650C CD player; Dell Precision 3630 desktop PC, iFi Audio Zen DAC.
  • Interconnects: Manufacturer-supplied for turntable and computer to DAC; Linn Silver on CD player; Dayton Audio analog from DAC to preamplifier; Morrow Audio MA1 analog from preamp to power amplifier.
  • Speaker cables: Audtek 14-gauge OFC cable terminated in banana plugs.

Vera-Fi Audio Vanguard Scout Loudspeaker and Vanguard Caldera 10 Subwoofer
Price: Vanguard Scout loudspeaker, $299/pair; Vanguard Caldera 10 subwoofer, $199.
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.

Vera-Fi Audio
9025 Crestview Dr.
Denton TX 76207
Phone: (303) 594-7586