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von schweikert audio
as reviewed by Greg Weaver
More Musical Magic
Albert Von Schweikert has done it yet again! I guess it should be no revelation; as both a formally trained musician (he studied violin and piano at the University of Heidelberg Conservatory) and scientist (Georgia State University and the California Institute of Technology), he has been pulling off such musical miracles for decades. It arguably began back in the early 1960s when, after making a switch from violin to electric guitar, he assembled an astonishing sound reinforcement system for the Civic Center of St. Petersburg, Florida. It was so remarkable sounding that acts as diverse as Neil Diamond to the British invaders the Yardbirds, commented on its sound quality. His is a compelling and remarkable story.
If you had an opportunity to witness the unveiling of the new VR-9s or hear the VR-11s (in place for some listening sessions) this year at T.H.E. Show, you only begin to get the picture. As simply spectacular as those products are, I would suggest that the diminutive VR-4jr (for "just right," not junior), might just be—pound for pound—his most significant achievement to date. Not his finest loudspeaker, mind you, yet perhaps his most synergistic accomplishment. To achieve this level of performance at this price is simply astonishing.
When a designer or engineer commits vast sums of money to a project, both designer and end-user expect to obtain a remarkable degree of achievement. When a loudspeaker carries a MSRP equivalent to that of a new sport utility vehicle or luxury sedan, it had better taker your breath away. True triumph and genius are defined when breathtaking achievement comes at a similarly startlingly low price. From packaging to performance, this loudspeaker does just that. In case I've somehow been unclear, my point is that when you think of renowned speaker designers, those with both the right stuff and staying power, a very select group of exceptional people comes to mind. David Wilson, Jim Winey, Richard Vandersteen, and Albert Von Schweikert are unquestionably at the forefront of a very short list.
Making the inevitable comparison with the VR-4 Generation III Special Edition, one notes scant little by way of family resemblance. Though they are both two-piece stacked systems, gone is the sock wrap that has been both the signature and bane of the VR-4 since its inception back in the mid 1970s as the Vortex Screen. I refer to the sock wrap as a curse only because I am sure that VSA lost many a sale of this sonic overachiever, in all of its versions, simply because its austere appearance would not suit the décor of its final destination. That is both a shame and, to some degree, understandable. No more excuses. The VR-4jr is available in four gorgeous book-matched wood veneer finishes including African Hazelwood, dark red cherry, light maple, and black ash, each with a satin-gloss polyester resin clear-coat to protect the fine wood surfaces. They are, in fact, the first pair of speakers my wife had ever approached and, without prompting, announced, "These are pretty." ‘Nuff said.
The jr displaces just over half the space of, and weighs only slightly more than half as much as, the VR-4 Gen III SE. Standing at a compact 38.5"h x 8"w x 20"d and weighing only 78 pounds, the jr is sleek, sexy, stylish and small! As the VR-4 Gen III SE can hardly be considered "large," this leaves room for the jr to be seen as truly unimposing. This more manageable size is, in part, achievable through the intended use of end user added ballast, which brings the VR-4jrs fighting weight to 128 pounds. More on this attribute shortly.
Where the VR-4 Gen III SE's ship in three 35" x 27" x 16" cartons, one each for the two woofer cabinets and the third containing the pair of mid/tweeter modules, the jrs arrive in just two 47" x 23 ½" x 12 ½" cartons. Even in transport, the jr occupies just 60 percent of the volume of the VR-4 SE. Opening the cardboard shipping cartons reveals a plywood inner layer protecting its precious cargo on all six sides. Lifting off the wooden cover reveals separate formed foam compartments for the woofer and the mid/tweeter cabinets. Removing the foam form covering each compartment we are final able to see the two modules, each contained in a plastic bag. To aid with the removal from the tight foam protection, both bagged modules have two handy straps around them. These straps make liberating each module from its foam protection a snap. Once out of the tight protective foam and loosed from the plastic bags, both the woofer and mid/tweeter modules are finally protected inside black velveteen bags (each stitched with the company name): safe, sturdy, and classy.
The first thing you will want to do is take a cruise around their 16-page owner's manual. While one of the most informative manuals you could ask for in terms of attending to the break in issue, maximizing speaker placement and addressing subsequent room integration problems which may arise, it is at the same time painfully lacking in unpacking and assembly instructions. Specifically, it ignores the installation of the bass cabinet beveled floor plinth and spikes. Even more worrisome, it is utterly devoid of any mention of the requisite "ballast bays" and their ensuing use.
Perhaps VSA expects significant involvement by their dealer; still… I find the lack of any mention of the shot bays in the otherwise very helpful manual to be downright negligent. You see, the remarkably compact woofer cabinets conceal a small chamber in their bottom, accessed by a round port located on the bottom face, for the insertion of ballast in the form of lead shot. Though using the ballast bays is straightforward enough once you know they are there, omitting any mention of them in the set up portion of the manual almost assures that the novitiate user will overlook them. The difference in performance sans shot is significant, making this a major concern. If this feature goes unutilized, the music-loving owner will never realize the full potential of these remarkable music makers.
Where the VR-4 Generation III Special Edition represents an obvious progression down the constantly advancing path of applied materials science in an attempt to refine a design, the jr represents the result of all that accrued expertise combined with the otherwise unobtainable benefits realized by exercising complete manufacturing control. Excepting the assembly screws, the jr doesn't use any "off the shelf" parts. Every other part on the jr, and I mean from the speaker terminals through drivers and crossover parts, right down to the density of the MDF used in the cabinets, is manufactured exactly to Albert's specifications—in China.
Now, if you are tempted to think that "made in China" must intimate inferior quality, you obviously haven't been paying attention. Two companies that are doing extremely well, Usher and Onix, are also Chinese-manufactured from the ground up. Do you recall the opinion of Japanese products just after WWII, before the reconstruction? Ok, now what about the perceived quality and market share Japanese products controlled by the 1970's? What caused such a dramatic shift?
Through extensive state investment and guidance, and with a kick-start provided by technology transfers and financial infusions from the United States and some European nations, Japan rapidly rebuilt its heavy industrial sector, one virtually destroyed during the war. Then, with a massive boost provided by the Korean War, in which it acted as a major supplier to NATO forces, Japan's economy embarked on a prolonged period of extremely rapid growth, led by the manufacturing sectors. Japan emerged as a significant power and leader in many spheres, including steel working, automobile manufacture, and the manufacture of electronic goods. This was achieved through innovation in the areas of labor relations and manufacturing automation (Japan pioneered the use of robotics in manufacturing). And look at the results! Japanese electronics firms like Sony have been in the front seat, if not driving, for most every major audio development in the last four decades. Economists and historians alike (See Naisbitt's Megatrends Asia) have already begun to point out that China is on its way to becoming the next Japan in this regard, following on a slightly different model; one fueled by competition, affordable labor forces and free market economics.
By fall of 2004, VSA had built and delivered enough loudspeakers to the music-loving public to have used over 10,000 transducers. Because of VSA's sheer volume, their Chinese manufacturer, a company founded in conjunction with Danish driver manufacturer Vifä, will make whatever Albert requests; they are more than happy to design to his specification. If you have even an inkling of just what kind of freedom and control this allows a designer, you are just beginning to "get" it. Pull one of the drivers from a jr and take a close look. Each cone bears a serial number and every part is tested before shipping, sub assemblies included.
Nothing is left to chance when it comes to the crossover components. Albert selected his favorite sounding crossover caps, like those from Hovland and AudioNote, and made determinations about what made that part sound so significant. He then provided the necessary specifications and details to his parts manufacturer. They in turn gave him capacitors that sounded as he requested. Coils are not overlooked either; one of the many air core coils in the jr is some 5 inches in diameter and weights in at over 6 pounds! What about resistors? He don't need no stinkin' resistors in the signal path! When you can design your drivers to your final application specifications, there is no need. To top it all off, all crossover parts are potted with an epoxy resin base, keeping them stable and less susceptible to vibration-induced distortions. Can I get a "Hoo-Ahhh," music lovers?!
Time and Place
I have lived with some version of the VR-4 since first hearing the original model back in the mid 1990s, so my interest in the latest evolution of that standard should be quite understandable. While the VR-4 Gen III SEs are slightly more transparent and resolute, the jrs are readily more coherent and rhythmic. After these speakers were fully broken in, they effortlessly and passionately released music into my room.
Run in is crucial to the jrs, more so than any speakers to cross my path of late. I have discussed this phenomenon at some length before, and I will, at the risk of boring you, touch on it briefly again only because it is so relevant. I have to say that I have grown skeptical of anyone who says they cannot hear this attribute; I am even more troubled by those who claim that it is a nonexistent characteristic altogether. If it is nonexistent, then why do all the designers I've queried about such matters use seasoned components (drivers, capacitors, resistors, cables, terminations, etc.) when doing the final voicing of their products, be it a loudspeaker, amplification or source component, rather than new, fresh from the box units? Think I'm kidding? Just ask them…
With the jrs fresh from their sexy and secure packaging, I must admit that I had some serious concerns about what I was hearing. The owner's manual empathically suggests a minimum of 200-300 hours of run in, and I have to concur. Normally, by 3-5 hours of loud play, a speaker starts to show its true colors, with final refinement taking perhaps 200 hours or so. I found the jrs transparency and rhythmic coordination continue to improve to well past the 400-hour mark. So, don't rush to judgment when you hear them for the first time. Be sure they have had ample break in time.
The only speakers I can point to that sound less remarkable right out of the box are electrostatic panels. The first 30 seconds with electrostatics, never charged or driven before, can be very scary! In those first seconds, the panels have virtually no treble, no bass, and are very murky and dark throughout the mids. While the jrs were nowhere near that imperfect when fresh, they were slightly bright, slow, and indeterminate. So be warned, if the pair you are listening to on a showroom floor offer you any of these attributes, they haven't been properly broken in yet; or it is an attribute of an upstream component. If you are one of those who will take a pair home on the faith and strength of the manufacturer's reputation, be patient… you will be rewarded.
Because I have grown so accustomed to the consistent musical nature and remarkable resolve from VSA products, this out-of-the-box lackluster performance was so surprising to me that I remarked to my wife that I was having difficulty listening to them at that point. After something like two and a half hours of listening, I decided that I would break them in unattended. For the next 18 days, I ran them continuously with a variety of recordings including the 12-minute burn in track (8) from the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD (Sheffield 10041-2-T), the Psychologically Ultimate Seashore (Atlantic 817642-2) and various music recordings. I would plop down in front of them from time to time, just to see where they were. After some 420 plus hours, I was quite satisfied with the degree of change noted and really began to take notes. The difference, dear readers, was not subtle.
During the run in process, I had started with the jrs in the same location occupied by my reference VR-4 Gen III SEs. In next to no time after run in, I found a location that offered a spectacular combination of timbre balance, bass speed, imaging, and soundstaging. The final position had the center of the tweeter some 58" from the rear walls and 32" from their respective side walls, leaving the tweeters 9' 10" apart, with zero toe in. The prime listening area was centered 9' 4" back from the plane of the tweeters. At this point, I installed the spikes.
Next, it was time to "dial in" the rear mounted ambience tweeter, which has its own attenuator; VSA calls it "Dimensional Control," and for good reason. This second rear-mounted tweeter is a treated 1" fabric dome mounted in a wave guide and utilizing transmission-line rear wave loading to provide what VSA calls a "Global Axis polar response pattern." The latter attribute is an integral part of Albert's proprietary Ambience Retrieval System™ and Global Axis Integration Network™. When attenuated properly, the increased degree of soundstage layering, overall stage depth, and illumination into the rear corners of the stage this tweeter affords is remarkable. My final setting was somewhere near the 4 on the dial, but you will have to experiment once you have nailed your final placement. While I don't have the space to go into ARS or GAIN in depth, the crossover is essentially an acoustic fourth order with flex points at 200Hz and 2.2kHz, optimized for flat off-axis response and phase consistency.
Still prior to loading any ballast, the speakers had experienced remarkable transformation, with significant improvement in the areas of resolution and clarity. The jrs were now nearly on par with the SEs in these departments! My only concern at this stage was the bass and mid bass regions. Now much faster sounding than before run in, the bottom three octaves still seemed a tad wooly and undefined. Not bad by any means, mind you, but I was sure they could be better. This "smearing" seemed to impact the bandwidth up into the upper mids, as well, which was, I was sure, holding the speaker back further in terms of timber and spatial recreation.
Once I had a solid impression of the jrs newly found voice, it was time to "bulk up." After lifting off the M/T module and placing it safely on the floor nearby, I turned the woofer cabinet over 180 degrees, resting it on its top. After the four hex head screws securing the floor plinth were removed, I moved on to the four hex head screws securing the 3" round cover over the opening to the bay.
It is somewhat of a struggle to remove the 3" round port cover plates, as their recessed fit is so very snug. In fact, I damaged the top of one of them in my efforts to remove it. Fortunately, this poses no real concern to either the function or appearance of the speaker as the seal side (the bottom) of the cover plate was undamaged and the visible part of the plate is both on the bottom of the woofer cabinet and completely covered by the floor plinth after installation.
Once opened, I easily added 50 pounds of Remington 7.5 lead shot to each bay. Don't worry, you needn't find a scale to weigh out the shot prior to installation; it comes conveniently packaged in 25-pound bags. I acquired four bags from a local hunting supply store at $15.80 a bag. After cutting open a corner on each bag, I easily emptied their contents into the awaiting vessels. Once filled, I secured the 3" round cover plates and reinstalled the floor plinths. After flipping the whole woofer cabinet back to right side up, I carefully maneuvered the much heavier bass modules back into place (which I had marked with tape on the floor), installed the smallish floor spikes and reseated the M/T module on top. The whole process took less than half an hour.
Within seconds, I had to scrape my jaw off the floor. What a difference—again! The previously noted slight "blurring" of pitch as well as yet another gradation of congestion were now gone. And I don't just mean in the bottom octave or two. This enhanced "focus" extended well into the lower mids and midrange, relieving a slight coarseness that had been subtly overlaid on string and piano fundamentals and, most egregiously, those of female vocals. Talk about speed! Where bass and mid bass speed had been astonishing, now they were exceptional! It is quite clear that the final voice of this stunning speaker remains unrevealed until you mass load the woofer cabinets. Don't make the mistake of skipping this process because it seems either trivial or too laborious. It is, in fact, essential to releasing this songbird's ultimate and captivating voice.
The jr is the most versatile of the models 4 when it comes to hitching them to amplification, and potentially the most confusing, as well. There are three sets of five-way rhodium plated posts, two on the woofer module and one on the M/T module, as well as the unique Data Link ports. With any VSA model I've ever used, bi-wiring always brings the most sonically superior connection. Though the Data Link system affords versatility, the jrs are no exception to that tendency.
After trying them with several cables, including the Harmonic Technology Magic One bi-wires, the Silver Circle CS-12 bi-wires and the Audience Au 24 bi-wires, I settled on the remarkably coherent Audience Au24 bi-wires yet again. Quite honestly, the single wire method employing the Data Links is just too incomplete in its overall delivery. Regardless of some seemingly valid arguments to the contrary, single wiring is not always the best choice. Furthermore, should you accidentally apply one of the possible non-preferred methods (follow the instructions in the owners manual), performance can be blatantly poor. To glimpse all the magic, be prepared to bi-wire.
While in house, I used different amplification ranging from the 1.33 horsepower (500 wpc) Spectron Musician II to a pair of the diminutive, but not demure, 40-watt mono Channel Islands Audio VMB-1s (review in the works). They immediately revealed the VMB-1s more tube-like richness and slight forwardness, contrasted with the more matter-of-fact-like and commanding attributes of the Spectron. Even at their relatively average 89dB efficiency, neither had any difficulty driving these speakers to enjoyable volume levels. My sense here is that the jr presents a fairly easy and stable load, and that is what allowed the VMB-1s to play so effortlessly and efficiently at fairly loud levels, yet another plus.
So far, I have fed them from several digital sources (McCormack, Music Hall, PT), several preamps (Marsh, CIAudio, Monolithic), several phono stages (DSA, Monolithic, CIA), a hand full of carts—both MM (Clearaudio, Grado, Orophon) and MC (Sumiko, Denon, Monster), and with every cable in my stable. No homogeny here, music lovers; the jrs readily and effectively reveal every asset and flaw of any upstream component. Does the astonishment ever stop with these speakers?
Bass, post run in and "bulking up," is deep, articulated, and extraordinarily fast…actually faster than the SEs. As with all the recent VR designs, VSA employs what they call a triple-chambered transmission line, a hybrid design composed of three separate chambers, stuffed with acoustic foam and Dacron, coupled to the room by a 3"-wide tuned vent at 25Hz. Over the years, Kevin Malmgren, VSA's Mechanical Engineer and Vice President, has regularly improved upon the VR-4 woofer cabinet. With the jr, he has nailed the use virtually no space to create some of the fastest, most pitch accurate bass you are going to hear for less than the price of a new car.
While the SEs will delve ever so slightly deeper (down to around 16Hz), the jrs will reproduce well into the mid to low 20's. Though they may slight the final quarter of the bottom octave, they handle the rest of it with a degree of finesse and a pace that nearly embarrasses the larger sibling. They are ridiculously dynamic, offering a degree of impact and slam that is simply dumbfounding from such a diminutive speaker. In fact, the increased speed offered by the twin 7" mica-cellulose poly-laminate woofers affords superb delineation on things like bass guitar or double bass runs, providing music lovers with every separate and unique note and tone of each string, whether fingered, bowed, or picked alive. Given the limited number of recordings that actually contain information below 25Hz (you organ music freaks will NOT be disappointed), you will likely, as I do, prefer this intelligent and highly musical tradeoff for mere extension.
The midrange voice of the jr is so full, rich, and well balanced that it may at first be seen as the most dominant strength of this system. The 7" composite cone midrange driver, fabricated from carbon and mica impregnated cellulose acetate pulp using a ceramic liquid binder, also employs a surface coating of polymer to damp the stored energy waves.
The jr serves up a tremendous degree of nuance of voice (human or instrument), hint of timbre, gradation of dynamics (micro and macro), and shade of tone and timbre. They are just magical. The only erstwhile analogy I can offer to help describe the full character and authenticity of the middle band is to compare it to the midrange offered up by single ended triodes… they are that seductive. In fact, the last speaker to grace my listening room to exhibit this degree of refinement and elegance in this band was the now discontinued $4500 Kharma Devine 2a nearly five years ago.
Treble is equally engrossing from this tweeter, a three-layered silk diaphragm with a proprietary polymer applied to its surface. While the degree of absolute resolution here is slightly shy of the SEs, its degree of musical resolve, how deeply and completely it involves the listener in the music, is actually greater. I know at first that sounds contradictory. Utter resolve may be desirable when trying to discern what a particular sound or noise might be, or what type of string, skin, or stick is being used in a particular recording, but it does not necessarily contribute to the last word in musical enjoyment. In fact, some might argue that it could be distracting to that end.
Yet here, the silky (no pun intended) smooth and articulate tweeter offers an enormous measure of clarity and detail. This tweeter, which can so effortlessly portray delicate inflections, is just as at ease and up to the task when asked to unravel great complexity. It can be quite difficult to marry these two attributes, especially at this price point.
Dynamic contrasts are resolved both in proper scale and with unquestioned authority. This is a terribly important attribute, particularly in regard to accurately communicating the musical event. With the Ricki Lee Jones 10 inch, seven-song EP, Girl at Her Volcano (WBing23805-1B), "Walk Away Rene," the jr never allows you to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. Want a real test? Try track 37 from the Crown SASS™ Demonstration disc (SAR D649010), "Fireworks in the Mountains." It is only 52 seconds in duration, but the sounds of both the launch tubes and resulting aerial detonation of the ordinance are devastating. Moreover, they portray a degree of the vertical movement during that flight!
In the areas of imaging and staging, the jr bests its big brother—handily, perhaps even establishing a new benchmark below $10,000. Where the Gen III series flirted with a departure from the physical alignment of the midrange and tweeter's voice coils, employing a successful but more complex electronic alignment, the jr returns to the more conventional mechanical alignment, which is simpler to execute in terms of crossover design. The space of the Church of the Holy Trinity from Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions has never been better defined. Q-Sound effects are more specific in both voice size and relative location. They take on even more spooky realism than ever.
To maximize their potential in this department, set up is the key. Because of the remarkable dispersion pattern afforded by the GAIN™ system, best results in my first room (16.25' L x 14.5' W x 8' T) came with the speakers facing dead ahead, with no toe-in what so ever. It is worth noting that the VRs wide dispersion pattern also permits the chosen degree of toe-in to have less impact on overall timber. Typically, small changes in toe-in can have dramatic impact on the midrange or treble energy released into the listening area. Though not impervious to this effect, they are less affected by it than most other loudspeakers. In my current room, which is a good bit more narrow (25' L X 10' 8" W X 6' 5" T), I resorted to about 12 degrees toe in from straight ahead. My point is, don't be afraid of experimenting with this aspect for fear of affecting timber. You really have to work at getting these speakers to sound bad.
The stage is very deep and extends forward, well past the plane of the speakers as well as outside the physical location of the loudspeakers, actually to outside my listening room side walls. They offer tremendous focus to center stage as well as throwing much more illumination into the extreme rear right and rear left stage! The whole stage is reconstructed in realistic focus and size. I have to hand it to the VSA gang, because I had thought they had this attribute nailed with prior model 4's. Then, this little, sexy, contender comes along and takes it one giant step further. This combination of cabinet, crossover components, drivers, and alignment has taken the term holographic imaging to new heights!
What is it about the jr that makes them so special? As wonderfully balanced and neutral as this speaker is, the real strength of the jr is the way it sings with a single, coherent voice. This degree of utter coherence and driver amalgamation allows them to vanish completely from the listening room and leave only the musical event, more so than any previous model 4.
Where the SEs are quite at ease in a large space like my last two listening rooms, the jrs are more comfortably suited for today's more likely and more intimate listening space such as a family room or bedroom. Don't get me wrong; with the right power, they can do justice in a large room. But these smaller, more engrossing music makers are going to set a standard that will be hard to beat overall for less than 10 grand or so. Oh sure, a handful of speakers out there may best them in one category or another, but the unqualified synergy of the VR-4jr is unsurpassed until you hit five figures. Moreover, the jrs sell for nearly the same price as the original VR-4 nearly 10 years ago. How's that for value? And with a 10-year transferable warranty, they should have exceptional resale value when you decide to upgrade to the VR-4 SR!
For under $4000, the Von Schweikert Audio VR-4jr gives you the opportunity to own a product that is designed, crafted, and performs like a fine musical instrument. They offer a level of musical enchantment that is very often unobtainable from speakers selling for five times as much. What you get is one of the most magical, musical and engaging loudspeakers I've ever run across. In short, the jrs are Sirens impelling the intrepid musical mariner to cast himself (or herself, no letters please ladies) completely into the undeniable sea of music they so effortlessly and grippingly create. And because of their price, they have earned my strongest recommendation to date for any VSA model 4.
Bravo! I can hardly wait for the encore, the VR-4 SR…
Von Schweikert VR-4jr
Von Schweikert Audio