Component Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on December 1, 2004
Von Schweikert Audio VR-2 Reference Speaker System SRP: $2400 pr.
System Type: 2 1/2-way, 4-driver system with variation on standard transmission-line on woofer
Woofer System: twin 6.5” drivers with aerospace composite cones and long-throw low distortion motors, shielded
Twin Crossover Bass System: Lower woofer operates up to 200 Hz while bass/mid woofer operates up to 2.2 kHz, eliminating midrange coloration encountered in twin midrange systems
Cabinet Design: Triple-chambered variation of transmission line design with front vent
Damping: Resonance trap provided in base for addition of lead shot or sand; up to 25 lbs. of shot can be added to stabilize the sound
Frequency Range: 25 Hz to 25 kHz, -2 dB
Tweeter: Composite one-inch dome, silk laminated with two polymer resin coats; long throw design with low distortion motors, shielded and Ferrofluid liquid-cooled
Crossover Points: 200 Hz & 2.2 kHz
Crossover Type: Global Axis Integration Network for accurate off-axis frequency response and consistent phase
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal (7-20 ohms)
Sensitivity: 87.5 dB anechoic
Ambience Retrieval System: 1” soft dome tweeter with rear-firing wave-guide and level control
Input Terminals: Twin sets of Rhodium-plated five-way binding posts; jumper straps for non bi-wire cables
Power Rating: 20 to 200 watts peak r.m.s.
Base: Separate larger plinth for more secure stance of narrow cabinet, with large adjustable screw-in spikes
Finishes: Variety of choices in veneers, finished all around, including front so may be used without provided fabric grills
Dimensions: 40” H x 8” W x 16” D
Weight: 66 lbs. each (before shot/sand)
Warranty: Ten Years, excluding abuse or burnt voice coils due to amp clipping
Von Schweikert Audio
930 Armorlite Drive
San Marcos, CA 92069
It’s unusual for an audio writer to have the same basic equipment setup for years at a time, but I’ve had the same Celestion seven-speaker setup for about 15 years now. It consists of five identical SL-600si minimonitors and a pair of Celestion System 6000 subwoofers with the seven channels powered by Parasound 200-220w amp channels all around. I’ve tweaked the minimonitors – the epitome of the polite British sound – to a high degree. They have felt discs around the tweeters, Black Diamond Racing cones underneath, TeknaSonics vibration absorbers fastened to the outside of the Aerolam enclosures, Bybee line filters on the + sides of the biwired cabling, and 50 lbs. of lead weights on each speaker, including the subs (where it made a huge difference in low bass extension).
While the transition of the low end of the spectrum from the minimonitors to the subs is extremely smooth with the Celestion crossover, the subs themselves don’t go down to subterranean depths by any means. They are fine for most music but for earthshaking effects in movies they are a bit rolled off in the extreme low end. The subs provide the bases and support for the left and right frontal minimonitors. Even though my Outlaw Bass Manager sends the below-80 Hz signals from the center and surround channels to the two subs, I still miss the deeper low end which fails to come from the rear half of my large listening room. Many multichannel hi-res discs have extremely subtle levels on the surround channels, but often much of these signals are low bass reverberation in the hall that my minimonitors (cutting off below 70 Hz) miss out on. Also, some pop surround mixes put percussion, B3 organ, and other bassy sounds on the surrounds.
I have a powered sub directly behind my listening sofa, but that is fed only from the LFE channel and most classical and jazz SACDs are only 5.0, without using the LFE channel. It handles the lowest sounds mostly for DVD movie soundtrack effects. I haven’t been happy with most subs I’ve heard as far as playback of music in multichannel form, and have been leaning toward the idea of full range speakers all around, as promoted in what WideScreen Review magazine calls their Holosonic surround setup. The VR-2s are acclaimed for the unique feat of achieving low end extension down to as far as 25 Hz without the expense of a true three-way system or incorporation of a powered subwoofer in the same enclosure. So living with them for a while has been my opportunity to find out if VR-2s all around (except for their matching VR-15 center channel speaker) might be the solution to my problems.
Setup and Break-In
The VR-2s are packed with superb protection and care. Each speaker is encased in a soft velveteen sock all the way around to protect the beautiful veneer of the cabinets. The pair I tested were the African Hazelwood finish. The plinths are shipped in a separate box, together with their spikes. It will be quickly seen that the patterns of the veneer are selected to be mirror images of one another for each pair of speakers on each of its facets. Cabinet construction appears to be excellent – very solid with plenty of good interior bracing to reduce colorations, but without the obsessive detailing that some of those $8K and above speakers tend to have. The fabric grills are good-looking but those of us who prefer to run our speakers without the grills on will be pleased to see that the veneer continues right up to the three drivers on the front and the six pin lock holes on the front are very small, so as to be almost invisible from a seat ten feet away.
The first step that is suggested for the VR-2s is the break-in period. Even those audio conservatives who laugh at those of us referring to cable and component break-in will agree that speaker drivers do need some run-in before they sound their optimum. The VR-2s require a lot attention in this department. CEO and designer Albert von Schweikert suggests around 100 hours, with the larger drivers getting really broken in between 200 and 300 hours, and complete break-in of the tweeter doesn’t occur until about 400 hours have been racked up. I faced the pair of speakers down into the carpeted floor (after removing the grills), covered the rear-firing tweeter with a DVD box and turned its level control all the way clockwise. Then I alternated a noisy rock station, interstation white noise, the Sheffield break-in CD track, and the Bass Mecanik Test CD for source material for a total of about 140 hours. A better way is to set up the pair of speakers facing each other closely and wiring one pair out of phase with the other, then covering the pair with a blanket and letting them wail for a few days.
The next setup step is filling the Resonance Trap cavity at the bottom of the speakers with sand or lead shot. Von Schweikert cleverly achieves two important things with this DIY approach to mass loading. It is actually a part of the speaker’s design concept. Filling the compartment with sand or shot (or a mix of the two) achieves the sort of mass loading of the cabinet that more expensive speakers obtain by using heavier and more expensive materials in construction. That drives up the manufacturing costs and at the same time runs up a higher shipping charge for heavier speakers.The addition of the vibration-absorbing damping materials makes the midbass and lower midrange bands cleaner and tighter-sounding.
I was a bit surprised to see that the 12-page owner’s manual as well as comments by other reviewers and users all referred to filling the compartments with lead shot, whereas Albert had suggested sand to me. The lead shot is much heavier than the sand and it is suggested about 50 lbs. be installed in each of the speaker cavities. (The shot usually comes in 25 lb. bags and should cost about $1 a pound.) Perhaps Albert recognized my strongly nonviolent nature; years ago when I had to fill some speaker stands with a mix of sand and lead shot was the first and only time in my life that I ever set foot in a gun shop, and it was nice to be able to avoid that this time.
Each speaker must be stood on end to reach the cover to the Resonance Trap for the sand or shot. After filling and then replacing the little cover (which has a rubber seal around it) one attaches the black plinth with four screws fitting into prepared holes in the bottom of the enclosures. The plinth is an inch or two larger all around than the enclosure itself, and one must align the beveled front edge with the front of the speaker or risk mounting one backwards. In each of the four corners of the bottom of the plinth are screw threads ready to insert the four spikes which come with the VR-2s. This step is just as important to achieving the best all-around response from the speakers as filling the bottom compartment, but you won’t want to do it until you are approaching the final location of each of the speakers, because with the added weight of the sand/shot plus the spikes, these babies are not easy to move around! I found the spikes did make a noticeable improvement in imaging and cleaned up deep bass response. And they are thick and sturdy – not likely to bend as some I have seen.
Design of the VR-2
VR stands for Virtual Reality. Albert Von Schweikert’s goal has been simulation of a live musical event. He felt the most realistic sound quality could be obtained by replicating the signal the microphone originally received, but in an acoustic inversion. In other words, you have two transducers in the complete audio circuit: the mic at one end converts the sound waves into electrical impulses and the speaker at the other end converts the electrical impulses back into sound waves – operating as does the mic, but in reverse. He felt the proper speaker should emulate important characteristics of microphones. One is point-source behavior; the VR-2 is designed to focus the sonic image at the tweeter, which is placed at ear height. The mic has a single diaphragm but there are several speaker drivers; the challenge is to keep them all in phase and working together to mimic the single diaphragm. Von Schweikert’s Global Axis Integration Network combines the best aspects of both 1st order and 4th order crossovers to ensure coherent driver integration.
Speakers must reproduce a very wide dispersion pattern to emulate the wide pickup pattern of most mics. Output to the rear is required to give a more natural “open” sound and to reduce the boxy effects of the enclosure. The VR-2 does this with its Ambience Retrieval System, which is a special rear-firing mid/tweeter mounted on the enclosure’s rear facet at the same height as the front tweeter. Its level is set by a control down near the speaker terminals, and it reproduces some of the out-of-phase information picked up by the mics. Some other characteristics are low distortion and coloration, a very wide frequency bandwidth (not many tower speakers achieve 25 Hz at -3 dB without a built-in powered subwoofer), and a wide dynamic range free of compression effects. Raising the level on the rearward mid/tweeter moves the soundstage back somewhat as well as adding more “air.” This could be viewed as a handy antidote to the rather forward sound the VR-2s have until they are completely broken in. Von Schweikert calls this whole approach his Acoustic Inverse Replication theory.
In addition, he seeks to optimize several dimensional “planes:” those of Amplitude, Phase, Time and Space. The Ambience Retrieval System is what adds the spatial element, giving dimension to the sound field – which can be adjusted over a wide range depending on the reflective qualities of the nearby walls and distance from listeners. I found that in my setting where they were only a few feet from the open-shelf equipment cabinets and fairly close to my 52” RPTV screen, keeping their levels at the low 1 or 2 point was optimum.
Transmission Line design has been recognized as one of the best approaches for dynamic speakers, but the VR-2’s implementation of transmission line will cause head-scratching for some. The term is usually thought of as featuring a long tapering labyrinth within the enclosure, which the VR-2s do not have. It turns out there can be several different types of transmission lines. The purpose is not necessarily to set up a long path to delay the sound from the back of the woofer to the enclosure’s port; the actual purpose is just to absorb some of its energy. That can be done with stuffing material in the enclosure. Von Schweikert uses Dacron polyester in sheet blanket form to absorb the rear wave in the air cavity behind the woofers. Both the midrange driver and woofer speak into the same cavity with no baffling between them. Von Schweikert calls it a “triple chamber” design.
Preliminary Listening and Powering Options
I quickly realized that I had gotten used to the very laid-back and polite British sound of my Celestion surround system. Most of the new RCA Living Stereo SACDs possess a rather hard treble sound in the louder passages which others have complained of. On the VR-2s it was really annoying; other users guarantee this effect will go away when the speakers are totally broken in. I tried the same discs on the Celestions and the hardness was masked and not nearly as forward-sounding but still there. I realized the VR-2s, with their more forward and open aural design, were really giving me more of what was on the recordings, even when it wasn’t quite so listenable. This doesn’t mean, however, that they put a magnifying glass on the sound (as do, for example, most electrostatic headphones). The VR-2s produced highly detailed sound but not overly so.
I had been biwiring the Celestions for a long time, using Nordost SPM cable. Contrary to discussions in some of the audio publications denigrating biwiring, the Celestions were designed especially for it and definitely sounded better than with just a single cable and jumpers. So did the VR-2s, but by a lesser amount. But I wondered if the hardness I was hearing on some sources with the VR-2s would be ameliorated by powering their tweeters with tube amps. In other words, bi-amping – something you don’t hear much about anymore in the audio world. Albert Von Schweikert suggested the 40w Consonance tube monoblocks and I requested a pair for review. (My review of them will be in the Jan-Feb. issue.)
The tube amps did sound terrific on the VR-2s and helped the treble hardness. My Parasound 220w amps continued to power the midrange and woofers. When I read that the VR-2s could be powered by as little as 20 watts full range I thought I would try the Consonance tube amps running them full range with the jumpers in. So I did, and the results were completely captivating – better than bi-amping I thought. The idea that you absolutely require high power solid state to get the best low-end reproduction is not necessarily true due to recent advances in tube circuit design.
First, I found that 21 Hz test tones did reproduce very well on the VR-2s, though of course a little lower than the -3 dB level promised for 25 Hz. This in itself is fairly amazing and proves that the VR-2s can honestly claim to be full range speakers. I played the 20-21 Hz tones from two different test discs via both two channels of my 220w Parasound solid state amp as well as via the Consonance 40w monoblocks. The signal was reproduced only very slightly louder with the powerful solid state amp, and in fact sounded worse because it caused a flapping noise of the woofer. This noise continued up to about 50 Hz with a sweep tone, whereas it was completely absent when powering with the tube monoblocks. If this means the tubes actually gave tighter bass than the solid state, that would certainly be a reversal!
I have only used the monoblocks a week or so, so they are not totally broken-in either. Also, I am temporarily using short speaker cables from another maker which I found not nearly as good as my Nordost cables, and will be switching to other cables of the proper lengths when I set up all three of my front speakers for biwiring. I have also not finalized the exact location of the VR-2s. They will probably be very close to where my front L & R Celestions plus subs were, which was about three feet out from my racks and TV, and four feet away from the wall on one side (no wall on the other side). I find they can be separated quite some distance and still maintain a good solid center phantom fill without the center speaker being on at all. And with it on they can be moved even further apart, but then the left one would be getting too close to the wall and window. Suffice it to say these speakers are terrific in the soundstage department! I’m used to have speakers toed in to my sweet spot but I plan to experiment further with that since the VR-2s have excellent dispersion and it is suggested they usually be faced straight forward.
Auditioning the VR-2s with Hi-Res Discs
I wanted to avoid dealing with two different sets of speakers in front, so I made comparisons with my Celestions by using my patch bay to send the signals from the Sunfire preamp (using the Direct mode) to the Parasound amp and then to my rear Celestions. They lack the subwoofers and are further apart than the front speakers were, but still gave me sufficient reminder of their sound on various sources as compared to the VR-2s. There was no way I could hope to use the 40w amps to power my Celestions since they are extremely inefficient and require plenty of watts. The combination of solid state and the polite-sounding Celestions was a good match just as the combination of the vacuum tube monoblocks and the VR-2s seems to be an excellent one.
Dutch composer Paul Hattink has an article on the SoundFountain web site concerning his personal observations of the different sound of tubes and transistors. He feels that most musical instruments sound warmer and more natural via tube amplification, and lists only a few – piano, flute, electric guitar – as sounding better via solid state. As a pianist myself I find even the tone of most piano recordings to benefit from the tube amplification vs. solid state. So all of the following comments will be on the VR-2s powered by the tube monoblocks.
I began with one of my favorite multichannel symphonic SACDs – Works of John Adams and Sumera conducted by Kristian Järvi on the CCn’C label. But I used the stereo mix for my evaluation, on the track The Chairman Dances. This is the strictly instrumental piece from his controversial opera Nixon in China. The VR-2s displayed considerably more depth and a richer sound than the Celestions. The piece has many percussion instruments creating a bubbling rhythmic ostinato in the rear of the orchestra, and they were more prominent and more transparent. A constant beat on a wood block is heard thru most of the work, and via the VR-2s it gives a stronger impression of the concert hall space than on the Celestions. Instruments that sounded rather distant on the British speakers now sound more forward and in the spotlight. The spatial location of various instrumental solos seems easier to place with the VR-2s.
Next was some solo piano from the Sony Classical SACD of Billy Joel’s Schumannesque ”Fantasies & Delusions.” On the Celestions the piano on Track 1, Reverie, sounded oversized as usual, but quite natural. However, it seems less transparent than it could be – somewhat rolled off in the extreme high end, and the transient attacks of the louder chords on the piano were rather soft. On the VR-2s there was more body to the piano sound, though the instrument still sounded too large. There were more overtones and the pianist Richard Joo’s use of the pedal was more noticeable. I equate that with the ability to hear more of the hall in orchestral recordings. The transient attacks were now more pronounced.
Choral recordings are always good test material, and Opus 3 has a fine SACD by the Stig Westberg Chorale, “Musica Sacra,” which blends the voices recorded in a church with a solo saxophonist similar to the recordings Jan Gabarek made with the Hillier singers. The Brazilian piece on Track 3 had more of that church acoustic feeling via the VR-2s. Drums heard on this track had a more distinct low end extension than the Celestions with their twin subs. The saxist was more forward-sounding and even piercing on a loud solo passage. There was a very realistic and natural spread of the voices across the wide soundstage.
An entirely different sort of recorded voice is Singapore singer Jacintha, on one of her Groove Note SACDs titled Autumn Leaves – The songs of Johnny Mercer. On the track And The Angels Sing, her rich voice is accompanied by a low string bass line at the beginning and thruout. There is a sax very front and center but the cymbals on the drum set sounded a trifle rolled off in the high end. Switching to the VR-2s made the string bass seem bigger and lower-pitched. Jacintha’s voice sounds more intimate, breathy and closer to the mic. The brush work by the drummer was more realistic and palpable, and the overtones of the cymbals were now much more pronounced.
For small group jazz I used trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Sony Classical SACD “Let’s Get Lost,” which is stereo only. While the theme of the album is the songs of Jimmy McHugh with four different female jazz vocalists, track 3, You’re a Sweetheart,” is all instrumental. The trumpet is dead center and sounded rather laid back. On the Celestions the other instruments sounded even more laid back: drums on the left, piano on right, with very wide separation on all. There was some feeling of space around the trumpet sound – reflections in the hall or studio. With the VR-2s the trumpet and sax were more forward-sounding and the other instrument were less laid back sounding. Everything was more present and the players no longer seemed too widely separated on the soundstage.
The Best of Mickey Hart, a Rykodisc DVD-A subtitled Over the Edge and Back, has plenty of varied percussion sounds to check out low frequency behavior of components. I played only the two-channel option. On the track Sweet Sixteen there are multiple vibes, marimbas and bells along with Indian-style drumming. On the VR-2s the transient attacks of the various bells and drums had more snap, impact and clarity than via the Celestions. The deepest bass fundamentals on the drums are more integrated into the music and not a bit amorphous-sounding as they are with the Celestion subs.
Another DVD-A, this one from Aix Records, featuring McEwen and Ibbotson in a session titled “Nitty Gritty Surround.” Using the 192K two-channel option on the disc I chose the track Acoustic Traveler. It features three guitars and mandolins clearly laid out across the wide soundstage with great presence and naturalness. A fiddle comes in cleanly in the middle of the track. Everyone sounds like they’re sitting exactly where the speakers are the speakers seem to disappear. I usually enjoy watching the video of the whole session offered by Aix along with an excellent 5l.1 DTS soundtrack. But in this case and with the VR-2s, the 192K stereo track without the images proved clearly better – so much so the video was not missed. Of course I already know what the performers looked like while recording in the studio since the first time I watched the entire video.
To summarize, I haven’t found any recording which I felt sounded better on the Celestions than on the VR-2s.
These are stylish and well-built handsome tower speakers which will not dominate a room, even if you end up with four of them plus the matching LCR-15 center channel speaker. They do require considerable effort in placement to achieve the best possible sound, but features such as the spikes and rear ambience tweeter serve to make them more versatile in different listening room situations. The results in the end are well worth it. The VR-2s have smooth treble extension and excellent deep bass quality and depth. Their imaging and reproduction of micro dynamics is top rate. While they won’t do much on those 9-watt SE wonders, they don’t require blockbuster amplification to produce more volume level than you would ever want. I find them in the same class as some far more expensive speakers, partly due to the reduction in cost based on the lighter enclosure design made possible by the use of the Resonance Trap cavity, and also by their ingenious variations in the crossover and transmission line design.
I had a slight reservation concerning a bit of hardness or glare in the upper midrange, but when I eliminated the ICBM Bass Manager I had in the circuit (since I no longer have front subwoofers) the hardness disappeared. I also greatly simplified the cabling that was involved, including a previous line to my patch bay. The L & R front channels now run directly from the preamp to the Consonance tube monoblocks. I also have yet to optimize some of the tweaks used successfully on the Celestions and other speakers. I attached the TeknaSonics vibration absorption units and put a lead weight on top. That produced an improvement in clarity and depth of image. I plan to review the center channel LCR-15 speaker separately (which has the same drivers as the VR-2), and when I do I will report on how my various tweaks worked and how the entire five-speaker surround system sounds on multichannel sources after all the speakers are completely broken in. I’ll probably break down and do the 50 lbs. of lead shot for the other two VR-2s and make them my frontal speakers since I don’t want to dump the sand out of these. For now let me say the VR-2s deserve the acclaim they have received and I can recommend them for inclusion in any listening sessions one may be doing for pairs of speakers in the $2000-$3000 area. I’m voting for them by making them my new reference surround system.
– John Sunier