April 1, 2004
Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Gen III HSE Loudspeakers
Several years ago, after a long day trawling the high-decibel "hi-fi" display rooms at the Consumer Electronics Show in the vain hope of finding real music realistically reproduced, I wandered into the Von Schweikert Audio room. Entranced, I listened to a succession of discs that embodied a wide variety of music, all designed to bring out the best (or worst) in a stereo system. Everything I heard sounded closer to the real thing than anything else at the show, and when the volume was cranked up for a rocking gospel choral group, I felt I was sitting in the first pew, the enthusiastic singers arranged in front of me, their tambourines and piano accompaniment practically ordering me to clap my hands, leap, and shout.
That was my first brush with legendary speaker designer Albert Von Schweikert. We had what turned out to be one of our shorter talks, thanks to the exigencies of show pressures. Subsequent conversations over the years have tended to run to marathon lengths, because Von Schweikert is so enthusiastic that simple questions requiring a "yes" or a "no" answer can elicit learned lectures on arcane points of experimental design problems, the laws of physics, and a dozen other issues far beyond my understanding.
But Von Schweikert has the experience to back up his eloquence. As a kid, he built his first gear from kits, and modified stock drivers. He studied violin and piano, played electric guitar in a rock band, and worked on Time Delay Spectrometry with the famed Richard Heyser at the California Institute of Technology. Over the past 30 years, Von Schweikert has developed cutting-edge speakers and cabinets of all shapes, sizes, and designs. He still designs on assignment while running his own company and producing some of the best -- and best-value -- speakers in high-end audio.
The speaker Id heard at that CES was his top-of-the-line VR-8, which was too big, too bulky, and too expensive for me to do anything other than drool over. But I arranged to review his popular VR-4 in its Generation II iteration. Then priced at $4500 USD per pair, it turned out to be not so much a bargain as a steal -- the best under-$10k speaker Id ever heard, and far better than many higher-priced units.
Time passed. Other components in my system changed, but the VR-4 Gen IIs continued as the rock upon which new upstream arrivals danced and sang. When I learned that the Gen III was available for review, I leaped at the opportunity. But by the time it arrived, the Gen III had been discontinued and morphed into the VR-4 Gen III HSE ($5995/pair).
The old and the new
Because the VR-4 is one of those core, widely reviewed high-end products that are constant companions for many audiophiles, its worth mentioning some of the crucial ways in which the VR-4 Gen III HSE differs from, in this instance, my old VR-4 Gen II.
Most obvious is the look. Both are modular units, the woofer cabinet supporting a smaller one housing the midrange driver, tweeter, and an adjustable rear ambience tweeter. But in the HSE, as in the Gen III but not the Gen II, the top unit has been redesigned; it now has a shaved side that tries to make a right triangle but doesnt quite make it. The result is a less "boxy" look, the 6" top broadening to 11", same as the bottom module. With its maple base, the speaker leaves a 12" footprint; and, at about 21" deep and 47" high, its minimally obtrusive in a fairly large room.
The insides are different too. The tweeter is now a modified Scan-Speak with something called "dual-ring-radiator technology"; the midrange Audax driver is a composite that includes carbon powder, Kevlar, and similarly unappetizing stuff, to which Albert Von Schweikert has added his own wrinkles. The rear ambience tweeter is a 1" soft dome with output controlled by dialing in the levels best suited for the room and speaker placement, from completely off to full volume. A pair of 9" woofers, carryovers from the Gen III and tuned via a triple-chambered hybrid transmission line, are housed in the rigid, cross-braced bottom module. Tying it all together is an acoustic fourth-order crossover that uses Von Schweikerts patented engineering discoveries, outfitted with premium Hovland caps usually found in far more expensive units.
All of the above has plenty to do with the way the VR-4 Gen III HSE sounds. Just as breakthroughs in communications technology now give us unparalleled opportunities to annoy total strangers with our cellphones, sophisticated new developments in speaker design, when applied by a talented designer, can get us closer to the musical truth. That Scan-Speak tweeter, for example, plus whatever Von Schweikerts done to house and otherwise coax the best from it, is far more extended, grain-free, and smooth than the VR-4 Gen IIs tweeter. That composite used in the Audax midrange driver, allied with Von Schweikerts expertise, is far more neutral. Und so weiter, as the philosophers are wont to say. If you own (or owned) a VR-4 in one of its previous iterations, youll find the VR-4 Gen III HSE a giant leap forward that gets you closer to where you want to be.
But before getting there, the speakers need to be optimally located in the room. Deep in the bowels of the boxes dumped in my hallway by UPS was an instruction manual thats one of the best Ive come across in a long time, and includes detailed instructions on speaker placement in a variety of room shapes and sizes. Two sections deal with wiring and biamping, both relevant for a two-module speaker with Cardas binding posts on each module. You can run one speaker cable to the mid and treble module with a 36" jumper downward to the woofer inputs. But that should be only a temporary solution for a speaker specifically designed for biwiring. Youll want either a single biwire cable with terminations adequate to reach both sets of inputs, or use two separate cables. I opted for the latter -- my reference amplifiers are monoblocks, and separate cables are more convenient when Im reviewing stereo amplifiers.
Spikes are supplied, and therein lies a tale that may be useful, and not only for prospective buyers of the VR-4 Gen III HSE. Because they were replacing my VR-4 Gen IIs, I simply plunked the VR-4 Gen III HSEs down in their forebears footprints. Whether because of wider dispersion due to the different design of the upper module or because of the new drivers, I wound up jockeying them a few inches farther apart than Id had the Gen IIs, and with less toe-in.
My Gen IIs had sat on spikes cushioned by felt-bottomed receptacles to keep their points from tearing up the Oriental carpet and thereby inciting spousal insurrection. Naturally, I thought the spikes would work as well with the HSEs. Wrong. Even allowing for cold-out-of-the-box speakers, the sound was muddled on the bottom, glaring on top, and nondescript in the midrange. Had I not been familiar with Von Schweikerts work, I might have blamed the speaker. Experimentation indicated that the spiking setup was the culprit.
Riding to the rescue was Sam Kennard, whose experience as a manufacturer of industrial isolation devices combined with his audiophile proclivities to produce Vibrapod Isolators: small flexible vinyl discs designed to be placed under audio equipment. They come in various densities to accommodate gear from the lightest CD player to heavyweight speakers. I recalled having read a wildly favorable review of the Vibrapods, but had never tried them. I called Sam, who suggested getting 0.5"-thick MDF planks slightly wider than the speaker's base, and shipped me a variety of Vibrapods. I placed a pair of MDF planks on the carpet, put six No. 5 Vibrapods (three per long side) atop each plank, and positioned the speakers on the 'pods. A side benefit was that speaker placement became less strenuous -- sliding speaker-mounted flat boards is a lot easier than wrestling 140 pounds into place, not to mention trying to do it with speakers on spikes. Thanks to Sam Kennard and his ingenious invention, problem solved.
The market is clogged with an array of products on which to stick audio equipment, many of them priced like gold bars. How much is it worth to get optimum results from (in this case) a $6000/pair speaker? How about $24 for a package of four Vibrapods? In my experience, that makes them the best buy in audio -- nothing else begins to come close.
I did my listening in a well-furnished room that measures about 21 x 18 x 8.5. Source material was fed through a Forsell Air Reference turntable with a Koetsu Rosewood Mk.II cartridge, a Metronome T-20 Signature CD transport, a C-20 Signature DAC, and a Reimyo CDP-777 CD player. Electronics were the Plinius M14 phono stage, Wyetech Opal preamplifier, and Jadis JA 80 power amplifiers modified with Siltech internal wiring. Cables consisted of the Siltech Classic SQ110 interconnects and LS188 speaker cables. Accessories included Shun Mook and Harmonix record clamps and Vibrapod, Solid Tech, and Harmonix footers.
I was curious to hear how the VR-4 Gen III HSE would stack up against the Gen II, whose sound had kept me a happy camper for years. I quickly found out. Alongside the Gen II, the HSE was more extended in the highs, deeper in the bass, and faster and cleaner in handling transitions, generally confirming a feeling Id often had -- that the Gen IIs, much as I loved them, could sound more open.
One CD pretty much told the whole story there: the JVC XRCD reissue of Sonny Rollins classic Way Out West [VICJ 60088]. On "I'm an Old Cowhand," Shelly Manne's drum kit gets an extensive workout, rendered with breathtaking accuracy by the VR-4 Gen III HSEs. They conveyed the sticks-on-rims taps with realism, and not only was the vast range of colors Manne gets from his cymbals right, but I could almost "see" where on the cymbals his sticks hit. Much of this was made possible, too, because the HSE excelled in reproducing the recordings microdynamics.
More evidence of the HSEs treble extension came from Amazing Grace, the two-LP set of a younger, slimmer Aretha Franklins live gospel concert at a Los Angeles church in 1972 [Atlantic 2-906]. In addition to the truthful depiction of Arethas voice -- grain-free, full-bodied, and bristling with emotion -- the speakers proved superior to any Id ever heard in my system in retrieving the venues ambience.
Violins are a good test of mid and treble accuracy, and a string quartet adds the element of detail recovery. So I turned to one of the best string-quartet CDs to come down the pike: the Zehetmair Quartets pairing of Schumanns String Quartets 1 and 3 [ECM New Series 1793]. The violins were rendered with a sweetness that did not prevent a touch of astringency in energetic passages, where its called for. Subordinate ensemble details I hadn't previously noticed emerged with clarity, as when the VR-4 Gen III HSEs' precise imaging made it possible to distinguish between the first and second violins -- a relative rarity in string-quartet recordings.
To double-check on how well the VR-4 Gen III HSE got along with violins, I turned to several discs featuring "original instruments," whose acerbic sound is often exaggerated on discs. Here again, the speakers passed the test. Rachel Podgers solos in the superb set of Vivaldis Op. 4 Violin Concertos, La Stravaganza [Channel Classics 19503], were reproduced with plenty of bite and no trace of harshness or glare. And in massed strings, as in the English Concerts Night Music [Harmonia Mundi 807280], a collection of Mozart works, the original-instrument string section had both tensile strength and the rounded sound of real instruments.
I was also curious whether the HSE would emulate the Gen IIs satisfying midrange warmth. Some regular visitors thought the Gen II a bit too much on the warm side of neutral. I agreed to an extent -- my tubed amps added to the Gen II did raise the temperature a degree or two above neutral. But that warmed midrange came in handy with icy digital recordings, and it made vocal recordings glow.
Because vocals were a strength of the Gen II, I turned to several recordings of female singers. First up was JVCs reissue of the classic album by Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, Take Love Easy [JVCXR0031]. Ellas voice had all the bloom Id heard on the Gen II, but with an added density, while the HSEs top and bottom extension revealed even more of its subtle shadings. I had a similar experience with classical song and operatic CDs; whether golden-oldie historical reissues of Jussi Björling, Suzanne Danco, and others, or recent recordings of such singers as Susan Graham and Renée Fleming, voices had a greater solidity and heightened detail.
The VR-4 Gen III HSE really shone in the big orchestral music that often sounds shrunken through home systems. My subjective impression of the speakers deeper, tighter bass, no doubt due to the HSEs revamped internal cabinet bracing and damping, was confirmed with numerous large-scale recordings. One was a favorite, Saint-Saënss Symphony No. 3, "Organ," in JVCs reissue of the famous RCA shaded-dog version by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony [JMCXR 0002]. The entry of the organ in the last movement was overwhelming, but I was as impressed by the way the speakers handled a magical moment in the third movement. There, the delicate interplay of strings and winds emerged with clarity and tonal truth, and when the piano at the side of the stage was joined by a tinkling triangle in the rear, each instrument emerged without any spotlighting or blending of their mid-treble tones, and with their spatial relationships intact.
The Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Gen III HSE is a revealing musical instrument in that any upstream changes can be instantly heard, but it has the warmth of music heard in a good concert hall. I threw a heavy load of demanding CDs and LPs at it, and it came up roses each time. It rocked with rock, swung with jazz, and clicked with classical, veering from mellow to analytical depending on the recording in question. In other words, what I fed into it was what came out of it -- without colorizing or bleaching. Most important, except for really wretched-sounding discs, listening was involving and free of fatigue. With my favorite intimate jazz and classical chamber-music discs, the musicians were in my room; in the big-bang orchestral, choral, and operatic repertoire that no home system can ever fully replicate, the VR-4 Gen III HSEs brought me closer to fulfilling the illusion of the real thing.
Bottom line: The VR-4 Gen III HSE is the most musically satisfying speaker Ive heard in my system, and is a prime candidate for the best value among speakers. If the VR-4 Gen II sounded better than anything Id heard under $10k, the $5995 VR-4 Gen III HSE ups the ante by a significant amount. Ive heard +$20,000 speakers that dont begin to rival it.
Price: $5995 USD per pair.
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor.
Von Schweikert Audio
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