- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 00:00
- Written by Uday Reddy
I’m the envy of all my audiophile/home-theater buddies because I have my own dedicated sound room. It may not reach the heights of Jeff Fritz’s Music Vault, but it’s a great-sounding room and I don’t have to share it with anyone. Most audiophiles have to deal with the Wife Acceptance Factor (sorry, ladies, but almost all of us are guys), or settle for a system that does both audio and home-theater duties. Unless you have built-in, wall-mounted speakers, there’s going to have to be some compromise with speaker placement in the name of marital harmony. While Albert Von Schweikert may not have had the WAF primarily in mind, he did bring all his technical expertise to bear on the issue of a less obtrusive, against-the-wall type of speaker that would satisfy audiophile and spouse.
I first caught a glimpse of Von Schweikert’s approach in an advertisement in Stereophile for his VR-33 loudspeaker, which is sold factory-direct for $4500 USD per pair. Designed to be placed flush against a wall, it’s described by the company as the best $15,000 loudspeaker that can be had for $4500. Intrigued, I made some inquiries. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was interested. Von Schweikert’s dealer network had begun clamoring for such a model to offer in their showrooms. Thus was born the VR-35 Export Deluxe ($10,000/pair), which, Von Schweikert claims, offers better performance than the VR-33 through higher-quality components and construction.
In preparing this review, I spoke a good deal with Albert Von Schweikert (AVS), in person and over the phone. Not only is he a true gentleman, he’s also quite a polymath. For more background on his incredible life story, check out Garrett Hongo’s excellent profile of him on Ultra Audio (Part One, Part Two).
As mentioned earlier, the VR-35 Export Deluxe was designed to be placed against a wall, the idea being that boundary loading by the wall would result in three-dimensional imaging and depth of field.
Built of 25mm-thick, resin-impregnated MDF and weighing 115 pounds, the VR-35 Export Deluxe’s trapezoidal cabinet has massive internal shelf bracing, to eliminate resonances and coloration. To further quell unwanted resonances and thus improve clarity and transparency, the VR-35 employs internal damping pads made of artificial stone and rubberized felt. The trapezoidal shape allows soundwaves from the forward-firing drivers to be directed sideways and reflected off the speaker’s angled sides rather than the front wall of the room, to provide controlled directivity and thus enable the soundstage to be dictated by the size of the wall behind the speakers.
The four drivers are all made in Denmark by Scan-Speak: a dual-ring, 1” silk-dome tweeter; two 6” midrange-woofers whose cones are made of paper, plastic, resin, and carbon fiber; and a rear-firing woofer with a 10” cone of lightweight composite. The tweeter, chosen for its smooth treble, has a chambered rear cup to absorb any reflections from the back of the dome, and a low-distortion motor for the cleanest sound. To reproduce powerful bass, the woofer is loaded by a triple-chambered transmission line hybrid design.
The VR-35’s claimed frequency response is 25Hz-30kHz, with a sensitivity of 90dB and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. The crossover is first-order, with crossover frequencies of 80Hz and 6kHz. Given such specs, the VR-35 won’t be difficult to drive for amps of moderate to high power. Lower-powered amps can be used, but in smaller rooms and at lower volumes.
The VR-35 is fairly large (50"H x 12"D), but its visual bulk is minimized by its narrow frontal aspect: the front baffle is only 8"W, while the rear panel is 16"W. Two sets of high-quality, chromed five-way binding posts near the rear panel’s base allow for biwiring.
Standard finishes are platinum grille fabric with brushed-aluminum top and bottom caps, or black grilles with high-gloss piano-black caps. Other finishes are available at extra cost. The review pair was finished in platinum and aluminum, and the fit'n'finish was world class. The supplied chrome-plated spikes must be the best-looking I’ve ever seen. Too bad they’re largely hidden from view.
The Von Schweikert factory is only a 90-minute drive from my home, so AVS and an employee drove the VR-35s over to my place and helped set them up in my room. After removing the spikes, they positioned the speakers against the front wall, farther back than my previous speakers had been. But the soundstage was too narrow, so they moved the VR-35s laterally apart, toward the sidewalls. The soundstage was now wider, but the left-to-right balance had been thrown off -- to compensate, I had to adjust the balance control on my integrated amplifier. Although my room is fairly symmetrical, there’s a fireplace midway along the right wall, with an alcove to either side. AVS hypothesized that the alcove next to the right-channel speaker was causing the imbalance, and recommended that the VR-35s be repositioned along the long axis of the room opposite the fireplace. After moving around some furniture, we shifted the position of my equipment rack and the VR-35s to the suggested wall, then began determining the best positions along that wall.
At first the VR-35s were too close together, which resulted in a bubble-like soundstage: the central image was too far forward, the edges of the stage greatly recessed. Moving the speakers to about 2’ from the corners of the room produced optimal soundstaging and focus. The VR-35s’ positions finalized, we attached the carpet-piercing spikes, and AVS and company departed. Although I don’t biwire my speakers, at AVS’s request I auditioned the VR-35s using Von Schweikert Audio’s proprietary VSA Master-Built biwired cables. However, I made no comparisons of this setup with my own cables. The review samples had been burned in at the factory, so they were ready to go. So was I.
First, compared with any of the freestanding speakers I’ve had in my room, I heard no significant compromise in the sound of the Von Schweikert VR-35s when they were placed flush with the wall. Indeed, the VR-35s weren’t only good for what they could do in that position; they were flat-out good regardless of that position.
The soundstage was as broad and nearly as deep as those of the best speakers I’ve had in my room, and the imaging was very realistic and natural; to visualize the soundstage, I didn’t even have to close my eyes. The soundstage not only extended beyond the locations of the speakers, it seemed to stand apart from them, as if the VR-35s were standing freely out in the room instead of against the wall. I’m accustomed to having speakers out in the room; seeing the VR-35s against the wall, yet soundstaging like a pair of freestanding speakers, was quite astonishing. Also, because of the VR-35s’ wide dispersion, the sweet spot was much wider; even off-axis listening was enjoyable. Although the speakers were close to the corners and sidewalls, early reflections didn’t seem to be a problem.
Like many other speaker designers, Albert Von Schweikert strives to reproduce the sound of his reference: classic Quad electrostatics. I’ve had limited experience of vintage Quads, but considerably more of modern electrostatic loudspeakers, Quads included. While not quite as fast as an electrostat, the VR-35 had exceptional transient response for a dynamic design, something especially noticeable with classical and acoustic jazz recordings. The midrange was tonally rich and had natural warmth, especially with acoustic music, which made the music come alive in just the way in which electrostats excel.
Although after 30 years Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems dated, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for the film sounds timeless, and the two-CD 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (16/44.1 AIFF, Columbia/Legacy) sounded spectacular through the VR-35s. The silk tweeter was particularly sweet; the combination of this with that rich midrange and transparency made the “Main Title” fanfare simply glorious.
Last year I purchased the two-CD set Forever, a live trio recording by pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White. I loved it so much that when a 24/96 USB drive containing an additional five hours of music from the tour was released, I readily bought it. With “Footprints” (24/96 AIFF, Concord), the VR-35’s midrange richness and electrostatic-like clarity allowed the interplay between the three musicians to shine through, as they improvised and anticipated where each other would go next.
With every component I evaluate, I mostly listen to large-scale orchestral works and small acoustic jazz ensembles before moving on to other genres. However, something about the VR-35s screamed, “Let’s rock!” -- I ended up spending more time listening to track after track of my favorite rock recordings. Unbelievably, the Von Schweikerts had quite an affinity for heavy metal, particularly Metallica. “Enter Sandman,” from Metallica (aka the Black Album, 16/44.1 AIFF, Elektra), was propulsive and weighty through the VR-35s, with just the right amount of punch and gloomy heaviness. But it wasn’t all sound and fury -- the speaker’s clarity allowed previously little-noticed instrumental details to be more easily heard. Despite having heard this album countless times over the last 20 years, I can confidently say that I’ve rarely, if ever, heard it sound better. More important, the VR-35’s low-frequency extension and tightness of bass allowed the rhythm section of Jason Newsted and Lars Ulrich to have the proper force of impact without sounding muddy or indistinct, despite the against-the-wall placement.
Albert Von Schweikert seems to have hit the sweet spot: the midrange richness and clarity of an electrostatic speaker married to the bass and impact of a dynamic design.
When I’d finished my initial evaluation of the VR-35 Export Deluxes, I set up my Wilson Audio Sophia 1s ($11,700/pair when available) along the same wall, so I could get a feel for how they sounded in the new positions, before doing any comparisons. I actually preferred these new positions with the Wilsons -- they’ll be my default speaker positions from now on. After getting a good handle on the Sophias in their new spots, I moved them out of the way and began listening to the VR-35s again.
Although other speakers I’ve auditioned have bettered the Sophias in one or more respects, they remain very musical loudspeakers suited to a wide range of genres. I felt the same way about the VR-35s. No matter what kind of music I listened to, I never felt I was having to do without some aspect of reproduction for the sake of all-around good sound. While both speakers leaned toward the warmer side of neutral, the VR-35s were more tonally neutral than the Sophias and had more clarity and top-octave air; finer details were more clearly revealed. Both speakers imaged very well, but the VR-35s were somewhat less tightly focused, presenting a softer, less spotlit aural picture, much like that produced by the YG Acoustics Carmel speakers, which I reviewed for Ultra Audio in February 2011. As a result, with unamplified music, particularly classical, music through the VR-35s sounded more as live music would.
The VR-35s clearly outperformed the Sophias in the bass, with low-frequency weight and impact the Sophias just could not match. I’d expected that the bass would suffer from excessive reinforcement because of the VR-35’s rear-firing port and placement against the wall, but this wasn’t the case. While the VR-35 may not have had quite the low-end grunt of the PBN Audio Montana InnerChoic Liberty speakers, which I reviewed last December, they went plenty low, with ample bass at 30Hz and low-level but still useful output at 25Hz.
Von Schweikert Audio’s VR-35 Export Deluxe is a remarkable loudspeaker. It performed wonderfully, handling all musical genres with aplomb. I recently heard VSA’s new VR-44 model at T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, California, and the VR-35 definitely has the DNA and house sound of the company’s other models: carefully executed engineering resulting in little sonic compromise, to achieve a sound worthy of any audiophile’s expectations. Even if, like me, you don’t have to worry about the WAF, you owe it to yourself to check out this category-defying design. But if you’re like most audiophiles and you do have to satisfy the spouse, a pair of VR-35s may give you the best of both worlds: musical and marital bliss.
. . . Uday Reddy
- Loudspeakers -- Wilson Audio Sophia 1, Audioengine A2
- Integrated amplifier -- Jeff Rowland Design Group Concentra
- Digital sources -- Meitner Audio MA-1 DAC, Apple Mac Mini running OSX 10.7.4, iTunes 10.6.1, Amarra 2.4, remote-controlled using screen sharing via iMac OS 10.7.4, Logitech Transporter Music Server, Devilsound USB DAC
- Interconnects -- Cardas Audio Neutral Reference, Halide Design S/PDIF asynchronous USB Bridge with BNC termination
- Speaker cables -- Cardas Audio Neutral Reference
- Headphone system -- Sennheiser HD600 with Cardas headphone cable upgrade, Ultimate Ears UE 11 Pro, Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline The Predator headphone amplifier
- Accessories -- Audio Power Industries Power Pack II power conditioner; Cardas Twinlink and Cardas Cross power cords; Cardas Audio Signature XLR, RCA, and BNC caps; Cardas/Ayre Acoustics Irrational, But Efficacious! burn-in CD
Von Schweikert Audio VR-35 Export Deluxe Loudspeakers
Price: $10,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (nontransferable).
Von Schweikert Audio
1040-A Northgate Street
Riverside, CA 92507
Phone: (951) 682-0706
Fax: (951) 682-6701