ONLINE - ISSUE 26
Breaking the Code: The Von Schweikert VR-9
Where the loudspeaker meets the room
David Robinson has been very patient with me. This 'review'—or whatever it is—of the Von Schweikert VR-9 SE loudspeakers was supposed to happen a while ago. Every time I sat down to write something about them, another change would occur, and I would realize how incomplete anything I might write would be if I stopped at that point. After a while it became apparent to me that me writing about my experiences in my listening room is really about my learning as much as it is about a speaker, or any other piece of equipment. Things always change when you add or subtract components, or make adjustments in an audio system. I've just had to get used to it.
And finally, I am at a place where there is an ending… or at least a bit of a conclusion. It was not till the end that I could see where I was going, and where I had come from.
Theoretically, the perfect speaker for any room would be custom designed for that room. If the room was well enough designed, and the speaker had the capacity for performing up to the potential of the room, a very high level of performance would be attainable. Normal limitations for in-home music reproduction performance could be somewhat overcome ...theoretically. The speaker would need to be full range ...capable of significant response from below 20Hz to 50kHz, be very coherent, and reproduce music as an event and not just various separate parts of the music. If that could be done then your limitation would be the resolution and characteristics of the speaker drivers.
On the other hand, the process of designing that perfect speaker for that ideal room would likely be challenging. That process would likely involve some dead ends and much trial and error. It would also require a clear idea of exactly what the performance goals would be.
My last fourteen months' experience with the Von Schweikert VR-9 SE speakers was really just like designing the perfect speakers for my room, although at the beginning I did not understand that. The extreme adjustability of the VR9s also make it easy for those lacking speaker design experience to get pretty screwed up ...wandering in the wilderness so-to-speak. Anyone with a less than clear and well considered reference would also be challenged. It would be like designing your first speaker while you are developing your standards ...a moving target.
In my case, I had developed a sonic reference in a small room, but finding my way to musical bliss in a large room required me to improve my understanding of musical values and speaker design. I had to progress personally in my listening. In retrospect it has been fun and satisfying.
The great thing is the payoff. Once you 'break the code' and understand what you want and where you are; everything goes to another level of musical satisfaction. It's a tough job, but the good news is that this story has a happy ending.
Two years ago I had a room designed and built from a clean sheet of paper by the folks at Rives Audio. (To see my listening room's profile, refer to my photo essay of its design and execution in Positive Feedback Online Issue 16, at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue16/lavigneroom.htm.) I put no constraint on the designer and then I built exactly what was designed. One half of this theoretical idea was in hand, now converted to architectural reality. Eighteen months ago my room project was completed. I was very happy to be finished and really enjoyed setting up my system in the new room.
But all was not well. As much as I loved my Kharma Exquisites, they were just not capable of doing low bass in my new 29' x 21' x 11' room. The Exquisites were not able to deliver the same sense of micro-dynamic involvement I had fallen in love with in my previous 12' x 18' x 10' room.
Another problem surfaced when one of the room designers, Richard Bird, visited and did some measuring. The numbers showed a 6dB 'suck-out' at 80Hz and a 5dB peak at 130Hz. Was this a speaker issue or a room issue? We were only getting bass extension to about 40Hz, and had some good sized 'bumps' in the bass. Richard (the room designer) diplomatically said that all rooms had peaks and nulls along the long 'center-line' of any rectangular room. He added that the Kharmas might be the issue, but that investigation was beyond the scope of what we were prepared to do. More on this later.
This is not a knock on the Kharma Exquisites, but an issue of room and speaker matching. (Once more we see the importance of synergy at the level of system/room.) I had asked for a room design without compromise; now I needed speakers to match.
What to do?
I loved the coherency and uncolored clarity of the Kharmas, but I wanted a speaker with enough efficiency to work in my setting: a quite large and well damped room. I also wanted speakers that would mate well with the mid-powered amps that I liked. I wanted a speaker that sounded 'alive' and 'energized'; one that had the articulation and tonality in the bass; and yet one that could take full advantage of the potential of the new room by having very deep bass extension and high dynamic capability. Above all; I wanted a speaker that made music and did not call attention to itself, a speaker that disappeared and involved me ...a speaker that allowed the beauty and power of music to come alive.
My friend Jonathan Tinn of Chambers Audio (the US Distributor of the Von Schweikert VR-9 SE and the enormous VR-11s) had been telling me about the Von Schweikert VR-9 SE. He knew of my frustration with the Kharmas in my new room and of my search for the right speaker, and thought the VR-9 SEs might be an answer to my quest. Naturally, I wanted to hear them for myself to decide if they were candidates for my room. The problem is that the VR-9 SEs don't grow on trees; I'd probably have to wait for an audio show to check them out.
I didn't have to wait too long, though. At CES 2005 I finally got a chance to hear the VR-9 SEs in action. The specifications were appealing: it had a 1000-watt powered subwoofer, was 94 - 96dB/Watt/meter efficient, was very dynamic, and had a very 'live' and immediate sound. I heard that coherence and clarity that I loved in the Kharma. Was it involving? Could it be beautiful sounding?
Yes, I thought so. So I went ahead and ordered the VR-9 SEs; 4 months later they arrived, and I went to work. All that was a little over one year ago.
Fast-forward to today
In the last few weeks I have finally 'broken
the code' of my speakers. May 12th was the one year anniversary of the
arrival of the VR-9 SEs. Interestingly, that was also about the moment
when the clouds fully parted and I finally 'got most of it' regarding
the various adjustments the VR-9s offer. Let me explain what I mean.
Contained within the bass cabinet is the 1000 watt Class D powered 15" subwoofer in a sealed enclosure with a whole palette of adjustments: gain, phase, a 25Hz boost, and most importantly, an adjustable crossover. The dual front firing woofers descend down to 50Hz; the crossover on the sub allows for the sub to cross over to the woofers at any point from 50Hz up to 80Hz.
The VR9s have a separate enclosure for the mid-range and three tweeters, and another separate enclosure for the two woofers and integral powered subwoofer. The subwoofer is not ported. These two cabinets 'nest' together and are shipped already stacked in one large crate; the whole speaker weighs a very substantial 350 pounds, but as both the speaker and its crate are on castors, I was able to easily move the crates around my room and unload the speakers by myself.
Initially I was concerned about the castors preventing the speakers from reaching their bass potential, as they might not mechanically ground the speaker sufficiently. I also was interested in other footer choices that might exist. Von Schweikert assured me that the speaker had been designed to remain on the castors and my wood over concrete flooring would allow for an ideal acoustical de-coupling. The design of the VR-9 does not allow for experimentation in this regard, but my ears tell me I am now (though not originally—getting things right took time for me to understand how to make the most of the VR-9's capabilities) hearing the most detailed, articulate tuneful bass I have yet heard, so I must defer to the designer's perspective. I do have to admit that I still wonder what putting a set of Grand Prix Audio Apex footers under the VR-9s might do.
There are speaker terminals for the mid-tweeter cabinet and the woofer-subwoofer cabinet. At first I bi-wired with my Tenor 300-watt hybrid monoblocks, but eventually went with four channels of amplification from a pair of darTZeel NHB-108 Stereo amps. Added to the two dedicated channels of bass amplification, I now had six amps in the loop.
In the first few months of VR-9 ownership I fooled around with the crossover somewhat. Other owners of the VR-9 had recommended using the minimum crossover point of 50Hz. I had so many system and break-in issues that anything crossed over above 50Hz seemed to really cause muddiness and congestion. So I put the crossover at 50Hz and left it there. As I worked through the process of speaker break-in, speaker positioning, messing with power cords, racks, cartridges, amps, preamps, speaker cables, and overall system tuning ...I kinda forgot about the crossover. I had been convinced that keeping it at 50Hz was 'right.'
Chasing the bass
I was also chasing bass linearity. I started off with the VR-9s about 9' 8" into the room (29' long) from the wall behind the speakers and 10' 6" apart (in a 21' wide room). After playing around quite a bit I ended up at 8' 10" into the room, and 9' 6" apart. This location gave me the best bass articulation and flattest response.
The 6dB 'suck-out' at 80Hz was now gone, and the 5dB peak at 130Hz was also gone. I had essentially flat bass response ...actually slightly rising at 20hz from flat (my Phonic PAA3 doesn't measure below 20Hz) ...my opinion is that it is close to flat down to 15hz.
I was now just starting to get into the deep dodo of the interactive nature of this speaker. I was finding that the VR-9 SE was simply an open door to whatever it was fed or however it was adjusted ...it was all a question of audio context, due to its terrific flexibility. To tell you the truth, after fourteen months of working with this speaker, I'm not sure I could say that the VR-9 has a 'sound' of its own. I would assume that I had run into a limitation or characteristic of the speaker, and later find that what I had heard was either adjustment, system limitation, or my limitation. I have yet to find a 'dead-end' where the speaker is left holding the bag and making excuses. The VR-9 designers have put enough state-of-the-art pieces and careful design into these beasts so that once you find the right approach, you are THERE.
As I pursued bass performance I found that everything I changed caused me to adjust the bass gain. At first I was using a stock Belden power cord on the subwoofer digital amps. I was getting considerable bass distortion. When I tried the Jena Labs Fundamental One Power cords, there was an unbelievable improvement in bass linearity and coherence which allowed me to increase the bass gain. It also surprisingly improved the sound up the rest of the frequency range too. This JENA Labs power cord is only on the subs, which were only going up to 50Hz. Why could it make such a large difference? My opinion is that the VR-9 SE's integral in-line power conditioner was preventing digital back-fill into my power grid from the 1000 watt digital amp.
I then tried the Grand Prix Audio amp stands for my main amplifiers (which at that time were the Tenor 300-watt monoblocks). This change had a huge effect again on bass linearity and coherence up and down the frequency range. There seemed to be no limit on the speaker's sensitivity to changes. Is this a good thing? At that time I wasn't sure. Later on I had the same experience with a second set of Opus speaker cables. The speaker seems to keep on revealing more musical information as you work at improving the associated components.
A confession: I am no techie.
Another admission: I have never designed a speaker and don't understand (or rather did not understand at the beginning) very much about how drivers are combined to work together.
So here I am with likely the world's most adjustable speaker, this big room with all this potential, and I was making major changes in my system configuration as I went along, too.
(An important side note: in the last twelve months my whole system has changed to conform to and take advantage of the potential of the room and speakers. I switched all my power cords, all my equipment racks and amp stands, upgraded my digital, changed amps, added speaker cables, and changed preamp and phono stage. The only remaining gear from my initial move into my room is one set of speaker cables and my turntable. Not all these changes were part of sorting out the room, but many were. The room and the VR-9 SE speakers leave absolutely no place to hide.)
Shifting to the tweeters
The upper section features the VR-9 SE's tweeters. The front mid-tweeter and the ribbon super tweeter each have a 20 step adjustment for gain. The rear 'ambience' tweeter has a continuous dial with 10 steps. The range of adjustment for these tweeter was from +2dB to -5dB (in 20 steps).
I found that the front mid-tweeter had a dominating effect on the sound. It would determine the level of naturalness or edge in the system. It was fascinating to hear how an adjustment of one small step would change the balance of the system, and even change the level of imaging. Finally getting this right turned out to be very key to 'breaking the code.' The front super tweeter did have a good deal of influence in the degree of 'air' and it could cause a bit of background 'hash' if set too hot.
Most of the frustration with adjustments came from trying to squeeze as much detail as possible from these tweeters without causing any edge. It was not until I understood the influence of the bass adjustments to high frequency performance that I finally got these parameters right.
Hunting the sound shifter
I found that the VR-9 speakers in my room are true chameleons; everything makes big differences. I got a sense that if I solved my system issues and really dialed these speakers, there would be almost no limit to where I could go.
Later I discovered that I am the only real
limitation to these speakers.
The system sounded very good, but when I would turn up the tweeters there would be a slight edge on certain music. Many visitors would comment that they thought the system was sounding outstanding, but wasn't exactly what they liked. Many commented they would prefer a bit more warmth. The speakers/system had amazing bass, amazing detail, and amazing soundstaging ...but the level of emotional involvement was inconsistent.
I ended up adjusting the tweeter settings
for digital and analogue differently. This was due to my Van den Hul
Colibri cartridge, which would be too revealing on some LPs for my
tweeter setting, while the digital was natural sounding at the same
value. Eventually I purchased the Dynavector XV-1s cartridge [reviewed
by David W. Robinson in PFO Issue 25 …see
http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue25/monaco.htm] to allow more
LPs to be listenable ...but then missed the amazing level of detail and
explosiveness of my Colibri.
At this point my sense was that I had
reached a good point in room sonics. There would still be small
incremental improvements, but the big steps of speaker and system
refinement were behind me.
The VR-9 approach does optimize the way in which the sub is integrated. The sub is in a sealed box and is integrated into the lower enclosure with the twin bass drivers; it takes its source signal from the bass speaker cable terminals and therefore mimics the character of the main amps (the digital sub amp is very neutral). The sub driver is very stiff and linear and matches the 'speed' and character of the woofers. In total the sub was simply doing its job correctly.
As I had learned about how to adjust my speakers, I had taken a kind of class in speaker design. The adjustability of the VR-9 SE had been a curse and a source of frustration; but once I 'broke the code,' that adjustability became a real blessing.
At this point I no longer needed to adjust
the tweeters differently for analogue and digital. My Colibri cartridge
was now completely happy ...and when it is happy I am happy. Not that
there aren't still the occasional problems; there are still a few very
'hot' LPs where some visitors prefer one step down on my mid-tweeter
(mostly RCA Shaded Dogs that were mastered too hot).
This helped me to figure out the relationship between the crossover and the subwoofer gain adjustment.
One revelation that is crystal clear to me is that the foundation of the music lives in the bass. Music exists on a bed of ambience that lives in the deep bass. When you combine a speaker that has essentially unlimited bass potential with a room uncompromisingly designed to allow that bass to work ...and then you 'break the code' on how to make it function perfectly ...you will not believe what is possible. Honestly; words fail me. I just wish my skill with words matched the magnificence of what I hear.
I reached a point where I crossed a
threshold into another place. A place where the whole reproduction chain
has simply ceased to be evident ...inconsequential ...not worth
"...wanted to take another stab at articulating what made our listening
session yesterday so noteworthy for me.
It is the first I heard that is BOTH highly accurate (deep resolution)
as well as highly involving.
As I was ready to call things finally 'set' I had another visitor who enjoyed the system and room but had a recommendation that possibly image focus and stage depth might improve if I moved the speakers out about 6 inches each and toe them in a bit more. My first reaction was 'denial' but a few days later I played around with positioning. I had not moved the speakers at all since my initial set-up (8' 10" from the rear wall and 9' 6" apart). There had been so many changes to my system and speaker adjustments that I suspected that my friend was likely correct. What had been right back then was likely not right any more.
And he was VERY right. I moved the speakers to about 20 different positions as much as 7 inches wider each and 6 inches forward ...with many different toe-in considerations. I ended up at 9' from the back-wall (2" forward), and 10' 5" apart (11" farther apart) ...and toed in, so that instead of aiming at the outside of my shoulders, they are aimed at my ears.
I now have considerably better center-fill, much better image focus, slight improvement in tonal shading and greatly increased sense of stage depth, height and layering. There is a very slight reduction of the sense of wrap-around. Overall a much more compelling and involving sound.
For the last couple of weeks it has been listening bliss. I try to listen critically but I am sucked into the music.
Am I just climbing up to another 'false ridge'?
No. This is the real deal. With a little help from some friends, I think that I have tamed these beasts. I am no longer the limitation to the speakers.
So how do the VR9s sound? Go down your checklist of speaker attributes and check every one. No weaknesses. Perfect balance.
In the context of my particular system and room the VR9s are sweet, detailed, holographic, and perfectly coherent. You cannot pick out any driver, crossover or cabinet issues, and yet this is a 6-way speaker with 7 drivers. With my choice of amps the system sounds like the best of tubes and the best of solid state ...and like neither one.
This speaker in this room has bass performance to die for in every respect. The treble delicacy and ease is magical. The mid-range has textural nuance, clarity, tonal fire, and refinement.
Most of all; the speakers disappear and make music that pulls you in and grabs you. As my visitors commented; the speakers and system combine to bring all the beauty and all the truth of the music. Whether it is small jazz combo, full orchestral bombast, female vocal, or Snoop Daddy ...it will take you all the way there ...or bring them to you ...whichever the recording delivers.
The more complicated and demanding the music, the more sense of control and ease you get. The most musically complicated and dynamic crescendos are child's play for this speaker in my room and system. Think of your favorite high powered rock and roll and it'll take you there. Love piano or violin ...guitar ...any horn ...all life-like with full power and dynamics to the level of the software. Vocals just happen ...lifelike and full of life. Very delicate and nuanced classical pieces are naturally rendered and full of emotion and musical tension. At low listening levels the speakers and system are still able to energize the room with a great sense of venue and bed of ambience.
This is a world class speaker that can be fully optimized for any sufficient room or most systems I am aware of. Since the VR-9 is 94dB to 96dB efficient, one could choose quite low powered SET's (you'd need two pair) if that is what you liked. Anyone in the market for a speaker in this price range should listen to what this speaker can do and realize you are only hearing a small percentage of what YOU could get it to do.
Is this the best speaker? I'd say that it is easily the best speaker overall on the market I have yet heard (which obviously includes my room and system) ...so yes; it is the BEST speaker for my room. It is hard to imagine a less adjustable speaker having the ability to be fully optimized in my room. The VR-11 (the big brother of the VR-9 SE) may be better, but I've not heard it optimized so that would just be an educated guess.
To sum up, I cannot recommend the VR-9 SE speakers more highly. They are definitely not cheap at $75K, but from my experience they deliver the mountaintop. If you have the commitment and patience to 'break the code' of audio playback, the VR-9 SE will take you as far as you want to go.
Von Schweikert VR-9 SE