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Positive Feedback ISSUE 69
Audio Circular: Number Six in a Series of Parallel Narratives
The Von Schweikert VR-22 Loudspeakers: The V (Should Stand) for Value!
Actually, the V stands for Virtual, as in Virtual Reality.
In addition to building some of the most expensive loudspeakers on the planet, Albert Von Schweikert designs and builds very nice, very cost effective loudspeakers. The VR-22 is an updated version of AVS's first commercial speaker design: the Vortex Screen. While the original Vortex Screen was a cost-no-object product, the modestly priced VR-22 uses technology "trickled-down" from VSA's current upscale models to ensure a substantial value for the customer. And while real wood veneer and mirror-finish paints are certainly pleasing to the eye, by excluding these elaborate cabinet finishes VSA can spend more money on higher quality parts and solid cabinet construction. At $2895 retail (direct from the factory, shipping included within the continental United States), purchasing the VR-22 should be in reach of nearly any devoted audiophile.
The VR-22 is a two way, rear-ported, Quasi-Transmission Line design featuring Scan-Speak drivers. Their one inch carbon-coated fabric dome tweeter and exotic eight inch woofer with glass fiber nanotube carbon-coated cone claim a frequency range from 30Hz to 40kHz! The trapezoidal cabinets are dense, multi-layered affairs utilizing one inch HDF, artificial stone blocks, and rubber sheeting then stuffed with Dacron to dampen box resonances. The cabinet is essentially dead, and at 83 pounds per speaker, dead weight too. Unboxing and moving them is a chore that requires a strong back and a hand truck. Though not fancy, the speakers are quite stylish. Available in a number of different color cloths and wood end cap finishes, the pair I have in house feature a Mocha colored "sock" covering the speaker body, and beautiful Coco Noche wood end caps with titanium floor spikes underneath the plinth. At 40 inches high x 16 inches wide (9.5 inches wide at the front baffle) x 12 inches deep, "The speakers are big." (My wife's words); yet the trapezoidal cabinet shape and understated light brown hue help soften the "bigness". In fact, pushed back against the wall, the VR-22s blend so well with their surroundings they effectively disappear when the lights are low.
For additional technical information and a description of Mr. Von Schweikert's design goals, please visit Von Schweikert Audio's website here: http://vonschweikertaudio.com
Ready, Set-up, and Go!
Once they are out of the box, the VR-22s are easy to set up. The top cap and bottom plinth simply pop on using plastic inserts, and the plinth has threaded inserts for the spikes. Metal disks are included to protect wood and other hard surface floors. The spikes, however, should probably be left off until the speakers have broken in and are positioned within a few inches of their intended home. It makes location adjustments easier and safer for the speakers and the flooring. My current listening room is not 100% dedicated to hi-fi, but I am generally able to set it up as I please. While total area volume is greater due to contiguous spaces, the size of the listening area is 16 feet long by 12 feet wide with a vaulted ceiling. I have the system set up on the short wall, just below the highest point (10 feet) in the room; with my chair about three feet clear of the rear wall opposite the speakers. I do have side wall reinforcement on one side, but by careful placement, I have been able to mitigate bass gain from the corner.
Close to the Wall, Round by the Corner…
In the past ten years, every speaker I have had in house needed breathing space behind to sound their best. Some needed LOTS of space. Fortunately, the VR-22s do not. They use the rear wall as boundary reinforcement and when the off-wall distance is just right, bass gains definition and extension without sacrificing depth of stage. I'll admit, I had a hard time believing these 40 inch high towers could be placed so close to the wall and still sound good, but they do. It's really quite remarkable.
Per VSA's owner's manual, I initially located the speakers 30 inches off and parallel to the rear wall—with no toe-in whatsoever. It was surprisingly obvious from the first recording played that this was too far out (Hey man, that's far-out!), so I pushed them 6 inches closer. Honestly, I was expecting to hear overblown one-note bass as I moved ever nearer to the wall, but I could not have been more wrong. The net effect was not just an increase in quantity of bass, but more importantly, improved bass quality. I continued to move them an inch at a time until they were 17 inches from the back wall. The speakers seemed to like it there, a good starting point. After a few nights of trial and error, I set the width of the speakers at six feet, six inches center to center and 30 inches off the sidewall. This seemed to give the widest stage without compromising center imaging. But again, the real key to the VR sound is the distance off the back wall. For weeks I played a game of back and forth from 20 inches to 6 inches out. With each move I learned a little more about the VRs and how they worked in my room. Once I felt the speakers were properly broken-in I moved them in half inch increments until I found the sweet spot balancing frequency response and staging. This turned out to be 10 inches off the wall to the rear of the speakers.
Listen Up Cowpoke!
Unbroken (in) loudspeakers can be lively bucking beasts. In my experience, some transducers take an exceedingly long and torturous path from lead rope to saddle. The VSAs are certainly not tortuous, but they do take the patience of an old ranch hand. In the days following unboxing, I noted the tweeter sounded somewhat veiled, and coherence between drivers was not always seamless. Albert had warned me to let them settle in for a while. Loosening up the woofer takes time, and during this period of a few hundred hours or so, performance bounced around from okay to terrific and back to okay. But this all changed at about 300-400 hours of moderate volume play. Bass became tighter and more extended, and the tweeter lost its slightly opaque quality. Once run in for the recommended 500 hours, the 22s jelled with an almost spooky suddenness, as if they knew they were supposed to do so. The difference was not subtle.
The Play by Play
Albert had told me he thought my reference single-ended 845 amp would drive the 22s, so it was the first amp I connected. Even though the speakers are a fairly easy load at 90dB sensitivity and 8 ohm average Impedance, it is asking a lot for 10 watts to drive them. In fact, during the first few days of their audio partnership, I supposed the sound was seriously compromised by a lack of power. Thinking I needed more muscle, I went on a mission to find it.
In what amounted to poor timing, I had recently sold a McCormack DNA-1, so other than my trusty Yamaha DSP-A1 Home Theater Receiver, I didn't have a high wattage amp in the stable. For a couple of days I used the DSP-A1 and enjoyed the additional measure of dynamic punch and top-end extension. As treble performance blossomed, the Yamaha began sounding a bit strident and peaky, so I swapped in my rebuilt 1959 Eico HF86 EL84 amp. At 14 watts/channel, I would have thought this amp could drive the 22s with a bit more authority than the 845, but that was not the case. The mid-range sounded good, but treble was rolled off and bass was tubby. Somewhat disappointed, I hooked the 845 amp back up again. The 845 is three-stage single-ended DHT amp that I affectionately refer to as Mona Clone. A DIY version of the Larry D. Moore designed Monaco Amplifier; the Mona Clone has one hell of a serious power supply, so it was only a minor surprise when it began to sound very good. While I concede the VR-22 benefits from additional juice, I now believe speaker break-in tricked me into thinking the Mona Clone was not adequate to drive the VSAs. As the speakers loosened up, this combination just kept sounding better and better, and at the lower volumes at which I typically listen, even rock sounded great. For reasons unknown, I never put the Eico back in the chain, but I expect it would also sound much better post break-in.
Caveat Emptor: Though my tube amp does indeed sound excellent driving the VRs, I don't think it would be prudent for me to suggest that using a Triode SET amp with power output lower than VSA recommends is a recipe for system success. Mr. Von Schweikert is the expert to ask if you are unsure if your amp will play well with the VR-22s.
More Power? Yes… MORE POWER!!!
While the good news/bad news with the SET amp was anticipated, throwing the DSP-A1 in the system yielded unexpected results. There was no question it drove the woofer with authority and sounded good enough to convince me more power had an undeniably positive effect. After an email exchange with Positive Feedback Senior Editor and VSA owner Greg Weaver, I decided to try a pair of Channel Islands Audio D100-B Class D Mono block amps to give the VR-22s an energy boost. VSA and Channel Islands work together often, so it made sense that they would be synergistic companions. At 100 watts per channel, the CIAudio amps sound much different than my other amplifiers, providing dead-quiet clarity, pristine treble, and additional control of those fine 8-inch Scan-Speak woofers.
The VR-22 Sound?
The VR-22s do have a voice of their own I suppose—if smoothly extended treble and fast dynamic bass is a voicing. They are just a touch on the warm side of neutral and have that mysterious "certain something" that is hard to put a label on. Not to be oxymoronic, but I call it natural neutrality. They are transparent and resolving without being in-your-face. Inner resolution is especially good. Staging, while more diffuse than other speakers I've owned, is huge and three-dimensional. The VR-22s are not laser-like imagers, but set straight into the room they have the largest sweet spot of any speaker I have lodged in the GBeard Tune Saloon. Even with the speakers 10 inches from the back wall, depth is excellent and the speakers have little difficulty inducing a feeling of presence in the venue, especially on exceptional live recordings. As someone who has listened primarily to stand-mounted speaker designs, this gigantic, nearly full-range sound is quite impressive.
Sound the Trumpets (or the Guitars, or the Synthesizers), Break-in's Over?!?
My vinyl rig was sounding great, so late one Saturday night I pulled out a couple of old favorites; Alan Parsons' I Robot and Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams, and tracked them on the Music Hall MMF-9. I've never heard my LPs sound better. The music was dynamic, palpable, extended, and so damn enjoyable. And yes Albert, I had goose bumps a few times too!
I've spun numerous records and decoded Gigs of digital files while hosting the VSA VR-22s. Folk, Country, R&B, Bluegrass, Jazz, Classical, and even a few audiophile recordings have found their way into the lineup. But listening to my old rock favorites has been especially satisfying. The Beatles, Cream, The Doors, Frank Zappa… Every cut gave me something memorable, but in many cases, it was the lower octaves that really thrilled me. The bass line on The Who's "Getting in Tune" sounded absolutely terrific. The Doobie's "Dark Eyed Cajun Woman" in 24/192 high res was fabulous. But the VSAs are not just great bass performers; they can transform a good rock recording into a dazzling gem. One great listen was Blood, Sweat & Tears' remastered 16/44.1 version of Carole King's gospel tinged "Hi De Ho" from Blood, Sweat & Tears 3. This fine recording has a wide variation in tempo, with terrific brassy horns and emotional vocals. David Clayton-Thomas was front and center while the backup singers and rhythm section enveloped the room. The VR-22s imparted a sense of ease and aliveness that bordered on amazing. The new HDTracks Rush remasters sounded spectacular as well: Alex Lifeson's screaming guitar shreds it to pieces; Geddy Lee's falsetto and masterful bass draws you deeply into it; and Neil Peart's dynamic drumming pounds the livin' crap out of it.
Okay, you busted me, I love Rush…
Truths Unveiled - Albert Was Dead-On
When Albert first suggested that I might want to write about his new entry-level wunderkind, he gave me the option of a single-wired or bi-wired pair of speakers, and offered to send a set of his Master-Built bi-wire speaker cables if I opted to go that route. My mind was so completely set on value that I respectfully requested the single wired pair. In retrospect, that was probably a miscalculation. But the conversation got me thinking about cables, and I began to seriously consider an upgrade. I'd been using Kimber 4TC speaker cables to good effect for quite a while, but suspected I could garner improved sound with a shorter, higher performing pair. And as luck would have it, while perusing the used gear websites, I stumbled upon a listing for a 6 foot pair of single wire Master-Built "Purple Line" speaker cables. These cables were unknown to me, so it was fate that I found and purchased them. As a cable-curmudgeon, I hate spending money on gear that just lays there, no lights, no knobs, no tubes, and no fun—so while acknowledging cables make a significant difference, I never expect any dropping of the corpus mandible. However, once installed I was just slightly less than stunned (and delighted) with the immediate improvement these entry-level Master-Built cables made, especially in clarity and enhanced depth of the lower frequencies; a stark reminder of why cables are so important in a high performance system. Yes Albert, I should have read between the bi-wire lines and listened to the best VR-22 you have to offer. I'll never make that mistake again.
More Daring Truths
Right up to sweet-end of this article, I was convinced that the VR-22s were ever so slightly deficient in the midrange. Wrong. While not mid-rich, they are, if anything, balanced in their two-way approach to sound reproduction. It just takes a while for them to get balanced. I had also talked myself into believing that the 845 amp was not powerful enough to drive them. Wrong again. After nearly 6 weeks of listening to the CIAudio amps non-stop, I decided to turn up the AC and hook up the tube amp one more time. I was immediately struck by the difference. It is true, the VRs do benefit from power, but as good as the Class D amps are, the Mona Clone bests them (by an admittedly small yet noticeable margin) in dimensionality, tonal richness, and texture. Especially for low volume listening, the 845/VR-22 is a magical combination. Then again, when the desire to crank it stirs from deep within and the air guitar is slung over the shoulder for a virtual "Stairway to Heaven" solo, then it is the CIA's turn to kick ass and take no prisoners. As good as the tube amp sounds; it can't quite keep the 'cuffs on the prisoners after 11 o'clock on the dial.
One of the things I love most about the VR-22s is how well they play a demanding recording like the absurd electronica of Yello's Baby with its glittering clarity and speed, only to take on a new temperament while playing a vintage rock and roll recording. The HDTracks 24-bit/192kHz recording of the Doobie Brothers seminal Captain and Me is a tour-de-force of 1970's rock. The warmly relaxed, ever-so-slightly compressed sound echoes my original LP with its delicate steeliness, soaring vocal harmonies, and pounding drums; all sounding as if they were spilling out of the finest Large Advents in the Universe. Henry Kloss would've been proud. On a more recent recording, Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time, it is easy to hear the infinitely better reproduction we audio-nuts love. The wonderful clarity and wide dynamic range of the 22s are on full display. And it gets even better: On Lyle Lovett's "North Dakota" from Joshua Judges Ruth, the VR-22s showed off their ability to reproduce spatial cues and micro-dynamics from whisper to wham! Staging was quietly huge, and drum thwacks were startling and specific in both localization and realism. Piano had a wonderfully natural attack and decay and in his inimitable style, Lyle was Lyle.
As you may have figured by now, there are two areas where I believe the VR-22s particularly excel; one is low volume listening. My ears are very sensitive these days and I prefer the majority of my listening to be at lower than concert levels. Even with the volume knob at a minimum number, the 22s maintain excellent resolution and dynamics. And I must mention the bass performance again. The 8" Scan-Speak nanotube woofer is expressively tuneful, lightning fast, and never fails to impress me.
I've really been very happy with the VR-22s, but they can't be perfect, so what are the skeletons in the closet? There are not many really, so I'm gonna be persnickety here. Although they have terrific bass and lovely treble, the VR-22s cannot play the very lowest of the low notes, nor are they ultra-detailed at the top (which is not necessarily a flaw in my book, but it may be in yours). Timbre, though very good, can be bettered and it may lack a smidgeon of midrange refinement as well. But these are subtractive limitations and I prefer them to overblown bass, etched edgy treble, or rosy mucked up middles. The hyper-critical will likely find other faults, but for $2895 delivered, I'm not complaining about much of anything other than you need to be careful not to kick the bottom plate with your bare toes! Ouch! In my opinion, the VR-22s negatives are such that unless you are directly comparing to a more accomplished speaker you may never notice—nor care about—what you might be missing. With near full-range frequency extension, unfussy set-up, incredibly wide staging and superb off-axis listening, the VR-22 is an exceptional value. And bizarrely, the VR-22 may be as close to a "lifestyle" component as any humongous 83 pound monolith of a loudspeaker could possibly be. That gives the VSA an unusually high Spousal Acceptance Factor too. My lovely hasn't complained about them in weeks!
When I first received the VR-22s, I wasn't really sure if I would ever want to own a pair. Now they are leaving only because another VSA VR model has been requested. So, is the Von Schweikert Audio VR-22 a great loudspeaker? Well, hmmm… I think I will leave it up to more experienced listeners to make that proclamation if they so choose. I will say this: The VR-22 is an excellent loudspeaker and there is no question in my mind that they are a great value. And even with hundreds of hours of play under their transducer belts they are still improving.
If this narrative sounds enthusiastic to a fault, so be it. If this speaker was twice the price, required extensive real-estate and/or five figure partners to sound its best, then my conclusions would be far more critically reserved. But the fact is, I've enjoyed these speakers with relatively modest electronics (by audiophile standards) and pushed up hard against a wall with a corner on one side. To add the cherry on top of the equation, the VR-22s tip the low end of the fine audio speaker price scale… So what's not to love? The Von Schweikert VR-22s are quite simply, the most enjoyable speakers I have had in my home, and I will miss them dearly when they travel on.
Von Schweikert Audio