ONLINE - ISSUE 9
as reviewed by Steve Lefkowicz
My first encounter with VMPS speakers in my home dates back a couple of years, when I reviewed a pair of their RM-2neos as part of a large comparison article for Listener magazine (Vol. 8, No. 2). I found that the RM-2neos, with their combination of powerful, full-range sound, stunning transparency and detail, and an unfailingly musical presentation, were tremendously good. That they did everything as well as they did and still sold for under $3000 also made them an undeniable bargain, in my opinion. Much of their strength lay in the quality of the neodymium midrange ribbons that Brian Cheney had designed and built for them.
The RM-2neos, which used two of these relatively small drivers (approximately 7 x 2 inches in radiating area) per speaker, driven from 167 to 10,000 Hz, played music with a sense of size, scale, and authority that completely belied the size of the drivers. Previously, I had only heard similar capabilities from large planer or electrostatic panels. Even better, the RM-2s allowed for easy bi-amping. Using a 100-watt solid state amp for the woofers and my 15-watt Antique Sound Labs MG-SI15DT-S amp elsewhere, the RM-2s filled my room with music that I would put up against any $10,000 (or more) amp/speaker combo that I had ever heard. What does all this have to do with the VMPS 626Rs? Simply put, the smaller, less expensive, stand-mounted 626Rs use the same midrange ribbons as the RM-2s, though only one per side. I saw the 626Rs at CES and felt I had to try them at home.
The 626Rs, at about 24 x 10 x 13 inches, fall into the category of approximately two-cubic-foot speakers that dominated the market for a few decades starting in the late 1950s. This category of speaker, one that I have always liked, includes classic designs from AR, KLH, Advent, JBL, Spendor, and many others. Even the Sound Dynamics 300tis that I normally use are almost exactly the same size. For some reason, this type of speaker seems to have lost favor over the last ten to fifteen years. These days, most manufacturers tend to jump in size from small mini-monitors straight to larger floor-standing speakers.
The 626Rs mate the ribbon midrange driver to a carbon fiber 6-inch woofer in a rear-ported enclosure. They also use either the standard 1-inch spiral ribbon tweeter, or (as in my review samples) the new ribbon tweeter (0.4 x 2 inch) from the $10,000 RM/X speaker, for $400 extra. The glossy black finish on my review sample, though much nicer than that of previous VMPS speakers, still looked just okay rather than imparting that real "high end" look that other manufacturers manage to accomplish. However, I am somewhat willing to overlook this. Appearance shouldn't matter much with regard to how the speaker sounds and plays music.
The first important thing to consider with these speakers is break-in. At first, I found the sound to be woefully thin, and lacking in any bass power or depth regardless of how I positioned them in my room. Additionally, what bass there was did not integrate well with the ribbons. The bass just seemed to lag behind the rest of the music. We were going on a week-long trip, so I left the system running with an FM tuner, using a B&K ST-140 solid state amp at a reasonably loud volume, until we returned. That worked! After this break-in period, the bass was much improved. After I spent a little time finding the speakers' optimum positioning in my room, the bass integrated quite nicely within the musical spectrum.
The 6-inch woofer in the 626R's relatively small cabinet can't possibly compete with its big brother RM-2's 12-inch, slot loaded, passive-radiator-enhanced bass system. And it didn't. However, when compared to similarly sized, comparably priced speakers, it did a fine job with the low notes. My Sound Dynamics, with their 8-inch woofers, might go a few Hertz lower, but the VMPS play bass with more clarity and detail. I think the low crossover point really helps, keeping the woofer unburdened with lower midrange information. I was satisfied with the bass presentation on the SACD reissue of Blood, Sweat and Tears' second release (Columbia/Legacy CS 63986). When I played pieces that had good deep bass lines (such as the organ bass from Phillip Glass' Koyaanisquatsi soundtrack LP (Antilles ASTA 1), the lower frequencies were strong, tuneful, and quite pleasing.
My wife, on the other hand, was less convinced. Listening to some of her Latin Pop performers showed that the 626Rs can deliver fairly deep and articulate bass, but without the power and the movement of air that this genre generally needs. Ricky Martin's Sound Loaded CD, which opens with the highly energetic "She Bangs," didn't have the power and punch that we had gotten used to from living with the RM-2s for close to a year. For her, this left the speakers technically fine but emotionally uninvolving, and lacking in "fun factor."
The 626Rs' bass response can be summed up as excellent from the standpoint of clarity and detail, pretty good in depth and extension, but just okay in power and that visceral feel, at least compared to large floor standing speakers. I felt them to be an improvement over my Sound Dynamics 300tis in this respect, but my wife did not. VMPS does make a subwoofer (the Dedicated Subwoofer, ranging from $459 to $529) specifically designed to mate with these speakers. I have not heard this sub, but I know from experience that Brian Cheney produces excellent subwoofers. I am hoping to hear this combination someday, as a pair of 626R plus the Dedicated Sub still costs less than the RM-2neo system.
On to the rest of the frequency spectrum, as the 626Rs' woofers only cover up to 167Hz. From 167 Hz on up is the realm of the ribbons, and that is the real reason anyone would want to hear these speakers. I think this ribbon midrange driver will go down in audio history as one of the few truly innovative drivers. In the 626R, this driver offersas it does in the larger RM-2a sense of detail, neutrality, dynamic capability, and transparency that is not usually found in speakers in this price range.
Before I go on, I need to make a few points. VMPS recommends 20 to 300 watts of amplification for these speakers. I used (mostly) either a 105-watt solid state amp or a 15 watt tube (KT88) amp. I much preferred the sound with the tube amp. This was the same Antique Sound Lab amp that I used to great effect on the ribbons when I reviewed the RM-2s. This amp mates beautifully with the VMPS ribbon (and tweeter). As well-done tube amps usually do, the ASL added a bit of the necessary fullness and harmonic richness that was missing with the sand amp. Also, in spite of the low power rating, the KT88s handled most of the bass range better than the solid state amp, with again a touch more fullness, a little more richness, and somewhat surprisingly, a little more impact and power.
At no time did I feel that the 15-watt amp was underpowered for the task of driving these speakers. Perhaps I don't listen as loudly as some of you, and perhaps my room isn't quite as big (22 x 14 x 11 feet), but in my environment, this amp was a great match. That said, I don't think this speaker is necessarily a good match for lower-powered or SET amps. I did try the otherwise beautiful sounding Sophia Baby 10-watt amp, and it wasn't a very happy pairing. The Baby simply didn't have the power or bass control for the VMPSes, nor did my pair of ASL Wave-8 mono amps. They sounded congested, and masked all the detail and transparency of which the 626Rs are capable. At $99, these amps are quite a deal, but absolutely need to matched to speakers that play to their strengths and limitations. The 626R is just too much speaker for them.
Brian Cheney also suggests that speaker stands be used that will have the midrange panel at ear height. I had two choices that seemed to work, a 24-inch pair of Sound Organization stands that were exactly the right height, and the 12-inch wood stands that I use with my Sound Dynamics speakers. These tilt back about five degrees, to have the face of the speaker cabinet aiming directly at my listening position. These worked better for me in my listening room. Brian also recommends (based on information first provided by Paul Klipsch years ago) that there should be no space under the speakers, so if the stands you are using leave space under the speakers (as is typical of most stands), you have to fill it. Brian suggested making a solid "beard" to extend from the bottom front of the speaker to the floor. With the 12-inch stands, I found that two old LP box sets worked fine for this purpose. The results were subtle but significant, with a noticeable improvement in bass clarity and extension.
The last tidbit that I need to insert here is the fact that I used Bright Star IsoNodes between the speakers and the top of the stands. Instead of rigidly spiking the speakers to the stands (which were spiked through the carpet to the floor), I used four of the larger IsoNodes under each speaker. This, as I reported in my IsoNode review in the last issue of Positive Feedback Online, resulted in improved transparency (already very good), and a quieter background. Imaging and soundstaging also improved. All of my comments in this review are based on having the speakers mounted on the 12-inch stands with the IsoNodes.
With that out of the way, let's get back to how these speakers sound and how well they play music. Keeping the aforementioned caveats regarding bass performance in mind, I will get right to the point. These are eminently enjoyable and highly musical speakers. They offer a stunningly transparent view into the recording. Listening to a good SACD through the 626Rs, you get an immediate, up close and personal presentation of everything SACD has to offer. These speakers rival good electrostatics in their ability to respond quickly and cleanly to the program material, without the dynamic limitations that many electrostats have.
In many ways, they surpass their larger RM-2 stable mates. The first thing that struck me about the 626Rs was their ability to present the size and scale of instruments. Generally, I only hear this done well with large planar speakers or single-driver, high-efficiency speakers (like Lowthers), yet these small boxes reproduced the size of the instruments and the scale of the music in a remarkably natural way. They do this better than any small mini-monitors I have heard, andmaybe because of their smaller, narrower cabinetbetter than the RM-2s, which were especially good in this regard.
I have already made reference to these speakers' dynamic capability, but want to stress that, for both large scale classical and rock, these speakers can reproduce dynamic structure in a convincing manner. I found traditional country and bluegrass to be a real joy to listen to, and played the SACD soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Lost Highway 088 170 358-2) a dozen or more times during the review period. This music is full of small dynamic cues, differences in fingering and picking that would be glossed over by less capable speakers.
One area that I question a little is their top end. The $400 ribbon tweeter that came as an option with my review sample is an excellent driver. It is as crystal clear, airy, and delicate as a tweeter can get, and rival any of the other great tweeters I've heard in the past. It portrays the metallic shimmering of well recorded cymbals as well as one could ask for, and adds greatly to the overall sense of extension, delicacy, and detail of this speaker. So what was my concern? That this option costs $400. The standard circular ribbon tweeter is the same as the one that comes with the RM-2, and I don't recall it being any slouch. My personal inclination would be to save the $400 on the tweeter and apply it toward the $529 needed for the Dedicated Subwoofer. Of course, that is a personal choice, not a technical or objective assessment. I place a lot of emphasis on value, and for me, $400 is a lot for a subtle (though I'm sure significant) improvement above 10 kHz. If you have the money, and associated equipment that really demands the utmost out of the top octave, go ahead. It's only money.
I had the good fortune to listen to these speakers for several months, and enjoyed every minute. I think the under-$2000 speaker market is overcrowded, and tend to view speakers introduced into this price range as wishful thinking on the part of the manufacturer. However, the good news is that the market for can always make room for one more pair of really good, highly musical speakers. The 626Rs do very well with a wide variety of music (and I suppose, home theater) systems. Steve Lefkowicz
Steve Lefkowicz copyright August 2003