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Von Schweikert




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DYNAMIC! The Von Schweikert VR-8
by Harry Pearson

     Normally when I tell questioning audiophiles that I don’t much care for speaker systems-indeed, I’ve used stronger language—their eyes roll back in their skulls as if this is simply too great a heresy to be believed. Yet, if you think about it, the simple fact is that of all the equipment in our playback chain (analog or digital), the loudspeaker is the one furthest removed from the truth of music.

     And there are good reasons for this.

     Until lately, the type of speaker that has dominated the marketplace—the so-called moving coil or cone drive—has been the most sonically compromised of a lot that includes "exotic" designs like ribbons, planar-like ribbons, electrostatics, or hybrids of same that incorporate cone driven bass elements. The irony of this, if Jim Thiel is right, is that the exotics all have built-in laws of physics limitations that aren’t likely to be overcome, while the potential of the moving coil system is just now being discovered, thanks to new materials, new magnetic systems, computer-optimized crossover circuitry, and a new understanding of dynamic resonances in the speaker eleme3nts themselves, the crossovers, and the box.

     As do all elements used to reproduce sound by moving air, moving coil (i.e., cone-type) drivers exhibit resonances, the most audible of which are at their primary points of resonance, and those resonances will inevitably exhibit something of the sound of the material used in the construction of the cone. There is the seeming impossibility of building a single-cone driver that can simultaneously move the large and quite small amounts of air necessary for the lowest bass and the highest treble. Which is but one of the reasons that the theoretical ideal (one drive element to cover all frequencies) cannot be presently approached. (I should note here it is just as much a problem for the exotic drive systems, hence the popularity of hybrids.) So what we get are crossovers and multiple drivers, with all their potential for mischief in both the time domain and cohesion department.

     Up until now, cone drivers have had more mass than the exotic drive elements, which translates into slower response to fast transients, thus both sluggish sound and a loss of resolution. The exotics are traditionally free-standing dipoles, uncolored by the sound of a "box"—no small advantage that—with the attendant sense of spaciousness and "air" that dipolar radiation has always had. The question of what to do about the rear wave from a driver is common to all systems (action = reaction) and that is because those rear waves can cancel out the lower frequencies unless something is done to either damp them out or delay their arrival to the front of the speaker---keeping in mind that at the higher frequencies the sound’s wavelengths are so short cancellation isn’t possible. But the engineer who goes for that "box" then faces a cancatenation of problems, such as the colorations generated by the box’s own resonances, or the question of how to get the best bass from the box with some semblance of efficiency (to mention but two).

     We might linger over the troubling question of efficiency for a moment or so. The monster (and best) speaker systems of the pre-stereo era were all highly efficient. A few watts of amplifier power could produce enough sound to entertain an entire neighborhood. These behemoths were, often as not, highly colored, particularly the most efficient of the lot, the horn systems whose frequency response was anything but flat. Some clever engineers, spearheaded by the success of Edgar Villchur’s team at Acoustic Research, realized that, by sacrificing efficiency, a much flatter frequency response could be achieved from a (relatively) small box. Back then, additional wattage was considered both cheap and easy to come by—that is until folks found out how many watts were really needed to avoid clipping truly inefficient speakers. (This was during the heyday of the vacuum tube when a 60-watter was considered a "powerhouse"). And so begins a power race we haven’t seen the end of yet. The arrival of the stereo LP in 1957, with its attendant need to need to double-up on loudspeakers, made smaller speakers a practical necessity, and the rest is history.

     What few seemed to realize at the time (other than hard-core horn advocates like Paul Klipsch) was that something most special had been lost along the way. And that something had to do with low-level resolution, dynamic "jump," and wide dynamic range. You had to play the smaller systems louder to get the resolution that could be achieved at much lower levels with a highly efficient design. And with high efficiently went two of the most important characteristics of the real thing—as heard unamplified in a good hall—transient resolution at low levels and dynamic shadings, both the startling and the subtle.

     Now, as if from the blue, there comes a jaw-dropping and absolutely remarkable full-range cone system. If I am neglectful of its immediate antecedents (such as the original Avalons, some of the Thiels, and the early Wilsons), it is the result of the space restrictions. There is more to say than I am able.

     That speaker is Albert Von Schweikert’s V(irtual) R(eality) Model 8.

     Judged by its appearance, it would not seem all that promising. The piled-up look of the separate box enclosures for its component speakers—reminiscent of a child’s building blocks or Goldmund’s big ‘Saurus Rex—does not inspire confidence. Nor is it, in its gray industrial finish [Von Schweikert’s "studio" option, wood finishes are available.—WG], and at six feet tall, a pleasure to behold in my second listening room. Indeed, it might seem too big for this room—however, all of the Infinity speaker systems, including the IRS, and all of the large Magneplanar speakers have mated successfully with this space as, it turns out, does the Von Schweikert VR-8.

     It has been my experience that a great—in the old fashioned sense of that much abused word—component will always show a bit of its magic upon first listen, no matter how poorly it is set up or how far short it falls of an adequate "break-in." Almost any listener, who is perceptive and beyond the Bose Wave-form stage, will recognize the truth of what I am saying. It is exactly because of that bit of magic which it first evinces that we fiddle and faddle with the component until we have extracted the wizardry of which it is capable.

     And, from the first, the VR-8 intrigued me.

     I could immediately divine how much more resolution it might be capable of than I was getting through several associated components then in use. With each substitution of a piece of gear with better resolution, the speaker performed at a higher plateau of realism. Indeed, the faster the sound transmitted by the components ahead of it—e.g., the Nordost, meant that what sounded like a "scrim" or veil between us in the listening room and the music had been lifted, removed, dissolved.

     Later, Scot Markwell, former set-up man for the absolute sound, brought out an amplifier—which I will identify shortly—with an AC power cord designed by Siltech. I didn’t say anything then but I thought the amplifier’s sound disappointing. Off-handedly, Markwell remarked that we could use the AC cord supplied by the manufacturer. The difference it made was disconcerting. In this application, the Siltech sounded rolled in the lower frequencies, homogenized and euphonic from there on up, with an unacceptable reduction in the amount of ambient and spatial information that was on the recordings. The manufacturer’s AC cord clearly had a much more nearly musical and natural balance, not to mention presenting a far clearer picture of the concert halls’ reverb and decay characteristics. As you might well imagine, this set me off. So we got out the NBS and Synergistic Research AC cords, just to hear if they would sound as distinctively different one from the other. And they did: the NBS were spacious, big in the midbass and upper midrange, and quite dimensional. And the Synergistic Research, while closer sonically to the manufacturer’s own choice, struck me as having the most neutral frequency response and an edge on spatial and ambient cues. These were the kind of differences a reviewer expects with a change in electronics, but not the dadblasted cord between the amplifier and the wall socket (and for the record we have medical grade power outlets and a separate line for all electronic equipment here in Sea Cliff).

     So why the big deal right off the bat about hearing such differences?

     Because, as it became evident over the ensuing weeks, with the VR-8’s you are going to be much more aware of the sound of the front-end gear you use then you will of the "sound" of the Eight itself. I’ve haven’t experienced anything quite like the VR-8’s abilities in this regard. Normally, any one speaker system will have identifiable "tics" and "nodes" and audible colorations that are always there, regardless of the equipment you put upstream and regardless of any of the jiggerpook you use to make the speakers more neutral. The Eight sounds as if it is, as the specs suggest, ruler-flat throughout much of its frequency range. But better than that, with one small exception, it has no audible bumps or grinds.

     Despite Von Schweikert’s use of six separate drivers in four separate enclosures, the VR-8 has a seamless continuousness sound that I simply have not hithertoforce experienced in a multi-array cone system. It sounds as if cut from a single weaving. The nearest analogy I could come up is the sound of a big electrostatic (from which it differs in its lack of resonant colorations)—that is, a "big" sound coming from a single material. But, unlike the single element exotics, the Von Schweikert has what today’s glandulary overactive reviewing school might describe as considerable hormonal output at the lower frequencies. In our more innocent days at TAS, we used to call it, in Dr. John Cooledge’s memorable phrase, "testicular capacity."

     Along with its inherent oneness of sound, its "snap" (thanks J. Gordan) and aliveness, you get 96 decibels of efficiency—the Von Himself claims 100 or so when room boundary effects are taken into account. I don’t know about this, but I can say that the VR-8s can be driven to house-shaking levels with even single-ended 17watt amplifiers, such as the Italian-made Viva—that amplifier Markwell and I used for the AC cord comparisons.

     This kind of efficiency provides quite a bit of dynamic "jump" (J. Valinski’s most useful term) we’ve been mostly missing as well as a most uncanny, even eerie, degree of low-level resolution. I guarantee you’ll hear low level percussive touches (a quickly damped tam-tam for instance) you didn’t know were there on your more complex recordings, even those of digital origin. No matter how quiet the passage being played back, there is always, as there was with the much-missed Beveridge Model 2 electrostatics, little loss of definition and frequency response during pianissimo passages. Need I say that the VR-8s can readily differentiate between pppp and a p, and that it can decode different degrees of those p’s all at once, thus providing a vital component so characteristic of the real thing.

     Let me say, for those who don’t like to read between the lines, that the Von Schweikerts, with good equipment, are easy on the ears at all playback levels. And that the VR-8’s cone woofer system is, give or take a little Dacron damping (supplied), perfectly happy with tubed amplification. No sloppy, boomy midbass here [n.b., Analog Messiah].

     Among the things that continue to its superlative sound:

  1. Its crossover points are extremely well-placed. That of the bass placed at 100 Hertz and for the upper frequencies at 3.5 kHz, thus in Von Schweikert’s words, allowing the midrange to act "coherently without driver overlap." In other words, he says, get the fundamentally important musical frequencies right, then worry about the frequency extremes.
  2. In a clever variation on Steward Hegemony’s design for the Happy One, Von Schweikert has used tuned tubes within the bass enclosure (almost like a labyrinth) to spread out the bass resonases evenly over the woofer’s useful range, so that even with the two ports this isn’t a bass reflex speaker.
  3. There is a rear-firing midrange/treble unit, identical with the front side’s titanium inverse cone tweeter, that can be adjusted for the desired spaciousness.
  4. The speaker exhibits wide-angle that is potentially brighter and harder for those sitting on axis. Its drivers are time-aligned.

     Now that you know the VR-8 has wondrous resolution at low levels, thus allowing you to listen even further back toward the originally recorded event (resolution that surpasses that of the reference Gen. Ones during the quietest passages), superlative dynamic capabilities—and, did I say, spectacular delineation of transients and superlative articulation?—you’re probably wondering how it sounds.

     And that is a toughie. But, incompletely put:

     In listening room 2, its useful response goes to about 40 Hz, meaning it gets bass drum fundamentals with all the pants-slapping excitement you’d ever want, and with enough definition to tell you what kind of stick is being used, how taut the drum’s skin is, even how big that drum is. Below that, it rolls steeply, with one consequence being that the real earth-shaking, chest-imploding pedal points of the organ aren’t there. (Try Chesky’s CD of Concert Favorites, with Adrian Boult’s reading of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1—that is, if you want a real scare and have the system that will provide it.) Now, Von Schweikert himself says that Room 2 won’t support bass lower than I’m getting—although 32 Hertz and lower from the big Maggies was no problem there, nor were even lower fundamentals from the IRS—and that a bigger room (like No. 3) would allow more low bass to develop. He offers an optional circuit to boost the bottom octave. I do not recommend same, after hearing the deleterious effects of a similar device on some magical Merlin speakers from upstate New York.

     As Jon Dahlquist once noted, a speaker system with a top-to-bottom coherency (given identical speaker materials) will sound better than a discontinuous one with ostensibly better components. (For example, think of a ribbon tweeter and electrostatic midrange.) The coherence of the VR-8s is spectacular—as noted—and it does have an overall "character," one to the left of neutral. I’d call it slightly gray in sound, and the speaker heard over an ultra-wide range of electronics—you’d never believe what fun I’ve had hearing all the differences among the many electronics in the house—has a slightly dry fine-grained quality in a narrow band of frequencies circa 3 to 3.5 kHz where it also loses a bit of that fabulous focus. This isn’t obvious, given the narrow band of frequencies involved; the anomaly is submerged by the speaker’s focusing ability elsewhere in its range.

     And I’d say its top octave doesn’t have the bloom of the big Genesis One system or of the best line driver multi-array speakers, that hard-to-describe quality of effortlessness and "bloom"—but it can reproduce massed strings (try the new Classic recut of Mercury’s justly famous Firebird) with that creamy, big, harmonically well-differentiated sound.

     Another thing it will do, on the positive side, is keep the soundfield images cemented in position at very high levels so instruments do not collapse toward the center of the stage. In itself, this kind of separation effect can reveal new degrees of contrasting dynamics at the f to ffff end of the spectrum. However, such are better heard with a more powerful amplifier, since it is the more powerful amplifiers that can reproduce the loud end of the dynamic range with ease and authority, whereas the smaller-powered amps, triode or otherwise, compress such loudness differentiation’s when things are going full blast in the orchestra. (Try the new—and highly uncolored—Melos MAT 1000 in its balanced mode, which produces 400 watts triode, push-pull, with "G/2 drive," or Jud Barber’s transformerless Joule Marquis, the last word in tube transient attack.)

     Perhaps the best news is that the VR-8s retail for about $17,000 and are comfy with a prairie-wide range of equipment. This includes every tubed unit we tested it with, and with the spectacular combination of the Melos CC-2 belt-drive compact disk deck (now, regrettably, discontinued, but which I resurrected because of its high frequency airiness and expansiveness, a quality it shares in common with every belt-driven CD playback deck I’ve heard), and the state-of-the-art Manley Reference (tubed) digital to analog converter. This system sounded so good that we used more CDs in the VR-8s testing than we normally would have—I am wondering if the VR-8’s speed isn’t one of the reasons it sounds so natural with CDs, wondering since CDs have that same quality of sound through an electrostatic, like some of the penultimate generation of Martin-Logans. You might want to try, either on Von Schweikerts or otherwise, some of these CDs: Uncommon Ritual [first cut] on Sony; Carolan’s Harp on BMG for exquisite low-level purity and quite wide dynamics; the delicate and most un-Telarc like Rodrigo Concierto Aranjuez, for a transparency you don’t associate with Telarc, and for the subtlety from Erich Kunzel (of all conductors)—don’t take my word for it, check it out yourself. For sheer percussive3 spectacularly, try the Everest bit-mapped re-do of Antill’s Corroboree, very possibly Bert Whyte’s finest recording, with its drop-dead dynamic range and Himalayan climaxes.

     We did not, of course, neglect the analog end of things. For maximum transparency, and the tightest midbass and best defined low-end, we used the Clearaudio table, atop an isolating Vibraplane, with the Clearaudio/Souther arm and an Insider cartridge—taken together as uncolored a playback system for LPs as presently exists in the marketplace. Indeed, the Von Schweikert makes clear the superiorities of this analog playback system in a fashion so dramatic that many of our visiting manufactures were nearly floored, especially since the sound they heard contradicted point-for-point what they had expected given the mouth of one intemperate and overly excitable self-ordained technical whiz-kid. (It appears, as usual in the high end, that bad news travels faster and more penetratingly than the truth.) The Classic/Mercury re-issue of Paul Paray’s reading of Ravel’s La Valse, with its nearly astounding dynamic range (wider than any of our CDs in house) was the kicker. It nuked’em.

     During all of this, I haven’t said a word about Albert Von Schweikert himself, who is every bit as interesting as the VR-8 he designed. He had in mind, he says, making the speaker the reverse image of a recording microphone (coherency, phase correctness, wide angle sound), even if there is no such thing as a six-foot tall microphone. Let’s for now, note that he used to be a professional musician, and that his final tests for his speakers is a live test of a human voice, methinks a female one. Von Schweikert, who is much mellower than his name sounds, has toiled for many a year in the vineyards of speaker and crossover design, even working once with the famous Oscar Heil on a surprisingly radical speaker that barely made the marketplace. He has paid his dues, thank you, and these include the loss of his first speaker company, Vortex. Let me say that the more you know about the man and his background the more you’ll understand that the VR-8 is the product of his experience and of how he has incorporated that experience into such a canny design, down to the clever way he has, by use of multiple drivers and select crossover points, virtually avoided the principle resonance nodes of the drivers he employs. By the way, since when have you read an instruction book, like the VR-8’s, that is not only a pip but contains some candidly put insights on how to get the most out of the speakers. (He even tells you how a poor connection will affect the speaker’s sound.)

     There is supposedly an even more advanced model, the VR-10, which he once demonstrated at an audio show in New York, and which was bought by some big dog from Microsoft. That was the only one in existence, and no more have been made. It isn’t clear whether Von Schweikert will manufacture others or give thought to a re-design, assuming he can do it better the second time around. And there is a range of lower-priced speakers—the only one of which I have heard is the VR-4.5, which has many of the virtues of its larger brother, and strikes me as being the more neutral in terms of character, if not the wider in frequency and dynamic response.

     As it stands, for now the VR-8 must be considered the top-of-the-line, and at its cost it’s going to show up many such more expensive and highly-touted multi-driver cone-based systems for the overpriced, under-performing status symbols they are. Roll over, big boys, there’s a new player on the block. And VS’s designs are, I believe, the harbingers and symbols of the new doors beginning to open in the sound of loudspeaker systems conventional design. Indeed, the VR-8 may well define the state-of-the-art in multi-driver moving-coil loudspeaker systems.

by Harry Pearson 
Fi Magazine
Volume 3 Number 4


Von Schweikert Research

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