A Weekend in Watertown
The Audiophilia editorial staff visits the home of Von Schweikert Research
Albert Von Schweikert's background in speaker design has been well documented so, rather than risk redundancy, I refer the reader interested in the details to Von Schweikert Research's web site. Suffice it to say that a stint at Cal Tech under the guidance of the renowned Dr. Richard Heyser (a prominent member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1956 to 1987 and the inventor of Time Delay Spectrometry), and a position at Electrostatic Sound Systems Laboratories alongside Dr. Oscar Heil (inventor of the Heil Air Motion Transformer), figure prominently in this man's imposing list of credentials.
My first exposure to a Von Schweikert Research design was in 1996 at the Canadian Consumer Electronics Exposition and Conference (CCEEC), at which was shown the then newly-introduced VR-3. Aside from a set of attractive cherry wood end caps, the VR-3 appeared decidedly ordinary. Yet, as I was to learn, it was anything but. The VR-3 was and is, in fact, a highly developed design, incorporating advanced materials and construction (both driver and enclosure) and many of Albert Von Schweikert's unique and innovative approaches to loudspeaker design. Even under show conditions, and with less than ideal source material, my brief encounter with the VR-3s left me with the impression that Mr. Von Schweikert was not simply another "me too" speaker designer content to peddle drivers and boxes to the uninitiated. Yet, aside from an abundance of internet hype, hyperbole, and more than a little controversy, the next two years generated little, if any, significant discussion of VSR's expanding (and, by now, commercially successful) product line in the mainstream audio press, and dealer adoption (at least in the populous Toronto area) was slow. It would be 1998 before I would once again cross paths with a VSR loudspeaker.
1998 saw the introduction of the more ambitious VR-6 and VR-8 loudspeakers, both featuring isolated, multi-module enclosures (which, I'm told, go a considerable way to eliminating vibrational interaction between the speaker's drivers), advanced crossover topologies, and custom drivers, each pushing the edge of the art. The Audiophilia staff was fortunate enough to hear the VR-6s at the 1998 CCEEC (held recently in Toronto) demonstrated by The Man himself. By many accounts, my own included, the VR-6s were responsible for some of the best sounds heard in Toronto, this despite a small, and uncooperative, hotel room. After sensing our intense interest in the VR-6, the soft-spoken and affable Albert Von invited the editors down to Watertown for a factory visit and a lengthy audition of the complete VR lineup under more agreeable conditions.
Day 1 -
The next stop on our late-night tour of upstate New York was Stuart McCreary's Watertown home, where we had the pleasure of listening (into the wee hours of the morning) to some superb sounds on a handsome pair of cherry wood VR-6s partnered with Melos tubed monoblock power amplifiers, a Reference Line passive line stage, and a Sony DVD transport/Theta DS Pro III digital front end. As they did in Toronto, the VR-6s proved enchanting in this relatively narrow, but well treated, listening room, evincing the utmost in control and even-handedness across the whole of the frequency spectrum. At no time was there a sense of a box entering the sonic equation, nor of driver aberrations lending a consistently identifiable signature. No, the music simply floated before us seemingly free of any tangible transducer. On this occasion, the midrange produced by the VR-6's pair of woven carbon-fiber midrange drivers was as colorless as I've heard, delivering a convincing account of several female vocal discs with which I was intimately familiar, including Holly Cole's Temptation and Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter.
As evening turned to night and Stuart McCreary entered the REM phase, Anthony Kershaw and I gave ear to Albert's fascinating accounts of his work with Drs. Heyser and Heil, and his passionately espoused theses on all aspects of loudspeaker design and manufacture. By 2 a.m., the call of the nearest 7x24 Denny's beckoned, and we were off.
Day 2 - The Tour
As we descended upon the listening room, CDs and cameras in tow, we encountered VSR General manager Jim Ross chatting with a gleeful customer who, having just finished auditioning the local pair of VR-8s (US$18,500), purchased a pair on the spot. After a few moments spent advising the customer on appropriate amplification for the '8s, Albert focused his attention on setting up a pair of the new VM-2 monitors for our aural scrutiny.
The VM-2s (US$1490)
are Von Schweikert Research's first monitor loudspeakers, yet their
diminutive, sculpted low diffraction enclosure, high-quality drivers
and exceptionally sophisticated crossover, scream anything but "compromise".
In fact, unlike many of the other small two-way monitors with which
I'm familiar, they refused to scream anything at all, boasting a
naturally-even tonal balance and surprisingly good low-end extension
(and this after only ten hours of break-in).
Large orchestral works are rarely the province of the traditional monitor loudspeaker, the speaker's limited dynamics and low-end extension tending to rob the presentation of the appropriate impact and scale. The VM-2s, however, did not appear to possess these traditional limitations. As presented by the VM-2s, a disc containing José Carreras singing Missa Criola sounded vastly (and realistically) spacious in all dimensions and virtually unconstrained in terms of dynamics and impact. Although I'll reserve final judgment until I am afforded an opportunity to audition the VM-2s for an extended period in my own reference system and listening room (subtle, no?), my initial impressions were nothing but highly favorable.
Since neither Anthony Kershaw nor myself had yet to hear the VR-4 Gen. IIs, Albert politely agreed to remove the VM-2s and haul out the pair of Gen. IIs that were being readied for shipment to Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt (Unfortunately for owners of the original VR-4, the Gen. II is sufficiently different from its predecessor that no upgrade path exists from the former to the latter.) Via the Gen. IIs, the sound of Idil Biret's piano on a recent Naxos disc of Brahms' Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 sounded splendid, with a wonderful sense of coherence, depth and instrumental timbre. David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony's stunning account of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances also fared well, the huge orchestral crescendos of the brilliant final movement failing to perturb the steadfast VR-4s.
Two more loudspeakers were on our listening agenda before proceeding to tour the factory proper - the VR-6s, with which, by this time, we were becoming quite enamored, and the mighty VR-8s (500 lbs. per speaker, no less!), the latter enjoying top-of-the-line status now that the physically imposing, and nearly immovable, VR-10 has been discontinued. Listening to a variety of discs, spanning a wide range of musical genres, it was readily apparent that the VR-6 pushed the limits of current technology in terms of neutrality, coherence, and transparency.
Although the VR-6 is a fairly sizable speaker, its high efficiency allows it to be driven by a wide variety of amplifiers, including those of the single-ended variety with their attendant single-digit power ratings. The VR-6 also provides for some flexibility in room placement. Its adjustable tweeter module, which can be rotated about its horizontal axis, allows the tweeter's output to be redirected to accommodate listening positions of varying distance from the plane of the loudspeakers. Kudos to Albert's son, Damon, for the VR-6's industrial design. Clad in a sumptuous cherry wood finish (available at no additional cost!), the VR-6 is certainly one of the most visually attractive speakers I've laid eyes on (in contrast, the standard grey Nextel finish gives the speaker a rather raw, unfinished look in my opinion).
For the coup de grace, Albert redirected our attention to the VR-8s which had been waiting patiently in the wings. Pictures of the VR-8s certainly do not do justice to their grandeur. They are massive loudspeakers which command one's visual attention, even in an immense listening space like that at Von Schweikert central. Their sound? As big as their appearance. Perhaps bigger. The lovely sound of Idil Biret's piano filled every inch of the listening room, her chordal crescendos having the requisite power and intensity, her every use of the pedals being heard in stark relief. This was music making of the highest order, facilitated by the VR-8's effortless dynamics and outstanding resolution. While I found the VR-8s to be superb music making instruments, I did feel, to some degree, that they suffered from "big speaker syndrome" in which instruments and instrumentalists are portrayed larger than life. In contrast, I felt the VR-6s painted a sonic picture whose scale was more consistent with my live music experiences.
As time was running short, we decided it best to make our way to the areas of the factory devoted to product manufacturing and verification. Albert proudly provided a brief tour of the "driver room" which houses well-nigh every loudspeaker driver deserving of high-end status. Albert Von Schweikert has meticulously, some might say obsessively, evaluated every one of these drivers for suitability in his loudspeakers, and has chosen only those he feels represent the best performance and the fewest compromises at a given price point. When necessary, modifications have been made to off-the-rack drivers in order to tailor them to Von Schweikert's particular application (the tweeter in the VR-6, for example, is a modified version of that used in the Wilson Audio Grand SLAMM).
Our next stop was the shop floor, where many speakers in the embryonic stages of their manufacture could be observed. This leg of the tour afforded us a rare glimpse under the covers of several VSR models, including the VR-4 Gen. II, VR-6, and VM-2, each of which feature complex enclosures on which little expense has been spared. Much of the machinery used to form the enclosures' constituent parts is found in this portion of the factory, while some of the more complex aspects of fabrication are performed off-site by an external company with access to the requisite C&C apparatus. Also in this area of the floor is the anechoic test and calibration room in which each speaker is subjected to a battery of tests to confirm its correct operation. Speakers which are deemed free of defects (Von Schweikert claims a very low rejection rate), are broken-in (using a healthy diet of high-level Dire Straits, while we were present), boxed and shipped to dealers and distributors. The investment in parts stock, machinery, and real estate represented by the Von Schweikert facility was daunting, yet, as Albert allowed, subsidized partly by government grants intended to stimulate technological development in the Watertown area.
By day's end, the few hours sleep the night prior, and the many hours spent listening, chatting and touring, began to take its toll, and we thought it best to begin the long drive back to Toronto while daylight was still on our side. As we headed north past fall-tinged forests and serene waterways in search of the Canada/U.S. border, we reflected fondly on our opportunity to have met the spirited and eminently likable Albert Von Schweikert, a gifted audio designer who could, perhaps, turn out to be one of the more important and influential of our time.
|Copyright © 1998 Audiophilia Online Magazine|