I know of few other audio components that garnered more discussion on the Internet forums and high-end BBSs than the VR-4 loudspeaker from Von Schweikert Research (VSR). VSR has only begun to seriously advertise the VR-4 in the regular audio print press, yet the VR-4 is well known in audiophile circles and is renowned as a reference class loudspeaker, proof to me that the Internet buzz does reach a lot of people. The $3450 asking price, while perhaps steep for many potential purchasers, can be justified by the sound quality and true full frequency range performance. So, it is with great pleasure to have an opportunity to give Internet audiophiles their first look at the VR-3 through SoundStage!
I love the VR-4 (see picture left). To my ears they offer a splendid combination of full-range performance with the delicacy, detail and finesse of the best minimonitors. As well, being a fairly efficient design with an easy impedance curve, it mates easily with lower powered amplifiers, including tube amps. Properly set up, the VR-4 simply disappears and immerses the listener in a wonderful, three dimensional soundstage.
Problem is -- the VR-4 is not for everyone. First of all, you have to have over three Gs to kick over for it. Second, despite its refined, detailed sound, it is physically quite large, and furthermore, you have to have a fairly sizable room. The VR-4 is one of few speakers that really reaches the subterranean 20hz range. You can not begin to understand the room implications until you experience it yourself. The bass response of the VR-4 is sometimes too powerful for certain rooms.
In marches the VR-3 to the rescue! (see picture below right -- front, VR-3 without grill cloth covering, back VR-4). It brings with it most of the virtues of VR-4 at a rock bottom $1850 USD. How did they do it? Instead of two physical cabinets that make up the VR-4, the VR-3 is a single cabinet. It sports the same five inch midrange driver and metal dome tweeter as the VR-4. There is also the same adjustable rear-firing tweeter to add spatial ambiance. The VR-4 uses two eight inch woofers to reach down to 20hz. The VR-4 woofer enclosure is physically separate from the midrange tweeter module. They stack together to make the complete loudspeaker. On the other hand, the VR-3 uses a single ten inch woofer, and although the driver enclosures are distinct, it is one complete unit. VRS claims ruler flat VR-3 bass response to 25Hz, though your room will be a major influence on what is actually achievable.
The cabinet construction is exceptional. Primarily, it uses one inch mdf throughout. The mdf panels are thicker in some areas of the bass cabinet, up to 1.5 inches, to increase rigidity and more evenly distribute cabinet resonances. The novel feature of this design is the use of sand! Yes sand. There is a chamber, accessible from the top, to fill the area behind the midrange enclosure. Why? Sand mass loads the cabinet, bringing its already imposing 95 lb. shipping weight up to a back spasming 130 lbs. As well, the sand further damps the midrange. The goal is increased midrange and high-frequency detail, transparency, and palpability.
I can see it now, a speaker tweakers dream come to life!
"Well, I used flour, but it was a little dry sounding"
"You did, huh? I used sugar! Very sweet through the midrange."
"Have you tried Jello? It makes for a soft, smooth texture."
In order to keep the costs down Von Schweikert has opted for the same type of finish used in the standard VR-4. That is, grill cloth from top to bottom. Less finished wood equals less cost. Nicely finished wood end caps go on the top and the bottom. The standard $1850 job comes with black end-caps. While these are acceptable, they do not ring my buzzer. Snazzier finishes in oak and cherry are available for $150 more. Go for this option! It is a world of difference. Dealers will be overjoyed with the detachable end caps, because color stocking is now much less a problem. Same for goes for consumers who wish to change the look of the speaker if it does not quite fit in a few years down the road. If you are now wondering how you fill the sand through the end-caps, these simply snap on. And PUL-LEASE do not miss the sand-filling step, it is essential (the Jello was a joke -- OK?).
Some serious work has gone into this design. Quite frankly, I am impressed at the level of detail, the attention to quality, and the goals of performance. I have seen a lot less speaker going for a whole lot more money in the market. There is no question in my mind that the intention of the VR-3 is to provide a high-quality loudspeaker for the discriminating audiophile. One speaker manufacturer said to me, "I dont know how Von Schweikert can offer that much speaker for the money!" As a consumer careful about my money, I take this type of remark seriously. Ever see a Supply and Demand curve shift?
Now all this design work will not make one I-O-Ta of difference if the sound is not right. I have heard the VR-3s in various systems and have been very impressed. Still, you have to hear any component in your own room, with your own gear to really get a grip on the performance. The VR-3s were plunked into my current reference roundup. Theta digital gear heads up the front in the form of a Theta Data Basic and Prime II DAC. The elegant, esoteric and sonically stunning Canadian made Blue Circle BC-2 amps and BC-3 preamp (reviews coming soon) did all that power handling. Cabling throughout is by Nirvana Audio, my new reference wire. I find the Nirvana cables extraordinarily transparent, yet musically alive and involving like no cable I have had in my system to date (review forthcoming).
The result in my 14 by 16 foot room, by my rules, through my ears, played through the VR-3s -- is reference caliber. Sure, there may be better speakers out there, but the performance I am getting is so good that I know I would be laying down much more money to achieve something appreciably better. What does this tell me about the VR-3? It is a true high-end performer that will feel at home with the best of components.
And would I rather have the VR-4? No! Not that the VR-4 is not better. I do find the standard VR-4 a hair more refined in the upper registers, but the size, as well as the bass depth of the VR-4 just would not work in my room. Thats fine with me since the VR-3 is almost half the price. If I had a larger room it may be a different story. Maybe!
So what is it that I like so much about the VR-3s sound? First and foremost, the midrange of a speaker has to be right. For example, it must replicate a human voice with proper weight, tonal quality, and transparency. A properly reproduced voice, male or female, must sound full-bodied and uncolored. Too many speakers have a chesty quality I cannot stand. This is most predominant on male vocals. Or they will reproduce the female voice as sharp or piercing. The VR-3, like the VR-4, is outstanding in this regard. The palpability, body, and weight sounds real to me. Sarah McClachlan, Jennifer Warnes, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovette, and Jim Cuddy all sound like they are right here in my listening room with musical ease and a sense of rightness that few speakers can duplicate.
This is only one aspect of midrange reproduction, there are others, and the VR-3 handles it all with fantastic grace and finesse. Albert Von Schweikert believes that the midrange driver should be free to produce as wide a frequency range as possible and not to have the woofer cross-over too high into the midrange. The result would deteriorate midrange performance.
The high frequencies are reproduced with an equal sense of air, detail, and ease. Highs are not harsh, etched, or bright -- which is A-1 in my books. I cannot add anything more in this regard. For a speaker designed today I feel that it is simply unacceptable to have anything less than pristine, clear, and detailed treble performance. Ten years or so ago many speakers were plagued with overly harsh tweeter performance, mostly what I would have attributed to as tweeter breakup. Or alternatively, they sounded dull and lifeless. Great high frequency performance was not commonplace. Tweeter and crossover driver design has obviously improved radically. I have noticed excellent high-frequency performance from many speakers Ive listened to in the last five years or so. The VR-3 is no exception.
As well, the adjustable rear firing tweeter produces some interesting and substantial effects. Properly balanced, it seems to greatly enhance the spatial presentation resulting in a fine sense of depth and air. Frankly, before I heard this I was skeptical of the benefit. But some very, very good designs use an adjustable rear firing tweeter and my experience proved that my skepticism was unfounded. Overall, the illusion of a soundstage was nicely improved.
Since we are talking about soundstaging -- Mamma Mia! These VSR speakers cast a huge, transparent stage. Their physical speaker size is certainly imposing, but when the music plays the speakers disappear leaving a wonderfully clear window into the performance. Imaging has excellent distinction and depth is from here to theeeeeeeere.
Now comes what I have seen as the hot item of discussion on the Internet -- bass performance from VSR speakers. I have a theory about just why this is such a hot-topic -- it is because VSR speakers are one of few speakers that really produce deep bass. With many other speakers it is not even a topic of discussion because it is not there! There are very few speakers that produce truly full range sound. Did you ever have a lengthy discussion about the deep bass-performance of a Proac Tablette or a Celestion SL-700?. When I hear deep bass performance talked about it is usually in the same breath as Mirage, Velodyne, HSU, Muse, Wilson, and a handful of others.
And by deep bass I mean full-range down to 20hz. Furthermore, producing deep bass at high SPL levels is another story. This is a daunting task that it seems to require a separate subwoofer or a whole lot of money. That said, quality of bass still takes precedence over quantity of bass. What we have here in the VR-3 is extremely high-quality, deep bass by my books. Maybe not down to 20hz, but not that far off either. And they play LOUD. Furthermore, the bass sounds natural and most importantly, very real. When you hear deep bass, you feel deep bass in your body, in the floor, in the furniture you sit on.
Overall, the VR-3 gives me the best bass reproduction I have ever experienced in my room. Too many speakers have come in and out these doors with humps in the 60 to 80hz range. While these humps tend to give a huge whallop to the sound, and may be just what the latest movie soundtrack ordered, this exaggeration tends to blur bass definition resulting in a chesty, woolly sound. To my ears the accuracy of the VR-3 bass performance is outstanding. It is going deeper than any speaker I have played here. So much so that I achieved my first neighbor complaint, via my landlord. Seems the subterranean thumping was compared to an earthquake or something. At the same time, I am achieving this extended bass while maintaining the utmost clarity through the upper bass region. There is no smearing, no blurring, and no chestiness. Furthermore, the bass is tight with detail that I have NEVER experienced at this price point and have only heard through considerably more expensive speakers.
What more can I say other than the VR-3 is a hot-ticket in the speaker market begging for an audition. To say that I'm astounded with the VR-3 would still be an understatement. It is rare to find a product, like the Von Schweikert VR-3, that I can recommend to anyone with absolutely no hesitation. The VR-3 combines extraordinary build quality with superb and accurate musical performance at an unbelievably low price. No doubt, this speaker sets a benchmark level of performance that will have the competition scratching their heads for a long time to come.
In summary, I dont care if you have $1000, $5000, or more, you owe it to yourself to hear these speakers. The $1850 asking price is so ridiculously low it makes the VR-3 an outright steal. They are so good that you shouldn't compare these speakers with others in this price range, compare them with speakers costing much, much more. Not only do I give the Von Schweikert VR-3 my highest endorsement, I encourage anyone to seek these speakers out. Drive 500 miles if you have to. If you dont, you may miss out on the best value in high-end audio today.
|Von Schweikert Research
Price: $1,850 USD (black finish)