February 2005MB Quart Vera VS 1F Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Of the many products I've reviewed over the years, the ones that tend to impress me the most are those that arrive with little fanfare or hoopla and then blow my socks off with spectacular sound. With no PR reps or marketing masters spinning tales and making the mundane seem special, these products impress simply by their performance. They dont bother talking the talk; they just walk the walk.
Enter to my world MB Quarts Vera VS 1F -- a speaker I had not heard of from a German company that I knew little about. The shipping boxes werent anything fancy, and inside there was hardly any literature. For all intents and purposes, I was going into this review blind. But that didnt deter me from realizing quite quickly that the VS 1F is one of the best-sounding moderately priced floorstanders Ive listened to in years.
Vera is MB Quarts top speaker line and sits among a wide array of consumer, professional and automotive products. The VS 1F is the largest and most expensive model in the Vera line and is priced at $5000 USD per pair. Below the VS 1F are the smaller bookshelf-sized VS 05B ($2500 per pair), which is a two-driver, two-way design; and the VS 1B, a three-driver, DAppolito-configured two-way design that looks to be more or less like a shorter, stand-mounted version of the VS 1F. There is also a subwoofer, the VS 1SW, and a center-channel, the VS 1C, priced at $2500 and $2200 respectively. There are no bipole or dipole surround speakers in the Vera line -- the company likely expects that youll use the forward-firing VS 05B or VS 1B for the rear left and right channels in a full home-theater setup.
The floorstanding VS 1F might be the biggest Vera, but its not really that big at all. The VS 1F measures 41"H x 10"W x 14"D, and weighs just over 70 pounds. Compared to what you can buy these days, the VS 1F is actually moderately sized. The review pair came finished in birds-eye maple, which is really nice. A darker finish, elsberry, is also available.
Cosmetically, I like the rounded cabinet edges and "bowed" side panels, which I learned are not just for looks. According to company literature, the bowed sides (9 degrees) help reduce standing waves inside the cabinet. The gray front baffle and back panel are also quite eye-catching, and so is the lighter-gray, semi-transparent grille. There are no pins or magnets to hold the grille on; instead it nicely "cups" the front baffle, where its held firmly in place. For critical listening, MB Quart recommends that the grilles be taken off, and theyve designed rather clever self-storage for them: the back panel is the same size and shape as the front baffle, so you can just slide the grille on there.
To the eye, the VS 1F is a nicely designed and built speaker; it doesnt have that hard, industrial look that some speakers today have. Still, I have a complaint -- the binding posts. On the one hand, MB Quarts intentions are good -- cleverly conceal the posts with a sunken terminal section and a cover that tidies everything up -- but the implementation is poor. I couldnt get a single set of banana connectors or spade lugs to connect properly because of the cramped space. I learned quite quickly that about the only type of connection that would fit would have to be bare wire. Not surprisingly, the supplied jumpers for use if you dont biwire the speakers have bare-wire ends. But the thing is, I didnt have any speaker cables with bare-wire ends, and I dont think many audiophiles do either. Speaker cables are almost always sold terminated.
So, for nearly 20 minutes, I tried to get something attached safely to each VS 1F, but couldnt. Then I saw a pair of short generic speaker cables that had banana-plug ends. They werent really going to work either, but I decided right then and there that in order for the review to happen, the banana plugs would have to be sacrificed. I purposely bent and squished the plugs so I could wedge them into the cramped space and the small connector opening. It worked, but the plugs will never be the same. Cosmetically, the idea behind the binding posts is nice; functionally, though, I found the posts to be a nightmare.
The VS 1Fs looks are one thing, but for $5000 a pair you want a speaker that is more than just a pretty face. Luckily, the folks at MB Quart have jammed a considerable amount of technology into the Vera lineup. The cabinet is made from 25mm-thick MDF and is braced internally with ten threaded metal rods that run from the front baffle to the back panel. These, I suspect, make the cabinet as rigid as possible and reduce resonances. But as with the binding posts, with this good idea theres also a caveat.
The threaded rods are secured by round-head fasteners, which look like bolt heads on the back panel. You can use an Allen wrench and take them all off to remove the back panel, exposing the speakers innards as well as the threaded rods. I suspect that this is how service to the speaker is done -- a good idea. The problem is, these "heads" come loose, likely due to vibration. I first noticed it while unboxing the speakers for measurement right after they were shipped to me -- every bolt head needed to be tightened. No problem -- it takes just a minute, providing you have an Allen wrench handy. However, I checked again a month or so into the review period, and they were a turn or so loose again. So, again the wrench came out. This is certainly not a make-or-break problem for the speakers because the bolt heads don't come loose every day, but it is something that does require periodic attention from the owner.
Another thing worth mentioning, this time in a positive way, is something MB Quart calls "the hip." Thats the sloped, curvy, "X-ish" piece that holds the tweeter and is situated between the two woofers. Its made from aluminum, and its purpose is to decouple the tweeter from the woofers and reduce interaction.
I couldnt find any information about the crossover points from the woofers to the tweeter, other than a statement that the VS 1F is a two-way design. However, MB Quart does give a lot of attention to the drivers themselves, which the company designs and manufactures, indicating that key design criteria for the speaker are low distortion and the ability to convey large-scale dynamics -- a necessity today for the stress that movie soundtracks can place on speakers.
The 6 1/2" "polymer composite"-cone woofers feature one-piece cone construction and die-cast aluminum baskets with strategically placed venting and heatsinks to counteract heat build-up. The woofers voice coils measure 3" in diameter, which is quite large. The woofers are ported out the bottom front and top back. As for the 1" dome tweeter, the company prefers titanium for the long-term stability. Their claim: "MB Quart tweeters will deliver the same performance for decades."
Overall, MB Quart has certainly done most of its homework bringing the Vera line to fruition, even if a couple of the elements needed more time on the drawing board. The VS 1F is bold- and distinctive-looking, but it has a subtle elegance about it that will make it a welcome addition to, and not a distraction in, many listening rooms.
MB Quart recommends amplifiers from 70-150Wpc for the VS 1F, and after a thorough evaluation, I know why -- these speakers love power. They dont necessarily need it, depending on your listening habits and how big your room is, but they respond best to amps with some guts. I found this out by using the speakers in two very different rooms.
Just to see what the speakers could do with lower-powered tube gear -- hey, Im an audiophile, so why not? -- I started with Zandens Model 600 integrated amplifier, which outputs just 30W per side. This is much less power than MB Quart recommends, and I dont necessarily recommend you do such a thing because it could impact your warranty (low-powered amplifiers driven into clipping can damage loudspeakers more easily than high-powered amps that dont come close to reaching their output limits), but MB Quarts low-end amplifier figure seemed rather high, so I wanted to test it.
Fronted by my Theta Data Basic transport driving the Benchmark Media DAC1 (cables were and i2Digital X-60 digital cable, Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects, and the previously mentioned generic speaker cables), the sound in my small listening room (10' x 12') was notably pure and fleshed out.
For whatever reason, I listen to my CDs like I wear my jeans: although I might have a whole bunch tucked neatly in my closet, I go back to the same one or two almost every day and keep it that way for about two weeks. These days, the most-played disc in my house is Johnny Cashs American IV: The Man Comes Around [American 063339]. This is a deep-, rich-, thick-sounding album that thunders out of the speakers. From the get-go, the VS 1F speakers proved to be remarkably neutral- and clean-sounding, much like the PSB M2 and Paradigm Signature S2 bookshelf speakers I like so much, but with much more bass. The VS 1Fs presented Cashs voice starkly -- up front in the mix, just as it should be, with perfect weight and volume. All the instruments sound closely miked on this recording, giving each song a visceral feel. The VS 1Fs conveyed this wonderfully. One of the things I first noticed from the VS 1Fs was how forceful and clear they could sound with every song -- startlingly immediate, yet at the same time so clear and clean that they never sounded fatiguing.
Bass, compared to that of the minimonitors I tend to use, is in another league. The VS 1Fs have serious punch and slam. No, they wont deliver full-range sound down to 20Hz, but they hit 35Hz or so with such authority that you wont likely miss whats still below, unless youre an absolute bass freak. At the same time the mids and highs are startlingly clear. The VS 1F has a gutsy sound, but it's also highly refined and exceedingly clean.
If I were going to live with the VS 1Fs in a small room, I could do so by chaining them to a lower-powered amplifier like the Model 600. However, doing so wouldnt exploit what the VS 1Fs are capable of, because these speakers dont just sound exceptionally clean at low or moderate volume levels -- they can play to unbelievably, and sometimes unrealistically, loud levels and still present the same kind of finesse. As well, I couldnt get much of a soundstage in the small room. The VS 1Fs seemed to want space. But in a big space they need real power, and I suspect that thats why MB Quart pegged the VS 1Fs lower limit at 70W.
So, when I moved into my new house with my new enormous listening room -- over 19' wide and 34' in length -- I lassoed the VS 1Fs to the DK Design VS.1 Reference Mk II, an integrated amplifier with a tubed line stage and a solid-state amplifier section thats said to deliver 160Wpc into 8 ohms and 320Wpc into 4 ohms. I also played the speakers with Stellos new M200 monoblocks, which deliver 200W per block, and Song Audios pristine-and-pure-sounding SA-1 line-stage preamp (the SA-1 is a real find for audiophiles who value exceedingly pure sound and can live without a remote control). Both of these amps have more muscle -- the kind of power that MB Quart recommends for the VS 1Fs. The digital front-end with both amplifier configurations was the same as when I used the speakers with the Zanden Model 600, and so were the cables.
Set up like this, the VS 1Fs were transformed from a good speaker in a smallish room to an exceptional speaker in a large room. These are only moderately sized speakers with just two 6 1/2" woofers and a single 1" tweeter per side, but they can play so big and so loud that youd think theyre double the size and have far more drivers. My room is huge, and the VS 1Fs had no trouble filling it with sound, and had no trouble playing back any kind of music I threw at them.
Norah Joness Feels Like Home [Blue Note 84800], a well-recorded jazzy pop CD, sounded full and bloomy, and with just the right amount of warmth, texture, and sweetness to Jones' voice over the VS 1Fs -- exactly the way the disc is supposed to sound. These are very even-handed and neutral speakers, imparting little of their own sonic signature. Their clarity, from the highs to the lows, is quite remarkable.
Simpler arrangements, like Joness, are one thing for a loudspeaker to reproduce, but edgy, earsplitting rock is quite another. Many audiophile speakers just cant do it, either distorting when things get too loud, or tripping all over themselves trying to keep up. The VS 1Fs, on the other hand, can. In fact, the VS 1Fs changed my opinion about the sound quality of the newly remastered version of the Clashs London Calling, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the albums release [Epic/Legacy 92923]. This is an important album to me personally, and it is one of the best rock albums ever released.
Originally, I thought this new version to be not much of an improvement over the regular CD, which, sonically, is nothing to write home, or write a review, about. I was initially disappointed, but then I played it over the VS 1Fs, first quietly, then at a moderate volume level, then quite loud, and then still louder, to the point that the most fervent head-banger would be nodding in approval. Were talking louder than Ive ever dared play any speakers Ive reviewed for fear of damaging them. I did it, though, because the VS 1Fs sounded so darn good and because they just wouldnt cry "uncle." The SPLs were ear-splitting, but never ear-fatiguing -- the VS 1Fs stayed clean and clear the entire time, even at the highest volume level I could stand. The VS 1Fs highs, often the downfall of even some outrageously expensive speakers, remained clean without ever becoming brittle or edgy.
While I still think theres more work that can be done to make London Calling sound even better on CD -- where are Steve Hoffman and DCC when you need them? -- I did find this new version to be quite a bit cleaner and more detailed than the previous version. I could never play the older CD to nearly the level that I could the new recording. But while loud is one thing, finesse is another. Yes, the VS 1Fs blossomed in my enormous room, but they also retained the same delicacy that I heard in my small room when using them with the Zanden Model 600 amp.
Another remastering job Im quite fond of, again more so after I spent time hearing it through the VS 1Fs, is Bruce Cockburns 1980 release of Humans -- an album I hold to the same standard in the world of folk as I do London Calling in the world of rocknroll. In the last year or so, True North Records released a "Deluxe Edition" of Humans [True North TND 317], featuring a modern-day remastering job, fancier packing, and a live version of "Grim Travellers," the albums opening track. True North did a great job, and over the VS 1Fs, this version of Humans sounded glorious. I hadnt heard Humans sound this good in almost 25 years, when I first discovered it and the rest of Cockburns music. From Cockburns rich voice to the delicacy of his guitar to the precision of Hugh Marshs violin, the VS 1Fs sounded dynamic, yet delicate.
I liked almost everything about the VS 1Fs and consider them among the best in their price class, but there was one area I could not quite rave about until well into the review period: soundstaging and imaging. As I mentioned, I couldnt get much of a soundstage in my smallish room -- the VS 1Fs seemed to need room to breathe. Also, when I was auditioning the speakers early on, I never realized how important listening height was to getting the most out of them. I got decent center fill, but that was about it.
Once I set the VS 1Fs up in my large room, keeping them a good distance from the side and front walls, they threw a stage with impressive width, often extending beyond the speakers themselves. Still, the images werent as tightly focused as I wanted -- there was a diffuseness I didnt like. The problem? The height of my listening seat, which put me at the height of the top woofer and not at tweeter level, which is where the speakers sound ideal. It wasnt long, then, before the listening chair was out and my low-ish Ikea couch that was sitting in storage was in. Once that was done, the stage snapped into focus much better, although, still, the soundstaging, while very good, particularly in terms of stage width, wasnt necessarily great in terms of specificity. I could never get the VS 1Fs to sound holographic, in a "spooky" sense, as I could other speakers. A small quibble, though, compared to what the VS 1Fs achieve in other areas. My suggestion: play with placement in your room to get the VS 1Fs just the right distance away from the walls and each other, and ensure youre exactly at the right height.
Comparison, contrast, and context
I compared the Vera VS 1Fs to the Paradigm Signature S2 ($1900-$2200 per pair depending on finish) and the PSB Platinum M2 ($1999 per pair) minimonitors I recently reviewed. They're all two-ways and share a similar sonic signature -- from the highs to the lows, each frequency range is produced evenly, and there are no awkward areas that are emphasized or recessed. These speakers all seem to be cut from the same sonic cloth. Likewise, the S2 and M2 can both be integrated into a full home-theater system with a similar complement of speakers in their families -- as with Vera line. But these arent what some will call "home-theater speakers"; theyll stand up in a two-channel setup and please the most critical audiophiles.
What distances the VS 1Fs from the S2 and M2 are just what you would think: bass extension and sheer output capability. The VS 1Fs go deeper and can play far louder than the S2 and M2 -- not surprising at all given the increased cabinet volume and additional bass driver. However, these things are reflected in the price, too. The VS 1Fs, at $5000 per pair, sell for more than double the price of the S2 or the M2. The S2 and M2 are extraordinarily good speakers with good overall output capabilities, but they have limited bass extension, and this makes them best suited for a small or medium-sized room -- a room like the one I used to be in. The VS 1Fs are a step up in size, with far deeper bass and truly extraordinary output, making them suitable for medium or even large rooms. You pay more, you get more -- simple as that.
The VS 1Fs also hold up to many other highly regarded speakers priced similarly -- and higher, too. While five thou isnt a drop in the bucket, it is a fraction of what some people pay for speakers that dont perform nearly as well as these. In fact, Ive seen people drop $15,000 on pair of speakers, thinking that because the speakers are expensive they must be good, and not get a speaker that's as neutral as the VS 1F. In that light, these MB Quart speakers could almost be considered a deal -- almost.
The VS 1Fs face stiff competition -- theyre not the only very good $5000 loudspeakers out there. I compared them to some outstanding bookshelf speakers I reviewed to give some context as to what you get when you go from something thats really good, but small, to something thats really good, but bigger. But these same companies, Paradigm and PSB, also have bigger, floorstanding loudspeakers, the Signature S8 and the Platinum T6, priced around $5000 -- and theyre good too. Thats heady company. I also reviewed Focus Audios FS-788, and while that speaker cant play as loud as and doesnt have the bass extension of the VS 1F, it has an exceedingly sweet top end and a midrange thats the sonic equivalent of velvet, which is quite intoxicating even if its not entirely accurate. I know some people will love the 788s sound even if the speakers cant do some things the VS 1Fs do. Their price? About $5000.
These days there are so many good products out there that are reasonably priced that its hard to call a $5000 pair of loudspeakers a flat-out deal. And even though there are many more expensive speakers that arent as good as the VS 1Fs, there are some that are worth their cost. But thats not to say a $5000 pair of loudspeakers cant be great even if it's not a steal or the very best, and thats precisely what the MB Quart Vera VS 1Fs are -- great-sounding loudspeakers at a very fair price.
Arriving quietly at my door without a hint of what lay inside the inconspicuous brown boxes, these German speakers impressed me as much as any product Ive reviewed in years. Despite the functional caveats -- the backside bolts coming loose and the awkward binding posts -- the Vera VS 1Fs are capable of truly outstanding performance, making them must-audition speakers for anyone shopping in the $5000 price range. Theyre wonderful.
If youre looking for speakers that are modest in size yet big on sound, without sacrificing finesse and detail, seek out the MB Quart Vera VS 1Fs and see if they impress you as much as they impressed me. They might be the audio worlds best-kept secret.
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