VON SCHWEIKERT VR-33
Price: $3,750 - sold direct
James L. Darby
QUICK! Name a speaker whose frequency response starts all the way down at (a legitimate) 25Hz and extends up to 30,000Hz with a variance of only +/- 3dB. The filed is pretty limited at any price. Now add that it stands over 4 feet tall and weighs 100 lbs each. The field gets smaller. But wait…this speaker boasts a 90 db sensitivity rating! Now we’re talking a very limited range of options. But there’s one more little kicker to throw in. Wait for it…. It sells for under $4,000! Per pair!
To make things a little sweeter, the speaker is designed and made in the USA, and not by someone you’ve never heard of. No, this is designed by one of the top speaker designers in the annals of speakerdom – Albert Von Schweikert. Sounds too good to be true, right? We thought so, too, so we arranged foran early review so we could tell you what a huge marketing ploy this was.
Besides being a bonafied genius speaker maker, Albert Von Schweikert also loves to talk a lot, especially about his speakers. We didn’t have to pry an info from him at all, in fact we didn’t need to ask him a single question; he told us everything we (and you) would want to know about his new VR-33 before we could ask. Not only that, but it’s all on the website and, to his credit, in the owner’s manual. I must say that this is easily one of the best, most informative manuals ever and a lot of the info in this review is copied right from it. My biggest problem is to sort through all the info and edit it down to something that doesn’t take hours to read.
The question whose answer we all want to know is, if this speaker is so frickin’ good, how did he design it so he could sell it at $3,775 a pair? As we’ve told you many times, the casework of any stereo component can add as much as 50% to the overall price. It’s the same with speakers. All the fancy wood and woodworking cost big bucks. What Uncle Albert did was eliminate it. What you see is a top and bottom cap with over four feet of speaker cloth between them. Big savings.
The second step is that he only sells them direct, ripping out the distributor and dealer mark-up. He actually bought a fleet of white vans and he and his family cruise various neighborhoods across the country asking passersby if they want a “great deal on some speakers”. Okay, that second part isn’t true, but the “great deal” sure seems like it.
So. He must have skimped on driver quality, right? To that he says, “You may recognize the same drivers as used by speaker systems costing up to $150,000/pr. This is not a coincidence, since we feel that using the most expensive and accurate drivers is an important requirement, even in a modestly priced speaker system. After all, wouldn’t you want to spend your money on great drivers instead of a nice finish, especially when the drivers are the most important part of the sound?
10” (250mm) Woofer
At the rear of the VR-33, you can see our custom-designed Tymphani woofer, with emphasis on extremely fast transient response to match the same transient response as the front-firing main array twin 6” bass-mids. With a crossover point of 80Hz, the rear-firing subwoofer cannot be heard as a separate woofer, it is 100% integrated into the front wave. By using the wall as a reflector, we obtain the advantage of boosting efficiency; with the added benefit of being able to fine tune the bass by moving the speaker from 3” from the back wall, up to 20” from the rear wall. The woofer is enclosed in a Triple-Chambered Transmission line hybrid, using three damped chambers with a bass reflex port firing at the rear wall. We believe you will find that the woofer of the VR-33 is the quickest, cleanest woofer you have heard!
6” BASS-MID DRIVERS ON FRONT BAFFLE
After testing more than 30 brands and types of new midranges, we have chosen to use a Danish-Design unit, with similar sound and specifications as used in speakers up to $150,000/pr. Although this is a different model, made exclusively to blend with the other VR-33 drivers, it has the same quality and sound clarity as any midrange you have heard. Not even a ribbon or electrostatic driver will outperform our new bass-mid drivers! The specifications of the drivers are impressive - several patents are used, including the Low Distortion Motor, with copper clad pole piece, specially shaped top plate, triple wound voice coil, and elevated spider design to eliminate compression and wind distortion behind the cone. Two units are used, for power handling down to 80Hz, high dynamic range, loud volume levels, and the ability to mount the tweeter in between, creating a virtual point source.
1” SCAN-DESIGN SILK DOME TWEETER
Although we are justifiably proud of our woofer and mids, the tweeter is the most important driver in any speaker, since most dome drivers have high distortion and coloration. Most owners of planar speakers were driven to planars by the inherent distortion in dome tweeters that they could not tolerate. After trying diamond, titanium, ceramic, aluminum, and plastic film tweeters, we chose the plain-Jane silk dome tweeter for its natural and relaxed sound. However, our chosen tweeter has no audible distortion and will play very loud without break up. It also has extremely wide dispersion due to the dual ring design of the diaphragm, and has very high excursion potential. The rear of the dome has a large chamber behind it, to absorb the rear waves that normally cause the harshness and distortion inherent in less expensive tweeters”.
I told you he loves to talk about his speakers…
Well then, he had to save some bucks on the crossovers for sure.
“Our sonic target was a speaker system with a very wide bandwidth of 25Hz to 30,000Hz, with sonically “invisible” crossover points. Since the front-firing 6” bass-mids have a response from 46Hz to 12,000Hz (which is almost the entire audible range!) we have elected to use cross points above and below the audible range. The subwoofer goes up only to 80Hz, where the 6” bass-mids start to drop in bass power. At the top end, we harmonically blend the Dual Ring 1” fabric tweeter at 6kHz, well outside the ear’s most sensitive hearing range. The effect of these cross points is a sonically invisible driver blend”.
Most speaker designers (and reviewers) would be happy with all that crossover info, but not Albert. “Although most of our speaker designs have utilized Acoustic Fourth Order circuits we call a Global Axis Integration Network, this is not a perfect design for a Concentric Array driver alignment for electro-mechanical reasons. We have reverted back to our original Vortex First Order design, with the circuit optimized for the drivers used and the wide dispersion sound we engineered into the VR-33. Since the First Order circuit uses less parts, we were able to afford the finest sounding parts available, like Mundorf and Clarity capacitors, Mundorf metal film resistors, American-made inductor coils that handle 1,000-watts before saturation distortion, and Analysis Plus internal speaker cable with 14 gage construction. Binding posts are WBT-styled Five Way units that will accept any type of connector, including bare wire. One pair is provided, since we don’t feel the VR-33 should be bi-wired due to the extra expense. The crossover board is built by hand, using point-to-point wiring, since circuit boards use thin traces that can’t handle high current without compressing the signal”.
How about the cabinet itself? Eliminating the wood cabinet saves money, but doesn’t it also compromise the rigidity and isolation? Apparently not. Albert shaped the cabinet to look like a (trapezoidal) wedge with very thick shelf braces every 6” in order to make the cabinet extremely solid and non-resonant. The trapezoidal shape is no accident, either, as it can be braced with the angled panels at a 300% higher Q than a plain, square cabinet. The dispersion pattern is also controlled by the angled sides, he told me. Knocking on the speaker’s sides does not cause a rip in the fabric, rather it feels and sounds like solid wood.
The front baffle of the VR-33 is 8” wide, housing two 6” bass-mid drivers and a 1” Dual Ring tweeter, which is centered between the two bass- mids. The tweeter is located 37” from the bottom, directly at ear level.
Centered between the two 6” bass-mids is the 1” Dual ring tweeter. The front baffle is covered by a 12mm felt blanket, designed to absorb reflections from the baffle surrounding the tweeter. This enables the M-T-M array to behave as a point source. The 16” wide rear cabinet baffle is where the 10” woofer and bass reflex port are located. The VR-33 bass is tuned using a Triple Chamber Transmission line system. The vent can be damped with Dacron to “tune” the bass response to fit any sound room environment. The company will even provide the Dacron if you don’t have any lying around. The 10” subwoofer faces the rear wall, enabling the room to help “boost” the bass power.
All that’s good, but is this just a marketing ploy, or is it the real deal? Let’s roll.
Other than the specs and price, the first thing you need to know is that the speaker is designed from the get-go to be placed close to a back wall. Albert explains it this way, “Since most audiophiles do not have a dedicated listening room, it is impractical for customers to buy a speaker that must be placed several feet into the room. Most rooms are getting smaller, not larger, so we decided to design a speaker that can be placed several inches from the wall. In fact, the VR-33 uses the wall to develop its full sonic potential in the sound stage width, height, and depth, as well as generate the deepest bass power”.
Since the speakers were designed to be placed close to a back wall, I, of course, placed them right where I start with every floor-standing speaker; well out into the room, about 9’ from the back wall and 5’ or so from the sides. How else could I tell just how much the back wall would contribute to the sound if I didn't start well away from it!
After proper burn-in, the first surprise came when I discovered that the VR-33s do not sound particularly anemic or bass shy when placed out into the room, and a rather large room at that. By playing some deep-bass infused cuts like Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue In D Minor,” played by Jean Guillou on the The Great Pipe Organ of Saint Ustache, Paris (Dorian Recordings), the low pedal D at the very beginning with a fundamental well below 25Hz will test (or trash) any speaker. There was nothing trashy about the resulting sound, it was all there, just not as solid and robust as some of the more expensive we’ve tested, but still better than most. I’m not going to spend a lot of your time on the speaker’s performance in a manner in which it was not intended, but suffice it to say we were impressed with what we were hearing already.
A distance of 19” from the wall was settled on, still 5 feet from the sides. In that position, the low bass was as good as anything we’ve had in the system up to about $20,000, including the 2009 Product of the Year Vaughn Cabernet. The big Legacy Whispers with their eight powered 15” woofers was considerably better, but not much in terms of frequency depth, just overall bass quality and the ease of reaching those depths, as well the $55,000 Nola Baby Grands.
One thing is for certain; The VR-33s disappear faster than a 12-year-old boy who’s just found his dad’s latest issue of Playboy in the mail. There is no sense of speaker generated sound at all, and even that close to the wall where you’d think the depth of the image would suffer, the sound stage was simply immense, but not exaggerated. Large symphonies sounded like large symphonies in a large concert hall with ambience and reverb thick as it should be and trailing off just the way it does naturally, a difficult task for any speaker.
DARBY TAKES ON THE BIG BOYS
As if reading my mind, I got an email from Albert with this little tidbit; “By now, you have discovered that the sound stage reproduction of the VR-33 is huge – although it may not be quite as focused as a “standard” speaker system with a conventional radiation pattern. This was a specific design goal of mine – to generate the same type of sound field that you hear at a live performance. Although I also enjoy the tight image focus of a convention speaker’s radiation pattern, the smaller sweet spot often annoys me subconsciously. I find that I enjoy listening to live music more than I enjoy the sound of most any stereo system I’ve heard, cost no object. After thinking about what causes the main difference between recorded sound and live sound, I have come to a major conclusion – if the speaker radiates sound like a live instrument, the ear/brain hearing mechanism enables you to relax and get into the music. You become part of the emotional response that the composer intended. However, most highly focused stereo speakers present a small sweet spot and often too much treble response when compared to live music. The VR-33 was designed to have a similar emotional response as a live performance, and here is what I though to be important aspects to think about while I developed the VR-33, see if you agree:
Albert, I would argue that for me, they key phrase above is when you say, “…it is an unnatural effect, if your reference is a live orchestra in a large hall”. I don’t know about you dear readers, but most of what I listen to was not recorded live in a large concert hall, though I certainly love those recordings. I also like recordings made in small spaces like jazz soloists or trios as well as those not made in a “space” at all, but assembled from dozens of various “takes”, often in completely different studios, then assembled via mixing board and multi-track recorder. Many engineers work very hard to get that voice, often laden with image killing effects, out in front of the background. Especially these days when singers mostly can’t sing, the producer and recordist wants the artist to sound anything but natural. And boosted, unnatural, boomy and distorted bass most often causes fatigue, for most people, and me. Nothing will cause a “vague sense of boredom” faster than that. But yua re right that an overly bright mid or treble will have the same result.
The brain has to work overtime to decipher the thousands of different distorted and mangled waves some speakers, amps – anything - produces. It’s actually the brain that gets tired, not the ears. After a while of trying to make sense of sounds that simply don’t, the poor gray matter finally says, “Get me the heck outta here!” Though we don't hear an inner voice (at least most of us don’t), the brain also controls our feet and our butts and that feeling of discomfort that comes on when exposed too long to any type of distortion.
No sir, I would not say “most stereo speakers” cause fatigue, at least not ones I’ve either reviewed, listened to for long periods or owned. Some perhaps; most, nope.
But he is definitely right about the concert hall experience, but again, not all recordings are made in halls, nor are they intended to sound like they were.
Since live music does not have the same image localization as a stereo system, it is not only possible, but highly recommended, to design a speaker system that can simulate the sound of a large- image sound field. This type of a sound field becomes addictive, since it does not “spot-light” the location of the speaker system. It is an easier sound to live with, since it appears to the subconscious mind to be more “natural” than a conventional speaker system. After you get used to hearing the huge sound field of the VR-33, it is an easy transition to enjoy a live musical concert. Many audiophiles who own a tightly focused speaker can’t turn on their stereo systems after coming home from a live concert. You have probably read discussions along this line by Michael Fremer of Stereophile. Although he emphasizes that the colorations of a stereo recording/playback system cause most of his discomfort, he has not discussed the differences with image focus, which in my opinion, is a greater difference than the clarity/transparency issue”.
With all due respect to the mighty Michael, anyone who leaves a concert and expects – and that is the key word, “expects” – to hear a live symphony in their home even with the ultra-buck stuff that he has, is going to be sorely disappointed. With our current technology, it is impossible to exactly reproduce ANY performance, be it live or studio assembled. And that is the flaw is my friend’s Harry Pearson “Absolute Sound” theory as well, for a myriad of reasons.
To cite just one example, anyone who has ever worked in a studio or a live venue, knows that the choice of microphones will greatly affect the sound that goes on tape (or Protools). All microphones sound different. That’s why, like speakers, there are so many of them. After all, microphones are just small speakers in reverse. You can record something with a Shure SM58 mic (what most singers use in concerts) while simultaneously recording the same event with a Neumann U47 tube studio mic and you will get two VERY different recordings.
This from recording-microphones.co.uk/ says it well: The microphone is probably the most important element in the recording chain, shaping the initial sound of the instrument or voice you are recording. Microphones have been around in various shapes and sizes for over 100 years and there are literally thousands of different models to choose from. The question that we are asked time and time again is "What microphone should I use for recording a particular instrument or type of music" and the answer is that there simply isn’t one mic for a particular job. Ask a range of studio engineers which is their favorite microphone for say, recording a piano, and you will get 20 different answers. It's like weather...There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing and it's the same with mics. You can use any mic to record anything but some are more appropriate than others.
Of course, that also goes for anything else in the recording chain; different consoles have their own sound, of course the speakers they mix and master to are all different, cables, processors – everything effects and changes the original or “absolute” sound.
Harry states the standard is “unamplified” music, but by definition, ALL music that is recorded is amplified by the mics, the mic preamps, the faders on the board, etc. So therefore, until something more radical is invented, a recording can never, ever sound absolutely like a live performance.
In addition, anyone who has actually played live music knows that the performance will differ significantly on any given night. It’s the same reason Peyton Manning sometimes throws interceptions or has a “bad game”, or why any Hall of Fame pitcher seldom threw no-hitters and sometimes got knocked out in the first inning. People are human and inconsistent. So if performances by the same artist or group differ, which one is “absolute”?
But these are just academic arguments. Unlike Mikey, we should not expect our sound systems to sound exactly like the real thing, unless we all live in Carnegie Hall. You don’t go to a movie and expect it to be a real experience. No one is James Bond or an Avatar, even in 3-D. You must always, to some degree, suspend your disbelief to let yourself mentally and emotionally get into the movie. And listen to this: how MUCH you have to suspend it is a direct result of the quality of the movie. If the movie sucks, it’s because the actors sucked, or the director, or the scriptwriter or all of the above. A great movie is one that allows you to easily be drawn into it; the actor make you believe he is not Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep, but the character they are playing.
It is the same with our stereos. As I have said many times, the true test of a high-end system is how hard it makes you work to believe you are listening to real music. If you have to strain to hear the body and metal disks of the tambourine, or the electric bass sounds too muddy and you can’t follow the line without squinting at your system, it ain’t high end.
Albert's email continued:
D) Many audiophiles are not familiar with the sound of a live orchestra in a large hall, since most small towns do not have this type of entertainment. In particular, the audiophile who has listened to his stereo system more than he has listened to live music will come to believe that conventional stereo speakers sound better than live music, since they can hear precise localization of each instrument with a good stereo system, while live music is not nearly as tightly focused.
Exactly! You just made my point. It is much easier for someone who has never heard a real symphony to suspend their sense of reality and disbelief because they virtually have none. The absolute sound does not exist for them, not should it need to. How hard they must work to enter that state of belief and be convinced they are listening to something real is the key.
Now hear me friends, there’s a point to this little exercise. First, I am not arrogant or stupid enough to believe that I can challenge Albert Von Schweikert on speaker design on any level. Same holds true for misters Pearson and Fremer and their voluminous expertise. But I have spent many years on both sides of the glass in many recordings studios and I have performed as solo artist and with ensembles all over the world. So I know that what I said is 100% correct. The point is, just because I’m right, doesn’t make Albert, Harry or Mike wrong. I know exactly what Albert was trying to say as well as Mike and Harry and guess what; they are all correct.
It’s the same in music. Think about Furtwangler and Bernstein conducting Beethoven. Both very different. So which one is wrong? How about Creedence vs Tina Turner on "Proud Mary"? Which one of those is "wrong"?
One of the beauties of hi-end audio is that many people can have diverse opinions. As we see in countless audio forums, everyone has an opinion. Are they all worthy? Of course not. You do have to consider the source. Many posters just want to elevate themselves so they appear important. Sad but true. They never use their real names so they can say anything, and most just regurgitate what they saw somewhere else.; they've never even seen or heard what they're pontificating about. And even more sadly, some people who do have credentials use forums to promote their nefarious, audio/political agendas. If you see audio editors or reviewers posting frequently, be VERY suspicious. If they are taking time away from their audio jobs, there is definitely something afoot. Stuff to keep in mind.
It’s fun to debate, but we must never loose sight of the fact that we all share a common love of music and the things that reproduce it in our homes. We are all on the same team.
WHERE WE LEFT OFF
The pair has been move to 19” from the back wall and we’ve established that they disappear completely leaving an immense soundstage very deep and wide by any standard, even though it is close to a back wall. The bass, already pretty good several feet from the wall, is now more solid with greater definition and clarity. Surpsiingly, it has not taken on an louder character per se, though it was when closer than the 19”. You have to experiment a little to get it to your taste. But there is no doubt that this is a full range speaker that can handle and produce prodigious yet amazingly accurate low and ultra-low frequencies. The texture of growling double basses, the skin and body of a tympani and the ability to tell the subtle differences in electric basses was all there. It was pretty easy to decipher the difference between a simultaneous kick drum hit and a bass player.
There was also excellent linearity from top to bottom with no glaring crossover points or contrasting driver signatures. Very cohesive, very smooooth.
The VR-33 is also well above average in dynamic range. There are better, even in this price range. The Odyssey Lorelei I have in for review right now as part of an entire system that sells for under $6,000, is priced at $2,700/pr and has astounding dynamic range, but it doesn’t go as low or as loud. The Lorelei actually clipped at levels approaching 100db and started to congest before that while the VR-33 sailed through that barrier without breaking a sweat. The finish quality of the VR is much higher than the Odyssey model as well. The 33 is a much better speaker.
The midrange of Von Schweikert is also excellent with due repect paid to male and female vocals as well pitched, pluked and bowed instruments. While there was nice detail and lots of space around individual sounds, it was not etched or spotlighted as Albert claimed. I’ll just say it now; everything Albert said about his speaker is right on the money, at least those parts that weren’t a little over hyped, but I didn’t quote those anyway.
The top end is crisp, well extended and provides the same character and level of detail as the rest of the ranges.
One quality that stood out was its ability to reproduce reverb and ambient cues, both short and very long, on a very high level. Again, I’m comparing everything to the best out there.
I played every genre of music from Gregorian Chant to the latest pop releases in the effort to find one that was disagreeable to the Vr-33, but it shows no prejudice towards any. This speaker goes about its business with a big grin on its face whether its playing Lady Carmen, Lady Day or Lady Gaga. And I mean the VR-33 will seriously rock, baby! You gots 60 or more solid watts? Turn the sucker UP!
Speaking of amps, I used several here from the new British Ekco tube amp ($2,700 and a world’s first review pending) which offers a choice between 28Watts RMS per channel in Triode mode and 55Watts RMS per channel in Ultra-linear mode. Both modes drove the big 33s easily, easily differentiating between the two very different modes. This would be a great match.
I also used the new Beyond Frontiers Tulip integrated amp ($18,000), also in for a world’s first review. It’s an all out assault on the state-of-the-art made by the designer of the famous orginal Sonic Frontiers preamp in Serbia. The VR-33s stepped up and showed me all the vast qualities of this superamp, not being overwhelmed at all. The 33s are a dream to drive and very tube friendly.
Another great match would be the rest of the Odyssey system I mentioned earlier; a pair of 110 watss each Khartago mono amplifiers at only $2,000 for the pair (!) and the Candela vacuum tube line preamplifier for only $1,500. With the VR-33s, this is an absolutely killer combo.
There really aren’t many nits to pick here friends, and believe me, I’m trying hard. Oh yes…there’s this one: It comes in any color as long as it’s black. You have your choice of walnut veneer or Steinway Hi-gloss Piano black resin bottom and top caps available at the same price. Also available are Cherrywood caps.
I might add that the WAF is pretty high since the 33s don't’ hog a room but sit back against the wall and their mostly black form doesn’t dominate a room, either.
If you are looking for a speaker that doesn’t need to sit out in your room to work its magic, there’s plenty of magic to be had with the VR-33. If you need your speaks far from a back wall, better look elsewhere. If fancy cabinetry is important to you, this is not for you, either.
If you prefer ultra, spotlit detail of a studio monitor or something like a Magico or Wilson, go there and spend more. But prepare to spend serious bucks on amps, too.
Or, if you aleady have an etchy amp like a Plinius or other super hot solid state rig, these might be a good balance for you. Sell your Wilsons and stash away a ton.
If you have any decent tube amp, the VR-33’s will caress them and love them like a romance novel cover.
On the other hand, while I can think of a few speakers that do one or two things as well or better than the Von Schweikert VR-33s, usually at much higher prices, I cannot think of a single speaker that does everything as well at anywhere near the amazing $3,750 price per pair. Yes, a bit more refinement and transparency is avaialalbe if you have the bucks, but you’d better have lots more. The next step up in the VS line is the VR-4SR MkIII and it’s what, $16,000? That’s why Albert says that the VR-33 sound like a $15,000 speaker.
I can say from my soul that the Von Schweikert VR-33 is one of the best speaker values I have seen and heard in many years.
The problem is that since they are only sold direct from the factory, you can’t really audition them at a store, but he does offer a 90 day trial.
The Von Schweikert VR-33 easily wins our Maximum Mojo Award.
In addition, because of it's phenominal price to performance ratio, the VR-33 was voted a Stereomojo
2010 PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
in the Best Speaker Value Category