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Equipment Review

July 1998

Zen Flesh, Zen Bone:
Von Schweikert Research VR-4 Generation II Speakers

by Greg Weaver

The Zen experience

Zen might well be described as a form of monastic humanism, a spiritual directive for self-actualization or self-knowledge. Robust, earthy and energetic, when Indian Buddhism was first introduced into China in the first century AD, it reacted against the tendency of each of the competing Buddhist sects to favor one particular scripture, and in general, it opposed heavy reliance upon sacred texts. According to Buddhist tradition, men of lesser understanding might need the aid of words and scriptures. Zen Buddhism, however, in the highest sense, was wordless. Tradition says that once, as Buddha sat in his garden and turned a flower in his fingers, only one of his attending disciples, Kashyapa, in an instant had understood all that was meant by that act. This understanding brought a smile to Kashyapa’s face, so Buddha chose to transmit his enlightenment to him, wordless and directly. In symbolic tradition, this formal act of transmission has been preserved in Zen in various ways over centuries. What does all this have to do with a pair of loudspeakers? Read on.

My time with the newest version of the VR-4 from Von Schweikert Research gave me cause to reflect upon my introduction to and subsequent grasp of Zen in the early ‘70s. At the dawn of my studies, there was plenty of hard work in the form of many tasks that had to be undertaken with little understanding or meaning. Then came loads of "practice," in the form of zazen, the ritual sitting associated with meditation, again undertaken with little understanding at first. With time, there came the glimmers of awareness as I learned patience and purpose. Finally, after some considerable duration, there came the joy and the revelation that I had struggled for and anticipated, allowing all the work and purpose to be seen in the proper perspective as I looked back upon the learning experience.

So it was with the Von Schweikert Research VR-4 Generation II. They required much attention to placement when they first arrived, only gently revealing themselves to me as I slowly honed in on the more correct room placement. They also exhibited many changes of voice before allowing me to see their special vision. They were moved here, there and back again. They were paired with this amp and those cables. Once all the movement, run in and partnering had been accomplished and a final synergy attained, they took me on a unique trip to magical place--a musical satori, if you will.

Undertaking the pilgrimage

Transporting the Gen. IIs home is no easy task given their collective 270 pounds--without packing material! Thankfully they come in four boxes, making the toting and schlepping a bit easier. Equally as thankfully for me, UPS brought them right to my driveway, simplifying my chore considerably. To top it all off, I was fortunate enough to have the help of Casey McKee, Sales and Marketing Director of the Hales Design Group, who happened to be visiting me that afternoon, to get them into my listening room. Thanks Casey, I owe you one!

Unpacking them revealed my audition set to be of an absolutely beautiful red-cherry finish, a finish to which no photos I have seen can do justice. You must see them to appreciate the lush color and satin-gloss finish. The significant other, who typically couldn’t care less about my audio fetish, even took time out to remark on their beauty. That is saying something.

Assembling the speakers is truly a snap. There is a rectangular wooden frame atop the woofer bases, bearing the VR logo on the front span, and providing for the exact placement and snug fit of the mid/tweeter modules. The huge woofer ports flare rather elegantly to 5.5" off the back of the module, eliminating any chance of turbulent air noise where they couple to the room. The woofer cabinet’s five-way binding posts reside in a 3"-by-5.5" recessed mounting plate near bottom of the unit. Once the mid/tweeter module is placed atop the woofer base, its input posts, also located on a 3"-by-5.5" recessed mount plate, reside some 34" off the floor on the uniquely sloped rear panel.

With nearly a 30" difference between the two sets of input posts, get yourself some long jumpers if you intend to single-wire the speakers. Or, better yet, take the hint and biwire. You’ll be glad you did! If you are interested in greater detail of the design and execution of the VR-4 Gen. II, see last month’s preview. The latest iteration of the first Virtual Reality speaker offered from Albert Von Schweikert retails for $3950, just $500 more than the original VR-4.

System

My current analog front-end is the venerate Linn Sondek LP-12 (with my own modifications) fitted with a Magnepan Unitrac 1 carbon-fiber, uni-pivot-tracking tonearm tipped with the superlative Monster Cable Sigma Genesis 2000 moving-coil cartridge. Ones and zeros are generated by a Pioneer Elite PD-41 stable-platter transport and sent via coax to an Audio Alchemy DTI Pro 32, then on to an Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 via I2S bus, both of which are powered by an Audio Alchemy Power Station 2. All the AA equipment sports the full Dusty Vawter treatment. Both front-ends feed my Threshold FET nine/e which then drives any one of a number of amplifiers which include the wonderful Pass Labs Aleph 2 and the Clayton S-40. All single-ended cables are either my home-brew SSTs or the astounding JPS Labs Superconductors. Digital cables include my home-brew "Silver Bit Transfer" or the SRM Max 1. Speaker cables are the Superconductors from JPS Labs, or the MI2 or AG1 from Alpha Core Goertz. Speakers include my beloved Acoustat 2+2 Medallions (with my own modifications) and, of course, the VR-4 Gen. IIs. My listening room is 11' 2"W x 18'L x 7' 6" T. Room taming is achieved through the use of both Cascade Audio Engineering products and my own home-brew room-taming devices. And lots of inner tubes and sandbags!

Sitting – Learning to be still

Set up on the other hand proved that the more attention you pay to placement, the better the VR-4 Gen. II will reward its owner. After two or three hours of fussing, I settled on a fairly pleasing position with the tweeters some 60" from the front wall and 29" from the side walls. My listening position is 12' 1" from the front wall and on the centerline of the room. This was the position for most of the break-in period, but many refinements were made thereafter, allowing the speakers to come completely into their own. Though the VRs seem nearly impervious to placement in regard to their ability to recreate a realistic presentation, they are like most other speakers in regard to tonal balance and when placed properly: They literally come to life. Although it is next to impossible to set the VR-4 Generation IIs up so that they sound horrible, it does take some attention to get them to disappear completely and validate that "Virtual Reality" moniker.

Final positioning came with vast experimentation. After exhaustive testing and listening in two other very different rooms (belonging to the Gallo-meister and HAL), as well as the implementation of KB Acoustics highly effective Visual Ears room-analysis software, certain patterns began to emerge. The final listening position in my room ended up with the tweeter 53" from the front wall and just 18" from the sides. While this may seem a rather extreme position in terms of relationship to the side wall, the resultant benefits in tonal balance and bass performance more than made up for the small loss in stage depth. Such proximity to the side walls will obviously mandate the use of materials to tame primary reflections. While such room-taming devices were already in place at Chez Weaver (the Cascade Audio Engineering Whisper Wedges), I must tell you that room tuning will be an essential part of getting the best from any speaker in any room, including the Gen. IIs.

Once you have gotten the overall balance accurately dialed in through correct room placement, it is time to examine the benefits of the rear-firing tweeter. While often able to enhance the soundstage depth and focus, it could at times unduly brighten the overall timbral balance. So you may choose to simply bypass its use by leaving it completely attenuated. You will really have to experiment with this to appease your own tastes, but do experiment. It can offer a wide range of effects, especially in terms of image specificity and stage size. I have selected both a great tonal balance and stage recreation by using about one-fourth of the gain available to that rear tweeter from the pot on the rear of the panel.

Practice - The steps to enlightenment

Right out of the boxes, the Gen. IIs were a bit hard and somewhat bright, more or less to be expected. I just threw my Environments 1: Psychologically Ultimate Seashore disc [Atlantic 81764] into the old transport, engaged the repeat button and pushed play. Although many tout using specialized break-in discs or tracks, I have found over the years that this disc works as well or better at achieving the desired results. As a matter of fact, recorded seashore sounds are a favorite of renowned cable guru and set up man George Cardas,

About a day later, I sat down in front of the VR-4 Gen. IIs with the intent of finishing some rough drafts. It didn’t happen. I couldn’t avert my attention from the music. I was literally unable to listen casually or to do anything else...like write, read, take a drink, or even scratch my chin. I’m quite grateful that breathing is an autonomic reflex, otherwise I may have forgotten to do it. These speakers just drew me into the music entirely, even though they had yet to run in completely. It was now completely obvious that I was in the presence of a very special product.

The first real character change that I noted, a slight reduction of the brightness, was logged at about 30 hours. After about 40 hours, the bass began to open up and sound more full and detailed. Things continued to change, sometimes quite drastically, for the first 100 hours or so. After that point, and up until about 300 hours, very minor nuances were noted, but the overall character had settled in and been determined at about that 100-hour mark. After full run-in of the speakers, detail was presented in proper scale and resolve, the woofers had loosened up enough to really start to convey true weight and bloom of instruments like cello and double bass, and the balance from lowest to highest octave had smoothed and poised. Hmmm, time to get serious.

Cognition - Refining revelation

There are a number of notable similarities between the original VR-4 and the Gen. II. Both designs use a single and critically chosen treated carbon-fiber driver to reproduce nearly four octaves of the music, the critical mid-band from 125Hz to 3.5kHz, which in my opinion is paramount to the smoothness and musical success of both incarnations of this speaker. Expanding on its triumphant predecessor, the Gen. II offers an apparent seamless integration of the many drivers. I know that last sentence is small, but the result of the effect I am describing is anything but insignificant, so you may want to read it again. The resultant level of coherence the VR-4 Gen. II offers is as seamless as I have ever heard from any dynamic loudspeaker. In this attribute, they come on par with my long-time reference, my modified Acoustat 2+2 Medallions, and best them in the lower registers. This is an achievement that will shame many well-known and MUCH HIGHER-PRICED loudspeakers. Bravo Albert and company!

It also shares with the original an uncanny ability to provide a solidified image and coherent stage, which is where the VR (for Virtual Reality) in the nomenclature came from. The VR series recreate the phantom image and stage better than all but a few dynamic loudspeakers in my experience, ones that are many times the price of the VR-4 Gen. II. With the exception of a small hand full of electrostatic panels, I know of no speaker capable of delivering a more realistic presentation.

My initial suspicion that the Gen. II would only slightly better the original VR-4 in areas other than aesthetics and foot print were rapidly dispelled. Cosmetically, the design of the new Gen. II, occupying less than 75% of the volume and only about 78% of the foot print of the original, provides the illusion that it is much smaller than it is. Its more diminutive stature is very seductive and has really refined the speakers’ overall appearance. Upon direct comparison to HAL’s original VR-4s, many vital sonic improvements became readily apparent as well. Namely, the Gen. II offered a much higher level of clarity and detail to upper midrange and high frequencies, greatly increased micro-dynamic and low-level resolution capability and faster, more articulate bass.

The newly perceived speed and articulation to the lowest frequencies generated by the Gen. II are obviously attributes of the newly designed and executed woofer cabinet, with its latest labyrinth design and much larger and better-coupled ports.

Albert is quick to point out that his new assistant engineer, Frank Derrigo, shares much of the credit for the Gen. II's success. Frank holds a Master's Degree from Clarkson in electrical engineering and has been working with Albert for about a year. Albert informed me that Frank spent over 200 hours evaluating different crossover parts and implementing small tweaks to the original global-axis-integration-network design, in addition to doing the fine-tuning on the new bass alignment. All I can say is that it was time well spent. The Generation II is easily a 50% betterment of the archetype.

Making Bhodisattvas of us all

I am still reveling in this newly found enunciation and integration. The speakers’ ability at resolving individual voices during complex dynamic passages is nothing short of astounding. The myriad of percussion instruments being played in the foreground of "Fair Game" from 1977’s Crosby, Stills & Nash [Atlantic 19117-2] are easily outlined in their respective space, neatly and separately delineated.

Try the opening of the "Malaguena" from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole [Classic/RCA LSC 2183-1] to see just what I mean. Or the cacophony that commences the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sythian Suite [Mercury 432 753-2], which is miraculously recreated in all its chaos, never stumbling or blurring. The driving "Metropolis – Part 1" from Dream Theater’s Images and Words [ATCO 92148-2] is some of the best-recorded material of its genre, and the VR-4 Gen. II is able to throw it all into perspective, then ride tight rein on the rigorously delineated stage. To paraphrase the ‘70s super group Yes and their song "Roundabout" from Fragile [Atlantic Import 050009], "Things come out of the stage and they stand there!"

It is hard for me to believe that the Gen. II could best the original VR-4 in the area of micro dynamics and low-level resolution. That, in fact, was one of the VR-4’s strong suits in my book. But the Gen. II easily surpasses its progenitor, proving to be supreme at this difficult task. About eight seconds into the opening of "Nanny Stick" by Andy Narrell from the Windham Hill Sampler The Boston Bass Disc [Windham Hill WD92-18], there is a struck cymbal which now just hung in space and time and decayed for what seemed like forever, fully 17 or 18 seconds. That decay was presented with a clarity and resolution I’ve never heard before, even on my beloved electrostatic panels, long cherished for their ability to extract such low-level detail and micro-dynamic details.

Listen to the subtle flavorings of the struck triangle in Steely Dan’s "Aja" from the same album [MFSL 1-033]. These delicate characteristics, often lost in the din of the rest of the complex arrangement by even the very best of loudspeakers, were wrested from the meticulously woven fabric of the composition. They were now seemingly given a life of their own just outside and behind the left speaker: distinct attack, glorious vibrancy and delicate decay.

The muted time-keeping foot tapping of drummer Chris Layton from the superb Sony reissue of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather [Epic EK 64425] has never been better resolved. In the title track there are several breaks early in the cut where the band repeatedly stops and restarts. During these pauses, Layton’s ever-so-low key foot tapping is so readily apparent and clearly outlined in space that you can almost tell what brand of shoes he is wearing.

The musings of Ivan Morevec playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major [Via VAIA 1021] or Leonard Bernstein playing Chopin’s Fantaisie – Impromptu [Sony SK 45818] are accomplished on a heightened emotive level, never leaving any doubts about the feelings or expressions being rendered. Piano keys, whether vigorously struck with their explosive attack or just brushed into a whisper, were presented with all the emotion and sensuality with which they were intended.

Quiet hall noises, like creaking chairs, air-conditioner blowers, coughing audience members or closing doors are all revealed to be what they actually are rather than being offered up as some less-discriminate noise, in essence making the music that much more accessible. This attribute has the psycho-acoustic effect of allowing the subconscious to follow the flow of the music rather than be unintentionally and unwillingly distracted by the otherwise indefinable noise. In terms of low-level resolution and micro dynamics, the VR-4 Gen. II holds its own with any speaker in my several decades of experience, and in fact sets new standards in this price range.

Let’s talk about SLAM! You bass freaks out there are going to love this speaker. One note here, again about room placement: As with any full-range speaker, solid bass performance is ultimately dependent on room size, its resultant nodes and proper speaker placement therein. It is very easy to set the VR-4 Gen. II up in a manner that will provide less than impressive bass performance. Take your placement very seriously and you will be VERY well rewarded.

Just throw on "The Invasion" from the Seven Years in Tibet Soundtrack [Mandalay/Sony SK 60271], "Tiger" from Paula Cole’s This Fire [Warner Brothers Imago 9 46646-2], or the "Maestoso: Allegro" from Saint-Sans Symphony No. 3 [RCA LSC 2341] and feel your room pressurize. The woofers, once broken in, are fast, articulate and go very deep. Response was only down 3dB at 25Hz and 10dB at 20Hz in my room. The use of two well-selected though relatively inexpensive 8" drivers over one larger (and slower) driver is well served. The fact that the speakers have delightful bass speed and extension simply serves the rest of the musical illusion by greatly enhancing the already pinpoint imaging and wonderfully spacious staging characteristics of the Gen. II. These are truly full-range speakers.

While I’m on the subject of deep bass, let me elaborate just a bit. While it is true that the low-frequency performance of the Gen. IIs is full range and surpasses that of the Gen. I, it is not the end all, or even world class for that matter. It is loose and poorly defined by those standards. Listening to the Kinergetics Research SW-800 subwoofers, as I did for some time, really spoiled me in that department. Using 10, 10" drivers (five per side) and tipping the scales at 350 pounds a pair, these exquisite subs have established my yardstick for measuring bass in terms of weight, detail and speed. Although the Gen. IIs provide satisfying low-frequency performance, this is without doubt their weakest link. But given the speakers’ price point and intended market, the level of performance they achieve is truly admirable.

Some very well-known speakers tend to impose so much of their own signature on the final sonic outcome that changes of equipment and cabling upstream only slightly affect the results. Not the Gen. IIs! Every change of component in front of them is highlighted and easily noted. And though the VRs were seriously influenced by all components upstream, the complicated amplifier/speaker interface seemed the most influential.

Contributing a fairly easy load by providing a highly stable impedance and coming in at 91dB efficiency, these speakers should be capably driven by any but the smallest of triode-powered micro amplifiers. Rumor has it that a good part of the final voicing of the VRs is done with the Pass Labs Aleph 2 monoblocks. That gave me great hope for the pairing with my Pass Labs Aleph 3, a match-up which evoked absolute magic! My Clayton S-40, though a lush match in the mids, just didn’t exhibit the control at the bottom or the extension at both extremes that the robust little 3 could muster. And though all entrants from my Hafler stable tended to work adequately, they all showed their overall hardness and that typical class-A/B glare from the upper mids on up. Careful choice of amplifier pairing will benefit the owner in ways well worth the time and expense involved in that quest.

Contributing to that crucial amp/speaker interface, the Gen. IIs proved to be very sensitive to loudspeaker cable matching. I tried a plethora of cables and found myself coming back to the JPS Labs Superconductor biwires as the best overall performer in my listening. Close seconds included the Goertz Alpha Core MI-2 and AG-1. With the exception of the rolled-off bass performance of the otherwise sweet-sounding AG-1, they were very magical. But the loss of both that vivid sense of space of the sound stage and the incredulous slam these speakers can deliver was just too much to overshadow the glory of the mids and highs. The MI-2, though capable of restoring that lost space and weight, just weren’t quite as luxuriant and correct through the upper mids and highs as the JPS entrants, which brought the whole game to the table in spades. Disappointing performance from the likes of Tara, Straightwire, MIT and DH Labs conspired to convince me yet again of the consummate significance of this crucial union.

The Zen koan

Steeped in rich heritage and hoary tradition, the Zen Buddhist master uses many tools to help the aspiring student acquire knowledge in his quest for such. Among the tools of the Rinzai sect is a purposeful riddle, often in the form of a simple question, known as a koan. The purpose of the koan is not so much to teach in the active sense, as it is to impel the novitiate to think for himself and thereby come to understanding of his own accord. Zen suggests, as do all good teachings, that a lesson is better learned if self-discovered rather than externally imposed. The unique thing about the koan is that there is no one right answer. As a matter of fact, the answer itself, once divined by the practitioner, isn’t nearly as important as the self-understanding that accompanies the process of answering. The purpose of the koan is to spur the development of a level of understanding that transcends the need for asking the question. The koan is an instrument to allow one to find truth.

Thus I find the newest prodigal son from the Virtual Reality series of loudspeakers by Albert Von Schweikert. In the presence of the VR-4 Gen. II, the understanding of the music becomes intuitive. The VR-4 assumes the job of the koan, placing the music as Buddha and allowing you, the listener, to assume the role of Kashyapa. The understanding comes directly and without effort. They are an instrument for divining truth.

Conclusion

Just as Kashyapa understood Buddha without effort--directly--you are permitted understanding at the voice of the Von Schweikert Research VR-4 Generation II. They break through the need for reason and allow purpose. Music through them transcends the mechanism of reproduction, allowing the listener to hear past the medium and back to the true message of the music. They function as time machines, providing the most direct path back to the musical event I’ve ever had in my listening room.

Such crystalline clarity, vivid detail, articulate and extended bass, equality of balance, realism of presentation and emotional involvement have never been more successfully integrated into one more attractive and affordable package in my near 30 years of searching. The VR-4 Generation II may well be the first true landmark or milestone product I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing over the last decade. This speakers ability to completely get out of its own way and resurrect only the recorded performance is unrivaled in this extremely competitive price range, finally bringing previously unbelievable levels of performance below the $4000 mark. It, in fact, bests some well-known entrants from some very respected manufacturers selling for nearly twice as much. I still find it next to impossible to give over to the music and do anything else when my system is playing with the alluring Von Schweikert VR-4 Generation IIs. From me, there is no higher recommendation.

...Greg Weaver
gregw@soundstage.com

Von Schweikert Research VR-4 Generation 2 Loudspeakers
Price: $3,950 USD

Von Schweikert Research
800 Starbuck Ave.
Watertown, New York 13601
Phone: 315-779-8748
Fax: 315-786-3020

E-mail: info@vonschweikert.com
Website: www.vonschweikert.com

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