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The Von Schweikert Audio dB-99 MkII Loudspeaker

Back in Love Again!

Clement Perry

August 2004



Those of you who are familiar with these pages know from my previous reviews that I’m a HUGE fan of live jazz music; the interplay between performer, audience, and soaring improvisations hits all of my hot buttons. For the past couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to hear some of the finest jazz greats in various venues in New York City, which has literally driven yours truly to attempt to find a combination of hi-fi gear that could come close to reproducing that live sound in my own home. Ah, that endless quest we’re all too familiar with …

Being fortunate enough to be a reviewer has enabled me to hear literally hundreds of different speaker systems at shows and in my own room, with results ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. One thing that troubles me time and time again is the utter lack of a “live feel” to the reproduced sound field. There’s something dead and canned to most recordings and hi-fi systems, and a huge part of this seems to be the lack of musicality derived from dynamic range; you know, that typical zero sense of presence and vibe that lets you know you are sitting ten feet away from a live group on a stage. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy recorded music, but when I come home from a live concert, I don’t usually want to turn on my system for a day or two.

Live musical instruments seem to project an effortless explosion of harmonics at all volume levels and the range of dynamics seems unlimited. I’m always amazed at how incredibly loud a live trumpet solo can be and with unlimited dynamics. That same solo recorded sounds harsh and compressed through a typical stereo system with even the best transducers available.

Audio nirvana put a bite on me at the 1997 Stereophile Show in San Francisco. I had an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. I got off the elevator and heard what I thought was a live drum solo. Naturally, my ears dragged me down the hall to see who was playing and made me stand in a long line of people waiting to get into the concert. When I got in, I was shocked to see a pair of strange looking speakers instead of some live jazz combo! That speaker system was the Von Schweikert VR-6, a high efficiency speaker system rated at 96dB that later became my reference for several years. The lightweight honeycomb woofers and carbon fiber midrange seemed as fast as the titanium tweeter, with incredible coherence that no other speaker in my experience, especially at its price ($12,500) seemed to match. Craving the “live” experience, I immediately ordered a pair. Although extremely dynamic, transparent and “live” sounding, the VR-6s were designed to sound best with romantic-sounding Single-Ended Triode amps. Indeed, I found sonic nirvana using the super-musical and expensive ($20,500!) KR Enterprise VT-800 monoblocks, which had a very polite treble response that matched the VR-6 titanium tweeters just perfectly. That combo, by the way, used with the Meitner Bi-dat digital front end was considered one of the best sounds put together by yours truly. I’ll never forget Von Schweikert coming down to the Big Apple for a listening session and the look on his face by virtue of the system he heard. At the following CES Show (I believe 1999), Von Schweikert did something I’ll never forget: he duplicated the sound of my room from stem to stern right there in the Alexis Park.


"It comes as an absolute pleasure to revisit the sound of a Von Schweikert loudspeaker with the unique qualities I enjoyed so much in my original VR-6"

However, all was not well in Audio Land. Many audiophiles who craved the VR-6’s incredible sense of presence were using solid-state amps like Krell and found, as I did using the original Bel Canto eVos, that the solid-state signature was not a good match for the VR-6’s revealing nature. Some cruel interaction between the solid-state treble and the titanium tweeter led to the famous “resistor mod” which seemed to cure the analytical behavior of this combo. At the time that Von Schweikert was redesigning the VR-6 to work with solid-state amps [a flood at his New York factory forced him out of business for ten months and postponed the introduction of the replacement model until last year], I’m told Von Schweikert also received some criticism for the VR-6’s robotic look from more than a few female audiophiles as well as significant others. Life went on for me as I eventually chose other designs from the new loudspeaker companies Talon Audio and Ascendo, my current reference.

At CES this year, Von Schweikert Audio won Best Sound at Show with the dramatic VR-11 system ($120,000) that many people thought accurately reproduced the sound of a live performance of the Misty River Band (which was being recorded in Von Schweikert’s demo room in DSD by Chris Huston). Misty River plays all acoustic instruments: upright bass, guitar, violin, and accordion, in addition to singing in angelic four-part harmony. Hearing them perform live was a treat, but the real shocker was the DSD playback through the VR-11’s. Hearing these ground-breaking speakers whet my appetite to hear some of VSA’s more affordable models (compared to the monsters displayed at the show), and since I had several small amps that love high efficiency speakers, the $9,995/pr dB-99 MkII seemed like a good place to start (though I could hardly refer to $10k as affordable). The new dB-99, in it’s MkII incarnation, has a sculpted look suitable for the finest décor and is available in a variety of automotive paint finishes with mine coming in an outrageous Ferrari yellow.

Von Schweikert and his assistant engineer Kevin Malmgren spent four years developing the new technology that led to the groundbreaking VR-11 system, which has now spilled over into the new dB-99 MkII. According to Von Schweikert, reduction of distortion and coloration were at the top of the list, along with a desired increase in dynamic range and presence. Naturally, amplifier compatibility was also a priority. My experimentation with the amazingly miniature Flying Mole digital monoblocks revealed that the new dB-99 MkII sounds incredibly good with solid-state amps. The new Vifa/Scanspeak fabric tweeters boast a creamy-smooth response that mates very well with solid-state amps; no glaring highs here I’m happy to report. Even on Roy Hargrove’s trumpet crescendos or Rachelle Ferrell’s vocal peaks - where most tweeters will start to distort and sound harsh if not completely shut down - the dB-99’s remained lush yet detailed. Switching to the excellent deHavilland Aries 845 18-watt SET tube monoblocks showed that the db-99’s also work magically with tubes. Though, I should add that the George Mark Audio dac/pre is also tube based as well as the Alex Paychev modified Philips 1000 SACD player. In fact, it is this tube combination that I found the most musical. The 99dB sensitivity of these speakers is said to work well with as little as 8 watts per channel, according to Von Schweikert (who used the 8-watt Audio Note Conqueror amps for sonic evaluation and efficiency testing). However, as many of the previous VR-6 customers found, compatibility with large solid-state amplifiers is a “must” in today’s market, so VSA also used a 500-watt Spectron amplifier to determine the power handling capability and sonic matching. Although I haven’t heard this combination, Kevin at VSA said “it was a match of the Titans, with the dB-99 MkII playing at 115 dB without distortion or compression.” After hearing the potential with the 500-watt Anaco II digital amplifiers, I don’t doubt this claim at all.

POWERBOOSTER TECHNOLOGY

Although there are high efficiency woofers available with 100dB sensitivity, they are 15” paper coned units and require an enormous cabinet to load them. According to Von Schweikert, feedback from consumers indicated that large cabinets are unacceptable in most domestic situations, so the dB-99’s desired size would not enable a woofer larger than 10” in diameter. There are high efficiency PA woofers in this size range, but they do not go down below 40 Hz, which was unacceptable to Von Schweikert who believes that 20Hz is mandatory for a reference speaker system. In addition, Von Schweikert likes his bass very fast, tight, and coherent to the midrange, so he chose the hyper-expensive Excel magnesium-coned 10” woofer with Low Distortion Motor, made in Norway.

However, this woofer’s low sensitivity could not be brought up by simply increasing the magnet size, so the eggheads at VSA engineered a clever alternative solution. What? You never heard of a “power booster?” Well, I hadn’t either, until I heard the remarkable dB-99 MkII’s self-powered woofers. Von Schweikert and crew designed a solid-state, 300-watt output stage to drive the woofer, using the end-user’s amplifier as an input stage. Quoting Albert Von Schweikert: “Since the tone quality of an amp is dependent to some extent on the signal feeding it, the “booster amp” enables the woofer system to sound like whatever amp is driving it.” Although this claim sounded more like marketing hype a few other listening pals that frequent my digs agreed this claim proved to be quite true; the Flying Mole, and Anaco II amp had bass response that was completely different from that of the deHavilland. The Mole had slightly tighter bass, probably due to its solid-state heritage, while the deHavilland tube amp had a warmer, fuller bass response. Neither could produce the amazing bass clarity as the Anaco II could, yet in no way could I detect that a “booster” amp was driving the woofer. With either amp, the complete sonic spectrum was uniform, sounding much more akin to an electrostatic with testicular fortitude as I’ve heard mentioned elsewhere. In other words, you can’t hear the powered subwoofer system as a “different” source of sound, as is the problem with a popular horn speaker system that uses a conventional powered subwoofer.

"For this incredible sense of realism combined with the near flawless imaging and huge soundstage capabilities, and a perceived depth that is very impressive, I give the dB-99 MkII my highest recommendation: Publisher's Choice!

Subjectively, I’d have to say that the dB-99’s bass is extremely tight, fast and deep: subterranean is a good definition. This is vital to the dB-99’s critical woofer-to-midrange crossover because its speed and tautness blends right up and into the midrange making it virtually undetectable. Moreover, you have a volume control knob (as only Von Schweikert could), located on the rear, to fine tune the bass output to the midrange/tweeter especially when small rooms come into the equation. There are many fine speakers out there that have great transparency and imaging, but the bass response can be either too weak or too boomy. The dB-99’s cure this oversight. If you have to place the speakers close to a wall, you can decrease the bass if necessary, and conversely, if you place them out into the room to get the most depth, you can increase the bass volume level to compensate for the lack of bass support from the back wall. A note to those bass freaks out there: If you’ve been looking for a speaker that can pulverize you while driving the 8-watt amplifier of your choice, this is it.

Naturally, bass is only a beginning to lay down the foundation of good sound. Most folks will agree that the midrange/treble area is critical to long-term enjoyment and sonic nirvana. Although there are many transparent speaker systems out there, including electrostatics with no cabinet or resonances what so ever, most of these systems don’t have the dynamic range to enable the drum solo or trumpet blasts to sound convincingly real. Most speakers tend to make me cringe when a female vocalist hits a high note, due to the distortion, compression and their lack of harmonic rightness. Since Von Schweikert and crew did not want to horn load the midrange due to cupped-hand colorations, they engineered an extremely efficient cone unit with 100dB sensitivity. This was accomplished by using an extremely light composite cone driven by an edge-wound ribbon voice coil and enormous magnet. To reduce coloration in the vital vocal range, Von Schweikert specified a cone made from paper, Kevlar, carbon fiber, and ceramic matrix. “This cone is extremely light but rigid and highly damped, enabling lightening fast transient response with no audible coloration that I could detect” says Von Schweikert.

I am happy to report that I was able to play some of my favorite jazz recordings at very high volume, close to live levels, under real-world room conditions that were devoid of all the treatments my audiophile bunker possesses, without cringing on peaks. This you are there effect is something that you will have to experience for yourself, in order to fully understand why dynamic range is so very critical to the illusion of “live” sound. After noting this to Von Schweikert in a recent conversation, he said it was a common remark from the db-99’s customer base, leading him to write this marketing slogan: “Every Listening Session Becomes an Event Not Soon Forgotten”. Prior to my experience with the dB-99 MkII, I would have written this off as typical marketing hype, but now I’m not so sure.
 

   

[above: Von Schweikert receiving Stereo Times Most Wanted Award, Publisher's Choice 2004 from CP]

In an extended conversation at the Stereo Times award ceremony, Von Schweikert told me about a paper written by a Japanese researcher and published in the Journal of Audio Engineering (JAES) some years ago, that humans can detect sound up to 50kHz. Yes, “detect”, but not directly “hear,” and this ultra-high frequency response is true, then it must be most critical to realism as well as the harmonic structure of each note. It comes as no surprise that Von Schweikert has used ribbon super-tweeters in the past – after all, his VR-10 (developed over a six year period from 1987- 1993) used a Matsushita ribbon with a claimed response to 80kHz. After hearing me rave about the planar tweeter on my reference Ascendo System M and the ribbons of his VR-11’s ($120,000), Von Schweikert decided to design a ribbon super-tweeter module to be offered as an accessory to purchasers of the dB-99 MkII, essentially converting the dB-99 MkII to a mini VR-11. The ribbon module contains a 3” aluminum foil super-tweeter with response to 100kHz (-6dB), a crossover, volume control, and supplied jumper cable to be plugged into the binding posts of the dB-99. This accessory will retail for $2,000/pr due to the high quality ribbon driver and exotic crossover parts, including a distortionless volume control pot. Availability is slated for late summer 2004; naturally, I’ve ordered a pair for testing purposes and will report the improvements in sound quality in a follow-up. Although I detect no deficiencies in the high frequency range of the Vifa/Scanspeak tweeter, I do admit to a prejudice towards ribbon tweeters, so I will count the days, as they say….

For this incredible sense of realism combined with the near flawless imaging and huge soundstage capabilities, and a perceived depth that is very impressive, I give the dB-99 MkII my highest recommendation: Publisher’s Choice Most Wanted Component 2004. It’s harmonic richness and correct timbre is a joy to hear, time after time - no matter what amp you own, or what type of music you listen to. Trust me I sent it through all the audiophile paces and it refused to give out or fall on its face. If you enjoy killer bass, with a musical heart, this speaker has its own and it performs totally integrated as well. When you think about this it really makes the dBdb-99 one of the most affordable loudspeakers available today when you consider it comes standard with great bass amps.

It comes as an absolute pleasure to revisit the sound of a Von Schweikert loudspeaker with the unique qualities I enjoyed so much in my original VR-6. There’s exists an effervescence and openness to this loudspeaker, coupled with a sensitivity that will allow almost any amplifier to make it sing, that is instantly noticeable and, in my opinion separates this transducer from the usual suspects you normally hear. So much so, I couldn’t bear to think about returning them, so I bought ‘em! Hey, every reviewer needs at least one high efficiency speaker system in his arsenal.

                 Von Schweikert Bio:

Many of you may have heard of Von Schweikert Audio, but how many of you know of the man himself? A short bio on this incredibly talented loudspeaker designer seems in order: Born in South America in 1945 to a US military officer and the daughter of one of the principal engineers of the Panama Canal, the Von Schweikert family moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Albert lived until he was sixteen. During his years in Europe, Albert's parents encouraged him to take piano and violin lessons, which he hated at the time; now Albert realizes his love of all forms of music was developed during these lessons.

Von Schweikert switched from violin to guitar at the age of twelve, and at thirteen he was building hi-fi kits from Eico and playing a Silvertone electric guitar in a rockabilly band at the USO Club (for military personnel). After moving to the US in 1962, Von Schweikert joined the Musicians Union and able to read sheet music, soon became popular as a "session" player. Although Von Schweikert spent his weekdays studying pre-med at Georgia State College, he spent his weekends playing "gigs."

One of the gigs was a Sonny and Cher tour in the summer of 1967. After hearing Cher complain about the poor sound of the Altec A-7 Voice Of The Theater PA speakers, Von Schweikert decided to attempt to add an 8" JBL midrange speaker to the 15" woofer and the horn tweeter to bring out Cher's voice. This Frankenstein patchworked system evidently sounded pretty good but had some flaws, so Von Schweikert built a new three-way PA system from scratch using JBL drivers. This same system was used by Neil Diamond on a summer tour in 1968; Neil told Von Schweikert that he was a "fair" guitar player but a "great" speaker designer; this comment inspired Von Schweikert to go into speaker building as a career and switched his major from premed to engineering.

Von Schweikert married his girlfriend Linda and moved to California to enroll at California Institute of Technology (nick-named Cal Tech) in 1976; he spent his days studying and his nights experimenting in the lab. Dr. Richard C. Heyser, the inventor of Time Delay Spectrometry and one of the Chief Engineers at JPL, inspired Von Schweikert to develop new technology instead of following the status quo in speaker design. Dr. Heyser's TDS machine was the first to measure phase as well as amplitude, and Von Schweikert's theory that "a perfect speaker should be the inverse of the recording microphone" was validated by Dr. Heyser.

In 1980, after four years of development, Von Schweikert published his Acoustic Inverse Replication theory at Cal Tech, which stated that a music recording is actually an "encoding of microphone voltages containing the clues of spatial dimension." Von Schweikert's speaker design included a "decoder" to extract the out-of-phase ambience signals that were picked up at the rear of the recording mic; this "decoded" signal was fed to a rear-firing Ambience Retrieval System, a 1" mid/tweeter with level control. This new technology (Pat. Pend.) enables the listener to hear depth behind the speaker, the same depth information as the mics picked up from the rear of the hall. In effect, Von Schweikert's speakers are large microphones working in reverse!

After a long career at ESS Laboratory where Von Schweikert was Dr. Oskar Heil's research assistant, Von Schweikert developed the first three-way Heil Air Motion Transformer speaker with linear phase crossovers. After Dr. Heil passed away, Von Schweikert joined KSC Industries, the second largest supplier of speaker parts in the world. After working on over 100 projects for companies like Polk Audio, JBL, Altec Lansing, etc., Von Schweikert was hired by Counterpoint Electronics to develop a line of THX theater speakers.

In 1994, Von Schweikert decided to "take the plunge" and start his own company to manufacture and market the VR-4 model, which stands for "Virtual Reality in 4-dimensions: amplitude, phase, time and space. The VR-4 was derived from his first speaker, the Vortex Screen, developed at Cal Tech sixteen years earlier. The VR-4 quickly established Von Schweikert as one of the most innovative designers in high-end audio, and the rest is history.

Von Schweikert lives in Southern California with his wife Linda and daughter Alexis, now 12.


Db-99 MkII SPECIFICATIONS

SYSTEM TYPE: Three-way high- sensitivity speaker using a booster-stage solid- state amplified bass system, suitable for SET amps as well as larger tube and solid state amps of any power range. Sonic Emulation design enables the booster amp to take on the sonic characteristics of the driving amp, with no alteration of timbre.
The high dynamic range enables both music and home theater sources to excel at realistic sound reproduction, with unbelievable slam, jump factor, and emotional connection to the music.

SENSITIVITY: 98 to 99 dB measured in room, using one watt at one meter.

IMPEDANCE: 8 ohms nominal; flat impedance curve ensures SET amplifier stability.

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 21Hz to 25kHz +/- 3dB.

BASS SYSTEM: 10" Excel “Super-Duty” woofer with lightweight magnesium cone, 2" high-temp voice coil, vented magnet design, and Low Distortion Motor. Triple-chambered transmission line enclosure with venturi-shaped rear firing port, critically damped with acoustic foam and Dacron.

BOOSTER AMPLIFIER: 300-watt solid-state secondary-stage amplifier using Class A/B bias, Hi-Current power supply with large transformer and filter capacitors, Auto-turn on feature and Bass Volume Control knob. Enables bass-to-room matching.

MIDRANGE DRIVER: 7" cast frame driver employing exotic cone made from carbon, Kevlar, and cellulose acetate pulp using a ceramic binder. The extremely light-weight cone is very rigid and externally damped, ensuring very high transparency exceeding electrostatic or ribbon drivers. A large edge-wound ribbon voice coil allows very high power handling with very fast transient speed. A 2kg motor assembly delivers a sensitivity of 100dB and low distortion. This incredible driver is mounted in a terminated transmission line enclosure that is critically damped using thick felt, acoustic foam, and Gradient Density stuffing to absorb the backwave and cavity resonance.

TWEETER: A European 1” fabric dome tweeter is mounted in a 2" short wave-guide type horn and uses an ultra-light diaphragm and large Low Distortion Motor assembly for very high sensitivity. Ferro-fluid liquid cooling enables high power handling with ultra-smooth response at any volume level.

SUPER-TWEETER OPTION: Available as an accessory, a 3” aluminum foil ribbon super-tweeter extends the response to 100kHz (-6dB). Contained in the painted pyramid module are: crossover, volume control potentiometer, and umbilical cable for connection to the main speaker binding posts. Sonic improvements include more “air” around instruments and superior image focus; vertical height imaging and transient response improvements attain a level of realism not obtainable by any other design. Priced at $2,000 per pair, this unit can be used with any speaker.

AMBIENCE RETRIEVAL SYSTEM: A rear-firing 1” fabric dome Vifa/Scanspeak mid/tweeter generates the correct depth found in the recording and is fed by a specialized Ambience Derivation Circuit with control knob for adjustment of volume level and depth-of-field. The true depth of the concert hall is now attainable.

POWER REQUIREMENTS: As little as 8 watts may be used, with full dynamics! 200 watts maximum continuous power, with 500 watts peak.

DIMENSIONS: 43" High x 17" Deep x 8" Wide at top x 13" Wide at bottom.

WEIGHT: 115lbs, 130lbs packed in heavy-duty hex crate for shipping.

WARRANTY: Ten years on drivers, cabinet; Three-years on amplifier.

AVAILABLE FINISHES: High gloss black, Corvette Millennium Yellow, Corvette Magnetic Red Metallic, and Platinum Silver paint finishes. Other paint finishes are available on custom order (sorry, no wood veneers are available at this time).

Price: $9,995.00/pr.

Address: Von Schweikert Audio
930 Armorlite Drive, San Marcos, CA 92069
Ph (760)410-1650 Fax (760)410-1655
Email: albertvonn@aol.com or Kevin@vonschweikert.com
http://www.vonschweikert.com



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Von Schweikert dB-99 MkII