Generations: The Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Generation III Loudspeaker

Generations: The Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Generation III Loudspeaker

A New Definition of Reference

Greg Weaver

10 October 2001


Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Generation III
3 Way, 5 driver, two-piece stacking monitor
Crossover – 150 Hz and 2.6 kHz.
Response – 20-20kHz, +/- 3 dB, 18Hz-25kHz -6dB (+/- 1dB at midband).
Nominal Impedance – 6 Ohms
Sensitivity – 89dB @ 1w/1m using 2.83v (in room)
Suggested Retail – $3995/PR. Scheduled Increase to $4750 – 1 November 2001

204 Greenville Drive Unit F
El Cajon, California 92020
Phone: 619/444-7136

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Few speakers in the history of this bizarre industry have been showered with the press and controversy that surround the original Von Schweikert Research VR-4 and the subsequent “Gen II.” From its first release back in 1995, it drew enormous attention.

Upon first hearing the original VR-4 in HAL’s large dedicated listening room, I was immediately aware that I had not heard any speaker at anywhere near its price range that could get so many things right. With the Gen II’s introduction in 1998 we were permitted even more clarity and resolution, deeper, defter, more articulate bass, greater ease of dynamics, improved timbral accuracy, and an even more seamless integration of the drivers.

The 2001 CES brought us the latest incarnation of this standard, the VR-4 Generation III. While I think it ironic that the serial number on my review models (010108) coincides with the first date that I heard the Gen III prototypes (2001 January 08) in Las Vegas, I am more taken by the degree of improvement they offer over their predecessor. The Gen III is such a significant advance over my long-time reference Gen II’s that it might be more correct to see them as an entirely new product rather than a simple descendant or reworking of the distinguished VR-4 line.

To truly appreciate the importance of this loudspeaker, we need to take a bit of a journey. That will be another story – and soon. A full interview with Albert Von Schweikert is coming soon, so let’s move on for now. For now, let’s just say, “Theeey’re baaaack.”

Welcome to the Machine

Following in the now time-honored cloth wrap tradition, this iteration of the VR-4 is also a stacked two-module system. It has a slightly different look now as the Mid/Tweeter module has its sloping face on the inside surface rather than the rear. The design incentive for this new module shape, including the acutely rounded contour of the cabinet edges, was a significant reduction of baffle area near the critical midrange and tweeter drivers, and thereby, a vast reduction in baffle related reflections and colorations. With this new shape, the Gen III Mid/Tweeter module presents an even lower percentage of baffle area to the drivers than any mini monitor I can think of, giving rise to a tremendously smooth off-axis response, an outstanding degree of openness and an imaging ability that will spook you! The resulting symmetrical look is both elegant and aids in the illusion of a somewhat smaller appearance. Although the Gen III is not significantly smaller than the Gen II, their new shape allows them to present a noticeably less invasive presence on their environment.

Though the cabinet presents an elegant sophistication, the insides are even more refined. Both modules are fashioned from medium density fiberboard, use 2″ thick front baffles for driver mounting and are 1″ thick on every other wall. Internal cabinet damping is achieved in a way that may at first seem obsessive, but the resultant performance suggests otherwise. After applying a new internal cross bracing technique, a ½’ layer of felt is place against the inside of the cabinet. This foundation layer is then followed by a 1″ thick application of acoustic foam. As no adhesive is used to attach the foam to the felt, the acoustic transfer between these two mediums at this boundary is dramatically less affected. Finally, various densities of loose Dacron material are used behind the cones and throughout the rest of the enclosure. This whole approach has been dubbed “Gradient Density” by VSA. Though this may at first sound simply like overkill, it is indeed responsible for a very high degree of reduction of internal standing wave reflection and coloration that is, in my opinion, a significant factor leading to the resultant superb degree of transparency this new reference product offers.

For the foundation of the Gen III, twin 9″ carbon fiber woven filament woofers, developed and designed to VSA’s specifications, from OEM driver manufacturer Tonegen, replace the smaller 8″ epoxy treated polypropylene units used in the Gen II. They are housed in a modified, triple chambered, transmission line enclosure. The woofers back wave is coupled to the room via a huge 7″ diameter flared port that is vented out the front of the cabinets. This enormous vent is the most unique port I’ve run into yet. First, its sheer size is notable. Ideally, one would like to have a port area equivalent to the surface area of the drivers the port serves. This is difficult to do – at least if you wish to keep the enclosure smaller than the average refrigerator. Invariably some concessions must be made to optimize the port area and keep the cabinet at a reasonable volume. This vent is unique in another way. It starts off some 7″ wide, tapers down to 4″ near the middle of its running length and then flares back out to 7″ where it meets the room. This “wasp-wasted” shape, known in the engineering world as the Venturi Principle, actually allows for port gain. Finally, venting the rear wave forward, rather than to the rear, permits both closer placement to the rear wall when necessary without coloring the lowest frequencies and provides better room integration of the back wave to the acoustic environment. In this alignment, these drivers are said to achieve a flat response to 20 Hz (within –3 to –6 dB depending on the room acoustical “gain”).

The Gen II’s 5.5″ carbon fiber mid-driver has been replaced with a custom developed 6″ “Aerogel” driver from Audax. “Aerogel” is a very rigid material and is composed of carbon impregnated cellulose acetate pulp with Kevlar threads as a binder. This matrix is then treated with a clear polymer coating to help reduce standing wave formation. The driver is mounted on a cast frame basket with a butyl rubber surround and uses a high power, low distortion motor. Its enclosure is a good bit larger than the one employed in the Gen II, and is actually two chambers of differing volumes tuned to attenuate the back wave of this so called “Heroic” driver almost completely. This new tuning seems paramount in reducing back wave distortion and thereby lowing standing wave distortion issues. Factor in the resultant loss of diffraction issues caused by the upright poles in the original Gen II housing and we can see where a huge improvement in midrange purity and clarity is possible. I have to point out that Albert uses the Quad ESL as a reference for midrange performance. I can say he has been VERY successful in this regard. I am getting ahead of myself.

A 1″ silk dome tweeter from Vifa/Scan-Speak replaces the 1″ damped aluminum dome of the precursor. Remarkably similar to the tweeter used in the upper end Dunlavy products, it incorporates a proprietary carbon based damping compound applied in two layers and employs a custom grade of Ferro-fluid in the voice coil gap. These remarkable tweeters are then graded at the factory and only those meeting the highest of standards are shipped to VSA.

In an effort to enhance the previous version of the rear ambiance system, in conjunction with the use of the ambience derivation circuit first introduced on the original VR-4, VSA has developed a dipolar rear midrange/tweeter that utilizes a dispersion controlling “wave guide” technique. The Dimension Control can be attenuated by a variable control mounted just above the sturdy Cardas 5 way binding posts on the rear panel of the module.

The crossover is of the acoustic fourth order variety with flex points set at 150 Hz and 2.6kHz. It is also unique in that it is a group of lower (first and second) order networks cascaded into each other to combat radical phase shift often associated with higher order crossover networks. Internal components include Solen capacitors, custom inductors, and Analysis Plus wiring. Naturally the crossover incorporates all the proprietary methods developed and trademarked by VSA; namely their Ambience Retrieval System and Global Axis Integration Network. To help reduce detrimental baffle diffraction, electronic time alignment is used on the driver array now that the more traditional single plane baffle has supplanted the physical staggering of all previous VR-4 models.

Input posts are now two sets of very brawny Cards binding posts. After auditioning numerous brands of less expensive offshore offerings, Albert concluded that their near universal coloration of the upper midrange was too high and thereby warranted the use of the Cardas units. These sturdy and useful posts are brass with rhodium and gold plating and accept quarter inch spade lugs or bananas. As the two sets of inputs for the Mid/Tweeter module and Woofer module are still separated by some three feet, biwiring concerns should be addressed accordingly.

Response is listed as 20 Hz to 25 kHz. Six ohms is the average system impedance, with 4 ohms presented by the woofer module (20 Hz – 150 Hz) and 8 ohms by the Mid/Tweeter module (150 Hz – 20 kHz). Power handling is given as 10 to 300 watts and they are rated at 89 dB efficient. Though the units come with the traditional black cloth wrap, you may choose between light or dark red cherry appointments. Black ash finished end caps are available at a slightly higher cost. The assembled units are 46″ high and weigh in at 135 pounds each. Just six inches wide at their very tops, the Mid/Tweeter module slowly widens to 11″ during the first 14″ of descent, retaining that 11″ width all the way to the floor. They are a constant 20 ” deep from top to bottom. VSA warrants parts and labor for 10 years, excluding coil and related damage from clipping or other abuse, and is transferable from the original owner.

Have A Cigar

As prepared as I should have been, I made the same mistake with the newest VR-4 that I had with the Gen II – I expected only marginal advances over its precursor. The new VR-4 Generation III is so remarkably improved over it’s derivation that it literally defies being seen as merely the next logical advancement in its blood line.

My most significant concern with the VR-4 Gen II was in the bass department. Though it was more extended and powerful than anything I had heard in its price point, the bass and midbass were still somewhat loose and less defined by comparison to many world class speakers. Though the correction of an initial crossover component placement oversight in my original prototypes improved the low and mid bass performance a good bit, there were still not quite fast and controlled enough to be considered competitive with world class performance. The Gen III corrects all that.

Deep bass is much lower and significantly faster. While the two lowest octaves of the Gen II could occasionally overload with very demanding material, the Gen III scales the depths with aplomb and superb musicality. Lower midbass speed and detail are also vastly improved, offering a much-enhanced account of both harmonic shadings and pitch definition in double bass and bass guitar runs. This more rhythmic presentation allows for a more realistic bloom to the body of instruments like the cello and piano. Their performance here is remarkably reminiscent of the original VSR VR-6, a $12,500 product that was heralded as the 1999 Asian “Product of the Year.”

Though the remarkable improvements in the woofer cabinet, drivers, crossover and back-wave coupling are spectacular, the lower registers are not the only treat the Gen III has to offer. Where the Gen II was open and refreshing in its presentation of midrange, the Gen III is focused and revelatory. This custom designed 6″ “Aerogel” driver is shocking in its vitality and truthfulness of timbre. Piano, violin and the human voice have an uncanny vibrancy. The rather curt, dynamic “blat” signature sound of horns is recreated as authentically as I’ve ever experienced from any dynamic loudspeaker. There is such an impression of speed here, both in the rise and decay of voices, that you are overwhelmed by the resultant tonal purity. Timbre is presented with a liquidity that left me asking how it could be achieved at this price point. I have heard slightly better midrange purity, but not from a product selling for less than well more than three times the Gen III’s asking price.

Violins, cellos and even double basses have a bloom and a body about them that are as close to the concert hall as I’ve yet to experience short of the concert hall event. The sound of a bow, even the rosin on that bow, has taken on an inescapable and essential truth. Piano voices are so warm, yet articulately delineated, that you can almost reach out and touch them. Vocalists breath and move in real space, not some two dimensional recreation of that space. Delicate percussion instruments, from triangles to maracas, exist in space with their own individuality and uniqueness. There is a new degree of life is breathed into the music with the VR-4 Gen III.

This newfound resolve is quite apparent and easily experienced, especially with complex voices, both human and instrument. Take Beth Orton’s duo with Terry Callier on “Pass In Time” from her Central Reservation disc [Arista ARCD 9038]. On many lesser speakers, and I don’t mean only in price, the enchantment that is generated by the individuality of those two voices so delicately woven together is lost as they are mingled and amalgamated. The Gen III’s superb midrange performance allows us to hear them in their individuality, intricately, yet all the while enhancing their combined synergy. Pure magic!

The openness and detail of the Gen II’s uppermost frequencies, without harshness or glare, had been one of the speaker’s most endearing qualities. While I’ve had a number of emails over the years since my original review of the Gen II (July 1998) from readers saying that they had an occasional glimmer of hardness or whiteness in that department, it was almost always attributable to some other component upstream. Yet here again the Gen III handily surpasses its predecessor.

There is an uncanny lightness and delicacy to the highest of treble resulting in one of the most effortless high frequency presentations I’ve heard. This sense of ease, in fusion with the rear-firing rear ambience tweeter, gives the listener the sense that the treble extension is completely unfettered. The smoothness in this region is amazingly seductive and non-fatiguing. The upper most reaches, including piano and string harmonics and especially cymbal and triangle attack and trail, are without doubt some of the most magical you will likely hear for anywhere near its price.

These attributes combine to affect some other areas of performance. Large-scale dynamics are greatly improved, and given the abilities of the Gen II, that is no small accomplishment. It is my feeling that the greater speed offered by the Gen III’s across the entire frequency spectrum is what gives these new references their impressive dynamic performance. While the Gen III is listed as 2 db less efficient than the Gen II, they sound louder at the same volume setting with the same material. I must attribute this to the significantly increased clarity and macro dynamic adeptness. Micro dynamics are simply breathtaking. When questioning Albert about this attribute, he informed me that the Beta product had left him wanting. That concern lead him to a full re-engineering of the Midrange motor structure, which included a doubling of the magnet size resulting in a significant improvement in the production models transparency and visceral attack.

Wish You Were Here

As one would expect of any of Albert’s VR (Virtual Reality) series of loudspeakers, the soundstaging and imaging abilities are exquisite. The Gen III’s offer a marginally deeper soundstage than the Gen II, but the focus and illumination they bring to all aspects of it are most remarkable. Movement five, “Red Carpet Tango”, from Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony [Argo 452 103-2], opens with two horns deeply recessed into the back of the stage, one calling and one answering. I’ve never heard the depth and location of those horns more truthfully or accurately portrayed.

Try Harp Attack [Alligator LCD 4790], which features the voices of Carey Bell, Billy Branch, James Cotton and Junior Wells, each playing their own respective harp (that’s a harmonica for those of you who find yourselves instrumentally challenged). In the opening cut, “Down Home Blues,” the four men are lined up left to right across the stage and take turns soloing. Unreal! Both their location within the soundstage and the resultant sounds of their voices and harps are vibrant, lifelike and so well recreated in space that, with your eyes closed, you might believe the four were standing in front of you! There is something raw about hearing a blues harp blown live, right in front of you. There is a roughness to the edges, a bite if you will, and a resultant growl that is very hard to get right – under even the best of circumstances. Well with the VR-4 Gen III it was completely right – and in a big way.

“Peggy’s Kitchen Wall,” from Bruce Cockburn’s Stealing Fire [True North TN 57], exposes the background singers as an assemblage of discrete individual voices, behind Bruce and slightly elevated, not a single conglomerate group voice. And the breath-taking “Spaséñiye sodélal” from Professor Johnson’s HDCD stunner Postcards [Reference Recordings RR-61] is frightening – each soloist occupies his own unique space within the recording. I have always used this track for its ability to cause a system to falter or shine, but now – phenomenal! Those little hairs on the back of my neck were reaching for the sky.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Taken individually, any of these discrete performance attributes would be welcomed; together, they combine to introduce us to a new thoroughbred that still sells for less than four grand. What Albert has done with the introduction of the VR-4 Gen III is provide realcontention with the top dogs at a price most could find a way to afford. The chasm between the best speakers money can buy and the best speakers you can buy with your money has just been struck a crushing blow. Over the years, the original two versions of the VR-4 have often been referred to as a poor mans WATT. Using that analogy to describe the new VR-4 would be an insult to the Gen III, they are that good!

Deep, articulate bass, deft, tuneful midbass, truthful, resolving midrange, delicate, detailed treble, blinding attack, laser sharp focus, electron microscope resolve, seamless driver integration, unnerving neutrality, exquisite octave-to-octave tonal balance, broadband truth of timbre, see through transparency, focused and unwavering soundstage and image, elegance and poise. What more can I say, they are the total package. The VR-4 Gen III may well be Maestro Albert Von Schwiekert’s most significant creation simply because it redefines what one should come to expect from an affordable loudspeaker and because it drastically lowers the price to performance bar – yet again! If you are considering a speaker purchase, even if your budget permits your spending three or more times the asking price of these new paradigms, go give the latest VR-4 a listen. You may just find yourself with a pile of dough left over.

So if you’ve ever found yourself wishing that you could find a loudspeaker that combines the dynamic capability of the Nearfield Acoustics PipeDreams, the resolve of the Wilson Audio MAXX and the seductive midrange of the Martin Logan Statement for under four grand, your dreams have just been answered! If you think I’m kidding, go give them a listen. These are truly reference grade loudspeakers. One final comment here in the hopes of being able to save you yet another chunk of change. Get off your duff and go hear the phenomenal overachieving VR-4 Gen III right now. What’s the rush? As of November first of this year, the harsh facts of being in business have forced VSA to announce a rise in the retail price to $4750. I don’t care at all. Even on my collegiate budget, I’ve asked VSA send me an invoice; I’ll find the funds. These puppies aren’t leaving my listening room. Bravo Albert, bravo!

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