This is the first time I have sat down to write a review and actually been agitated or angered by a product. Yep, I am definitely upset with these particular speakers and with Albert himself to a degree. Let me explain by way of discussing the speaker itself and then my conclusion about its performance. I will circle around to the agitation a bit later on!
The VSA UniField Three was born in the mind of speaker designer extraordinaire Albert Von Schweikert after seeing and listening to a number of small monitor speakers that were commanding prices well north of $20,000.00 a pair. Albert, rightfully so I might add, felt that he could design a small footprint speaker that would meet and exceed the performance of any of these new hyper monitors, as I call them, and do it for less. Enter the UniField! Sounds a bit like my favorite Bruce Lee film. Not coincidently, perhaps, the analogy of the movie Enter the Dragon is not so far off. (Albert: let’s help Gary by naming your next speaker the Dragon. Yes? –Ed.) A small, lithe and nimble hero. Unassuming and not the least bit flashy. Yet under the calm and poised, even reserved exterior lies a fighting machine that is so developed, so viciously precise, so incredibly powerful and so perfect for its stealthy mission that it is hard to believe so much fury and butt kicking can come from such a tidy package!
Let me get to the most technical stuff right now. The UniField 3 is a rather interesting design study but all that has gone into it will remain unnoticed by most people that see it. It looks like a standard two box unit with a small monitor on top housing a midrange driver and tweeter, with a slightly larger box housing a woofer on the bottom. As they say – looks are deceiving! In Albert’s own words, the configuration is a “‘dynamic-driver augmented one-way’ system utilizing a full-range driver for ‘image lock’ supported by a subwoofer and ribbon super tweeter.” Yes that is right. It is, in essence a one-way speaker with most of the audible frequency coming from a single full-range driver disguised as a mid-range driver. The ribbon tweeter is actually there to enhance the frequency delivery above 18 kHz. Mated to this is the triple-chambered transmission line woofer.
It is a hybrid design composed of three separate chambers coupled to the room by a tuned vent at 32 Hz. The chamber filling is acoustic foam and Dacron. The 2″-wide vent tube with 3″ flare extends bass response without the “one note bass” problem found in other ported systems. Dynamic range, transient response, and bass clarity are state-of-the-art.
The cabinet technology of the system is rather unique in and of itself. Each cabinet is a triple-layer cabinet with 50mm thick walls and is formed of 20mm resin-board, 20mm composite stone, and a 10mm felt layer bonded with vibration-controlling adhesive; this combination is said to provide exceptional transparency and image focus. The cabinets also employ an internal honeycomb bracing which consists of 20mm MDF fiberboard interlocked shelves, said to provide exceptional rigidity and freedom from boxy colorations. The internal damping consists of high density crimped Dacron stuffing to eliminate cavity resonances, eliminating “one note boom.” This can be removed in small amounts to reinforce and fine tune the cabinet to the room as I found out during the time I lived with them. My review pair came in piano black and got big thumbs up on the WAF from Paula! A dedicated stand is provided for each speaker but there may well be some changes taking place on the stand as we speak. More about it later on. The speaker’s dimensions are a tidy: Height 40″ (with stand), Width: 10″, Depth: 14″.
Weight (per channel): Woofer module: 47 lbs each, M/T module: 14 lbs., Stand: 8 lbs. Total shipping weight with cartons: 190 lbs complete.
As stated before, the driver complement consists of a 7” magnesium-coned woofer with a “Low Distortion Motor” from Norway, a 5″ composite-coned full-range driver from Japan, and a 3″ aluminum foil ribbon tweeter. All driver diaphragms were designed by Albert to provide ultimate transparency and feature a very high Young’s Modulus (ratio of weight to stiffness), along with a matched transient response speed for what turned out to be breath-taking sonic integration.
According to Von Schweikert the following tidbits of information also go a long way towards making the UniField 3 a unique speaker:
“Crossover: Global Axis Integration Network (our proprietary design that eliminates “beaming”) set at 100 Hz and 8 kHz (trailing slope @ -6dB, 300 Hz/4kHz overlap). Optimized for flat off-axis response and phase consistency. Very high quality parts are used from France, Germany, and the U.S., including proprietary film-foil capacitors, low distortion inductors, film-foil resistors, and high purity copper wiring.
Decoupling System: The front baffles as well as the drive units are mechanically isolated from the main cabinets with a proprietary iso-elastic (non drying clay) gasket. Combined with the triple-laminate wall construction, this technology is the latest word in distortion less cabinet design, not found elsewhere at any price.
Binding Posts: Double sets of five-way rhodium posts enabling bi-wiring.
Frequency Response: 26Hz-50 kHz -6 dB (32Hz-40 kHz, +/- 2 dB). Impedance: 8 ohms nom. (4 ohms lowest) Recommended Power: 20 watts (quiet listening) up to 300 watts music power. Sensitivity: 88 dB @ 1w/1m using 2.83V. Finishes: Hi-Gloss Black paint or medium cherry veneer.”
If you go to the site http://www.vonschweikert.com/techspecs/6.php there is a great dissertation by Albert on subjects such as Psychoacoustics, Desired Axial Response vs. Off-Axis Aberrations and other very technical data and design views. It is fascinating and makes for a good read.
There, that’s all the technical stuff for those that salivate over that sort of thing. But let me quickly get to the most important aspect of this or any other speaker.
Prior to Albert’s arrival at my home with the Unifield 3, we had talked a couple of times and got to know each other a bit. Now here is a bit of off the cuff observation. I come from a family that is half German, so the name Von Schweikert is automatically recognized as German. With a name like that you almost expect a rocket scientist to show up at your door. Not too far off. Anyone who spends a few minutes with Albert quickly realizes two things. One: He has a true passion for all things music and it runs through his vein like so much blood made up of quarter and half notes instead of cells. Two: His intellectual level is right up there with a rocket scientist. Despite that, he is one of the most laid back and enjoyable people to be around and we had a grand time when he came out.
As he and his assistant Joe went about setting up the system, I watched and asked a number of questions about it. He and Joe spent a good deal of time picking a placement that he thought would work best with my room as a starting point. I fired up my rig and he put on a CD of various cuts that he brought with him. He sat in the sweet spot and first listened to some white noise and test signals. Once he felt that nothing was wrong in the system we fired up the music. He stayed in the sweet spot for the first run, I sat on the floor to his right and Joe sat on a stool behind him. The first cut was one that I or Albert have yet been able to identify; but it started with a very prominent gong followed immediately by a cascading chime sound. At the moment that it sounded, I jumped up off the floor! I have never (and I mean never!) heard anything like that in my system and I thought have heard just about everything. It completely filled the room from the floor to the top of my 23-foot ceilings. The bloom and subsequent decay was so startling that I made him back it up and play it again so I could center myself behind him with Joe.
It was even more stunning!
The track played about half way through and then Albert ran through sections of a few other tracks, the entire time without a single word from him. The CD landed on Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” from his Acoustic Live album (Vision Records). This is without a doubt in my opinion at least, the best version of the song that he has ever done. I was stunned at how live it sounded and how caught up in the music I immediately became. Finally, Albert turned around and smiled. He said “I think that is right where we should leave them.” I threw on some vinyl and brought out Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Tin Pan Alley” from Couldn’t Stand the Weather (Epic FE 39304). This was my turn to return the favor. Albert, who is an accomplished and professional guitarist, was absolutely stunned at how it sounded. At the end of the session, he declared my system to be the second best he has heard with his speakers, right behind Harry Pearson’s. Yes, I am proud – who would not be!
Over the next two months, I spent a good portion of every day with the UniField 3’s. Twice I moved them slightly and ended up putting them right back where Albert and Joe had placed them in short order. These are very easy to place, and in a smaller room, will dip below the claimed 32 Hz with ease. In my large room, they still managed to hit 28 Hz before I measured any serious roll off. This came after I removed two handfuls of batting from the bass vent per Albert’s suggestion. As a matter of fact, from 20 kHz all the way down to 80 Hz, I measured them to be completely flat. After that there was a one- to two-dB roll-off down to the 28 Hz and then a much sharper drop off after that. At 20 Hz they were only off 6 dB.
What I began to notice the more I listened to them, was the amazing detail that these speakers produced. Even at rather low listening levels late at night, the detail was always very, very good. The upper frequencies were extremely crisp and precise, while at the same time sounding very natural. Instruments like bells, cymbals and chimes were delivered with just the right sparkle and decay but with no grain or edge to them. In the midrange to lower treble range, the sound was cohesive and never did I feel I was listening to two speaker cabinets stacked on top of each other, but rather there always seemed to be the same cohesiveness that Lowther and Fostex owners brag about. The smooth delivery takes your mind completely off the speakers and places you in the music.
On Jane Monheit’s rendition of “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” from the Never Never Land CD (N-Coded Music NC-4207-2) the song starts acapella and her delivery is so smooth and velvety that I almost could taste the Irish Cream in her voice. It was that liquid and flowing. Anything that makes you imagine sounds in those bizarre and hallucinogenic ways has got to be good.
When I threw on Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from her Songbird album (S&P Records S&P-501), it brought me to tears (yes, real men can cry, dammit!) and I have just about every rendition of this song I have been able to find. Despite my affinity for all things truly rock’n roll and jazz, this is still, perhaps, my favorite song of all time, followed closely by “If I Only Had a Brain.” This version is my favorite of all that I have heard and I generally listen to it as a part of any review I have done. To say I am intimately aware of the nuances is a gross understatement. There is one point where Eva’s delivery changes from soft and reserved, to an unleashed full measure of her powerful voice. The effect coming from the UniField 3’s sent every note right straight through me in a way that I felt the song more than heard it. This is when you realize how good a speaker really is, when you feel the emotion of the music as much as hear it.
To really push the bass, there is nothing quite like Christian Mc Bride’s version of “Night Train” from the Getting To It album (Verve Music Group). He performs this on a double bass and it is full of percussive bass mixed with very tuneful notation added sporadically for full flavor. Quite honestly, I have heard this cut used more at CES to demonstrate bass handling capabilities of speakers than any other, and I hate to say it but I find it quite obnoxious and annoying after a while, kind of like Yoko Ono’s voice. That aside, it is a great test track to test bass speed and tunefulness. One of Albert’s design parameters was that the UniField 3’s not only have significant bass output but it also had to be tuneful and lightning quick. Well, Albert chalked up another slam dunk. The UniField 3 produced some of the fastest yet most tuneful bass I have heard, regardless of size and price!
As for sound stage and imaging, these speakers are up there with some of the best I have heard. While the soundstage was not all that deep, it was wide and the placement of musicians within the stage was pinpoint accurate. On Sarah K’s “If I Could Sing Your Blues” from the Play On Words CD (CheskyJD105) there is a trumpet intro that has a specific placement in the soundstage. When it is accurately reproduced you should hear it emanate from the right side and definitely behind Sara’s voice, and it should sound as if it is behind her by 10 feet or so. When listening to this track through the UniField 3, the placement was spot on and coming from a point exactly where it should have been. I have found at times that some speakers do not provide the proper soundstage quality to nail this. Not so with the UniField 3 – with many other tracks that I use to evaluate soundstage issues, these Von Schweikerts were some of the best speakers I have listened to in that respect. Some people will argue that soundstage is not an important factor, but I could not disagree more. I feel that this is one of the key ingredients of the “you are there” presentation that can really draw you into the performance and the UniField 3’s will bring you straight into the performance, whether it is in a stadium or a small little club.
So what is not right with the speaker? Nothing that I can truly find. Does it go to 18 Hz? No, but that was not part of the design. Will it match the VR-11 SE for sheer weight, scale and dynamics? Hell no! Then again it is about 1/10 the cost. What it will do is go head to head with any speaker in its price range, independent of size and if not downright blow it away – it will give it a real run for the money. That being said, there is one thing that I did have a problem with and most likely would have an issue with this speaker, and that is the stands that come with it. It is a three point mount and not as stable as I would want.
For the first time ever in reviewing something, I accidently damaged the product while in my possession. I take that rather seriously and rather personal. Two days prior to Albert coming out and picking up the speakers, I was in the process of pulling some of the batting out of the bass vent and reached up with my hand to steady the speaker as I was pulling the batting out. Due to the weight distribution, the speaker rocked to the side and back, and the entire thing fell over. As luck would have it, it was falling over directly on to one of my monoblock amps. I was able to divert the line of travel at the last second. Damage to the speaker, thank God almighty, was nothing more than a small nick at the upper left rear corner that was easy to touch up. I immediately picked up the speaker and checked every last square inch of it for damage. My wall had a very big hole in it but I felt it better to let the wall take the brunt as opposed to a $15,000.00 speaker that was not mine. After I was sure that the speaker was not seriously damaged, I went about the task of cleaning up the floor where I had immediately hurled my guts up when the speaker went over. I then went upstairs to put on a fresh and clean set of underwear and trousers. Next I called Albert to confess my sin. He took it all in stride and was not the least bit concerned about the speaker, and when he did come to pick them up he laughed, because the damage that so disturbed me was not visible until I pointed it out to him. That is a great testament to the stout build quality and finish of the speaker.
As I understand, the mounting system that couples the speakers to the stand has been improved and there won’t be any more accidents out there, thank goodness. Rather than using “gravity” to hold the speaker on the stand, a semi-elastic clay is now provided that holds the speakers tightly onto the stand. As a side benefit, I was told that this new mounting system also improves the decoupling of the speaker.
Now, let me get back to that part about being agitated by this review. I cannot recall, at least in the recent past, a review that actually angered me, but this one did. The source of my anger was not with the speaker and its performance but rather that Albert was coming to take them away.
At the moment I could not afford to keep them and that really, really chapped my behind. If I had the disposable income (and those of us in a state of semi retirement cannot afford anything after losing 50% of our life’s savings this past year) they would have never left the house. I am finicky about speakers and to say that it angered me that I could not afford to purchase them at this time is about the best endorsement I could give this speaker. If you are looking for a small speaker that is designer friendly, takes up very little space and gives you the performance of something twice its size and price, then you owe it to yourself to contact Albert and arrange to demo a pair. If you do, I almost guarantee you will buy them. They are, quite simply, that good!
Rumor has it that I may be reviewing the Anniversary VR5 shortly. Perhaps it will help mend my broken heart and alleviate some of my anger. Then again, it may just be more of the same heartache when it comes time to let them go. Is there no end to this torture?
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