I don’t want a simulation, I want reality. When I sit down to listen, I want to hear the real thing, not some weak representation of the music. As with all ardent audiophiles, I want virtual reality, the phrase Von Schweikert audio uses to describe the sound of their VR speakers, and essentially what every audiophile is after. The claim is that the speakers have been designed to follow the recording microphone’s signal in reverse. But does this VR thing result in superior reproduction or is it a slick marketing campaign? That’s what I wanted to find out.
Who is the Von Schweikert behind the name?
Albert Von Schweikert grew up in Germany, receiving musical training in piano and violin at the Heidelberg Conservatory. When he was 16, the family moved to the U.S.; his music experience would serve him well later in the 1960’s as an engineering student at Cal Tech, where Oscar Heil developed his Air Motion Transformer.
Initially, Albert pursued jet propulsion, but was a member of an audio club led by the speaker designing professor Richard Heiser. Utilizing the array of instruments at the lab, students competed to build superior speakers. Albert was also involved in playing electric guitar for the Tampa Bay garage band The Ravens on weekends. Unhappy with the band’s stock speakers, he began to mod them and realized that he had a talent for improving the sound quality of speakers.
During his time at Cal Tech, Albert had the realization that if a speaker was going to sound good, it had to be able to retrace the creation of the recording; that is, it had to sound like a mirror image of the experience being picked up on the microphone. With Cal Tech at his disposal, Albert was able to isolate the parameters involved in reproducing a proper wave form as picked up by the microphone, including what enters the microphone from behind it. This further improved his speaker designs.
Albert adjusted his professional goals and became a consultant for wholesale audio parts supplier KSC. From 1987-1989, he advised speaker companies such as Polk, JBL, Inifinity, Wharfedale, and Advent on their components and designs. Dozens of speakers were influenced by Albert during this time frame. While others were getting their feet wet, Albert was swimming in speaker design.
In 1991, while working for Counterpoint Electronics, he was hired by LucasFilm Ltd. to create THX speakers. After several years with Counterpoint, he felt it was time to establish his own company. Starting with a small business loan of $50,000, in two years he was able to expand the business to $12 million! But, in 1999 tragedy struck – a toxic spill from winter snow melting at a land fill near the factory destroyed his entire inventory.
Albert relocated to California and tried again, this time the small business administration had big goals, to establish a company employing hundreds, and the creation of one of the biggest speaker manufacturers in the world! In a culmination of his learning, Albert created his own recording studio where he could record a live event and immediately compare it with his speakers in his quest to find “Virtual Reality”, that is, a positive retracing of the live experience at the microphone.
One can see that this is having a positive impact on his speaker designs, evidenced by a steady ramping up of industry awards since 2000.
At the CES 2004, “Virtual versus Reality” demonstrations of the VR-11 speakers playing back live recordings of the Misty River Band were popular, further enhancing Albert’s reputation as the maker of speakers of the highest order.
The appearance of Von Schweikert speakers has gone upscale in recent years.
The VR4 was the culmination of seven years of Cal Tech research and design improvements. As more models have been added to the Von Schweikert line, there has been a shift in customer expectations. Albert related to me that his dealers have been after him for years to upgrade the appearance of his speakers. But, wouldn’t that mean higher price tags for nifty wood finishes? Yes, and that is where the psychoacoustics of speaker manufacturing comes in.
During his time at Cal Tech, Albert also conducted tests on listener preferences. One such test involved two identical speakers, one green and the other red. Listeners who heard both speakers under controlled conditions were easily led to specific conclusions regarding the sound quality of the speakers, i.e. that the red speaker sounded more “fiery” than the green speaker. In other words, what was perceived was influenced greatly by the visual impressions of the listener. The bottom line; our eyes can easily fool us into thinking we like one sound over another.
Albert’s dealers were trying to tell him that things have changed.
Twenty years ago, people bought speakers based on sound. Not anymore. Now people largely buy on sight, and his dealers wanted the speakers to look more upscale – after all, as a reviewer I fully concur that a grill cloth enshrouded speaker is not all that appealing to look at. I can appreciate the sound, but my eyes and ears appreciate the sound of the African Hazelwood VR4 SR! I understand perfectly what I’m admitting, that there is inherently a bias of appreciation and or acceptance of a beautiful product. In the end, Albert’s dealers and design team finally convinced him, and the speakers went upscale.
Meanwhile, the cabinet manufacturing of the lower-end models has been outsourced to China, since it’s the most economical way to get it done. Von Schweikert speakers have done an unusual pirouette, being wonderful-sounding speakers in plain garb, as they have been upgraded visually to match consumer expectations. The irony is that the cosmetics had to improve to match the performance.
People hear the speakers as better since they see the superb craftsmanship. I detest that fact – the fact that whether we want to admit it or not, as audiophiles we are susceptible to bias, especially visual bias. As much as I would love to claim complete indifference to appearance, I cannot. I’d rather admit it than deny it and be a liar. I freely confess, these speakers are breathtakingly beautifully crafted, and part of why I like listening to them is because they are visually striking.
One can take clues as to the seriousness of the Von Schweikert philosophy on speaker construction from the manner in which they are made and conveyed.
At every step from design to delivery, I found things have been well thought out at V.S. Audio:
A thin, cardboard box sheath rests over a Virtually Indestructible (V.I. in V.S. terminology) crate…
Speaker modules are shrouded in velour, wrapped in plastic, nestled in high density foam coffins – a send-off from the factory worthy of a loved one; let’s call it Virtual Memorial (or V.M.) shipping…
World class veneer cabinets with fit and finish of a caliber that would not be embarrassed to be compared to Baker furniture – we’ll label that “V.F.” for Virtually Furniture…
If one believes that little things count, then V.S. pays attention to the little things, and they add up to leave big impressions. If you’re tiring of my abbreviations game, let’s say it’s making you Virtually Ill (V.I.) and we will move on.
The angular appearance of “4SR2”, as I’ll refer to it, reminds me of modernistic architecture of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. There is an immensely appealing aesthetic to the angles of the mid/tweeter module in glossy African Hazelwood (also available are Dark Cherry, Sycamore and Ebony) standing on the pillar-like bass module. For those who must take into consideration the WAF, these speakers will garnish quite a bit of domestic acceptance. If the size is not a concern, they can almost be considered posh-looking and would not be embarrassed among the finest of décor.
The Von Schweikert manual also gives hints as to the seriousness of the endeavor. In stark contrast to the product, the manual is as sterile as a Petri dish. Plain sheets describe in detail the proper cable connections, placement and tuning, and adjustment of the rear ambience drivers. How important are these factors in successfully utilizing these speakers to their fullest extent? Consider that fully ten of thirteen pages in the manual are dedicated to them.
What of these parameters? The 4SR2’s are designed to be run bi-wired, so I spent very little time listening to them in a single-wire configuration If one chooses to do so, a “Data Link” jumper joins the two modules.
Bi-wiring should be considered necessity with these speakers. It’s virtually inconceivable that anyone who would own these would skimp on cabling. Run these speakers in a bi-wired (or, of course, biamped) configuration and do not piddle around with lesser connections. As Von Schweikert asserts, “…a twin set of separate cables is greatly preferred.” Precisely. I often see threads on the internet posted by individuals asking if bi-wiring is “worth it.” Of course it is! The question should be, rather, are the electronics leading to the speaker substantive enough to merit it? If so, then it should be done. I have never encountered a case where any speaker with bi-wire capability did not sound superior in bi-wire configuration as opposed to being single-wired using jumpers.
The driver complement from bottom to top is a twin set of 8.5” aluminum (magnesium is used on the higher models) bass drivers in a triple-chambered hybrid transmission line cabinet. Low crossover points between 100Hz and 200Hz eliminate midrange coloration in the woofers. Below them resides a 7” flared port – this combination yields flat response to 20Hz.
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