I first encountered the VR-1, along with the floorstanding VR-2 and the VR-S/1 compact subwoofer, at the 2003 CES. They comprise the entry-level offerings from VSA, and they exemplify the company's new approach to marketing high-value loudspeakers in the very competitive $1,000 to $3,000 price range. These speakers are manufactured in China to Albert Von Schweikert’s design specifications, including custom-designed transducers. Gone are the brown cloth-wrapped cabinets (for which I shed no tears). In their place are well built enclosures, smoothly finished in your choice of four wood veneers: dark cherry (the color of my review samples), black ash, maple and dramatic-looking African Hazelwood.
The VR-1 is not a miniature, but a solid compact loudspeaker with a volume of less than a cubic foot. It features chamfered front edges and a black grille cloth fitted with anti-diffraction rings around the tweeters to absorb high-frequency edge diffraction that can degrade imaging precision. (For serious listening, as always, I remove the grilles.)
VSA's presentation is attractive. A pair of VR-1s comes packed in a single carton. A velvety cloth bag with drawstring closure protects each speaker — a nice touch. The clear-coated wood veneer on the review pair is flawlessly smooth. I would not have been surprised to hear that the V R-1s cost more than their $995/pair retail price.
They score creditably on the ubiquitous knuckle-rap test. The one-inch-thick front baffle seems acoustically pretty dead. The somewhat thinner cabinet walls seem decently braced, and betray only slight ringing (which, not unusually for this size loudspeaker, suggests that a small degree of cabinet resonance may be contributing a bit of extra "bloom" in the bass.
On the back wall is a very small port, big enough for my index finger. According to VSA, this port is designed to provide a virtual larger cabinet volume and allow the small woofer to perform better. The single pair of rhodium binding posts seems sturdy enough. My only complaint there is that the tightening nuts are round, and therefore not usable with the Postman wrench, one of the simplest and most useful of audio accessories, especially for a half-blind blunt-fingered type such as yours truly.
With its compact dimensions, the 13-pound VR-1 is eminently suitable for bookshelf placement, and that near-wall location could be expected to increase bass output, although most likely at the cost of spatial definition. My living quarters have no such eligible shelves, so my listening has been with the VR-1s stand-mounted and variously 6 inches to 5 feet from the back walls.
VSA sells the $200/pair Stand-1 specifically to support the VR-1, and all my auditioning has been with that combination. The nice-looking black-painted stands appear to be of appropriate weight for their intended load. Spikes long enough to penetrate my thick carpeting are supplied, as are small square pads and small metal cones for speaker/stand coupling. Given these possibilities, my best results are with the cones flat sides attached to the bottoms of the speakers with the points grounded to the stands. This setup places the tweeter precisely at my seated ear height, which is ideal.
The VSA website goes on at considerable length about the technical aspects of the VR-1. Rather than redacting and paraphrasing those copious notes here, I urge the interested reader to go straight to the source.
What Do I Do With These Little Things?
Minimonitors have never really been my thing, given my bias toward powerful dynamics, extended bass and the ability to play large-scale music at seriously robust levels. I recognize that the better examples of the genre can exhibit impressive soundstaging and imaging abilities, as well as excellent mid/treble detail resolution. But on the whole, minimonitors remind me of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s quip, "It's like a dog dancing on its hind legs. The wonder is not that it does it well, but that it can do it at all." Dr. Johnson, known these days to English majors if very few others, was perhaps the preeminent man of letters in mid-eighteenth century England, and the compiler of the first comprehensive English Dictionary. The "It" referred to a woman writer—a comparatively rare phenomenon in those days. The opinion would have met little dispute in Johnson's circles, but let me hasten to assure our female readers that such anachronism is absurdly funny today. No nasty letters please!
Please pardon the pedantry — the devil demanded I do it! The point, in case it got lost in literary history, was that I typically would have modest expectations about small speakers such as these. I remember though that all three of the entry-level VSA speakers sounded quite good at CES — no small feat under show conditions.
As usual with budget equipment, I initially placed the VR-1s in my bedroom "home theater" system for break-in. (It is my home theater because my new DLP flat-screen sits between the speakers. It’s strictly two-channel with no subwoofer — I do not watch a lot of films were things blow up.) As expected, the VR-1s sounded smooth, well balanced and "polite" for about the first month. VSA suggests 100 hours of break-in time, and that’s about right. After a few weeks the VR-1s became considerably livelier.
Virtually all of my review-related listening takes place in my audio laboratory (known to saner folks as the living room). The VR-1s spent several days being driven by my reference system, both without and then with subwoofers. I will discuss their performance with two different subwoofers in a review that will follow this one shortly; for now we will focus on the VR-1s alone.
You might think listening to the VR-1s rather than my VSA-customized Eggleston Andra Iis would be a sacrifice. Long-term it would be, but my sessions with the VR-1s were a blast! The VR-1s share with other VSA loudspeakers I have heard a remarkably engaging presentation — they are downright fun to listen to!
The first impression is of sheer speed. These little guys are startlingly quick on transients, and with their correspondingly fast settling time, low-level inner details, especially in the mid-treble octaves, emerge effortlessly. On several thickly orchestrated symphonic works I am astonished to perceive details that I have not heard through my grander but obviously slower Egglestons. On music that does not depend much on the bass region — such as Alison Krauss + Union Station — I actually prefer listening through theVR-1s.
Bass response, while hardly room-shaking, is fuller and warmer than any minimonitor I recall. (Admittedly, there are lots of them I have not heard.) There seems to be useful extension down to at least 60Hz, without the fairly common peak around 120Hz. The scale and speed of their bass output is well balanced with the mid-treble presentation of the VR-1s.
Presentation of space is also extraordinary. The reader may recall my recent review of the Shakti Hallograph, which I find to improve dramatically in all dimensions the soundscape size and the imaging precision of my Andras. To cut to the chase, the VR-1s pretty much equaled the Egglestons in that area without the Hallographs, and adding the Hallographs produced only modest further improvements.
I want to emphasize here that as impressive as the above-mentioned qualities are, the whole of the VR-1 is greater than the sum of its elements. To put it another way, you will have fun fun fun till your daddy takes the speakers away.
A Swift Face-Off
Some months back I rhapsodized about the Meadowlark Swift, that company’s entry-level $995/pair loudspeaker (see review my clicking here). Experience has taught me that Enjoy the Music.com readers want comparisons, and this one seems like a natural — so here we go.
The Swifts are distinctively styled floorstanders. They look handcrafted, which they are. Since Meadowlark builds all of its cabinets from scratch (although using quality off-the-shelf drivers rather than custom designs), they offer a vastly greater variety of wood finishes then the four options available for the VR-1s.
In performance these two bargain loudspeakers are very close. Both are admirably neutral in tonality. If backed into a corner, I would give a slight edge to the Swift in bass extension. They are very close in spatial resolution and detail retrieval, but here the VR-1s may have a similarly slight advantage. My impression is that the Swifts are somewhat more laid-back, the VR-1s a bit more forward sounding.
If I seem to be dancing on eggshells here, it is because the overall performance of the two is so close. I can easily imagine different listeners preferring one to the other, but I have difficulty imagining a careful listener loving one of them and hating the other. At this price point both are godsends to music lovers with limited budgets. Basing your choice on the looks you prefer would be as good a way as any to decide.
As I mentioned previously, reviews of the VSA VR-S/1 ($1,500 each) and VR-2 ($2,600/pair) will soon follow this one. If those models provide the kind of listening satisfaction and value for the dollar offered by the VR-1, we have a lot to look forward to.
Type: two-way, three driver bass reflex design
Woofer: 6.5-inch resin impregnated mica/cellulose composite cone, cast frame, high temperature voice coil, and large shielded magnet. VSA Low Distortion Motor system.
Tweeter: 1-inch composite silk dome VSA tweeter with resin impregnation, large shielded magnet and high-temp voice coil. VSA Low Distortion Motor system.
Crossover: Phase-coherent Global Axis Integration Network with stacked First Order circuits configured to enable 4th order acoustic slopes for minimum cross-talk distortion and reduced lobing.
Frequency Response: 40Hz to 25kHz (-3dB points, in-room)
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, 5 ohms minimum
Sensitivity: 89dB/W/m (in-room, non anechoic)
Cabinet: Solid wood trim, 45° chamfered edges/corners, and a sheer gloss resin clear coat. Removable, acoustically configured grille with anti-diffraction ring.
Binding Posts: 5-way rhodium plated
Power Handling: 100 watts continuous music
Minimum Power: 8 watts per channel
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 11 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 13 lbs. each
Warranty: Ten years parts and labor, excluding burned voice coils due to amplifier clipping.
Finishes: Blonde Maple, African Hazelwood, Black Ash, and Dark Cherry.
Von Schweikert Audio