Albert Von Schweikert has been one of the premier loudspeaker builders for more than a decade. And from what I've seen over the years, he also wears the finest ties in high-end audio. Not one to settle for mediocrity, he likes to do things in a big way, as I saw in the ballroom at the New York show in 1996 where two huge tower speakers were driven by two stacks of VTL amplifiers. In another extreme presentation a few years later, he squeezed a large surround sound system into a small hotel room. While neither demonstration was overwhelmingly successful, the greatness of his work was evident. This year he got it just right. In fact, that's what the "jr" stands for, according to Albert.
The buzz about the new VR-4jr was already out by the time I arrived at the Primedia Show in New York in May (2004), and the line for the controlled listening session was consistently long. My plan to be first in line on Sunday morning was delayed by an extended private listening session for writers of Ultimate AV magazine. But the wait was certainly worth it, as I wrote in my show report.
The VR-4jr has been a long time coming. I was hoping for a review sample two years ago. But as Albert explained to me in the hallway at the show, he wanted to get this one really right. He has reached a point in his career where his status and his financial backing have enabled him to dictate the design to his own level of perfection. Only the screws, he told me, were off the shelf items. Moreover, he set his sights very high for this model, aiming at loudspeakers with five figure price tags. (He mentioned the Wilson Watt Puppy, the Avalon Eidolon and the Verity Audio Parsifal). In order to keep such a high caliber design at a real world price, he has turned to China for manufacturing, where the cabinets are made at a furniture factory for 10% of what it would cost in the US. This may also explain, in part, the reason for the long delay.
As much as I lament the loss of jobs to foreign competition (it has hit the furniture industry in which I work particularly hard), high-end audio has long been an international playing field. Those who have been paying attention know that this not the first reputable product to come from China, but it certainly is a high profile one. And the trend seems to be rapidly accelerating. It was that same audio show in New York in the mid-90's where a presentation of some pretty awful sounding Chinese loudspeakers received a lot of ridicule from show attendees. While the hosts of this room spoke very little English, I thanked them for their presentation and bowed politely. I knew they would be back — in one form or another. Clearly, a lot has happened in the eight years since that time.
I was quick to pick up on the buzz about the original VR-4 back in late 1995 and became an early adapter of the new Virtual Reality in Four Dimensions. The VR-4 remained as my reference until 2002, with some modest tweaking. I didn't realize how good a loudspeaker the original was until I moved from our townhouse to our present home where we have a much larger dedicated listening room. The original VR-4 was a big loudspeaker that needed a big room to handle its wide dispersion, strong bass and the Virtual Reality technology. Amplitude, time, phase and space are the four dimensions of recorded sound that the VR-4 sought to recreate with accuracy. With its time and phase coherency, and its rear firing mid-tweeter, its crossover is designed to propagate sound into the room in the opposite manner in which a microphone collects it in the recording process. Did I say they could play LOUD? Not being an electrical engineer, nor wishing to pose as one, I'll get on with my job, which is to play with this new version and tell you how much fun they are!
Look What We Have Here!
Well, for starters, they are not much fun when they arrive in two large cardboard boxes weighing 130 pounds each. Unless you are still in your athletic prime, it is helpful to have a friend to help maneuver them. The original VR-4s came in four boxes and of course, I was nine years younger back then. But having two boxes per pair keeps the logistics simple and increases the certainty that you get the correct mid-tweeter unit with its bass-mate. Each loudspeaker pair has the same number, with each upper and lower unit labeled "L" or "R".
Using a box cutter to carefully slice the tape to preserve the integrity of the carton, I found the next layer of packing to be plywood. And beneath that was lots of Styrofoam.
The speaker units were then wrapped in plastic and inside the plastic were a velveteen bag embroidered "Von Schweikert Audio, USA". Cloth straps were slung beneath each module to facilitate lifting them from the tightly fitting foam container. Again, a second pair of hands was helpful in doing this — you don't want to drop one! Wrapped separately in the boxes were the grill cloths, the bass plinth, small boxes containing spikes, an umbilical cable, and an owner's manual. This manual is very comprehensive, covering set-up, wiring configurations, break-in, and placement, testing for focus, bi-aping, woofer tuning, choosing electronics, room acoustics and more. Mysteriously, it suffered from a large number of words with gaps where missing letters should have been. Other than this typographical hitch, it is both informative and very well written.
Among other things, the manual requested 300 hours of break-in using moderately loud to loud volume. I was told 400 hours via email, so I hooked them up in my video rig, slipped the Kharma burn-in CD into the DVD player, and went on vacation for a week. Actually, it sounded quite good right out of the box, and Linda and I both thought they were stunning in the African Hazelwood book matched veneer. This is a medium brown finish with a hint of red in it that will go well with either oak or casual country cherry finishes that are popular today. The grain pattern is similar to oak, but the scale of the pattern is much larger than is typically found with oak. The synthetic clearcoat is hand rubbed to a satin finish. The African Hazelwood fit right in with both the country/lodge look of my family room as well as the more contemporary listening room. In the course of several months that I've had the VR-4jr, they garnered extremely favorable comments from every woman who visited. Single gentlemen with aspirations of marriage take note.
Three other finishes are available at no up-charge. The dark red cherry finish is the formal 19th century look that will fit into formal traditional settings, but with the moderately contemporary lines, this finish could also work nicely in a contemporary setting as well — being close to the increasingly popular dark finish of some contemporary furniture. The blond maple and black ash finishes fall deep into the contemporary landscape. There is a lot of flexibility with just these four finishes, so if in doubt, consult your personal decorator.
Albert's ace mechanical engineer, Kevin Malmgren, who has been one of the pillars of Von Schweikert Audio over the years, designed the cabinets. The lines of the two-piece loudspeaker, with its swept back mid-tweeter module with beveled front edges, are rooted in contemporary design. The slight notch formed by the backsides of the two modules also breaks away from the traditional monolithic block form. The base is an mdf platform with a beveled edge, painted black, which screws into the bottom of the bass module. It serves to allow a slightly wider footprint for the spikes, thus providing more stability to the loudspeaker. It also protects the beautiful wood finish from the vacuum wielding bachelors and maids. With the spikes in place, the black base floats slightly above a carpet of average thickness. On a bare wood or tile floor, the original thin contoured spikes, which remind me of a wasp's body, seem to raise the loudspeaker unnaturally high. Current production uses larger adjustable and lockable spikes of more conventional design. The threading is 8 mm by 1.25 pitch. Overall, this black platform is functional, but not as visually refined as the rest of the design.
With the upper and lower black grilles in place, the narrow cabinets look very elegant, at the cost of only a slight loss of focus. (The guests at your dinner party will never know). Around back, the hardware gets a little complex with two pair of plastic enshrouded CE approved binding posts for bass and mid-treble modules near the floor, an umbilical cord that connects the upper and lower module, and a third pair of binding posts for wiring directly to the mid-tweeter module. Oh and then there is the instrument grade knob for the ambience volume and the rear-facing dome mid-tweeter itself. More on this later. Suffice it to say that things get a little busy out back, but in most installations, this will not be noticeable. It was completely out of sight from the listening chair.
From the front, the drivers dominate the design, with the dome tweeter above the 6.5 inch midrange in the upper module and two 6.5 inch woofers and the front firing port in the bass module. Fortunately, all of the drivers are all black, and they compliment the African Hazelwood finish very nicely. Obviously, with the black ash cabinet, they will practically disappear. With the dark cherry, they will be only slightly noticeable, and with the light maple, they will become major design elements. Albert told me the African Hazelwood was intended primarily for the Japanese market, but I would not be surprised if it became the best seller on this side of the Pacific. (The foam in the port is a medium grey, but it is very unobtrusive, being near the bottom of the loudspeaker).
One of the high points of the design is the book-matched veneer, which carries up from the bass module to the upper module. With the loudspeaker being narrow and deep, the side view presents a broad canvas to showcase the beautiful wood and the fine finish. Furthermore, there is no side-firing woofer to break up this façade. The gap between the modules is 5/8-inch and maintained by black spikes from the upper module resting in conical cavities on the top of the bass module. This technique allows for very precise alignment and placement was relatively easy. It was also fairly secure, though this would not be my first choice for an environment where small children might be roughhousing. The bass module, when filled with 50 pounds of lead, and anchored into the wood floor beneath my carpet with the spikes, had a low center of gravity and was very stable.
Owners of the original VR4s will have an immediate reaction to the JR. Gone are the black socks, and in its place is a loudspeaker whose visual appearance immediately strikes me as being of a much higher quality than the original. The smaller size is a huge plus. At only 38.5 inches tall, 9.5 inches wide, and 20 inches deep, the JR fits into a much broader range of rooms without dominating them. Women seem to love it — at least the Boomers that saw it at my house — and would frequently walk over to them to touch the wood finish. And I love them, too. The design exudes quality and successfully integrates technology with elements of physical beauty. There are more beautiful loudspeakers on the market, but this one is really easy to live with, and did I mention she could sing?
I spent significant time listening to the JR without loading them with lead shot, as they are designed to be. There will surely be audiophiles who will be reluctant to do this for various reasons. They sound quite good this way, actually — far better than the original VR-4. Without lead, the bass is quite prominent and a bit boomy, not unlike the originals, but the midrange and treble are in an entirely different league. Drawing on my experience in the review of the Mi Rollers (October, 2004), I also placed the loudspeakers on large ceramic tiles on top of the carpeted floor. The focus tightened up and the sound became more holographic. On Mickey Hart's Planet Drum the bass was reasonably tight and I could easily differentiate skins on the various drums. Focus, full range, was excellent — or so I thought at that point.
Most interesting was the way the music came out into the room in front of the loudspeakers. I had the rear-firing ambience driver turned up mid-way at this point, and when I dropped it back to zero, it receded behind the loudspeakers. I put on "You've Been So Good Up to Now" from Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth and gradually raised the ambience driver: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 & 10. The cymbals increased in prominence, but backed farther away in the soundstage when the mid-tweeter was raised. The sound became more three dimensional or more tube-like, if you will. Raising the ambience driver also had the effect of illuminating the back corners of the soundstage better, and even at maximum gain, the sibilance was still bearable on this CD. This is an amazing tool, and much more effective than with the original VR-4 because of the increased focus. Adding ambience with the rear driver does decrease the overall focus slightly. But the JR simply has so much focus to begin with, I didn't mind loosing a little bit — especially when such a holographic soundstage was gained. The good news is that you get to tune it to your personal preference — which will probably vary depending on the music you select at any given time. You want to listen to classical music in a large orchestral hall? —You got it!
Out of curiosity, I took a set of measurements (from the listening position) with my Radio Shack analog SPL meter with the rear ambience driver set at 5 and again at zero. Basically the ambience driver boosted the response a few dB in the 5kHz to 10kHz with little change in volume elsewhere. Of course adding a trace of reflected sound that may come back at you out of phase seemed to have an effect across a broader frequency spectrum, creating the holographic effect that I mentioned. Even at its loudest, the ambience driver is still far below the volume of the main drivers.
I also took the opportunity to stuff a pair of dress socks in the front firing ports of the bass modules, and take some more measurements. This tightened up the bass and dropped the volume a couple of dB from about 50Hz on down. The bass response also lost some of its sense of air and ambient cues with the socks in place, so I voted against using them for the rest of the review. Adding the lead to the loudspeakers had a lot to do with this decision, as you will read.
At this point I decided to switch back to my reference loudspeaker, the Kharma 2.2 for a reality check. Keep in mind that I had still not filled the JR with lead shot yet. It was immediately noticeable that there was more light on the soundstage with the Kharmas. The decay in the treble was shorter and the bass was much tighter and faster. The bass was less prominent, almost to the point that I felt like I was missing something, but after a few minutes this sense of loss went away. What didn't go away was the perception that the midrange and treble of the JR had better focus than the Kharmas. In comparing a set of lyrics from Joan Osborne's song "Spider Web" with the volume control in the same position, the Kharmas measured about 3dB louder.
Adding lead to the special compartment in the bass module was a bit of a chore, since I had to remove the beveled base first to get at the circular plug that was also screwed into the bottom. The circular plug is about three inches in diameter and fits flush into the bottom. Removing the screws is straightforward. Removing the tightly fitting plug is not. One of them was merely difficult. The other provoked obscenities. he plug is composed of what, in the furniture industry, we call mystery board. The grey paper-like layers threatened to flake apart when I tried to pry it out. Eventually, I resorted to prayer, and that worked. For those who have never done it, pouring lead shot is an audiophile ritual that must be experienced once in your lifetime. It makes a sound similar to a rainstick, except with a 25 pound bag of shot, the sound of little balls of lead crashing against the cabinet goes on, and on, and on, and on, eclipsing the famous last note in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Loaded with lead, the JR's bass tightened up considerably and it also became less prominent for a couple of reasons. First, it was more focused and therefore drew less attention to itself. And second, the peak in the bass response shifted from the 50Hz to 70Hz range up into the 60Hz to 90Hz range. The amplitude of the peak remained the same. While there was a little less energy in the 30Hz to 60Hz range, and about 6dB less at 26Hz, the bass did not fall appreciably below the midrange until the mid-20Hz range. (Keep in mind that the Radio Shack SPL meter is not terribly accurate at the extreme upper and lower frequencies). Overall, the addition of the lead improves the perception of tonal balance and the quality of the bass, which ultimately improves the midrange. Unless you have some compelling reason not to add lead — like you take the speakers to your cabin on Walden Pond on the weekends — just do it! Let me also say here that I never felt deprived of bass with the lead added, but it was not the same bass heavy experience that was common with the original VR-4.
I also tried the loudspeakers aimed toward each shoulder once I had the lead installed.
Now remember, in my listening room, the side walls are far to the left and even farther to the right of their respective loudspeakers, so I normally experience the direct sound well before any diffuse reflections come back at me. (I'm talking nano-seconds, not canyon echo, here). And the soundstage normally extends several feet to the outside of each loudspeaker when the program material warrants. With the JR angled in, the sound did not get much beyond the spread of the loudspeakers. Music that came from the left or right edges of the soundstage seemed to come directly from the loudspeaker itself—that is, the loudspeakers did not disappear and reveal a soundstage beyond their sides. In the middle of the soundstage images were not as clearly defined, nor was the soundstage as deep.
Now, in the small hotel room at the Primedia Show in New York, the VR-4jr were toed in and the sound was spectacular. This apparent contradiction just means that you have to play with the positioning and adjust the distances for your particular space. And it is fairly easy to do (before you add the lead). I always use a measuring tape to make sure both loudspeakers are the same distance from the front wall. The manual suggests that when perfect stereo imaging is achieved, a dense holographic "ball" of noise will appear right between the loudspeakers when you play a test track of pink noise. I tried this after I was well into the review process, and BINGO! I was right on (when they were faced straight ahead). Room conditioning will also play an important part in the success of wide dispersion loudspeakers, as I learned when we removed the plants from the front wall, briefly, for re-potting. The treble became noticeably brighter in the absence of my large jade plants.
Your reward for doing your homework in placing the loudspeakers is a superb soundstage that will enlarge the sweet spot in your listening chair, and allow others, seated on your immediate left and right, to experience a similar soundstage, without the music collapsing to the loudspeaker closest to them. Of course, more of the music will be coming from the nearest loudspeaker, but it is possible to get up and walk around the room, even toward the plane of the loudspeakers, without loosing this sense of the recorded space. Remember those guests at your dinner party? They will be impressed just standing around — even in the next room! That's what an accurate, wide dispersion loudspeaker can do for you.
But What Do They Sound Like?
Everybody asks this question, expecting an answer like "Chocolate", "Strawberry", or "Vanilla". In reality, if your preamp tastes like chocolate, and the CD player tastes like strawberry, and the power amp tastes like pistachio, then the VR-4jr will sound like spumoni. They are that revealing! I reached this delicious conclusion in the process of checking out the various wiring options the JR offers in combination with a variety of amplifiers I had on hand.
First off, after doing the preliminary 400-hour break-in on my Tandberg 3012A integrated amplifier, I drove the JR with an amplifier that impressed me very highly at the Primedia Show in May. Daniel Marz was kind enough to loan me his personal Red Planet Labs HT102, a five by 100 watt home theater amplifier. I used this amplifier, single wired to the JR, during the first part of the review process. The conclusions and experiences related above were based on this configuration.
In single wiring the JR, the speaker cable is wired to the mid-tweeter binding posts on the bass module, about 14" off the floor, and a jumper plate is connected to the bass binding posts immediately below them. The bass module is then connected to the mid-tweeter module with a short umbilical cord with an unusual two-prong BNC type Data Link connector. This cord is very stiff and must be twisted with some force to align the prongs. This wiring configuration utilizes a crossover, which is buried in a casket filled with epoxy resin. While on vacation I saw this same technique used in a much more expensive Rockport Technologies loudspeaker. The JR crossover is claimed to handle 1500 watts without saturation, and handle high volumes without tweeter distortion. It was designed by Albert's electrical engineer, Phuc,. I'll discuss "high volume" in a bit.
With this configuration the focus of the midrange and tweeter are world class. Soundstaging is excellent. Tonal balance is very good with just a slight disparity between the bass and the music above it. The attack of the notes was just slightly rounded, and this is probably what causes the bass to seem just a slight bit slow with this amplifier. (Keep in mind that I'm comparing it to my Kharma, which has a very fast bass response. I also used the Red Planet Labs with my Kharmas and noticed this same slight rounding on the attack of notes, as well as all the other attributes of this excellent amplifier). From the midrange upward, tonal balance was excellent. With this very slightly softened attack, the dynamics of the music were not as startling as I normally experience with the Kharmas, but neither did the music ever approach the edge of irritability. The listening experience was always eminently satisfying and enjoyable, and I could listen effortlessly and endlessly. For people who listen to music for relaxation and pleasure, this proved to be an excellent combination of amplifier and loudspeaker. And for the record, the 100 watts per channel drove the JR to 100 dB peaks without noticeable clipping in my 6000 cu. ft. room.
The Red Planet Labs five channel amplifier also afforded me the opportunity to bi-amplify the JR, and for this task I called upon Joe Skubinski at JPS Labs for a second set of Superconductor+ speaker cables and two pair of Superconductor FX interconnects which he graciously supplied. This mid-price interconnect he felt would be a good compliment to the speaker cable and suitable for a wide variety of components. The Superconductor+ speaker cable is my reference cable.
This was the first opportunity I've had to bi-amp a loudspeaker, and I didn't know quite what to expect. Part of the result was simply the effect of going from 100 to 200 watts per channel. But there was also the effect of each loudspeaker module being driven by its own amplifier. True, all the amplifiers were in the same chassis, but each amplifier was also fed directly from the preamplifier with its own interconnect. The draw by one module did not impose significantly on the draw from another the way it would in a single wire, configuration. While completely separate monoblocks might be slightly superior to this home theater amplifier, there was certainly economy and elegance to this approach.
I played Lyle Lovett's "Church" from Joshua Judges Ruth. The soundstage became even more delineated with even more depth and more clarity at the back of the soundstage where the chorus wailed. Individual voices were easily identified. The bass was tighter, rounder and more palpable, yet there was no bass prominence. The treble was exquisite — silky, with no evidence of sibilance. The S's were completely controlled, allowing the loudspeaker to provide accurate, warm and very inviting music. In the midrange, Rickie Lee Jones' harmony vocal with Lyle was completely clear on "North Dakota". The bi-amped configuration sounded very much like a good tube amplifier, although I recall a bit more transparency and tonal texture with the VAC integrated tube amplifier at the Primedia show, all of which comes at a very dear price.
Next, I popped in "Riding With the King" (Eric Clapton and B.B. King) and the transparency took a big step forward, causing me to wonder if it was just a question of polarity or the quality of the pressing or the quality of the recording itself. Or was it just the effect of playing it back at a higher volume (90dB to 94dB vs. mostly 84dB to 88dB with Lyle)? Whatever the cause, the JR was forever telling me new things about the music I thought I knew so well. I played B.B.'s classic "Three O'clock Blues," bouncing the needle to 96dB — higher than I am accustomed to listening — and it was grain free and completely listenable.
From the Burmester CD-3, I played Hugh Masekela's "Stimela" and did not experience the jump factor when the "train" pulls into the station and the whistle cuts loose. On one hand, I didn't feel like I was going to be run over, but on the other, never were the lyrics so intelligible. The premature clapping by the audience before the end of the song was beautifully rendered in space with the ambience driver set at position 4 (of 10).
On the next cut, Yim Hok-man's "Poem of Chinese Drums", the benefit of the lead shot was evidenced by a tightness that revealed the different skin on various drums. I could hear far back into the corners of the soundstage on the faintest drum beats with the great focus of the JR, but the clicking of the drum sticks lacked the sharp explosive attack of wood striking wood.
On Buddy Guy's Damn Right I've Got the Blues, playing "Mustang Sally", the JR revealed every brick in the wall of sound. And in the bass-heavy recording "There Is Something on Your Mind", the bass notes were as firm, ripe and round as cantaloupes in July — and just as delicious!
After gradually edging the volume up, I dropped in Joan Osborne's relish CD and let it rock at 102dB to 106dB (about the same level I heard her, live, at the ELF Benefit Concert at the Primedia Show in May). Here at home, it was clearer, if not quite as sharp….Hey! Where'd the bass go in the right speaker?!!! Whew — just the connection — those pesky Euro-nanny binding posts! I cranked it up to 110 dB and it was solid as a rock. Then back to Planet Drum. Oh, boy. Big trouble here. The natives are restless and ready for dinner — and I'm it! Needless to say, the JR will easily handle Heavy Metal and Rap. I don't normally camp out at such high amplitudes, but I figured someone out there would like to know that it can be done. A round of applause, please, for the Red Planet Labs amplifier that brought this concert into my music room.
Dropping back to one 100-watt amplifier per side, but keeping the two JPS Labs Superconductor+ cables per side, brought some degradation (relative to the bi-amp configuration) at the 104dB to 110dB peak level with Planet Drum in the upper bass/lower midrange region, plus a slight overall loss of clarity. In Joan Osborne's "Right Hand Man" at concert levels there was a sense of compression in the bass notes — they lost their roundness. The midrange and treble seemed largely unaffected. But hey, this was at concert levels in a 6000 cubic foot room with only 100 watts per channel! Let's get real!
So I put on Paul Simon's Graceland and played "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" with peaks at only 86dB. Ah, how sweet it is! It's all there, save for a very subtle loss of spatial separation of the drums and bass from the rest of the instruments and voice. This was not compression, but a slight loss of space around the bass and drums in comparison with the bi-amplified experience of the same music. Given the lack of directionality of low frequencies, there is precious little to loose unless the bass or drums are panned far to the left or right in the mix. When that happens, the sense of space is not lost. It only seemed to happen when the drum beat overlapped the voice in the center of the soundstage. Should you worry about this late at night? Personally, I probably couldn't tell the difference in a double blind test with any regularity.
Back in the old days, when I had my original VR-4, I settled on bi-wiring after a lot of experimentation. It seems to be a favorite configuration of Von Schweikert designs, and Albert has obviously gone to a lot of trouble with the JR to make that possible, while at the same time providing for people who wish to use only a single pair of speaker cables.
A single pair is certainly a more visually elegant pathway, and more cost effective, if not quite the audible equivalent of bi-wiring. But as I said above with regard to speaker grilles, this speaker has so much quality that you can afford to compromise and still have a wonderful sounding rig. Poor placement of the loudspeakers can cost you far more quality than any difference in wiring or the use of grilles.
The manual suggests that an optimal combination can be to use a tube amplifier for the mid/treble module and a solid state amplifier for the bass. I finally broke down and gave my Manley Mahi monoblocks a shot at driving the JR in this combination with the Red Planet Labs. The results were (how should I say it?) horrible. The input sensitivity of the Mahis is noticeably greater than the Red Planet Labs and the tonal balance was completely disjunct. The mids and highs were loud and sharp while the bass was weak and soft. The manual warns of this potential problem and the need to have amplifiers of roughly equal input sensitivity.
Well, if not bi-amping with the Mahis, how about bi-wiring? In my favorite mode (triode with minimum feedback) they are only 20 watts per side. This is the stated minimum power for the JR. It was a "Good News/Bad News" story. The good news was that they were much more transparent and the notes had a sharper attack, resulting in more of a "you are there" experience. It also had a much deeper soundstage than with the Red Planet Labs. On the down side, the bass seemed a lot slower, yet it was still very palpable. The timing was definitely off. My toes would not tap when I played "Mustang Sally". This result suggested that the impedance at low frequencies presents a tough load to drive. And indeed, checking the manual, we see that the midrange/tweeter is rated at 8 ohms while the woofers are rated at only 4 ohms, for an overall average of 6 ohms.
Thinking more watts might help, I switched the Mahis into ultralinear mode for 40 watts. This tightened up the bass a bit, but also shortened the soundstage. And unfortunately, it did not pick up the pace and rhythm. The s' were a lot sharper and the music had more edge to it. This was not the solution. While there may be some low power tube amplifiers that will drive the JR, they are going to be a lot more expensive than the Mahis. My suggestion would be to think in terms of 50 to 100 watts per channel and using a more reasonable size room than mine if you want to use tubes to drive the JR.
The beautiful VAC Phi Beta 110i integrated amplifier used at the Primedia show was outstanding with the VR-4jr, but this 110 watt per channel amplifier costs $19,000 and the room was about a third the size of mine.
I had one more card to play, and I was hoping it might be an ace. I pulled out my Plinius SA-100 and bi-amped it with the Mahis. After letting it warm up for a couple of hours (a couple of days proved even better) I let it rip. The "you are there" that the Mahis gave to the mid/treble blended very, very well with the tight bass afforded by the Plinius.
Adding a set of ceramic tiles between the Mi Rollers and the bottom of the Plinius brought an additional degree of focus to the upper bass/lower midrange. I listened late into the night, culminating the session with the coal train in Hugh Masekela's "Stimela" coming to a halt right between the JR in my room. Unable to resist one more cut, I dipped into "Poem of Chinese Drums". With 100 watts per channel, "Class A," the Plinius put out 105dB peaks. The tonal differences of the drums were clearly evident and the clicking of drumsticks was sharp and lifelike.
The next morning with the Joan Osborne CD, I felt like I was right back at the concert at the New York Hilton. With the Manley Mahi the spotlights filled the stage, and if the Plinius & VR-4jr didn't give me the unrestrained punch in the chest that half a dozen 18" musical instrument drivers did from a distance of 25 feet, well, that's probably better for my health and hearing. There was certainly enough bass to anchor the music. Returning to "North Dakota," Lyle Lovett's and Ricki Lee Jones' voices were in stunning focus and delineation. And on John Marks' magnificent Music for a Glass Bead Game, the recording showcases not only the expertise of Arturo Delmoni on violin and Nathaniel Rosen on cello, but also the recital hall in which it was recorded. This was the best I have ever heard the recording.
At the opposite end of the recording quality spectrum, I turned to two notorious live recordings: Jimi Hendrix' Live At Winterland and Bob Dylan's Real Live. The JR allowed the music and the lyrics to come through clearly without the usual loudspeaker distortion masking the pace and rhythm. Again, this was the best I have ever heard them. The VR-4jr turned bad music into merely a poor recording of good music — and that's magic in my book! On another important issue for vinyl lovers, the clicks and pops of my garage sale records were minimized by the precise focus and quick attack and decay of the midrange and tweeter. It didn't eliminate them, of course, but it quickly passed them on in a way that did not distract the listener from the music.
So what was my favorite combination with the VR-4jr? The two most successful, to my taste of musical experience, were the bi-amp configuration with the Red Planet Labs HT102 with its sheer power and smooth control, and the biamp with the Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks in combination with the Plinius SA-100 Mk III. The Mahis gave the mid/treble the transparency and "you are there" feeling that I personally treasure so highly. However, none of the amplifiers (or combinations) that I had on hand gave me the seamless, tight and transparent window I briefly experienced with the VAC Phi Beta 110i at the New York show. I wish I had had a good 100-watt tube amplifier on hand to compare in the single and bi-wire modes, but I didn't.
This brings me to the issue of "Recommendation". For anyone seeking to move up from an entry-level system or even jump into the High End for the first time, the VR-4jr is a loudspeaker that definitely should be auditioned. Hopefully the dealer will be able to simulate your current system to give you a basis for personal evaluation. And hopefully the dealer will also display it in a system far above your own to show you what this loudspeaker is capable of doing. Don't be discouraged if it doesn't sound quite as good when you bring it home. Its accuracy will allow you to choose future additions to your system wisely, and its flexibility will allow you to follow many paths of growth and musical enjoyment. For those who already have an expensive system that could use updating, don't let your ego get in the way of auditioning this moderately priced new thoroughbred. But if $4000 seems too little to spend, Von Schweikert Audio has other solutions to your problem.
Albert asked me to take some measurements and I did this at several points during the review process. I have described, earlier, the differences revealed by measurements taken before and after the lead shot was added to the bass module. I also took measurements at the end of the review using my Plinius amplifier. In all cases I took them from the listening position in the listening room. These are not on-axis measurements made in an anechoic chamber, so please don't be alarmed! The loudspeakers and the listening position form a nearly equilateral triangle. The face of the bass cabinet is 64" from the front wall and the loudspeakers are 85" apart, center-to-center. The room is well dampened, with wall-to-wall carpet plus a heavy Gabbeh area rug covering most of the triangle.
The black trace shows the measurements taken from the meter mounted on a tripod at tweeter height, placed directly where the listening chair was located. Upon completion of this set of measurements, I realized that the position of my ears, when sitting in the chair, was actually about 10 inches further back. I repositioned the tripod and took measurements used to make the red trace. If nothing else, the disparity of the traces shows the importance of positioning your loudspeakers and your listening chair. Slight movements can create apparently large variations in response, yet when I lean forward in my listening chair, the difference is very slight. The peak at 80 Hz probably indicated a room resonance. Also recall that the shifting of this peak from a lower frequency (before lead was added) to its present location, made the overall bass response more pleasing.
The dip around 300Hz made me suspect the loudspeaker's crossover, so I converted from single wire to bi-wire configuration and took another measurement. The result was essentially the same. I didn't notice anything terribly wrong with male voices or cello in that region, so perhaps I'll have to chalk it up to faulty listening skills.
On the down side, I feel obligated to report that one of the woofers had to be replaced after I noticed some clicking early on during the break-in period. It was probably damage to the long-throw motor incurred from shipping. I was sent a new one immediately and it took less than five minutes to replace it with just a screwdriver. The wires snapped off and snapped onto the new driver with ease. The drivers are all tested and numbered before installation, as I was able to verify. One of the CE binding posts was not firmly anchored to the cabinet, requiring extra care in tightening the speaker cable. And finally, there was a very slight amount of over-spray in the lower front beveled edge of each mid/tweeter module. A single pass of 1200 grit sandpaper will probably remove it. The rest of the cabinets were hand rubbed to perfection. None of these issues should deter you from considering this loudspeaker. I played them long and loud, and except for a couple of amplifier combinations that didn't work well, I enjoyed the music immensely.
Let me repeat myself; I enjoyed the music immensely.
The Summary, For Starters
The VR-4jr is a highly revealing loudspeaker that will tell you exactly what the components upstream are saying while adding very little coloration of its own. This loudspeaker is going to hit the high-end like an earthquake and send shock waves up toward the $20K range. The most golden ears in the business might find some esoteric sonic flaws, but for most serious music lovers the value will gloss over the minor shortcomings. It is a loudspeaker around which you can build a wide variety of the finest systems. Dropping this loudspeaker into what you think is an already fine system will be a revelatory experience…for better or for worse. Forget the VR-4 designation and repeat after me: "Jay-R". These are not 'junior' or 'wish-we-were' loudspeakers... they are among the very best.
Type: Dynamic-driver four-way loudspeaker system using a triple-chambered transmission line and two-piece stacking enclosure system.
Woofer Tuning: The triple-chambered transmission line is a hybrid design composed of three separate chambers coupled to the room by a tuned vent at 25 Hz. The chamber filling is acoustic foam and Dacron.
Cabinet and Bracing: A one-inch thick front baffle and internal damping consisting of thick acoustic felt lining and Dacron stuffing. Large carpet spikes are provided.
Driver Complement: a pair of 7" mica-cellulose poly-laminate woofers, one 7" carbon mica-cellulose poly-laminate midrange driver, one 1" poly-tri-laminate silk-dome tweeter, one 1" rear firing ambience mid/tweeter with fabric dome and transmission-line loading. All drivers use our proprietary Advanced Motor System with low distortion design.
Crossover: Acoustic fourth order, at 200 Hz and 2.2 kHz, optimized for flat off-axis response and phase consistency over a wide Global Axis.
Binding Posts: Double sets of five-way rhodium posts enabling bi-wiring. Single wire can be used with optional Data Link connector.
Impedance: 6 ohms avg. (4 ohms 20 Hz-150 Hz; 8 ohms 150 Hz-20 kHz).
Recommended Power: 20 watts up to 300 watts music power.
Size: Midrange/Tweeter (12.5"h x 8"w x 20"d). Woofer (25.25"h x 8"w x 20"d). System (38.5"h x 8"w x 20"d).
Warranty: Ten years Parts and Labor, excluding burned voice coils due to amp clipping. Transferable to second owner.
Finishes: Available in four book-matched wood veneer finishes including African Hazelwood, Dark Red Cherry, Light Maple, and Black Ash. A satin-gloss polyester resin clear-coat protects the fine wood surfaces.
Von Schweikert Audio