Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor SE Floorstanding
"Speaker systems are not 'generators'
of music, they are 'reproducers' of music."
Yet, I posit to these same students that a fifth property must be acknowledged to fully comprehend music, and one that Varese most likely would have approved; that is, Space (Referencing his "Poemeelectronique," written for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair). Space, not only as applied to air between sound sources, but the recording venue itself Venue size, shape, interior acoustical materials, audience information, engagement, etc.
Taken a step deeper, Space defines the relationship cues existing among the performers themselves, those felt yet unheard, intrinsic to the live performance experience. Within these five properties, the process of decoding the myriad of psychoacoustic variables inherent in experiencing music is naturally complex and highly personal. Space is key to this decoding process, for it is the one property on which others are dependent.
As purveyors of the art, we understand that the magic and challenge of the audiophile journey is in the re-creation of the live experience - Truth in performance at a unique moment in time, completely and corporeally. Or, as my friend and master audio artisan, Kevin Hayes, astutely offered, "The primary goal of high-end audio should be towards bringing the live event back to life."
I recently came across a discussion topic from Karen Sumner, noted founder, CEO, and President of Transparent Audio, Inc., entitled, "Space: The Final Frontier," in which she reminds us that, in the quest to bridge the gap between live and electronically reproduced music, "everything matters." And, as one pursues more resolving components in their quest to reproduce the recorded moment as authentically as possible, Space is the acoustic variable that holds the key to not only the re-creation of ambiance and scale, but to those sonic properties that are not immediately perceived, yet present all the same and of great significance in defining the live "moment:"
"To someone who knows the sound of live acoustic instruments in acoustic space, many of today's contemporary "high-end audio" systems, because of a combination of components, listening room acoustics, and speaker set up, fall short of being tonally representative of live acoustic music. These systems also do not capture instrumental timbres on a level that are recognizable by someone who utilizes live acoustic music as a reference point. An unfortunate consequence of the hi-fi approach is that too often we try to continue to find our musical truth by churning through components, or worse, we lose interest entirely. A system that has been built upon the listening criteria for live acoustic music can reproduce all genres of music well and provide a pathway for further music exploration."
As a professional musician, this comment resonates with me. It is simply not enough for recorded music to be tonally, timbrally, and dynamically representative of live music. These properties must be framed within an enveloping, 360-degree myriad of subtleties not immediately perceived as relevant, yet are essential to providing a complete capture of the now that defines "live." Fine audio components that help move a complete system towards this objective are usually deemed unforgettable, setting new references in high audio art.
So how does the above preface apply to my thoughts regarding the Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor Special Edition speakers? Firstly, the collective ears and engineering talent among the VSA team are founded and focused on the "live" music performance model, constructing every design outcome, regardless of price point, towards the authentic re-creation of the live performance event in every detail, as it was recorded. VSA's founding father, the late Albert Von Schweikert, spent the majority of his professional life researching the psychoacoustic ingredients inherent in live musical performance, and the subsequent ability to capture and authentically reproduce these ingredients in recorded music (I encourage the reader to familiarize themselves with the following reference, authored by AVS).
This would result in several patented innovative technological applications that continue to evolve and be employed in practically every Von Schweikert Audio speaker design, among them the Global Axis Integration Network (G.A.I.N.) and Acoustic Inverse Replication (A.I.R.) or "Inverse Microphone" concepts, all furthering the sonic objective of realism. Secondly, and in a word, I say again - Space. Beyond their truthfulness to pitch, intensity, duration, and timbre, the ESE authentically recreates the performance space in a manner and scale I've never before experienced from a full-range speaker of this footprint or price point. A presentation that envelopes the listener with all the excitement and visceral energy of the performance venue, off- and on-axis. It is indeed, "The Sound of Reality" That sonic hologram we all strive to create.
Thankfully, VSA Chief Design Officer and Vice-President of Sales, Leif Swanson, brings an experienced musician's ear and sensibility to his work, which has played (pun intended) a significant part in his success, just as it did for Albert Von Schweikert. Leif's father, an accomplished acoustic guitarist, and singer, encouraged Leif to also play (Leif's personal inventory of guitars and keyboards are utilized in the voicing process of VSA speakers).
Similar to Albert's background, Leif developed his guitar chops to a high level, but his true calling would ultimately be in designing/managing sound for live concerts, traveling extensively as demand for his talents increased. In tandem, necessity required him to build his PA and related sound reinforcement processing systems. Around 2008, Leif was approached by VSA to design the cabinetry for the then-new VR ("Virtual Reality") 33.
His work with VSA would continue with the enclosure design for the less expensive VR22. In 2013, and with Albert's blessing, encouragement, and tutelage, Leif ventured into his own speaker company, Endeavor Audio. His first design, the E3, was inspired by the VSA VR4jr, to equal or better its exceptional price-to-performance ratio (the VR4jr also replaced this reviewer's ESS model 8's back in the day!). Shortly after Albert's retirement in 2015, son, CEO, and designer, Damon Von Schweikert, approached Leif to merge the two companies, thus solidifying a partnership that is now responsible for some of the most highly regarded loudspeaker designs in the world. Ultimately, the two are guided by a singular mission that strives to find that path between two competing sonic objectives: "higher resolution versus musicality."
· Modified ScanSpeak Beryllium tweeter with proprietary damping and surround.
· Rear Ambient Retrieval Driver system with adjustable volume.
· ULTRA series crossover topology and additional ULTRA series applications incorporate German-made Mundorf Silver, Gold, and Oil capacitors, resistors, and U.S.-made Goertz copper foil inductors.
· Bespoke ULTRA-level automotive finish selected by the owner.
Additionally, point-to-point hand-built networks with isolated architecture that insulates crossover components and wiring from noise contamination, separate high pass/low pass crossover sections that reduce magnetic interactions in the cables, and WBT Next-Gen Gold bi-wire binding posts, as well as MasterBuilt Audio internal wiring.
The design is a three-way full-range speaker system employing four fully-insulated drivers in each cabinet:
· Two 175mm anodized aluminum coned woofers. Faraday ring-type motor/voice coil, cooled with aluminum phase plugs and vented motors for low distortion and acting as a wave-guide, helping reduce high-frequency cancellations. Double-stacked magnets help provide a fast transient response and greater dynamics.
· One 165mm Kevlar-coned high-performance midrange with Faraday ring motor/voice coil, and sealed magnet. The phase plug provides linear response and low distortion.
· One modified ScanSpeak 1" metal diaphragm tweeter using a pure beryllium substrate with a ceramic damping layer to eliminate harsh sound qualities, driven by an FEA-designed Neodymium ring magnetic system. The rear wave is absorbed by a specialized rear chamber filled with fiberglass. This remarkably life-like tweeter has the lowest measured distortion of any dome tweeter on the market, cost-no-object. It's again worth noting that this is the very same driver used throughout the ULTRA series.
Rear Ambient Retrieval Driver
Ambience enhancement/adjustment is nothing new to VSA. Iterations of a rear-firing ambience tweeter (or mid/tweeter) are found on many earlier VSA designs, beginning with the Vortex Screen in the late 80s, followed by the VR44, VR5 SE / Anniversary, VR4 Jr, among others. Of course, they are a highly-evolved and expanded feature of the current Endeavor E-5 MKII, VR, and ULTRA series speakers.
For those who may be skeptical: Folks, the integration of the rear ambient tweeter is no gimmick, but is, in fact, a true game-changer in recreating the recorded live event as it was intended. I've experienced other rear tweeter designs that offer varying degrees of high-frequency enhancement, yet the VSA proprietary design, in synthesis with the front drivers, is quite different in its method of dispersion, expanding out, behind, and around the enclosure, as well as extending lower into mid-frequencies (In the evolution of the VSA rear ambient driver function, Leif has been focusing on expanding much lower in frequency response than what Albert had previously done).
Equally significant is the degree to which this rear ambient driver reacts with the surface(s) behind the speakers. The fact that its dispersion amplitude is adjustable depending upon both distance and surface type summarily takes this proprietary design to a whole new level. I think you'll be blown away.
Further, a brainchild of Albert Von Schweikert's psychoacoustic research - VSA's proprietary (and revolutionary) G.A.I.N. driver management system What many might reference as a crossover network - is ultimately the process of marrying drivers to act as one towards the goal of a single cohesive sound. In tandem with the Acoustic Inverse Replication (A.I.R.) circuitry, this sound is radiated in a spherical manner, allowing the "sweet spot" to envelope and move with the listener anywhere within the listening space, effectively replicating psychoacoustic / spatial cues similar to those in live performance. Lastly, the system utilizes modified Linkwitz-Riley filters to ensure correct phase coherence and timing and includes both copper-foil and perfect layer air-core inductors.
It's quite a handsome cabinet, svelte, understated in its profile, incredibly room-friendly, yet stunningly obvious of audio artisanship at the highest levels. The finish as applied is a work of art in itself, utilizing a time-intensive process resulting in a mirror finish that must be seen in-person to be fully appreciated. Finally, the cabinet is refined with beveled edges framing the baffle. The thought of an heirloom investment is easy to envision. One of the many attractive aspects of the bespoke processes for each new owner is the option of a custom finish/color, although the standard finishes of Black, Diamond Graphite, and Silver are quite beautiful.
I find one of the most impressive attributes of the ESE enclosure is it's unimposing, yet substantially sleek presence. It represents the smallest footprint among VSA floor standers, its visual tenor slipping so easily into essentially any listening space without compromise.
Lastly, I would be remiss in overlooking the well-organized owner's manual. Former and current owners of VSA speakers can appreciate the trademark detail contained within every manual. I can recall the comprehensiveness written into my VR4jr manual, not just regarding the speakers themselves, but practically every aspect of setting up and adjusting a high-end audio system.
Similarly, I found the ESE manual to be clearly written and incredibly helpful, offering a plethora of applicable advice relating to set-up, break-in, room placement, troubleshooting, maintenance and general tips and suggestions for audiophile systems and listening experiences.
The sweet spot was present within a wide sphere of off-axis points throughout the listening space. Relatedly, an interesting test I've inadvertently adopted over the course of other speaker reviews is stepping out of my listening room entirely to catch the external character of the presentation. Oftentimes, one discerns an artificiality to recorded music when moving in/out of the listening space, versus a noticeably different experience during a live performance under similar circumstances. We're all familiar with the loss of authenticity realism particularly timbral, when listening off-axis and/or from an excessive distance.
However, this was not at all my experience with the ESE. Of course, amplitude naturally weakened outside of the listening room, however, I found the presentation remained otherwise intact and true to life. Within the listening room, the sweet spot was everywhere you were. Every sonic attribute - transient speed, timbre, frequency balance, imaging, etc. remained present, enveloping, and otherwise perfectly balanced to the recorded venue. In many ways, the effect is similar to omni-directional designs. The biggest difference, in my opinion (having listened to omni-directional speakers in my room before), is that omni-directional seemed to lack a solid center image, whereas, the ESE retained vivid imagery, placement, and staging.
It should be noted that, with a frequency response extending down to 28Hz, and an efficiency of 89dB/W/m behind them, I found the two ESE 7" woofers to be exceptionally fast and articulate with plenty of balanced reaches into the lowest frequencies during most listening sessions. Throughout the review, I did tease the presentation with my Velodyne DD10+, experimenting with various crossover and amplitude points. Ultimately, however, I found a preference for the Velodyne contributions was minimal, leaving the sub out of the picture for almost all listening.
Once the ESE were dialed in (and I concur with Damon's notes in the manual The process was "great fun!"), the 'performance' sprang to life and did not let up. Many speaker designs bring clarity and resolution to the recorded presentation at amazing levels. And then there are those select few who release the live moment with stunning tactile authenticity. Such as it is with the Endeavor SE. It's not that they simply fill the space of the listening environment, but that they present the space that the music was created in.
A Few Reference Examples
From the laid-back jazz of "DrumeNegrita," to the traditional folkloric, "Rumbero Como Yo," Mi Mundo offers an audio feast to any deep listener. Friends, you have to be comatose to not find your body and soul moved through this music.
In this reference, it is about deciphering complex sonic information and layering it correctly. The recording venue was a small studio room, no more than the size of my listening room. In every sense, the ESE contributions remained faithful to the actual dimensions of the performance. There was no sense of re-creation of instruments and spaces, but rather authentication. Micro-dynamic shading from all sources was truthful and engaging. I was simply enamored with the imaging, transparency, low-level resolution (noticeably extended, quicker bass with accurate tonal focus), with a harmonic and timbral richness that consumed the senses.
Clarity and improved imaging were there in spades, but it was the fact that the full frequency spectrum was presented in ways previously unheard that was riveting. Equally, the ESE impressively lifted the lid on dynamic prowess and presence. The resulting instrumental personalities - both individual and collective seemed to be placed perfectly within the recorded space, in which I was placed squarely in the middle. It was an awakening of musical color color that ultimately defines character and organicity, compelling sound sources to come alive with energy! Perhaps the biggest takeaway with this reference experience was how much the ESE offered excitement and involvement in a manner that compels one to believe they are fully capable of taking up conga, bata, or claves and jumping headlong into the ensemble (singing isn't out of the question, either!). Again, just pure joy immerged from this listening experience in ways previously unknown.
Alison Krauss/Union Station Paper Airplane
[CD / Rounder]
Among the performances on their 2011 release, Paper Airplane, Both the title track as well as "Lie Awake" provide an opportunity to assess imagery, separation, and timbral distinctions among vocalists, string instruments, and transient speed among each. These introspective pieces on relationships-gone-bad are filled with tormented emotions. The resulting instrumental and vocal timbral colors, if presented true-to-life, offer a window into the soul. The ESE provides this window in spades In particular, an appreciation for the vocally timbral and artistic fusion between Alison and Don Tyminski. A presentation of pure synthesis, creating a singular vocal instrument from two individuals.
The ESE shows off how amazingly quick transient articulations should be heard in live environments. Leading edges rise unfettered in an experience that is reflective of a top-shelf pair of headphones That spatial-surround-sound-head-to-toe sonic experience. Not only a consequence of increased transient articulation and improved imaging, but the fact that the full harmonic series of each note is present, allowing one to hear all the way around it, seeing it's personality, ultimately revealing absolutely vivid instrumental and vocal tone colors, laid bare within the recorded venue. All I can say is, wow!
Bela Bartok/Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, Cond.
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. [200 gram vinyl / RCA Living
Having had the privilege of performing this work on about a dozen occasions, as well as years of academic study, I can concur with many others that, since its release in 1956, this particular performance, sculpted by maestro Reiner, stands as the definitive interpretation by which all other recordings of the work are measured.
Through this reference, the fullness of scale/depth of stage the ESE create is nothing short of incredible. I will freely step into cliché puddles here by saying these speakers will truly fool you into "you are there" mode. Startling dynamics and a soundstage that was deeper and wider than I had ever experienced. Timbral/organic personality is as true as I've ever experienced in audio reproduction, partic. percussion sources. Lightening quick, crisp upper-frequency transients offer up an exciting, live experience that does not distract, but rather enhances in natural balance to the mid and lower transient characteristics.
There are no artifacts Only naturally organic sound that surrounds you as you seemingly enjoy the performance from the concert hall. The ESE truly fill / pressurize the listening room like none I have known in a full range enclosure of this dimension. Further, they have the ability to achieve life-like dynamics with a rate of speed that accurately reproduces spatial performance subtleties, ultimately bringing life to music.
From a musician's perspective, what I find particularly intriguing is just how revealing and comprehensible musical form is in the ESE listening experience. Exceptional clarity, air, and space, among other acoustic variables, allow compositional intent and performance interpretation to be laid bare without unintentional vagueness. Perhaps most importantly, the ESE helped open the door to the energy of the music. Aside from the technical language that we often defer to in sonic descriptors of high-end audio, the ESE brought forth the intangibles of live music that which moves both mind, heart, and body simultaneously.
Granted, there are other very fine small footprint full range speakers out there (many that I've had in for personal audition), but also at well over twice the retail cost of the Endeavor SE. I think we can all agree that, no matter how you look at it, $25k is a lot of money. Nevertheless, when looking at reference level loudspeaker investment cost-to-outcome ratios, I'm of the opinion that none can offer the level of reality in music reproduction and craftsmanship integrity at this price point as the Von Schweikert Audio ESE.
It is an absolute over-achiever in every sense an acquisition of pride within any high-end audio system, and a speaker you can feel confident in building every other piece in your system around to the highest levels and still maintains its centerpiece stature. In turn, it will respond in-kind as each upgrade is introduced, paying it forward with everything that component has to offer the presentation. In short, the ESE are amazing for their price, but more significant, they are an amazing speaker regardless of price.
One might get the impression that I'm a "Fan Boy" of VSA. In that, I'm a huge fan of reality in the presentation of recorded music, and VSA makes the creation of such one of their primary objectives in speaker design, then by association, yes, guilty as charged.
Kevin Hayes of VAC has been quoted as saying VAC audio instruments are designed with the hope that they will one day be considered family heirlooms, handed down to the next generation, and I admittedly acquired my Statement 450S iQ amplifier with this in mind an end-game investment, IMHO. Similarly, I consider the quality and investment of VSA speakers to be of the same league a true heirloom investment, regardless of budget.
I felt privileged to acquire an example of the VSA team's work, and now very excited to retain the Endeavor Special Edition in our home. My professional instincts told me they and I strive for the same outcomes in high-end musical reproduction, coming from similar perspectives. I thank them for their efforts and congratulate them on this exceptional achievement and offering within high-end audio. For me, it truly represents realism in the reproduction of recorded music. It is, in fact, a portal to experiencing the joy of live music.
And now if you'll excuse me, there's a concert happening in my listening room....
Frequency Response: 28Hz to 22kHz (+/-2dB)