Interview with Albert Von Schweikert
As the award-winning designer of multiple speakers – from budget to cost-no-object – Albert Von Schweikert has spent nearly four decades in the industry, during the course of which he has seen the hi-fi market in all its manifestations. Chief designer and CEO of Von Schweikert Audio (VSA), Albert knows the business inside-out, having consulted and worked with numerous speaker companies over the years, and is now committed to producing ever-more refined designs under his own name. For all this, Albert has never lost touch with customers, regularly participating in the VSA owners’ forum at Audio Circle and speaking directly with customers by phone and email. In this issue, we primed Albert with a few open-ended questions about music, the audio industry and journalism world, and he pulled no punches. I started out by asking him to name his favorite design but naturally, the conversation went far beyond this. Read on….
PD – What do you think of as your favorite design, and why?
AVS – My discovery while a student at Caltech that “a speaker needs to be the inverse of a recording microphone” was quite a breakthrough 34 years ago. At that time, speakers were thought to be “black boxes” that had no real purpose other than to reproduce the signal going through it, with the least distortion possible. This thinking came from amplifier designers, who claimed a “perfect” amplifier would be a “black box” that would amplify the signal and not affect the sound in any way. Naturally, that type of thinking as applied to the field of loudspeakers led to box speakers, planar speakers, horns, and various other types of designs that all sound quite different – not the black box that was being sought! In fact, as a student, I was trying to buy a decent pair of speakers for my own personal use and with a few friends, used to frequent audio stores with our records, trying to find a speaker that actually sounded like an orchestra playing in a concert hall. Every speaker sounded completely different, making us realize that if one of these speakers was accurate, the rest were complete junk! As it turns out, none of the speakers were accurate and all brands and types had high degrees of various distortions, which we soon identified when we measured these speakers in the lab at Caltech.
We spent months measuring and cataloging the various sonic deviations in the different brands we were able to borrow, and this list eventually gave us a key to understanding what types of distortions were being generated by the cabinets, drive units, crossovers, and planar driver membranes. As our list grew to include significant data not realized by the engineers that had actually developed the models we tested, I realized that I was in a unique position of being able to write a “wish list” of attributes that a “perfect” (alas, there’s no such thing, yet) loudspeaker would encompass.
Our first model, the VR-4 (for “virtual reality in 4 dimensions – time, space, amplitude, and phase”) was a hybrid of different ideas learned from other manufacturers, combined with our own development of the theory of Inverse Acoustic Replication, or the idea that a “perfect” loudspeaker would have to mimic the behaviour of a recording microphone:
- Complete coherence in all frequency ranges due to the use of a single diaphragm
- Phase coherence in the midrange band
- Low distortion and low coloration
- Omnidirectional pickup pattern
- Extremely fast transient response
- High dynamic range
These six categories are “non-negotiable” as far as what a loudspeaker must accomplish if the goal is a simulation of the live event that the microphone originally picked up. Since there did not exist a speaker system with the above attributes, we decided to design and fabricate one, just for the heck of it. We even had thoughts of patenting some of the ideas, including Inverse Acoustic Replication, where the loudspeaker system could project a three-dimensional recreation of the original sound field.
Although the original VR-4 did generate shock waves throughout the audio industry, we discovered that the product alone, no matter how great, required an advertising campaign, PR, a large dealer base, and millions of dollars in investment capital to make it all happen. Unfortunately, not being businessmen, we sadly were lacking in the most important aspects of launching the speaker, so our company has continued to be a small “cult” oriented organization, using word of mouth to sell our products. In the long term, we have come to see this as a benefit, as a company such as Ferrari would not be successful trying to be GM.
Now, to fully answer the posed question: “What is my favorite speaker model and why” I would have to say it is the VR-9SE Mk2 speaker system. The VR-9SE (now in Mk2 form) has a bandwidth of 10 Hz to 100 kHz, which is a first, I believe. No other speaker I know of, at any price, has reached this wide of a bandwidth, combined with a response accuracy of approximately +/-1 dB. Heck, we could have used YG Acoustics advertising campaign of “The Best Speakers In The World, Period” many years ago if we weren’t so conservative. Naturally, I find this advertising slogan to be a bit brash, so I wouldn’t personally use this type of hyped approach. However, it seems to have worked for Yoav. Perhaps getting attention these days is more important than being politically correct?
PD – So what other speaker designers’ work do you admire and why?
AVS – I loved Peter Walker’s work on the original Quad ESL, Nelson Pass’ work on his full-range plasma speaker (can you believe we both worked at ESS Laboratory at different times?), and the work of my late and dear friend Jim Thiel. Naturally, I’m also being pushed onwards and inspired by David Wilson, who single-handedly created the category of the expensive speaker system, and by two new guys, Alon of Magico and Yoav of YG Acoustics, who both have so much money that they had no barrier of entry into the industry.
Most small companies, even though they might have exciting new technology, are under-funded and never quite reach their potential. Of course, there are companies like Dunlavy Audio that became an “instant classic” and went straight to the front cover of the major magazines, but where is Dunlavy today? Sometimes it takes more than money and good luck to have “staying power” in this fickle industry. Some products generate a fad, only to disappear later. One worrisome aspect of quite a few of the new companies is their extremely high pricing – do they believe that all audiophiles are vastly rich? As I recall, Stereophile magazine ran a survey a few years ago and discovered that the average Stereophile reader spends about $7,000-$12,000 on his or her complete stereo system!
PD – What are some of the difficulties facing high-end speaker companies in 2010?
AVS – Trying to educate younger listeners that an iPod is not a high-fidelity device. To accomplish this and build a new customer base, we will have to invite the younger generation to listen to our high-end audio systems and let them get interested enough in quality sound to invest in a better system than an iPod and Bose iPod dock.
PD – What about the retailing side of audio? We hear lots about dealers having to compete with Internet sales and VSA has tried a variety of retail models, including a mixed approach (dealer plus direct sales). What’s changed and how do you see the future of this in regards to VSA?
AVS – When I became involved in high-end audio, I was a consumer. Back then, you read the magazines to find the hot new product, then went to your local dealer to buy it. In many ways, this is an ideal situation for both dealer and consumer, since it makes a purchasing decision easy and no feathers get ruffled. Over the years, however, the equipment became very expensive, and many consumers began to discover the high profit margins that dealers made writing up a sale. Now, in the grocery, automobile, and other “commodity” industries, profit margins run about 10%, while stereo dealers were making 40% margin, which seemed to “tick off” quite a few customers who didn’t believe that the dealer’s contribution was worth it. However, I disagree with this now-common thought, since the dealer has a huge overhead, must carry equipment that might take months to resell, and has to work very hard to develop a client base that is loyal. I firmly believe that dealers deserve every penny they make, since they’re the ones that “make it happen” at the end of the day. The exposure of new stereo equipment to prospective buyers cannot be trivialized, since without dealers, customers wouldn’t even be aware of some of the great brands available that don’t advertise in magazines.
However, due to the wide dissemination of knowledge generated by the Internet, it now became easy to “shop the price” on electronics, pitting dealer against dealer, all of whom need to make a sale to keep the doors open. Due to the hundreds of excess dealers and excess product during the 1990’s and beyond, the “price wars” began, which rapidly eroded the brick and mortar dealer base to the skeleton that now exists. In Los Angeles alone, there used to be 32 stereo stores back in the heyday between 1975 and 2000, but if you check the Yellow Pages today, about 2/3 of these dealers have simply folded or morphed into “home theater installation” companies, who don’t know anything about two-channel audio or quality music reproduction.
For this reason, as our dealers have closed across the US, we have elected to sell factory direct in areas where we have no dealers. To enable customers to hear the product prior to purchase, we have instituted a 90-day in-home trial, where the customer can return the speakers if they don’t satisfy the customers needs. Naturally, there are several conditions – first, the customer has to actually pay for the speakers, since the first person we sent them to free didn’t pay for or return them. The second condition is that they need to be in as-new condition, so we can resell them as demo models. I am happy to report that literally none of our customers have wanted to return the speakers – in fact, they become “spokesmen” for our brand!
Someday I hope to see a re-emergence of a strong and interesting audio dealer base, but many things will have to change before that becomes a reality. By the way, my retail game plan was given to me by Paul McGowen of PS Audio, a very good friend, who also uses the same business model.
PD – You’ve spent a career designing award-winning products at both ends of the market. What advice would you give to someone interested in taking speaker design on as a career?
AVS – First, the candidate must have a burning passion to understand how things work. Without this curiosity, the candidate couldn’t put up with 8 years of college and working 18-hour days at entry-level salaries in the beginning. Second, the candidate should ideally have some sort of musical talent and play an instrument. Without a musical background, the scientist is reduced to using test equipment to verify his design – a very dangerous situation. Although I primarily design the speakers by using CAD, the last 5% of the design is the most important part, and that is the listening tests wherein you judge how musical the speaker sounds, without any personal bias (a difficult task, I might add). That is why I use a listening panel of at least six audiophiles and musicians, and compare the speakers under test to a live instrument. Using a recording is nonsense, unless you made the recording yourself, in the same room you’re evaluating the speaker in. However, the most important aspect that a budding speaker designer needs is a very, very rich friend, since starting a speaker company requires money far more than it requires a great product!
PD- Your views of the audio press: how it operates, how it evaluates, and how well it represents the range of audio products?
AVS – Since I spend many hours per day testing audio equipment, I have the greatest respect for those brave souls that do this for a living! It is horrendously difficult to set up listening tests where you’re absolutely certain that the device you’re testing is either mediocre or great. The most obvious scenario is that almost every piece of stereo equipment interfaces with the rest of the system in strange and unpredictable ways! For many reasons that we won’t go into here (not enough time or space), certain amplifiers and speakers simply won’t work together as a combination. The same goes with preamps with certain amps, cables with certain components, and so forth. In fact, most audiophiles use pure luck as their guide when assembling a system. Many times, the best-rated equipment in the world will sound like garbage, even though it might sound miraculous in some other combination! A few years ago, one of my dear friends, Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound magazine, decided to take his personal system to an audio show to teach audiophiles how to choose great equipment and set it up to sound like live music. Much to Harry’s dismay (and all of the many people who helped undertake this massive project), the room was a poor match to the speakers involved, and the system sounded dreadful according to 95% of the attendees I spoke with.
This simple story goes a long way to show how reviewers come to the conclusions that they arrive at – in “their” room, with “their” electronics, the speakers under evaluation sound fantastic. “Your” results may vary, and not due to any nefarious intent on the reviewer’s part – it is simply the Law of Averages coming into play, combined with Mr. Murphy’s Law!
However, having stated the above scenario, I do believe that most reviewers understand what they’re doing and that they take great care to carefully assess the work of a person who may have their entire future riding on that product (not to mention the designer’s family and banker). Personally, I can’t recall even one review of my products that was faulty, I may have been lucky or my speakers might just be a bit easier to set up than most.
One thing that reviewers could improve upon is the use of more than one amplifier and one room when testing speakers, since almost every speaker made is slightly amplifier and room dependent. I also think it would be a really cool idea for reviewers to go back to the “shootout” format wherein they test 4 different speakers at once, using a panel of listeners to make the judgment calls. This used to be a normal test situation, but I believe the anger that was generated by the losing manufacturers killed this great idea. What magazine wants to bite the hand that feeds it, after all?
PD – VSA cables have caused quite a Net buzz but seem hard to find. What can we expect from VSA in this area?
AVS – We’re still in the “beta testing phase,” where we’re sending cables to reviewers and very serious audiophiles for evaluation. Before we release the cables officially on our website, we need to make certain that our cables are indeed one of the better cables around, not “just another cable.” So far, two reviewers and about 35 customers have told us that the cables exceed their expectations and have something unique to offer the audiophile. As our “Master-Built” cable customers have discovered, that quality is “noise reduction” and generation of a three-dimensional sound stage based on elimination of distortion caused by improper geometric placement of the positive and negative conductors in “standard” cables. Our cables were developed by a NASA scientist who worked for Delphi Aerospace, and have 8 patents pending on the materials and physical construction of the cables. Although our cables are somewhat expensive, they are several times less expensive than the most famous cables that our cables outperform. Be watching our website over the next few months for the “official” introduction of the cables.
PD – Finally, what’s your favorite music to hear on your speakers?
AVS – Last night, I listened to David Gilmour play “Marooned” on the Pink Floyd Division Bell album, then I listened to a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff to dream on. The day before, I listened to the Killers and the Shins, two alt-rock groups my 18-year-old daughter familiarized me with. I just discovered a fantastic new artist from Portland, named Laura Veirs. Her latest album is called July Flame and I can’t stop listening to it!