Von Schweikert VR22
Over several decades of listening to and buying audio gear I’ve learned that price is only mildly correlated with sonic quality. Sometimes more expensive equipment is not better – perhaps different, but not clearly better. Sure, the very best gear I’ve heard is typically expensive but reasonably-priced gear can sound as good in some contexts, and the price one must pay to get incrementally better sound can really seem hard to justify in some product categories. Typically I’ve been loath to spend much money on the digital front end, which I see as evolving at a pace that makes expensive investment in a player seem short-sighted. Speakers, however, are a different category, and for me, a good sounding pair of speakers can provide long-term return on investment that allows you to enjoy music for years.
I mention this as a way of explaining what I am hearing with the product under review here, the newest, entry level speaker from Von Schweikert Audio, the VR-22 floorstander. At $2895 it would be viewed by most people as expensive, but for audiophiles, this is barely the point at which one starts to enter the high-end speaker market, and it is considerably below the prices one routinely hears described as ‘affordable’ in the mainstream audio magazines. When I tell you further that this is the price for a pair of speakers shipped directly to your door from the factory, no extra expense involved (with 90 day return rights included) and this from a company that is planning to unleash a new $150,000 speaker system on the public next year, then you might find the product more than a little intriguing. Is it a taster of the high-end, aimed at getting you started or, could it be a speaker that you can live with for the long-haul?
Form and set-up
The VR-22 is a two-way design with plain-Jane looks courtesy of a simple black-sock style cover between two end-caps. In appearance, the model is similar to the earlier VR-33 speakers that the company introduced a couple of years back to great success, only the VR-22 is 10” shorter and $1500 cheaper. The aim, as chief designer Albert von Schweikert told me, is to offer the most affordable pathway to good sound in typical rooms for those who are willing to sacrifice finish for sonics. Since a major cost in any speaker design is borne by elaborate veneers or polished finishes, the company claims that by putting the money into parts that matter, they are able to deliver a highly affordable product that punches above its weight sonically.
You might imagine from such a description that the VR22s are an eyesore, but they are not. The sharp edges and trapezoid form, capped with wood on both ends, present a simple clean look that is actually quite pleasing to my eyes. The black cloth covering helps them disappear visually and while the end caps in my sample were fairly cheap-looking up close, they look acceptably wood-like from normal viewing positions. With an ease of placement that seems to benefit from near-wall location, these speakers blend in to your listening space far more easily than many equivalently sized floor-standers.
The VR-22 incorporates an 8” woofer and 1” tweeter, both manufactured by Scanspeak (the woofer is described by Albert as the best they have ever tested for a two-way design). The manual mentions both drivers having optimized transient responses designed to work together with a low crossover point at 1.8kHz. The quasi-transmission line design uses three chambers in the triple wall laminated enclosure and is rear-ported. As with many VSA designs, owners are encouraged to experiment with cheap dacron polyfil in the rear port to tune bass if necessary. At 90db sensitivity (8 ohms), the speaker does not require huge power, 30w is the recommended minimum but I suspect one could go lower (I had no problems driving them with my old Naim Nait II), and as with all of the VSA speakers I’ve heard, you can let them rip with high power too. For most of my listening I ran them off my Spectron Musician III Mk 2 monoblocks with great results.
Positioning is key to any speaker but it’s fair to say, the VR-22s are among the most room-friendly speakers I’ve tried. The manual recommends placing them with minimal or no toe-in, between 3 and 30 inches from the wall, and up to 12 feet apart if you have the space. These are no idle boasts. I easily placed them 10 ft apart, firing forward, without any apparent loss of center imaging, and enjoyed them closer to the front wall than I typically would ever place a speaker in my listening room, never mind a rear ported one. Indeed, having witnessed a pair image amazingly at RMAF in Denver when placed practically up against the wall, I can confirm that these speakers will work in places where many floorstanders cannot and it became something of a challenge for me to move them about to determine where the performance failed.
I enjoyed them best in my room at or near the upper limit of their recommended placement, around 24” out. Nothing too dramatic changed with them much closer but I just enjoyed them best when there was a couple of feet between them and the wall. Amazingly, since the front of my three audio racks are 21” out from the same wall, the speakers seemed almost immune to the racks’ presence. Other speakers need to clear the front significantly in order to maintain central images but for whatever reason, the VR-22s seem unfazed by nearby equipment or walls and they present a soundstage that is forward of the speakers when listening from positions other than nearfield, If nothing else, combined with their easy amplifier coupling, these speakers score highly on real world usability.
Listening over time
My initial reaction to the VR-22s was one of surprise. I run a pair of VR-5SEs in my reference rig, a model that in its current form retails for 10 times the price of the VR-22s. When I swapped the references out for the new pair, I first thought I only heard a subtle difference, a slightly warmer sound and a little less resolution on the first few tracks I played but I didn’t take this too seriously as I was really only warming the speakers up. I had positioned the new speakers in roughly the same location as the older VR-5SEs, which I moved a little aside to make room while I broke the 22s into their new home. A couple of hours later my wife, who’d seen me unpack the new speakers, asked when I was going to connect them up and expressed surprise when I told her she was already listening to them. Over the next couple of months I worked on positioning, and threw all sorts of music, digital and vinyl, at the speakers to get a sense of how well they worked. On occasion I swapped them out for the VR-5SEs to remind myself what I might be missing and to give me some meaningful basis for comparison with other floorstanders in the same space but for the most part, the VR-22s had the room and rig to themselves for weeks at a time.
Describing the sound of a speaker is not straightforward but let me present some lasting impressions of my time with the VR-22s. First, these speakers sound big. Forget the fact that this is a two-way with an 8” woofer, the VR-22s throw a large, expansive soundstage that fills the room and creates the impression that you are listening to a big pair of speakers pumping out music. With rock or beat-heavy jazz, the room is filled and you never feel the VR22 is reticent or requires you to move close to hear, as many excellent monitors such as the Harbeth P3ESR seem to encourage. Instead, the presentation of the VR-22s envelopes you no matter how near or far you sit in the room, urging you to tap your feet. Unless your room is much larger than my 18x25ft living room, I doubt you will ever feel these speakers cannot fill the space.
Second, the sonic presentation is, to my ears, on the warm side of neutral, regardless of amplification. This is an interesting balance as the speakers are quite resolving and reveal excellent detail in the upper frequencies, but listening ar both low and higher volumes never really alters this balance. I find that balance very pleasing but it’s a matter of taste. This is not to say the bass is soft or unresolved, – it is not, except in comparison to the VR-5SEs which are superb in this respect – but you would never describe the sound of the VR-22 as clinical or cool; it’s more fleshed out and present than analytical or etched. Regardless of music or amps on hand, I found this presentation consistent.
While it makes no real sense to think of them this way, the VR-22s take me back to the enjoyment of my first real stereos, and I found myself pulling out tons of 1960s and 70s rock and jazz to reconnect with music in my memory. Van Morrison’s music has followed me around the world, marking moments in my life for 30 years or more (I gave up on him in the late 90s really but that’s another story), and for reasons I cannot explain, with the VR-22s in my rig I was motivated to pull out more of his old LPs, from St Dominic’s Preview to Avalon Sunset, than I’ve listened to in years. Paul Brady’s Hard Station also saw more time on the platter than is typical. Can we describe a product’s sound as ‘old fashioned’ without starting an argument? It’s just these speakers are the opposite of some of the hyper-detailed designs that seem to occupy an increasing niche in the high-end market and somehow, listening through the VR-22s sent me back into my collection to re-hear the sounds of those times.
For all it’s inherent warmth, the speaker resolves mid and upper frequency information very well. The rasp of trumpet and coronet on Kenny Burrell’s superb big band jams album “Ellington is Forever, Vol 1” comes through with remarkable clarity, and you can luxuriate in the clear delineation of brass instruments blowing over extended workouts on standards such as “It don’t mean a thing” and “C-Jam Blues”. Ernie Andrews vocals on “My little brown book” here are particularly intimate, and I was reminded of the old speaker cliché about the singer being in the room with you. Well cliché it might be, but Andrews appears in tangible sonic form every time with these speakers.
If the ultimate test of any speaker is how long you can listen without hearing flaws or shortcomings that detract from your musical enjoyment, the VR-22 scores highly. Tord Gustavsen’s piano is wonderfully replicated with these speakers. A cornerstone of his recording style is the use of decay and space between notes, which can get lost easily in less resolving systems, reducing the music to a gentle and somewhat slow sounding meander (definitely not music for the car, if you want to enjoy it fully). Properly reproduced, the natural fade and blend of notes, coupled with the highly original punctuation-style percussion by the wonderful Jarle Vespestad on drums and Harald Johnsen on bass creates a soundscape that captures you and fully reveals itself only over repeated listens. This is a trio that plays music in which each instrument helps to create a whole larger than the sum of their parts. What I particularly enjoyed with the VR-22s was their ability to deliver the atmospheric effect long into the night at comparatively low volume levels. Where some speakers lose their bass resolution when the volume control is lowered, the VR22s seem to have an even voice regardless of how you set the volume control, which is a genuine benefit to those of us with real lives.
I came back from RMAF 2012 in October with a CD of Viktor Uzur entitled ‘Solo Cello’, an IsoMike recording that has wider dynamic range than usual recordings and no compression (and used to great effect in a 4-channel Sony demonstration at Denver). A beautifully played and recorded selection of unaccompanied cello pieces by Bach, Crumb, Piatti and others, this recording positively leaps from the speakers with energy and presence. The VR-22s deliver the music clearly, with a rich, sonorous articulation of the bass notes in Bach’s Suite No. 4, and the odd bow on body strike as Uzur pushes hard and fast into Reger’s Prelude. Everyone I played this music for on the VR-22s commented on how beautiful it sounds, and yes, the recording is great, and of course, the cello is such a wonderful sounding instrument that anyone with working ears can appreciate it, but some speakers can still detract. Here, coupled with my far more expensive components, the VR-22s deliver the goods, which ultimately says it all.
At the outset I mentioned how ‘big’ these speakers sound and this issue is worthy of a little further elaboration when one considers soundstaging. Every time I go to a live show, particularly of small acoustic ensembles or amplified jazz/blues, I try to listen for the type of soundstaging one reads about in audio discussions, and I am almost invariably puzzled. Real instruments tend to blend rather than localize, except at very close proximity, and while it is possible to follow instrumental lines within a group presentation, this is not a spatial or placement phenomenon as I imagine some listeners expect from their systems, but more of a voicing and timbre-related effect. With speakers, and recording in general, the tendency to locate instruments in some pin-point arrangement, left to right, front to back, in your room seems to impress in the short-term but ultimately to be flawed if the goal is to reproduce music naturally in physical space. I am not sure what the von Schweikert team think about this but to my ears, the soundstaging on the VR-22s is particularly impressive because it presents the full sonic space more like that real-world interweave of instruments than many highly-imaging speakers. That the speakers can do it with so little requirement for careful placement is doubly-confusing to comprehend but a real boon to owners.
What does spending more get you?
For me, the most important quality in any audio system is timbre. After that, it’s resolution, frequency extension, and finally soundstaging. Your personal preference might be different but for me, if an instrument sounds unlike itself, no amount of detail, bass or imaging will make up for this. Similarly, if the speaker (or component) fails to deliver details (including space) that I know are there on the recording, I can deal with it to some extent if the timbre of what is presented is correct, but it will be a weakness that no amount of soundstaging can overcome. Of course, these are not completely separable qualities but armed with my personal weighting of factors, I choose products accordingly, budget aside.
In this light it’s fair to ask what you get and what you give up when purchasing a $3k speaker that puts so little effort into looks. From my time with these, I’d say the VR-22s give you a very real demonstration of the diminishing returns in high-end audio. Specifically, in comparison to the much more expensive (though no longer current) VR5SE, I would note the following as subtle but noticeable differences. The more expensive speaker delivers more on timbre on most recordings. Pat Metheny’s acoustic guitar on Missouri Sky is just more like my experience of acoustic guitars with the VR5SE. The VR22s can deliver his guitar in your room too so you are left in no doubt as to the instrument, but if you asked me which speaker makes this acoustic sound more like a real guitar (and let’s be honest, no speaker makes a guitar recording sound and feel the same as a guitar played in your room) the more expensive model wins.
With other qualities, the comparison is more mixed. I find the VR5SEs ability to delineate the notes in a complex or fast played run to be excellent. Here, the more expensive speaker just sounds less congested on complex, multi-instrumental music. Similarly, when a bass note is stopped, the 5SE reveals it as such whereas with the 22s there is a little more hangover on the note and the space between transients is not as clear. Subtle, but real, this is another area where you have to pay a lot more to get the best results. In the frequency extremes, again I give the 5SEs the nod in the bass for their sheer control and accuracy (though I’ve had years of tweaking to get them just right), but it’s closer to a tie in the upper frequencies where the new Scanspeak tweeter in the 22s offers some genuine magic. Surprising, perhaps, but much as I love the VR-5SEs with their adjustable rear firing tweeter and smooth highs, the 22s really do have something special going on up there. With soundstaging, I am inclined to give the VR22s the nod, especially if your point of reference is live instruments rather than studio artefact and you don’t want to fiddle with endless placement. That expansive dispersion pattern of the VR-22s really has to be experienced in your own space to appreciate it, the music seems to come from around you rather than at you, and the experience is immersive. Here’s one for the little guy!
Over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing the Harbeth P3ESR and now the VSA VR-22. Both are truly excellent sounding products which will appeal to slightly different owners. The Harbeths are my go-to recommendation for anyone with space limits and a love for mid-range clarity. As I mentioned in my review of them, they create a small but near perfect sonic space which you need to enter for maximum enjoyment. At their price, they are the best speakers I’ve heard. The VR22s are nearly $1k more expensive but offer a more enveloping sonic experience that covers a greater sonic range. They also can play beautifully at low volumes while delivering loud listening levels with ease. If you have the space and the money, these would seem a worthy step up, particularly for lovers of rock, jazz and blues. With their ease of placement and amplifier-friendly sensitivity and loading, the VR-22s are the nearest one can get to fuss-free speakers in this hobby. After months of listening, I could live with these in my reference rig for the long-haul. At $3k delivered this is proof that you don’t have to spend a small fortune to taste the high end. What’s more, Von Schweikert Audio, by offering a 90-day home trial on these, have removed one of the primary obstacles for would-be audiophiles, that of hearing the speakers for themselves. So, yes, these are a great introduction to the qualities of high-end speakers, but for realistic folks not caught up in the audiophile madness of constant upgrading, these might just be all you need for years of enjoyment.
- FREQUENCY RESPONSE – 30HZ TO 40KHZ
- SENSITIVITY – 90DB
- IMPEDANCE – 8 OHMS AVERAGE
- POWER RATING – 30 – 300 WATTS
- SIZE – 40”H X 16”W X 12”D
- WEIGHT – 83 LBS/PER CHANNEL
PRICE: $2895 delivered. Bi-wire speaker terminals add $200.
- PS Audio PWT/PWD combo; SME 20/2 with 309 arm, Clearaudio Concerto; Whest .03rdt phono stage, SMcAudio VRE-1 preamp,
- Spectron Musician III Mk 2 SE Monoblocks, Von Schweikert VR 5SE speakers,
- Cables by Elrod, and High Fidelity; power cords by Elrod, Wywires, Huffman and Genesis
- PS Audio P5 regenerator for front end, Audience Ar2-T for mono blocks.
Thanks for the opportunity for us to present a new type of product to your readers. Not only is the technology new (and dare we say it: bold?), but the sales method is somewhat unorthodox. The VR-22 is geared to the brave new world, wherein extremely high value is placed in a higher pecking order than something as pedestrian as cosmetic appearance or the ability to “hear it at a dealer first.”
Our build quality is spectacular but has to be, since this 8” two-way system is able to shake your floor on subterranean bass passages without distortion, while also projecting a 3-D sound stage that has to be heard to be believed. If you would like to hear this speaker system in your own home, we offer a 90-day trial, with zero restocking fee. We can afford to do this since no one ever returns them.
To the goal of offering the best possible sound quality to music lovers who are interested in hearing live music in their homes, we have spent all of the money normally afforded to dealer markup and cosmetics to buy the most expensive parts instead. That is why the VR-22 can keep up with systems that cost $20,000.
Although it is true that the prototypes shipped for the review did have an inexpensive finish on the end caps, the production models offer a nice variety of wood and paint finishes for the end caps, as well as a nice selection of fabric grill colors. In fact, most people have commented on how beautiful the speakers look!
Albert Von Schweikert
Chief Design Engineer/Project Manager