Product Review - Von Schweikert Research Virtual Reality Theater System (VSR) - February, 1999
Stacey L. Spears
VR4 Gen II:
Bass Driver: 2 - 8" Polypropylene with Custom Epoxy Treated Cone
Midrange Driver: 1 - 5.5" Woven Carbon Fiber
Tweeter: 1 - 1" Damped Aluminum Dome with Transmission Line Chamber
Rear Ambience: 1 - 1" Aluminum
Mfr. FR: 20 Hz - 25 kHz -3 dB
Nominal Impedance: 7 Ohms
Sensitivity: 91 dB @ 1 Watt @ 1 Meter
Size: 46"H x 11"W x 19"D
MSRP: $3,950/Pair USA
Power rating: 300 watts peak input
Sensitivity: 92 dB @ 1 watt @ 1 meter
Mfr. FR: 22 Hz - 3O kHz
Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
Weight: 25 Pounds
Size: 9"H x l0"D x 28"W.
MSRP: $1,395 Each USA
Power rating: 300 watts peak input
Sensitivity: 90 dB @ 1 Watt @ 1 Meter
Mfr. FR: 26 Hz - 25 kHz
Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohms
Weight: 95 Pounds
Size: 42"H x 16"W x 7 1/2"D
MSRP: $2,595/Pair USA
Tower of Power:
Amplifier: High Efficiency 2600 Watt Peak (800 Watt RMS) Designed by Bob Carver for VSR
Electronic Crossover: High Pass: 70 Hz @ 6 dB, Low Pass: Adjustable, 35 Hz to 100 Hz
Drivers: Twin 10" Polycones, 60 oz Vented Magnet
Mfr. FR: 20 Hz - 85 Hz ± 1 dB
Weight: 75 Pounds
Size: 42"H x 16"W x 7 1/2"D
MSRP: $1,695 Each USA
Von Schweikert Research, 800 Starbuck Avenue, Watertown, New York 13601; Phone 315-779-8748; Fax 315-786-3020; E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web http://www.vonschweikert.com.
I have just spent the last few months listening to, what I consider, a perfect home theater/high-end audio system. The VSR home theater speaker system is one sweet sounding package. Although the total system is expensive ($9,635), it is worth every penny.
The VSR is lead by the VR4 Generation IIs for the left and right mains (front). The center is the LCR-31, the rear surrounds are the TS-310, and the subwoofers are the Tower of Power.
I truly believe that you can have one single system for high-end audio and home theater. The VSR is a music system first and foremost. Any speaker package can reproduce a film soundtrack, but not all of them can accurately reproduce a musical performance.
VSR is a fairly new company in the audio industry, but Albert Von Schweikert is not new to high-end audio. He has consulted for several companies, and in fact, he designed the award wining Counterpoint THX speaker package. Quite well known within the industry, he founded VSR in 1995 and unleashed upon the audio world the original VR4s. Since then he has released several other speakers at various price points so everyone can enjoy his designs. He created what he calls the Global Axis Integration Network or GAIN. This crossover is purported to give you back exactly what the microphone recorded in the first place. Of course, all designers like to think that their products are terrific, but what can I say other than it really works?
The speakers arrived in two waves. The first shipment consisted of the VR4s and the LCR-31, which came in five boxes. The VR 4s are packed in two pieces consisting of the midrange tweeter unit and the bass unit. The second wave arrived a couple of weeks later, which included the TS-310 surround speakers, and the two Tower of Power subs.
The VSRs are no small speaker rig, each box weighing in at a whopping 90+ pounds! The lightest boxes were the midrange/tweeter section. On initial hookup, I was blown away at the huge soundstage rendered by these speakers. They were somewhat forward sounding (a little harsh) and lacked bass, but that did not last. Albert was very clear that they need many hours of break-in. They sounded good out of the box, but I let them run well over 100 hours before I paid close attention. After 100 hours, the harshness was gone, and the bass was now evident. I continued to let them play while I was at work, and they only got better. A couple of hundred hours later, they finally settled. Yes, almost 300 hours of continuous playing was necessary before they stopped changing. Thank goodness it does not get very warm in Washington state, or I might not have been able to handle the electric bill!
Finding the right position in the room for any speaker is no easy task, and when you have seven, it can be downright frustrating! Sure, I know what you are saying: throw the subs in the corners, and stick three speakers up front and two in the rear. Well, that is great if you are a sales specialist from a chain store, but when you are the consumer and actually want to re-create music or cinema, placement does matter.
VR4 Gen II - Left and Right Mains
The heart of the VSR home theater speaker system are the VR4 Generation IIs. I never had the opportunity to experience the original VR4s. So I will be unable to tell you how they compare. However, I have seen the VR4s and can tell that the Gen IIs take up less physical space.
Each VR4 comes in two pieces, a bottom base unit and a top midrange/tweeter head. They are dressed in a black knit with red-cherry end caps. The bass unit contains two 8" polypropylene woofers, and the back has two 5.5" ports. If you have not seen flared ports this size, let me tell you, they are huge. The last time I saw ports this big was on the HSU subwoofer. At the bottom of the bass unit is a pair of binding posts, and the enclosure weighs in at 85 pounds.
The midrange/treble enclosure (the head unit) consists of one 5.5" woven carbon fiber midrange driver and one 1"damped aluminum dome tweeter. The back of the midrange/treble unit also has a rear firing ambience 1" aluminum tweeter. The output of the ambience driver is adjustable. A second set of binding posts exists here. The head weighed 50 pounds, and that put each speaker at 135 pounds (this is the main reason they come as separate units, so you can move them around without having a hernia).
There are two options when wiring the VR4s. You can run one cable from your amplifier to the bass unit and then a jumper cable from the bass to the head. Or you can power the head and bass with separate cables coming from your amplifier (or two amplifiers if you want to bi-amp them). I started out with them jumped, then I decided to use the current output of the Sunfire Amplifier directly to the head and the voltage output to the bass unit.
These were difficult speakers to place. I first set them near the back wall and slightly to the left and right of my TV. This is where they lived during their initial break-in. After I regained my strength from unpacking them I proceeded to experiment with room placement, having help from no one mind you. I ended up with them further into my living room and spread out much wider, about a foot and a half from the side walls, toed in slightly.
It is written in the THX installation manual that you are supposed to keep the left and right front speakers within two feet of your TV. This is great if you have a 7 foot widescreen, but when most people live with a 27" - 35" TV, this seriously limits the speakers placement potential. The big concern is that sounds will unnaturally pan too far to the left and right and will not match well with the onscreen action. Ah, NO! Spread those speakers out, and you will be glad you did.
LCR-31 - Center channel
I actually began the installation with the center channel since, after all, its entire placement is the least limited. I started with the center speaker below the TV, mainly because its enormous size is deeper than the top of my slim Toshiba TW40F80. With the LCR below the screen, the image was lower than that produced by the VR4s. When using the Tri-field music mode, the transition was not as smooth because of the lower image. It works, but it is not optimal.
The LCR-31 weighs in at 25 pounds. It contains two 6 ½" woofers, one 5 ¼" midrange, and a 1" tweeter. This can handle a greater frequency response than many lower-end full range speakers. The LCR-31 cannot be bi-wired, but no big loss here. It is shielded so that it can be placed on top of or below your direct view TV.
The tweeter is mounted atop the LCR-31 like an eye. Depending on whether I was lying down or sitting up, the sound would localize at the bottom of the picture. To eliminate this and to get the sonic image at the same height of the VR4s, I needed to mount the center above my TV, but a carpenter I am not! I called on the help of my friend Tony, and he and I paid a visit to the local hardware store early one Saturday morning to pick up some supplies to build a stand for the center. The result of this endeavor was a stand that actually hugs the Toshiba TV and is just deep enough for the LCR to sit on top. It's currently a primer white, but I will leave the painting for another weekend.
With the center now mounted above the TV, the imaging was dead-on, and I no longer had the eye (LCR tweeter) in the wrong spot. Pans from left to right were seamless. The intelligibility of dialog from the LCR is better than any THX certified speaker that I have heard so far! This center channel speaker is king of the hill, and it will take something pretty incredible to knock it off. When I am using Tri-field, from the sweet spot, I cannot even tell that the LCR is on. Of course in straight stereo mode, if I move from the sweet spot, the image tends to collapse and the sound tends to move to the same side as I do, but with the center on, it doesn't change!
I spent many hours switching the center on and off, and music still sounded like music when the center was engaged. I have found in the past that many centers speakers tend to take away from the music because of build quality, lower cost parts, or simply being smaller than their L/R counterparts, but not the LCR-31.
The center is able to cover a wide area without a noticeable change in sound. I disconnected all of the channels except the center and played both music and movies. I stood up and sat down, then moved around the room to see if I could find a NULL spot or a drastic change in sound. I was impressed to see that I could walk around and enjoy the LCR-31's sweet music from anywhere in my listening room.
On the side of the LCR is a Vocal Presence Control knob. This allows you to adjust the timbre of the speaker to match other brands of speakers. I only used the LCR with the VR4s, but on some material where I found the LCR to be a little chesty, a slight turn of the knob eliminated this.
TS-310 - Surround Speakers
Unlike in a lot of 5.1 channel home theater systems, the TS-310s are full range surround speakers. Albert believes that it is a waste of space to have small surround speakers on stands. Why not put some oomph into the speakers and use the stand space for a large woofer instead? This is precisely what the TS-310 does; it has a 10" woofer at the base of the speaker. The TS-310s are designed to hug the sidewall of your listening room. They take up very little floor space. They are identical looking to the Tower of Power subwoofers (the bottom photo next to the specifications is what the surround speakers and Tower of Power look like).
The TS-310s are like no other surround speaker I have ever encountered. Bet you have never heard that one before :-) They can operate in three different modes, Dipolar, Direct Radiating, and Albert's PAN (Passive Ambience Network) mode. There is a switch on the back of each surround that allows you to set the mode. The switch is two-way, so the actual mode will depend on wiring. Speaking of wiring, the VSR system requires more speaker wire than any other home theater system I have seen! Not only do you need an extra pair of speaker cable for the VR4s, but also to get the PAN mode up and running, you need a cable to connect the two speakers together. (Trust me, the extra cable is worth it!)
The TS-310s weigh 95 pounds each. They stand 42" high, are 7 ½" deep and 16" wide. There are three solid metal binding posts on each one. The top post is used to connect to the opposite speaker (more on this in a moment), and the bottom pair is the standard positive and negative.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether it is best to have direct firing surrounds that match the left and right front speakers or to have dipolar surrounds. Personally I think there is nothing better than having the same speaker for your surround that you have for your front left and right. Of course it is not always possible, either for price or space. Having a pair of VR4s for surrounds would be an ideal approach in a perfect world, but it would require much more space than I have and also cost a lot more.
The TS-310s produce an amazing sound and take up very little space. They hug the wall and just disappear. While they are not identical to the VR4s, they contain the same drivers as the VR4s for timbre matching. You can have them fire directly at you, and with the flip of a switch, go to dipolar mode (facing them sideways if you like). And, depending on wiring, you can have the PAN mode or a pseudo Tri-pole mode. These speakers are one of a few surrounds that offer the best of both worlds, whether you are listening to mono-surround material via Dolby Pro Logic or 5.1 through Dolby Digital and DTS.
I tried all of the various wiring configurations with the TS speakers, and I found the PAN mode to be the coolest by far. What the PAN mode does is give you a stereo output at each speaker. The portion of the speaker that is directed at the listener consists of a three-way combination using a 10" woofer for the bass and the same midrange and treble drivers from the LCR and VR4s. The sides that face the front and back of your listening room operate in dipole mode. The output of each speaker is actually derived from the other surround speaker. Albert uses a Differential Discriminator Circuit (a QS matrix design from the quad days). The decoding is done inside the speaker and delivers a "MUST-HEAR" performance to be truly appreciated! The effect only works when the rear surrounds are stereo. If you flip the switch on the speakers, they go into straight dipole mode with one exception, the woofer is on.
I found that if you want the best performance when changing modes, you need to re-calibrate the levels. I left the speakers in PAN mode for most of my listening, and that is what they were adjusted for.
Tower of Power - Subwoofers
The Tower of Power or TOP is different than your typical big box sub. Its cabinet takes up very little floor space because it uses two 10" drivers. They face the rear wall rather than the front or floor.
The two drivers have double-thick carbon-impregnated polypropylene cones. By using smaller drivers, the TOP is able to maintain tight control. These two drivers move plenty of air. To power the TOP, Albert is using a modified Sunfire amplifier, similar to the one inside the Sunfire Subs. The amplifier is rated at 800 Watts RMS and can achieve instantaneous peaks of 2600 Watts. To reduce distortion that might be created, an electronic servo (current sensing) is used.
Located on the amplifier, on the back of the sub, are the amplifier controls including volume (I set this by using the internal noise generator in my surround processor and using my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter), a crossover frequency control (a variable frequency knob, but I always prefer using the crossover built into the Meridian processor, so I left the crossover completely clockwise), and phase control. Again, I used the phase control built into my surround processor.
A lot of what you hear in many showrooms is distortion, but I heard none of that here! One might think that the TOPs are not going very low, but they are, and it is just something most people are not used to . . . i.e., clean bass. For our tests, Von Schweikert sent two TOPs just in case I wanted more bass(?!?!) In my living room, one TOP would have been fine since all of the other speakers are full range.
I connected one TOP as the LFE/Mono sub and the other as a surround sub. I must say that I have never heard or felt thunderous bass as that on the Apollo 13 DTS LD. As Apollo 13 took off, I could almost see the shock wave coming at me, and feel it pass through me. It was quite amazing. My couch felt like it had transducers mounted to it. Using one as the surround sub made all the difference in the world. The Surrounds each have a 10" so you know they rock, but that extra sub in the back was incredible.
My next wiring configuration was with both as the LFE/Mono sub. The Apollo 13 Launch was not quite the same, the bass was still there, but the shock wave was not as potent.
The subs stand 42" tall with the amplifier on the bottom and the two woofers on the top. I was afraid that with so much air being moved, they would shift their position in the room. That never happened, and the subs stood perfectly still even when they were rocking the foundation. They have been designed to be placed 5" from the wall, so they virtually disappear, and you can hide them behind the main speakers as I did in my final placement. I put one behind each of the VR4s, although they were wired as mono/LFE subs.
How did the subs do on music? They added that extra bottom end, and because I had them spread across the room, they also helped tame some of those room modes. But their music prowess was dependent on which amplifier I was using to drive the main speakers. For 99% of all my listening, I used the Sunfire Cinema Grand to drive all the speakers, and for about 3 weeks, I used the Sunfire Signature two-channel amplifier to drive just the VR4s. Either way, the mains integrated with the subs like they were one speaker.
When I substituted a Krell for the Sunfire, the subs felt like they moved a bit slower. After all, the Krell's bass is running at warp 9, which is unlike just about any other amp. Although the TOP's bass is some of the quickest I have ever heard, the built-in Sunfire is no match for the speed of the Krell (nor is it a match in price). Now this was only noticeable in music and it was not distracting, but I am just trying to make some comparisons. I could not really discern any difference between amplifiers during my movie viewing.
I only encountered one problem with the TOPs. I began my evaluation using the Meridian 565 as the surround processor. After the first month I swapped out the 565 for the Meridian 861. When the 861 was in standby mode, one of the subs would turn on and off every 15 minutes or so. To be sure it was not the processor, I swapped the sub connections. Again, that same sub would still turn on and off using the other sub output. It seems that the sensitivity on the TOPs has a slight variance. In my final configuration, I piggybacked one sub off the other and this problem went away.
One thing that would have been nice is having an on/off switch on the subwoofer. When I unplug it, I can hear the amplifier cut off, and the woofer goes "thump" one last time. I noticed this because I tried the subwoofer in numerous positions and had to plug and unplug it several times. In normal use, you would plug it in once and leave it, so this would not be a big deal. Of course, eliminating turnoff thump requires an extra capacitor in the circuit, so there's always the argument that no additional caps means better sound.
Calibrating it all
After placing the three front speakers in an arc, trying to get them all an equal distance from my listen position, I next placed the TS-310s directly to the side of my couch, with about 4' on each side of the couch. I placed both subs near the right wall in-between the Right VR4 and the Right TS-310. I left them here for half of my listening experience, with the front sub being the main Center/Mono/LFE sub and the rear being the surround sub. I eventually moved the subs behind the VR4s, one behind each.
After getting all the speakers right where I wanted them, I placed my side room tune acoustic material. I walked around the room looking for reflections from the left, center, and right speakers. I placed three room tune strips along each sidewall.
Now that I had taken care of the basic acoustic problems, I proceeded to calibrate the levels using the built-in noise generator in the Meridian 861. The 861 also allowed me to adjust the phase of each speaker and combination of speakers as well as any timing delays because of speaker distance.
Once I was happy with all of my settings, it was time to get down to business.
Listening to music
The real test of any home theater system is music. You watch/listen to films all day long, but you never really know how accurate everything is. After all, films are put together in pieces with artificial sounds.
I used a few of my standard music CDs including Holly Cole, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Matchbox 20, Sheryl Crow, Everclear, Tori Amos, Rhapsody in Blue, and a few more.
When playing the new Jewel CD "Spirit" [Atlantic 82950 WEA], and the song title, "Hands", I experienced something that I had to repeat just to be sure I was not hallucinating. For most of the song, her voice is placed about 5' off of the floor. At the point where she sings, "I get down on my knees" The music stayed at the same height while her voice lowered. She was singing on her knees in my living room. After a few more verses, she stood back up. Now that is pinpoint soundstaging accuracy if I have ever heard it!
I have found that a woman's voice is excellent for hearing the fine detail from a speaker. Holly Cole's CD, "Don't smoke in bed" [EMI-Manhattan 81198] contains her remake of "I can see clearly now." This is my favorite version of the song. The bass is very natural sounding, and she just stands in front of the instruments. You can feel each musician in the room and "see" exactly where they stand. Several tracks on this CD have really fast moving bass that can expose just how good or bad your amplifier and speakers are at reproducing it. This is where the Krell outperformed the Sunfire. The TOPS, when using the Krell, could not keep the same pace as the rest of the speakers, being driven by the Krell power amplifier. When I used the Sunfire for the VR4s, the TOPS integrated without a problem (obviously an excellent match, since all amplification was with Sunfire).
One thing you will notice about the VSR system is the lack of distortion that otherwise might seem like more bass. If you want to hear some monstrous bass from these speakers - and I mean REAL bass, not just a load of harmonics - the first track on Paula Cole's CD "This Fire" [Image 46424 WEA] will blow you away! The track is called "Tiger."
Another one of my favorites is a track that has not gotten much play on the radio yet. It is called, "UR" from the new Alanis Morissette CD, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" [Maverick 47094 WEA]. The song really shows off just how good she is, and how good the VSRs are at letting you know how good she is.
So, what about movies?
The DTS LD of "Apollo 13" is a great test for any home theater system. The visceral bass will wake your neighbors, so make sure they aren't members of the NRA if you plan to crank this movie. The only thing that comes close to this is, or was, the actual launch of Apollo 13! Like I mentioned in the beginning of this review, it felt like I had transducers mounted to the bottom of my couch. I could feel the shockwave when the rockets kicked in. If I had been constipated, this would have cured it right away.
I also like to listen to the Diva scene from "The Fifth Element". Her voice is rendered with amazing detail. This scene is very well mixed, with her singing and some nice fight sequences (ahh, movies!) The person who edited this piece deserves some serious praise.
I have watched more scenes from movies than actual movies. It's funny, when people come over we almost never watch an entire movie, but we might watch two hours worth of piecemeal footage from various films. Another favorite scene of mine to show off the sound effects is from "First Knight". It's the scene where Richard Gere runs the gauntlet. The sounds of the wood cracking are very lifelike. Great Foley effects here!
The intro to "Desperado" where Antonio Banderas is shooting up the bar has some nice directional effects. You feel like you are in the middle of the action and want to grab your chest to see if any of the little red bags of red colored water have burst.
There is one problem with the VSR: The Truth! The VSRs will give you what is there, and they do not mask anything. I have found many other speakers tend to hide the truth. What this means is that when you are listening to a movie, if the editors had to redo the dialog during a seen using ADR (automatic dialog replacement), you will know it. A good example of this can be found on the Criterion LD version of "Lawrence of Arabia". There is a scene where the actors are in this large hall, and you can hear the room acoustics very well. Then for a moment when Lawrence is talking, it sounds like he is in a closet. This is due to ADR being used for the restoration of the film and some additional scenes were added that had been deleted from the original theater release. Peter O'Toole had to respeak the lines from the deleted scenes since the original voice recording had been lost.
I like hearing the truth, even if it is distracting. This will force sound editors to work harder on reproducing a believable experience. I hope more speakers come to market that have sworn to tell the truth and the whole truth, so help them Rumplestiltskin. The end result will be better sound mixes.
Meridian 565/861 Surround Processor
Theta Surround Processor
Sunfire Cinema Grand Five Channel Power Amplifier
Sunfire Signature Stereo Power Amplifier
Krell KAV Home Theater Amplifier
Panasonic LD-10 Portable DVD player
Sony S-7000 DVD player
Meridian 508.24 CD player
Pioneer Elite CLD-97 LD player
Nordost Red Dawn Speaker and Interconnect Cables
Nordost Moon Glow Digital Cables
Toshiba TW40F80 16:9 TV
I have experienced one of the finest sounding home theater and music speaker systems on the planet. The end result is a combination of the source, processor, amplification, and speakers. While I did get a different sound when I substituted various surround processors and amplifiers, the overall performance was always outstanding.
I have not heard a finer speaker system in my home. If you want to experience audio nirvana, you must audition the VSR home theater speaker system at you're nearest VSR dealer, where I am sure, you will be as impressed as I was.
Stacey L. Spears
© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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