The field of floor-standing loudspeakers priced around $2500/pair MSRP is crowded. Luckily for the consumer, it is crowded with quality. Having owned several examples in the past and recently switching from the Revel F30 to the PSB Stratus Gold, I once again possess a pair of speakers in that category as my reference.
The speakers under review, namely the Von Schweikert VR-2s, have an MSRP of $2495. They arrived double boxed with the speakers themselves enclosed in a full-length velvet bag. The impression of quality continues once you actually disrobe the speaker and its stunning fit and finish are revealed.
The pair I received was in the African Hazelwood finish, a veneer resembling natural cherry, but with a striking medium brown grain pattern much like rosewood. The Von Schweikert website describes the African Hazelwood as medium brown with a rosewood grain pattern, but to me, they look lighter than what I would typically describe as medium and redder than what I would typically describe as brown. Don't get me wrong; it is not an easy thing to describe with complete accuracy so I'll just say they looked really nice, and everyone who saw them commented as such.
The other three finishes available are blond maple, dark red cherry, and black ash. I did not care for black ash because the cabinetwork on these speakers and the quality of the veneer catapults them into the “expensive-furniture-quality” category, and black just won't do them justice.
Taking a look around the speaker itself, the first thing you notice is the small driver mounted on the top rear of the cabinet. According to Von Schweikert, this driver is a mid/tweeter that is fed an out-of-phase ambient signal. Its output is the signal that the recording microphone would receive behind the microphone, i.e., the out-of-phase reflections coming from the back of the hall. The one-inch soft dome driver, loaded with a wave-guide, reproduces a signal that is designed to be reflected off of the wall behind the speaker. The level is controlled by the calibrated Dimension Control knob mounted at the rear of the cabinet beneath the WBT-looking five-way binding posts.
Another thing immediately apparent is just how compact the speakers are. You just don't equate its modest physicality with its claimed frequency extension down to 25 Hz. While its dimensions are compact, it weighs in at a hefty 66 pounds. The VR-2 also has a compartment on the underside that they suggest you fill with either 20 pounds of sand or 30 pounds of lead shot. Let's just say these speakers get seriously, deceptively heavy (I used lead shot) so please do your body a favor and figure out where they should be placed before adding the extra weight. The black plinth attaches to the underside, giving the speakers a very finished appearance as well as serving to decouple the speaker from the floor, thus aiding both image focus (a subjective characteristic that simply means the sound is coming from the speaker rather than the speaker and the floor vibrating) and bass response (because low frequency energy is not being transferred from the speaker to the floor).
I have been using a Rotel RSX-1055 to power my speakers for the last few months and the VR-2s seemed to really like this receiver. At 75 WPC, the Rotel is not the beast that some separates are, but it seems an honest 75 WPC and drove the VR-2s quite well. I could tell that the VR-2s would have liked more power though. I have a very large room, and 200 WPC is probably more in-line with my needs so the speakers were possibly a bit deprived, but the manufacturer's website claims as few as 20 WPC will suffice. While I don't doubt 20 watts of amplifier power would drive these speakers to listenable levels, I would not suggest less than 50 watts to get a reasonable volume.
In comparison to the PSB Stratus Gold, the VR-2s were not as effortlessly loud as the volume went up. What began to happen was the midrange on the VR-2 began to take on a more forward character. Interestingly, once I experienced that, I noticed that at any volume, the midrange was ever so slightly forward. Indeed, this was very slight and I mention it not as a flaw, but as a trait.
Nonetheless, the consistent listenability of these speakers never faltered. One thing immediately noticeable about this speaker is the quickness of the sound. While ostensibly looking like so many speakers around this price range, the sound is very different. There is nothing box-sounding about this speaker. The sound is very quick and immediate. There is a nuance I hope to convey here because by immediacy, I do not at all mean the overemphasis of dynamics or high frequencies out of pace with the rest of the frequency response. While very dynamic in their own right, the VR-2s do not shout at you, but rather, seductively invite you in and maintain an organic wholeness that so many speakers lack.
One of my first listening experiences with the VR-2s came the night I watched "Punch Drunk Love" on DVD. If you want to hear your speakers do some amazing things, get this movie, turn down the lights, turn off the phone, and be prepared to be impressed (at least with the sound). You will be especially impressed if the speaker cabinets say “VR-2.”
Now keep in mind I have a two-channel set up. Ten minutes into the movie, I realized there was a lot of information in the mix. So I'm watching the movie with a friend and I remembered the rear-firing drivers, which were set at “0.” I stopped the movie and walked over to each speaker and set the knobs to 5, the halfway point. I resumed the movie and it took all of two minutes for them to work their particular brand of magic. The speakers were placed about three feet from the wall behind them and created decent soundstage depth up to that point. But now? I am not exaggerating when I say that the wall behind them ceased to exist. It was actually difficult to watch the movie because every few minutes my jaw would drop, as I simply had never had this kind of involvement in the sound of a movie I watched at home. In some ways I was taken out of the movie itself because of my more technically-based awe, but awe is good . . . awe is very good.
It was very windy in Los Angeles the night I watched this movie, and I was not at all prepared for what was to come. Beyond the awe, I actually stopped the movie a few times because I heard sounds which I was convinced were coming from right outside my house. After the movie ended all I could think was, “Wow!” My subsequent experience playing videogames on the Xbox using these speakers left me with a similar impression.
The next day I was anxious to try some music, the movie experience fresh in my mind. I put on Cat Steven's “Teaser and the Firecat,” jumping straight to track 3, “If I Laugh. “ I had planned to clean up my house a bit, but as soon as I heard that guitar, I had to sit down. Immediately apparent was the VR-2's ability to convey, with near perfection, the attack characteristics of a guitar string.
Of course, there is much more to the record than just acoustic guitar. The midrange tends to be a strength of any Cat Steven's record, and the center image is usually very well defined if your speakers are properly set up. The VR-2s are very easy to place because any re-positioning is immediately audible.
I ended up preferring having the tweeters cross just behind my head. This seemed to give the most precise center image while maintaining the critical soundstage width. After a few songs, I noticed the midrange was not at all forward as I had noted previously. Strange, I thought, because the remasters of Cat Steven's are slightly midrange-forward in my experience. I then remembered the rear-firing drivers; they were still set to 5 from the night before. So, I turned the Dimension Control knob back to 0. The midrange was now forward, but not in a bad way, probably exactly as the mastering engineer intended it to be.
In effect, the rear-firing driver can change the balance of the recording, and I was previously against user-affected controls such as this because I have firsthand experience of the many hours of struggle spent in the mastering studio trying to properly balance a recording.
The room is the most important component in any system, and ironically, is the one thing that is usually given the least attention and the one we are least likely to change. To have some degree of tunability at your disposal is very useful, and I have been supportive of this kind of customization ever since I heard the Tact RCS system at CES a few years ago. While certainly not on that level, the VR-2 Dimension Control knob is an effective tool towards the same end, i.e., balancing the sound of the speakers to the environment in which they live. Beyond that, as I mentioned earlier, the rear driver gives a soundstage depth which might be otherwise impossible to achieve.
While the midrange is usually given the most weight in terms of a speaker's effectiveness at creating a life-like presentation, both the high and low frequencies, if not believable in their own right, can absolutely bury whatever else a speaker does correctly. The VR-2 has a simply amazing soft-dome tweeter. It has an inherent rightness to it and is able to straddle a very fine line. There exists an airiness and ease about it as it stops short of piercing you with its dynamics and at the same time is seeming unlimited in its ability to convey those dynamics, but in an exceedingly musical, listenable way.
While lacking a large diameter bass driver, the VR-2 is somehow able to go incredibly low when called upon and will surprise you time and time again. The bass tends to be punchy rather than full, but as with the midrange, I term this a trait rather than a flaw. The PSB certainly fills my room with quantitatively more bass from its 10" woofer, but the qualitative question is completely a matter of preference. Because the VR-2 is so quick to respond to the incoming musical signal, it is also quick to let go, and in the case of the bass, this tended to leave me wishing the bass stayed a little longer. This is a decay characteristic and again, is just my preference.
The Von Schweikert VR-2 is a serious competitor in its price range. Its
neutrality and listenability are a wonderful combination, and the quality
of its construction as well as finish are superior to many of its competition.
The addition of the rear tweeter separates it from most of the speakers in
the market, as it allows a tunability and expansion of the soundstage that
is usually beyond the capability of any conventional speaker. It is equally suited to
the demands of movie, videogame, and music playback, and in that light, can
be seen as a true bargain. With the VR-2, Von Schweikert has on its hands
a “must listen” product.