Over a year ago at this writing, I first heard about Von Schweikert Audio’s new VR-44 Aktive on a Von Schweikert Audio-sponsored forum on the Audio Circle Web site, where it was announced that the VR-44 was to be veteran designer Albert Von Schweikert’s response to the hi-res revolution in speakers that has lately garnered a lot of positive attention. These hi-res speakers boast substantial, sophisticated cabinets to control resonance, in the main have proprietary drivers, and provide presentations that are arguably neutral with extension into the frequency extremes. Yet, most of them, at 4-ohm nominal impedances with sensitivities in the mid-to-high 80s, require amplification beyond the level of low-to-medium-power tube amps. Into the breach steps the VR-44 Aktive, expressly designed for lovers of valves. Being a longtime fan and owner of Von Schweikert speakers (a pair of VR-5 SEs has been my longstanding reference), I was thrilled with the news, but wondered if Albert Von Schweikert, an old pro, had gone too far, sacrificing the organicism I loved for neutrality and something called “high-performance,” building an overly complex transducer partly dependent on what I read were “powered woofers.” I called him up, we had a long, reassuring chat, and I quickly agreed to request a review as soon as the speaker got into production. After its promising debut at RMAF 2011, TAS editor Robert Harley assigned it to me.
After some months with it, I can confidently say that the VR- 44 Aktive ($25,000) is sophisticated, oftentimes startling, and so different from any speaker I’ve ever had in my listening room, that it challenged the way I listened and set up my system, while also taking on the best I had to give it in the way of music and electronics. It rewarded me with superb sound on a completely new level than I was accustomed to. This is an exciting speaker, powerful and yet capable of highly nuanced playback.
A four-way, single-cabinet design, the VR-44 replaces the long-standing VR-4—a speaker that has had a production run of over a decade—in VSA’s lineup. While preserving the traditional VSA quasi-transmission line approach that uses chambered labyrinths for the midrange (sealed) and woofers (ported), the VR-44 Aktive incorporates new technology in cabinet-wall construction, boasts completely new O.E.M. drivers, and reintroduces self-powered woofers for the first time since the VSA dB-99 in 2004. Like the old VR-4, the VR-44 has a cabinet both large and deep, measuring 41" tall x 13" wide at the bottom and 9" wide at the top, with a depth of 27". Unlike the two-box VR-4, however, the new speaker mounts all the drivers in the same, handsomely chamfered front baffle that flares at the bottom for the woofers and tapers neatly at the top around the midrange and tweeter. In addition, the raked-back design of the baffle timealigns the front-firing drivers. The form factor vaguely resembles that of the Sony SS-AR1, except the VSA speaker’s cabinets are 8" deeper. A smidge of that depth is taken up by the 8" x 5" x 1.75" black-painted metal heatsinks that jut like a cage from the speaker’s bottom rear. These heatsinks cool the amps tucked within the woofer cabinet. (By the way, there is a VR-44 Passive version without powered woofers at $22,000.) Per speaker, its weight is considerable—165 pounds. Sensitivity is distinctly tube-friendly at 90dB/8-ohms, while claimed frequency response is 16Hz to 40kHz, +/-6dB, 20Hz to 30kHz +/- 3dB (1dB in the midband). Standard available finishes are a Steinway piano-black and a Mercedes platinum-silver (custom automotive finishes on request). I’ve had both finishes in my room and can attest to their smoothness, glossy sheen, and attractive depth. The paint jobs are first-rate.
The dense cabinets employ a patent-pending “triple-wall” laminated construction exclusive to VSA, using three layers of differing materials and pioneered in 2009 by the UniField 3 speakers which I reviewed for another magazine. First, the outer walls are fashioned out of HDF in thicknesses from 1" to 3". To these, VSA adds a layer of plasticene damping throughout the inner walls. Finally, blocks of artificial stone are carefully laid over the plasticene throughout the inside of the cabinet. The three different materials possess opposing “Q” factors, canceling each other as they resonate at different frequencies, and produce a cabinet as fully inert as I’ve run across. Under a simple knucklerap test, the cabinets feel completely solid and never ring.
The VR-44 Aktive’s four different drivers are made in Scandinavia to VSA specifications. They are carefully matched in transient-response speed and low distortion characteristics, and are engineered to work together without tonal differences. The woofers are twin 8.8" ceramic-coated aluminum and magnesium alloy cones damped with an additional layer of electrostaticallyapplied oxide powder. The 6" midrange driver is made from carbon-fiber and cellulose-acetate pulp, with a liquid PVC coating to reduce cone breakup. Interestingly, the midrange can handle a huge swath of signal from 51Hz to 12kHz, and it’s deployed in a unique manner in the VR-44 design—something I’ll explain later. The dimpled 1" tweeter is the latest dual ring-radiator from Denmark that boasts a diaphragm pressed from a special fabric impregnated with liquid PVC. The PVC ensures a rigid shape that will not deform under high acceleration. Behind the tweet is a chamber filled with a damping material to absorb the rear wave. Finally, in keeping with the VSA tradition, near the top rear of each cabinet is a rubberized-linen 1" mid-tweeter designed to suggest more soundstage depth. Mounted inside of a waveguide, the tweet has level controls accessed on the lower rear of the cabinet.
The crossover is technically fourth-order but features firstorder 6dB/octave slopes at the leading edge of the filter frequencies, which then steepen to 24dB/octave at the second octave. VSA claims this technique reduces distortion caused by excess modulation. The design divides frequencies, but it also has phase compensation, time-alignment, and equalization among drivers to level their outputs to a standard flat response. Simply put, the crossover is four circuits combined into one circuit. All the drivers are wired in positive absolute polarity and in phase with each other. Zobel conjugate networks (shunts to ground) servo-control the motional driver impedances in order to create a flat 8-ohm load for more linear operation. Internal parts are of the highest quality. Capacitors are from V-Cap, Clarity, and Mundorf. The foil resistors are also Mundorf. Solen supplies the inductors. The hookup wire is Delphi Aerospace single crystal copper with Teflon insulation. Crossover points are spaced widely apart—the low at 100Hz and high at 4kHz—to take advantage of the near-full-range driver used as a midrange. But, in integrating the mid, the crossover points actually start at 60Hz at the bottom end and 4kHz at the top—before the filters hit their target descent rate.
Along with the wide frequency handling of the midrange driver, by far the most intriguing aspect of the VR-44 Aktive is its powered woofers. Expressly designed for use in concert with low-to-moderate-output tube amps (20W–60W), this unique VSA approach employs a 300W amp within the woofer cabinet that boosts the power of whatever amplifier you use, taking from that amp its first gain stage and, theoretically, also its tonal character. This internal plate amp of the Aktive has no driver stage of its own and also no RCA jack connecting it to the preamp the way a subwoofer has, but instead functions only as a power booster in an integrated loop with your main amp.