181 Miles for a Volt Meter
181 Miles for a Volt Meter
Jon T. Gale
21 August 2002
Road trips, even in middle age; I still love ’em1 . But this was not your ordinary consumption of mass quantities, hedonistic behavior road trip. This was a consumption of mass quantities, hedonistic behavior road trip to visit an acoustically like-minded reviewer, Greg Weaver. While a long time in coming, this visit was still a rather spur of the moment decision.
For many years, I’ve known Greg to highly value, as I do, the merits of acoustically treating the listening space. And with some privately made positive comments about the new Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Gen. III Hovland Special Edition loudspeaker and Spectron Musician II amplifier, Greg had piqued my interest. In turn, I have been making some noise about the Manley Snapper monoblock amplifiers and Portal Panache integrated amplifier that had sparked similar interest with him. The final factor (and as everyone knows, any worthwhile road trip needs a “deciding” aspect) was that I would be taking possession of this very same loudspeaker very shortly.
We decided then and there2, that it just may be a fascinating and worthwhile experience to listen to a similar assortment of equipment in different, but intricately treated, environments. The chance to hear a particular piece of equipment, especially a large loudspeaker, in two or more controlled environments will certainly allow for a much more comprehensive understanding of what it is doing, and should therefore result in a much better review accordingly. With that, a change of clothes, one pint of Glenlevet single malt and some finer tobacco, I was off!
Approximately an hour into the listening session, my visit had drastically changed in tone if not purpose. I certainly was not expecting this level of performance3. But what I was hearing, and what was to follow, was simply one of the top five audio experiences of my life!
Firstly, it was fascinating to hear an environment set up by a different yet educated ear. Using differing acoustical tools and theory, Greg’s end result offered much the same sonic qualities as my own room. While I use Tube Traps and Flat Traps arrayed about the room in strategic fashion, Greg uses foam products configured in a modified Live End-Dead End (LEDE) set-up. The main difference appears in the reverberation time of our respective rooms. While I think I may obtain a bit more imaging precision, Greg’s room has a quite, quite beguiling “openness” at and behind the listening position that I would gladly trade a bit of my precision for.
The next difference is in room-related bass response. Greg’s room is a conventional wood-framed living area that vents into other portions of the house. The advantage of this is the lack of severe standing wave build-up, with virtually no masking of the vital low-level midrange signal. The downside is, while there was plenty of bass in the room, there was a certain amount of low-end “heft” missing from the room that I am accustomed to with my room due to the minimal room support. Conversely, my room is a basement, which can tend to overly support standing waves, causing a lumpy, bloated bass and the attendant masking of the midrange. Hence my heavy reliance upon Tube Traps! I’m sure Greg will have to acclimate himself, as I did, when he is exposed to the bass response of my room during his upcoming visit. Oh, to have the response “in between” our two rooms! Overall though, from the midrange upwards, our rooms are spookily similar.
And what a different animal the VSA VR-4 Gen III SE is! While I reserve final judgment until I have the VR4 SE in my room, I must say that I’m not sure I have ever heard a better top end from any speaker to date. So deep in ambient trail, so pure and uncongested is the upper octaves of this special edition VSA speaker. The closest analogy I can make is the wonderfully creamy treble of the ProAc line of loudspeakers, but with all of the detail one should ever want4. With the VR-4s spread wide, they just seemed to effortlessly put forth a sonic vista that at times totally removed the room from the equation. Coupled with the Spectron Musician II amp, this system played any genre of music I threw at it. Chet Atkins was virtually in the room with us. Some Yello remixes I brought threatened to pummel the room into dust. And I still cannot get over what this speaker and amp combo did for massed strings! But the best was left for last. A remastered Dire Straights LP with the lights down low. Thanks for that one Greg!
The Portal Panache integrated offered a rather good showing also, keeping the same basic tonality and exhibiting a wonderfully liquid midrange. The Manley Snappers at first fared less well. Exhibiting a bright, grainy presentation, decidedly NOT what I obtain from pairing them with my Coincident Total Eclipse loudspeakers. As it had been about a month since I had last checked the biasing of the tubes, Greg was immediately at hand with a volt meter. Sure enough, all four of the EL-34’s in each chassis were running a bit high in the bias; several had drifted as much as 30% higher than optimal. Now dialed in, it was a completely different amplifier. While not quite being up to driving the VR4’s deep into the bass, it delivered certain strengths in the midrange that was especially flattering to close miked performances, making them quite special in their own way5.
All in all, this turned out to be a fascinating visit on many levels, both for me personally and my alter ego hobbyist. Besides, during the lunch break, driving around town, I decided it was pretty cool to visit a guy who tools around in his aging Turbo Mercedes, complete with compound loaded subwoofer, booming Beethoven as he bombs down the road.
Entertaining an Audiophile on a Mission
When Jon first said he was going to be able to visit, I was thrilled. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time6 and, though I have many friends here in South Bend, none of them were really seasoned audiophiles. As I was so excited by what was going on with the Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Gen III SEs and the Spectron Musician II, I wanted to have someone with a diverse background give them a listen and see why I had been raving to all my audio friends.
His arrival at 9:00 a.m. that Saturday took me by surprise, as I hadn’t expected him until noon. But, by 9:45 the Manley Snappers were plugged in and warming up. Jon sat down, we hit the play button and the game was literally afoot.
Within about an hour, Jon’s look changed from one of determination to one of sheer delight and slight confusion. He had been sure he would be able to cause the Gen III SEs to falter. Yet, try as he might, he was unable to find any significant flaw. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I brought lots of stuff to trip ’em up.”
When I pointed out the differences between the stock Gen III and the HSE version, I could see Jon was very interested. First, the tweeter is the new $450 Scan-Speak R2904-700000, which is used in only one other commercially available loudspeaker at this time, the $37,500 Krell LAT-1! To say this is a special tweeter would be an understatement.
The SE version of the Gen III substitutes a cleverly modified Audax Aeorgel midrange for the Vifa/Scan-Speak that is used in the stock version. Albert makes changes to the dust cap and the resonating chamber behind the motor structure. The differences are dramatic, with microdynamics now being handled with a deftness I’ve not heard in my home before. There is a tonal balance and a purity here that is indisputable. And talk about resolution and detail! This is one seriously over-achieving loudspeaker that has no business selling for $6,000. The VR 4 Gen III HSE easily bests speakers I’ve heard recently in the $12,000 to $15,000 price range. No joke! Ask Jon.
Well, after a good two hours, it was time to try the Manley Snappers. Jon had told me that he had not rebiased these gorgeous looking 100-watt monoblocks that are based on the EL-34 output tube since he had gotten them, but we wanted to see how they sounded as they stood. More than adequately warmed up, we swapped out the Musician II for the Snappers.
The first thing that was evident was the superbly delineated and recreated midrange. The voices of female singers, pianos and violins were so liquid and solid you could just about touch them. However, starting in the upper midrange and continuing on up through he highest frequencies, there was a disassociated and grainy texture. Bass, deep bass, was almost non-existent, and midbass was slurred and slow sounding. Time for that fabled Volt meter!
Jon had forwarded me the web site from the Manley page that had the biasing spec’s for the EL-34’s, and soon we had them all idling within 0.1% of the specified 275 mV, just as Eve Anna intended. I must say, in all fairness to the previously noted performance, each of the 4 EL-34’s per chassis had drifted at least 10% high. Some were as much as 30% higher than the specified 275 mV. I suspected that this would have had an effect on the amps overall performance, but couldn’t have guessed how much.
Rebiased and idling back at factory spec, they went back into the fray. The resultant sound was much better now, in fact, it sounded like a different amplifier. Glass heads out there, take note. Though the amp sounded much better, there was still an unwelcome taste of the grain in the upper registers and no real deep bass7. Voices were now recreated majestically, piano, guitar and other midrange voiced instruments just hauntingly portrayed. Very seductive, but…for this listener, not enough so to give up the extension at the lower end and the finer resolve in the upper registers I have grown used to.
Next up, it was time for the $1799 Portal Panache integrated amplifier. Wow! This little guy knows how to handle a pair of loudspeakers. It offers wonderfully tuneful bass, nice, if somewhat over-energized, treble and has a delectable balance. On the downside, it did get a bit congested with complex material, but at this asking price, and with a preamp thrown in, who could really complain? Jon and I stepped outside to take a cigarette break and I mentioned that the Panache reminded me sonically of the old Forté 4. The Forté 4 was a 50 Wpc amplifier8 that was built by InConcert, a division Threshold, the Nelson Pass amplifier company of the late Eighties and early Nineties. The Panache is a really fine product, operating with much of the definition of its name. I know many budding audiophiles who will find this the perfect way to start their high-end odyssey.
Then, it was time to put the Musician II back to task. Jon tried for a total of thirteen hours that Saturday to fault the Gen III SEs, and while paired to the Spectron, he just kept scratching his chin and putting on disc after disc after disc. It was a beautiful evening of music, and I greatly enjoyed the new music Jon was introducing me to. I really enjoy the opportunity of having someone drop by with his or her own music; it gives me a chance to expand my horizons. I have found it the best way to grow my music collection.
About 8:30, my cell phone rang and it was none other than the creator of the Gen III HSE, Albert Von Schweikert himself. I shouldn’t have, but I decided to toy with the loudspeaker Maestro. “Albert,” I said, “Jon doesn’t like your SEs!” “What?” he exclaimed. I could hear the surprise and tension in his response. I couldn’t do it. “No, he doesn’t like them. He loves them!” We both laughed and I handed the phone to Jon. They talked for a while, and before the conversation was over, Albert promised that Jon’s pair, only the second pair available out in the real world, would be on their way to him the following Monday.
We retired to my theater after another hour or so of listening to watch part of one of my favorite films, Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved, which deals with the mystery surrounding Ludwig Van Beethoven’s death and last will and testament. About 11:30, I bid Jon goodnight, and we called it an evening.
Jon was able to stay some of Sunday morning before heading home to his family, which found me hosting our local group for our regular Formula One party; this week it was the eleventh race of the season, the French Grand Prix from Magny-Cours. It was an outstanding event in that Michael Schumacher won the race, clinching his fifth Formula One World Championship and tying, for the very first time in F1 history, Juan Manuel Fangio’s 45-year-old record. It was history in the making; much like the Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Generation III SE and the Spectron Musician II. These are two VERY SPECIAL and noteworthy products that, to this listener, represent serious milestones in my 30-year travel toward higher fidelity. Full reviews coming on both. Enjoy!
1 I REALLY love to drive. And I have yet to have a vehicle with an automatic transmission.
2 Actually, it was deep into the evening and a pint of single malt that we decided on this series of articles. But I would be getting ahead of myself!
3 Of the VSA models I have heard, I have always put them in the same category as Theil. I respect them from a distance, but have never really loved them.
4 And I deliberately brought decidedly un-audiophile recordings! Figuring Greg had the audiophile thing covered, I just brought my every day, good time listening records.
5 Review coming soon, promise!
6 Jon and I first met at the Stereophile show in May of 1999, though we had appreciated each other’s work from afar for some time.
7 It should be noted that the attributes I am describing here are, in my opinion, are common to most tube amplifiers in my experience. Not all, but most.
8 The Forté 4 was the first amp that utilized the Insulated-Gate Bipolar Transistor, known colloquially as the IGBIT.
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