It’s always fascinating to see what speaker makers come up with when cost is no object.
I’m not referring to the many models out there that use expensive drivers, top-shelf parts or intricate cabinets. No, we’re talking real budget-be-damned, are-you-freaking-kidding-me, I’m-not-worthy designs.
There aren’t a lot of these super-extreme speakers out there, because even in the high-end, these are not the models most manufacturers are going to be sending out the door very often.
Actually encountering one of these dream creations playing music is about as rare as spying Bigfoot having breakfast. For AXPONA 2017, however, Von Schweikert Audio bravely transported its hulking new world-beater, the Ultra 11, to Chicago.
The Riverside, Calif.-based company rented a very large room with show partner Valve Amplification Co. to show off the Ultra. Including the Shockwave V12 subwoofers, the total price tag on the loudspeakers as displayed was $318,000 ($295,000 for a pair of Ultra 11s and $11,500 each for the Shockwaves).
“About four-and-a-half years ago, we had a customer who owned our previous flagship ask us what we could do if there was no price point to hit,” CEO Damon Von Schweikert told me.
“We developed a one-off for him. We got really excited doing that. So, we said, ‘We’ve got to re-do the flagship.’ ”
The result was the Ultra 11, which measures an imposing 90 inches tall, 21 inches wide and 30 inches deep. Bandwidth is listed as 10 Hz to 100 kHz and sensitivity is 92dB.
Each channel is time-aligned and consists of two 15-inch sealed subwoofers powered by 1,000-watt amps, four 9-inch reinforced ceramic mid-bass drivers, two 7-inch reinforced ceramic midranges, two beryllium tweeters and two 5-inch aluminum ribbon super tweeters (one rear-firing).
“The defining trait of the Ultra 11 is ultra-low distortion,” Von Schweikert said. “We looked at every possible area — cabinet, drivers, signal path and crossover.”
The Ultra 11 also includes point-to-point, hand-built networks with isolated architecture and version 2.0 of Von Schweikert’s Aktive cabinet vibration control.
At about 3 p.m. on the final day in Chicago, I finally got to enjoy an extended demo of these imposing speakers. (Von Schweikert recommends them for “mid-size to larger rooms.” As if!)
The audition featured a pre-production lacquer of jazz singer Lyn Stanley’s new “Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 1.” Spinning the metal-edged platter was the singer herself and VAC’s Kevin Hayes.
“We cut this using the one-step process,” Stanley explained to about two dozen attendees. The technique involves going straight from the master tape to the stamper, cutting out several steps.
Stanley and Hayes played a track that was a mashup of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” and Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor.”
On the Ultra 11, the combination of one-step and the speaker’s extremely low noise floor produced a background that was so quiet it sounded digital. But Stanley’s voice had the texture and warmth of analog.
The Ultra 11 produced life-size, full-bodied instrumental images, arranged precisely on a wide, deep soundstage. The extraordinary bandwidth portrayed percussion with polish and air, and bass had both tunefulness and extreme depth without being overbearing.
There was the power of a full jazz combo, but also an ease and liquidity to the overall presentation. If I had to use a single word to describe what this no-holds-barred flagship sounded like, it would be this: live.
Granted, Stanley the person was present. But, apart from that, the recorded Stanley — through some impressive VAC gear and the Ultra 11s — also was just as convincingly in the room. It was a very impressive illusion.
VAC, for its part, provided its Statement 450 iQ monoblock amps ($120,000 a pair), Statement line stage ($75,000) and Statement phono stage ($80,000).
Vinyl was played on a Kronos Audio Pro turntable ($38,000) with a Kronos SCPS-1 power supply ($13,500), an Andre Theriault Black Beauty tonearm ($8,500) and a ZYX Audio Ultimate 4D cartridge ($4,400).
Other associated products included tube traps from Acoustic Sciences Corp. ($26,000 worth), a rebuilt Technics 1520 reel-to-reel tape deck from J-Corder ($14,000), racks by Artesania Audio and Ultra Line cable from MasterBuilt Audio.
Overall, the system ably demonstrated the appeal of a truly high-end system for those who can afford the admission price. The rest of us can hope the technology eventually trickles down to models more within our reach.
Still, there’s nothing to stop us from dreaming.