“Are you busy right now?” said the text from Von Schweikert Audio’s Leif Swanson. “Come back to the room when you can. We made a change.”
This was back at the 2019 Capital Audiofest where Von Schweikert Audio and VAC were once again showing off what I call The System, approximately $1.5 million worth of high-end audio gear that usually snags Best Sound at Show Awards by an almost unfair margin. The loudspeakers that are used in The System most of the time are Von Schweikert’s own Ultra 11s, massive beasts that cost $325,000/pair.
When I returned to the exhibit room, I discovered that Leif and VSA’s Damon Von Schweikert had replaced the Ultra 11s with the $25,000/pair ESEs (Endeavor Special Edition). Leif knew I would want to hear these much smaller speakers in The System because I had a pair of them at home for review. I’m not going to tell you that the ESEs were in the same ballpark as the Ultra 11s, because that would probably kill sales of the 11s overnight. No, that wasn’t the case at all.
The Von Schweikert Audio ESEs were so good in The System that the show pair had sold by the time I had returned to the room. Leif told me later that he had fielded more compliments about the ESEs that day than the Ultra 11s, which surprised him. My theory was that show attendees come into a room and see a pair of $320,000 speakers and think, “Wow, that’s the best sound I’ve ever heard, but I’ll never be able to own a pair unless I win the lottery.” But when you hear a pair of $25,000 speakers sound this magical, you start thinking “well, maybe I could re-prioritize my life, sell the time share, brown-bag it for the rest of my life…”
Endeavor Special Edition
I first met Leif Swanson when we shared a room with him at the 2015 T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach. We brought Pureaudio amplification from New Zealand, and Leif brought a pair of his Endeavor Audio E-5 loudspeakers. Leif had been working at Von Schweikert Audio for years as a designer, and Endeavor Audio was his new company that had two models—the E-5 and the smaller E-3. The E-5s were tall, heavy and $35,000/pair at the time. I loved the dynamic, powerful sound, but I thought the then $7000/pair E-3s were probably more in my wheelhouse. I joked about getting my pair in cobalt blue, my favorite color.
Leif returned to VSA and partnered with Damon Von Schweikert, son of VSA founder Albert, to run the company. VSA always made incredible speakers in my opinion, but this new chapter in the VSA story yielded designs that weren’t just excellent—they were making a serious push toward making the finest loudspeakers on earth. The first time I heard the Von Schweikert Audio VR-55s, about a year after our room share with Leif, I was shocked at the level of transparency I heard. That speaker, which retailed for $60K/pair, seemed to remove one last veil of artifice of sound to reveal a stunning realistic portrayal of dynamics, transients and decay. I was floored.
As the years went by, I started paying more and more attention to Von Schweikert loudspeakers. I started spending more time with Leif and Damon at shows, listening to speakers such as the $225,000/pair Ultra 9s and those mind-boggling Ultra 11s. My reactions to these speakers evolved from “I’ll never be able to afford them” to “it’s a gift that we’re able to attend high-end audio shows and hear stuff that performs at this level.” (In my opinion, that’s the sane and reasonable way to respond to loudspeakers that cost as much as a new home in most parts of the country.) When Leif told me that he was taking the technologies VSA developed for the Ultra line and using them in a version of the Endeavor E-3, a thought immediately entered my mind:
This might just be the one for me.
The Von Schweikert Audio ESE loudspeakers look almost exactly like the E-3s. (The ESEs have beveled edges all around, along with a more elaborate pedestal, which is the best way to identify the differences.) The ESEs borrow several design features from the Ultra line: the incredible Rear-Ambient Retrieval System, the Beryllium tweeter, bi-wire inputs with separate networks, and automotive finishes that are truly impressive. (When the ESEs first arrived at our house, Colleen walked right up to them and said wow, now that’s a finish!)
Each Von Schweikert Audio ESE contains two 175mm anodized aluminum woofers, a 165mm Kevlar midrange and that metal dome tweeter that uses a Beryllium substrate and a ceramic coating layer for damping. The Rear-Ambient Retrieval system, located at the top of the back panel, consists of a ribbon super-tweeter and a knob positioned lower on the cabinet for adjusting the output of this driver. (I wound up sticking at the halfway point of the knob.) The ESEs have an efficiency of 89 dB with a 4-ohm impedance. Frequency response is 28Hz-22kHz. Each ESE weighs 95 pounds.
Even though the Von Schweikert Audio ESEs are moderately sensitive, Leif always insists on powerful amplification—at least 100 watts per channel—to truly unlock the dynamics of his designs. When the ESEs first arrived, I had two amps that were more than up to the challenge—the Unison Research Unico 150 integrated amplifier (220wpc into 4 ohms) and the Bryston B135³ integrated amplifier (180wpc into 4 ohms). While both of these excellent amps made great music with the ESEs, they both retail for around $6000 to $7000 and I couldn’t help but think the ESEs were jonesin’ for something more ambitious. I also had the 150wpc McIntosh MC2152 power amplifier I reviewed for The Occasional, but there was only an overlap of a week or two before I had to send the Mac back. That combo was very promising.
Since I had the ESEs for such a long time, I was able to test them out with plenty of amps, including my own reference Pureaudio Duo 2 power amplifier and the mighty Mactone MH-120 power amplifier. I had high hopes for the Mactone since I loved the sound of this amp so much, but its 65 watts per channel weren’t quite enough for explosive dynamics—although the combination did shine in almost every other respect.
The magic combination, however, was the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier I just reviewed. The hybrid L2i comes in at 100wpc, and the pairing seemed so ideal that if I was considering the ESEs for purchase, I’d grab the L2i as well and feel absolutely confident that I made the right choice.
In my review of the Raven Audio Soniquil cables, I remarked that many amplifier and speaker manufacturers have preferences for the cables you use with their products. Chances are they voiced their designs with these cables. What it really means is that there are sonic differences between cables, and we should stop arguing about it.
Leif asked me if I could review the Von Schweikert ESEs with MasterBuilt Cables. That’s what VSA recommends and sells to all their clients. At the Capital Audiofest, Leif hooked me up with a loom (I learned this term from him) of MasterBuilt cabling. He asked me what I needed, bi-wire, XLR, RCA, USB and more, each time handing me a cable and saying, “Yeah, don’t f*** around. Use these.”
I worked the MasterBuilt loom into my system a piece at a time. I’m an audiophile who just happens to have tons of quality cable hanging around, and I’m never concerned about having the right cable for any particular piece of gear. But I did notice that the system slowly became more dynamic and exciting as I added the MasterBuilt cables. While I can’t say that the MasterBuilt are the finest cables I’ve used across the board, mostly because I wouldn’t be daft enough to make that kind of declaration, they were definitely the finest with the ESEs. If you buy something from VSA, go with the MasterBuilt if you can.
Over the last few months, I’ve tried to come up with a reason why Von Schweikert Audio speakers are just so good. I have plenty of favorite speaker brands—I love them all but for different reasons. I love one particular brand because they sound perfect to me—I can’t find a single flaw to their sound. I love another because they are so warm and comforting and they make me drift away when I need to drift away. I love another because I’m constantly surprised at what they can do—they exceed my expectations at every listening session at least once.
I finally came up with a word to describe Von Schweikert Audio loudspeakers that made sense to me, and that word is excitement. The ESEs always sounded as big as they should with certain types of music, with realistic depictions of the dimensions of the soundstage as well as the physical size of the individual performers and instruments. Bass was always as deep as it should have been, never so overpowering that the listening room became a factor, but never stingy with the lowest frequencies when they existed, even slightly. The ESEs always delivered a sense of elation, of a keen sense of fun. I felt as energized after a listening session with the ESEs as I did after stepping off a roller coaster. Wow, let’s do that again!
The best way to elaborate on this sense of excitement is to stand outside of an exhibit room at a high-end show and watch audiophiles as they leave the room. With most rooms, audiophiles will nod at each other and mumble things like “yeah, I liked that” or “that was pretty good.” Stand outside of a Von Schweikert Audio room, and the responses are a little different. People are dumbfounded as they leave the room. They don’t know what to say. They might be giggling. They’re always smiling. Maybe they peed themselves a little and they’re using the VSA brochures to cover up so people won’t notice.
Now ask yourself if you’d like to have this sense of excitement in your home, every day. I know I would.
Dreaming with Dean
Sometimes I go through my reviews over the last couple of years—I am an editor, after all—and I have to admit I’m embarrassed at how many times I’ve mentioned the Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue of Dean Martin’s Dream with Dean. You probably think I listen to it every day, and I really don’t. I mention it here in my review of the Von Schweikert Audio ESEs for a very important reason, then I promise to retire Dean for good.
The first time I ever heard this LP was at that show with Leif in 2015. We heard Dean’s voice through the Endeavor Audio E-5s, and the realism was so startling that I think we all went out that day and bought a copy in the marketplace downstairs. When Dean’s voice first appears on “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” that intimacy of his voice should make you jump a little. That specific moment has become a test for me to evaluate a particular piece of gear. And, after that moment has passed, I usually listen to the rest of the album just because it’s so great.
I often think of those Endeavor E-5s when I do this, how excited I was to hear Dean’s voice so open and real. That’s when I came up with my comment about Dean’s voice sounding so detailed that you could tell what brand of cigarettes he was smoking. (The answer is Kool.) In later reviews, I think I might have mentioned that not only were they Kools, but you can tell how many were left in the pack.
Listening to Dream with Dean on the ESEs took me back to that original moment better than any other loudspeaker I’ve heard. It was new again, still startling, still worth hearing over and over. And with that, I’m done talking about Dean. Maybe.
Unless the Phillips’ family oil wells in Oklahoma strike it big in the next few years, it’s unlikely I’ll own such a sky’s-the-limit speaker as a Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 9 or Ultra 11. Even if they were affordable, my ceilings are too low for the 11s, and both speakers are far too heavy for my suspended wooden floors.
At the 2019 T.H.E. Show, VSA exhibited in a smaller room where the used they Endeavor Audio E-5 Mk. II speakers, now $40K per pair, and that’s when I realized something extraordinary about these designs. I heard Damon talking to a prospective customer, and he said that they visit the listening room first to determine the best solution for the best sound. Just because you can afford an Ultra 11 doesn’t mean you should buy a pair, in other words. I wrote:
“In this much smaller room, I felt like I was getting the same authoritative yet infinitely musical sound as I heard from those massive systems in what seemed like 5000 sq. ft. rooms. Think about it–you don’t have to spend $300,000 on a pair of Ultra 11s–which may require you to push up the ceiling of your listening room so they can fit–to enjoy that amazing VSA sound.”
That’s exactly how I feel with the Von Schweikert Audio ESE loudspeakers right now. My current listening room isn’t huge, but it’s a very good-sounding room. I was a little worried that a VSA speaker in general might be too much speaker for the room. The ESE, as it turns out, was about as perfect for my room as it could be. Plenty of space, plenty of bass, plenty of fun. Most importantly, plenty of excitement.
If you don’t think I’m giving the Von Schweikert Audio ESE loudspeakers an Editor’s Choice Award, you’re nuts.