I consider part of my job in reviewing an audio component as a search for the truth–while knowing full well there is no absolute objective truth. There is only my subjective truth, in my listening room. This is why it’s pointless for me to pick winners, although we love our What’s Best and top 10 lists. While I may have strong preferences for some speakers over others, there is no one best speaker. Having gotten that out of the way, I’ll unabashedly say that the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 speaker system is on my very short list of the best sounding speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. It’s simply that good, period.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Von Schweikert Audio, which I’ll sometimes refer to as VSA, has several levels in their current product lineup. The Von Schweikert Ultra 55, at $100,000/pr, is the entry level to their no-stone-unturned Ultra Reference series. Anyone who has gone to one of the larger audio shows has no doubt seen and hopefully had the experience of hearing VSA’s flagship Ultra 11, Ultra 9 or, most recently, their new Ultra 7 loudspeakers.
The combined efforts of Marietta, Ga based audio retailer The Audio Company and Von Schweikert Audio, along with the Valve Amplification Company, are semi-legendary for their display of just how high the bar is for what can be achieved in recorded music reproduction. I know the first time I heard their room at the 2019 Capital Audiofest, I had a “come to Jesus” experience. And I’m a Buddhist.
Von Schweikert Ultra 55
All the speaker systems in the Ultra Reference line share common factors of ceramic bass and midrange drivers, rear-firing tweeters for added spatial ambiance, and ribbon tweeters in various capacities. The Ultra 11 and Ultra 9 are fitted with onboard booster amps for augmenting the bass drivers. This is optional for the Ultra 7 and Ultra 55.
In the Von Schweikert Ultra 55, a beryllium dome ScanSpeak driver is used for the tweeter and a 5” Raal aluminum ribbon driver is used for rear firing ambience. On the bottom rear of the speaker are controls for the 525 watt booster amp for the twin 9” Accuton ceramic woofers. There is a separate potentiometer for level adjustment of the ambient tweeter. These allow for a nice amount of fine tuning. I found the rear-firing tweeter could be set to give me a subtle sense of more air and a wider image. A 7” ceramic driver is used for midrange duty. A double set of WBT binding posts allow for bi-wiring. All this is wrapped up in a gorgeous package. My partner Linda constantly remarked at how attractive they looked.
Most of my listening time with the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 was with a pair of Valve Amplification Company Master 300 amps. In my opinion, VAC president Kevin Hayes has come up with yet another masterpiece. I’ll go into detail in a forthcoming review but let me say for what I like to hear, the 300s, either in stereo mode or as a pair of mono amps, are about as good as it gets. However, to get as much intel as possible, I also paired the Ultra 55s with Parasound JC-1+ mono blocks, an Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200, and a Nautilus, one of the newest low-powered tube amps from the Southern California-based outfit ampsandsound. This was revelatory. More on that later.
As I’ve written before, one of the things I most enjoy about reviewing is getting to know all the folks involved. I have nothing against the larger, more corporate type audio manufacturers–I’ve had great interactions with those folks as well–but I have a soft spot for the smaller companies. Especially the ones with only a few people at the helm, united in the journey to design and produce the absolute best audio equipment possible. VSA is the epitome of this kind of performance-based company. Without going too deep into the back story, Von Schweikert Audio’s Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson have an advantage in being able to draw on many decades of hands-on experience in design and construction.
Extensive experimentation with driver and cabinet materials, crossover topology and parts selection, plus use of cutting edge measurement protocols and lengthy voicing procedures, plus a fearless commitment to exploring any and all concepts, are part and parcel of Damon and Leif’s process. Sometimes this may require disregarding preconceptions of what previously worked, and what didn’t. This is difficult, frustrating, time consuming, and costly. It’s also what it takes if the primary focus is on raising the bar incrementally or with an occasional big leap in performance. The Von Scheweikert Ultra 55 clearly displays that esthetic.
I’ll confess to feeling more excited than usual about the idea of listening to these beauties in my own sonic sanctuary. Would they deliver the same sublime listening experiences I’d had at the audio shows? Not quite. I’d say what I heard at my place was all that and a whole lot more.
Von Schweikert Ultra 55 Set Up
Two large crates on a pallet arrived at my mastering studio. My original plan had been to unpack and store them in the garage until I had time to get things organized at our other house, which has my hi-fi listening space. I don’t remember the exact details but the plan changed and Damon was kind enough to call in a favor and have the pallet moved to the other house just a few streets away. Since I knew it would take a day or so for me to get help to uncrate and get them inside, I covered them with a tarp.
My best bud and audio guru Chris Livengood of Ember Audio + Design, along with his right hand man Langston Styles, came over to do the dirty deed. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, mainly because my job was being an observer, heh! My dudes had the speakers safely inside in no time. Huge thanks to Chris and Langston for not only hefting the beasts inside and putting the crates into my basement, the hardest part of the whole thing, but coming over a few weeks later to perform an extensive room placement exercise. I call it an exercise because although I was more or less satisfied with where I had placed the Von Schweikert Ultra 55s, Chris wanted to take a shot. Being an audio nerd and setup perfectionist of the first degree, and by using a particular setup protocol he was refining, Chris and Langston were able to seriously improve the already great sound I was getting from my attempts.
A few weeks after THAT a situation was worked out for me to review the aforementioned VAC Master 300 amps. So another pair of my audio gurus, Keith Sequira and Gordon Waters from The Audio Company, graciously went above and beyond by driving from Atlanta mid-week to personally deliver the amps and do yet ANOTHER extensive placement and setup procedure. Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about this whole series of events.
The pair of Parasound JC-1+ did an admirable job of powering the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 loudspeakers but I had a nagging feeling there was more goodness to be extracted from these gorgeous Blu Celeste thoroughbreds. At the start of the Keith & Gordon Experience (my new bluegrass band’s name), it was decided to begin with the Parasound amps in place. I found it fascinating to be a fly on the wall while the pair did their thing.
Things were sounding pretty dang good. Then the VAC amps went into the system. BAM! The heavens opened. Angels sang. I could hear James Brown from on high shouting Good Gawd, y’all. The change was so drastic it necessitated yet ANOTHER round of tweaks to the speaker placement. To finish up, Keith requested I put on some familiar records as he seasoned the gourmet meal to my taste. A little more toe in, a little more level on the built in woofer amps, and boom, audio Nirvana was achieved. Not all heroes wear capes…eeeeeend scene.
Von Schweikert Ultra 55 In Use
Now comes the fun part where I’ll try to do the impossible and talk about what I heard while listening to tunes on the Von Schweikert Ultra 55.
For one thing let me circle back and say that the Ultra 55s were not that fussy about placement or what drives them. However, my setup story is partly meant to illustrate that a speaker system of this caliber deserves to be optimized to get its fullest potential. To put a fine point on this, I recently had the pleasure of a quick visit from Valerio Cora of Acora Acoustics. Upon hearing the SRC-2 at my studio he suggested I rake the speakers back a degree or two because of my high seating position. I did just that and everything about the midrange got way better.
Regardless of what speaker you’re using, do yourself a favor and when you think they sound good, live with it for a while and then try more position tweaks. Or some acoustical treatments. Or both. It’s better than trying new fuses. Trust me on this.
I managed to find as much time as possible to listen to the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 loudspeakers mainly cause they allow the best aspects of practically any recording to emerge. The really great recordings were superb, as expected. Sometimes it feels like work to make seat time for a review, even if I like the sound of a component. This was not the case with the VSA speakers. I practically craved listening sessions with not only my typical test tracks, but lots of new stuff and things I hadn’t played in ages.
I’ve noticed that when I think a piece of gear is really good, listening is more about hearing the music and less about hearing the gear. Again, the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 almost begs this to happen. I can’t say how other audiophiles feel, but for me, this is huge–especially as of late, having lots of exposure to top shelf componentry with a myriad of entrancing aural flavors. A top level system SHOULD compel me to simply listen to the music, but that’s not always the case. Being able to do a blind pull from the vinyl stacks and know I’ll have fun listen is a reward of epic proportions. I’ve even started monitoring at a lower level while at work mastering so I could have the option of listening at the end of a work day without feeling like my ears were worn out.
In thinking about how to put the sound of the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 into words, the first thing that comes to mind is balanced. There wasn’t any one particular thing that immediately stood out as mind blowing. Make no mistake, that doesn’t mean bland or uninvolving. The Ultra 55 charms are of a deeper, longer lasting variety, charms that aim to call no attention to themselves. The Ultra 55 does this by having an incredibly low amount of any non-linearity, either related to frequency or dynamics. That would spoil the trick.
What trick is that you say? The Vanishing Speaker Trick. My reference Acora Acoustics SRC-2 does this, albeit in a slightly different manner. The MBL speakers I heard at Florida Audio Expo pull this off to a high degree but, again, in a much different manner. Even though this trait is not super-high on my wish list, I tend to think that speakers that are considered the best of the best (and with a commensurate price) should be able to suspend disbelief on some types of recordings. The Ultra 55 checks that box for me.
Which leads me to tonality. Wait, how can a speaker sometimes be invisible if it has some kind of tone? The loudspeaker with absolutely no tonal signature has yet to be created in my opinion, but some get pretty darn close. I feel like a lot of the tonal signature has to do with how the designer voices the final production version. Anyone that has designed and built a speaker system will tell you that a system that measures flat on the top end sounds way too bright. It’s up to the designer to decide where he or she wants all the stuff above approximately 6K to live. This is invariably done by ear, even if measured before and after. I don’t like my music playback to even hint at being hyped up on top (or actually flat, by measurement standards). However the high frequency voicing was arrived at, the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 had oodles of detail without any edge or artificial sheen.
Occasionally, when playing sonically darker recordings, I wished things were a hair brighter. I would MUCH rather have a smoother vibe than even the smallest amount of additional air or zing up there as long as the resolution is high, which is definitely the case for U55s. Furthermore, this was only in evidence when I used amps with an overly smooth or rolled off top end such as the Qualiton or the ampsandsound Nautilus. In a universe of options with regard to where the high frequencies should fall, given varying tonalities in amplifiers, source components and recordings, I’ll give the U55s chosen high frequency voicing an A+.
Midrange and the handoff to tweeters and woofers was invisible and seamless. Imaging was gorgeous and captivating. I got solid, floating-in-air, center images which is important to me. I heard lots of depth and space when it was there in a recording. There was a strong sense of a 180 degree arc of instrument placement that extended towards my listening spot and beyond speaker edges.
Like practically all the other elements of the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 performance, I found dynamic portrayal to be top notch, without calling any undue attention to that part of reproduction. VSA lists sensitivity at 89db. Although to my ear, this seems conservative, owing to the 5 watt Nautilus being such a surprise in how it powered the speakers.
Overall, the Ultra 55s sit slightly more in the listenability field of my imaginary accuracy/listenability matrix. This is not to say they have any detectable coloration or anything otherwise that would point to less accuracy, just that the overall tuning and voicing seems a hair more on what some would term musical as opposed to clinical.
But Dave, what about the bass? I’m glad you asked because the low end of the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 rocked my effin’ world.
One night while listening to the system, I recalled a long lost rock concert memory: the lone dude who stood facing directly into front of a huge horn loaded bass bin. You old rockers will remember those bass cabinets on the floor of the arena comprising the first level of a huge ‘70s-era concert PA system stack. Beer in hand, band t-shirt in evidence, and standing semi trance-like with a slight amount of rhythmic movement. We called him The Man Dancer. While I never was tempted to ruin my hearing by doing that, I felt a strange kinship with the Man Dancer because of my obsession with low frequency reproduction.
But here’s the thing. The pair of Ultra 55s in my listening room delivered all of those lowest frequencies, all while playing at a very moderate volume. During one listening session I played the MoFi vinyl version of Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. Towards the end of cut one, “Beyond Belief,” I heard some serious 30 to 40 hz stuff going on that I had NEVER heard before. I got out the SPL meter to find that I was playing the record at an 80 db average level. Whuuut? One of my favorite attributes of the U55 is its ability to sound very good and full flavored at any listening level, including quite low.
Of course on occasion I indulged in some crankatude, duh. Streaming “Fast As I Can” by Fiona Apple off her When The Pawn…album, was insanely great. The VAC 300s having a reserve of 400 watts of KT-88 goodness per side was just too much to resist. Huge, mega dynamic, and controlled with layers and textures for DAYS. All that coupled to a smoothly energized treble, silky upper mid, and an effortless chest pounding low end had my neurotransmitters on overdrive.
One evening I pulled out my copy of the Classic Records reissue of the RCA Living Stereo Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D with Heifetz on fiddle and Reiner conducting the CSO–it’s a tour de force. I had the ampsandsound Nautilus pounding out its little 5 watts, single ended triode, heart. Not only was Heifetz floating in space directly in front of me with the sweetest violin tone I’ve ever experienced (short of the real McCoy), but the orchestral climaxes were huge and effortless, complete with a wrap-around spatial vibe. One minute I’m cruising along listening to Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die and digging that early ‘70s, dry, studio masterpiece and the next I’m magically transported to row 15 in a great sounding concert hall. I was impressed to say the least.
Another memorable moment was listening to a vintage Stan Ricker cut, MoFi half speed, of Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac. The VAC Master 300s were doing their thing which includes possibly the best low end I’ve yet to hear coupled to a shocking amount of midrange focus and detail that still remains buttery. On “Warm Ways,” Christine’s lead vocal has a minute amount of phase shifting added for a bit of color to compliment all the other swirly sounding instrumentation. It was intended to be subliminally audible yet the Von Schweikert Ultra 55 loudspeakers clearly showed me this fun studio effect.
I hope I’ve given readers some sense of how gratifying it was to spend time with the Von Schweikert Ultra 55. I’ll admit at $100k a pair, we’re talking about a pretty serious commitment even for those audiophiles with that kind of scratch. But for those that can afford it and are deeply into the finest in music reproduction, this could be the speaker that ends your seemingly endless merry-go-round of buy and sell as you search for your forever musical playback partner. There are plenty of bigger, flashier, seemingly alien tech-based, flavor of the year loudspeakers out there. The Ultra 55 however, is the marrying kind.