Von Schweikert Ultra Reference 9 Loudspeaker, VAC 450iQ Integrated Amplifier, Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. Turntable, and Esoteric N-01 Network Audio Player

For sheer scale, perhaps the most impressive system I heard at the Munich High End show was in the room shared by Von Schweikert and VAC. The star of the show was—perhaps—the Von Schweikert Ultra Reference 9 loudspeaker, which sells for an impressive $200,000/pair. The Ultra series is, Von Schweikert says, a cost-no-object line. So far there are three speakers in the line: The 9, the $300,000 11, and the $90,000 55. Von Schweikert, of course, also sells more modestly priced loudspeakers; their VR-22 is under $3000 / pair.

I wrote, “for sheer scale.” Very likely, this system is capable of much more than just scale. I’d have enjoyed hearing it on some more intimately recorded small-scale music, but there was no such opportunity. That’s a comment more on the demands on my time than on my hosts in this room, who could hardly have been more accommodating.

0516-VAC-200I wrote that the loudspeaker was “perhaps” the star of the room because I’m fascinated by VAC’s Statement 450iQ integrated amplifier, with its unusual, vertical form, 14 vacuum tubes, 225W/channel, multi-input phono stage, and $150,000 price tag. Clearly this is another statement product; the company’s other integrated amplifier is priced under $10k. (The VAC amp and the speakers were obviously a good match: the finely finished board to which the vacuum tubes were mounted precisely matched the color and finish of the Von Schweikerts. VAC’s Kevin Hayes assured me it was just a coincidence.) Loudspeaker, as the actual sources of sound, are always in a sense the star of the show, but the VAC’s visual prominence assures it of at least a major supporting role.

Also in the system: Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. turntable ($85,000), Airtight Opus 1 cartridge ($16,000), Esoteric Grandioso P1 CD transport ($38,000 USD) and Grandioso D1 monoblock DAC ($19,000×2 = $38,000), and an Esoteric N-01 network audio player ($20,000). This equipment was supported by two Artesania audio racks and one Artesania turntable shelf. My quick estimation—why bother with actual math?—tells me that this system easily surpasses the half-million mark.

Reports about ultra-expensive audio systems almost always raise the hackles of a handful of web-commenters, and that’s fine. My interest is mainly in more modestly priced gear—not budget but also not price-no-object. But ultra-expensive, price-no-object systems are necessary not just to develop new technology that can then trickle down but also to remind us of what is possible sonically. And those megabuck customers help to support the industry. As long as companies don’t forget about us non-billionaires, it’s all good.


Damon Von Schweikert told me that, a while ago, a customer requested the best custom loudspeaker they were capable of producing. The company saw this as an opportunity to, in effect, fund a research program on how to make the best speakers possible. The proximate result of that research was that client’s speakers, which he was, I was told, very happy with. A longer-term result is the Ultra series, which Von Schweikert markets as its cost-no-object line. The series tops out one step up from the 9, with the $300,000 Ultra 11. A still-longer-term result, one hopes, is improvements further down Von Schweikert’s product line.

The Von Schweikert Ultra 9 can be tuned to the room in interesting ways—not with just the usual bass and tweeter adjustments but by adjusting the back-facing tweeter and midrange array via a proprietary ambience-control system The idea of ambience control in a loudspeaker system makes me nervous—isn’t that a thing for HomePods and Wave Radios?—but the system in the Ultra Nines appears to be tastefully done—think of it as an adjustable dipole, or bipole (I’m not sure which)—and if you don’t like the ambience effect you can dial it back.

If it’s bass response you’re after, the Ultra 9 is spec’ed at -6dB at 10Hz, and—specifications again, unverified—essentially flat down to 16Hz. In part because the 9 includes include a powered subwoofer (utilizing a 15” driver), it’s a relatively easy load, rated at 4 ohms nominal with a sensitivity of 92dB.

How did this system sound? About like you would expect: big, powerful and unquestionably full-range. Rafter-shaking. The brief demo of the ambience system I heard was intriguing but not totally convincing. Show conditions. It would take a more extensive demo to render a verdict.

I was impressed by this system—it sounded great—but I can’t help thinking that I got only a small taste of its potential. The true measure of a big speaker is how it handles small music: piano by Ravel, or Bud Powell. Bach Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin. A string quartet—especially compelling because it combines delicacy with considerable power. I didn’t get a chance to audition any of that—again, not my hosts’ fault.

And then there’s the room: The room they were showing in had no obvious, serious problems I noticed, but to take the full measure of a speaker like this, you’d need to listen in a room carefully designed and assembled by a skilled acoustician with a very good ear. Maybe Carnegie Hall.

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