At $295,000, the Ultra 11s are the “cost is no object” flagship of Von Schweikert Audio, one of 400 vendors showcasing their best to 6,723 attendees at Audio Expo North America (AXPONA) at the Westin O’Hare from April 21-23.
Endeavoring for a slice of the magic
It is late Saturday morning, now, and Von Schweikert Audio is raffling a pair of their $8,000 Endeavor E-3 speakers, so after checking in, I scurry to find the Dearborn Room where they are accepting tickets — and where the ginormous Ultra 11s are making their North American debut.
It isn’t just the sheer scale, the low noise floor or the powerful, silky performance of the piano black mammoths that sets them apart, but the synergy between them and the electronics supporting them. This includes the following: VACs Statement Phono Stage ($80,000), Line Stage preamp ($75,000) and Statement 450 iQ Monoblock amplifiers ($120,000); the Kronos Pro Turntable ($38,000); the YFS Ref 3 Music Server ($13,000); and the LampizatOr Golden Gate Digital to Analog Converter ($15,400). The digital playback of the buttery jazz selection is clear, just a smidgen on the warm side of neutral and intoxicating in its delivery.
Afterwards, I visit with Damon Von Schweikert, CEO of VSA, looking regal in his spectacles, black suit and tie, and Lukasz Fikus, 52, owner of LampizatOr, sporting European casual (a dark untucked button down shirt and jeans).
“There’s quite a bit of new proprietary elements to it both in signal path purity, component separation and driver speed,” Von Schweikert, 48, says. “We focus on every aspect of lowering distortion levels -- the drivers, the cabinets, the signal path, the crossovers. And achievements here and there have led to a significant lump sum performance.”
I ask what led him to include LampizatOr’s Golden Gate DAC in his flagship system, and he says a friend turned him onto it, adding that as the “final piece” in the system, it has squeezed out that extra bit of realism and magical performance from the Ultra 11 speakers (To read the full interview, click here).
It’s Lukasz’s turn next. “We just heard for the first time our DAC in Von Schweikert’s factory demonstration room and... it’s an achievement that is unmatched because... it’s one thing to make something... but it’s absolutely another thing to see that somebody else liked it and applied it in a system say ten times bigger and more expensive than we’ve ever imagined.”
Cleary, he is moved. “In the context of this unbelievable, monumental system, our DAC shows what it can do -- and even me as a maker, I never realized that.”
He suggests that this is the beginning of a beautiful collaboration and, turning to Mr. Von Schweikert, he offers to swap out their flagship with the latest iterations as technology advances. And by saying that it demoed with the Ultra 11s at AXPONA, he jokes, he could resell their original Golden Gate for many times its price! (Click here to read the full interview).
Patrons rifle through bins fulls of vinyl, try out new gear and chat up vendors as I walk into the large Marketplace room. I run into Rob Darling, Vice President of Roon Labs, whose powerful and popular interactive music playback and streaming program costs $119 a year or $499 for a lifetime membership. Sporting a long scarf and jacket, the youngish Darling is demoing it via laptop computer and, donning headphones, I listen to several selections. He points out the ability of Roon to upsample from standard CD 44 kHz to DSD 64, 128 and higher (Direct Stream Digital, or DSD, is a high resolution technology created for mastering Super Audio CDs). I hear the subtle differences in sampling rates as I toggle the settings mid-stream in several tracks. The experience is quite gratifying.
There are other listening stations showcasing headsets, headphone amps, DACs, preamps, and scads of accessories, including high end audio cables. A tall gentleman in a suit and tie with a German accent pitches me on his machined metal ball bearing feet to dissipate -- and isolate audio components from -- vibration.
I work my way through a plethora of listening rooms. They all sound good, while others sound amazing.
Having recently completed my own Do It Yourself acoustic panel treatments, I find the Michael Green Audio Room Tune Deluxe room intriguing as I compare notes and look closely at their construction. A large, 30-something African American man sits mesmerized and oblivious in a comfy chair, surrounded on three sides by their RTDFS floorstander diffuser/absorption panels (starting at $150 each) while a respectable system featuring an Audolici Audio A 25 M tube integrated amplifier ($5,100) and Audio Note AN-E SPx Alnico speakers ($25,000) playing selections at the front wall, with various wall treatments placed strategically in corners and other key places to optimize the listening experience.
LampizatOr North America co-partner, Fred Ainsley, points out that options on the Golden Atlantic include balanced connections, volume control and DSD 512.
“We believe (the Golden Atlantic) is the best ‘bang for buck’ you can have,” LampizatOr owner Lukasz Fikus chimes in, citing the R2R technology that it uses.
“This is the chipless discrete resistor ladder conversion technology, combined with the old type of DAC with heated triodes and a very simple circuit -- and the best materials, best capacitors -- gives us the sound that is impossible to achieve any other way, in our opinion.”
It’s like “400 Flavors of Audio” -- there’s simply so much to see! The lunch hour has long passed, my head feels like mush and I’m starving, so I pour a Diet Coke from a half-empty two liter bottle and snag several slices of pizza from picked-over delivery boxes in the pressroom, where I meet AXPONA publicist Sophia Lapat, who’s just leaving, and an affable Mr. Jim Buchanan, who chats at length about the latest developments in Audio/Visual and the Journal of the Boston Audio Society.
Like cleansing one’s palate with small bites of food between servings at a wine tasting, after Buchanan departs, I soak in the silence of the empty pressroom. Just breathe.
And check my emails and Facebook on my iPhone. My thoughts collected, I head out again.
It’s nearly 3:00 PM when my wife arrives. Her hearing is unusually acute, and I am curious to observe her impressions. I fill out her raffle ticket for the E-3 speakers and she teases that this is the real reason I invited her as we snake our way through crowded corridors to the Dearborn Room. She is astonished at size of the Ultima 11s and the thick, velvety wall of sound that envelops us when we arrive. They are playing the lacquer pressing of Lyn Stanley again. My wife smiles and nods when I ask, “Isn’t this amazing?” But jazz isn’t her thing, so after a few minutes, we head off.
We wind our way through the rooms when, on the lower level, we are hailed into the Planter Speakers room.
“Come on in!” proprietor Madison Fielding entreats, and proceeds to show off the features of his prized equipment.
Doubling as indoor/outdoor planters with special semi-permeable pouches to hold plants and soil, they are attractive and have built-in drainage and hidden speakers. Their sound is rich, detailed and full bodied, but ranging from $2,595 to $6,595, Belle says, “They sound great, but they’re expensive!”
I remind her that they are made in Connecticut, a bastion for the wealthy, that just about everything is expensive here and compared to other wares being showcased, they aren’t all that pricey by comparison.
We work our way down the corridor, stopping off and listening to various speaker and electronics configurations.
Signing up for two other raffles, we walk into the KEF display room and listen to a system showcasing the sleek and futuristic looking KEF Blade speakers. My wife’s shoulders relax as she sits back and takes in several selections. Theirs is a very smooth and balanced presentation.
“Do you like it?” I ask.
Smiling, she says, “Yes.”
“They’re the KEF Blade,” I tell her, “and they run about $15,000 a pair.” Stepping out, we visit with Straight Wire’s CEO, Steven Hill, whose high end cables are used throughout the KEF room, for several minutes.
“You brought her along just to show her off,” he teases as we depart.
I tell her that she has to witness the Destination Audio horn speakers that I’d heard earlier at Fred Ainsley’s insistence, so we catch a crowded elevator to the sixth floor, peek in a few rooms en route, and slide into our seats in Room 636.
The graceful curves of the massive black horns -- easily three feet wide -- the gnarled pattern of the Italian walnut veneered cabinets below and their sheer physicality -- six feet tall, 43” wide, 31” deep and 540 lbs. each -- are astounding. And then, there’s the sound that envelops the room: the sensitivity, nuance, sense of power, depth, timbre, warmth and overall tone. She is transfixed. Her eyes closing, she takes in this slice of heaven.
A Mac Mini music server feeds into a LampizatOr Golden Gate DAC, then a Destination Audio preamplifier (with a separate power supply sprouting an oversized Duelund capacitor and vacuum tubes) and amplifier feed into the behemoths.
“These are my favorites!” she enthuses, turning to me. They are amazing, in fact one of the standouts of AXPONA. “What kind of wood is that?” she asks.
It’s Italian walnut, Wlodek (pronounced, “Woe-jee-mish”) “Sam” Wisniewski, designer and owner of Destination Audio, informs. We talk at some length in a nearby foyer.
“They are three way horn speakers. The are all made of wood. The thickest place is over four inches! On the bottom we have two woofers (which) are custom made just for me. They have handmade suspension. It takes me six months -- half a year -- to build them. That’s my passion.
“This is going to sound strange, but they’re like babies for me. It’s hard to get rid of them! I just love them. All the people who own them, they are my friends right now. I see them all the time. We party together, eat together -- like a family, right? And that’s important to me not to sell to just somebody who just want a nice toy because that’s so personal for me. I’m looking for somebody who’s just going to love it!
“I used to be a very rich person. I had an alcohol problem and I lost everything. I used to have a beautiful house, everything -- stereos for lots of money,” Wisniewski sighs. “And then after that, I stopped drinking, okay, I got sober, and I couldn’t afford to have all this high end, expensive stuff. And I thought, ‘why not do it?’ So, I started doing this and I took off with it.”
“I have another business,” He continues. “It’s the best rehab center in Poland -- I call it ‘Ranch Rehab Center.’”
That pays the bills, he maintains, while Destination Audio is his passionate avocation. It has to be like this, he says, adding, “That way I can put in all my heart and I don’t have to look for a sale so I can make money.”
With life being as unpredictable as it is, you need to cherish the opportunities as they come.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. Look at me: I’m at AXPONA in Chicago! They are happy; they say that it’s a good sound,” Wisniewski says. “That’s making me happy. That’s most important. I am three days in a year where I’m very, very happy. This is priceless. You can’t buy that even for a million dollars.”
“That Italian wood was amazing -- I’ve never seen such lovely wood,” Belle says later. “Even though they were big and unusual looking, there was something very attractive about them. And going to other rooms after that was disappointing; even though they were high end, it was like getting to ride in a Bentley and, afterwards, having to ride in a Kia.”
True enough. We pop in and out of a score of rooms. Many sound very, very good, but there is a certain letdown.
The Magico S3 Mk II speakers, for example, which I typically like a LOT, doesn’t impress so much today. In all fairness, the emcee has the volume notably lower level than we had been hearing in other rooms, possibly coloring our perception.
We encounter a Facebook friend, Kwan, and his son who made the trip down from Minnesota and are enjoying the show. We call it a wrap shortly thereafter, heading off for dinner at Allgauer’s on the Riverfront at the Hilton Chicago/Northbrook some 20 minutes away. It’s the site of our wedding nearly six years ago and, as Belle was born in Belfast, we have an unexpected treat with a large Irish festival, and live music, being held there that night. Imagine that!
Belle attends my stepdaughter’s wedding shower the next afternoon, so I head to the Westin O’Hare to catch what I missed -- and see the results of the Von Schweickert E-3 raffle. Perhaps I can drive home with them, I hope.
It’s not as crowded this afternoon, which is nice, as I’m feeling tired from our late night and the previous day’s proceedings.
Jolida/Black Ice Audio Solutions, which features the Von Schweikert E-3 Mk II speakers that are being raffled off a little later this afternoon, are backed by Jolida electronics and sound quite good.
Making the rounds downstairs, I run into Matt Weisfeld, President of VPI, the makers of the Rosewood belt-driven turntable that impressed me on Saturday. At 32, Weisfeld holds a Black Belt in Karate and is the Energizer Bunny running on empty.
“This is a fantastic show -- not that it wasn’t in previous years -- but essentially this is a year that I’m seeing so much growth and I’ve been so busy that I’m at the point of total exhaustion,” he says. “The rooms are sounding great, the people are happy, there’s more people each year, We’re excited to come back next year.
“We do have a new flagship, but we didn’t bring it here because it’s really heavy, but now we do have some new things we brought this year,” he continues, taking a breath, adding that the VPI Prime in Rosewood, whose production was discontinued due to the loss of rosewood source, is now being rebooted. “We found a supplier that has legal rosewood!’ he gushes. “It’s gorgeous! I believe we’ll be ready to do it in six weeks.”
On the launching of their new budget turntable, the VPI Cliffwood, he says, “That’s projected to be at $800 to $900. It’s plug and play, it has a Grado Three and a Half, a tonearm, an aluminum platter, a 600 RPM motor called the Cliffwood because it’s still made in Cliffwood, New Jersey.”
I make my way to the Theater/Executive Forum room, where Kemper Holt, Peter and Terry Breuninger of AVS Showrooms share their takes on the highlights of AXPONA. They will also be announcing the winners of various raffles, including the $8,000 Von Schweikert E-3 Mk II speakers. The room is perhaps an eighth full as people trickle in.
Peter Breuninger, who is well-spoken and apparently wealthy, regales us with stories of his uber expensive home system. At one point, he sniffs that his pair of monoblock amplifiers cost more than four other houses in his posh neighborhood.
Really? I think. As much as I love sound, I cannot even fathom spending that much on audio equipment -- even if I was as wealthy as a Rockefeller! That makes me sad. Are we, as audiophiles, really that self-absorbed that we can spend that much on hi-fi?
The moment passes. As expected, the Von Schweikert Ultra 11s are a consensus show’s best. Like others in the theater room, I grow restless, zoning in and out as I wait to hear if I’ll be driving home with new speakers.
The best of the show awards and honorable mentions are announced and, after that, the winners of the minor raffles. Nervous, I half hear them, as the sound of my self-talk gets louder.
“It would be so cool to have the E-3’s in my man cave. Man, oh man, oh man. But, they’re not bigger than my old Von Schweikert VR-5 HSE’s that I already have -- in fact, they may be smaller! Would they really be that much better? They only have two terminal binding posts; how would they work with bi-wire speaker cable? Belle would kill me if I bought cables! You don’t need it and, besides, you probably won’t win…”
The speaker raffle winner is announced, and it’s not me. It’s some schmuck from the Chicagoland area. A suburb, I think. Crap. I’m done.
I feel sheepish in telling Hill of my disappointment in not winning the E-3 speakers, which I was really, really hoping I’d win.
“Well, here you go,” he chimes, handing me a Straight Wire, Inc. logo pen. Last year, Hill had visited my house after AXPONA to see my system firsthand. I had done an interview and a review on some cables of his and we’d struck up a nice friendship.
“Juan, you have a very good and balanced system, and with the LampizatOr on the front end, you’ve maxed it out,” he says. “Now, if someone were to go out and buy your system today, they’d spend maybe fifteen, sixteen thousand dollars, right?”
I do the mental math and nod yes.
“Even if you were to suddenly run into a bunch of money, for that room, you’re not going to make any real improvement unless you spend at least $25,000,” he says. “Anything less than that will be a lateral move. It won’t be better, just different.”
He encourages me to enjoy the vicarious thrill of reviewing new equipment now and again but, bottom line, be satisfied with what I have.
We shake hands, he reminds me to say hi to Belle, and we part ways. Until next year.
I drive home with the radio turned off. I’m music-ed out. The gravely whining of tires whir in the background as my mind wanders.
“If it’s any consolation, I do have a nice system,” I think. “I won’t have to worry about buying new cables and upsetting Belle. That’s for sure! Thank God I’m not like one of those ‘cat ladies’, living alone, but with stereo components instead of cats. And spending more than the cost of four houses on a pair of amplifiers? That’s nuts! Think about all the starving people in Africa. Then, again, next year, AXPONA will be held at the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg. That will be closer to home! Nice. And maybe I can have Steven and the guys over afterwards...”
I feel a smile coming and turn the radio back on.