VMPS Tower 11/R loudspeaker Page 2

Organ-music lovers may well constitute the largest potential market for the Tower II/R; the power and extension it brings to reproduction of this difficult instrument is virtually unheard-of in this price range. While it should be clear by now that I would not use the term "fast" to describe the low-end qualities of the VMPS, that is not a characteristic of overriding importance in organ-music reproduction. What is required is low-end reach and output capability, combined with good pitch discrimination at the low end—no "one-note bass," please. The Tower IIs provide these qualities in abundance. If your sole exposure to Saint Saens's "Organ" Symphony has been through loudspeakers with a limited low-end response, and you haven't heard a rare live performance in a proper venue, then your first listen to the closing movement of this work with the magnificent Davies Hall Ruffatti organ (de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, Philips CD 412 619-2) through the VMPSes may well reduce you to quivering protoplasm. The same for the Boston Symphony Hall organ as heard on Encore224;s &# la Francaise (Telarc CD-80104). Don't say you weren't warned.

The slight bass warmth of the Tower IIs extends up into the midbass, but does not affect male or female vocals to any significant degree. It may lack the "snap" and transparency of the best loudspeakers, but is well-defined and acceptably quick—certainly quicker than you might expect from a 12" driver. And while there's no room to delve into the subject here, the "large drivers are slow, small drivers are fast" argument is not accepted by VMPS, and they have a point. One should also add "everything else being equal." It never is.

I've spent considerable time attempting to characterize the low end of the Tower II/Rs, since that is where their reputation lies. I was not a little surprised, however, by their naturalness through the mid- and high frequencies. The midrange is easier to describe in terms of what it does not have—no obvious hollowness, nasality, cupped-hands colorations, or troubling colorations of any other kind. Well-recorded vocals had an excellent balance of warmth and resonance, with perspectives ranging from neutral to just slightly forward of neutral. I'm not talking here of the palpable realism of the very best reproducers—Apogee Divas these are not—but I am talking about an open, detailed, low-coloration midrange.

Despite the printer's ink expended here on its low end, the high-frequency response of the Tower II/R may well be its greatest strength. It was not, on initial exposure, particularly dramatic; its balance was very slightly subdued in the brightness (lower treble) region, but delicate and open in the uppermost octave. It had a clear yet unexaggerated high end, never bright, never excessive in the sibilance region, not obviously analytical. But the detail was there; like the best designs, it grew more appealing with extended exposure. Changes in associated equipment were clearly revealed; the high-frequency qualities of various CD players, and the cables used with them, as determined in my recent CD player survey, were audible (though not exaggerated) through the VMPSes. If the treble response of these loudspeakers errs, it errs in the direction of sweetness—that brightness-range dip. Its overall balance is well-suited to all types of music, including classics and opera, the latter being well served by the VMPSes' combination of low-end power and unexaggerated high end.

The dynamic range and output level of the VMPSes were also well-matched to program material demanding of these characteristics. I did, however, find VMPS's claim of a peak 126dB output capability more than a bit of wishful thinking. I have yet to find a loudspeaker comfortable at continuous levels greater than the high 90s (with peaks to perhaps 105dB), and the Tower II/R was no exception. But I find such levels more than adequate for any reasonable listening requirement. And while the Tower II/Rs didn't best, in dynamic range, the ProAc Studio 3s (the most dynamic loudspeakers of good neutrality I have lived with over an extended period—now no longer in-house for direct comparison, I should add), it was no slouch in musical or seismic crunches. The explosive sound effects in La Folia de la Spagna (Harmonia Mundi CD HM 90.1050) will definitely make your guests drop their cheese dip, and the garage door in the HFN/RR Test Disc will likely spill the contents of every glass not fastened down. I wouldn't care to perform this test with most smaller audiophile loudspeakers; the VMPSes simply went about their business of rearranging the refreshments to suit themselves and calmly waited for more input.

VMPS discusses, in their advertisements, what would appear to be some sort of imaging-enhancement system called QSO Holosonics. They have a two-sided handout which purports to explain the system, but which actually discusses the negatives, as VMPS sees them, of multidirectional radiators, their feeling about the importance of absolute polarity, and their useful recommendations on loudspeaker placement. I discovered, in discussion with Brian Cheney, that QSO Holosonics refers merely to his design concepts of the importance of phase and absolute polarity (both in the setup, under listener control, and in the internal design of the system). I don't take issue with any of this, but do feel that some of the VMPS advertisements I have seen, which imply that QSO Holosonics is some sort of special image-enhancement circuitry and ambience-recovery system, are very misleading. It has no such circuitry, merely an apparently effective crossover network designed according to VMPS's priorities.

"QSO Holosonics" or not, the Tower II/Rs are capable of excellent imaging and a well-developed soundstage. It is, however, very much a "sweet spot" loudspeaker. VMPS's claims to the contrary, I found a noticeable drop-off in image specificity as the listener moved laterally away from the center. This is not at all unusual in loudspeakers, but the image presented by the VMPS tended to snap into focus to a pronounced degree as the listener moved into the correct position, and became a bit "phasey" as one moved a couple of feet in either direction. This dispersion pattern is clearly a function of the lateral placement of the upper-range drivers and the slow-slope crossovers which give substantial sonic overlap between these drivers. All systems comprised of displaced drivers and finite-slope crossover networks will develop "lobing"—position-dependent dips in the frequency response in the vicinity of the crossover and considerably beyond it in either direction (and the slower the slope, the wider the frequency band effected because of the broader overlap between the drivers).

Lateral driver orientation causes these dips to appear in the horizontal plane. A vertical layout puts them in the vertical plane—in theory less likely to interfere with imaging (though in practice causing seating height to be important). But in the "sweet spot," and with the speakers set up in the recommended, slightly toed-in fashion, the soundstage of the Tower II/Rs was solid; lateral imaging was very good; centrally placed soloists were particularly well focused, with no tendency to recede into the soundspace. Overall lateral specificity was good, though the image almost never appeared to extend beyond the sides of the loudspeakers. (I'm not yet convinced of the importance of this, or if its presence represents a flaw or a virtue in a loudspeaker.) Depth was not remarkable—the overall soundstage was not holographic or finely layered—but was developed more than sufficiently to provide a convincing illusion of dimensionality and front-to-rear positioning.

Summing Up
The Tower II/R offers qualities not common at the price, most notably a strong, deep, low end. That low end will not be everyone's ideal bass—I personally found it to be less than ideally damped. And while the quantity of low-end output was not generally a problem in my (large) room, I do recommend caution in trying to use it in a small listening space. But I also find it difficult to name another loudspeaker at anywhere near the price offering comparable bass extension. And remember that the impecunious can get the same low end in the bare-bones, non-tweaked model, in kit form, for $878/pair (though at some potential sacrifice in high-end refinement). While I would personally sacrifice some bass extension for a tighter transient response, it has not yet been proven to me that it's possible to obtain both at this price.

If I could make a wish list for improvements to the Tower II/R, it would include the above-mentioned tighter bass without a concomitant sacrifice of extension, and a modified enclosure to permit vertical layout of the mid- and upper-range drivers for better lateral dispersion (with perhaps slightly spruced-up cosmetics). Even as it stands, however, the Tower II/R offers a unique blend of low-end range, detailed, nonaggressive mids and highs, and convincing soundstaging, at a very attractive price.

Footnote 1: The "ribbon" tweeter of the VMPS, manufactured by Foster, falls into the same category as the EMITs used by Infinity. It is not a true ribbon, but rather a thin-film flat diaphragm with a conductive strip attached to the film and an array of powerful magnets providing the required magnetic field. A true ribbon has a thin, conductive foil diaphragm suspended between the poles of a powerful magnet and is usually loaded by a short horn to provide the necessary sensitivity, along with a transformer in the smaller versions for the needed impedance match. Small ribbon tweeters are now rare; the best-known examples of the breed were the Decca, Pioneer, and Sequerra. Longer ribbon tweeters currently in production include the Magnepan and the Apogee, neither of which uses horn loading.—Thomas J. Norton