Before I discuss the synergy of this system as a whole, which is the ONLY way to consider the sonic results it accomplishes, I want to take just a bit of time to focus on the ULTRA 11. This product in particular, and the entire ULTRA lineup in general, represents the culmination of some 40 years of design heritage, starting with the unique work of Albert Von Schweikert, as now realized by designer and Vice President Leif Swanson, and Albert's son, Damon Von Schweikert, and is something unique.
The front baffle of the ULTRA 11 is impressive, with its concentric array using four 9" reinforced ceramic mid-bass drivers, two 7" reinforced ceramic midranges, two beryllium tweeters, and a 5" aluminum ribbon super tweeter. Stepping behind the ULTRA 11 and getting a glimpse of the rear baffle will give you pause, and an inclination as to just how this megalithic speaker pulls off a good bit of its extraordinary magic. Here we find a pair of 15" sealed subwoofers, one at the top of the enclosure, the second near the bottom, each powered by its own 1,000-Watt amplifier, and a central mounted ambient retrieval array, including a pair of horn loaded Magnesium tweeters (chosen because they can operate at lower frequencies than the Beryllium tweeters on the front), one above, and one below, a second ribbon super tweeter, identical to the one used on the front baffle.
To give you an idea of how well and accurately the ULTRA 11 does bass, I'll point to Roger Waters magnum opus, Amused to Death, [Analogue Productions APP 468761], which I had with me at this event. At the end of track 6, "Late Home Tonight, Part I," a fighter jet releases a missile and the resultant ridiculously dynamic detonation presents a serious challenge for any loudspeaker. I've heard this passage recreated by many excellent speakers since its original release in 1992, mostly portrayed as a seriously powerful pressurization of the air in the room by even the most competent of transducers.
Yet with the ULTRA 11, this intense event is presented more literally as a moving pressure wave, one you can literally feel as the sensation of this wave rolls through the room, starting well behind the speakers, rushing past you on its way toward the back wall! While I've had mildly similar experiences from two other exotic and pricey loudspeakers, nothing else even approaches the unparalleled and dramatic peripatetic wave experience that they present.
Overall, the ULTRA 11's driven by this all VAC statement series of electronics exhibits the most superb dynamic performance I've yet experienced. As much subtlety as it can expose in the microdynamic realm, it simply stuns listeners with its macro capabilities, revealing the best I've ever heard in both weight and impact, yet with bass pitch definition that is unsurpassed in my experience. Musical power was unyielding, with articulate weight and attack on torturous drum or bass tracks. This system, more frequently and fully, has the ability to evoked fight or flight responses with musical drama like that server up at the conclusion of "It's a Miracle," also from Roger Waters' Amused to Death. In terms of dynamics, both the sense of unfettered ease and seemingly unrestricted scaling, when it comes to presenting the sheer power and scale of a performance, the ULTRA 11 simply has no equal, period.
Also, for a loudspeaker system communicating with the blended voices of 28 drivers, its musical coherence is extraordinary. The sense of presence, the realism, scale, and vitality of the music, is simply the most truthful I've heard. Maintaining the proper loudness across the spectrum of each instrument, from its lowest to highest registers, its broadband accuracy, taken in conjunction with the essential non-existence of any notable additional coloration or loss of harmonic body across the entire audible spectrum, represents a benchmark in my experience, one only shared very closely with the ULTRA 9.
Before I move back to discussing the unqualified allure this remarkable system generates, I want to make it clear that I am not alone in my recognition of the singular achievement of the VSA ULTRA line of loudspeakers. I have had several other colleagues share with me privately that they clearly see the ULTRA 11 and 9 as occupying at least the equivalent, if not loftier, strata of product as that held by the likes of Magico, Wilson Audio, and YG Acoustics. Some have gone on record saying so, but others, perhaps edited because of concern about the politics or revenue streams of their publications, have held back, being considerably more restrained in their appraisals. It is my belief that we, as journalists privileged to be allowed to cover this amazing industry, in my case for some 35 years, should share our honest sense of what we hear, and why. That, dear readers, is what I strive to do with each and every report or review I file.
As you may well expect from a system powered by an all-valve statement series of electronics from a Maestro like Kevin Hayes, one of the industry's premier designers, this system portrays tone color, or instrumental timbre, with an accuracy that I have only witnessed a handful of times previously. In fact, ULTRA 9's, when hitched to a similar set of electronics and ancillaries, actually may ever so slightly edge out the 11s in this category.
Using four of the simply gorgeous looking 450iQ monoblocks, with eight KT88s per chassis, or 32 in all, configured in a vertical biamp configuration, it should come as no surprise that system voicing is full bodied and replete with the complex harmonic structure, including the textural nature, of instrumental voices, rendering a voiced tonal balance that is as faultless as I've experienced. Listening to vocals, like those of David Bowie from the 45 RPM 12" single, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", or Eric Woolfson, from "The Tell-Tale Heart," or "The Cask of Amontillado," from the Mobile Fidelity release of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, is chillingly stark and emotive.
Transients are so spectacularly fast, distinctly defined, and cleanly delineated, that we are informed as much by the silence between musical impulses as by the effortless drive and pace of the musical gestalt it creates. This system embodies a sonic representation so immediate and palpable, so vivid and articulate in detail, so resolute and transparent, so utterly correct in voice, and so overwhelmingly organic in nature, that you simply must hear it to understand. Mere words are, well, inadequate at best.
All these extraordinary attributes combine to present an unsurpassed degree of soundstaging; undeniably accurate layering, image specificity, size, and shape. The overall spatial presentation, hall dimensionality, instrumental placement and interrelationships, the space between and around those remarkably defined voices, and reverberant cues, set the benchmark for performance here.
And, as goose-bump inducing as this system is, late in the afternoon Sunday we all got a bit of a treat, and an unexpected shock. After doing some other testing, Leif and Damon decided to put the Endeavor E3 loudspeakers into play, just to see how it sounded. Positioning them just about a foot-and-a-half inside, and about 10' in further into the room than the position occupied by the ULTRA 11's, they connected the Masterbuilt Ultra speaker cables and fired them up.
To say my jaw dropped would be an understatement! Here was a very good, yet much more modest loudspeaker, one that, depending on finish, starts at $8,000 a pair, one that was designed to be placed something like 18" to 40" away from a wall (for bass support), sitting fully 7 feet plus away from the back wall, and more like 15' or 17' away from the side walls, making convincingly engaging music!
There was solid, detailed, powerful bass! Midrange had astonishing color, excellent texture, and unmistakably correct in timber. Treble was extended, airy, and full of shimmer. Tonal density and pitch definition were spectacular. How the hell could this be! Ok, to be fair, they did not have the same degree of resolution, transparency, and dynamic scaling of the ULTRA 11s', but the familial sonic resemblance was more than just close, it was downright spooky! And, while I'm sure that a major part of the magic we heard came from using nearly a million bucks worth of sources, electronics, and cabling to drive an $8,000 loudspeaker, I'm just as willing to wager that not too many speakers in this price-range could begin to pull off such a dumbfounding impersonation of their $300,000 über big brother's.
Keep in mind, this substitution was done during open show hours, and the real compelling statement came from one of the listeners in the room, unaware that the E3 was the active speaker. I heard him wonder aloud to someone he was with what the "smaller" speaker might sound like, since the "big ones" were so good! It was clear that he was under the impression that he was listening to the ULTRA 11s! The results were just magnificent, bordering on the unbelievable; so much so that if I hadn't been there and heard it for myself, I could easily be tempted to call bullshit!
I guess my point here is that Von Schweikert Audio has over 40-years of experience in building and advanced the art of loudspeaker design. They have in fact, with one notable exception in Wilson Audio, which was also founded in the late 1970's, been pushing the envelope of loudspeaker design longer than any other company manufacturing speakers today. With that kind of experience and record, should it really come as any surprise that they have the ability to create this kind of magic at any price point, even at 1/30 the cost of their flagship transducing system?
This magical systems ability to render stark transparency to the recordings, to reveal any nuance in detail or scale, replete with musical relevance, marks an entirely new threshold of accomplishment, well beyond merely disarming. Its ability to resolve the subtle differences between recordings, their distinct nuances, to reveal staging cues and differences, microphone placement and type, is simply unsurpassed. Finally, its ability to almost utterly dematerialize, to vanish from your awareness, to disappear in service to its purpose, and transparently render a convincingly musical event, is awe inspiring! In the past, I've said that this system is the most intimately communicative and authentically musically expressive system I've ever had the pleasure of sitting down in front of in my more than three decades as a professional reviewer. Well, they somehow keep improving and moving the bar higher and higher, little by little. The system experience at Capital Audiofest 2018 does not merely raise the bar, it SETS the bar today.
In summation, this is the most impressive, engaging, and musical system I've ever heard, and clearly the finest audio system to be taken out on tour regularly. While I urge any and all of you who love music and the art of reproducing it in the home to go hear this benchmark system, beware. I don't even turn on my reference system (which is no slouch, by any measure) for several days to a week after returning from hearing this system for fear of being disappointed by comparison. But, if you are interested in hearing the pinnacle of what the best designs in the industry can do right now, today, seek out and listen to this magnificent system. It presents the most authentically musical experience I know of, far more convincing than any other I have experienced. It will change the way you hear everything else, save live music, for some time to come. The only thing left to say at this point is...
Enjoy the Music!