VMPS RM40 Loudspeaker Review
What's a guy got to do to find a good pair of speakers?
By John J. Puccio
Here are a few observations about the VMPS RM40 (Ribbon Monitor) loudspeakers I've been using for the past few years. This won't be a lab test of the speakers, merely an owner's personal listening impressions, highly subjective, and not a little biased. Readers looking to find numbers, graphs, charts, and statistics will be disappointed and may safely turn to another article before I take up too much of their time.
To begin, I had been using FMI (Fulton Musical Industries) Model J's for a very long time before buying the VMPS RM40s. The fact was, I simply couldn't find anything affordable that I liked better. J. Gordon Holt had recommended Bob Fulton's J's way back in the early Seventies as the finest loudspeakers in the world. I had bought a pair used, a few months old in perfect condition, and they continued to play well until the day I sold them. So, why did I sell them? Frankly, I just thought it was about time. Yes, I know, my wife had the same reaction as you: If you liked them and they still worked, why sell them? Especially when I knew that anything that would sound as good would have to cost me an arm and a leg in this day and age. Be that as it may, I had my mind set.
Understand, I am but a poor and humble retired school teacher, and I couldn't afford an arm and a leg. So I set myself a limit of $5,000. That is a price that probably 99.9% of all Americans--the normal, average, sane ones--would consider outrageously high for a couple of loudspeakers, and that the other .1%, the lunatic audiophile fringe, would consider pocket change, about enough to cover the cost of speaker wire. With high-end loudspeakers costing upwards of $50,000, $75,000, $150,000 a pair, five grand doesn't sound like much. But it was a princely sum to me.
The problems I encountered looking for new speakers you can already guess. Bob Fulton had died years before, so FMI was no longer in business. Everything I listened to that sounded better than my old J's cost considerably more than $5,000. And everything I listened to that cost less than $5,000 sounded awful. Two things became clear: I didn't need the mid-fi gear hawked by the likes of Best Buy, Circuit City, or Fry's Electronics; and I couldn't afford the products from Wilson, Avalon, and others. What was a guy to do?
That's when I remembered Brian Cheney. Until his death in 2012, Brian had been making VMPS loudspeakers for almost as long as I had owned my Fultons, and Brian lived not twenty minutes from my house. Why I had not thought of him before, I couldn't guess. Well, Brian kept a low profile, even though everybody who knew anything about loudspeakers knew him and his company. I had met him years before and hoped he'd remember me. In fact, he was most gracious and welcomed me into his private listening room.
He introduced me to the RM40s, which coincidentally and without my telling him in advance were not too much more price-wise than the $5,000 I had in mind to spend (although the price subsequently went up). What I heard from the speakers was a revelation; they were not bright or dull or hard or soft or boomy. I heard only music from them, and I spent the better part of a Saturday morning auditioning them.
Brian explained that finding the ideal listening position meant not only angling the RM40s toward the listener but having them cross-fire about a foot in front of one's ears. That was exactly where I had positioned myself to hear them, and the sound sold me. We negotiated for some better capacitors and an oak finish to match the rest of my living room furniture, and Brian was good enough to deliver them and set them up himself. What more could I ask for? Well, Brian's mentioning that they had won a "Best of CES" award in the high-end audio category didn't hurt.
It took a few days for Brian to build them to my specifications, after which he and a couple of his assistants drove the speakers to my house in a van. A good thing he had two big, strong helpers with him, too, because the RM40s are about five-and-a-half feet tall and weigh in the neighborhood of 240 pounds each.
Brian then spent the next two hours setting them up. Two hours? What in the heck could he have been doing for two hours? Let me tell you. As I mentioned above, you have to angle them correctly. And you have to place them at the proper distance from the listening position. This is not as easy as it sounds, involving trial-and-error experimentation. Following that, he proceeded to twiddle with each speaker's midrange and treble control. Once he had those in balance, he needed to adjust the bass damping. How do you do that? With a small piece of clay or putty he uses in the center of each speaker's downward-firing passive subwoofer. He got on his hands and knees, reached under the speakers, and picked off bits of this resonance-dampening material no bigger than the end of a fingernail each time, first from one, then from the other, listening to its effect on the music, and picking off some more until at last he was satisfied. Would I have been confident doing this myself, as most users must do? I dunno. He made it look like an ordeal, and he knew exactly what he was doing. When he was finished, I have to admit the bass sounded strong, tight, dynamic, and well-integrated into the rest of the soundscape. Then he left, and I was on my own.
Before I continue, I should tell you what these devices look like. I've said they're tall and heavy, standing 66" high, 12" wide, and 18" deep. My wife says they look like space-alien coffins, but she also admits they look beautiful, especially in the polished oak finish we chose, with black grille cloth. Brian calls the speakers RM40s because they each contain a forty-inch vertical array of four midrange ribbon drivers, with a tweeter in the middle (two ribbons above the tweeter and two below it). Then, on the top and at the bottom of the tower are ten-inch woofers. It's the first time I had ever seen such an arrangement, a woofer top and bottom, but Brian explained they provided better balance, better integration with the other drivers, and better imaging that way. And facing downward at the bottom is a ten-inch passive radiator, vibrating sympathetically at a very low frequency. Brian claims that the bass has a -3 db point at 24 Hz, the ribbons taking over from 166 Hz, and the tweeter continuing the job above 7k Hz, with a -3 db point at 25K. Oh, and you can bi-amp them, something I took advantage of, having multi-amped my old speakers and having an extra amp left over.
The first thing I did when Brian left was measure the speakers with what meager tools I had on hand: A Radio Shack sound meter, a CD of third-octave sinusoidal test signals, a little spectrum analyzer, a second microphone, a pink-noise generator, and, to double check things, a CD of pink noise. The test-tone and pink-noise readouts, both made from the listening position, gave me approximately the same results. Taking into account my room's normal drop-off in treble at the listening distance and the room's natural bass rise at 60-80 Hz, the measurements showed an almost perfect response from 25-16K Hz. Amazing. I had done these measurement with the old J's many times in several different houses, as well as with a number of friends' speakers, and I had never seen such linear results. With one exception, which I'll get to in a minute, the frequency response was dead flat from 100 Hz to 2K Hz and dropped off gently at about two decibels per octave above that: Perfect specs for my listening position. A room-dependent bass rise of about 6-8 db below 100 Hz added a touch of warmth to the proceedings. And where Brian had claimed a -3 db fall-off at 24 Hz, I found his number to be almost exactly what both my tests reflected as well. At 25 Hz, the response showed flat; at 20 Hz, the response was down almost six decibels. I'll take Brian's word for it; his honesty in revealing his products' true specifications is legendary.
The deviation I spoke of? In the octave range 500-1000 Hz, I measured a broad, five decibel dip in both speakers, possibly an anomaly of my living room and nothing I would have noticed without the instruments.
OK, positioned properly, midrange and treble adjusted, bass dampened, what did the RM40s sound like in my house? (Heavens, at last, I thought he'd never get around to it.) They sounded great. I love them.
The single most conspicuous positive quality of the RM40s is their cohesiveness, their complete unity of sound. Rather than seeming like eight separate drivers per unit, each RM40 sounds like a single entity, a single big loudspeaker, with no obvious, audible junctures between the sonic characteristics of one element and another. This is no doubt due to the midrange ribbons handling the bulk of the job, as I've said from about 166 Hz to 7K Hz, and probably to the positioning of the top and bottom woofers, which produces a response that appears integrated into the rest of the sound field rather than simply bass energy coming from a specific spot. Thus, we get a unified aural output where separate drivers are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
I should also point out that the width of the sound stage can be dramatically outside the box, so to speak, depending on the recording, which combines with an overall natural tonal balance that culminates in a most-realistic presentation, with imaging side-to-side and front-to-back being as good as a recording allows it to be. Big orchestras are big, big, big; small chamber ensembles are notably smaller without being unduly stretched out; jazz groups are the size we would expect; solo instruments come to our ears as single points, without being elongated (again, given the recording); and rock bands are, well, rock bands, with no real-life counterparts so why am I even mentioning them.
Definition is perhaps not as crisp as with some electrostatics, but it is never hard or metallic, as some electrostatics can be. Nevertheless, definition is clear and well focused, just as we would hear from actual instruments. Most important, though, is transient impact: It's strong and properly controlled, as likely as not a result of the woofer damping I mentioned earlier that allows the bass line to come across cleanly, without any overshadowing fog. The Sheffield Drum Test on FIM's XRCD demo disc never sounded better. Bass is deep but never boomy, and highs are extended but never tingly, tinkly, or edgy (unless these are properties of the recording itself).
In short, after years of use, I can find nothing to complain about. The VMPS RM40s do everything I expect from a good pair of high-end loudspeakers, and they do it with a minimum of fuss and bother (except, perhaps, in initial setup). For their size they occupy a very small footprint, and regardless of their size they produce a very nice sound. They generate more airiness, more openness, more transparency, more impact, more everything than just about any other speaker I've heard. I spent most of the first year I had them listening anew to all of my favorite recordings. And you know what? From classical to jazz to folk to rock, the recordings never sounded better. In fact, I found I had not only bought myself a new pair of speakers, I had bought myself a whole new record collection in the process.
Although with Brian's passing, VMPS is no longer in business, one will no doubt be able to find his products on the used market for some time to come. I still recommend them.
On a related note, VMPS also produced an inexpensive add-on ambience tweeter that made the RM40 (or any other speaker for that matter) sound even better. For a full review of the add-ons, click here: http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2010/10/vmps-ambience-tweeter-review.html.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.