VAF Signature i91 MKIII SE Standmount Loudspeakers Review

Posted on 21st June, 2023

VAF Signature i91 MKIII SE Standmount Loudspeakers Review

Craig Joyce auditions this great sounding large standmount loudspeaker…

VAF

Signature i91 MKIII SE Loudspeakers

AUD $4,998 RRP

VAF Research is recognised for its popular range of Australian-made, time-aligned loudspeakers. Its Signature i91 MkIII SE model is touted as offering, “a level of accuracy and performance unparalleled in any other loudspeaker of its size or price”, no less. Founded in 1978 by entrepreneur Philip Vafiadis, the Adelaide-based company has carved out a singular approach to speaker design. This strategy has not only solidified its reputation domestically but has also let the company make considerable strides in expanding its brand internationally – with over 10,000 pairs now sold.

Through customer interactions in 2019, VAF pinpointed a desire for more high-end options within the Signature product line. When a customer requested an upgrade to his i93 speakers, specifically asking for superior capacitors and a Beryllium tweeter, the company developed the i93 SE series. This model, with its new tweeter and other internal improvements, influenced the design of other models in the Signature range.

In collaboration with SEAS Norway, VAF created a high-excursion coaxial driver with a white magnesium alloy tweeter dome and woofer cone. This complemented the mid/tweeter coax driver already being used, and is claimed to have resulted in significant performance enhancements – including improved linear excursion and lower distortion at higher volumes. The new driver served as the foundation for three new speakers in the range, namely the i24, i25, and i35. The i24 used an i90 cabinet, and the i25 utilised a cabinet similar to the i91. Towards the end of the year, VAF simplifed its model structure, and the i24 became the i90 SE, and the i25 the i91 SE, both being enhanced versions of existing models.

UP CLOSE

The i91 MK III SE standmounter reviewed here measures 360x220x440mm and weighs 15kg. Available in American Cherry, Australian Jarrah, Black Oak, Piano Black, Piano Palisander and Tasmanian Blackwood finishes, the cabinet is constructed from MDF up to 36mm thick with extensive internal cross-bracing. VAF sources the cabinet from local craftsmen in South Australia, which supports local businesses and means that custom orders can be accommodated – less easy to do when cabinets come from abroad. Optional stands and spikes are available. 

VAF's ethos is on clear display in the cabinet's design, including using natural, acoustically absorbent fibre treatments around the driver to minimise diffraction at the front of the cabinet. Through the inclusion of the dual-concentric driver, the company has managed to create a design that is both compact and front-ported. This allows the frequency response to extend below 40Hz and provides flexibility in positioning. 

Compared to standard multi-driver designs, the coaxial driver is said to significantly enhance both on and off-axis performance, with consistent inter-driver time alignment that works over a broad listening field. This is due to the tweeter's acoustic centre being physically aligned with the woofer's acoustic centre. Helpfully, this also makes these speakers perfect for centre channel use when positioned horizontally, which explains why VAF offers the speaker individually and in matched pairs.

Nominally rated as a 6-ohm load, the i91 SE has a claimed continuous power handling of 110W RMS at 8 ohms with short power peaks of over 250W. Sporting a sensitivity of 88dB, it can put out a substantial 98dB sound pressure level at 3 metres with 100W of power, the company says. VAF recommends positioning both boxes around 5 degrees off-axis for optimal performance from your preferred listening position.

The crossover in the i91SE loudspeakers is elegant and simple, comprising a second-order high-frequency and first-order low-frequency design. Only two capacitors are involved, one for the tweeter input and another to address the woofer's break-up frequency area and to establish the necessary roll-off. The i91 SE adds higher specification French Solen caps in the crossover and Analysis Plus Choc Oval internal cabling. 

Hand assembly is a crucial aspect of the crossover's construction. Components are directly connected to each other using hook and loop soldered connections, negating the need for printed circuit boards. The air-cored inductors are crafted with a blend of manual and machine assistance, with VAF utilising a robust 2mm copper winding wire for the woofer input inductor. Post-winding, the inductors are manually adjusted to ensure they meet the specification, before being dipped in electrical varnish and allowed to dry. This is to stop them vibrating when in use, in turn improving sound quality.

To evaluate the VAF Signature i91 MKIII SEs in my system, I streamed hi-res audio from Qobuz using Roon, which was then put through a DAC-equipped Hegel H190 integrated amplifier.

THE LISTENING

The i91 SE is a seriously capable standmount loudspeaker. Its midband is highly impressive, with imaging and soundstaging that's a little short of superb at the price. Bass is fantastic, with a level of low-frequency extension that most would not believe, given its size. It's more than the match for other competitors I've tried of late, such as JBL's 4312G and the Kingfisher A16 – both of which are very distinguished contenders in their own right. Tonally it is closer to the Kingfisher than the JBL, albeit with slightly less mid-bass warmth. Despite its inherent precision, the VAF doesn't quite have the surgical accuracy of the latter, but it's there or thereabouts.

For example, David Bowie's Art Decade, from his famous Low album, sounded nothing short of enthralling. This is a brilliant example of the great man's minimalist production style during his nineteen seventies Berlin phase. The wide soundstage of the VAF presented a magnificent musical image with almost 'drive-in movies' widescreen width. It served up an impressively expansive sonic landscape with an immersive sense of ambience. While detail retrieval didn't quite match the JBL, the overall listening experience was still very enjoyable, offering a pleasing balance between sonic accuracy and general listening pleasure.

Pepito Bleu by Sebastien Tellier & The Alliance Bleue Ensemble was an extremely pleasing experience via these loudspeakers. The tonal accuracy of the strings was spot on, providing a solid foundation from which the synthetic effects emerged in a compelling fashion. The midrange crispness really shone through when the percussion came in, with the reverb-laden snare hits offering an exciting and addictive quality to the sound. Tellier's baritone vocals, performed in French, were deep and beguiling, and added a rich depth. The sampled choir elements were presented in an elegiac yet inviting manner, drawing me further into the emotional undercurrent of the track. This became an intense, emotionally charged listening experience.

While immersing myself in King Midas Sound's In the Night from the album Solitude, I was met with an almost spoken-word approach to music – a serious departure from Kevin Martin's usual style – with The Bug and Techno Animal. The track opened with a discordant electronic backdrop that gradually evolves to become more complex. Out of this synthetic haze, Roger Robinson's vocals emerged and were masterfully reproduced. The light reverb gave the eerie impression of Robinson standing directly in front of the speakers, creating a real sense of immediacy. The VAF's skilful vocal presentation rendered Robinson's voice with pinpoint accuracy; this underlines this manufacturer's well-earned reputation for exceptional stereo soundstaging.

Spooling up Primal Scream's Movin' On Up, I was struck by the sheer breadth of the soundstage on this personal favourite song of mine – with the percussion extending as wide as my room's dimensions would allow. Guitars were crisply reproduced, lending a clear and vital quality to the mix. Vocal reproduction was top-notch, with Bobby Gillespie and Denise Johnson's voices presented at their finest – they were an absolute delight to listen to. This loudspeaker brilliantly captured every element in the mix, gleefully unravelling the soundstage before me.

During my encounter with The Horrors' Machine, I was drawn to the skilful production of Paul Epworth, which cleverly borrows elements from industrial and shoegaze genres, delivering them in a more commercial pop album format. Faris Badwan's vocals were intentionally mixed in a recessed fashion yet commanded centre stage, an intriguing blend that the i91SE handled with aplomb. The track's deep synthetic production, layered with an array of effects that can easily get muddled on lesser speakers, was kept coherent and distinct. The production has an extremely dense soundfield and plenty of low-frequency content, serving as a testament to the speaker's adept handling of bass-heavy productions. I loved its clarity, depth and precision.

THE VERDICT

In many respects, VAF's Signature i91 MKIII SE is a standmounting loudspeaker that performs more like a floorstander – with bass depth and grip that's easily on a par with larger rivals. It also boasts excellent midrange performance, with exceptional vocal reproduction and soundstaging. This makes for an extremely capable yet practical standmounter that's hard not to love. It offers great value in a crowded field and is thus an essential audition if you're looking for a reasonably priced, room-friendly loudspeaker. 

For more information visit VAF

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    Craig Joyce's avatar

    Craig Joyce

    With an engineering degree in digital signal processing and a storied career in IT networking and cyber security, Craig loves to push the boundaries of audio technologies. An aficionado of live music with personal detours in music production and event promotion, Craig is a long time enthusiast of post punk, electronic and experimental music.

    Posted in:Hi-Fi Loudspeakers Bookshelf / Standmount Applause Awards 2023
    Tags: vaf  australian made  vaf research 



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