Hsu Research’s Ventriloquist VT-12
In order to be fair I have to say this up front, I tend to dislike satellite speakers. These little speakers do not match the performance or frequency range of a full speaker containing a tweeter, mid range and woofer. Well, at least that was my attitude when I opened the box of Hsu Research’s Ventriloquist VT-12 speaker set and the matching SFT-1 sub woofer. Now, after listening to them I seriously have to reconsider my long held opinion. These speakers, when properly set up and calibrated, provided a rich, full response over the entire audible spectrum. Add to this a price under $500 and you have a winning combination. I have not seen performance and affordability combined in such a small size. For a little icing on the cake this speaker system comes out of the box ready for 6.1 matrixed audio.
Usually a reviewer does not have to go into the theory behind a speaker system but then again this is no usual set of speakers. As noted, the typical satellite speaker is not very good at reproducing the entire spectrum of audio frequencies. Most disconcerting is the failure to address the all important range between 80 – 250 Hz. This black hole of sound is addressed in a novel manner by Hsu Research. Instead of connecting the front and rear speakers directly they are channeled through the center speaker. This center speaker contains a pair of 4" by 6" woofers that can handle the frequencies ignored by the satellite sets. This arrangement also takes much of the low end burden from the sub woofer; a common occurrence with satellite set ups, the VT-12 overall, makes considerable progress in filling this sonic hole providing a full rich sound.
While the installation of the VT-12 requires a couple of extras sets of cables it is not so overly complicated as to be a problem even for the most novice of home theater enthusiasts. Instead of connecting the front speakers directly to the receiver you run the wires first to the center speaker. From there wires go out to the fronts. To make this task as painless as possible all speakers in the VT-12 set have five way, gold plated binding posts. The actual step of connecting the wires was straight forward, once you get used to the extra wires that are required. Not only are the included instructions more specific than you usually find with speakers but there is excellent on line support to help with any problems you may encounter. Many people are already familiar with this type of wiring from their sub woofer where the front speakers come off the sub instead of through a direct connection. The difference here is the woofers of the VT-12 center speaker are better suited for the 80 to 250 Hz range than a normal sub woofer.
There is a growing interest in the new Dolby EX ad DTS ES seven channel audio formats. Included with the VT-12 is an additional satellite speaker for use as a rear center channel. If you have invested in a true seven channel receiver or amp then you can just connect the rear center speaker to the appropriate terminal. If you are still in the realm of six channel audio then the VT-12 simplifies added the seventh speaker. Basically, you connect the rear center speaker between the terminals for the normal rear speaker. You can only get matrixed sound from the rear center but most currently produced EX and ES audio tracks contained the matrix information.
While the VT-12 does not come with a sub woofer Hsu Research offers a wide variety as a separate purchase. They included their STF-1 sub woofer for the purpose of this review. The set up of the sub woofer is pretty much the same as with any such speaker.
What really separates the installation of the VT-12 from other surround speaker sets is the placement of the speakers is much more critical to the quality of sound. This is where the online support offered by Hsu Research comes in, knowing that their consumers may have some problems with getting the speakers positioned just right they have a very extensive form on their web page to obtain assistance. You enter the dimensions of your room, the make and model numbers for your equipment, where the doorways are, some preferences in listening and the audio sources you have and they will get back to you in a matter of days with a detailed list of instructions.
Placement is far more critical with these speakers than any other I have come across. I noticed while testing even small variations in where the speakers are set up will alter the audio characteristics a lot. It did help to make sure that if the center speaker is on top of your television it is angled slightly down. This seemed to help with creating the simulation of the lower frequencies coming from the small front and rear speakers.
The VT-12s came with two discs to help in calibration and testing. The first is a DVD-R that includes scenes from some well known Dolby EX films including Finding Nemo, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings and Harry Potter. There is also a music disc with some incredible orchestral pieces on it. Once I set the speakers up according to the suggestions I received from the form on the web site the performance was far better than I could have imagined. The tone was rich and full, closing my eyes I thought the speakers where far larger than they actually are. The front speakers provided the usual separation of channels, as did the rears. The STF-1 sub woofer boomed into the room shaking the floor. In this entire manufacturer provided tests performed extremely well.
One note here, when I set up the speakers using my standard calibration discs, Video Essentials and Ultimate DVD Platinum, some of the effect was lost. It is best to stick with the advice of the experts here. Since it is free and fairly fast in response there is little or no problem with this approach. It appears that a normal calibration cannot take into account the novel approach of having the lower frequencies coming exclusively from the center channel. The VT-12 is very sensitive to even slight changes in the position. This may provide some problems in the initial set up and does somewhat restrict just where in your room you can place the speakers. Thankfully the support staff at Hsu is more than willing to help out.
Next I decided to test the system against my usual list of films. I concentrated on films with noteworthy use of low frequencies in the four main speakers. One criteria I like to use are films with a nice thunderstorm. When I listened to a venerable classic, Twister, I noticed that the rolling thunder effect was lost. With normal speakers capable of reproducing the low range the thunder appeared to move around the room. With the VT-12 system it seemed to remain located in the center of the room. I also noticed this with Terminator 2 during the scene when the terminator first appears. On a standard system the lightening crackles all around you, here it seemed more centered. Considering the cost and size of the speakers most will consider this a realistic tradeoff.
One very notable aspect of this system is the all important center speaker. The dialogue was noticeably cleaner; each word was understandable and stood out from the background music and effects. Too many systems provide only the bare minimum for the center channel speaker; here you get one that faithfully reproduces the full spectrum of sound.
Finally there is the addition of the rear center channel speaker. This little speaker did an excellent job of filling in the center rear of the audio field. It is important to remember that this is not a true, discrete channel but rather it is matrixed, derived from audio information contained in the two rear channels. Practically, this is not that important at this point in time. EX and ES titles represent only a fraction of the DVD presently released. Naturally, these discs did better at producing a realistic rear center sound. The VT-12 was capable of using the information on EX and ES discs to create a very convincing audio environment. Even with standard six channel DVDs the effect produced was notable. Logistically there are some problems with getting this seventh speaker properly placed in the room. If you have your couch up against a wall the rear speaker will wind up positioned almost directly over your head.
The Hsu VT-12 is an excellent solution for those that are looking for a compact set of speakers. It beats out any speakers of similar dimensions and price. The extra consideration of such exacting placement is worth it for the performance delivered. Initially the use of the term ‘ventriloquist’ made me think this was just another gimmick that would be disappointing, as it turns out that assessment was thankfully not true. The design and look of these speakers is top notch. While they can not compete with true full range speakers the money you save will buy a ton of DVDs for your collection. Hsu Research provides speakers that are small in size but huge in sound. Even when you consider the sub woofer is extra the cost is well within a realistic price range, especially consider the professional sound that is created. For people with small to medium size rooms this is a must have set.