Audio Physic Virgo III surround speaker system
Bowing to marketplace realities, Audio Physic has entered the home-theater arena by producing dedicated center-channel speakers to complement the looks and sounds of existing speakers originally designed for 2-channel listening. But can a high-performance speaker designed for listening to music in two channels find happiness in a home-theater surround-sound system?
That's what I hoped to find out when I asked Immedia, Audio Physic's US importer, for a pair of the new Virgo IIIs ($6995/pair); a pair of small, 2-way Brilon 2s ($3495/pair) for the surrounds; and a single, elegant-looking Minos ($6995), the company's latest powered subwoofer. There is no Virgo center-channel speaker; Immedia sent me an Avanti Center ($3995), which is said to work well with both Virgos and Avantis. Total system Price: a breathtaking $21,480. But given the cost of the Piega system it replaced in my home theater—around $15,000—it wasn't that much of a stretch.
As a longtime Audio Physic owner aware of both the company's design and speaker-placement philosophies, I wondered whether using speakers capable of exceptionally stunning imaging would make sense in a home theater, in which the positioning of display devices trumps sonic considerations. AP designs can be made to seemingly disappear, to re-create enormous physical spaces and generate eerily holographic images. But just plopping them down in a room won't necessarily deliver such results—why pay for that kind of performance and perhaps not be able to realize it? On the other hand, such a design might create a thrilling home theater experience no matter where it's placed.
The Virgo III represents a complete redesign of the original Virgo, including new drivers, but the earlier speaker's basic design concept has been retained: a narrow front baffle for minimal diffraction, tweeter and midrange drivers close together for point-source–like performance, and side-firing woofers close to the floor.
Reducing the amount of stored energy in drivers and cabinets has always been a major Audio Physic design goal, and in the case of the aluminum-cone midrange drivers used in the Virgo III and the more expensive Avanti III, designers Joachim Gerhard and Manfred Diestertich devoted a great deal of time and effort to doing just that. They developed Active Cone Damping (ACD), in which a device much like a rubber band fits around the circumference of the back of the cone, where it joins the surround. It looks simple, but designing it to correctly damp the cone's breakup mode wasn't easy.
When I visited the AP factory a few years ago, before the Virgo III and Avanti III designs were completed, Gerhard and Diestertich used raw drivers connected to a transistor radio tuned between stations to demonstrate what ACD can do. Undamped, the drivers had a metallic pinging sound when reproducing noise. With ACD, the sound was smoother, more natural—more like rushing water or wind.
The Virgo III uses a single dual-magnet midrange driver with a 4.5-inch, ceramic-coated aluminum cone, mounted directly below a 3/4-inch ring-radiator tweeter developed by Vifa and said to have extremely wideband response (upward of 50kHz), good dispersive characteristics, and well-balanced off-axis behavior. The tweeter mounts to the front baffle with a precision-machined aluminum trim ring that's damped to make it impervious to the cabinet's mechanical vibrations. Larger versions of both drivers are used in the Avanti III, which, when I reviewed it for Stereophile, measured extremely well and, more important, sounded good.
Bass is handled by two pairs of 6.5-inch Nomex-membrane drivers in a push-push configuration, one recessed pair placed back-to-back on each side of the cabinet, and mounted to an internally decoupled section of the cabinet designed to further shield the midrange and tweeter from mechanical vibrations. Only one woofer of each pair is active; the other has no motor and acts as a passive radiator. The design's claimed advantages include minimizing the width of the front baffle while maximizing the ratio of moving mass to magnetic energy, compared to a single large woofer cone. AP also claims that vibrations induced by back-to-back woofer movements tend to cancel each other out, and that this design has a highly symmetrical 3-dimensional pattern of sound radiation. Finally, the Virgo III's relatively light cabinet, which is extremely well-braced and -damped, features a complex 2-piece baffle, with a front element made of laminated hardwood and shaped to minimize unwanted diffractive and reflective behavior.
At only 40 inches tall, 6 inches wide, and 16 inches deep, the Virgo III will be room-friendly in both 2-channel audio and home theater configurations. In my room, the sleek, handsome pair, finished in light maple and fitted with the optional aluminum feet, fit comfortably and unobtrusively on either side of my Hitachi 65XWX20B 65-inch RPTV.
The new Avanti Center is among the more interesting and ingenious dedicated center speakers I've encountered. It appears to have a Virgo III tweeter-midrange module flanked by a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in separate side enclosures—but look more carefully and you'll see integrated, vertical-slit ports on either side of the tweeter-midrange section. The Avanti Center is bulky and heavy, yet its design is attractively dramatic in an almost Egyptian sort of way. More important, placing the tweeter above the midrange means that the Center almost surely avoids the lobing problems associated with horizontal D'Appolito designs placed on their sides and passed off as "center-channel speakers" by some manufacturers. (It certainly seemed to avoid these problems when I listened to it; we'll see what the measurements say.)
Handling rear-channel chores were a pair of Audio Physic Brilon 2s. Designed as a bookshelf or stand-mounted minimonitor, the compact Brilon 2 shares the Virgo III's tweeter-midrange array and baffle shape (combined with a rear-mounted passive radiator), making it the ideal surround choice because it tonally matches the fronts so well.
Filling out the very bottom was the new Minos, easily the most attractive-looking subwoofer I've reviewed: a sealed-box push-push design housing two 12-inch, long-throw cones and two bridged 300W amplifiers in a thin, relatively small, curvaceous cabinet weighing 99 pounds and intended for use in rooms of small to medium size. Audio Physic claims a frequency response of down to 10Hz, with low distortion and high output. The Minos can be driven via speaker-level inputs (cables provided), or balanced line-level inputs for the LFE channel.
The Minos' lack of highpass filtering could prove problematic if it's used with minimonitors driven full-range in a typical stereo system, but the solution is provided by home-theater preamp-processors and receivers equipped with bass management. In any case, the Virgo III is designed to be driven full-range. The Minos comes with a wired remote control with integral LCD screen, and three useful presets plus the ability to adjust Volume, Room Gain, Crossover Frequency, and Phase. Custom preferences can be stored in memory, and two Minoses can be controlled with a single remote.
The Minos' Room Gain control proved extremely useful. According to AP's Joachim Gerhard, generating deep bass in small rooms is problematic: below the frequency of the room's lowest standing wave the room becomes pressurized and, provided the subwoofer is capable of flat output at those low frequencies, the sound's amplitude rises as the frequency falls. This effect is called room gain, and if the output rises faster than the inherent low-frequency response of the subwoofer rolls off, the result can be boomy, bloated bass. That's why many designers of full-range speakers choose to roll off the deep bass at a controlled rate. The response drops in an anechoic chamber, but in the real world, depending on placement, room dimensions, and stiffness of the room's boundaries, the result may be a flat deep-bass response. The Minos' low-frequency response can be adjusted to compensate for this with the Room Gain control, resulting in a reasonably flat response free of boom and bloat.
Positioning, Setting Up, Adjusting
I placed one Virgo III on each side of my monitor, about 51/2 feet apart and a foot from the front wall—not because that's where they sounded best, but because that put them on either side of the TV with their fronts in the same plane as the screen. That took about 5 minutes to accomplish. Had I set them up in my downstairs 2-channel room, I could have been at it for hours, moving them inches one way or the other, toeing them in or out, doing whatever it took to achieve sonic perfection and a seamless, transparent picture.
I've been through this procedure dozens of times over the years, and I know what an enormous difference it can make in a 2-channel system. Home theater? Set it and forget it—or at least hope you've achieved decent results. Based on my experiences with other systems set up this way in my living-room home theater, I expected excellent results. Not everyone will be so lucky. Some rooms aren't as good, and while even a difficult room can be made to work, that usually requires the kind of placement flexibility that real-world home theaters seldom allow.
I hoisted the 57-pound Avanti Center atop my RPTV, which fortunately didn't sag and cause the screen to bow (a few more pounds and it might have). There's a solution for those of you wanting to put heavy center speakers atop fragile RPTVs: get a piece of 1/2-inch-thick glass cut to fit the set top, and use rubber or plastic feet at the corners. With the speaker atop the glass, all of the weight will bear down on the sides of the RPTV's cabinet—its strongest points—and leave the screen unaffected. (I thank Aerial Acoustics' Michael Kelly for that one.)
With the Brilon 2s facing each other on ear-height stands at either side of my sectional sofa, and the Minos in the Subwoofer Place of Honor in the left corner of the room (but not directly against the wall, per AP's excellent in-
structions), I was ready to set levels and customize the Minos for my room. The instructions offer a variety of setup options; Audio Physic recommends running the subwoofer passively from the L/R speaker terminals, but I drove the Minos solely from my Arcam pre-pro's Sub Out jack. I used the sub's AV-Mode preset, which disables its internal lowpass filter and inserts a 20Hz highpass filter.