Phase Technology dARTS DCB1.0-LCR Speaker System
There's nothing unusual about a father who's eager to show off pictures of his kids and rave about how great they are. This is one of those moments, except Ken Hecht, the president of Phase Technology, isn't showing me pictures (I'm getting a real-life look), nor is he exaggerating how good these particular offspring are. In truth, we're not talking about little people at all. What Hecht is so proud to show me is a very special—I know, that's what they all say—home theater speaker system he's been dreaming about and working on for the better part of 15 years. It's a system that, he tells me, "will make any room sound like the best theater in the country." As if that weren't enough, he claims that the system can expand the sweet spot from the typical single-pair-of-ears hot seat to an area large enough for half a dozen or more people to sit comfortably and enjoy a movie. He's christened the system with the name Digital Audio Reference Theater System, or dARTS for short. (Thankfully, his real children have names that roll a little more easily off the tongue.)
Hecht is definitely not new to the speaker business. His legendary father, Bill Hecht, founded Phase Tech's parent company, United Speaker Systems, in 1955 and began building speakers for Avery Fisher (another legendary name). In 1967, the elder Hecht patented the soft dome tweeter—one of the most widely used speaker drivers in this part of the solar system. From the beginning, United Speaker Systems has built, and continues to build, speakers for a surprising number of well-known companies. (Modesty—and legal agreements—prevent them from saying exactly which ones.) In addition to the company's storied history, they're one of the last vertically integrated speaker manufacturers in the country that makes everything, including the component drivers and crossovers, and assembles it all in-house.
With this kind of pedigree, what took the younger Hecht so long to achieve his dream? The short answer is, he's not so good at math.
It's a Numbers Game
That's not really fair. No one has been good enough at the math—until recently. You're probably familiar with all the problems that things like walls, floors, and ceilings can cause when you play a set of speakers in your room. Sonic reflections conspire to ruin the sense of depth and imaging. Room modes play havoc with the frequency response. Change your location in the room, and all the variables change—and so does your experience of the performance. All of these problems are excruciatingly difficult to control because they're not merely related to frequency; they're also highly time dependent.
Creating a system that sounds the same regardless of the room in which you install it and, at the same time, provides everyone in the room with the same audio experience means being able to crunch some numbers. Lots of numbers. It's not easy to adjust frequency response, but some products can accomplish the task with varying degrees of success. Time, on the other hand, well, time waits for no one—at least until Audyssey's MultEQ XT technology came along. After he heard an early experimental version of the technology, Hecht decided to begin working with Audyssey to develop a version specifically for his new system.
It's simple to describe what Audyssey's MultEQ XT processing does in Phase Technology's dARTS package. It dynamically adjusts the speakers' output so the system will sound the same no matter which room you install it in. By itself, that feat is pretty amazing, but there's more to the story. To hear a great stereo or multichannel image through most systems, you'd have to lock your head and your butt in one listening position. (The music may move you, but you'd better not move if you want to hear the music.) But MultEQ XT expands that single-seat sweet spot into a shared, multi-listener experience.
It's not so easy to explain how Audyssey does what they do. In the typical dARTS installation, an installer takes audio measurements at various points throughout the listening room. Hecht tells me that 12 to 14 measured points are optimal in most rooms, but an installer can do 32 (or more) if necessary. The installer then feeds the numbers into a computer running a proprietary version of the MultEQ XT processing program. The program painstakingly analyzes the room's acoustics and, using 512 filters per channel, calculates the frequency and time changes that it needs to make for each individual driver in the system.
The system downloads the data into memory onboard the dARTS' unique 16-channel, 250-watts-per-channel digital amplifier. Each speaker driver has its own individual amplifier channel, and no passive or analog crossovers are needed anywhere in the system. Hecht says this makes Phase Tech's dARTS the world's first digitally controlled and digitally amplified system.
What's Half a Decibel Between Friends?
MultEQ XT doesn't make crappy speakers sound good. It keeps rooms from making good speakers sound crappy. Speaker quality is incredibly important, and Phase Tech doesn't need Audyssey's, or anyone else's, help when it comes to creating excellent speakers. Having listened to the dARTS package, though, I think the 50-year-old company has outdone themselves this time.
You can get the dARTS system in one of three flavors: freestanding, in-wall, or unfinished for a behind-the-wall installation. I heard the behind-the-wall version. It's hard to believe, but, before any dARTS package leaves the factory, Phase Tech matches each and every speaker's driver to within +/– 0.5 decibels of their reference driver. (Even the best passive speaker systems are hand tuned to only +/– 1 dB.) This ensures that, once installed, the complete system matches the factory's equalization capabilities to within +/– 0.5 dB.
As each driver couples directly to its own digital amplifier channel, Hecht discovered that he needed to design new drivers in order to take full advantage of the amps' superior resolution and dynamics. These include an updated soft dome tweeter developed specifically for the system ("the best we've ever designed"), as well as new woofers that use a three-layer, woven-glass, honeycomb composite instead of polymineral cones. The subs use woofers made from an extremely stiff polymineral composite material.
Phase Technology's dARTS is, without a doubt, one of the best systems I've heard—and that's without the typical "within its price range" qualification. It's one of the few systems that can make you worry that your own ears are the weak link in the sonic chain. (I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy.) The system sounds exactly the way I imagine a bullet-train ride must feel. It's as if the dARTS were gliding on air without the least bit of effort or any hint of a rough spot or bump in the road—but, in an instant, it can accelerate to absolutely frightening speeds.
Do You Dream in Multichannel?
The drum scene in House of Flying Daggers offered a great glimpse into the way the dARTS system handles bass. Even at the loudest levels, there was no sense that the speakers or amp were ready to give up or were straining in any way. I was extremely surprised by how much audible detail I heard within each depth charge's explosion in U-571, too.
It's hard to overstate the MultEQ XT processing's effect. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, when the characters first meet and a free-for-all shootout begins, the vocals from the center channel were crisp and clearly audible without the tonal-balance problems that often result when you mount a speaker close to the floor under the projection screen. During the fight, the sweet spot extended across the room before it collapsed about a yard away from the side and back walls.
There's a scene in the movie Open Range in which the rain is pouring down on a classic Western-movie's muddy street. With the MultEQ XT processing turned off, the system sounded plenty convincing—lots better than most, as a matter of fact. But, with the processing on, the effect was as dramatic as if you'd suddenly opened a door and stepped directly out into a real thunderstorm (without getting wet, of course). The expanded sonic envelope brought that intense sensation of pouring rain to each seat in the room.
Dream systems are never cheap. The system that I tested goes for $17,500 plus installation, although there are dARTS configurations that start at $14,500. On the other hand, dreams don't always come true. Thankfully, this is a case in which a particularly advanced dream has become a wonderful reality. All the cutting-edge elements in the dARTS system—processor, amp, speakers—function flawlessly with one another to create a system that can indeed make just about any room sound as close to the best home theater as you can get. It totally comes through on the promise of bringing the same experience to every listener in the room. If you can afford it, buy it. If, like me, you can't afford it, you should find a dealer who can give you a demonstration. And, if you've become a little bored or jaded with the whole home theater thing, this system might just get you dreaming again.
• Everyone in the room has the same listening experience
• Identical outstanding performance no matter which room you install it in
• Hidden, behind-the-wall design