Home Theater on a Budget Page 3

Hsu Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1Hsu Research's value-packed HToB entry comes in two cartons, but both could almost fit in the JBL's master pack. More important, the seven-piece, 6.1-channel suite applies some clever engineering to a problem that has dogged minispeaker systems from Day 1: tiny satellites simply can't produce enough bass to blend seamlessly with subwoofers. Hsu's fix is the Ventriloquist VT641 center speaker, which has inputs and outputs for the left and right front speakers. Front L/R signals from your receiver are routed through the center speaker, where special crossover and mixing circuitry let its dual woofers fill in the warmth and weight for the left and right channels that would otherwise be missing or heard mostly as boom from the subwoofer. Hsu Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1

Hsu Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1
PRICE $498 factory-direct; $744 list in stores
PLUS ? Center speaker ?lls out sound from tiny L/R satellites, eases sub/sat blend ? Deep, powerful, compact subwoofer ? Includes back surround speaker usable with either 5.1- or 6.1-channel receiver ? Superb value
MINUS ? Satellite position is critical for accurate treble balance ? No mounting hardware supplied

It's a practical solution because the L/R satellites can be very small while still maintaining good stereo separation - it's difficult to hear where frequencies below about 200 Hz are coming from, especially with a centered source like the VT641. The Hsu VT254 left/right satellite is a simple "one-way" speaker with just a single 2 1/2 -inch "full-range" driver. However, I discovered a surprisingly elaborate "crossover" circuit inside - really a response-shaping network, since there's no tweeter to cross over to!

SETUP I arranged the Hsu system like the others, with the center speaker just below the screen and the L/R fronts on stands to either side. Hsu supplies no brackets or stands beyond a simple tilt base for the center speaker, but the VT254/251 satellites include both keyholes and threaded inserts for mounting hardware. Though equipped with serious multiway terminals, the VT254s are so light that my heavy speaker cables tended to pull them out of position.

Hsu includes a switch on the back of the VT641 to defeat the "ventriloquist" action, allowing you to judge its contribution to the overall sound. With it switched off, the system sounded thin and weak - with it on, the sound was rich and full. But there can be too much of a good thing, and the midbass was a little gooey. The solution was simple: I put the VT641 on a shelf above the TV, and the heaviness nearly disappeared.

I heard smooth, extended treble when I sat between the L/R front satellites, which I toed in and adjusted for my seated ear height. But when I moved out of the sweet spot, either by standing up or by moving much to the right or left, treble "air" diminished. The sweet spot was plenty wide enough for three-across seating, however.

ventiloquist backThe Ventriloquist VT-12 is a 6.1-chan nel system, with a single back surround (the VT251) that's identical to the VT254 but has dual inputs. If you have a 6.1-channel receiver or amplifier, you bridge these inputs and feed in the back surround signal. But if your system is only 5.1-channel-capable, you can connect the left/right surround outputs instead (in parallel with those speakers), and the VT251 will generate a back surround channel by summing the L/R signals. I also tried placing the side surrounds on their backs, bouncing sound off the ceiling at about 45°, and this dramatically improved the ambience for movies.

MUSIC/MOVIE PERFORMANCE There was no question that the Ventriloquist worked as advertised. The Hsu system sounded warm and rich, lending authority to male vocals like James Taylor's (one of my reference voices). The VT641 center speaker matched its mates exceptionally well, but I heard some falloff in the treble when I listened from off-center.

The VT254 worked reasonably well in the L/R surround positions, but the speakers tended to "point" their locations a bit. For example, during The Italian Job's climactic chase (Chapter 14), as the cars and bikes zoomed across the rear channels they occasionally "pulled" into one or the other too distinctly. Adding the VT251 into the mix, fed from my receiver's back-surround channel, made it harder to localize the L/R surrounds.

I was surprised by the VT-12's ability to play loud, with full, clean dynamics - plenty loud enough for material like live jazz combo recordings at real-world club levels. Only at extreme volumes did the system begin to sound a bit "congested."

Hsu's STF-1 is one impressive little subwoofer. It went plenty low for true home theater action, with meaningful volume all the way down to 25 Hz - a lot more than I expected. It wasn't boomy yet had me running for cover during the scene in The Italian Job when the armored truck blows through the pavement.

By coming up with a novel solution to a longstanding challenge, and by refusing to be bound by hard-and-fast speaker-design "rules," Hsu Research has produced an astonishing little system. Its performance is far more impressive than its modest looks suggest, and its value even more so. PDF: Fast Facts PDF: In the Lab

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