Hsu Research HB-1 Horn Speaker and VTF-3 MK3 Subwoofer

I've been reviewing speakers for a long time. I'm not saying my ears are any better than yours, but they're trained. Give me that much credit. I can wax rhapsodic paragraphs ad nauseam on why the latest multi-thousand dollar speaker can bring you closer to your music and movies. If you can afford them, great! But if you can't, it's not the end of the line. A more than decent system can be built around five mid-priced speakers, like the Polk LSi-9 ($500/ea), plus a good sub. But really inexpensive speakers? Well, that's always been a big challenge – until now that is.

Do They Make You Horny Baby?
You won 't find Hsu products at your local big box store or even a good high-end dealer. Hsu Research can provide you better value only if it sells its products direct on the web, just like Outlaw Audio. Both companies have been tremendously successful relying on word of mouth. Hsu's 30-day "complete satisfaction" return policy means that you'll eat only the shipping costs if the speakers aren't to your taste.

The system under review here is based on the Hsu HB-1, a hybrid horn design that retails for just $125 each. At only 15" high and barely 12 lbs. soaking wet—Hsu refers to it as a bookshelf speaker—it's nevertheless substantial enough in every other way. It uses a 6.5" woofer and horn tweeter described as a "very high efficiency controlled directivity horn with neodymium magnet and ferro-fluid cooled voice coil." Magnetic shielding for a speaker in this day and age of flat panels and microdisplay rear projection sets is, for the most part, pointless, (only CRTs are susceptible to magnetic fields) so Hsu dispenses with it for the HB-1.

Another Hsu speaker, the HC-1 center channel, is essentially an HB-1 lying on its side with a double helping of woofer in a slightly larger (i.e., wider) cabinet. An HC-1 was sent to me well before I even began the review but, due to miscommunication, I didn't know I had it (you should see a reviewer's closet sometime!). Unfortunately, when it turned up, late in the review process, it was damaged. Due to its relatively small size, the HB-1 may work as a center channel in many situations, providing the listener an exact timbre match across the front channels. As a result, all mention of the Hsu speakers in my review reference the system as I used it: five HB-1s, including one for the center speaker, and the VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer. (Hsu did send us an HC-1 for measurement, so you'll find those results in our "Measurement" section.—Ed.)

The VTF-3 MK3 features a 12" woofer and a 350-watt (RMS, not peak). It costs just $699. That puts the total cost if this system at $1,324. While that's not home-theater-in-a-box cheap, it's not hard to spend a lot more and get a lot less in performance.

(It should also be noted that Hsu makes even more modestly priced subwoofers that will bring down the price even further if you're willing to sacrifice the extreme bottom-end extension available from the VTF-3 MK3. And for "high rollers" there is a new VTF-3 HO version of the VTF-3 Mk3 that offers a higher-powered, 500W amp.—Ed.)

System Specifics
A port on the back of the HB-1 helps give the speaker a specified 60Hz lower limit, though I'd recommend you cross it over to the subwoofer at 80Hz for home theater use. There is only a single pair of speaker terminals on the rear, slightly inset and angled upwards. The five-way binding posts will accommodate bare wire, bananas and spades (see my blog if you're curious about the other two ways). Unfortunately, the posts lack hexagonal fittings that would have allowed me to use a speaker post tool (or ratchet set for that matter) to secure my spade terminated speaker cables. Instead, I resorted to klutzy pliers for securing my Audioquest Mont Blancs to the HB-1's gold plated, knurled knobs. With a lighter pair of speaker cables terminated in spades, however, you might be able to get a decent grip with your finger strength alone.

The speaker's grill cloth is framed and secured to the baffle but can easily be pried off. I was perfectly happy with the sound of the speakers with their grills on, so that's how I used them. A combination of stands helped me get the five speakers in proper position vertically. I used a pair of tall Sanus foundation stands for the rears to raise them high enough to clear the back of the seating area. Mid-height Dynaudio stands for the main left and right HB-1s put their tweeters at ear level. Finally, a single Stand Design, the lowest I had available, kept the HB-1 in the center position from blocking my view of the plasma display (with an inch to spare!).

Like a vestigial organ, the VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer provides left and right channel "speaker level" inputs and outputs which you might use in a dedicated two-channel plus sub setup. But for home theater use you'll most likely want to run a single interconnect between your AV receiver or pre/pro's subwoofer output and the VTF-3 MK3's line level input.

The sub includes a level control, an analog low pass filter continuously variable between 30Hz and 90Hz, and a two-position phase switch (zero and 180 degrees).

The VTF-3 MK3 has two ports on the rear, one of which arrives with a foam plug installed. You can configure the sub for maximum low frequency extension by keeping that port plugged and setting the rear panel's extension switch to 16Hz. If you prefer maximum output, flip the same switch to its 22Hz setting and remove the foam plug from the port. I used the sub in the recommended corner placement location, configured for maximum extension. When level matched to the rest of the system, it provided more than sufficient output in my large room. If you're a glutton for punishment, Hsu sells a turbo charger that gloms onto the subs ports and is said to double the available output all the way down to 16Hz.

I find the VTF-3 MK3's shape a pleasant departure from the norm. More blocky than the near perfect cubes everyone else seems to make, it perhaps reflects Dr. Hsu's preference for performance over cosmetics. The sub is available in both non-veneer black and maple veneer versions, at the same $699 price. The HB-1, however, is available only in non-veneer, black. While the speakers and the black sub I received will never be confused with fine furniture, they are still quite handsome in their own utilitarian way. That said, the fit and finish of the sub and satellites, overall, was very high.

A Two-channel Driven Life
The mid-life Genesis CD, Selling England by the Pound (CD, Definitive Edition Remaster, Atlantic, 82675-2) is one of my favorites from that group, besting Nursery Cryme and Lamb Lies Down in my pecking order, but certainly not FoxTrot. Finding it in the $11 bin at Borders was just good luck. I remembered this album as having a lot of bass, and with the Hsu sub, it all came out, like a visceral body massage. I've been at demonstrations in small hotel rooms where Dr. Hsu would hide a sub in a closet behind your seat and the ensuing rush of air would cause your pant legs to flap. While my placement of the sub about 15-feet away put me out of pant-flap range, the powerful bass was nothing less than I expected. And how well the VTF-3 MK3 integrated with the HB-1 satellites, without calling attention to itself, was just the icing on the cake.

On "The Battle of Epping Forest," Genesis fades in with a Bolero-like build up until synth, organ, drums and bass, glorious, glorious bass, carpet the musical landscape with a song of true epic proportions. The Hsu HB-1 speaker jolly well likes to be pushed, and it did an outstanding job, revealing a fine level of detail, conveying a hauntingly smooth tonality free of the nasal or cupped hand coloration we often associate with horn speakers.

The Hsu system throws an imposingly large soundstage, quite unexpected considering the HB-1's diminutive size. Listening to the Genesis CD from the sweet spot, I felt I could just as easily have been listening to a much larger pair of speakers from a high-end manufacturer.