Hsu Research HB-1 Horn Speaker and VTF-3 MK3 Subwoofer Page 2

These little guys never quit trying to impress you when the source material is at its best. Cymbals, often a ruthless challenge for affordable speakers, sounded convincing. The Hsu's horn tweeter proved itself of high caliber, projecting cymbals with both force and nuance. No, not quite as good as the tweeters in Thiel's 1.6, which still sticks in my mind as the best speaker that not a lot of money can buy (that is, at $1195 each, not a lot of money as high-end, audiophile speakers go), but not terribly far behind either. Nevertheless, the harmonic overtones of wood smacking brass are conveyed by the Hsu's in a manner that few speakers get correct, regardless of price. And these unassuming speakers get high marks in the all-important midrange as well. Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins sounded like themselves.

Moving on to a band that throws an even bigger party than Genesis, I put on Pink Floyd's little appreciated and unjustly panned Division Bell CD (1993, Columbia, CK 64200). If it was anyone else, Division Bell would have been cited as one of top albums of the year, but coming as it did, a couple of decades after Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon, the critics just yawned. The closing track, "High Hopes," has the signature Floyd eeriabilia, like bells ringing in the distance and flies buzzing about your head. The electrified Spanish guitar on the track had a bite that cut through the mix and the HB-1 gave the soundstage an appropriate amount of depth, while all the sound effects were resolved convincingly.

Bass seems naturally extended when the Hsu subwoofer plays a supporting role. But it is important to calibrate the levels fairly closely, though not necessarily exactly. For instance, a good compromise for both music and movies turned out to be a subwoofer setting that averaged 4 db higher in level than the other speakers. And unlike a lightweight HTiB system, there was no noticeable hole or trough in the all important upper/mid bass crossover to the sub.

I did turn off the subwoofer for a while, which let me hear the all important midrange and highs in as unvarnished a manner as possible. With the sub out of the mix, however, the HB-1's 60Hz lower limit is exposed. The speaker was clearly not designed to stand alone, and should be viewed as part of a system. Unlike most floor-standing speakers I've reviewed, I did not prefer listening to stereo with the subwoofer silent. Too much information remains missing. The VTF-3 MK3 played a welcome, and I would say necessary, role in the system's overall sound.

One final pull from my collection, a well known classic for jazz fans and lovers of all things Brazil (I'm a "Paulista" myself), is the 1963 recording of American tenor sax player Stan Getz and two of Brazil's most important composers and performers, Antonio Carlos Jobim (piano) and Joao Gilberto (guitar), appropriately titled Getz / Gilberto (LP, Verve V-8545). The Hsu system (with sub now) wove an intensely warm performance directly into my room. The recording is very intimate, and the HB-1 pulled it off admirably. Not surprisingly I've heard bigger soundstages from bigger speakers. But the sense of warmth and "rightness" of the small Hsu system was addicting. If ever a speaker could be said to have a propensity for a tubey vinyl sound, the HB-1/VTF-3 Mk3 combo is it. Fans of those low wattage SET tube amplifiers, therefore, should find the 92dB/2.83V/m sensitivity of the HSU something they must explore. (But see "Measurements."—Ed.)

If there were any observation I would make regarding the HB-1 in relation to some highly regarded audiophile speakers, it is that they are ever so slightly more forward in their soundstage presentation. This should not be construed as a criticism, as the Hsu is not an "in your face" speaker in any way. The HB-1 is not just another horn speaker, subject to all of its genre's failings. It sounds less like a horn speaker than any other horn speaker I've ever heard. In fact, I've heard plenty of conventional speakers sound more like horns than the Hsu!

What the HB-1 does have in common with horns, however, is that it is not shy in the least in its presentation. This has benefits. Some speakers I've reviewed, most recently the Focal Profile 918, failed to come to life at low levels. This cannot be said of the Hsu, particularly when the VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer is engaged. Even at low levels, approaching mere background music, there is more than sufficient low level resolution to enjoy the event. An owner can relax knowing that very little is being masked by the Hsu.

That said, these small, unobtrusive, and extraordinarily competent speakers cannot be proclaimed as being as revealing or resolving as my reference Martin Logan Prodigy. The sales tax alone on a pair of Prodigies would pay for the quintet of HB-1s. The Magnepan 3.6R and the Thiel 1.6 would also kick sand in the HB-1's $125 eyes. But compared to some other well pedigreed dynamic speakers, the HB-1s held their own. Hey, if you afford Revels, then by all means, buy Revels. But if you can't, brother, buy Hsu.

Mi Casa, Hsu Casa
When it comes to home theater, the Hsu system continued to show off its good qualities, just with more channels. The intriguing soundtrack that runs throughout The Recruit was extremely enveloping. If I had to pick a single word to describe the audio experience, it would be 'rich.' While the HB-1's top end is reasonably well extended, it is not glaring in the lower treble region, a characteristic that earns many a speaker the "bright" designation. The Hsu is simply even-handed.

The speakers handle big dynamic swings with ease. In chapter seven, when James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is kidnapped and the soundtrack consists mainly of music and dialog, I measured the sound level at an already frothy 80dB in my listening seat. That measurement climbed to the low 90dB range when he was being hauled into the van and peaked at just over 100dB while Clayton was being stuffed into a helicopter for what turns out to be a flight around the block. At no time did the speakers sound as if they were under any stress or compressing the signal. In fact, there was very much the feeling that you were at the movies. How's that for a big, aircraft carrier "Mission Accomplished!"

The VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer blended very well with the HB-1, and it would no doubt work wonderfully in many systems. But when I first hooked it up and somewhat randomly set the level before formally level matching it with the HB-1s, I did hear some port turbulence. Distinctly unpleasant, but once the system was properly set up, the "chuffing" was banished for good. If you really need more output, you should consider the "turbo charger" which adds only $200 to the price.

I watched a lot of high-def television programming with the system, powered first by the Pioneer VSX-84TXi receiver and later the Denon AVR-4806. Many of the shows I like, such as Prison Break, 24 and Lost, sounded great in Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround. I guess that's to be expected. High-definition broadcasts on HBO HD also made the system sing. But the everyday stuff, the poor old S-Video junk that came off my low def, okay, sorry, "standard definition" TiVo also sounded pretty good. The Hsu's are very adept at building an immersive soundstage even with lightly populated soundtracks like those on USA network's Friday night line up of Monk and Psych.

The HB-1, as a center channel, was very capable of projecting clear, intelligible dialog. That is the crux for good video, in my opinion, and all the garnish and tea in the world won't make a home theater effective without a decent center channel. You won't find yourself having to turn up the volume to "hear what they said" very often. You'll just get lost in the show.

Go Ahead - Hsu Me!
The Hsu HB-1/VTF-3 MK3 system is tremendously enjoyable. But it's not saccharin sweet. The grating nature of poorly mixed mid-1980's vinyl or poorly mastered CDs will still have you diving for the volume control, but face it, that's as it should be. The better the recording, the better the Hsu system will sound. And at its best, the Hsu system performs so much above its pay grade that you'll want to recommend it to your friends. I know I will. After all, a flat TV does not a home theater make.

Five HB-1 bookshelf speakers: $125 apiece.
VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer: $699.
Beer and chips when your friend comes over to hear the Hsu system: $14.
The look on his face when you tell him how much it costs: Priceless.

HB-1 Highs
Not just good for movies, good for music too
Detailed with above average resolution, but not clinical
Rich sounding timbre, but upper frequencies are still extended
You gotta love the price

HB-1 Lows
Requires a subwoofer. By themselves, the bass very lean.
Don't forget stands when calculating the final price
Not for all decors.

VTF-3 MK3 Highs
Lots of really good bass, even for a big room
The sub goes very low, a rated (and believable) 18 Hz, which surprisingly few subs can match

VTF-3 MK3 Lows
No fancy notch filters, only two phase angles, fairly minimalist
If you're thinking big, black and beautiful, think again.

Intense theatrical experience available at high SPLs without noticeable compression
Sound can be majestic and completely unexpected given the system's size.

No bragging rights when it comes to price, or looks for that matter.