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Reviewed by
Jeff Van Dyne

Hsu Research
Ventriloquist VT-12 / STF-1

Home-Theater Speaker System

Features SnapShot!


Model: Ventriloquist VT251 satellite speakers
Dimensions: 6.1"H x 4.1"W x 3.1"D
Weight: 2 pounds each

Model: Ventriloquist VT254 back surround speaker
Dimensions: 6.1"H x 4.1"W x 3.1"D
Weight: 2 pounds

Model: Ventriloquist VT641 center-channel speaker
Dimensions: 16.8"W x 5"H x 8.5"D
Weight: 10 pounds

Model: STF-1 subwoofer
Dimensions: 19"H x 10"W x 16"D
Weight: 35 pounds

System Price: $498 USD

Warranty: Seven years parts and labor, speakers; two years, electronics

  • Video shielded
  • 2.5" full-range driver (VT251, VT254)
  • Molded ABS plastic enclosures (VT251, VT254)
  • Keyhole, OmniMount 10, and Sound Gear SATP mounting options (VT251, VT254)
  • Two 4" x 6" woofers, one 2.5" midrange-treble driver (VT641)
  • MDF enclosure (VT641)
  • Removable base allows aiming of speaker (VT641)
  • 8" driver (STF-1)
  • Continuously variable defeatable crossover, 30Hz-90Hz, 24dB/octave (STF-1)
  • Phase switch (STF-1)
  • 150W amplifier (STF-1)
  • Black matte or silver finish

I get to audition a lot of different gear over the course of a year. Most people assume that my favorites are those that perform the best and, probably, cost the most. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The most exciting equipment to me is that which attempts to improve performance in new and innovative ways -- and so much the better when that gear is priced at a level that most of my friends consider attractive. Hsu Research’s Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 home-theater speaker system is particularly interesting because it meets both criteria. It’s a bit early to tell for sure, but this may be the most exciting product I review all year.

Good price, real innovation

At $498 as configured -- with five matched satellites, a center-channel speaker, and a small subwoofer -- the Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1’s price qualifies it as a 5.1-channel home theater in a box, yet it provides speakers for a full 6.1-channel surround system. Hsu Research showed this system at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, along with an Onkyo TX-SR501 receiver and a KLH KD-1220 DVD player. According to the SoundStage! Network team, the system sounded so good that they named it a Standout Room, which has got to be a first for a system at this price.

But $500 won’t buy you much innovation, right? Well, this is my favorite part of the story. The VT-12/STF-1 is a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? solution. A common problem among "microspeakers" is that the satellites simply don’t go low enough in frequency response to blend effectively with the subwoofer, which usually drops out between 80Hz and 100Hz. That can leave a fairly large hole in the frequency response, which affects everything from the tone of actors’ speaking voices to the warmth of an orchestra’s string section. The Ventriloquist system attempts to solve this problem by sending part of the midbass region -- 80Hz-250Hz, to be precise -- to the comparatively large VT641 center speaker. It’s a brilliant idea. Bass begins to become directional above about 100Hz, but this effect can be minimized by keeping it all in the same horizontal plane (assuming a setup in which the center-channel inhabits the same plane as the satellites). The 250Hz cutoff means that none of the highly directional upper frequencies are affected.

How Hsu does this is simple in theory, though I doubt it was that easy to implement. Instead of routing the main left and right VT251 speakers directly from the receiver, they’re first passed through a pair of inputs on the back of the VT641 center. A pair of corresponding outputs on the center is connected to the front left and right speakers. The important work of extracting the upper bass from the signal going to the left and right speakers is done inside the center. That information is then combined with the normal center-channel signal and sent to the center’s larger (4" by 6") oval woofers, which take up the slack from the satellites. The circuit that performs this bit of magic can be turned on and off by a two-position switch on the back of the center-channel. Problem solved.

By removing the lowest frequencies entirely from the satellites, Hsu Research was able to use a single widerange, 2.5" driver for the satellites, negating the need for a separate tweeter along with the complexity, expense, and sonic problems associated with an additional crossover network. Ingenious.

The Ventriloquist package also includes a sixth satellite, which can be directly wired to a 6.1-channel receiver. However, if, like me, you have only a 5.1-channel receiver, the additional satellite can be wired in tandem with each of the two surround speakers to create a matrixed back surround. Very slick.

The ported STF-1 subwoofer, which has an 8" downfiring cone, is conventional enough. However, with 32Hz extension, a 150W internal amplifier, gold-plated binding posts for the speaker-level input and output terminals, and a Phase switch, it’s no slouch in the "bang for the buck" department either.

No-sweat setup

I set up the Ventriloquist system in my small theater, a former bedroom just large enough for a loveseat and a chair on one side of the room and a TV and speakers on the other. The center-channel sat nicely on a shelf above the TV, the main speakers ended up on 24" stands about a foot and a half to either side of the TV cabinet, and the sub was in the right front corner. With five sets of speaker wires, the VT641 center is a bit of an effort to hook up -- but once this is done, there’s no need to touch it again unless you move things. The fact that the whole system weighs next to nothing makes this the hardest part of the job. The surrounds were perched on 4.5’ stands in the rear corners, while the rear surround was temporarily suspended from atop a picture behind the loveseat. All of the satellites can be hung on the wall using the keyhole, or with brackets (available separately), using the threaded inserts on the back.

Crash, bang, boom

I missed Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in the theaters, so it was on the short list of movies I wanted to see, and promised enough action to give the Ventriloquist system a solid test. It turned out that the mosquito flying about the room in chapter 7 is most convincing, and provided an excellent demonstration of the system’s surround accuracy. When you can trace the bug’s buzz through a three-dimensional space, you know things are working right. I also noticed that Uma Thurman’s voice carried a certain amount of warmth I’ve heard from larger speakers, but that’s absent through most microspeakers. The impact of the bass recovered by the center-channel was clearly evident when I flicked the switch on the center’s back. Without the Ventriloquist circuit, the speakers and Thurman’s voice sounded a bit thin; with it, the Hsu system sounded more like an average-sized bookshelf speaker than a microspeaker. This warmth was increased a bit by the fact that the satellites seemed to roll off the absolute upper frequencies. I might complain, but the rest of the spectrum was very smooth -- and considering how brightly many movie soundtracks are mixed, this may prove a benefit. Besides, many speakers in this class use 50-cent tweeters of the nails-on-chalkboard variety that I can do without.

I was most interested in what would happen with Saving Private Ryan. The second scene -- the D-Day landing at Normandy -- is one of my standard tests for any surround system, and a pretty severe test for a system this small. The surround performance was exemplary: the zing and patter of bullets all around equaled that of the performance of some systems I’ve heard costing three to four times as much. The STF-1 subwoofer didn’t have the impact of Hsu’s larger VTF-3, but it more than held its own in my small theater. I was pleasantly surprised by this diminutive sub’s ability to shake the floor and rattle the windows, even if the room was relatively small. It rumbled with authority during loud explosions and, just as important, thumped quietly when a mortar was fired. This is better than fine performance for a sub this small and inexpensive.

If the Ventriloquist system’s audio reproduction of Saving Private Ryan interested me, I was completely unprepared for what it did right from the beginning of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The gentle sound of waves all around was utterly convincing, each sound at once distinct while working in unison with all the others. The effect was so believable during "The Storm" that it wasn’t until I saw lightning through my theater’s window that I realized the onscreen storm had been closely followed by a rather nasty storm brewing in the real world outside. We’ve had our share of tornados this year; once I’d returned from checking the weather report, the blinds stayed open so I would know for sure if the storm I was hearing was live or recorded.

I searched for something that wasn’t all explosions and general mayhem and settled on In the Cut. In this film, the surround channels are all about setting the mood with such subtle things as city sounds in the background, and such not so subtle things as the music that fills the bar where Meg Ryan meets with her student. These are crucial contributors to the film’s effect; any speakers must disappear completely for them to work, leaving, say, just the ambient noise of the city suspended in the space around you. The Ventriloquist system was entirely effective in this respect. Sonically, the speakers were nowhere to be found, leaving only the sound of a distant horn or the rush of air following a passing car to fill the air. The Ventriloquist system hit the mark in every respect.

With a song in my heart

Sophie B. Hawkins’ Timbre [Rykodisc 10614] is an excellent recording that I often use to check a system’s reproduction of female vocals. The impact of the Ventriloquist circuit was immediately apparent as soon as I began to play "Walking In My Blue Jeans." The voices and instruments had the warmth and balance one usually hears only from full-size speakers. Switching the Ventriloquist circuit in and out made it very clear just how beneficial the effect could be for music. I also began to notice that, with two-channel recordings, the circuit seemed to pull the image ever so slightly to the middle. Had I not been making an A/B comparison, I would never have noticed this. The benefit of closing that hole in the frequency response of microspeakers far outweighs any slight loss of imaging.

I also noticed that the Hsu system’s upper-frequency rolloff was more noticeable with music than with movies. Again, this wasn’t an area of great concern, but in comparison to larger, slightly more expensive systems, there seemed to be about half an octave of information missing from the top end. However, I find this far preferable to the mostly harsh and overly bright tweeters generally available at and around $500.

I found much the same to be true with Bobby McFerrin’s Spontaneous Inventions [Blue Note 46298], a mostly singing-and-vocal-percussion album that really lets you focus on male vocals. The hole in the low-frequency response had a seriously detrimental affect on the overall reproduction of this recording. Without the Ventriloquist circuit, the voices were thin and a little brittle; with it, they were warm and full. The VT641 filled this hole very effectively, with no loss of warmth in McFerrin’s voice.

I was a little surprised by the width of this recording’s soundstage. The ambience extended well past the speakers’ outer edges, creating a space that felt much larger than the tiny room I was sitting in. The percussive element of this album is also a good test of transient response, with numerous pops and slaps in songs such as "There Ya Go" that should be sharp and clearly resolved. The Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 passed with such astonishing clarity that I sat in stunned silence and just listened. $500 surround systems aren’t supposed to be able to do this.

The competition

It was pretty tough to compare this system to anything else I’ve had in the house. Probably the closest I can come up with is the now-discontinued Acoustic Research HC6 system ($800), which I reviewed a while back. However, the HC6 satellites are 400% larger than those in the Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 system, so even this can hardly be considered a fair comparison. However, I needed some point of reference.

If any doubt remains that the Ventriloquist circuit worked effectively to eliminate that frequency-response hole common to virtually all microspeaker systems, then the fact that the Hsu system had a warmer overall tonal balance than the Acoustic Research HC6 should dispel it. I suggest pairing the Hsus with a very neutral or even a slightly bright receiver for best results; any receiver with a warm balance might take things a bit too far. The good news is that this won’t be something most people need to even consider, as the sounds of the vast majority of current budget receivers range from neutral to bright.

The nod for high-frequency extension went to the HC6, owing partly, I assume, to the fact that it has a real tweeter instead of a single full-range driver. Also, the HC6 satellites will be happier at higher volumes, particularly in larger rooms. However, midrange clarity, transient response, and dialogue intelligibility were somewhat better through the Hsu Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1, and surround performance and imaging were too close to call.

The subwoofer performance was no contest. The 8" cone in the Hsu STF-1 wiped the floor with the 8" sub that’s part of the HC6 system. It’s not that the HC6 sub is bad, it’s just that the STF-1 is a total overachiever. It produced louder, cleaner, deeper bass than something this small and inexpensive has any right to.

Easy choice

If you need speakers for a room of small to moderate size and have a relatively tight budget, the Hsu Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 is an easy recommendation. At this price, you can add a decent budget receiver and DVD player and still spend less than $800. Of course, no matter how good it is, there are physical limits to how loud a system this small can play. The Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 will be at its best in a smaller space, but this will be true of any small speaker system. If you’re looking to fill a large room with sound at high volume levels, look for larger speakers.

The Hsu Research Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 combo plays in the mid to upper price range of the home-theater-in-a-box category. That the Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 is a far superior-sounding speaker system than anything I’ve heard in that crowd seals the deal -- pretty impressive for speakers that are nearer in size to a box of Pop Tarts than they are to a breadbox. All things considered, the Hsu Research Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-1 is a stone-cold bargain.

Review System
Receiver - Onkyo TX-DS696
Sources - Panasonic CP72, Sony DVP-NS755V DVD players; RCA DirecTV receiver
Cables - Straight Wire, Monster Cable
Monitor - Toshiba 27A44 direct-view television

Manufacturer contact information:

Hsu Research Inc.
3160 E. La Palma Avenue, Unit D
Anaheim, CA 92806
Phone: (800) 554-0150
Fax: (714) 666-9261

Website: www.hsuresearch.com


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