I have always been amazed by ventriloquists. It is not an easy feat to throw one's voice to make it sound like it is coming from somewhere (or someone) else. In essence, the Ventriloquist is an aural illusionist, someone who is capable of producing sounds that appear to be coming from one place, but really are coming from another. Hence, enter the aptly named Ventriloquist VT-12 system from Hsu Research. The system includes five satellites with 2 ½” drivers, one of them having a special configuration to derive a 6th channel from the two rear channels, and a center speaker with two 4”x6” woofers and a 2 ½” mid-high driver. No speaker wire is included.
It is a unique system in that it is capable of producing full range sound from a satellite speaker system. Yes, you probably have heard of systems that could do this before, but not in the way that the Ventriloquist system accomplishes the task. Usually, in a satellite speaker system the subwoofer is responsible for all of the sound range below the capabilities of the satellites. Sometimes this can be as high as 250 Hz, which frankly a subwoofer should never be burdened with. This solution often results in a thin midrange and sub par bass. In addition, the midrange that is produced by the subwoofer can sound out of place if the sub is positioned to the side or rear of the room (which it almost certainly is).
The new VT-12 system addresses this by using the center speaker to reproduce sounds down to 80 Hz for the front channels. Instead of wiring your left and right speaker outputs from your amplifier or receiver directly to your left and right satellites, you wire them into the center speaker. There are then two speaker outputs from the center speaker to the satellites. Finally, on the back of the center speaker is a switch to either defeat or employ the Ventriloquist effect. The result is that you get a full range of sound down to 80 Hz from the satellites and center channel, even when you are listening to stereo-sourced material!
VT-12 system is designed to work in conjunction with a subwoofer as well,
though it doesn't come with one. But, for my review, we got the STF-2
subwoofer, a 10 inch, 200 Watt BASH amplified unit. Together, the cost of
the subwoofer and Ventriloquist system totals $648 factory direct (MSRP is
somewhat higher, but why worry when you can order directly from the
internet?) This is an excellent value considering that you get all the
speakers for a 6.1 channel surround system.
was not complicated. All speakers have gold-plated 5-way binding posts. As
indicated above, the biggest difference in connecting these speakers is
that you run the front satellites off of the center speaker. Remember,
however, that this requires two extra lengths of speaker wire. The other
difference from a normal speaker setup is configuring the rear center
speaker, if you have an older receiver or amplifier that doesn't have a
dedicated speaker terminal for that channel. You can still use the rear
center speaker by connecting speaker wire from the rear left and rear
right channels to the rear center speaker. It has two sets of binding
posts for just this purpose. If you have a system that does have a
dedicated output for the rear center speaker, you would simply connect it
as normal, and additionally you would make a connection between the two
sets of binding posts.
At first I was skeptical of the Ventriloquist system. I thought perhaps it would sound somewhat gimmicky or unnatural because of the way it was splitting up the sound between the satellites and center. After setting up the speakers and doing a brief level tuning, I began my critical listening. The best way to really evaluate the Ventriloquist effect is to do so using two-channel source material played without surround sound enhancement. This allowed me to really concentrate on the front channels.
Hsu Research included a custom CD-R of some audio tracks that best demonstrate the product. The first track, entitled "There Must be a City" by The Fairfield Four is a beautiful a Capella gospel-style piece that features some deep bass voices. I started with the Ventriloquist switch in the off position. The sound was definitely crisp, but very thin. I could not hear the bottom end of the bass singer's voice. As soon as I engaged the Ventriloquist system, however, the sound image opened up as if, well, a switch had been flipped! It almost felt like the difference between mono and stereo; that's as drastic as the change was. This same scenario applied to every track with which I tested this feature, so I did not continue to evaluate it with each source I tested. In short, I would not use this system without engaging the Ventriloquist effect. I felt like it was a necessity, not a feature, and it did not sound false or artificial at all.
That being said, with the effect activated, the Ventriloquist system sounded excellent. The track "Tango Till They're Sore" features Holly Cole singing a slow, jazzy number. Ms. Cole has a beautiful alto voice that can reach down low, which continued to put the system to the test. It performed marvelously, maintaining the richness and depth of the recording. Next, I popped in a live recording of the band Phish, as released from their official LivePhishDownloads website. These recordings are direct soundboard recordings mastered by their own audio engineer, so they are quite good. I tried the recording in both stereo mode as well as Dolby Pro Logic. In stereo mode, the recording was replicated very well. Imaging was right on, and again, clarity was stellar. In Pro Logic Mode, the surrounds filled in the ambient crowd noise pretty well, but since there is not a similar Ventriloquist setup for the rear channels (this is coming next year), it is definitely not as capable as the front channels.
I use two rear speakers in my regular 7.1 system, so seeing an HTIB system with a sixth channel was a welcome surprise. I find that surround imaging is greatly improved with a rear center channel, whether the source material is engineered to take advantage of it or not. Instead of rear sounds panning directly across the rear of the room, the sixth channel gives it depth, creating a more circular pan pattern, which in turn, is more natural. Even matrixing out a rear channel still can sound better than standard 5.1 surround sound. The VT-12 system benefits greatly from this sixth channel for these reasons, yet I still would like to listen to it again once they implement the Ventriloquist feature into the rear channels as well.
The STF-2 subwoofer is an excellent choice to match with the Ventriloquist system. BASH technology allows for lower-wattage amps that still produce more than enough power to drive a 10” sub, as they have a large amount of headroom for peaks. It includes all the controls and connections you would want on a subwoofer, such as a polarity switch, a crossover in-out switch, a crossover bypass input, speaker inputs and outputs, and a detachable power cord. It is rear-ported, and down-firing. The sub also comes with four plastic cone feet that are attached via threaded screws to the bottom of the sub.
The STF-2 performed better than its $399 price tag would suggest. Bass was exceptionally clean, and when placed appropriately, with the levels carefully calibrated, blended perfectly with the rest of the system. The CD-R I received also included a few tracks to demonstrate the power and performance of the STF-2. The sixth track on my custom CD-R includes some very low, staccato bass beats. The STF-2 played these notes tightly and clearly. The next track, entitled "Poem of Chinese Drum" is a long audio essay of drum beats that also tested the lower limits of the subwoofer. The beats came across powerfully, but with no distortion or overly boomy effects.
integration between the VT-12 and STF-2 is quite good as well. There were
no noticeable gaps in the audible spectrum as you would often get with
satellites and a subwoofer.
Ventriloquist VT-12 system from Hsu Research coupled with the STF-2
subwoofer is an excellent bargain for a quality HTIB setup. The $648 price
point makes it a steal by any measure of the word! The Ventriloquist
feature makes it possible to enjoy a full range of sound from tiny
satellite speakers. Historically, the midrange limitations of satellite
systems have kept many people from going that route even if they wanted
the small form factor in their speakers. If you were one of those people,
Hsu Research now has the perfect solution for you.