We guess Hsu Research never heard the old expression "You can't fool Mother Nature"--because it went ahead and crafted a (mostly) teensy 6-channel speaker package that sounds a lot bigger than it should. The VT-12 carries a suggested retail price of $369, or $299 factory direct. But if you directly order the VT-12 with any Hsu Research subwoofer, the VT-12's price drops to $199. We auditioned the package with Hsu's $299 powered subwoofer, which brings the 6.1 system's price to $498. It's an incredible value. The innovative Ventriloquist system was designed with an admirable goal: squeeze the dimensions of a 6-channel home-theater speaker package down to the smallest possible size without sacrificing bass response. The VT-12 package includes four 6-inch-tall satellites, a 17-inch-wide center speaker, and a 6-inch-tall rear-center speaker.
We noted that the Ventriloquist center speaker is more efficient than the wee sats, and that's OK, but unless you adjust the speakers' levels on your receiver's setup menu, your VT-12's sound will be out of balance. Also, it's important to note that the center speaker is designed to sit at least 24 inches off the floor; Hsu recommends sitting it on top of the TV.
The VT-12 shares more than a passing resemblance to the speaker package featured in Gateway's and KAS-303 home-theater-in-a-box kits. Hsu Research did, in fact, engineer those speaker systems, but the VT-12's subtly rounded cabinets, black or silver satin finishes, and shapely cloth grilles are better looking. The big problem with micro satellite systems is that they sound small or lightweight. The little guys can't produce enough bass to seamlessly mate with the subwoofer, so male voices, saxophones, and pianos sound undernourished and small.
That's where Hsu's Ventriloquist center speaker comes into play. It's big enough to produce satisfying midbass on its own, thanks to a pair of 4-by-6-inch drivers (their oval shape maintains the design's low profile). The center also features a single 2.5-inch midrange/tweeter, which is identical to the driver in each of the satellite speakers. The speaker sits in an adjustable stand that allows the user to aim the sound directly at the listener.
In addition to its larger size, the other trick up the Ventriloquist's sleeve is a novel connectivity hookup system that augments the bass of the tiny front-left and -right satellites. Instead of just one pair of connectors, it has five pairs of those nifty binding posts: three inputs and two outputs. The front-center, -left, and -right channels of your A/V receiver all directly feed the Ventriloquist, which handles the deeper midbass before passing the higher frequencies on to the left and right satellite speakers. We were concerned the crowded back panel might be confusing, but closer examination revealed that each connector is clearly labeled.
The Hsu Research VT-12's unique features aren't just limited to the front-channel speakers. The rear-center speaker's novel connection arrangement allows hookup to a 5.1- or 6.1-channel receiver. That's a first.
The speakers' all-metal, gold-plated connectors wouldn't be out of place on a $500 tower speaker; this level of quality is extremely rare in a $199 speaker package. Moreover, the VT-12 system comes with a seven-year warranty, and that's a good two years longer than average. For all of our auditions, we mated the VT-12 with one of Hsu Research's least-expensive powered subwoofers, the $299 . We showed the system no mercy and immediately cranked up the Matrix Reloaded DVD to room-filling levels. Treble detail from the VT-12's tweeterless satellites was somewhat muted, though comparable to the standards set by Paradigm's $549 package. (The Paradigm's two-way satellites have tweeters.) But the VT-12 clobbered the Cinema 70 in the middle range; dialogue sounded significantly more natural.
Led Zeppelin's crunchiest and grungiest blues are always a tough challenge for micro satellites, but in our modestly sized bedroom, the VT-12 rocked out like a larger set of speakers.
Jazz and acoustically oriented pop fared even better, and we forgot all about the VT-12's size when we settled down to check out a few John Coltrane CDs. The Master's big tenor sax had just the right amount of soulful presence, and his bass player's sound was rich and full. The VT-12's richly balanced musicality is ahead of every other affordable mini package we've heard. We did notice that when we were listening in stereo and sitting fairly close (within five feet or less) to the front three speakers, we could detect the center speaker as a separate sound source. Instead of the full stereo spread, the sound bunched up in the center speaker.
What about the rear-center speaker? Well, we can't say the sixth speaker added much over the usual five-speaker arrangement, but it may provide more center-fill in some home theaters.