The VT-12s gave me mixed results with two of my favorite films for testing surround-sound systems. In The House of Flying Daggers Echo Game scene where the captain of the local police garrison challenges Mei, a purportedly blind brothel dancer, to duplicate exactly the sound of pebbles striking and ricocheting off a circle of drums with the long, weighted scarves of her sleeves, the subwoofer and center-channel front surrounds beautifully captured the deep bass of the drums and the higher-pitched ploink of pebbles-on-stonefloor. As the speed with which pebbles were thrown and the number of drum heads struck built up to the climactic moment when the captain threw a whole bowl of pebbles that struck multiple drums simultaneously and echoed in all directions, the sub and center again duplicated the sonic richness of this progression as well as systems I’ve heard costing three times as much as the VT-12s. Simply put, they were equal to the task.
But in Hero, in the chess club fight scene between Hero and Sky in which the martial artists square off in an outdoor pavilion with rain falling steadily into the courtyard and into earthen pots, the VT-12s fell short in meeting some of the sonic challenges. Sword clashes were handled well, as were the cries of the combatants as they engaged in battle, but the crucial role of the old man playing his koto during the battle was weakened by the VT- 12s inability to reproduce the sharp attack of notes played on the koto’s higher strings. Bass notes were clear and succinct, but the highs seemed muted, as did the sound of rainwater hitting the basins. The sharp sizzle of Hero’s sword thrusting through rivulets of water as he drives for the kill lacked the crispness I’ve grown to expect from, admittedly, higher-priced systems.
The strengths of the STF-3 subwoofer and the VT-12 system’s front channels showed through, however, in key scenes in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and also in Seabiscuit. During the tense first scenes of battle in chapter 4, “Under Attack,” the sub handled the resounding crack of the ongoing cannon fire superbly while the center and front satellites captured the creak of the ship and the footsteps as seamen ran above decks to their various battle positions. In the race scenes in Seabiscuit, where the thuds of hooves as the horses round the track can literally rattle the floor, the VT-12s and STF-3 subwoofer reproduced these teethclinchers convincingly. The weakest performers on all of these test DVDs were the left, right and center satellites in the rear; their deficiencies, however, being in most cases offset by the superior upper bass and lower midrange response of the channels up front.
Music and the Effects of Sonic Compromise
Dr. Hsu would be among the first to admit that engineering budget-priced speaker systems involves juggling inevitable performance tradeoffs. While the VT-12 system has a number of strengths that come through in bass-heavy films such as those just mentioned along with others such as Constantine and Shaun of the Dead, sonic compromises become more noticeable when listening to multichannel music. In general, the VT-12 system’s sound staging is not as deep as one might want, and the lack of dedicated, small-diameter tweeters in the VT-12 satellites results in a lack of high-frequency crispness and definition on some instruments.The way the left and right front satellites share sonic duties with the Ventriloquist center channel, handing some of the frequency range off to the center channel’s mid-bass drivers, adds tonal richness, but at the expense of diminished three-dimensionality and focus.
In James Taylor’s Hourglass [Sony Music Entertainment, SACD], particularly in the cuts “Gaia” and “Ananas,” the VT-12s handled Taylor’s characteristic voice admirably, but the bassist’s and percussionist’s runs tended to merge and become blurred in areas where they needed to remain separate, clear counterpoints to Taylor. In Nickel Creek’s eponymous SACD, [Sugar Hill], the blended harmonies of “The Lighthouse’s Tale” were pleasant and full, but the mandolin, guitar, and violin did not maintain their normally precise positioning in the sound stage nor did they have the kind of attack detail I’m used to hearing.
In the SACD Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony [Telarc], the choral voices in “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” came through with the piece’s expected ethereal quality. The VT-12s did a thorough job of achieving frequency response that was pleasing and fairly flat, especially through the midrange. Brasses sounded authentic and distinct, but the voices of strings and winds seemed somewhat muddled and indistinct, with no discernable edge to attack notes. The kind of articulation in the upper midrange, where much orchestral instrumentation places many of its subtleties, escaped the VT- 12s, as did the kind of soundstage depth and three-dimensionality I wanted with the recordings.