Audio Specialiste Virtuel Home-Theater Speaker System
Audio Specialiste is likely not that well known to many audiophiles and videophiles, at least not yet. I first found out about the company at the annual high-end audio and video show in Montreal. After visiting the companys display two years in a row and seeing speakers ranging from budget models right up to the esoteric, I was sufficiently impressed to investigate further. Lee Lareau, formerly of NEAR Loudspeakers, handles marketing for Audio Specialiste. While I first eyed the more expensive models, Lareau suggested reviewing the budget stuff since he felt that I would be seriously impressed by the amount of bang for the buck it offers.
Audio Specialiste is based in beautiful Quebec City, Canada. A visit to their website will reveal that this is no small company. They have four product lines -- Virtuel, Dimension, Crescendo and Propheti -- with speakers ranging from the low hundreds of dollars up to cost-no-object audiophile models. Whether the speakers are budget or state of the art, the build quality is extremely impressive and wholly competitive with any other speaker manufacturers products. The Virtuel series is the least expensive line, but features Vifa drivers in cabinets fabricated from MDF. Sure Audio Specialiste cuts costs in this line by using vinyl veneers instead of real wood, but quite frankly, I was surprised to see this level of quality in terms of components and finish work in budget-priced products -- and from a company Id not known about. Furthermore, there are some nice audiophile touches such as floor spikes and high-quality binding posts that are ready for bi-wiring. The people at Audio Specialiste certainly seem to have done their homework.
In the Virtuel line, the V-303 is the smallest floorstanding speaker. There are also the V-404 and V-505 floorstanders, which are bigger and more expensive, as well as some smaller stand-mounted speakers at a lower price. When Audio Specialiste sent me the home-theater package, they sent me four of the V-303 speakers, two for the front channels and two for the rear, along with a V-Center-3 center-channel speaker and V-Sub-112 subwoofer. This gave me the opportunity to use matched speakers for all four "corner" channels.
The V-303 measures almost 29"H x 8.5"W x 11"D. It is made from 3/4" MDF and is finished with a vinyl veneer, which is available in black, mahogany or natural wood. It comes with some of the best speaker spikes Ive seen on any speaker near this price range -- they are triangular-shaped cones that use a standard threaded insert. The speaker is braced at three main points internally, making the cabinet fairly rigid. The speaker uses two 6" polypropylene Vifa woofers and a 1" soft-dome Vifa tweeter. The back panel has good-quality binding posts and is ready for bi-wiring. Audio Specialiste rates the speaker at a highish 91dB sensitivity (1 watt at 1 meter) with a nominal 6-ohm impedance. This indicates a pretty easy load for most amplifiers of reasonable power. I was able to drive the speakers to very loud levels with my 100Wpc Nakamichi AV-10 receiver. Audio Specialiste rates the bass response down to 37Hz., which means close to full-range performance. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this speaker can slam home impressive bass without subwoofer reinforcement. In fact, I watched many movies without the subwoofer on because the speakers flesh out the bass extremely well. The price of the V-303 is $629 per pair.
Because the V-303 is a forward-firing loudspeaker, the rear surround channels in the configuration I used fire directly at the listener. This is in contrast to systems that use dipole surround speakers for a more spacious but less distinct rear-channel sound. Truth be told, there are no hard and fast rules on whats right and wrong for rear channels. Some recommend dipoles for music and direct-firing loudspeakers for movies. Thats right, sets of speakers for each application! However, there are obviously some practical considerations in doing this because you not only have to own two sets of loudspeakers for the rear channels, you also have to find a suitable place to put them. And then there is the difficulty of hooking both sets up to your amplifier -- few companies products make provision for this. Denon wisely placed a second set of rear-channel outputs on its AVR-5700 receiver for this very reason, but youll be hard-pressed to find these on other products. Still, others, myself included, maintain that all speakers should be forward firing because they will more accurately convey the intended surround mix, whether from movies or music. Although I have this preference, I can appreciate both ways.
The V-Center-3 is intended solely for center channel use and is identical in size to the V-303. Finish and options are the same; the only real difference is in the use of magnetically shielded Vifa woofers. The efficiency of this speaker is also 2dB higher than that of the V-303, so when you are calibrating your volume levels, you will want to take this into account. Given the size, its a rather largish cabinet to place atop a TV, but with a few plants strategically placed on top of it, I was able to blend it into the décor sufficiently well. The only real down side to this center-channel was that I found its sound to be a slight bit darker than that of the V-303. By darker I mean slightly warmer and richer, but also slightly less precise. Because the design of the speaker appears nearly identical to that of the V-303, I attribute the difference in sound to the use of shielded drivers. On the up side, when playing all five channels, I never noticed any difference, and the whole system meshed quite nicely. This is likely because vocals are so dominant in movies and usually routed straight to the center channel with little conflict between the left and right channels. The V-Center-3 retails for $399.
Although the bass output of these five speakers working together is more than impressive, people who want things to go bump in the night will want to look at the V-Sub-122 subwoofer. This is a substantial 70-pound unit, square in shape and measuring 18" across all dimensions. Priced at $599, the V-Sub-112 is a slotted design that is said to increase its efficiency by 12dB over traditional front-firing woofers. The woofer itself is not visible. There is just a slot on the rear from which the bass frequencies radiate. Also inside is a built-in amplifier rated at 225Wpc and with reported peak output capability of 600Wpc. Audio Specialiste uses a 12" woofer and claims an output capability of 98dB.
On the back of the subwoofer cabinet is a phase-inversion switch as well as a switch to lift the ground in case of ground-loop hum (I had to flip this switch). There is also an on/off/auto switch. "On" keeps the subwoofer powered up all the time, while "auto" turns the unit on when it senses the appropriate audio signal (Audio Specialiste sets the sub to turn off after 15 minutes of no activity). Finally, there is the adjustable crossover settings from 40Hz to 120Hz. The frequency chosen will depend on the speakers you are using for the front channels and also where you want to place the subwoofer in your room.
Providing the subwoofer is not called upon to provide too high a frequency range, its placement is somewhat flexible because bass frequencies are omnidirectional; that is to say, providing it is producing only very low frequencies, you can place it almost anywhere you want in the room and you wont be able to tell where the bass is coming from. To match with the V-303 speakers, whose bass performance is already very good, and to allow me to position the subwoofer off to the side, I wanted to maintain a low crossover point, so I ended up crossing the speakers over at about 60Hz. Therefore, the sub was only called on to perform the very low bass region, which worked very well.
Overall, I am extremely impressed with the level of quality and design for all of these speakers. While vinyl veneers are used to keep the costs down, the level of fit and finish on all sides, including back and bottom, is exemplary. I eyed each speaker carefully and could not find a flaw. Furthermore, their finish is quite attractive, and despite being fairly large boxes, they blend visually into the room.
Ive listened to, lived with and looked at these speakers so often over the last few months that I feel like theyre family in my theater room. Since I installed them, Ive dragged my laptop computer in and worked almost exclusively from this room. In that time, Ive played literally thousands of hours of television broadcasts, listened to a couple hundred CDs, and, of course, watched a whole lot of movies. Desperado, Contact, Varsity Blues, The Fifth Element, Rocky, Goodfellas, Casino, Boogie Nights, Alien, Aliens, Kingpin, Go, you name it.
Setup was pretty easy, and the final positions of the speakers differed very little from where I first installed them. However, I did make one significant change in the positioning of the speakers since I first brought them into my room. Although the V-303 sounded good right away, I found, at first, that the high frequencies were a tad dull. There was good detail, but they were definitely short some sparkle. I thought this odd because Vifa tweeters dont suffer this problem. I pulled off a grille, examined the driver configuration and determined that the culprit was the height of the speakers and the drivers themselves, particularly the tweeters. Too much sound was going into the floor and not to my ears. To alleviate the problem I had two choices. I could either prop all speakers up about one foot off the floor on some sort of stands, or I could lean them back just a bit so they were firing directly to my ears. I picked the second option because it was easiest. I found small blocks, one inch high and about 10 inches wide, for each set of speakers, and placed one block under the front spikes. This angled the speaker back just enough so that the tweeters fired toward ear level. Presto! There was much more life to the sound.
The fact that I played so much two-channel music through the V-303s speaks well for the quality of their design. Music, I find, is much more telltale about a speakers fidelity than movies. Furthermore, plenty of excellent movies rely on music as part of the experience (Boogie Nights, The Fifth Element, Go, and countless others). For all these reasons, if speakers cant do music, they certainly cant do movies. The V-303s have a smooth, even balance throughout the frequency spectrum and are capable of very high output. They are not tizzy, hashy or zingy in the high frequencies, but rather smooth, even polite, which takes the edge off bright and hard recordings. The midrange is detailed, but not overly warm or bloated as it often is with lower-priced speakers. The bass is deep and tight and lends a solid foundation to music. The only real criticism is a bit of upper-bass boominess that obscures some detail and can make male voice seem a notch too full. Overall, as a music speaker, I found the V-303s to be fine performers capable of playing virtually any type of music at quite high volume levels. Whats more, people who play rock and rely on good bass and high output will like that the V-303 is perfectly suited in this regard.
In a home-theater setting, the speakers were even more impressive. As I mentioned previously, the V-Center-3 is slightly darker-sounding. However, once I had my levels properly calibrated across all channels, I never heard any real difference among the five speakers. On the whole, all five speakers blended nicely, voices were easily discernible, and I was completely surrounded in some very BIG sound that had lots of body, impact and weight. Without taxing my amplifier, I got these speakers to play LOUD. What was most surprising was that the five speakers without subwoofer were fully satisfactory in their output capabilities and bass impact even for movies! I would suspect that having five speakers with equal output to below 40Hz through all channels helps considerably. When I brought the new and excellent 200Wpc Anthem MCA 5 power amplifier into the room, the V-303 speakers sounded even better with even greater output capability and slam. Even with this separate amplifier, the whole theater system (including my Kenwood DVD player and the Nakamichi AV-10 for surround-sound processing only) retails for $5500 and offers excellent performance and value.
While some people may opt for smaller speakers in the back, I certainly enjoyed having the V-303s. Some movies feed quite a lot of information to the back channels, so its nice to have speakers that can deliver. Dance With Me, for example, has an excellent latin-music mix with a lot of the percussion placed in back. Similarly, Desperado and Contact both have deep bass information behind, but in the form of crashes and deep rumble. Played loud, this would certainly place some stress on small speakers, but the V-303 had no problem whatsoever.
Of course, nothing goes whoomph like a good subwoofer. Crossed over at a fairly low frequency, the V-Sub-112 only came into action at the points with really deeeeeeeep bass. The subwoofer fleshed out the sound with room-shaking effect. While I was fully satisfied with what the V-303s could do, the V-Sub-112 made the bass impact something I felt. One movie that I find to be a test of a systems dynamic ability is Desperado. It has a wonderfully recorded mix that is full range with lots of bass impact and a warm, fleshed out sound to the vocals. If you can handle some blood and guts, try chapter 7, "Bar Fight Massacre." If you cant handle it, just turn the picture off since nothing in the sound mix is really offensive. Its at this point in the movie that Antonio Banderas comes into the bar and the patrons figure out hes the rumored Mariachi with the guitar case full of guns. The mix is an outstanding blend of music amidst gunfire and bodies being thrown to and fro. The sound has excellent clarity and is definitely wide-band. The sound of the guns, as well as the effects, are truly explosive, and the Audio Specialiste system delivered the full deal in my room without strain.
Other good mixes with less violence are Contact and The Fifth Element. One thing to note is that throughout my listening I consciously never turned the subwoofer up too loud as some are wont to do. I don't believe in overpowering the main speakers with an obvious subwoofer -- it simply doesnt sound natural. As a result, used in my medium-sized room (about 14 by 20), the V-Sub-112 went to sufficient output levels without strain. I suspect this would be wholly acceptable to most people.
Ive never been an advocate of spending many thousands of dollars, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars, on a home-theater system. Its not that I dont like movies. In fact, watching movies is probably my favorite pastime. But I feel for the home it is very hard to cost-justify a large investment because many of todays theaters are very good and you can buy a whole lot of movie tickets for the cost of an expensive home theater. More importantly, though, what you can achieve for a modest investment of only a few thousand dollars for all components, including amplifier and DVD player, can rival much more expensive systems.
At approximately $2200 for a complete speaker system with powered subwoofer, the Audio Specialiste home-theater system based on the V-303 loudspeakers offers really good performance with all the output most people will need in a moderate-sized room. Despite the modest price tag of this system, you get A LOT of sound with plenty of weight and impact. Youll also hear good clarity that will allow movie watching at realistic levels, even with a receiver of only average power. Frankly, most home-theater viewers wont need something that will play louder or much deeper in the bass. Furthermore, the V-303s are well-designed speakers that display good detail, play music well, and make dialog and all the details and cues thrown into movies easily intelligible. While each speaker is good on its own, they form a synergistic blend when used together.
Audio Specialiste is poised to make a serious mark in the home-theater market with their line of well-built, fine-sounding loudspeakers. If they can do this much for this price, Im interested to hear whats in store in their other products lines. Bring em on!
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