[SOUNDSTAGE!]Home Theater
Equipment Review

November 1998

Virtual Listening Systems Cyclone 3D

vls_cyclone.jpg (14495 bytes)I remember the first time I set eyes on this little fella, in a print magazine. From the short article I learned of its promise of five-channel surround sound from -- here's the clincher -- only two speakers, and supposedly it cost less than $100! Unfortunately, the article told me little else. No company contact information was given. In fact, there was not even mention of the company’s name! All I knew was that it was called the Cyclone 3D. Where could I find one? I had no idea, but I needed to find out.

I checked with the local audio and home-theater stores -- not a clue. I looked through more magazines, print and online -- nothing. I even asked friends -- zilch. So I went straight to the trusted source of all things relevant -- the Internet, of course -- and found it in a snap.


Initial searches on the name "cyclone" generated 131210 matches. Hmmm, a few too many for my tastes. It took a few minutes of search-criteria refinement before I was able to cut my results down to a respectable number. Once I had a narrowly chosen list, a single name popped out at me -- Virtual Listening Systems, Inc. That must be it!

Indeed, located in Florida, VLS produces not only the Cyclone 3D, but some other products aimed at generating a 3D soundfield for listeners. I forgive my local retailers for not being knowledgeable about the product since VLS offers all of its products factory-direct -- probably a key reason why the well-built, diminutive Cyclone 3D retails for only $99.95.

3D from 2C

So what is this 3D sound thing? Well, in general, it's the ability localize sound so that it seems as though it is coming from all around you -- front, left, right, back and everywhere in between. Sometimes, it even seems like it's above! So when an airplane flies during your favorite movie, it may sound like it's coming from way back right (or wherever the sound engineer placed it) and then smack-dab in front of you. The sound surrounds you -- hence, surround sound.

Of course, anyone who’s been to a modern theater or heard a properly set up home theater has heard this done using multiple speakers, usually located in the front right, front left, front center, rear right, rear left. What VLS does, however, is quite different in that the Cyclone 3D operates with only two speakers -- front right and front left -- but still attempts to create the surround effect.

This two-channel surround technology is not exactly new -- many companies have tried and succeeded to varying degrees. How it works is obviously too complex to get into here, but in essence it requires research into learning exactly how we hear and how our brains interpret the position of sounds (queues that tell our brains where individual sounds originated). When such a circuit is properly implemented, our minds can be tricked into thinking something is coming from, say, behind, when, in reality, it's coming from the front speakers. It's a nifty, almost eerie, experience when you hear it done correctly. The idea in use at Virtual Listening Systems is what they call Toltec[R] Technology.

Home theater is an obvious target market for technology of this type. Products such as the Cyclone 3D are aimed at people who don't have the budget or the space for five speakers. There may be others who simply don't want to have five speakers around either. It is very expensive to buy five very good, matched speakers (it's rather easy, mind you, to buy five poorly made, vastly different-sounding speakers). Myself, given a choice, I'd rather live with two high-quality units as opposed to five channels of junk --especially if I can have surround sound too.


The Cyclone 3D comes in a slickly built, dark-blue, triangular-shaped case. It's very small and light and can easily sit unnoticed on your VCR, TV, DVD player or wherever. An external power supply plugs into the wall. Ergonomically, it is a bang-on design that is functional and good-looking despite the small price tag. The Cyclone 3D can be used with any two-channel stereo source such as a VCR, Laserdisc or DVD player.

At its heart is a 24-bit Motorola 56004 DSP (digital signal processor). The algorithm devised to do surround decoding and placement of that sound is proprietary to Virtual Listening Systems. The Cyclone 3D claims to be a Dolby Pro Logic decoder inside and is, in fact, a Dolby Laboratories-recognized product. Pretty impressive for a box that fits in my pocket.

The Cyclone has three switches: Power, to turn it on; Bypass, to eliminate any processing to pass the signal straight through; and finally, a third that toggles between three important features:

  • Bass Boost for a 3dB increase in bass output level.
  • A.V.C. (Automative Volume Control) which works sort of like a loudness switch. It compresses all the dynamics and makes low sounds louder so you can hear them better when listening at lower volume levels. This is a very good feature that I use often. (It is possible to engage Bass Boost and A.V.C. simultaneously, if you choose.)
  • Test, which demonstrates if you have your system setup correctly.

On your marks, get set...

Setting up is a snap. VLS supplies the two interconnects necessary for the job. Audiophiles will balk at these as being notoriously cheap, but what can you expect for $100? The supplied cables work fine, but I know that most audiophiles will likely do as I did and replace them with ones that cost more than the Cyclone 3D itself. Such is the audiophile mentality.

To insert the Cyclone 3D into the playback chain a couple of options are available. In the simplest configuration, you run the left/right analog audio cables from the analog outputs of your source unit (VCR, DVD, Laserdisc) into the Cyclone 3D. The output of the Cyclone 3D then goes into, say, your preamplifier or perhaps directly to your stereo TV. If you have multiple sources that you want to have the Cyclone 3D work with, you will likely want to place it in the tape loop of your preamp -- if you have a tape loop.

Lights, camera, action!

I'll cut to the credits now and relieve you of some suspense -- this little bugger works, quite well, in fact, but with some caveats. Its sound separation and positioning are not as discrete as, say, a regular Dolby Pro Logic decoder using five speakers, and it is not anywhere near what Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS can do. Still, for $100 it is very, very impressive, so read on.

I used the Cyclone 3D in an audiophile-approved music system consisting of Speaker Art Super Clef loudspeakers, a Sonic Frontiers Line 1 linestage, SimAudio 4150se amplifier, DH Labs cabling, and a Kenwood SV700 DVD player. I did not use a subwoofer, but that's OK. The bookshelf-sized Super Clefs are able to pound the bass home and approach subwoofer terrain with the SimAudio amp at the helm. The synergy results in a system that not only plays movies, but music too.

I started with the built-in test signal, a very good thing to make sure you are set up correctly. Pssssssht, pssssssht, pssssssht, pssssssht, pssssssht -- round and round the two real and three virtual speakers it went, one speaker at a time. This proved very useful to get the positioning of the speakers and myself juuuuuuust right. When everything is ideally positioned, the sound was localized as strongly as if the virtual speakers were real ones. It was also apparent that to hear surround properly, a dead-center, single-person position is imperative.

I started my movie watching with The Fifth Element. While I did not experience effects that positioned themselves rock solid to the side or behind. I did hear many that did sound as if they were coming from those directions. Surround effects, for this movie at least, could be described as coming from a more general position. More important, mind you, was the way that the Cyclone 3D enveloped me in ambient room sound. The Fifth Element has plenty of bass rumbling and room noise that adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film. I was, in fact, surrounded. To see just how big an effect the Cyclone 3D was making, I used the bypass switch as well as completely removed the unit from the chain. Without the Cyclone 3D, the soundstage slapped itself back up against the front wall and was restricted in size. Gone was that blanket of sound that covered me, and the depth and width of the front stage were reduced. I liked the effect of the Cyclone 3D a lot better.

The Man Who Knew Too Little, a terrible movie with decent visuals and clear, detailed sound, showed almost no side or rear effects, but once again had a wider and deeper front stage. Taking the Cyclone 3D in and out proved that movie sound was much better with the unit inserted, although I could hear a very slight coloring (caramelizing perhaps) of the sound. This criticism is very minor, however, because once again the Cyclone 3D was much more enjoyable than two-channel alone. Furthermore, I've noticed that in the video world, audiophiliesque sonic nuances are almost non-existent, or at times, irrelevant.

Contact proved the most impressive, by far. Everything I heard the Cyclone 3D do in the previous films held true, but with this DVD the surround effects were much more apparent. One part in particular really jumped out. At the point in the movie where we are taken to the alternate space-travel site near Japan, the scene opens with a jet flying overhead to an aircraft carrier. The first time I heard it I leapt from my seat to grab the remote control to back up a little -- I needed to hear it again. Sure enough, that plane came from behind, over my right shoulder, and then down in front. Impressive!


The Cyclone 3D offers plenty for the money, and if we were talking strictly about value I would have little to criticize. However, in the pursuit of sound perfection we audiophiles and videophiles crave, we always find things to criticize. I've listened to many more movies since that time and enjoyed all through the Cyclone 3D. This does not mean that it positions its effect perfectly or distinctly enough -- it doesn't, and it is not as good as most real five-channel systems. Still, what it does can be amazing. The key for getting the most out of it is proper positioning and a perfectly centered listening/viewing position -- off-center sitting loses almost all of the effect. That means the Cyclone 3D is meant for single-person listening (or for two people who like to sit really close). If the Cyclone 3D is set up right, the result can be quite startling.

On an absolute scale, the Cyclone 3D does color the sound somewhat. Things are a little less distinct in terms of detail and clarity, and the midrange becomes a tad woollier and a little bit coarse. Furthermore, the highs seem a little bit rolled and the bass, when the Bass Boost is not activated, sounds less tight and deep than when the Cyclone 3D is not in the chain. Boosted, the bass can be somewhat boomy. In the world of home theater, is this really a problem? Well, the reduction in clarity may be, but the other colorations may be beneficial on some ear-bleeding systems that can sound grainy, brittle and bright.

And Cyclone 3D’s strengths? For the price, it has many. The Cyclone 3D greatly enhances the movie experience from a two-channel setup -- I haven’t found a film that it didn't help. In fact, I enjoyed it in place so much that I found the aforementioned flaws to disappear because I was so much more involved in the film. The Bass Boost will add some low-end heft to systems without subwoofers (it also boosts the virtual rear speakers). I do caution people, however, to watch out when using this feature. It increases the bass a reported 3dB, which can overdrive and possibly damage woofers that are not up to the task, particularly if you use real powerhouse amplifiers like many of us audiophiles do -- movie bass can be heavy bass that is unkind to not-so-rugged equipment. And finally, the A.V.C. feature is an unexpected bonus that I use time and time again. Frankly, I would buy the unit just for that alone. Trying to listen to DVD movies while others are asleep can be very problematic given the dynamic fluctuations of the sound. At one moment you can't hear a thing and then the next an aircraft is flying through the room and you're diving for the volume control. When full-range listening is not possible or desirable, the A.V.C. is a very welcome feature.

And finally, the Cyclone 3D’s greatest strength is its price. If the it were priced in the hundreds of dollars, I would not be as thrilled. But for $100, the unit is no-brainer purchase for the fun factor alone. Furthermore, if you do like the sound of it and find it sufficient for your movie-watching needs, you can put the money you save into some higher-quality equipment (speakers, amplifier, etc.) and that may further improve your movie-watching/music pleasure. A fantastic two-channel setup, suitable for music too, can be had for the price of a poor to mediocre five-channel system. And if you don't end up using the Cyclone 3D in your main system, there are plenty of other places to use it. Heck, it's so small you can slip it into your pocket and take it to your friend’s or relatives’ houses -- show them a bit about what home theater is about. The Cyclone 3D works and is cool, compact, killer and a definite keeper.

...Doug Schneider

Price: $99.95 USD
Warranty: 2 years

Virtual Listening Systems, Inc.
4637 NW 6th Street
Gainesville, FL 32609
Fax: 352-379-0807

Email: sales@vls-toltec.com
Website: www.vls-toltec.com

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