Audio Physic Virgo III surround speaker system Page 2
A Very Different Presentation
With Piega's big P5 LTD tower system (see the review in the June 2003 SGHT) moved out and Audio Physic's smaller rig installed, there was the usual period of adjustment as my ears dealt with a very different presentation—exacerbated in this case by the fact that the Virgo III system had been shipped direct from the factory in Germany and hadn't been broken-in.
At first, the Audio Physic system sounded stiff, bright, and somewhat grainy, but two things stood out immediately: the Minos' supple, tuneful bottom end, and the Avanti Center's freedom from chestiness and congestion. While the compact Piega subwoofer had gone deep, playing loudly and effectively filling in the bottom (especially with movies' LFE channels), the far more expensive Minos inhabited the caverns and built a seamless sonic suspension bridge connecting the lowest musical notes to the midbass.
When I played Suzanne Vega's "Caramel," from the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital DVD of The Best of Sessions at West 54th, I was rewarded with an elasticity and "stringiness" of the bass strings I've rarely heard in my home theater. The Aerial SW12 and Model 7Bs I reviewed in the May 2000 issue were in the same category, but I'm not sure they were quite this good. The texture and, especially, the size and focus of the bass were of audiophile quality. Ditto the rich, chunky, hollow electric bass line on Shawn Colvin's "Diamond in the Rough."
After I'd let the system break in for a few weeks, and my ears adjusted to the new sound, the AP system jelled brilliantly. It was obvious early on that the Virgo III was not nearly as mellow and warm as the original Virgo, but it was more neutral, detailed, dynamic, and revealing: more accurate for music reproduction and more appropriate for a home theater, where speed, dynamics, and detail trump comfort and sonic warmth. Even though their location in the room was constrained by the requirements of a home theater, the pair playing 2-channel music full-range, with subwoofer, presented a big, seamless, 3-dimensional picture—the kind of "disappearing act" for which Audio Physic speakers are renowned.
The 2-channel setup delivered the SACD of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia CS64935) with pinpoint imaging precision on an airy soundstage seemingly dissociated from the confines of the speakers—surprising, given the large expanse of television screen located between the Virgo IIIs—and the image height extended well above the tweeters. This revealing level of tonal neutrality won't be everyone's cup of swill, and I wouldn't want to mate the Virgo IIIs with anything but high-performance electronics. If grain and glare are coming from the processor, you'll hear it through the Virgos. My Arcam pre-pro and power amp were up to the task—the reproduction of Davis' trumpet was delicate and airy, with a full measure of brass and "bite" without etch.
Though the Virgo III's LF response is rated down to 34Hz, –3dB, running them full-range without the sub revealed a speaker capable of clean, tight response down to about 40Hz and not much below—at least in my setup. Personally, I'd rather have less bass than too much. As I remember, the bottom end of the Aerial 7B (reviewed in the May 2000 Guide) was on the slightly warm, mellow side, which made blending with the SW12 a bit trickier, and it gave the system a slightly warm personality.
The seamlessness of the Minos–Virgo III combo was one of this system's most noteworthy achievements, along with dynamic punch and effervescent speed. Bass was tight and fast yet tuneful and supple. As I've said, Audio Physic devotes a lot of attention to eliminating stored energy from its designs—the combination of stiff drivers, small woofers, narrow baffle, and well-braced and -damped cabinets has paid off in the Virgo III, which is as tightly sprung as a sports car. And the versatile Minos subwoofer is one of the two most musical subwoofers I know of. The other is the Aerial SW12, but there's no comparison when it comes to looks: the Aerial is a box; the Minos is a curvaceous piece of furniture.
Variations on the Vifa tweeter have proven themselves in a variety of speakers from many manufacturers; this tweeter may not the last word in air and resolution, but it's fast, offers reasonably good detail, and is so well-behaved overall that it fits beautifully into the AP design philosophy. The result is a speaker that is as well-behaved in the mids and on top as it is on the bottom. Sibilants and musical transients were clean and detailed, with plenty of sparkle and no residual grain.
The Audio Physic system's rendering of Simon and Garfunkel's performance of "Sounds of Silence," which opened last spring's Grammy Awards (HDTV, Dolby Digital 5.1), offered breathtaking clarity and transparency. The duo's perfectly blended voices shimmered, well-focused in 3-dimensional space, though it was possible to follow their individual vocal lines throughout. Simon's acoustic guitar sparkled brilliantly, with a satisfying blend of string and wooden body. Across the front of the stage, the three speakers blended seamlessly to produce an enormous sonic picture; the room reverb, whether real or artificial, traveled delicately from front to back and finally decayed gently through the Brilon 2s, which also managed to hide their locations throughout.
I captured S&G's performance on D-VHS tape and played it repeatedly, for my own enjoyment and for friends. It revealed a superbly integrated system capable of ultra-high resolution, 3-dimensionality, delicacy, speed, and harmonic sophistication. It also demonstrated that CBS's sound engineers had done a spectacular job of capturing it all.
A better test of the AP system's dynamic slam and extension came later in the Grammys, when Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Little Steven Van Zandt, Dave Grohl, and No Doubt's rhythm section combined forces to pay tribute to the late Joe Strummer on an absolutely smoking version of The Clash's "London Calling." This system could rock. When I cranked it way up, the clarity and focus didn't dissipate. Dynamic expression and general slam were as good as I've heard at home; given my previous experience with Audio Physic products, I was wasn't surprised. The multichannel SACD edition of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol CDP7 5 82136 2S), expertly mixed by James Guthrie using the original 16-track analog elements, produced convincing displays of both surround music and the Audio Physic system's musical prowess.
Stop the Music
Why, in a home theater magazine, have I lavished so much ink on a system's musical performance? Well, I don't see the point of spending more than $20,000 on a relatively small 5-channel speaker system designed primarily for music if it's not also going to part of a dual-purpose multichannel system. If you're not planning on playing music through the Virgo III system, you're paying for nuanced performance you won't be using—though film scores will sound wonderful. On the other hand, if you can afford it for a home-theater system, you give up nothing while getting an exceptional level of no-compromise performance in a very small package. At just 6 inches wide and 40 inches tall, the Virgos take up less space than many stand-mounted minimonitors.
From the description I've given of its musical performance, it should already be obvious how the AP system played back movie soundtracks: shockingly well. One night, we were watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. My wife, who was sitting close to the right front speaker, literally jumped from the couch when an offscreen event triggered a sound effect in the right front channel. Getting that kind of reaction while sitting that close to a speaker is significant—in the nearfield, the mechanical nature of the reproduction is usually obvious enough to destroy the desired illusion. But the Virgo IIIs were designed to not suffer from off-axis peaks and dips; we both found the sound smooth and natural from any seat in our home theater, left or right or front or back.
The AP system produced about the most stable and convincing 3D sonic bubble I've yet heard—and from any seat in the room. The Avanti Center is a compact, ingeniously designed solution that blends about as effectively with the L/R speakers as any center speaker I've auditioned, and rivaled the Aerial CC3 (SGHT, May 2000) center-channel's presentation in terms of transparency, tonal balance, and overall believability. It offers impressive dynamics and low-frequency extension, and its overall intelligibility was exceptional, which helped produce a relaxed and relaxing cinematic experience. Its off-axis performance was as smooth and free of suckouts as I've heard, though I have to admit that, in real-world listening, I haven't heard some of the gross off-axis anomalies Tom Norton has measured in other center-channel speakers I've reviewed.
The night before I regretfully packed up the Virgo III system to send it off to be measured and photographed, I watched the eerie suspense thriller One Hour Photo, with Robin Williams. The music track plays an important role in the film; at key moments there are eruptions of ultra-deep, dynamic bass. These short musical bursts, delivered through a sound system such as this one, achieved the desired results. I jumped every time.
Audio Physic's Virgo III home-theater package is an expensive, surprisingly compact, high-performance system that offers superb, sophisticated, audiophile-quality performance with both music and movies, as well as sleek, stylish good looks. Don't let their size fool you: these speakers will play loud, and fill a big room with dynamic, full-range sound. Unfortunately, because of its high performance, this system will also reveal the limitations of associated equipment; be prepared to spend what you must to get electronics of equal quality.
For the well-heeled audio/videophile looking for a system that will satisfy every home theater and musical need, the Virgo III is a sleek-looking, exciting-sounding package that will provide satisfaction without compromise. I wish I could afford it.