Vienna Acoustics Strauss surround speaker system Page 2
Rather than risk injury by attempting to set up speakers weighing 120 pounds each, I requested assistance from Sumiko. They sent Bill Peugh, who has a long and distinguished history of working in high-end audio. After representing the Swiss high-end audio company Goldmund for several years, Peugh created a critically acclaimed line of speakers for Metaphor. He then joined Sumiko.
Sumiko's unique way of setting up speakers is called the Sumiko Theater and Advanced REL, or STAR, system. This involves not only integrating a REL subwoofer to augment the main speakers' bass, but also placing the mains speakers to optimally pressurize the room while blending seamlessly to create a 3-dimensional soundstage. A several-days-long training program, run by Terry Medalen, teaches installers how to optimize systems for real-world rooms using the STAR technique.
It took Peugh several hours to initially set up the VA/REL system in my upstairs screening room, in which I've tried to create a more real-world home-theater environment than my downstairs megabucks room. The home-theater space is contained within a larger room that also includes my kitchen and living room. The entire space measures 24x29 feet, with a phalanx of 6-foot-high ASC Tube Traps defining the rear boundary of the smaller, 14x15 feet home-theater area. These traps also provide an ideal place to situate rear speakers. Other acoustical elements include a row of ASC wall treatments evenly spaced on the front wall, six randomly spaced Ceiling Clouds, an ASC Shadowcaster outside each speaker, and a thick 7x5 oriental rug, all of which help damp the home theater's room acoustics. The final results make for an ideal area to enjoy a film on a direct-view or rear-projection monitor.
Peugh let the system burn in for a few days, then returned with Terry Medalen, who assisted in the final adjustments. The final speaker positions were somewhat, but not radically, different from what I've used in the past with other speaker systems. All of the main speakers were well clear of nearby walls, and the REL Q401E subwoofer was positioned in the left front corner of the room.
Peugh and Medalen spent another few hours adjusting the system's crossover frequencies and electronic time alignment. Fortunately, my Meridian 568 preamp-processor can save multiple system configurations, which makes different setups available at the push of a button. The STAR setup involved setting speaker distances based on what Peugh and Medalen heard instead of actual measured distances—not the way I usually set up a system. When they'd completed their setup, they saved it under the name sumiko. Then I set up the system according to the more standard procedure of measuring distances, and saved it as stone. Peugh and Medalen also set up the front speakers as large full-range transducers with no bass rolloff, so the REL Q401E would augment their bass output. I set up my system parameters with a 45Hz front-channel rolloff. I used both system configurations during my listening sessions. Put another way, the sumiko setup used the REL subwoofer in Sumiko's recommended bass augmentation mode, while the stone setup employed the REL more as a conventional subwoofer.
Every speaker falls to one side or the other of perfect neutrality. Harmonically, the Vienna Acoustics system was on the warm side, not because of an excess of lower-midrange energy or a lack of high-frequency extension, but because of its innate musicality. The Strausses infused sources with a slightly rosy glow. Compared to the Tannoy Dimension system, the VA speakers were not quite as warm or euphonic, and they provided a more forward and dynamic midrange that gave music a bit more life and energy.
Even without the REL subwoofer to augment their bass response, the Strauss and Oratorio speakers did a fine job with bass-intensive sources. In theory, disconnecting the REL removes bass information below 40Hz, but on most material it was hard to hear any difference; the Strauss and Oratorio speakers had more than adequate bass extension of their own. With especially dynamic material, such as my own live concert recordings played back in derived surround modes, I preferred a 45Hz crossover setting in the Meridian for the front speakers. This reduced the amount of extreme LF information fed to the front-channel amplifier, liberating it from the power-sapping drudgery of reproducing low bass. With the 45Hz crossover, music had greater dynamic ease because the amplifier wasn't working so hard. The same was true for the most bass-heavy soundtracks.
In fact, for any program material that originated digitally—including Dolby Digital, DTS, and CDs—I preferred to use the REL Q401E subwoofer in the conventional mode, crossed over to the main speakers at 45Hz. The REL's augmentation mode really comes into its own only where the surround processor provides no bass management. That will be the case with most DVD-Audio setups, some SACD systems, and anything that originated as 2-channel analog material and is played back in an analog bypass mode without simulated surround processing of any kind (or CDs where the user prefers to use the player's analog outputs). Coupled with the REL in its augmentation setup, the Vienna Acoustics system excelled with DVD-Audio material, delivering exceptionally full-range musical presentations despite the bass-management limitations of most DVD-A players.
The Vienna Acoustics' midrange presentation commanded my attention. Even at very low volumes, human voices, saxophones, and guitars had a presence that was strikingly lifelike. In the real world, microdynamics and subtle volume changes give music delicacy and nuance, and these subtle differences came through the VA system without corruption or homogenization.
The VAs' microdynamic abilities reminded me of the WEGG3 Lunare Surface Mission speakers (reviewed in the February 2002 Guide), which also pass every bit of dynamic information with no loss of definition or energy. I can't make direct comparisons between the Vienna Acoustics and WEGG3 systems because I didn't have both at the same time, but both made many other speakers I've heard seem sleepy by comparison.
Along with their microdynamic abilities, the Vienna Acoustics could deliver big crescendos. Loud passages sounded as loud as they can and do in real life. No, bomb blasts didn't clock in at 130dB—most soundtracks use judicious amounts of compression and limiting to spare us excessive aural assault—but on my own uncompressed recordings, the VAs produced SPLs that matched what I measured in the hall during the recordings. They handled a full symphony orchestra's fff passages without a whimper, losing no definition during these sonic onslaughts.
Peugh and Medalen had spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time adjusting their setup for optimum soundstaging and imaging, but the results indicated that their efforts made a difference. Even though the Strausses are larger, with more drivers set farther apart, than many speakers I've had in my upstairs screening room, their imaging precision equaled anything I'd heard. Not only did the VA system deliver excellent lateral imaging, each sound having a particular and well-defined location, but it delivered superlative layering of sound from back to front. In the explosions during the depth-charge scenes of Das Boot, I got a real sense of varying distances. On such well-recorded classical DVD-A discs as MDG's Breakthrough . . . into a new Dimension (MDG 9061069-5), orchestras had realistic 3-dimensional depth.
I mentioned earlier that the Vienna Acoustics system was on the slightly warm side of neutral, and this was not due to any lack of high-frequency extension or air. After the Tannoy Dimension's supertweeters and the Monitor Audio's ceramic aluminum-dome tweeters, I was surprised to find a silk-dome tweeter able to deliver equally high levels of finesse and articulation in the highs. Even on slightly dark recordings, such as Béla Fleck's Acoustic Planet DVD-A (Warner Bros. 47332-9), the VA system rendered high-frequency information with superb clarity. On bright, slightly nasty movie soundtracks such as SLC Punk, the top end was never spitty or overly sibilant.
The principal drawback of the Strauss is its size. These large speakers simply will not fit, sonically or visually, into a small screening room. By "small," I mean anything with dimensions under about 15 feet. You could try to fit them into less space, and they'll never sound actually bad, but you can't expect optimum performance if you have to shoehorn them into a tiny room. Since my upper-level screening area was part of a much larger space, I was able to experience most of what the speakers had to offer. One of VA's smaller speakers would be more appropriate for smaller rooms.
Sumiko's somewhat unusual setup and calibration procedures may be a problem for some installers and/or rooms. Any Sumiko-certified dealer should be able to correctly employ their STAR system, but whether the results are audibly superior to a more conventional setup is debatable. I often preferred a more standard setup, especially when using derived surround modes—it seemed to more accurately decode 2-channel spatial cues into surround sound. Only when using Dolby Digital or analog-bypass DVD-A material did I find the STAR setup to be slightly more spacious, with better soundstage integration. The Meridian 568.2 made it easy to have both setups available, but with most surround processors, you'll have to choose one way to set up your system.
Audio critics are often accused of cribbing many of their more obscure terms from the pages of wine journals, whose descriptions of the subtleties of taste and smell make even the most flowery audiophile ramblings seem prosaic in comparison. While I wouldn't go so far as to describe the Vienna Acoustics/REL system as having a raspberry finish with slight overtones of spice and ginger, I would call it colorful and refreshingly dynamic. It's just the thing to go with Bubble Boy, an unpretentious Chardonnay, and Paul Newman's low-fat popcorn. Put another way, Vienna Acoustics' Strauss-based system combined the characteristics of two of my favorite speaker systems: the suavity of the Tannoy Dimension with the dynamic exuberance of the Monitor Audio Studio Gold Reference. Though not inexpensive, the VA system delivers everything you pay for: visual style, fine sound, and that certain verve that makes a high-end product special. I'll miss them when they're gone. From me, there's not much higher praise.