The Entry Level #10
Loudspeakers? I know it sounds crazy that I could be surrounded by so much beauty and still be preoccupied with hi-fi, but someone's iPhone was sitting right next to me, pretending to play music, sending tinny, buzzing noises into the otherwise perfect night. It was driving me crazy. I wanted to toss it into the pool.
"It would be nice if we had a pair of little speakers out here," I told Shana, our gracious hostess. As soon as the words fell from my mouth, I felt like an assholeas if everything else Shana had provided wasn't enough, as if all was overshadowed by the inferiority of MP3s and iPhone speakers. But can you blame me for wanting better, for wanting more? I'm an audiophile, after all. Back at home, I'd been listening to NHT's SuperZero 2.0 loudspeakers, and I wanted the girls, too, to experience their magic.
If you don't have the money
The original NHT SuperZero was introduced in 1993, and Corey Greenberg reviewed it for Stereophile in the January issue of that year. The speaker sold for just $230/pair$32 more than what a pair sells for today. Exceeding previous NHT models in both ambition and performance, the SuperZero was the company's first true high-end component, and helped to establish NHT as a credible and exciting force in the world of high-performance audio.
But 15 years later, in February 2009, NHT went quiet. The time had come for a revised business model. In an interview with Jason Victor Serinus, company cofounder Chris Byrne explained that "NHT has always wanted to provide high-end sound for people without a high-end budget. We can provide 95% of the sound you get from a $20,000 product while spending a whole lot less. But we've kind of gotten away from that idea. Our stuff has gotten more expensive, and we find ourselves all of a sudden with 38 models. Our day-to-day business has interfered with us seeing where we're going. We need to step back."
The news of the hiatus came as an unhappy surprise to many NHT fans, but the break didn't last long. Five months later, NHT returned to market with a new strategy. The company drastically cut the number of models offered, assumed full responsibility of North American distribution and fulfillment of their products, canceled print advertising in favor of online campaigns, and created partnerships with online retailers such as Audio Advisor and Amazon. Perhaps to reassure those who feared the company had lost its way, Byrne then said, "Our mantra remains high quality, not high price. If you don't have the money, this is the brand you should buy."
And in October 2010, NHT returned to the speaker that had started it all: The SuperZero 2.0 ($198/pair) was born.
In the press release for the SuperZero 2.0, Chris Byrne announced, "It sounds crazy, but thanks to our new business model, we are able to offer an improved version of one of the best minimonitors in the history of the audio market for less than its original price."
How has the SuperZero been improved? While the original had a first-order crossover, its 4.5" woofer handing off to its 1" tweeter at about 3.2kHz, the new model employs a second-order design with a crossover frequency of approximately 2.2kHz. "The shallow slope worked well," Byrne told me, "but it was a bit phasey. The steeper slope keeps the tweeter from beaming." The 2.0's new crossover design is said to increase power handling, reduce distortion, offer greater detail, and improve off-axis responseall good stuff. Like the original SuperZero, the 2.0 has an MDF cabinet, but internal bracing has been added to eliminate any "spurious" reflections. "The bracing is likely unnecessary, as the cabinet is so small," says Byrne, "but we did it anyway."
How small is small?
As with everything else, it depends on whom you ask. When Mikey Fremer says something is small, you can count on it being pretty big. To Mikey, Magico's 387-lb Q5 floorstanding speaker is "relatively compact." (November 2010, Vol.33 No.11). But Mikey lives in a different worldthe suburbs. (Eww!) In the city, space comes at a premium: every inch matters. I'm happy to report that the NHT SuperZero 2.0 is seriously, undeniably small: 9" H by 5" W by 5.5" D. As I unpacked the diminutive NHTs, my first thought was, Chicks are gonna dig this.
Like the original SuperZero, the 2.0 has a 4.5" long-throw pulp-cone woofer and a 1" silk-dome tweeter in a sealed enclosure. The solid cabinet is finished in a handsome black-gloss laminate that attracts smudges as Natalie and Nicole attract bar weirdos. There are nice five-way binding posts. For the home-theater crowd, the speaker can be mounted on a wall or ceiling using an Omnimount 10.0 bracket, which can be screwed into a ¼"-20 threaded hole on the speaker's rear panel. The SuperZero 2.0 weighs six lbs381 pounds less than the relatively compact Magico Q5.
Setup was super easy. I soon learned that I could place these little guys just about anywhere in the room and they'd sound very good. I began by putting them in the exact spots the PSB Alpha B1s had occupied, secured with globs of Blu-Tack to 24"-high stands, and positioned about 12" from the LP shelves along each sidewall, 4' from the front wall, 8' from my listening position, and toed in so that their tweeters pointed at my ears. From these positions images were extremely well focused, but I wondered if I could get an even broader soundstage. Bringing each little NHT a foot closer to my listening position and 2" closer to its sidewall had no adverse effects on the speakers' tonal balance, but resulted in a larger soundstage and sharper image focus. Super cool!
But stillno bass
I listened to the NHT SuperZero 2.0 with my Exposure 2010S integrated amplifier. The Exposure is an expensive piece of gear, but at $1295 it's the least expensive integrated amplifier in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components"which means it's also a bargain. More important for the project at hand, the Exposure 2010S has a subwoofer output (more about that later). As sources, I used Exposure's matching 2010S CD player (also $1295), as well as my Rega P3-24 turntable with outboard PSU power supply ($1270). AudioQuest's Rocket 33 speaker cables ($299/10' pair) and Sidewinder interconnects ($64/1m pair) completed the system.
Lately I've been exploring the work of Brazilian-born electronic composer Amon Tobin, who captures the smallest soundsthe voices of insects, for instanceand transforms them into massive soundscapes. His latest album, ISAM (LP, Ninja Tune ZEN168), combines field recordings with a dazzling array of processed sounds to create a buzzing, swirling, rumbling worlda truly mood-altering trip, a hallucinatory sonic fairytale. During the recent California Audio Show I listened to track 5, "Lost & Found," through a system comprising Wilson Audio Sophia loudspeakers, an Ayre Acoustics V-5xe power amplifier and K-5xeMP preamplifier, and a MacBook Pro feeding data to the USB input of an Ayre DX-5 disc player, all tied together with Synergistic Research cables. The sound was amazing, marked by thrilling stereo imaging and gut-shaking low-end blasts. Of course, I needed to know how my own system, much smaller and far more modest, would compare.
Footnote 1: NHT, 6400 Goodyear Road, Benicia, CA 94510. Tel: (707) 747-0122. Fax: (707) 747-1251. Web: www.nhthifi.com.