NHT 3.3 loudspeaker Norton Page 2
Deep organ pedals on the NHTs will flutter your pants legs. In my room, only the best subwoofers can compete in rendering the power and range of the organ on Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117). The deep synthesizer work on the soundtrack from The Abyss (Varèse Sarabande VSD-5235) also shook the floor. Bass drums—from the over-large, closely miked example on "O Vazio" (Tropic Affair, Reference RR-31CD) to the more naturally distant drums on good orchestral recordings—were strong, deep, and realistically taut. I say "realistically" because, all too often, "tight" bass is actually limited bass. Deep, extended bass excites the room or space in which it was recorded—it "breathes." Roll off the lower octave or so—say, below about 40Hz—and the perceived bass becomes tighter. But fat, lumpy bass is still fat, lumpy bass. And while this quality is sometimes the room's fault, the loudspeakers themselves often deserve part of the blame.
The subjective bass from the NHT 3.3s is as deep and as tight as it needs to be. Compared with other loudspeakers having decent low-frequency extension, the 3.3s seemed to have less of that trace of excessive warmth which I have always attributed to the Stereophile listening room. But the 3.3s did not sacrifice believable mid- and upper bass body and warmth to accomplish this. The bass was full-bodied without being either muddled or lean, and its ultimate bottom-octave extension was not evident on most ordinary recordings. I could listen all day to the 3.3s with program material of average bass content and hear clean and detailed mid- and upper bass without being aware of their prodigious bottom-end wallop. But put on a low-frequency barnstormer and Shazam! The 3.3s' low-end performance was a marvel.
At the other end of the spectrum, the good times continued to roll, although not to the same degree as in the bass. As I've already stated, this is easier to get right these days (though goodness knows, plenty of designers are still trying their best to get it wrong). But for the most part, the NHT's high-frequency response was surprisingly first-class. When I heard the 3.3s at the 1993 Winter CES and at the 1993 Stereophile Hi-Fi show in San Francisco, I found them stunning in many respects, but just a bit "hot" on top. This may have been due to the room, the associated equipment, or both—in my listening room, they didn't sound that way. I did note a trace of residual brightness and glare—mostly at the high playback levels which the NHT's cleanness, high power handling, and wide dynamic range encourage—that was not evident on all program material. But I don't entirely blame the latter, which did not always exhibit the same characteristic on other quality loudspeakers in the same system.
But this was a sometime thing. Most often, the top end of the NHTs was chameleon-like—sweet and delicate when called for, and also capable of cutting loose. Sibilants were clean and natural, without spit or sizzle. In this respect the 3.3's top end definitely exceeded the performance of the WATTs/Puppies, at least on difficult program material (the voice of Michel Jonacz on "Le Temps Passé" from le fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing on WEA 2292-42338-2, an otherwise superb recording). Choir recordings were open and grainless, strings delicate, and percussion as crisply detailed as it should be, but no more.
I initially had some reservations about the NHT's midrange performance. Most of my efforts in fine-tuning their positions involved minimizing a degree of forwardness in their sound. The same applied to cables, but to a lesser degree. TARA Labs RSC, for example, which works superbly with the WATTs/Puppies, was bettered through the midband by the Straight Wire Virtuoso. I was able to get to the point where the 3.3's forwardness was largely program-dependent and only intermittently bothersome.
I agree with what Ken Kantor said during his visit: On some recordings the 3.3s can sound like headphones, while on others the sound opens up. The point that might be argued is whether or not the average perspective of the 3.3s is neutral, laid-back, or forward. I found it a shade on the forward side of neutral, but never aggressive—unless forced to be so by the program material. Within that context, however, the overall midrange performance was open, clean, multidimensional, and detailed, with a strong dose of the ever-popular "palpable presence." While I noted a rare trace of a cupped-hands quality, coloration levels were generally quite low. My long-time reference for male vocals—Gordon Lightfoot's 20-year-old If You Could Read My Mind (Reprise 6392-2)—was superbly rendered: no nasality, a believable presence, and just the right degree of warmth.
The 3.3s' soundstage was tight and focused, accommodating the program material both in the precision of its lateral detailing and in its depth. On some recordings there was noticeably less depth and pinpoint imaging than with soundstage champs like the WATTs/Puppies. But on others—the organ on Dorian's Pictures at an Exhibition, the synthesizer, vocalist, and chorus on Enya's Watermark (Geffen 24233-2), and the instrumental and vocal interplay on Eric Bibb's and Cindee Peters' Opus 3 compilation (CD 7706/03) jump off the pages of my listening notes—the depth rendition and lateral focus were all I could have hoped for. The only drawback I noted was a limiting of the soundstage to the space between the loudspeakers.
To determine how the NHTs performed with less expensive amplification, I briefly substituted the Hafler TransNova 9500 for the Krell KSA-250. The differences were not surprising. The top end of the Hafler was less finely grained than that of the Krell, the dimensionality slightly reduced. The Hafler's deep bass was just as extended, but softer and less detailed. All of this was more evident in the comparison, however. The Hafler performed well, and while the NHTs will repay the use of a super amplifier like the Krell, they will respond nicely to more real-world motive power. CG, I should note, also has a pair of 3.3s on hand; he reports excellent results driving them with the Aragon 4004 Mk.II, which doesn't surprise me in the least.
Alóon again, naturally
And what of the competition? There is no shortage of contenders in the $3000-$4000 price range, and many have passed through Stereophile's listening room. None of the latter can match the NHT 3.3 for clean, extended bass. A pair of Acarian Alón IVs—certainly a member this elite group—was conveniently available. After completing most of my listening to the NHTs, I trotted out the Acarians to do battle. While the IVs can be tri-wired, I settled on bi-wiring, due to the lack of three lengths of identical cable.
I had recently set up the Al;aons for my review of the Bryston 7Bs, and had been impressed by their fine performance. What jumped out at me on firing them up again was the striking increase in soundstage size over that produced by the NHTs. I also experienced more vivid senses of depth and soundstage layering on a wide range of recordings. The spacious soundstage of the Acarians was far more evident following long acclimatization to the sound of the NHTs than it had been when I switched to the Acarians after spending time with the WATTs/Puppies.
The NHTs' well-defined but less expansive soundstage is perhaps due to the speaker's large cabinet, which, while narrow at the front for minimum diffraction, is nevertheless a high and deep piece of furniture. Perhaps, however, the Acarians, which also radiate significant energy rearward through the midrange, enhance the sense of spaciousness inherent in the recordings in a way that dipole radiators are often accused of—or credited with. Suffice it to say that the Alóns presented a sense of space—a halo of air, if you will, around the performance—in a way in which the NHTs did not. At the same time, the lateral image focus of the NHTs generally was more precise than that of the Acarians.
The Alóns also had a superbly clean top end. I had first noticed this while switching from the WATTs/Puppies to the Acarians during the Bryston review. I rate the top end of the Acarians as slightly sweeter and smoother than that of the 3.3s, but the differences were not dramatic.
The NHTs came to the fore through the bass range. The Acarians do have a powerful low end, and on the occasional piece of program material—like the drums that open the soundtrack to Jurassic Park (MCA MCAD-10859)—they actually sounded fuller and more powerful than the NHTs. Their bass performance, though a bit full in the midbass, was certainly effective. Over the long haul, however, on a wide range of material, they couldn't match the combination of clarity (including mid- and upper-bass clarity) and low-end reach which distinguishes the NHTs' bass performance.
And in the important midrange, the NHT was decidedly less colored. There was an intermittent, but not particularly subtle, nasality to the Alón's midrange. For me, this was its major flaw. I could not eliminate this coloration with straight-on, toed-in, or intermediate positioning. It clearly seemed to originate from the rear radiation of the Alón's midrange. No such anomaly marred the NHT's midband.
NHT has come on like a shot with the 3.3, instantly placing themselves in contention for the high-end loudspeaker market. While their new flagship may at first glance look like a Hans und Franz version of their previous top-of-the-line 2.3a, it's nothing of the sort. I reviewed the 2.3a in our last loudspeaker survey (Vol.16 No.9, p.107); while I was favorably impressed with many aspects of its performance, the 3.3 is not just a 2.3a with more bass, but a whole 'nother animal. Any audiophile who dismisses the 3.3 by assuming that, because NHT has made its reputation with good, affordable loudspeakers, it's just "dabbling" in the High End, will be making a big mistake. If you're shopping in this price range, the NHT 3.3 demands to be heard.