NHT SuperZero loudspeaker & SW2 subwoofer Page 5
I know what you're thinking: "Cinder blocks?! My wife'd KILL me!!" Well, fine then—buy the Merrills. But for the rest of us Real World audiophiles, four 45-cent cinder blocks sprayed gloss-black with a $3 can of paint not only look tough, but the price is right (footnote 4). I've got 'em in my living room, and, so far, El Diablo has not reared his grim and fearsome head.
I was so knocked out by these li'l NHTs that I decided to compare them with a similarly priced babyspeaker that's received a rave review in these pages: PSB's $200/pair Alphas (footnote 5). Each pair of speakers was placed atop a pair of Aunt Corey's Uneducated White Trash Speaker Stands, coupled to the stands with four small pads of Blu-Tack damping material per speaker, and positioned about 2' from the rear wall. The NHTs were toed-in, but the PSBs were left to fire straight ahead, as recommended in the Stereophile review.
I found that the two budget speakers sounded radically different, each offering its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The vented-alignment PSB had a weightier, more full-range sound than the bass-less SuperZero. But while the Alpha had the deeper bass extension, it also sounded much more muddy and bloated than the NHT. The PSB definitely trades off clarity and tightness in the low end for some semblance of a full range, but I found this choice of extension vs transient purity to really thicken and slow the sound down—especially on rhythmically intense material such as Kiko. The Alpha definitely had deeper bass extension than the SuperZeros, but the lack of definition and the plodding, one-note bass kept me from really digging the music as much as I did with the NHT.
In virtually all other areas of performance, the SuperZero walked all over the Alpha. The NHT was more neutral in character, possessing a level of clarity through the midrange and highs that the PSB didn't even hint at. While the SuperZero approached the kind of midrange quality you get from something like a ProAc Response Two, the Alpha had enough nasality—a "hootiness"—that it kept them from reaching the same level of sound quality as the NHT. The almighty Fairfield Four CD really showed up the difference in midrange coloration, the PSB adding a considerable amount of midbass heaviness and cupped-hands coloration to the voices.
But the most dramatic difference was in the speakers' renditions of space. On records and CDs that have a good sense of depth and breadth, the SuperZeros consistently threw up a much larger, more detailed soundscape than the Alphas. The NHTs are so impressive in this area that I went into Space-Trippin' Hyperdrive and yanked out all my neat-o "wide open spaces" records, such as the Ry Cooder/Vishwa Bhatt A Meeting by the River, the "Angels With Dirty Faces" track off Kiko, and Jimi's "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" off Electric Ladyland (Reprise 2-2RS-6307). And if I closed my eyes and forgot about the lack of any real bass, there were almost no clues that I was listening to a pair of $230 babyspeakers sitting on a pile of cinder blocks.
All those boundary-stretchin' sounds—the church acoustics and image placement of the guitars on the Cooder/Bhatt CD, the "outside o' the speakers" hand claps and shaker sounds on the Los Lobos track, and the flying-around-the-room second-guitar solo on "Still Raining, Still Dreaming"—came through just as clearly defined in space and as detached from the black boxes as I've heard from far more expensive speakers, including the Spica Angelus, the ProAc Response Two, and NHT's flagship 3.3.
Bottom line: If you've got 200 clams and want a small budget speaker that plays surprisingly loud and sounds fairly full-range, and you're not too picky about imaging or ultimate midrange, the PSB Alpha is a fine choice. But if you want a speaker that trades off the PSB's bass extension for an overall sound quality approaching multi-thousand-dollar audiophile speakers, the SuperZero is the one to buy.
Harbeth, I hear ya callin'
As JA was fixin' to review Harbeth's latest iteration of the classic BBC LS3/5A minimonitor (footnote 6), I asked him to ship them to me for a few days so I could compare the SuperZeros to a more refined babyspeaker than the $200 PSB Alphas. The little NHTs were so good, I wanted to hear how they fared against the $1000/pair LS3/5A, the time-tested king of the genre.
Well, I can tell you that the $800-more-expensive Harbeths put up a lot more of a fight than the Alphas. And I can also tell you that all the classic good-time ingredients that've made the LS3/5A one of the most enduring of all speaker designs—terrific imaging, low midrange coloration, and a warmly balanced sound that just almost sounds like a full-range speaker—are intact in the current Harbeth version.
Footnote 4: While the cinder-block stands were wobble-free on my living room's hardwood floor, you might want to stick some of the large Tiptoe cones under the stands, points down, to increase stability on a carpeted floor. You might also Super-Glue the cones to the bottom of the cinder-block stands because the stands have a tendency to slide around on top of the cones when jostled.
Footnote 5: See Jack English's review in the July '92 Stereophile, Vol.15 No.7, p.117.
Footnote 6: JA's review of the LS3/5A appeared in December 1993, p.189.