NHT SuperTwo loudspeaker
Like anyone searching for a gift, I struggle to balance the element of surprise with the security of getting her something I know she'll like and enjoy—something too predictable, like a replacement for a much-loved but worn-out accessory, is no fun. Err the other way, however, and you end up with a beautiful extravagance that collects dust on a spare-room shelf. What's really difficult, of course, is doing it on a budget. After all, I'm sure she'd be surprised by, and adore, a new Aston Martin DB7 Vantage. The only risk is that I'd get a silver one when she'd have preferred British racing green—and I'd have to declare bankruptcy.
In contemplating the NHT SuperTwo, it occurred to me that loudspeaker designers deal with a similar struggle: balancing optimization within a specified frequency range against the extent of that range. A design of limited frequency range, however good, just won't appeal to some customers. Conversely, if the compromises made to extend the frequency response don't match the customer's listening preferences, the manufacturer loses again.
Just as with Bonnie's gift, the vise around this tradeoff is cost. Cost-no-object designs like the Genesis 200 or Dynaudio Evidence can do a great job at both quality and frequency response; the only question is whether or not the designer's taste matches the customer's. The real trick is to do it all without breaking the bank.
NHT is known for exactly this juggling act, having built up several lines of great-sounding, cost-effective loudspeakers, and several NHT designs have been favorably reviewed over the years in the pages of Stereophile and Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. On paper, the approach used to design the SuperTwo seems particularly clever: Start with the excellent, inexpensive and inexpensive SuperOne minimonitor, add an integral subwoofer to extend the bass response to 35Hz, and combine them in a slick, floorstanding tower.
The top third of this 39"-tall tower is essentially a SuperOne. It uses the same 1" soft-dome tweeter and 6.5" paper-cone midrange/woofer, both sourced from Foster. The cabinet volume and vertical driver layout—the tweeter axis is 5" above the woofer's—are also the same. (In the SuperTwo, the tweeter axis is 36" off the floor.)
The bottom two-thirds of the SuperTwo is a separate subwoofer enclosure housing a downward-firing, 6.5" long-throw midwoofer and rear-firing port, the latter tuned to approximately 37Hz. The Peerless subwoofer driver is a five-layer sandwich of polypropylene and a damping compound. The crossover to the subwoofer is at 120Hz, but there's a fair amount of overlap between the mid- and subwoofer.
The SuperTwo, SuperZero, SuperOne, and SuperCenter make up NHT's budget Performance line, all of which share cosmetics, design parameters, and components. Their cabinets are made of 5/8" MDF, with a plastic laminate coating inside and out for added rigidity. The finish is a nicely done high-gloss piano black, the grille is a minimalist cloth affair that snaps on, and connections are via a single pair of 5-way binding posts near the bottom of the speaker's back side. In the SuperTwo, nifty outrigger feet attach to its underside to provide a stable base on hard or carpeted floors. Like all NHT speakers, the SuperTwos are built at Recoton's factory in Benicia, California.
In addition to aiming for the budget audiophile market, the Performance Series speakers are magnetically shielded for home-theater use. According to designer Bill Bush, the goal was to offer a line of products that provided superb two-channel, audio-only performance, but also allowed the system to be inexpensively expanded to five channels while maintaining a consistent timbral balance. The SuperTwo's small footprint, narrow profile, and downward-firing subwoofer allow the tower to be placed next to large-screen monitors or A/V cabinets with minimum impact on its sonic performance—more nods toward HT applications.
I did try the SuperTwo in HT mode, combining it with a Rotel RSX-965 5-channel A/V receiver, a SuperCenter, and two SuperOnes. It made a wonderful, inexpensive surround system for both music and movies. The SuperTwo's built-in subwoofer did a good job on the bottom end, and dialog, scoring, and effects were all balanced, nicely laid out, firmly located, and refreshingly intelligible. Kudos to Bill Bush and NHT on their crossover concept. It's a good idea that works splendidly.
Use and Listening
I used the SuperTwos in two audio-only systems in addition to my audio/video setup, but most of my final evaluations were done using a Wadia 830 CD player straight into Mark Levinson No.20.6 monoblock power amplifiers, balanced MIT 330 Shotgun interconnects, and Synergistic Research Designer's Reference speaker cables.
I set the SuperTwos up approximately 6' from the side walls, 4' out from the front wall, and toed-in to point directly at my listening seat. I found that they were sensitive to toe-in, but not terribly finicky with respect to location. My listening position is about 6' 6" from the back wall and my chair puts my ear height at 39"—slightly above the SuperTwo's 36" tweeter axis.
Room treatment included Echo Busters absorbers at the first reflection points on the side walls, Double Buster diffusers on the front and back walls, and Bass Buster bass absorbers in all four room corners.
The focus in Stereophile, however, is two-channel audio. Unfortunately, the SuperTwo's performance in that arena was a bit mixed, particularly in comparison to other relatively inexpensive speakers I've tried—the Meadowlark Kestrel, Magnepan 1.6Q/R, and Castle Severn—and, more provocatively, even compared to NHT's own SuperOne.
The SuperTwo was conceived with the bottom end in mind, so I'll start there. NHT certainly succeeded in their goal of extending and strengthening the SuperOne's bass. I love the little guys, but there are times when their lack of bass disrupts the flow of the music. Imagine bopping along to Count Basie's Orchestra or rocking out with Stevie Ray Vaughan, subconsciously anticipating the next note, only to have it ring hollow because the bottom end just isn't there. Instead of the solid, subterranean slam you expected, there's only a hollow clink.
Not so with the SuperTwo. I cued up "Bluesville," from JVC's XRCD of Count Basie's 88 Basie Street (JVCXR-0021-2), and no doubt about it, Dennis Mackrel's bass was there, all there, at full strength. Ditto for the lowest bass-guitar notes on the title cut from Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky is Crying (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 723)—plenty of power and slam, and good pitch definition as well. Not as good as the $14,000/pair Thiel CS7.2, to be sure, or even the $1500/pair Meadowlark Kestrel "Hot Rod," but pretty darn good.
But extension, power, and pitch are only the most obvious parts of the equation. Other, more subtle, factors—speed, articulation, air—are also important. Here, the SuperTwo didn't fare quite as well. Bass notes, be they bass guitar, double or stand-up bass, or even timpani, were solid and hit their pitches, but lacked distinct leading edges or decays. Nor were there the characteristic inner structures that let you distinguish between different instruments playing the same note. The bass was less "one-note" than simply generic. The pitches were there, but not clearly identifiable as, say, a stand-up bass or bass drum. In comparison, the other small speakers I tried lacked the SuperTwo's power and extension, but did better at reproducing the instruments' character, harmonic structure, and inner detail.
The Ray Brown Trio's Soular Energy (Concord CCD-4268) illustrates the good and bad aspects of the SuperTwo's bass. There was plenty of power and extension, but none of Brown's characteristic snapping strings, or the fat, growling resonance that blossoms when he hits the bottom of his range. "I Got Lost in His Arms," from Shirley Horn's Close Enough for Love (Verve 837-933-2), was another good example. I noted that Charles Ables' bass "hits the pitch, but it's generic," and that "the leading edges, bounce, and resonance just aren't there." I also noticed that, on this cut and several others, the SuperTwo's bass sounded a bit lumpy, and wondered if they were "adding odd resonances at some frequencies."