So far, as part of my quest to find good affordable box loudspeakers, I have reviewed 16 models, in the August, October, and November 1987 issues of Stereophile (Vol.10 Nos.5, 7, & 8). This fourth group of loudspeakers expands the price range covered, down to $329/pair and up to $1349/pair, and includes one model from California (Nelson-Reed), one from Canada (Paradigm), and one, Monitor Audio's "flagship," the R952MD, from the UK.
English manufacturer Monitor Audio has been around for just about as long as people have been putting "high-end" and "audio" together—they opened their doors in 1972. Back in the mid '80s, when I was a young and carefree (and impoverished) consumer of hi-fi reviews, I'd read about the gold-deposited metal tweeters that Mo Iqbal was concocting and think, "Man, that's some exotic, far-out stuff!"
In March 2006 I wrote a very favorable review of Monitor Audio's Silver RS6 loudspeaker. At the time, I felt this $999/pair, small-footprint floorstander produced the greatest sound quality per dollar of any speaker I'd heard. Despite the proliferation of affordable speakers of increasing quality I've heard since then, I remained particularly impressed by the Silver RS6's clarity and lack of coloration and the speed of its midbass, all of which continued to exceed the performance of any other affordable speaker I've heard.
English loudspeaker manufacturer Monitor Audio has mined a rich vein with their exclusive 6½" metal-cone driver, which covers a range from the bass to the midrange. MA designs using this drive-unit have fared well in these pages, ranging from the Monitor Audio Studio 6 minimonitor (reviewed by JA in February '94, Vol.17 No.2) to the floorstanding Studio 20 (reviewed by RH in December '91, Vol.14 No.12, and by ST in April '92, Vol.15 No.4).
Wood is not an engineering material. It might look pretty, but it's inconsistent and therefore unpredictable. So we smash cheap wood into sawdust and then glue it all together again to create something that can be machined. This is called medium-density fiberboard, or MDF. We then thinly slice some classy hardwood—hopefully harvested from sustainable sources—and use it to cover the ugly MDF. This might have made sense back when Chippendale was making furniture, but it seems strangely old-fashioned in our age of plastics and composites. I haven't seen wood trim on a TV set for more than a decade. Why is it still the norm for loudspeakers?
Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
I've long been a fan of Naim electronic gear, and have used it for many years. I also have admiration and respect for the company's uncompromisingly consistent and determinedly individualistic approach to the various tasks and problems of loudspeaker design. But my enthusiasm for Naim speakers has long been tempered by a feeling that mechanical aspects of the design are given priority over acoustics and styling.
According to designer Bill Reed, the Nelson-Reed 8-04/B was not originally intended to be an audiophile speaker system, but was instead designed as a high-quality monitor for the critical recording engineer who wanted to be able to walk from the studio into the control room and hear the same thing from his speakers that he heard "live." The fact that modern studio mike technique ensures that this could never happen is probably beside the point. The point is that reproducing the original power and dynamic range of live music is a formidable challenge, which practically no audiophile speakers have met successfully. On the other hand, so-called studio monitors, which can do that routinely, have tended to be highly colored and otherwise generally lousy in all areas of fidelity except output capability. The 8-04/B was an attempt to combine the strengths of both kinds of speaker, while avoiding their usual weaknesses.
Hard to believe it's been more than six years since NHT launched its flagship 3.3 loudspeaker (footnote 1). At the time, the floorstanding 3.3 was a revolutionary product for the company, whose product line until then had been aimed squarely at the customer who wanted good sound, but wanted it in a small, affordable package. While the 3.3 didn't change NHT's dedication to its roots, it did signal to audiophiles that the manufacturer could play ball with the big boys.
When Ken Kantor helped to found Now Hear This, Inc. (most commonly referred to by its initials, NHT) in 1986, he brought with him a wealth of design and production experience learned from stints with NAD and Acoustic Research. He also brought a desire to build and market products that a wide range of people could afford. NHT began by producing small, two-way designs distinguished by the angled front baffle which remains the company's trademark. The latter is no gimmick, but was designed to optimize the loudspeakers' radiation pattern, a matter of keen interest to Kantor ever since his undergraduate thesis work at MIT. This interest continued at AR, where he was responsible for the MGC-1 loudspeaker—probably his best known pre-NHT loudspeaker design.
I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewedthe SB-3 (Stereophile, November 2002) and its successor, the Classic Three (November 2006)shared NHT's "house sound": liquid, balanced, and dynamic, with little coloration, and a slightly forward and lively midrange. The newer Classic Three, still in production, sounded more refined, natural, and detailed than the SB-3. I like to see speaker designers whose work improves over time.
So when NHT approached me about reviewing a new floorstanding model with a small footprint, the Classic Absolute Towertheir first new speaker design of the next decade, they sayI jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued withand applaudthe trend of manufacturers to add small-footprint tower speakers to their lines of affordable speakers. As most speakers costing under $1000/pair tend to be bookshelf models, shoppers need to worry about buying good-quality stands of the appropriate height, and about optimizing the speaker positions with respect to the front and side walls.
Twelve years ago, loudspeaker manufacturer NHT launched its model 3.3, a floorstanding, full-range design that Corey Greenberg summed up in the March 1994 Stereophile as doing "everything I want a He-Man reference loudspeaker to do...I find myself without a single area of performance I've heard bettered by any other speaker." The NHT 3.3 basically combined a high-performance monitor with a sideways-firing subwoofer in the same enclosure, and when I first saw NHT's Evolution T6 system at the 2002 CEDIA convention, I was reminded of the classic 3.3, but a 3.3 updated for the needs of home theater as well as music. And despite inflation and the incorporation of a line-level crossover and a pair of monoblock amplifiers to drive the subwoofers, a two-channel T6 system costs the same as a pair of 3.3s: $4000.