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.
I've long been fascinated by Carl Marchisotto's speaker designs, first for Alón by Acarian Systems and currently for Accent Speaker Technology's Nola family of models. The Alón Circe has been my reference loudspeaker for over a decade, and it replaced my previous reference, the Alón V Mk.III. During my tenure at Stereophile I've also reviewed the Alón PW-1 woofer system (February 1997, Vol.20 No.2) and the Nola Mini speaker (January 2006, Vol.29 No.1), both now discontinued. In recent years, however, I hadn't paid much attention to Marchisotto's newer speakers, as he's focused on expensive designs featuring the Raven ribbon tweetercurrently, four models ranging from $15,200 to $238,000/pair. Although I've been impressed with all of the Raven-tweeter models I've heard at shows, dealers, and audiophiles' homes, my taste over the years has leaned toward Marchisotto's simpler two- and three-way, all-dynamic designs.
Interest in super-efficient, horn-loaded, compression-driver loudspeakers has grown in the past few years, fueled in part by a renewed fascination among many hobbyists with low-powered, single-ended triode tube amplifiers. But staring down the maws of two Tubby the Tubas is not every audiophile's idea of a good time—even when the resulting sound is spectacularly fast, coherent, and extended.
The Ohm Walsh 5 displaces the Ohm F at the top of the Ohm line, and the current Walsh 5 production run represents a "limited edition" of 500 pairs worldwide. There's even a certificate of authenticity—hand-signed by Ohm Acoustics President John Strohbeen—packed with the speakers that makes it all official. I think that this is more than a clever marketing gesture and clearly demonstrates Ohm Acoustics' pride in their new flagship loudspeaker.
I have reviewed and owned so many Paradigm speakers that they feel almost like members of the family. I've owned the v.2 and v.3 versions of the Reference Studio 60, and reviewed the v.3 version in Stereophile (in December 2004, Vol.27 No.12). My long and intimate relationship with this speaker is founded on the best of reasons: We are extremely compatible. The Studio 60, in all its incarnations, is large enough to be used as a full-range speaker with nearly any program material, and yet is compact enough to be easily accommodated in my relatively small Connecticut listening room. It neither looms over me nor disappears into the space. Used as a center-channel speaker, it's just short enough to clear my line of sight to the video display. Finally, and despite inevitable price creep over the last decade, the Studio 60 still comes in under $2000/pairmy line in the sand for a reasonably priced system.
It may come as a surprise to relative newcomers to the field of audio, but some loudspeaker manufacturers are manufacturers in only a limited sense. They buy drivers, off-the-shelf or custom-built, from companies like VIFA, SEAS, Focal, etc.; cabinets from a woodworking shop; and crossovers from an electronics subcontractor. While the system design will have taken place in-house, actual manufacturing is restricted to assembling the components, perhaps tweaking the crossover, and final QC. Even some highly successful loudspeaker manufacturers use this approach, which can work well as long as the suppliers do their jobs properly.
Like the Reference Studio/60, which was enthusiastically reviewed in the December 2004 issue by Kalman Rubinson, Paradigm's floorstanding Reference Studio/100 is now available in a v.3 version. The '100 is the flagship model in the Canadian manufacturer's Reference line. Its earlier incarnations, the original Studio/100 and the Studio/100 v.2, were reviewed by Tom Norton and Robert Deutsch in the August 1997 and June 2000 issues of Stereophile, respectively, and both writers were well impressed at how much sound quality could be wrought from this competitively priced speaker design. Bob Deutsch, in particular, referred to the v.2 as a "a serious high-end contender, and a formidable one for just about any speaker in its price range and even well above."
I am biased in favor of Paradigm loudspeakers. I've used them for 10 years; they offer good sound and good value, properties they share with a number of other Canadian makes who have taken advantage of Canada's National Research Council facilities in Ottawa. In fact, the first components I bought specifically for what is now my multichannel system were Paradigm Esprit/BP speakers, which had impressed me at a Stereophile show. When I took the step into multichannel and found that there wasn't a matching center-channel speaker for the Esprits, I replaced them with Paradigm's Reference Studio/60 v.2s. But while the smaller Reference Studio/20, and the larger Studio/100 have both been reviewed in Stereophile, the Studio/60 had not. The release of the v.2's successor, the Reference Studio/60 v.3 ($1699/pair), was an opportunity to fill that gap.
Most speakers don't come in heavy wooden crates—they come in cardboard cartons, two per box, light enough to be tucked under one arm and carried out to the car. Not so in HighEndLand, where the smallest minimonitor can test a healthy man's strength. There are plenty of good reasons for this cult of robustness, foremost among them structural stability and the suppression of resonances.
Astute readers will note that although my name appears under the "hardware" heading of Stereophile's masthead, I have rarely written about specific products, and, apart from secondary comments or Follow-Ups, have never written a formal equipment report. For years I resisted reviewing because I was usually connected in some way to audio manufacturers and/or retailers, and felt very uncomfortable with the conflict of interest. The other reason I was disinclined to review is that the critical listening required of reviewers is work, and after a long day or week of working on, or with, audio equipment, the only thing I wanted to do when I came home was relax. But since I have hung up my soldering iron and oscilloscope probe for what I hope is the last time, and am cleaving instead to my word processor (or, as playwright David Ives dubbed it, my "verboblender"), you may see more of this—WP, JA, and God willing.
The devil's in the details, so here's one detail you should know going in: The El Diablo, a deceptively modest-looking, casket-like, compact, three-way loudspeaker from Danish firm Peak Consult, will cost you a penny less than $65,000/pair. Why? Yes, the dollar's continued slide has alarmingly driven up the price of imported audio gear, but even so...