It was 20 years ago today that Sgt. Michaelson taught the band to play. I was living in London when Antony Michaelson launched Musical Fidelity in an attempt to make a major statement in the area of affordable, high-quality, high-value electronics. Other Brits at the time were doing the same—companies such as Creek, A&R Cambridge (now Arcam), and DNM began to compete for the destitute audiophile's dollar.
The story of New Acoustic Dimensions, aka NAD, begins in the late 1970s. The company was founded as a dealer distribution collective to design and market reasonably priced serious high-end gear to cost-constrained audiophiles. By eliminating needless features and focusing manufacturing in low-cost production facilities, NAD has successfully delivered audiophile-quality gear for 20 years at prices little more expensive than mass-market department-store schlock.
Even Mikey Fremer is surprised at vinyl's current popularity. Some pundits postulate that eventually CDs will die out, and we'll be faced with the choice of LPs or downloads. (I hope not. I'm just getting used to CDs.) With abundant sources of new pop releases and a wide range of reissues on vinyl, and a variety of used LPs, every audiophile should own a turntable. And with the availability of affordable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III, which I reviewed in the February 2010 Stereophile, the cost of entry to VinylLand is not very dear. The problem is that so few entry-level integrated amplifiers and receivers available today include phono stages. (The Marantz PM5003, which I reviewed in the January 2010 issue, is a notable exception.)
Branding can be powerfula well-developed brand connotes strong images in the consumer's mind. Apple means ergonomics, elegance, ego. Fremer means analog, exuberance, fastidiousness. Rolex means Swiss-made, precision, expensive. Nagra means Swiss-made, precision, expensive.
Sometimes, a product review in Stereophile can breed additional reviews. Shortly after I reviewed the Audio Valve Conductor line stage in the July 2009 issue (Vol.32 No.7), I was contacted by NAT's US distributor, Musical Sounds: "Hey, if you liked the Audio Valve Conductor [$13,995], you'll love the NAT Symmetrical line stage at $8000! Would you like to review it?" Aside from Michael Fremer's review of the battery-powered NAT Signature Phono stage in the July 2007 issue, I was unfamiliar with this Serbian maker of tube electronics. But "Sure," I replied; "why not?"
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.
When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
I first met NHT co-founder Ken Kantor in 1975 when we were both undergraduates at MIT. Kantor was sponsoring an extracurricular class entitled "Musical Ideas." The concept was to stick a dozen or so musicians in a classroom for free improvisation and hope to create music à la Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The result was a mess; although talented guitarist Kantor meant well, there was no common vision or consistency of musical talent. Nevertheless, I had a blast trying to simulate a tamboura drone with a Hohner Clavinet, phase shifter, and volume pedal.
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.
I had mixed feelings about reviewing the $189/pair Paradigm Atom loudspeaker. Although in the past I've been favorably impressed with Paradigm's speakers—the $600/pair Reference Studio/20 remains one of my favorite affordables—Budget Bob tends to get a bit nervous when a speaker's price drops below $250/pair. In my experience, even when the most talented speaker designers attempt to make a speaker to sell at such a low price, the result is often a very small cabinet with limited bass extension and inferior high-level dynamics.