Nelson-Reed 8-04/B loudspeaker JGH Returns

JGH returned to the Nelson-Reed 8-04/B in July 1988 (Vol.11 No.7):

Subsequent to my initial tests of the 8-04/B, I moved the speakers into my video room and tried them for reproducing film soundtracks. I wasn't too surprised to find them superb for this application. Dialog intelligibility was better than it has ever been before, their tremendous dynamic range gave unprecedented impact to blockbuster soundtracks, and their outstanding imaging capability revealed something I had never noticed before, nor even thought about before: The sounds of moving objects often don't track their visual locations. For example, an automobile will come from the right and stop in center-screen, but its sound will move all the way off-screen to the left before coming to a stop. How come? Because, while all widescreen films are panned and scanned to place the center of visual interest on the narrower video screen, the soundtrack is not panned.

In the example above, the widescreen version would have had the car stopping at the far left, with perhaps a person watching from the right. Both could not be shown on a video screen, so the video-transfer (telecine) operator chose to pan to the more important element in the scene, the car, placing it in the middle of the small screen. Its sound, however, stayed where it was originally. The result? A disparity between visual and audible images.

The 8-04s would be overkill for a small video room, but they are the best thing I've found to date for use with big-screen projection systems in large rooms.—J. Gordon Holt

JGH reviewed the Nelson-Reed 8-04/CM in March 1992 (Vol.15 No.3):

What is this, Memory Lane? The first speaker system I got for review after my move last year to a new house was an updated version of the Sound-Lab A-3 that I first reviewed 5 years ago. The second (the 8-04/CM) is the latest version of another system I reviewed the same year (in Vol.11 No.4).

As longtime readers may have noticed, I don't look for the same things in reproduced sound that some of my Stereophile colleagues do. Yes, I value soundstaging and imaging, but not nearly as much as a lot of other things I won't reel off because I've listed them in almost every review I've done during the past few years, so you can just look them up and read them there. (If this is your first issue, congratulations!) I listen to enough live music these days to be able to generalize that it doesn't sound like what I hear from most high-end loudspeakers, which tend by comparison to be warmer, richer, and blander than real. The Nelson-Reeds aren't.

In my first review of the 804s, I concluded that they are not an "audiophile's" speaker, because they are more forward and gutsy than the ones that garner most of the rave reviews. I then went on to add that, even with their rather rough high end, they sounded more to me like live music than your typical audiophile design. Well, it's no longer necessary to make any allowances for the 804's highs. The two dome drivers are so clean and smooth, and mesh so well, they seem no longer a part of the reproduced sound. They simply vanish, leaving a gorgeously clear (and alive) window on the recording. That goes a long way toward re-creating the illusion of listening to the real thing.

Then there's the soundstaging. Although these speakers stand almost 4' high, their footprint is not much larger than a typical "minimonitor," and the soundstaging is predictably similar. On honestly made recordings, like Mercury's, Delos's, and my own, the orchestra is ranged across a wide space between the speakers, and framed by hall space that extends 'way out beyond the physical locations of the speakers. The only thing that seems unchanged, from the original 804s to these, is their dynamic range, which is still extraordinary. On wide-dynamic–range material, these speakers almost sound as if they have a built-in volume expander.

There is no boxiness on voice, and I detected no consistent midrange colorations, although I still think I should have, as both enclosures have some "active" panel areas that sound less than inert when tapped with the knuckles.

But if these sound so good, why am I not already starting to drool all over them in print? Because they don't sound all that good. The problem is bass. Not bass quality, which is superb, but bass, period. It's thin. Pinched. Overly dry. Unappealing. And it took me weeks of trying this, that, and the other thing before I could admit that to myself.

You see, the first pair of 804 I reviewed was, if anything, a bit bass-heavy. Even with a nice, tight amplifier driving them, and placement well away from the room boundaries, the bass balance was only just about right. Under more typical conditions, it was necessary to stuff foam plastic damping plugs (supplied by N-R) into the reflex ports, in order to control the heavy bass. That's part of the reason I was hesitant about declaring these latest 804s to be bass-shy; I just couldn't believe two versions of what is ostensibly the same speaker could be so different. The other part was that I was uncertain enough about my listening room that I was not yet prepared to state flatly that it wasn't causing the LF thinness.

These 804s are the first box speakers I've used since I moved into my current home in Colorado a year and half ago. Since then I've lived very happily with a pair of Sound-Lab A-3s, which have never failed (to date) to produce beautifully balanced, smooth bass in any room I've had them in. I had no reason to assume there might be a problem with my present room, until I started using the Nelson-Reeds.

A brief, initial listen in the presence of designer Bill Reed, on the day these were delivered, prompted some comments about the sound being a little lean, but no one (out of four people present) seemed to feel there was anything amiss that couldn't be cured by a little creative box-moving. I assumed that what I was hearing was a simple case of new-cone syndrome, and that a day or so of break-in was all that was needed. But that didn't help. After a week of sporadic listening, totaling perhaps 20 hours, I heard no hint of LF improvement. So I piped some pink noise into them, cranked the level up to around 70dB spl, and vacated the house for the rest of the day. Nothing doing: the bass was still thin, and no amount of pushing and shoving the speakers around in the room could change it.

Subsequent measurements (footnote 1) suggested the room might in fact be the culprit. With the speakers symmetrically placed between the side walls, midbass output (at 45Hz) at the listening seat was almost 9dB below the 100Hz output. I obtained a copy of the "Listening Room" computer program for loudspeaker placement (footnote 2) and set about plugging the necessary values into it: room dimensions, speaker placements, listening location, and woofer and ear heights above floor level. It told me that any laterally symmetrical speaker/listener placements in my 15½'-wide room would cause a response dip at 45Hz. (So much for the left/right symmetry that both I and Tom Norton recommended in our recent articles about listening rooms (footnote 3). This would seem to be a strong endorsement for satellite/woofer systems, where the former could be symmetrically placed for best imaging and soundstaging and the latter could be placed where they produced the smoothest bass.)

I went back to "Listening Room," and told it to move the speakers and listener to the right by a distance of 1/6 the room width. LR responded by advising that I should I have no standing-wave suckouts between 40 and 60Hz, so I moved the speakers to the asymmetrical locations, slid across the sofa until I was midway between them, and took a re-listen. Ah yes, much better. Yet...they still sounded thin. I ran another curve, which seemed to contradict LR's predicted result by showing a 3dB dip at 45Hz. But that was only the half of it. The speakers still sounded as if the dip was at least 6dB deep, and the bass—what there was of it—was so tight and well-defined that I wondered if a major part of the problem might not be due to excessive woofer damping.

Finally, in desperation, I went out and bought 100' of 12-gauge zip cord, cut it in half, and ran the pair into my 9' by 14' office. (The extra resistance of the cable should suitably relax the amplifier's grip on the speaker's low end.) There I set up the speakers about 2' from two adjacent corners, and replayed some of the previous program material. The thinness was still there. Okay, now I was getting somewhere!

Next, I trotted the 804s over to a fellow audiophile's house, where a pair of Nestorovic 5ASes had been making very nice bass noises in a room I estimate to be about 14' by 16'. Same thing. No bass from the 804s.

Actually, that isn't quite accurate. Below that midbass range, the 804s' maximum output was at a very respectable 30Hz, where the measured level was equal in amplitude to their 100Hz output. This was the case in every room I tried them in. So organ music was, occasionally, very impressive. The thinness was because the response dip (or apparent overdamping) was smack in the middle of the midbass range, which is where 90% of what we think of as "bass" occurs.

The supplied instructions are thorough and informative, except for one glaring omission: Nowhere do they contain that reassuring paragraph that starts, "If you need to contact us directly..." and ends with an address and phone number. If you buy a pair of these unboxed from your friendly local dealer, put this issue of Stereophile where you'll be able to find it if you need to get in touch with Nelson-Reed. (The information is included in this review, in case you didn't notice.)

So there it is. Through most of their range, the new Nelson-Reed 8-04/CMs are superb loudspeakers, surpassing in some ways (dynamics and efficiency) my beloved Sound-Labs, but their bass problem is so severe and proved so intractable as to disqualify them from serious consideration. The Nelson-Reed people tell me they're working "furiously" to track down the problem and correct it. I hope they succeed, because with decent low end I would consider giving these a high Class B recommendation.—J. Gordon Holt

JGH on the Nelson-Reed 8-04/CM in January 1993 (Vol.16 No.1):

Some weeks ago, I had a chance to listen at some length (in a friend's Denver home) to the latest version of the 8-04/CM, which had been vigorously faulted in my original review (Vol.15 No.3) for its remarkable lack of low end. It now appears the problem—which was to do with the wrong woofers being paired to the wrong crossover configuration—has been completely solved.

The current version has all the fullness and body that the original lacked, with no loss of the startling aliveness and dynamic range that made the latter's LF deficiencies even more galling than they would have been in a system that was mediocre in other respects. The bass I heard was quick, detailed, smooth, and viscerally tight, sounding pretty much flat down to what I would guesstimate to be a bit below 40Hz. (This sounds deeper than it looks on paper.) Bass drum was knock-your-socks-off stupendous!

Used with a Sonic Frontiers SFS-80 power amp, Audio Research SP9 II preamp, Rotel 965 CD player, and Enlightened Audio Design D/A converter, the 8-04/CM produced the most musically satisfying and realistic sound I had heard in my friend's home.

On the basis of that audition, over a period of several hours (with a variety of originally acoustical program material), it is clear that Nelson-Reed has solved the 8-04/CM's bass problem. I must revise my original unenthusiastic assessment of the 8-04/CMs, therefore, and state that they are now worthy of a solid B rating in our "Recommended Components" list. I urge acoustically oriented listeners to take a chance on these, because few competitively priced systems I've heard can equal them for sheer musical realism.

I use the word "chance" here because N-R has very few dealers, preferring to sell direct (with an unconditional refund-if-not-delighted guarantee). That means you probably won't be able to audition them before you buy. And, depending on your other components, you may not be enchanted by the 8-04/CMs the first time your hear them. Why? The 8-04/CMs hew right down the middle in terms of forwardness. They can sound rather lifeless with laid-back electronics—and just the same with aggressive-sounding electronics. The trick, of course, is to find the associated components that strike exactly the right balance (no pun intended). On the other hand, these speakers can sound so good with the right electronics that it may be wise to trust them (and me, by implication), and experiment with different electronics until you get them to stand up and bark, rather than throwing up your hands in instant disgust and sending them back after a quick listen. Isn't that what high end is all about anyway? But of course.

The 8-04/CMs now cost $3695/pair, and shipping is included. Order them directly from Nelson-Reed. If you ultimately opt to return the speakers for a refund, you pay for the shipping.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Measured on a Neutrik 3201 Audiotracer, 1/3-octave warble tone, 100mm/s pen speed.

Footnote 2: $34.95 postpaid in the US, from Sitting Duck Software, P.O. Box 130, Veneta, OR 97487. Reviewed in Vol.13 No.12.

Footnote 3: See Vol.13 No.4, April 1990, and Vol.14 No.10, October 1991, respectively.—John Atkinson