NHT Classic Absolute Tower loudspeaker

I've always enjoyed the time I've spent with NHT loudspeakers. The two bookshelf models I've reviewed—the 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 Tower—their first new speaker design of the next decade, they say—I jumped at the chance. Not only had I not reviewed an NHT in a while, but I'm increasingly intrigued with—and applaud—the 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. Then, when that's done, the buyer will need to deal with his or her significant other, who is likely to issue an order to move the speakers somewhere else—or, God forbid, she or he will bypass the entire setup process and stick the speakers on bookshelves, above ear level and flush with the front wall. Conversely, a floorstanding speaker with a small footprint is much easier to place in a room, and less likely to interfere with décor and thus trigger spousal rebellion.

The Classic Absolute Tower is a sealed, three-way, acoustic-suspension design. Its drive-units are a 1" fluid-cooled, aluminum-dome tweeter with neodymium magnet structure, a 5.25" polypropylene-cone midrange unit, and two 5.25" polypropylene-cone woofers, all with video shielding. NHT cofounder Chris Byrne told me that small dual woofers were used to keep the footprint small, but also to provide good dynamic range. The cabinet of braced MDF is finished with two coats of primer, seven coats of polyester paint, and two coats of clear acrylic polymer.

I was impressed by the Absolute Tower's appearance. Sexy, rounded, and glossy black, it suggests a much higher price tag, and its footprint, size, and color should help it blend in easily with any décor. My wife didn't object to them. I had set up the speakers but had not yet removed my reference Alón Circes from the room; she stared at the piquillo-pepper NHTs next to the jumbo-burrito Aláns and said, "Well, I like the way they look." Translation: Spouses will usually welcome new speakers if they're smaller than the old ones.

I asked Byrne to compare the design criteria of the Classic Absolute Tower with those of the Classic Three, which I'd reviewed four years ago. His response was intriguing. The Three was designed with two-channel music in mind; home-theater sound was a secondary consideration. NHT tried to maximize the Three's frequency response so that, ideally, a subwoofer would be "an option as opposed to a necessity," Byrne said. "Everything about the Three was detail, finesse, and response." He then said that the Absolute Tower had been designed more with home theater in mind. The goal was a speaker with good horizontal dispersion, high output for its size, and a small footprint so that the speakers would "look good near a flat-panel set." A full frequency response was "not a priority"; NHT expects that most home theaters will include a subwoofer.

The Absolute Tower is supplied with screw-in integral bases, floor spikes, and brass cups for the spikes to sit in, should the room have a wooden floor. The spikes and cups kept the Towers seated solidly on my own wood floor, and the entire setup took less than 15 minutes.

NHT strongly suggests leaving the Tower's grille in place; the speaker is voiced to have a more natural tonal balance that way. I can't agree more strongly. With the grille off, the highs were more prominent, and I noticed a slight depression in the lower midrange that detracted from the speaker's normally coherent sound.

When I first listened to the Classic Absolute Tower, I was surprised to find that I didn't like its sound. The upper midrange and lower highs were tense, glary, and forward, and the speaker didn't sound balanced. Listening for longer than 15 minutes was fatiguing, and every time I turned the system on, my wife told me to turn it down—no matter the volume level or the music being played. After five hours of listening, I discovered the problem.

I'm a strong believer in breaking in a new product before critically listening to it, a view not universally held among Stereophile writers. I have found this to be particularly critical with dynamic speakers, and with electronic components with exotic capacitor designs. So I always request that a manufacturer break in a product for 100 hours before shipping it to me. My review samples of the Absolute Towers arrived with what NHT claimed was "36 to 48 hours of break-in." I figured that would be enough, but it wasn't. However, after the NHTs had played music for another five hours, for a total of 10 additional hours, the clouds parted—for the rest of my time with them, the Towers let me enjoy many hours of coherent, natural, nonfatiguing listening.

140 W. Industrial Way
Benicia, CA 94510
(800) 648-9993