NHT SuperTwo loudspeaker Page 2

Speed and pace suffered a bit with the SuperTwo, and there wasn't a clear sense of air around bass instruments. On recordings like Classic Records' reissue of the Martinon/LSO recording of Shostakovich's The Age of Gold Suite (RCA/Classic LSCCD-2322), I noted that the lower strings sounded muddy and slow, and it was impossible to resolve individual instruments. The wonderful hall ambience was oddly discontinuous as well. It was certainly there surrounding the woodwinds, but didn't seem to reach down around the lower cellos and double bass, and the timpani sounded as if they'd been recorded in a sound booth and mixed in later.

Last, there was simply way too much upper bass and lower midrange—at least in my rooms and mated with the gear I had on hand. The SuperTwo's tonal balance was thus inevitably way to the warm, liquid side of neutral, and a lot of recordings sounded a bit boomy, overwhelmed by upper bass. Bonnie's comment was that, regardless of where she was in the house, she always knew when the SuperTwos were playing.

I'll leave the measurements and discussion to John Atkinson, but I did do a bit of listening to the warble tones on Stereophile's first Test CD (STPH002-2), and made a few crude level measurements at my listening position. The results were consistent with my listening results, both good and bad. The SuperTwo's response at the listening position was reasonably strong down to 31.5Hz, even to 25Hz, and substantially elevated at 63, 80, 100, and 125Hz. I also noted that, at 31.5, 63, and 125Hz, the SuperTwo was prone to some sort of resonance, resulting in a not-huge-but-audible "beating" at 1-2Hz. Curious.

From the midrange on up, the SuperTwo's performance was substantially better. "Vivid" and "bold" were two adjectives that came immediately to mind. Midrange leads—like Basie's piano, Emily Remler guitar on Soular Energy, or the solo violin early on in The Age of Gold—sounded vibrant and round, and popped nicely out of the mix. I noticed that the generic nature of the instruments was gone from, say, the oboe and viola on up. Instruments had their distinct characters, along with a nice balance of fundamentals and harmonics. Massed violins swelled richly and sweetly, and there was never a hit of edginess or steel. Whereas timpani often sounded vague, toms or woodblocks had a more distinct attack, tone, and decay.

Shirley Horn's vocals were seductively dense and smoky through the SuperTwo, and cuts that can sound a bit lean—like "Nowhere to Go," from Melissa Etheridge's Your Little Secret (Island 314-524 154-2)—were warm and rich. "Fallin' Rain," from the Neville Brothers' Brother's Keeper (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 626), was a great match for the SuperTwo. Its warm, liquid tonal balance just added to the atmosphere—I could close my eyes and hear, even smell and taste, the rain.

The SuperTwos' images were solid, firmly fixed on a very wide soundstage, and nicely layered, clearly occupying specific and distinct locations in space. There wasn't, however, as much actual soundstage depth as with most other speakers I've tried. Nor were the images as dimensional, or their edges as well-defined. And the SuperTwos' images were a bit too wide as well; there wasn't much sense of air around the instruments, or of the space between them.

In comparison, the other speakers I tried—including the SuperOnes—sounded more clean and airy. They all did a much better job at defining image edges, putting space between them, and weaving everything together into a continuous acoustic space. With the SuperTwos, the recorded ambience cues that defined the original hall were reproduced, but they seemed like a blanket that covered the orchestra, rather than an integral part of it.

I used the adjectives "vivid" and "bold" to describe the SuperTwo's midrange. Unfortunately, compared to the other speakers, phrases like "a little thick," "slightly slow," and "a bit loose" came to mind as well. Tracy Chapman has a wonderful, distinctive way of letting notes drift up in pitch as they trail off—listen to "Give Me One Reason" from New Beginning (Elektra 61850-2). These changes in pitch are subtle and riveting on the Meadowlark or SuperOne, but on the SuperTwo they sounded a little crude, obvious rather than subtle. "Mistreated But Undefeated Blues," from Ray Brown's Soular Energy, is another good example. It's inherently loose and rollicking, but solidly anchored in a groove. On the SuperTwo, the groove is just a bit loose. It's still a great cut, but sounds kind of like the last take after a long night in the studio, instead of the first one of the morning, when everyone is fresh.

On top, the SuperTwos sounded a bit rolled-off compared to other speakers I've tried. On the SuperOnes or Meadowlarks, the cymbals on the Shirley Horn cut had just the right balance of ring and metallic shimmer, and the sound painted a wonderfully clear picture of Steve Williams' movements. Things like painting small circles with the brush, or a series of quick, delicate taps with a drumstick, seemed more like holograms than mere sounds. On the SuperTwos, the movements were still there, but the holographic effect wasn't.

Summing Up—The Devil is in the Details
It's easy to pick apart the SuperTwo's performance and find it lacking in several areas, but it's important to remember that this is Stereophile—the standards are very high. The SuperTwo is not a bad speaker. To the contrary, it's significantly better than any similarly priced mass-market gear you'll find, and actually quite enjoyable to listen to.

One night, I cued up 88 Basie Street and kicked back with a magazine.. Without thinking about it, I found myself tapping my foot and humming along. The midrange was vivid and dynamic, with Basie's trademark rolling piano chops bouncing along and popping out of the mix. Joe Pass's guitar leads on "Contractor's Blues" and "Sunday at the Savoy" caught my attention as being particularly rich and vibrant, with a sweet, dense ring that made it seem as if his amp was in my listening room. The horns were brassy and their crescendos swelled powerfully, but without a trace of edge or steel, and Dennis Mackrel's rimshots and ride cymbal drove everything happily along. I even caught myself thinking, "This speaker sounds a whole lot bigger than it really is." So what's the problem?

Part of my disappointment with the NHT SuperTwo stemmed from my initial excitement. The SuperOne is one of my favorite small speakers, and the promise of SuperOne performance combined with bass down to 35Hz, all for $750/pair, was quite compelling. To find out that the SuperTwo is not an omnipotent giant-killer, and, in some areas—detail, clarity, air—is a step back from the SuperOne, was a letdown. Perhaps Bonnie said it best: "They're really a pleasant speaker to listen to, but they're just not as clear as the SuperOnes. They're just sort of...'there.'"

The Bottom Line
For one of their intended applications—as the front-channel speakers of a reasonably priced audio/home-theater setup—the NHT SuperTwo succeeds nicely. It is an enjoyable speaker for casual listening, and its shortcomings—a thickening and sweetening of the sound, and overemphasized upper bass—might well be a synergistic match for the type of electronics it's likely to be driven by in those applications. It mates seamlessly with the other NHT Performance Series speakers, making for an inexpensive setup immeasurably better than what's built into big-screen TVs or sold as "rack system" packages. Plus, the SuperTwo's bottom-end extension and power eliminate the need for a separate subwoofer.

I can't, however, recommend the SuperTwo for serious two-channel, audio-only applications. True, it's a pleasant-sounding, stylish, well-built, full-range loudspeaker that retails for only $750/pair, but I don't agree with the compromises that were made, especially on the bottom end.

But that's a matter of personal taste, and yours may differ. The real problem with the SuperTwo, and the reason I hesitate to recommend it, is that, given today's competition, a nice-sounding, well built, etc. $750/pair speaker just isn't good enough. Just looking at the tiny cross-section of the market that I have on hand, I would strongly recommend that someone consider spending more money and get the Castle Severn, Meadowlark Kestrel, or Maggie 1.6Q/R. All three are significantly better than the SuperTwo above about 40Hz, and the Meadowlark and Maggie are two of the best buys around. And if my budget just couldn't be stretched beyond $750, I'd buy a pair of SuperOnes and a good set of stands—and save the rest for Bonnie's birthday present.

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Benicia, CA 94510
(800) NHT-9993