NHT Bounces Back

In its nearly two decades, Benicia, CA–based loudspeaker manufacturer NHT has earned a well-deserved reputation for affordable high-performance products, among them legendary mini-monitors, such as the Super Zero and Super One, as well as its full-range Model 3.3. Founded by Ken Kantor and Chris Byrne in 1986, the company was sold to Jensen International in the early 1990s, spun off to packaged goods specialist Recoton, and acquired by Rockford Corporation in the final days of 2002—an event that saved NHT from an uncertain fate.

The final few months under the Recoton flag were among the most difficult, brand manager Byrne confided during my recent visit to the company's headquarters. "Recoton really didn't know what to do with us," he said. "Talk about a bad fit . . . there was very little synergy between their market niche and ours." For six months, NHT vendors went unpaid while company loyalists scrambled to stay afloat.

The Rockford deal, signed December 26, 2002, gave the company solid financial backing to take care of its suppliers and to resume a product development program that should come to fruition this summer. Accounting is now handled by the Rockford organization in Arizona, according to Byrne, freeing the Benicia crew "to do what they do best—design products and get the word out." Most of the current NHT team consists of company veterans, with Kantor the only original member not on staff. Although NHT's Asian-assembled gear enters the port of Oakland, 50 miles southwest of the head office, most of the company's warehousing is in Michigan. The Benicia site does feature spacious storage, much of it devoted to legacy products, service parts, and manufacturing equipment accumulated over the years.

A substantial portion of the industrial space is devoted to product development and testing, headed by director of engineering Jack Hidley and acoustical engineering manager Jay Doherty. NHT's team is rightly proud of its "Evolution" series of modular loudspeakers and subwoofers, designed to adapt to and sound consistent in rooms of varying sizes, but the company is most proud of an unnamed speaker to debut this summer. (That's Chris Byrne on the left and industrial designer Bob Hopkins on the right.)

Sporting a look both retro and hyper-modern—like something right out of the Raymond Loewy sketchbook—the little monitor continues the Super Zero's tradition of big sound in a small package, but leverages the latest digital techniques for astounding performance. NHT has partnered with DEQX (formerly ClarityEQ; see Jon Iverson's story from last week) utilizing the software maker's "DEQX Calibration" system to refine the speaker to a level not possible using traditional analog techniques—such as a 2.2kHz, 100dB/octave crossover point between the woofer and tweeter, with a notch only 5Hz wide, and a 48dB/octave crossover at 105Hz to a powered sub. The 105Hz point was chosen because it minimized "chuffing" around the woofer's phase plug, Doherty mentioned.

In demonstrations, NHT mated the little stand-mounted speakers to Evolution 10" powered subs. (Hopkins, Doherty, and Hidley are busy working on a visually and acoustically matching bass module for the mini-monitor; a few prototypes were seen in various stages of development during my visit.) The DEQX program lets designers adjust for room boundaries, driver non-linearities, and other problems with just a few keystrokes.

Saved parameters reside in firmware in an outboard processor that will enable customers to select the wave-launch that best complements their rooms. NHT may also offer room correction later on, "for advanced users." A sleek high-efficiency digital amplifier drives the speakers. With demo material ranging from standard CD to some of Elliot Mazer's excellent DVD-Audio transfers (Sinatra at the Sands, Santana's Supernatural), the little speakers' performance was consistent regardless of where we were in the room. The frequency balance and almost holographic imaging remained constant whether we were sitting or standing, walking about the room, or even standing next to the speakers facing into the room. The extreme crossovers—each driver is wired directly to its terminals—and the hemispherical mounts for the drivers eliminate comb-filtering, lobing, and other effects that mar the output of traditional speakers, according to Hidley. Net effect is a soundstage solid and consistent throughout the room, with a high realism factor.

Cabling for surround systems is a continuing nightmare for consumers. It's the single largest labor cost for most custom installations. Wireless transmission to surround speakers and subwoofers is an obvious solution, and one that many speaker makers are exploring. NHT already has a prototype wireless connection for subwoofers, said to be clean at any frequency below 300Hz. Surrounds are still a bit problematic, according to Byrne, who joked that their prototypes "burped every time we turned on the microwave."

In the photo, that's a fully operational transmitter in the foreground, complete with regulated power supply. In the background, in my left hand, is a 150W digital amplifier module sourced from Power Physics, minus power supply. I looked in vain for any recognizable output devices, until Hidley pointed out that they are tiny surface-mount chips that generate very little heat. "Smaller and better" is the theme of 21st century technology, a wave that NHT should ride with great success.