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Published March 1, 2007

 

NHT Classic Two Loudspeakers and Classic Ten Subwoofer

Convincing a home-theater enthusiast that he needs a subwoofer is like talking a country-club member into restringing his tennis racket: It goes without saying. With a 5.1-channel surround-sound system, you can’t truly experience the 25th Anniversary Edition of Terminator 2, or properly plumb the low-end depths of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, without a sub. But what about using a sub if you primarily listen to music? Does a subwoofer, combined with a manufacturer-matched set of bookshelf monitors in a 2.1-channel setup, come close to or even equal the dynamic range achievable with a well-made pair of floorstanding loudspeakers?

Since it produced its first loudspeaker in 1987, NHT (which stands for Now Hear This) has dealt with these questions and carried on with its mission to "challenge the notion that the very best sound reproduction must come at a premium price." In 1992, NHT built the first subwoofer for home audio powered by an external amplifier, and over the last 20 years, as the market for home audio products has moved into home theater, NHT has moved right along with it.

Description

NHT’s Classic line is a refinement and extension of their respected and successful Super Audio speakers, the piano-black-lacquered acoustic-suspension monitors that come immediately to mind when you think of NHT. Acoustic-suspension means a two-way sealed box without a typical bass-reflex port, which separates the Classic Two ($600 USD per pair) from the vast majority of monitors in its price range. The Two has a ferrofluid-cooled 1" aluminum-dome tweeter that uses a neodymium magnet, and a 6.5" polypropylene cone woofer. With its grille on, the Classic Two catches the light in a way that suggests the shiny black sweep of Darth Vader’s helmet. (I imagine that the high-gloss-white version looks like a Stormtrooper.) NHT reports a not-overly-sensitive sensitivity rating of 86dB at a nominal 6 ohms of impedance and a recommended power maximum of 125W. The Classic Two weighs just over 12.5 pounds, and measures 12"H x 7"W by 9"D.

The Two’s curvature extends to its top and bottom; if you intend to place them on stands rather than use the threaded inserts that permit wall mounting, you’ll have to attach the supplied metal-and-rubber runners, which look like windshield-wiper blades. Once the rails were on, the Classic Twos gripped my 20" stands with reassuring solidity. I did my listening with the grilles on, which I thought slightly softened the speaker’s sound.

With a low end that goes down to 51Hz, the Classic Two promised to deliver plenty of bass on its own. But my review samples were accompanied by the matching Classic Ten, a 41-pound subwoofer powered by a 150W class-G amplifier ($600 USD). "Ten" refers to the size of the sub’s bass-reflex driver, a 10" long-throw aluminum cone. The enclosure measures 18"H x 11"W x 15"D -- the size of a respectable end table. Unfortunately, the top of the cabinet is rounded to match its smaller partners; drinking glasses will slide off, if the boom doesn’t shake them off first.

More on the Classic Ten later. The first order of business was to listen to the Classic Twos unassisted and unadorned. They replaced the Axiom M22 speakers in my system, which includes a Pioneer DV-353 DVD player linked by Monster Cable interconnects to an NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier. I hooked up the Classic Twos to the NAD with 9’ runs of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable, whose banana plugs slid securely into the Twos’ five-way binding posts.

Listening

In 1971, Rod Stewart may have been the best rock singer in the world, and Every Picture Tells a Story [Mercury 558060] is the high-water mark of the first four solo records he made. Led by Ron Wood’s slide guitar, Martin Quittenton’s rhythm guitar, and Mickey Waller’s titanic drumming, no acoustically based band has ever rocked harder, and few groups have ever communicated as much camaraderie and sheer joy in the making of music -- both of which qualities were affirmed by the NHT Classic Twos’ ability to establish the group’s presence and then "disappear" into the soundstage. Through the Twos, Waller’s drums on the title track had the immediacy of a live performance: realistic, with no trace of harshness. Stewart’s vocal, passionate and unrelenting, was projected with dynamic accuracy, and the twin guitars were detailed and airy, with the high frequencies particularly delicate and highly resolved.

Two years after Every Picture, The Who arguably reached their own high-water mark with Quadrophenia [MCA 6895]. The more I listen to it, the more I realize that, in terms of the playing, it’s bassist John Entwistle’s album more than any other. On "The Real Me," the transients were transparent and Entwistle’s attacks on the strings were dynamic, and they were tied together by a strong sense of the exactitude of the bassist’s race across his strings. On "Cut My Hair," the Classic Twos properly put Pete Townshend’s sweet vocal in the foreground, while his acoustic guitar shimmered from the fretboard and resonated its woody timbre from the body. The greatest service performed by the Classic Twos, however, was on behalf of Keith Moon, whose virtuosic, one-of-a-kind drumming throughout the album was rendered with believable low-level clarity; his cymbals created notes with long, natural decay, along with an airy crispness.

For a relatively small speaker that doesn’t use a port to augment air movement, the Classic Two offered more than an adequate amount of bass-level information. Conversely, to my ears the Two’s sonic signature leaned a bit toward the clinical, re-creating the higher frequencies sharply, with little to no rolloff. On balance, its strength was in producing tightly defined, musically neutral sound that did justice to good recordings and was likely to get the most out of the mediocre. But with Entwistle and Moon in the rhythm section and a subwoofer in the house, my appetite for bass was insatiable.

As subwoofers go, the Classic Ten is mid-sized. NHT also offers a 12" model, the Classic Twelve, and other companies offer entry-level 8" models. But for a first-time subwoofer owner, the Classic Ten is huge -- intimidating, actually. I’ve always tried to get by with one set of speakers -- I knew that if I got hooked on bass, withdrawal could be painful.

NHT’s instruction manual offers detailed instructions on how to connect to any power source, whether you have a dedicated Sub Out line or not. The Classic Ten is turned on with a hefty switch, and sleeps when it’s not receiving a signal. Among the fine-tune adjustments are a low-pass filter, a boundary switch, a phase selector, and the most important: the volume knob.

In theory, once calibrated, the volume control of the power or integrated amplifier should work in concert with the sub’s own amp, and the NAD BEE has Preamp Out jacks, so setup should have been easy. I must have been doing something wrong, because from that output the Ten never awoke. I tried the output from the Tape Monitor (a function that many new amplifiers lack) to the Ten’s RCA jacks, and I was in business. But in using this workaround I lost the option of controlling the sub from the NAD, and found myself fine-tuning with the Ten’s volume pot for each recording. This wasn’t all bad -- it engaged me more fully in my listening as I tried to get the sound just right, and fueled my eagerness to listen to more and more, to discover how the Ten would react. I flat-out loved it.

I immediately went to the definitive versions of The Who’s "Baba O’Riley" and "Won’t Get Fooled Again," recorded live at Shepperton Studios for The Kids Are Alright [MCA 543694]: 15 minutes of Entwistle’s galloping intensity and Moon’s controlled fury. It took only a very fine twitch of the Ten’s volume knob to go from laying a foundation for the music and trying to lay claim to my sanity, because I couldn’t help but push the sound into the black (the color of the Ten’s extreme low frequencies). Pulling the volume back a hair, however, immediately relieved the congestion, and retracted the overhang to provide just the right amount of slam. On the Deluxe Edition of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Burnin’ [Island 335902], bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett loped with a natural linearity and thrilling mellowness that put the band in the room and pushed the sonic floor down to the basement. On Luc’s Lantern [Thirsty Ear 57158], William Parker’s acoustic bass sits high in the mix, and the Classic Ten conveyed plenty of exhilarating pluck and thwack, while the Classic Twos handled the lightness and tonal variety of Eri Yamamoto’s piano. In combination and partnered with the right recording, the Classic Twos and Ten made a sublime tandem and a model of integration.

Comparison

I compared the Axiom M22, a tall bookshelf speaker with a 1" tweeter and two 5.25" midrange woofers ($460 USD per pair), straight up with the two-way Classic Two. The M22’s highs were slightly less detailed, but warmer and more to my liking; the Classic Two’s highs were more neutral, but the naturalness of both speakers will be a matter of taste. In the midrange, the M22 was marginally sweeter and more liquid, but the Two was authoritative and focused in its own right. For their class and size, both speakers produced adequately extended, full-bodied bass, and were grainless and in full command of pace and articulation.

Adding the Classic Ten subwoofer to the Axioms firmly and unquestionably established the bottom, but from time to time the sound threatened to overwhelm in terms of thickness, and the inescapable pressure eventually hurt my head. Balance was more easily achieved with the smaller, less ambitious Classic Twos, which share a clarity of purpose with and worked alongside the Ten as a team to satisfy the demands of wide dynamic range, rhythmic propulsion, and dramatic scale.

Conclusion

In terms of the modern lines of their design and the dimension and definition inherent in their engineering, NHT makes a bold, impressive statement with the Classic Two. By themselves, a pair of Classic Twos are convincing and involving. When linked with the Classic Ten subwoofer, the 2.1-channel system has power, presence, and is remarkably fun to listen to. Speakers and sub express a top-to-bottom coherence that emphasizes midrange beauty, and packs a visceral punch with an unquestionable ability to play loud. The combo competes admirably with larger floorstanding speakers, but at a lower price.

To best use the Classic Ten, however, you need understanding neighbors and a large enough room. I was disappointed that my space limited my placement options, and I was never quite able to ignore the Classic Ten’s location. I would have preferred placing the Ten at the rear or farther off to the side, but my room didn’t allow it. Despite this, the sound it produced was addictive, appealing to my basest (pun intended) and most elemental musical instincts -- so much so that I began to admit that listening to the Classic Ten was like eating chocolate pancakes for breakfast: decadent, corrupting, and a marvelous indulgence.

...Jeff Stockton

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