NHT ST4 Loudspeakers
When searching for a nearly full-range speaker system at or
below $1000, the basic question is: Do you choose a single-box speaker or a
subwoofer/satellite system? Will a sub/sat system outperform a comparable floorstander?
Does a sub/sat system integrate as well or sound as dynamic as a speaker with all of its
drivers in one box? Sure, there are lots of sub/sat systems that are
pleasant-sounding and non-fatiguing, but how many of them offer a palpable midrange,
extended grain-free highs, and tight, non-bloated bass?
While I personally believe there are sub/sat systems that
may be able to claim such performance, Im sure that most audio lovers would find the
all-in-one floorstander a more attractive alternative. Go out and start comparing.
Youd be surprised what $1000 buys you in loudspeaker performance these days -- and a
prime example is the NHT ST4.
Big, shiny black boxes
NHT is justifiably recognized for its well-designed two-way
systems, but the company known as Now Hear This has also produced three- and four-way
designs for some time now. Their SuperTwo, VT series, and flagship 3.3 constitute some of
the most affordable and sonically transparent floorstanding loudspeakers available. As the
successor to the SuperTwo, the ST4 aims at keeping that well-earned reputation alive.
The ST4's strikingly glossy, black-lacquered ported
enclosure contains a single 1" aluminum tweeter, 6.5" polypropylene midrange and
8" high-excursion, side-mounted woofer. Now for all those skeptics who believe this
whole side-mounted-woofer thing is more of a gimmick than functional benefit, NHT assures
me that it does contribute to the speakers performance. According to the
manufacturer, in addition to providing a narrower, more resonance-resistant front baffle,
side mounting the woofer presents the listener with flatter bass response by keeping the
woofer closer to the floor. Words are, however, weak unless experience backs them up. So I
tucked away my notes and proceeded to let the speakers, er, speak for themselves.
The ST4s were well packed and a breeze to uncrate and set
up. Spikes and steel outrigger-stabilizer bars come as part of the package -- they allowed
the slim but solid towers to stand securely and attractively in my living room. Those who
fret about hardwood floors should fear not, for NHT was also thoughtful enough to include
unique dimpled metal disks to place between spike and floorboard -- a considerate touch.
The one glaring inconsistency that I felt diminished the ST4s' elegance was their cheesy
binding posts. In fairness, though, NHT's philosophy plainly states that, to keep costs
down, money is only spent if the end result contributes to an improvement in the sound.
Therefore, from a practical standpoint, Im guessing that sturdier posts didnt
make any sonic difference to NHTs ears or oscilloscope.
What did seem to make monetary sense was a feature related
to the black "nicotine-patch" located on the ST4s rear baffle. Instead of
simply ferrofluid cooling the tweeter, NHT has gone one step further and coupled the
tweeters housing to this external black patch, which in turn pulls heat away from
the tweeter and the enclosure. NHT considers this approach better not only for the music,
but also for the speaker's longevity. And that, I must say, is another considerate touch.
Referring to the well-written manual, I found the ST4s were
designed to sound their best using the tried-and-true 1.5-to-1 rule. So I measured and
moved until the speakers stood six feet apart and nine feet from my listening position
with the woofers facing one another on the inside walls of the speakers. In addition, I
toed the speakers in slightly and repositioned them to within three feet of the rear wall.
This gave me pretty even bass response. I drove the ST4s with my Harmon/Kardon AVR-510
receiver, fed by a Panasonic DVD-A120 DVD player, connecting the two with
BetterCables Silver Serpent digital coax.
NHT does not recommend any extended break-in time. All the
company asks is that you allow adequate time for the speakers to acclimate to their
surroundings' "ambient temperature." Any conditioning applied beyond this
shouldnt, in NHTs opinion, make much of a difference to overall sound quality.
This turned out to be pretty accurate. The only aspect of the speaker that seemed to
improve after several hours was its midrange, which sounded ever so slightly smoother.
"Oh, my! These black boxes do speak!"
Seamless was the first term that came to mind,
followed by smooth and well balanced. The level of detail coming from
the towers was also quite impressive, as was the image that spread around and between
them. Ambient music like Deleriums Poem [Nettwerk 46629] brought forth an
effervescent, yet highly controlled sonic quality that drew me into tracks like
"Terra Firma." Midrange had nice weight and presence, while the bass was full,
tight and completely boom-free. Putting any concern over side-firing woofers completely to
rest, the ST4s' bass was well integrated. I had always felt that Poem was an
excellent recording, but the ST4s proved to me how high a production level the songs
Be warned, however: If, like me, you enjoy the
effortlessness of well-produced percussion, the ST4s will grab hold of your senses and
make you their friend. Tracks from Doudou Ndiaye Roses album Djabote [Real
World/Carol 2340-2] were open and lush, exhibiting just the right amount of ambience and
detail. On the NHTs, this live recording, made on the shores of Goree, Senegal, made me
feel as if I were right there, breathing the sea air and soaking in the truly wonderful
drum work of over 50 perfectly synchronized musicians. I was seduced into sitting in the
darkness, embracing the experience without a worry in the world. Oh, the power of music!
These speakers are transparent. Stings Brand New
Day [A&M Records 4432] nicely illustrates contrasts between delicate percussive
and big bass sounds, making the ST4s' ability to present "A Thousand
Years," "Desert Rose," and "Ghost Story" an extremely revealing
experience. There were moments, however, when I felt the NHTs imparted a slightly
congested quality to an otherwise well-produced album.
In addition to their obvious tonal balance, the ST4s'
dynamics proved to be quite exciting. Christian Badeas performance of Saint
SaŽns Third Symphony [Telarc CD-80274] did deliver good impact. The NHTs
handled the complex crescendos and dramatic horns in the opening eight minutes of the
first movement extremely well, but didnt have a prayer when it came to reproducing
the subterranean organ found at the ten-minute mark.
Given NHT's pride in building speakers that get out of the
musics way, it was only a matter of time before I chose a recording that would show
the ST4s' unforgiving nature. In this case it was The Cranberries To the
Faithfully Departed [Island 234-2], which made me wince a bit. The opening Theremin
effect on "Bosnia" had an almost unbearable edginess, while Ms. O'
Riordans overly sibilant vocal brought about a grimace on every high note. But this
is the sound on the recording, so I can't fault the ST4s!
One last encounter
For close to a year, Ive owned the $1400 Newton
MC300/P1000 bookshelf speaker/subwoofer combination from Cambridge SoundWorks. As with
most sub/sat systems, placing the CSWs took several nights of fighting with bass
localization, blending and room nodes. The ST4s, on the other hand, demanded little more
than a few hours worth of tweaking to sound full and even. However, the ST4s were much
less appealing to my wife, who felt that these high-gloss floorstanders took up too much
floor space in our rather small family room -- from a practical point of view, I tended to
agree with her. The MC300s ability to be wall-mounted and the fact that the P1000
could be placed out of sight make any amount of floor space given over to
loudspeakers seem extravagant.
Sonically the MC300/P1000 and ST4s are quite different. The
P1000's bass response had a rounder, richer quality to it, while the NHTs were punchier
and more detailed. The NHTs also had a leaner, yet extended, quality, which served the
music better. While the MC300/P1000 combo affords even flawed recordings an enjoyable
presentation, the NHTs are much less forgiving and present a bright or dry source just the
way it was recorded. The NHTs simply possessed more detail and extension up top than the
CSW system, which led me to a surprising conclusion. Despite the fact that small satellite
speakers typically image better than larger speakers, the ST4s imaged more precisely than
the Cambridge SoundWorks system.
But the most apparent difference between the two systems
was the perceived dynamic range. The NHTs had a quickness that bettered the CSW setup.
Ironically, the P1000 seemed to offer a bit more speed than the MC300 satellites could
muster. In a further surprise development, pairing the ST4s with the P1000 sub actually
yielded the best sound of all. The snap of drums, the crackle of explosions, the deep hum
of a starship's engines all seemed more dramatic coming from the NHT/CSW combo. A good
subwoofer could improve even the extended bass response of the ST4s -- and the extra
weight and heft of a true subwoofer are awfully attractive, even for full-range
Black and white isnt gray
While Im sure many $1000 sub/sat systems would
satisfy the average listener, in my experience, most sub/sat combos simply can't approach
the balance and transparency of these NHT towers. Given adequate space and decent
ancillary gear, these speakers will reveal details on your favorite recordings that you
would have never guessed were there. That said, they'll also reveal the shortcomings in
the gear you connect to them. Hook up an inexpensive receiver with lean sound and the NHTs
will make no apologies for it. Listen to a recording that lacks dynamics and refinement,
and that's exactly what they'll report.
Bottom line: The NHT ST4s arent for everyone.
Listeners who have a mountain of poorly remastered CDs would probably benefit from a
warmer-sounding speaker with a more laid-back personality. Those who listen to
well-produced jazz, classical and many newer recordings, or those who simply need to hear
every nuance within the music, would do well to consider NHTs marvelous ST4.
Price of equipment reviewedNHT
ST4 Loudspeakers - $1000 USD per pair