GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published August 15, 2001


nOrh 4.0 Loudspeakers

The Martians have landed

President Michael Barnes of the nOrh Loudspeaker Company chanced upon the unique -- and somewhat other-worldly -- shape of his speakers during a traditional music performance in Thailand, where he and the company are located. The sound of a Thai long drum played by a young child carried effortlessly through the large auditorium. He was impressed by how much sound emanated from so small a vessel. Inspiration struck. He would adapt this round tapered shape to his loudspeaker designs.

nOrh carves and lathe-turns its speakers from solid blocks of wood or marble. The company also uses ceramics and molded synthetic marble. The model 4.0 comes in three different options. In wood or ceramic, it sells for $400 per pair. This price includes free delivery to anywhere in the world. The marble version retails for $700 per pair. Shielded single units for center-channel or computer applications cost $275 each in wood or ceramic, or $375 each in marble.

Any concerns that my sky-blue ceramic review pair wouldn't survive the rigors of North American shipping and (mis)handling proved unwarranted. Not only were the shipping boxes extremely sturdy and well-padded, they were also strapped to a quarter pallet to insure safe transit and pristine condition upon arrival. Still in their boxes, the nOrhs already outclassed many far costlier competitors.

Once the speakers were unpacked, the good impressions continued. At 10.5"H x 8.5"W x 15"D, they're unusually heavy -- their ceramic walls are almost 1" thick. The nOrhs sport a bullet tweeter, offset in its own enclosure, and a single pair of high-quality metal binding posts. They rest on beautifully machined stainless steel "landing gear" -- very War of the Worlds. Removing a grille revealed further thoughtfulness. A ring of black felt for diffraction control surrounds the 5" Vifa mid/woofer. The grille cloth itself is fastened to its circular frame not via glue or staples; rather a recessed metal ring is screwed into the frame to securely clamp the cloth in place. I was particularly impressed because this feature is invisible during normal use. The Vifa 1" tweeter in its minimum-baffle housing is a soft-dome silk unit, protected by a non-removable metal grille.

The speakers come with a one-year warranty, which is below the industry norm of five years. If you do have problems with the cabinet after that year, nOrh will repair it at the cost of "raw manufacturing." Of course, you must ship it to Thailand to have them do it. The drivers are the most likely thing to suffer any damage in the long term and the Vifa units they use are readily available through speaker suppliers.

Frankly, I would have been content if the 4.0s hadn't made so much as a single sound. I haven't come across an affordable speaker yet that could inspire so much pride (or lust) of ownership just on looks! Of course looks alone don't -- or shouldn't -- sell speakers.

Can they fly?

For specs, the company only notes that bottom-end roll-off begins at 65Hz and is down 10dB by 55Hz. Any other details would have to surface in the audition. Via an 8-foot length of Onix single-crystal cable, I tethered the 4.0s to an Outlaw 1050 receiver in full-range stereo mode (no subwoofer) with an Arcam CD72 player as source, connected as usual with blue Cardas Crosslink. I also tried an Arcam DiVA A65 integrated amplifier for a second opinion.

Ah, my kind of aliens -- friendly and cultured, they speak my language

One of my favorite singers is the Greek superstar George Dalaras. I cued up "Los Garceros," a Venezuelan joropo waltz on his album Latin [Minos/EMI 15014]. Right off the bat, the 4.0s threw a positively huge soundstage, placing various shakers and other indigenous hand percussion instruments well outside the speakers' physical locations. Dalaras and backup singer Dionysis Theodosis were rendered surprisingly tall and man-sized. Their voices were suspended easily 1.5 feet above the nOrh's tweeters, which, on my stands, were themselves slightly higher than ear level. (This height perspective turned out to be not specific to this track or album but a defining trait of the speakers. They cast a tall image.)

On "Los Garceros," the first and third beat accents of the large Mariachi-type bass guitar were crisp, on time and clearly delineated. Dalaras' honey-smooth baritone came across with the light lyricism for which he is famous, suggesting that the nOrhs don't compensate for their lack of low bass by secretly boosting the midbass. His immaculate articulation of the Spanish lyrics, with his elegantly rrrolling emphasis on each "r," was precise yet not unduly emphasized. The sounds of the two guitars, played by Dalaras and Raza de Cobre, remained clearly separated, in terms of both physical location and tonality.

On the rumba "Magical Island," Al Di Meola solos over Dalaras' second guitar with a distinct, much richer, timbre. Di Meola's unearthly fast arpeggios remained easily traceable and perfectly resolved against the dense musical backdrop.

On "Never Cry," Dalaras and Theodosis are close-miked, which bestows extra richness to the nearer voice of Dalaras. He's no longer sharing the stage with the others somewhere in the distance. Instead, he's right there in front of everyone else. The nOrhs clearly portrayed this change of perspective with its concomitant shift in timbre and directness. The humongous and nearly holographic (yet not unnaturally etched) soundstage was spooky.

They like pasta and fine wine

I grabbed Pure Passion by José Carreras [Erato 3984-27305-2], which flirts rather heavily with schmaltz in its adaptations of famous symphonic and piano works. You must goose this album to truly experience Carreras' exaggerated emoting for hair-raising cheap thrills. As a heroic tenor, he should come across as distinctly more massive and weighty than the lyrical baritone, Dalaras, but not turn Sumo wrestler in the process

"Europa," an arrangement of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, opens with a quartet of French horns. The nOrhs placed the instruments deep on the other side of the wall behind them -- positively far-out. Carreras introduces the heavily chromatic theme and a mixed chorus reprises it. Blaring brass and timpani inject a distinctly martial atmosphere. The tenor's voice then rises above chorus, orchestra and the famously accentuated descending motifs of the massed violins. The nOrhs' soundstaging painted layers upon layers of players and singers (once again beyond the outsides of their cabinets), filling the corners of my room. What also caught me off-guard was the weight and volume with which the nOrhs convinced me that I sat in row twenty of a concert hall, enjoying close to 100 performers on stage. While the music was not rendered with the scale and profundity of large multi-woofered towers, of course, the nOrhs replicated this complex work beautifully, unraveling the interweaving voices without confusion or congestion. Carreras' voice projected like a force of nature -- as he emoted at the top of his lungs without losing control, I waited for the speakers to "crack," to somehow give out or remind me that they were struggling to keep up at these realistic levels. In vain. Despite my expectations, the nOrhs handled this complex music with aplomb -- if you don't get goosebumps from a performance like theirs, check your pulse.

Besides illustrating the 4.0s' output capabilities and ability to resolve convoluted material, this track also showed again that the 4.0s don't suffer from any lower midrange/upper bass thickness/sickness. The timbre of Carreras' voice betrayed no artificial bulges. The nOrhs are forthright, honest designs. In keeping with the standard limitations of affordable two-way monitors, they roll off steeply around 60Hz without artificial disguises.

They love Chopin and Liszt

Alan Gampel's Chopin & Liszt Piano Sonatas [Mapleshade 07382] opens with Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor. The nOrhs, though spaced about eight feet apart, portrayed the size of the piano correctly rather than stretching it to ludicrous proportions. They captured the instrument's somewhat strident sonic signature during the intense opening without injecting additional brightness. They fell short only in conveying the full impression of an actual concert grand's immense instrumental cavity. This is a mere reminder that even a superior $400 pair of monitors can't do everything as well as larger, more expensive speakers can. But the nOrhs excelled at capturing little details -- the occasional fingernail on ebony, the nearly inaudible mechanism of the damper pedal, the subtle ebb and flow of the music.

They also do bass – up to a point

On Curandero's Aras album [SilverWave 911] Kai Eckhardt segues into an improvised studio solo called "Brenda," using five-string fretless basses. Attempting to reproduce his lowest, out-of-range tones, the nOrhs' small woofers emitted chuffing noises up front, as though their back wave couldn't exit the port fast enough and was attempting to leak forward through their cones instead. This was the only time I asked something of the nOrhs that they couldn't deliver. But this track also proved something else -- how fleet of foot they are. Eckhardt's rapid tremolos survived without any blurring or drag.

Martians and Venusians

The $275 Axiom M3Ti was a natural candidate for a friendly one-on-one shoot-out with the nOrh 4.0. Call them identical twins -- blindfolded, I bet that few listeners could distinguish between them. After extensive comparisons, I believe that the Axioms go just a bit lower in the bass and have slightly more sheen in the treble. The nOrhs (possibly by virtue of that bullet tweeter) have the edge in soundstage size and holographic image specificity. Their sonic images seem a mite denser, with a bit more body. Again, these differences are subtle -- a potential buyer in a store might not notice them in a casual demonstration.

Beam me up, Scotty!

nOrh 4.0

The nOrh ceramic audio UFOs are highly accomplished performers. There's nothing about them I didn't like. While such statements are always due for revision as time goes by, I have to declare them right now the most impressive affordable two-way monitor I've come across.

Complete audio performance is a combination of four factors: your ears (how does it sound?), your wallet (is the price right?), your fingers (are any features missing?) and your eyes (do you like the looks?). While the Axioms equal the nOrhs in the first category and outdo them in the second, the nOrhs beat the Axioms in the last two. Considering that they cost more, that's exactly as it should be.

Put the nOrh 4.0s at the very top of your list. Remember, in addition to their excellent sonics, you'll also be purchasing unique, contemporary, refined looks.

Final credits to individuality and global economics

Hats off to Michael Barnes for his strong vision, and to all his Thai workers who labor over fabricating these ceramic (or wooden or marble) speakers by hand. Without the obvious exchange rate differential and added absence of the traditional retail middleman, these speakers would undoubtedly be significantly more expensive. They are, quite plainly, a massive bargain!

Price of equipment reviewed

  • nOrh 4.0 (in wood or ceramic finish) - $400 USD per pair (includes worldwide delivery)

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