We thought we'd lost Alan L. Maier for a while - it was just too quiet. Then it transpired that he'd gone into hybernation and taken a pair of NEAR loudspeakers with him. Now that summer is here Alan has emerged with dreamy tales of revealing 'speakers which have a "...neutral tonal balance."
Many thanks go to N"E"A"R Loudspeakers for their help and for providing the review sample.
N"E"A"R 20M II Specifications:
System type: bass reflex/rear vent
|(All specifications as per manufacturer)|
N"E"A"R 20M II Loudspeaker
The world around us changes constantly. Occasionally we have to pause and take a look back at what used to be the norm to fully grasp where we are today. If you have at least a little gray hair sprouting, you surely remember a time before the compact disc. Tube amplification was considered obsolete. A good tape deck used bulky reels of magnetic tape as a medium and any loudspeaker smaller than a 12" three-way was considered a step down from "the good stuff".
Now step a couple decades forward in time and look where we are& the audio compact disc is old hat, audiophiles are buying new tube based electronics in droves, consumer recording is done in the digital domain using a very compact medium and loudspeakers, oh loudspeakers! Judging from the changes in loudspeaker design over the past 20 or so years, one would think there has been a rift in the time/space continuum!
A fine example of modern day loudspeaker design is the subject of this review. The N"E"A"R 20M II is a slender, unobtrusive looking stand mounted loudspeaker system intended for both audio and home theater systems. Standing 22" in height, the driver complement consists of a pair of 5.25" ceramic/metal diaphragm cone woofers flanking a single 1.1" inverted titanium dome tweeter in the classic DAppolito configuration. A unique feature of the bass drivers is N"E"A"R's patented magnetic liquid suspension or MLS", which eliminates the traditional "spider" suspension at the voice coil and instead immerses the voice coil in a ferro-fluid filled magnetic gap. The fascinating details of this unique technology can be found at the N"E"A"R web site (URL below). Electrical connections are made via a single pair of gold plated knurled binding posts that readily accept banana jacks and offer ample room for spade terminated cables. Cabinet build is very solid and much heavier than their modest size would lead you to expect.
With the N"E"A"R's installed upon 24" tall stands, toed in just slightly and placed one foot out from the wall I embarked on what has become the longest amount of time spent reviewing a loudspeaker system to date. Fresh out of their boxes they require serious break-in time. With no usage the bass was "bloated" and midrange lacked "impact" furthermore they just could not play loudly with the Golden Tube SE-40 amplifier I normally use, which lead me to switch to my Adcom GFA-5800. After a month of frequently high playback levels, they sounded nothing like they did fresh out of their boxes and much more like the "finished" product.
Was the time spent breaking them in worth it? You bet. I am pleased with how little character these loudspeakers add to the music. Overall the sound is neutral, with a very revealing quality especially notable in the midrange region. As example, the airy and transparent quality of Bruce Dunlaps "Tesuque" track on the Chesky album About Home (JD59) is reproduced with an equally transparent and airy character. I have found that often albums on the Chesky label show-off a loudspeaker to the best advantage; here the loudspeaker clearly turns the table and reveals how excellent these recordings are. The selection "The Big Paper" from Pat Coils Steps album (Sheffield CD-31) brings up a wonderful characteristic exhibited by the 20M II impressive bass speed. Percussive attacks and antics exhibit quick "snap" which I find so enjoyable as I listen hour after hour. I have to confess I have a soft spot for big band music, and as I type this the classic Harry James tune "RollEm" is playing. Yeeeeaaaa!
Imaging stability and sound-stage qualities compare favorably with the better mini-monitors; seamless and well defined with a notable bonus. Bass performance surpasses my expectations for such a smallish loudspeaker. On one hand I read the manufacturers advertised frequency response as being down 2dB at 42Hz, on the other hand each enclosure hosts a pair of diminutive 5.25" drivers for the bass. Listening to the entire album entitled "Pomp & Pipes!" on the Reference Recordings label (RR-58CD) left no doubt in my mind that there is deep bass to be had here. Naturally the lowest bass output is limited, but I am pleased to report that the 20M II does not commit any audible "sins" when pressed to do a job that is better left to a larger system. Overdriving the bass drivers shows up in the form of a gradual onset of "muddy" midrange, and plenty of warning is audible before damage can occur. This is a rare occurrence and a clear indication that a powered sub-woofer and high pass filtering might be in order.
Over the extended period of time I have lived with the 20M II as the only loudspeaker used on my main system I have noticed a special characteristic that I feel stands out in the under $1,000 loudspeaker market. They possess an uncanny ability to reveal even subtle changes in system hardware, something I would expect from a costlier and/or exotic loudspeaker system, but hardly at the $899 price point. I experimented with different DACs for example, and noticed changes that I didnt expect; yet with the 20M II I had no problem perceiving the changes. Changes in amplification are far from subtle. Switching from my Adcom GFA-5800 to the Golden Tube SE-40 brought forth a drastic change in sound. The Adcom sounded crisp and a bit on the analytical side, while the Golden Tube has a lush, sweet character. For kicks I tried a receiver, "The Carver Receiver" from the middle 1980s which sounded rather "antiseptic" and less "involving". Clearly in my opinion and experience, the 20M II thrives on a good source.
I have lived with the N"E"A"R 20M II loudspeakers for 3 months now far longer than I have previously taken for a product review during which I have had the hardest time typing this review as my concentration was constantly diverted from the review in favor of simply enjoying the music. Neutral tonal balance, impressive transient "attack" combined with fine overall detail and resolution has made this loudspeaker a pleasure to review. Home theater installations and deep bass aficionados alike will need to include a sub-woofer as a system requirement, however I dont hold that against these loudspeakers. All in all, I feel if you are looking for a loudspeaker system in the $1,000/pr range I urge you to take a trip to your N"E"A"R dealer and take a listen. I bet you will be as impressed as I have been!
More information about N"E"A"R Loudspeakers can be found at the Official N"E"A"R Web Site.
Text © Alan L. Maier; HTML © SMR Home Theatre and Images © SMR Home Theatre and Alan L. Maier cannot be reproduced in whole or in part without permission.
Last updated 02 October, 1998
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