, a long-standing admirer of the NHT range sets his sights on the newest addition to the family, the 2.9 which enters the market just above the 2.5i and discovers the apple of his eye.
Many thanks go to Mr. Ken Kantor and Mr. Eric Suh for their help and for providing the review sample.
NHT 2.9 Specifications:
System type: 4 way acoustic suspension design, Focused Image Geometry
|(All specifications as per manufacturer)|
The NHT 2.9- A balanced approach!
Balance is Key
To appreciate happiness, one must know sadness. To appreciate ones relative prosperity, one must know what it means to be poor. To truly appreciate a great speaker, one must expose ones self to some of the junk out there. The more I hear of the generally recommended speakers out there, the more I appreciate the cream of the crop.
Balance, I think, is also what it takes to make a successful speaker company. Take NHT, the company that manufactures the 2.9, which just so happens to be the subject of this review. NHTs President (at the time of this writing anyway) epitomizes balance himself. A musician on one hand, and an extremely talented engineer and graduate of MIT on the other, I believe Ken Kantor has two of the better ears in audio and also has the talent to put them to good use in his designs. I have no idea whether his designs are a practice in art or science or a combination thereof, but one thing seems for sure, he can hear when they are right.
As a company, NHT exudes balance like no other company I know of. Starting with the dwarf of the line, the SuperZero, all the way up to the flagship 3.3, I cant point to one speaker in the line which is not at least competitive with the best in its respective class. Give me a price point and Ill recommend my 4 favorites and I can wholeheartedly place an NHT on the list. I know of absolutely no other company I can say that about. In my humble opinion, the NHT line is hands down, the strongest complete speaker line in audio.
The Genesis of the 2.9
The 2.9 is itself an exercise in balance. Mr. Kantor started with his flagship 3.3 and sought to make it more accessible to the masses both in terms of price and physical size. The 2.9s use the exact same three forward facing drivers used on the 3.3 -the lower midrange, midrange and tweeter. But as the 2.9 is a smaller, "easier-to-live-with" speaker than the 3.3, it uses a 10 inch long throw woofer in place of its larger siblings 12 incher. Finish off the speaker with a box which is two inches shorter and 9 inches less in depth and you have a speaker almost half the price with at least 90% of the performance.
Balanced is also a starting point for describing the sound of the speaker. With bass extension to 26Hz and a smooth and extended treble out past where you and I will ever hear, its a marvel in spectral balance. Tonal balance is a big problem for me with many of todays more highly touted speakers. I find many of them with spitty, hard trebles or too much upper midrange energy. The balance of the 2.9 is, for my taste, just about perfect in this regard. I found them completely neutral across the board. As is the tradition at NHT, the midrange is spectacularly clean with low levels (if existent at all) of coloration. Bass is strong, articulate and visceral. Upper midrange/treble is smooth and neutral with no glare, grit or grain.
As I found with the NHT 2.5i [review available], bass performance, while by no means the only claim to fame, deserves special mention. On most music, the bass is articulate and in excellent balance. Unlike some speakers which always sound bass heavy, the NHTs bass is completely unassuming and well behaved. But just awaken its capabilities with some content with unusually deep or powerful bass and you had better stand back! The usually mild mannered NHTs dont even need a telephone booth in order to morph into Super NHTs!! Its instantaneous! These things will knock your socks off ! Additionally, I found that as you move down in volume, bass performance tracks very well with that of the rest of the spectrum. In other words, where most speakers get anemic as the volume goes down, the 2.9s maintain a solid bass foundation into the quiet, late night listening levels.
Upon initial set up, I was NOT kind to these speakers. The very first thing I put on was my favorite Telarc/Erich Kunzel extravaganza, "Erich Kunzels 20 Greatest Hits" and went right to my favorite "Chiller" cut, the one that opens with the clap of thunder. I shouldnt have done it, I know, but what can I say? I guess I just knew that they could handle it. Well, of course, it sounded fantastic, quick, sharp, and powerful, but what gave me a kick was what I saw! Instinctually, I was looking at the grill cloth covering the woofer and the thing was flapping in the wind! Ive never seen a grill cloth flap in the wind before, have you?? These woofers can move some air!! Well, after that, I was a kinder and gentler reviewer until they were broken in. For the next couple weeks, I fed them a diet of Rock and Roll.
One disc I bought some time ago, didnt care for at the time, but have grown to love (partly due to the 2.9s) is Chris Isaaks "Baja Sessions" (reprise 9 46325-2). It is a mellow recording, extremely clean and smooth with excellent sense of depth and space. Well, thats how the 2.9s gave it to me anyway. Tone on Chriss Gibson was clean, deep and inviting. Overtones were presented with a warmth that put the "ha!" in Baja! Again, the bass was well balanced and articulate making the bass lines as easy to follow as falling off a surfboard! The vibrato in Issaks voice on "Only the Lonely" will send shivers up your spine in spite of the warm surf breeze!
Did I mention that Ken Kantor is a musician too? About the same time I got the 2.9s, I got a copy of Kens own CD, "Incoherent" (Anxious Hippy 6601). Im no music reviewer, but it seems to me heavily rooted in late 60's/early 70's rock. But "Another Time" is a cut where raw 60's rock meets early 80's "techno" with pleasing results. The CD content is varied but the constant through most of it is the fact that Ken does all the performing! With the exception of one cut where he has some help on the drums and guitar, its a lone effort. In particular, I like the lyrics. Song titles such as "Softhearted Superman", "Greed" "Redneck Love" and "Funny" demonstrate the varying themes through the disk. Its a fun disc. Track #8 "Drum" was a good indication of why Ken is so good at producing bass, he enjoys the realistic portrayal of the bass drum and had it recorded that way. Track #16, "My True Tendencies" is a great track. You gotta hear the bass line here at realistic volumes! Cool! Track #2, "Tangles" is another favorite of mine. The shimmer of the cymbals, the strong bass foundation in contrast to Kens lyrics are demonstrative of the 2.9s ongoing balancing act. Needless to say, the NHTs excelled at producing it all.
Over the following weeks I put the 2.9s through its paces with too many rock CDs to count. ZZ Top, The Wallflowers, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, etc., etc., etc. Whatever I put on, it was always the same. Great. I have to say that I found them slightly forgiving too. Now, I know Ken is from the "Accuracy" school of speaker design, and what goes in should come out. Well, its not like the 2.9s are veiled or overly polite or anything, they dont cover up problems in the recording, but in contrast to some other high resolution speakers, I find that the speakers make some disappointingly recorded CDs more listenable. I almost wrote that they took some of the edge off these discs, but when I considered the fact that they didnt take anything away from better recorded efforts, I had to conclude that their smooth and neutral tonal balance just serves not to accentuate problems in recordings as many brighter speakers can. Score another one for neutrality!
Eventually, on one fateful day, I felt like some large scale symphonic music again. WOW!! I was reminded that while Rock is cool, with its constant and varied bass lines, thumping drums, and biting guitars, if you want to test a systems dynamics, you need to get out some large scale classical music. The dynamic swings, the challenge of reproducing the differences of a plucked or bowed bass string, the glorious sheen of a massed string section, the reproduction of the lone soprano to a full chorus, and a dynamic range that, by far, exceeds that of popular/rock music, this is how you put a speaker such as the 2.9s to the test.
As it happens, I guess I wound up saving the best for last. Through all the aforementioned tests, the 2.9s arose and performed with aplomb but it was here, on large scale classical, that the speakers really showed their stuff. Its also where they showed off my one and only item on my "wish" list. You know, the list I make where if I could, I would click my heels together, make a wish, and make a great speaker a more perfect speaker? Well, the one and only item I would wish for is a taller sound stage. I love the floor to ceiling sound stage one gets with taller planers, ribbons and electrostatics. It just sounds more real to me. Unfortunately, these are a dying breed too! One maker of Planar speakers has been chopping the tops off all its affordable speakers in the line leaving my kind of sound stage available from only speakers exceeding the price of the 2.9s. I hear it has something to do with the old WAF. It seems that there are, believe it or not, just some homes where six foot tall speakers are not welcome! Now, as usual, I have one caveat with my caveat! And that is that you cant find this kind of tall sound stage in conjunction with the rest of this speakers performance, from any speakers that I know of anywhere near the NHTs price point. Nothing, zip, nada. Just forget it, I already looked. But anyway, thats the only item on the wish list. As far as sound staging goes, there is one more point I want to make. In the review of the 3.3 in one of the bigger magazines, it was observed that the sound stage is restricted pretty much to between the 3.3s. Well, thats just bull! Properly set up, the imaging is positively holographic and extends way outside the position of the speakers. They present as wide a sound stage as Ive ever heard. The 2.9s are no different. Additionally, lateral dispersion is outstanding. As you move off axis from the sweet spot, tonal balance remains excellent, and you have to be really off axis, outside the near speaker, before the sound stage collapses. While it shifts somewhat, it manages to remain between the speakers.
Getting back to the music, one of the CDs that Ive been listening to a lot recently is another Erich Kunzel CD on Telarc, "The Great Fantasy Adventure Album" (CD- 80342). Its another Cincinnati Pops Orchestra disc containing a variety of selections from various soundtracks and scores. "The Abyss: End Titles" is one of my favorite cuts. Its a lovely cut with a sweet melody which collides with the intense writhing of the basses and string sections warning of impending...well, I dont want to spoil the movie for anybody! But the 2.9s offer a wonderful contrast between the sweetness of the strings, the breadth of the chorus and the power of the bass drums. I find it very moving. The theme from Beetlejuice is likewise presented with a jumpy rhythm and excellent contrast between the sweet strings and the biting brass section. But my favorite cut would have to be the "Hymn to Red October". The Russian singing chorus envelopes the sound stage in large dimension and is accented by crashing cymbals which are portrayed with no hint of fatiguing "hiss", just clean brass on brass. The 2.9s gave me everything I was looking for- just as I wanted it.
The other night I took out my favorite of all time, classical disc. Its the mother of all classical "show em what ya got" CDs. I brought out, dusted off and slipped into the tray Carl Orffs "Carmina Burana" (RCA/BMG Classic 09026-61673-2). Probably most widely recognized as the bombastic theme from the third Highlander movie, this is one fantastic piece of music and an excellent demo disc. I saw the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform it a few years ago and it was an experience Ill never forget. It took a fortified orchestra to reproduce the work. There were so many musicians on stage that half of me was waiting for the stage to collapse. Behind the orchestra was a full chorus, and up on one of the balconies was a childrens chorus. It was one of the most moving works Ive ever seen/heard performed, and it was also the loudest!! The music takes you every which way but loose. From full orchestra crescendos backed by the chorus at full tilt to the solo soprano that gives me goose bumps and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, listening to the CD over the 2.9s brought me back to the live performance as closely as I have ever been. It was freaking glorious!!
The NHT 2.9s are one hell of a speaker. I find them handsome, and in the Sycamore finish the review samples came in (yes, only through the miracle of my bad photography do the 2.9s look like a slab of yellow countertop turned up on end, they are actually a very nice soft grained sycamore wood laminate), they blend very well into my room. Chameleon in nature, they can sound sweet and delicate when they should but they can rattle the rafters when you ask them too. They possess tremendous dynamic range with my modest 100 watt Classé amp but can even handle much more power. Completely neutral across the board with a clean, detailed and transparent midrange topped off with a wonderfully smooth, grain free treble, they can get down and boogie with the best of them. While intensely musical, the 2.9s ability to produce copious amounts of quality bass make them perfect for the audio/video system. Imaging is outstanding as is sound staging. As is usual for me and NHT, I cant think of another speaker in its price range that gives such a balanced performance.
Now the only thing that remains is for you to go for a listen yourself. But speaking of balances, better check the one in the bank book first! I did and Im buying them!
Good luck and listening,
More information about NHT products can be found at the Official NHT Web Site.
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