Unlike 99 percent of the journalists at the HE 2006 show, I did not do a daily or hourly blog. I hate blogs, primarily because I don't get paid for them. I have a problem with that. The definition of professional is getting paid for what you do. So I don't do blogs. But I read quite a few other journalist's blogs. Some were like Cliff Notes of press releases handed out at the show while others were more personal. But even with all the electronic "ink" spilled, little was written about what I considered the most interesting room at the show - the Headroom "Headphone Heaven" suite.
The Headroom display, unlike almost every other room at the show, didn't suffer from room-related sonic problems. That's because the only transducers present, with one exception, were headphones! Within the suite's confines you could audition every item in Headroom's prodigious catalog. I had the opportunity to go from their under $100 package to a rig that cost over $5000 and everything in between. I was especially impressed by the balanced/unbalanced demonstration. There were several listening stations where you could A/B the same headphones and amps wired both in the standard single-ended manner and re-wired by Headroom for balanced operation. In every case the balanced headphones had more of all the things audiophiles treasure - depth, detail, dynamic contrast, and "you are there-ness." I was very taken by the new AKG K 701 headphones, and actually preferred them to my old standbys, the Sennheiser HD 580's. The AKGs had a more neutral harmonic balance with less midbass warmth and more bottom-end extension. I also liked the comfort and quality of the headband and earpads on the AKG phones. If I were going to buy another pair of headphones, I would put the AKG K 701's at the top of my list. You can check them out on Headroom's well designed website at www.Headphone.com.
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The NHT M-00 and S-00 were designed originally for pro audio use. The M-00 speaker is a compact two-way sealed cast aluminum-zinc alloy cabinet with a built-in 75-watt RMS power amplifier. It has inputs for either a single-ended RCA or balanced XLR or standard 0.25-inch phone jack connections. It also has three two-way mini toggle switches. The first is for power (auto-sensor or always on), the second for sensitivity (balanced or unbalanced levels) and the last is for mid or nearfield listening position (it is a high frequency roll-off adjustment). The front panel has a small green light just above the tweeter that lets you know if the speakers are powered up. Although the soft-dome tweeter is naked without any protective cover, NHT chose to use a non-removable metal grill over the 4.5-inch paper cone midrange/woofer. Available in a matte black finish, the M-00's cosmetics will blend well with most DAW environments.
The S-00 subwoofer is one of the more compact units I've had under my desk. Specifications claim response down to 39Hz +/- 3 dB, and while it doesn't go as low as many subs, the S-00 does an above average job of integrating with satellite speakers. This is in large part due to its fast 8" paper cone driver and intelligent set-up controls. The S-00 has the standard subwoofer controls - output level and crossover frequency as well as a high frequency pass-through toggle, sensitivity toggle, and auto/on toggle. The S-00 lacks any phase adjustment controls, so woe onto those who place it in too far-fetched a position in their room. It's also a sealed acoustic suspension box, which accounts for its limited lowest frequency spec.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention the NHT's price. You can pick up a pair of M-00s and a S-00 for just under $1000. If you combine them with a passive preamp, such as NHT's PVC ($100 street), and you have a complete system for $1100. I've reviewed some pretty inexpensive passive speakers such as the Aperion 442RLs ($200 a pair) and reasonably priced subs, such as the under $799 Earthquake Supernova mark IV, but the minute you merge even the least expensive transducers with a decent amp and preamp, or integrated amp, you'll be well above the price of the NHT M-00/S-00/SVS combo. Sure the NHT combo isn't as flexible of a system, but within the context of a desktop listening system, flexibility in component switching is not most people's highest priority. And even with the M-00 S-00 combo you can still swap out preamps.
So how does this system sound? In two words; no nonsense. The M-00s fit into a desktop environment as if they were made for it, which, in fact, they were. The M-00's diminutive size allows for optimal physical placement and their simple two-way crossover and the close proximity of the two drivers creates a phase-coherent sound field. Lateral imaging is as good as I've heard from any speaker of similar dimensions, but still not quite as precise as the smaller point-source Role Skiffs or Gallo Adivas. The M-00 creates a larger than average listening window with ample room for bobbing, weaving, and gyrating to the music.
Although the M-00 S-00 combination doesn't have quite as much resolving precision as the Aerial 5B speakers tethered to either the Bel Canto S-300 or PS Audio integrated amp, the NHT system still manages to deliver most of the music's inner details in a way that is completely involving. The best thing about the NHT system is that unless I turned it up to uncomfortably loud levels it never got in the way of the music. And given that the M-00 speaker only has a 75-watt amp inside, it's quite possible to push the volume up past the amp's comfort zone. Unlike the Thiel PCS speakers, which beg for higher SPL's, if you try to drive the NHT system too hard the sound quality deteriorates rapidly.
Another sonic advantage of the NHT M-00 and S-00 system stems from its well above average integration between the subwoofer and satellite speakers. Once their relative levels are dialed-in the units blend with a seamlessness that makes it easy to forget about the gear and just concentrate on the music. Sure, there's no true low bass, but unless you have a fetish for pipe organs, I doubt most listeners are going to miss that bottom octave too much.
Dynamic contrast is one performance area where a high quality passive speaker system coupled to a balls-to-the-wall power amp does excel over the NHT system. The Role Kayaks, Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, Thiel PCS, B&K 1500B's, and other the speakers I reviewed in my "speed dating" column outdo the NHTs when it comes to dynamic contrast. The NHT's don't exactly compress dynamics, but they don't emphasize them either. The differences between the quietest and loudest passages on most sources just don't seem as striking through the NHT's.
One final big positive for the NHT M-00 S-00 combo is its low fatigue factor. I've listened for many 8-plus hour days to continuous music from this system with never a thought to turning it off or to lowering the volume. Even when listening to i-Tunes routed through an external D/A, the NHT system makes it easy to spend many hours of stress-free listening. That's important in a desktop music system where long hours are usually standard operating procedure.
If you want a high-quality desktop music system, and your budget for all major components MUST remain below $1100. I think you would be hard pressed to assemble a system of new gear that will beat the NHT M-00 and S-00 in terms of overall sound, build quality, and ergonomic ease. See their website at www.nhthifi.com.
Bel Canto Pre3 Preamplifier
If the dimension of full-size preamps has kept you from using one in a desktop system, you'll be happy to find that the Bel Canto Pre3 is half sized, measuring only 8.72 across the front 3.75 high, and 1.5 deep (in inches). The front panel has just one circular control that serves as a volume and source selector. Its mini remote has sort-touch source, volume, mute, and power buttons. The Pre3 I received for review had one balanced and five single-ended inputs, but Bel Canto has plans to introduce a version with a built-in DAC in the near future. The Pre3 has one pair of balanced and one pair of single-ended outputs in addition to a fixed-level recording output. For most installations I use the balanced output for my mains and run the single-ended output to my subwoofer. The only control sorely lacking on the Pre3 is a balance control. I've learned to really appreciate the fine-tuned balance control on the PS Audio GCC-100 control amp and wish the Bel Canto Pre3 had a similar level of channel balance finesse.
Since my EAD 8000 Pro DVD player has a built-in volume control it's easy for me to run bypass tests on preamps. When I use the Monolithic Sound PA-1 passive/active preamp between the EAD and a power amp I hear no changes in detail or imaging, but on occasion I feel that the dynamic content gets diminished slightly. This difference is subtle and isn't about the differences between the loudest and softest volume levels, but the changes in micro-dynamics. It's the only area where the Monolithic Sound PA-1 passive/active preamp gives up any sonic ground to a straight wire. Putting the Bel Canto Pre3 into the same situation yields an equal level of detail and dimensionality but I notice the micro-dynamics don't suffer. Perhaps the Bel Canto's balanced output just drives lines better? Whatever the reason, I've come to enjoy the added bit of dynamic pizzazz that the Pre3 delivers. The only other difference between the Bel Canto Pre3 and a straight wire is that the Bel Canto has a slightly more forward presentation of depth and dimensionality. Instead of being in row E you're in row C. Since I've always been a front row sort of guy I like the extra bit of presence offered by the Bel Canto. Laid back it ain't.
Given its price, physical size, and refreshing sonic character I think the Bel Canto Pre3 will be ideal for many high-end nearfield systems. I know that I will be more than a little reluctant to return my review sample For more info go to Bel Canto's website at www.belcantodesign.com.