NHT Absolute Zero Speaker System Page 2
Symphony of Unease
The Collector is a 2009 film from the writers of later installments in the Saw franchise—it was originally envisioned as a prequel to the first Saw. The premise is familiar: Victims are trapped in a house with a mad killer with a penchant for sadism and murder via ingenious mechanical devices. While this kind of gross-out ultraviolence may not be to every taste, the NHT system delivered the cheap thrills expertly. The soundtrack is a veritable symphony of unease and terror, with each effect flowing smoothly into the next. I liked the way it used thunder not just as occasional dramatic punctuation but, repeatedly, as a device that signals impending doom. This gave me an opportunity to dial in the sub. I’d made the mistake of starting with an 80-hertz crossover, which was too low for the Absolute Zero satellites in my setup. At 100 Hz, the sats and sub meshed better. I liked the Absolute’s approach to mids and highs—not hyped, but capable of layering and extremely listenable.
From Paris with Love sucker-punched me with images of the world’s most perfect city accompanied by a song, in French, by Madeleine Peyroux. The mix adds a little surround reverb to the original stereo recording. Unfortunately, the movie quickly slips from the sublime to the ridiculous with a predictable spy chase and ham-handed action that isn’t up to the standard of, say, The Collector. When John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers aren’t deploying their comic charm—which is challenged by a curiously flat and uninvolving script—they cruise through blood-drenched action sequences. The latter are accompanied by either orchestral backing, which the NHTs delivered with pleasing smoothness, or grinding hard-core, which didn’t give the speakers much to work with. Dialogue reproduction was good.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs challenged the speakers with a combination of dialogue (recorded under optimum studio conditions in an animated film) and effects, which evoked a world where it rains cheeseburgers. If that isn’t a perfect world, what is? The pristine dialogue called attention to the sat/sub crossover. While the system was pretty well balanced with the crossover set at 100 Hz, I could hear male voices coming out of the sub, starting with Bill Hader’s opening voiceover. This is par for a sat/sub set with this high of a crossover point, even a good one. Effects were tolerable even at high volume levels, although it’s possible that my brain was distracted by the relentless cloudbursts of cheeseburgers, spaghetti, and ice cream.
Release the Ferrets
My continued excavation of discs no one wanted when Home Theater moved its studio brought me to Doc Powell’s 97th & Columbus on SACD. The multichannel mix of this 2002 smooth jazz album is mildly archaic, with many instruments unpredictably launched into the surround channels. The most egregious one is a percussion effect that bounced diagonally, like a mad ferret, from the front-left channel, to the center of the room, to the right surround. I liked the album better once I focused on Powell’s elegant electric guitar and ignored the mix and arrangements. The timbre-matched NHT Absolute Zero and Absolute Center offered a seamless perspective on the eccentric soundfield. In terms of texture and resolution, these budget speakers represented the SACD as an above-average CD.
Mozart’s Complete Church Sonatas also arrived on SACD, although the 1972-vintage material played in four channels, part of PentaTone Classics’ ongoing revival of beautifully recorded historic quad material. The one-movement works were arranged for organ (Daniel Chorzempa) and string orchestra (the German Bach Soloists). The organ was suspended between the right and center channels, and the strings sat between left and center. This provided the right tradeoff between lateral separation and blending. According to the liner notes, the 1746 organ was designed to sound bright. The engineers evidently decided to match it with a bright string sound, with a little sweetening in the conservatively deployed surrounds. The Absolutes took a do-no-harm approach to this material. Whatever the result lacked in ultimate resolution, it made up for in affable listenability.
I bought my copy of the Albion Country Band’s Battle of the Field from a college classmate who felt it was unnecessary to keep vinyl after he transferred it to audiocassette. I’ve often wondered if he regretted that decision. The challenge in reproducing this all-star folk-rock classic lies in balancing the toppy instruments (such as John Kirkpatrick’s concertina and Sue Harris’ dulcimer) with the more midrange-centered guitars (especially Martin Carthy’s brilliant acoustic) and vocals (by all of the above plus a youthful Simon Nicol). In partnership with my tube phono preamp, the Absolutes walked this fine line, and I was able to play the album joyously loud. I was especially pleased at what the Ten sub did for bandleader Ashley Hutchings’ phat, loping bass lines.
With the Absolute Zero, Absolute Center, and Ten subwoofer, NHT aims squarely for the consumer on a tight budget and hits the mark. While you can get more if you’re willing to pay more, the Absolutes offer well-rounded performance and refined aesthetics at an incredibly affordable price. If you don’t want to wait until the economy improves to build a home theater system (you may be waiting a long time), these glossy, modestly priced speakers would mate beautifully with a modestly priced A/V receiver.