Product: nOrh 3.0 loudspeaker
Manufacturer & Distributor: nOrh Loudspeakers - Thailand
Retail price: $150 USD/Euro per pair, including shipping
Reviewers: Stefano Monteferri, Richard George
Reviewed: May, 2001
nOrh Loudspeakers has become famous for its unusual speaker designs, ranging from their original inverted horn concept, to the more recent Prism series. While many new audio companies begin with a single product, then eventually add to their lineup, nOrh, only two years in business, continues to produce new products at a surprisingly prodigious rate for such a small company. They have expanded their loudspeaker range into higher prices and quality, as demonstrated by the nOrh 9.0 marble speakers, and added electronic components, including the CD-1, Multiamp, and ACA. Now, with the 3.0s, nOrh has expanded their speaker price range downwards as well.
The nOrh 3.0s, the least expensive speakers in the nOrh lineup, are aimed at the multimedia or inexpensive home theater market. Most speakers in this price range are characterized by poor quality drivers in plastic cabinets that utilize cheap crossover components. Sound quality has never been a selling point among speakers in this price category. However, while the 3.0s are inexpensive for stereo or home theater speakers, they are very expensive compared to most multimedia speakers.
The 3.0s are the lowest priced speakers made by nOrh. The smallest nOrh speakers, as tested here, utilize the "inverted horn" design around which nOrh was founded; even the name "nOrh" is based on inverting the first and last letters in the word "horn". Each 3.0 drum is carved from a solid block of wood, hand finished, and fitted with a 3-inch, full range driver. Since a full range driver is used, no crossover network is necessary, reducing cost and complexity. A pair of gold-plated, 2-way binding posts are bolted into a small, circular cutout on the side of each speaker. Internal hookup wire appears to be silver-plated copper stranded wire or stranded silver wire. This quality of wire is unusual in speakers costing several times more than the 3.0s and unheard of in $150 speakers. The driver, which is made by TB-Loudspeakers, a Taiwanese company, is 7cm (3 inches) in diameter, magnetically shielded, and has an aluminum, bullet-shaped diffuser on the phase plug. The driver is centered on the flat, felt-covered baffle. The semi-toroidal shaped grill cover was cut from a single piece of wood, painted black, and covered with acoustic cloth. A single nOrh logo is placed at the bottom of the grill. The grill is easily removable, and the speaker rests on three rubber feet.
The 3.0 speakers were sanded, stained, and coated with a finish that looks like urethane. The finish is smooth, durable, and very attractive, although it is not finished to the same high quality as more expensive nOrh speakers. In particular, the circular cutout in which the binding posts have been installed are quite rough in appearance. However, with the low selling price of the 3.0s, it is quite surprising to find such a well done wood finish, especially considering that most speakers in this price class are made of plastic.
Two sets of 3.0 speakers were sent to TNT Audio for review: one pair was sent to Stefano Monteferri in Italy; the second set was sent to Richard George in the United States. The reviews were conducted separately with little discussion as to individual impressions. The evaluations were then merged into a single review.
The little nOrh 3.0 speakers are a couple of quite remarkable things. Remarkable because of their shape, really unusual and unquestionably handcrafted; remarkable because of technical choices made, this is an inverted horn nOrh loudspeaker that makes sound using dipolar emission; remarkable because of their capability to manage power, really unexpected if you look at the little full range driver size; and, remarkable because of the quality of their sound. Using them as suggested by Michael Barnes - as a substitute of compact HiFi systems plastic speakers - seems to be too mortifiyng for the little nOrh.
If you feel inclined to give up a physical involvement due to a loud dynamic performance and a big and deep bass extension - two things that the little nOrhs simply are not able to do - then you could be a good candidate to spend a lot of time hearing good music with the 3.0s.
The musical timbric performance is fairly good, warm and euphonic. Sometimes a slight characterization in the mid-high range reminds the listener that the sound came out from a 7-centimeters sized driver, but this is normal for this kind of component. The mid range is really beautiful, coherent, and well blended with the mid-low range (could you believe it? :-). The frequency extension is quite surprising considering the driver and the speaker size. Even though limited, bass reproduction is dense, and high frequency reproduction is unexpectedly ariose.
The little driver has a large cone excursion; reproduced sound is very quick and articulated. The overall result is really very interesting if you listen to good jazz or some vocal music without going too far using the volume control. Honestly, I must say that nOrh 3.0s have some difficulties properly reproducing hard rock music, an "off limits" zone for these speakers. A better performance could be found listening to symphonic music, with sound reproduction that is quite enjoyable and relaxing.
The capability to extract the smallest musical information is good, so the listener can appreciate a good transparency level with much detail. The contrast is not particularly pointed out, and playing instruments have a soft outline. As a result, the sound is not analytical, like an X-ray. Still, they have acceptable intelligibility, and the listener is able to appreciate adequately elements that comprise the sounds' architecture.
It make no sense to speak about realistic sensation, nOrh 3.0s are not the ideal speakers for producing very loud sound with great dynamic range, as real music does. The better way to enjoy these speakers is to relax yourself, so you can be delighted by a very good virtual image reconstruction, wide and delicate, illuminated by soft light and painted by gentle pastel colours. Elements inside the holography are not pointed out, but thanks to good accuracy and focusing, there is an overall good intelligibility.
So a very good result, that confirms one more time nOrh's cababilities in speaker manufacturing. I mean, a rightly obtained reputation. To sum up, for about $150 USD, shipping included, you can buy a couple of beautifully crafted items, useful for home furnishing that, as an added value, play music. And, they play well!
The first impression one has of these speakers is that they are not speakers at all, but rather some beautiful, hand-crafted decorations. However, these are, first and foremost, stereo loudspeakers. They were played extensively in two settings: as a pair of satellite speakers attached to a multimedia computer (one of the target markets stated by nOrh); and, as primary speakers in a high-fidelity sound system. Many types of music were tried, including vocals, instrumentals, folk music, jazz, rock, and classical. In addition, four distinct sources were used: a computer CD-ROM playing through a Turtle Beach sound card, and amplified by a multimedia system with 35 watts per channel (wpc), a high-end CD-player, a DVD-player, and a turntable. The latter three sources were played through a system that included a pair of single-ended tube amplifiers with approximately 4 wpc, then with a stereo, push-pull, tube amplifier rated at 35 wpc. When the 3.0s were first hooked up, they sounded very bright and empty; the sound was almost hollow. After an adequate period of break in, about 50 hours, the sound was substantially richer; they didn't sound like the same speakers.
On the computer system, the nOrh 3.0s were used as satellite speakers attached to a mulitmedia amplifier and subwoofer for this evaluation.The quality of music played through the nOrhs was quite surprising. Despite the questionable quality of the CD-ROM and the ability of a sound card to cleanly amplify small signals in the noisy internal environment of a computer, music was pleasant and worth listening to - something that usually cannot be said of any music played from a computer. Upper bass (as low as the 3.0s would reproduce) was quick, strong, and solid. Mid-range was clean and natural, and highs were clear.
Imaging was not profound, but imaging is not generally very good on two-channel computer sound systems. The preamplification and amplification used is generally not capable of producing convincing soundstage imaging. Despite this, the nOrh 3.0s had a reasonable soundstage with instrument locations easily determined. However, the soundstage had no depth. This observation is likely the result of a computer soundcard and multimedia amplifier rather than a fault with the speakers. As an aside, computer games worked very well with the 3.0s.
Shifting the 3.0s to the main stereo system revealed different aspects of the 3.0s. First and foremost, despite the low power handling of the 3.0s, 20 watts maximum, these speakers did not work well with the low-powered, single-ended triode amplifiers; the rated sensitivity of only 87dB is simply a poor match for flea-powered amplifiers. The resultant sound was thin, dry, and lacked body. Even filling in bass below 140Hz with a subwoofer did nothing to fix this problem. While bass from the sub was evident, the mid-range still sounded lifeless.
After switching to a 35wpc, push-pull amplifier, the 3.0s came to life. Bass extension was much improved as was the quality of the mid-range and high end; the richness of sound from these diminutive speakers was surprising. The subwoofer low pass filter was reduced in stages to about 80Hz. This combination provided the frequency range expected of a hifi or home theater system. The subwoofer was NOT used for the remainder of testing.
Despite the lack of a separate tweeter, the high-end extension was surprisingly good. When playing back CDs or movies on the DVD player, the 3.0s were sometimes a bit too bright, with highs tending to glare and slightly overpower the midrange. By using a better quality source, a good CD player or turntable, the brightness was reduced and overall tonal balance restored. In fact, that is one of the best aspects of the 3.0s: they have wonderful tonal balance, from midbass to high end. Bass that is present is clean and quick, clearly a benefit of such a small driver. Midrange is clear and surprisingly natural sounding. There is no evidence of nasal tone with female singers, or chestiness with male singers; the little nOrhs do not sound as though they are in a box. Highs sound quite good, without the excessive sibilance so often noted in inexpensive speakers.
Dynamic range is not a strong suite of the little nOrhs. While the 3.0s can be played very loudly, the quality of output declines if they are turned up too high. This is not a surprising result considering the small size of the drivers and cabinets and the limited power handling capabilities of the driver. Many full-range drivers used for hifi are assisted in their dynamic range by horn-loading, which acts to amplify the sound of the driver and reduce cone excursion necessary for increased volume. The nOrh inverted horn design has many benefits, but in this case, they don't give much assistance to improvement of dynamic range. In addition, due again to the small driver and cabinet size, visceral impact of bass, whether from a music or movie source, is less than optimal.
As a result of reduced dynamic range, rock music tends to be somewhat flattened out by the 3.0s. In addition, classical music that contains large dynamic range sounds somewhat compressed, similar in effect to the dynamic compression used by FM radio. For these types of music, the 3.0s are not the best choice. However, it must be noted that no other $150 speakers are a good choice for this type of music.
In fact, $150 speakers are generally not very good at reproducing any music since most of them reduce music to rhythmic noise. Here, the 3.0s again stand out from the crowd. They are very good at reproducing vocals, folk music, jazz, and other instrumentals that have limited dynamic range. As stand alone speakers in the $150 price range, the nOrh 3.0s have no equal that I have heard.
The imaging capability of these speakers is quite good. They are able to produce a stable stereo image between the speakers, though the soundstage is not very deep. The depth and clarity of the soundstage can be enhanced by keeping the speakers away from the rear wall; since the port is located on the very back of the inverted horn, reflections of the port off the back wall seem to interfere with soundstage imaging.
The only other minor problem with the 3.0 speakers is the unusual size and shape. While they are not very large compared to most primary stereo speakers, they are quite large and oddly shaped when compared to most multimedia speakers. As such, they take up substantially more desktop space than do ordinary multimedia speakers. However, they are well worth the extra space when used in this context.
If the drum-shaped nOrh 3.0 is too large to sit in the available space, nOrh makes a second speaker in the 3.0 series: the 3.0 Prism. This is a prism-shaped speaker that uses the same driver and is designed to function similarly to the 3.0 Drum, while using less desktop space. The 3.0 Prisms are made of kiln-dried Teak (not MDF) and have a tuned port located in the bottom of the speaker, reportedly resulting in slightly better bottom end extension. The cost is a little higher, at $199 USD per pair.
The nOrh 3.0s are inexpensive speakers. At $150, including shipping to anywhere, they rival the price of bargain speakers from local electronics supermarkets. However, while the 3.0s are cheap to purchase, they neither look nor sound cheap. Bargain speakers are usually made of plastic; the 3.0s are made of wood. Cheap speakers usually have cheap components, including poor quality drivers and very cheap crossover parts; the 3.0s use good quality drivers and, of course, no crossover. Cheap speakers usually use very cheap hookup wire; the nOrhs use silver or silver-plated wire. Cheap speakers are usually ugly and marginally funcional; the nOrhs are beautiful and beautifully functional.
The nOrh 3.0s have sonic limitations imposed by the size of their drivers and cabinets. Within these limitations, they are capable of very good musical output that is fun and enjoyable. Where are they best used? These speakers would be at home anywhere, as main speakers for a budget hifi system, as satellite speakers for a budget to mid-range home theater system, or as main speakers in a multimedia or personal sound system. When matched with a quick and musical subwoofer, the 3.0s are even more enjoyable, as their clean and compelling mid- and high-frequency output is then supplemented by the low bass of the subwoofer.
Michael Barnes, president and founder of nOrh, has stated that the nOrh 3.0 speakers are a sort of 'business card' for nOrh, an inexpensive entry into the concept of the nOrh inverted horn speaker. As a business card, the 3.0s do an excellent job of demonstrating the worth of the inverted horn.
Photographs used in this review are courtesy of nOrh Loudspeaker Co., Ltd. Many thanks to Michael Barnes, president of nOrh, and everyone else involved for providing the units used for this review.
© Copyright 2001 Stefano Monteferri, and Richard George - http://www.tnt-audio.com