NHT Absolute Zero Speaker System
Starting from Zero
Loudspeakers somehow have a more intimate relationship with their listeners than other audio components. They interact directly with the senses, causing changes in air pressure that the human body perceives—in this case, mainly through the ears and diaphragm. Listening to a system at reference level with a true subwoofer is a full-body experience that will induce physiological changes in the audience. So perhaps it’s fitting that whereas we buy HDTVs and A/V receivers from relatively few manufacturers, the speaker industry supports a couple dozen fairly well-known companies, even more lesser-knowns, and countless unknowns. Some people even build speakers in their basements as a hobby. NHT is one of the more pedigreed names. Unlike a lot of others, it has not only survived five changes in ownership, but it’s done so with one of its two founders in attendance.
NHT began in 1986 as a partnership between Chris Byrne, the parent figure and survivor, and Ken Kantor, the original whiz-kid designer. Manufacturing aside, the company has never left its hometown of Benicia, California, despite a succession of owners that included International Jensen, a repository for several historic speaker brands: Recoton, the accessories empire; Rockford Fosgate, the car audio company; and Vinci Labs, which supplies parts to other A/V manufacturers. Kantor and his team designed several enduring classics ranging from the Super Zero minimonitor to the massive 3.3 tower, with its side-mounted 12-inch woofer. Along the way, Kantor amicably departed and went on to found or cofound three more companies. For the past 10 years, he’s been at the helm of ZT Amplifiers, maker of musical instrument gear.
Meanwhile, Byrne weathered his various owners with good grace but never quite abandoned the company’s founding spirit. When the last owner lost interest, Byrne and other NHT veterans negotiated a buyout, and once again NHT became an independent speaker company. When the economic winds turned bitter last year, the company announced that it was “going quiet” and sold off its inventory. Four months later, it re-emerged with new products and a Web-based retail strategy that involves factory-direct sales from its own Website and several others. Those others range from giant mass-market operations like Amazon, to the well-rounded Audio Advisor, to boutique retailers that handle the kind of prestigious bleeding-edge brands that once declared they would never sell on the Web. But enough about them.
This review covers NHT’s Classic line, with the Absolute Zero, the fourth generation of an NHT staple, used in all four corners of the soundfield; plus the Absolute Center and the Ten subwoofer. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the Absolute Zero is heir to the Super Zero legacy. The line also includes an Absolute Tower, which is based on the Absolute Zero, not the other way around. Many manufacturers pour their best ideas into towers, then throw out some of the most attractive features as they scale down to the smaller models that fill out the line. But the various Zero models have long been NHT’s most successful products.
The Absolute Zero and Absolute Center have a lot in common besides their high-gloss enclosures and diffractionreducing tapered baffles. Both models employ a sealed enclosure with a 1-inch aluminum-dome tweeter and at least one 5.25-inch polypropylene-cone woofer—which is doubled in the Absolute Center. Both have metal-nut binding posts. The Absolute Zero has rounded surfaces on both the top and bottom. To adapt the Absolute Zero to a flat surface and dampen vibration, the speaker is packaged with two long rubber feet that you can easily stick on the bottom. The same roundedness appears on the sides of the Absolute Center. Its feet are installed on the flat bottom surface. If you need to place the Absolute Center above the screen, the back includes an adjustable prop, or third foot, which will push the back upward, tilting the baffle down.
The Ten subwoofer has a driver sized to match its model number, backed with a rated 150 watts of energy-saving Class G amplification. Yet another surprise: Its shape and proportions are somewhat like an upsized Absolute Zero, with a slim width that’s discreetly offset by extended depth. Unlike the Absolutes, the Ten has a large port on the front of its enclosure. On the back panel is a Boundary switch with three settings: –3, 0, and +3 decibels. The manual recommends the 0-dB setting for “half space” placement near two room boundaries—for instance, if the sub is on the floor along the front wall with the main speakers. For “quarter/half space” placement near three room boundaries (in a corner), NHT recommends –3 dB. For “half/whole space” placement (out in the room), the manual suggests a +3-dB boost. My preferred asymmetrical front-wall placement tends to boost bass (although not as much as corner placement), so I went for –3 dB.
I must note in passing that the woofers in the first sample of the Absolute Center weren’t connected, which was immediately obvious when I ran test tones to balance the channels. The second sample worked flawlessly. Please note that orders from the NHT Factory Store (nhthifi.com) come with a 30-day money-back guarantee, including shipping charges. If something doesn’t work, or you just don’t like it, you’re off the hook.