NHT Verve IV Speaker System
One of my favorite wines is Riesling—German Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. The grape is a noble specimen dating from 1435. NHT is like that hardy grape, which thrives in cool climates and stony ground. You'd expect a company that has changed hands repeatedly since its founding in 1986 to lose its identity, buffeted by the demands and indifference of successive owners. Instead, NHT has gone from strength to strength, entering their latest relationship with the Vinci Group of Colorado with a credible product lineup that represents several extended trains of thought, as well as a few new ones.
In the latter category is Verve. It currently comes in six flavors. The vintage under review here is the Verve IV ($1,999), with three identical large satellites in front, two smaller surrounds, and a subwoofer. The Verve V ($1,899) substitutes in-ceiling surrounds for the small satellites. The same configurations are available with NHT's controller and power amplifier as the Verve I ($6,750) and Verve II ($6,570). Also available are the 2.1-channel configurations of Verve III ($1,359 without electronics; $5,310 with electronics).
There's plastic and then there's cutting-edge killer plastic. A "bulk-molding compound" goes into the Verve enclosures; its inventor and licensor describes it as "a fiberglass-reinforced polyester or vinyl ester molding compound that undergoes irreversible crosslinking during the molding process, converting it to an infusible, solid state." Having undergone irreversible crosslinking myself, let me assure you that it can be quite exhilarating. Your molecules come into perfect harmony with the universe. You feel like turning into a loudspeaker enclosure.
The Verve satellites are heavy for their size. Pick one up, and you might suspect the object in your hands to be made of die-cast metal or thick fiberboard. The bulk-molding compound is also relatively nonresonant, the manufacturer says. Based on these speakers' heft—combined with a bit of knuckle rapping—I believe it.
The large and small satellites have similar 4.5-inch paper-cone woofers (the big one has two) and the same coaxial driver array with a 1-inch Mylar tweeter sitting atop a 3-inch paper-cone midrange. Coaxial mounting, when implemented well, allows both drivers' output to hit your ears at the same time, providing smoother off-axis response. Please note that paper-cone drivers are not an automatic disadvantage. Quite to the contrary; some excellent speakers use treated paper cones. This is one of the few sub/ sat sets I've seen recently that has an acoustic-suspension enclosure—in other words, a sealed one, with no vents to degrade the bass' transient response.
Each speaker sits on a broad pedestal whose footprint is just slightly larger than the speaker. If you prefer to wall-mount the speakers, you can detach the pedestals, and NHT provides keyhole mounts. The spring-loaded binding posts are far sturdier than such things usually are. They don't accept banana plugs at the back. But the hole in the side of the post is large enough to accept plugs, which I appreciated. When I plugged in my reference cables that way, they were at a graceful downward angle.
The subwoofer is roughly the shape of a modern display. Its largest measurement is its width (23.25 inches) and its smallest is its depth (6 inches). Thanks to its shallow depth, you can place it against a sofa or wall. Inside the sealed enclosure, there are two 10-inch aluminum-cone woofers. Interconnect and power cables go into a recess at the bottom and out a notch at the back or front. A large volume knob sits at the bottom of the front side. Aside from volume, the only control is a power switch. There are no crossover or phase controls. The sub is designed to work with the crossover in your receiver, pre/ pro, or surround processor.
In Babel, the most striking element of the soundtrack is silence. The surrounds are deliberately underused. Even in a girls' basketball game, where you'd expect the sound of the gym to reverberate in all channels, the surround channels sounded more or less empty. But this restraint paid dividends in surround-rich scenes like the one in a pounding disco, where the point of view shifted back and forth between a deaf-mute girl (little or no sound) and the full blare of the venue.
The Verves made the most of these dynamic shocks. Elsewhere, they delivered the whispered dialogue that dominates much of the script. And they showed off their naturalistic reproduction of the score's beautiful acoustic-guitar interludes, close-miked and played in a variety of styles, which set the story's mood as it hit plot vectors in the Middle East, Mexico, and Japan. Of course, unorthodox uses of the surround medium are my meat and potatoes, but I'll bet that a lot of other home theater buffs would welcome this kind of intelligent virtuosity.
The Prestige used all channels actively. High-voltage visual and sound effects inspired by Nikola Tesla's lightning generators were the most memorable effects. Pretty much any surround system would probably have enabled these effects to tear through the air. I was more impressed by the theater full of applause as heard from beneath the stage, where a magician had dropped through a trap door.
Children of Men sculpted its futuristic landscape of chaos, violence, and desolation most effectively in particularly surround-rich refugee-camp scenes. The satellites' coaxial drivers thrived with this complex information, which includes chanting, marches, random gunfire, and the baaaing of sheep. The soundfield was seamless, so the distinctive short-reverb ambience of indoor explosions had greater fright potential.
A Mighty Right Hand
I'd just seen Peter Buck live for the first time—with Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3—so I was eager to get back to R.E.M.'s Chronic Town EP (now part of the Dead Letter Office CD). I wanted to know if my vintage vinyl would sound different now that I can visualize the minute motions of Buck's tireless pick-wielding right hand. For the first time, I fully appreciated the sheer variety of his playing, as he shifted between strumming chords and picking out their shapes, totally avoiding typical rock-star lead-guitar soloing.
The Verve system's fairly neutral midrange offered plenty of textural refinement, yet it never failed to deliver the huge, epic sound of early R.E.M.—including Bill Berry's meaty drum sound and Michael Stipe's often astonishing vocal tone color. It must have been awe-inspiring to hear this stuff in a little Athens, Georgia, club in 1982.
That same combination of size and refinement struck me—practically between the eyes—when I auditioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in DG's live recording of Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. From the scherzo's raw tympani-bashing energy to the final choral movement's vocal eloquence, the Verves really got into Beethoven's manic-depressive spirit as convincingly as any speakers I've ever used. The Verves remained decently coherent anywhere in the room.
After I set up the system, I never felt the need to use the sub's front volume control. The sub seemed quite disciplined, and the crossover to the speakers worked well regardless of the material. On the CD/DVD compilation Legends of Jazz, the PBS jazz showcase hosted by Ramsey Lewis, the midrange showed abundant and variable texture. It changed character for Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling's scat-sung vocals on "Take Five," Chris Botti's trumpet on "My Funny Valentine," the breathlessly incandescent Brazilian voice of Ivan Lins, and the host's whimsically soulful solo piano interlude, "Dear Lord."
Although I have never been one to underestimate the power of a well-designed sub/sat set, the NHT Verve IV system surpassed my expectations. It combines the best qualities of the best sub/sats—unobtrusive size, good looks—with top-of-the-genre sound that kept it on every night until bedtime. In fact, for the last few days I had the speakers, I simply forgot that the review samples were there and just used them the same way I'd use my reference system. You can't ask for better than that.
• Coaxial drivers hone the image focus
• Sub has twin metal drivers
• Versatile sound