Niro TWO 6.1 Home Theater Systems
Photos by Tony Cordoza There's no shortage of home theater systems. There are big ones and small ones, black ones and silver ones, expensive ones and cheap ones. There are systems that come all in one box, and systems that come in half a dozen. But despite that diversity, virtually all home theater systems have something in common: at least five speakers and one subwoofer. Unfortunately, placing all those speakers in a room ain't easy. Some rooms just don't let you surround yourself with speakers. Either folks trip over them, or they just plain look bad. But what if a surround sound system could overcome the need for a whole bunch of speakers? Imagine that instead of five plus one cabinets, it used two plus one. And what if instead of the usual 5.1 channels, it could provide 6.1? Throw in a stylish receiver, and you'd have something completely different-the Niro TWO 6.1 home theater system. You probably haven't heard of Niro before. But there's a good chance you've heard of the company's founder, Niro Nakamichi. Among many other accomplishments, this is the guy who designed the famous Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck, a component that revolutionized people's ideas of how good an audio cassette could sound. Now, his new company is trying to shake up home theater. The TWO 6.1 system comprises a receiver, front and rear speaker cabinets, and a powered subwoofer-and that's it. Both the front and rear speaker cabinets actually contain an array of three speakers, the right and left firing at a 45° angle outward and the center firing straight ahead. Proprietary cables connect the receiver to the speakers, but that's not a disadvantage here because the receiver's output is equalized for the speakers-in fact, the owner's manual cautions against using either the receiver or the speakers without the other part of the system. The receiver's silver front panel has distinctive The Day the Earth Stood Still retro styling. Chances are, you'll either love it or hate it. Personally, I don't mind a receiver that reminds me of Gort, the movie's ominously powerful robot. The front panel has only the most minimal of controls for power, source selection, tuning, and volume. Under a hinged panel, you'll find a button to switch between AM and FM, an optical digital audio input, an A/V input with composite and S-video jacks, and a minijack headphone output. The system's universal remote control has a nice heft to it and shares the receiver's sense of style, with glow in the dark buttons for the most important functions. Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES 6.1-channel decoding as well as Dolby Pro Logic II processing for 5.1-channel playback from stereo and matrixed four-channel sources are onboard. On top of these the system employs proprietary Niroson Cinema post-surround processing to widen the apparent sound field produced by the two speaker arrays. The company isn't revealing any details, but it seems to work along lines similar to the virtual surround processing that simulates multichannel playback from only two front speakers. Although the rear panel is sparsely populated compared with most A/V receivers, there are enough inputs and outputs to connect a DVD player, a satellite receiver, a VCR, and an auxiliary source. There are three coaxial digital audio inputs, two optical inputs (including the one on the front panel), and one coaxial output. The TV connects via composite or S-video-there's no component-video switching. And there's also no discrete multichannel analog audio inputs for connecting a DVD-Audio or SACD player. The cabinets containing the front and rear speaker arrays are as unusual looking and stylish as the receiver. Altogether, each cabinet holds three 3 1/2-inch midrange drivers and three 1-inch dome tweeters. There are two openings on the left and right rear of the cabinet that are designed to improve the array's dispersion pattern. The manual recommends placing the cabinets so the back is at least 2 to 3 inches from any wall, though a special wall-hanging bracket is available. The subwoofer cabinet is made of gray plastic and has gray grille cloths on three sides. These conceal its 8-inch driver and two 8-inch passive radiators. Because this sub is custom designed for use only with the Niro receiver, it lacks the usual low-pass crossover control. Level and phase (0 or 180°) are controlled from the receiver. Input is via an RCA jack, and an output jack lets you hook up a second subwoofer. I added the receiver to the top of my alarmingly tall electronics stack and connected a Yamaha DVD-S2300 universal DVD/SACD player via an optical digital audio cable, connecting the player's component-video output directly to my Princeton widescreen HDTV monitor. Then I positioned the system's front speaker array on top of the TV. Accustomed to rather trim center speakers there, I found the Niro's rather largish cabinet a bit obtrusive at first. I put the rear array on a shelf directly behind my listening position. Both speaker cabinets were about a foot from their respective walls. Connecting the speakers was slightly easier than with a typical 5.1-channel system. Two special wiring harnesses are supplied, a 25-foot front cable and a 50-foot rear one. The front cable is round, but the rear harness is flat so it can be used under a carpet. In addition to speaker leads, the front wiring harness has a minijack at one end that plugs into the rear of the receiver and wires at the other end that connect to terminals on the back of the speaker cabinet to activate an infrared (IR) sensor in the front. This lets you control the system by aiming the remote at the front speaker array instead of the receiver. This system was very easy to set up and begin using. It took only a few minutes to adjust the levels of the center channel (±6 dB), the rear surround channels (±6 dB), and the subwoofer (±10 dB) relative to the front left/right channels. For my particular acoustics, I chose a 180° phase shift for the subwoofer. I also dialed in a small delay for the rear speaker array (delays corresponding to distance differences of up to 15 feet are available). There are no onscreen menus, so I simply used the remote and observed the receiver's front-panel display. Of course, the real question with any combo system is the speaker quality. Since it would be more or less impossible to upgrade this system's speakers, you want to make sure the ones you get are satisfactory. To check that, I settled down with the DTS 5.1 CD of Santana's Abraxas, a particularly artful multichannel mix of this classic album. The vintage recording used some pretty funky signal processing, but of course that funkiness is part of its character. The DTS mix nicely preserves that original sound but duplicates some of the percussion and guitar tracks in the surround channels to create a very musical sound field. "Black Magic Woman" has a terrific front/rear interplay between percussion instruments that superbly highlights the energy of its beat. The TWO 6.1 provided excellent front/rear coverage, and it was easy to raise or lower the rear level to get just the right balance. Left/right balance was surprisingly good considering there was only one speaker cabinet in front of me and one behind me! Although channel separation was audibly diffuse, there was still a good sense of left/right distance. However, the imaging sounded recessed, as if the speakers were several feet behind their actual position, which took some getting used to. Also, the sweet spot was relatively narrow. If I sat to one side, the sound field pulled to the center. Of course, in normal multichannel playback, if you're off-center, the sound from the nearer side is accentuated, so neither arrangement is perfect. I experimented with different speaker placements, varying the distance from the speaker cabinets to the wall, and even tried placing them on different long and short walls. These all made a difference in the apparent width of the sound field, and anyone installing the Niro system should try different configurations. Spatial issues aside, the speakers' sound quality was quite good. High-frequency response was crisp but never harsh, the midrange was neutral sounding, and the subwoofer supplied a musical lower octave with a nice, solid kick. I'd have appreciated a little more lower-mid/upper-bass punch, though. The system is capable of delivering a modest volume level that will be appropriate for moderate-size listening rooms-not room shaking but respectable. Next I turned to the movie side of the system's performance. The original Dracula was a parlor-room drama with subtle sexual undercurrents. Updating the vampire mythos for the 21st century, the Blade movies create a world of violence drenched with gore. Blade II is a nonstop gross-out thriller with both Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES soundtracks. Dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel, but music and effects make full use of all the channels. Played on a more conventional multichannel speaker system, the score is mainly in front, but it still kicks up the surrounds enough to immerse you musically. The effects are everywhere. Sharpened steel swishes through the air, motorcycle engines rev, helicopter rotors whir, heavy breathing pulsates. Anything sonically imaginable is thrown into the mix. Here, the Niro's front/rear speaker duo provided a surprisingly good sense of envelopment. The sound field was somewhat narrower than with an array of five speakers, but by lowering the level of the front center channel, I was able to get a fairly realistic sense of width, albeit one that was more diffuse than from discrete speakers. In many ways it sounded more like the very open, nonlocalized sound field that you hear in most movie theaters. It certainly avoided the problem of a specific speaker calling attention to itself. Finally, the sound quality of both the speakers and the subwoofer was very good, with cleanly articulated dialogue, natural tonal quality, and deep, rumbling bass. The Niro TWO 6.1 home theater system is quite different-unique in my experience-and it won't suit everyone. Although the receiver sports a fair selection of connectors, it lacks options that some will consider important, particularly the ability to connect a multichannel DVD-Audio or SACD player. Also, its speaker arrays present a more open, diffuse sound than some listeners may be accustomed to hearing, and the sweet spot is relatively small. On the other hand, the system is simple to set up and operate, smartly styled, and conveys a big, spacious sound field. Of course, it also delivers 6.1-channel playback from only three cabinets. For many home theaters, this one-of-a-kind system provides an intriguing alternative to the usual collection of boxes.