Battle of The Bookshelfs Page 4

Tonal Balance 2 2
Dynamics 2 2
Bass 1 2
Imaging 2 2

AG: My first impression of the NHT was of anemic bass and in-your-face highs. That was also my last impression. On virtually everything I listened to - particularly the bass-rich Massive Attack, Beth Orton, and Charlie Hunter tracks - its top-loaded tonal balance gave me cause to complain. The speaker's overly crispy high end did add definition to the dense and somewhat formless mix of Goldfrapp's "Paper Bag." But the constant snare-drum rolls that propel this song sounded paper-thin, and the massed strings that come in toward the end sounded unpleasantly edgy.

On top of having poor tonal balance, the NHT also came up short in dynamics. The normally snappy drum kit on the Beth Orton track sounded flaccid. And when things should have been rocking out at the end of the Massive Attack cut, the sound was constrained and somewhat compressed, with poor distinction between the elements in the mix. As for imaging, the tall, deep, and very wide soundstage of the Charlie Hunt er track came across as flat, with little breathing room between the instruments.

DR: My first impression was that this was by far the most forward-sounding of the six speakers, but it soon became evident that its highs were not properly balanced by its lows. The NHT had a "boom-tizz" quality that made many pop recordings sound effective even though I was getting mostly upper bass and mid-to-upper treble, with not much going on in between. The voices in the opera recordings took on an unpleasant and definitely unnatural coloration. Because orchestral music was reproduced much too far forward, the speaker's ability to reproduce stage depth was diminished. Strings often sounded steely. The NHT's frequency response also unduly emphasized a recording's background noise, which reduced a dynamics score that had already been marked down for overloading on the bass drum in The Rite of Spring.

The Bakeoffs Our dual three-way comparisons each produced a semifinalist. Al selected the Monitor Audio Bronze 1 and the Jamo E 610, while I selected the Boston Acoustics CR75 and the Monitor Audio.

AG: Both of the speakers in my bakeoff had excellent imaging and dynamics, good bass, a clear and coherent midrange, and a pleasing tonal balance. Given their affordable prices, both are true finds. Over time, however, I'd probably prefer the Monitor Audio because of its slightly better detail and dynamics, and its tight, punchy bass.

DR: Despite the pleasantly forward sound of the Boston Acoustics - which also produced nice spaciousness in cathedral choir music and slightly better bass on recordings like the Bach organ music - I ultimately preferred the Monitor Audio because it produced the most livable tonal balance with many kinds of music and at different volume levels. In particular, it sounded less harsh when played loud than the Boston Acoustics. The clincher was Track 3 of Run Lola Run, which sounded good through both speakers until the heavily processed and equalized voice came in. Played loud, as this kind of music should be, it practically tore my ears off with the Boston Acoustics yet simply sounded heav ily processed and equalized through the Monitor Audio.

So even though we got there by traveling very different paths, Al and I independently converged on the Monitor Audio Bronze 1 as the best-sounding speaker of the six we compared.

Upon Further Review Ideally, the best speakers - the Boston Acoustics, Jamo, and Monitor Audio, plus the Acoustic Energy Aegis One - would have been compared directly with each other in a final bakeoff. But the size of our listening room doesn't permit a fair four-way comparison in stereo, even with these small speakers, because the speakers' different distances from the walls would become the dominant factor (something to keep in mind with any showroom demonstration). But after some speaker repositioning by Brian Fenton, I was able to perform a solo four-way bakeoff in mono, still without knowing which models I was listening to and with the switcher-button assignments rescrambled.

While mono playback meant I couldn't judge stereo imaging, it did allow me to do a direct comparison of the top models under even better positioning conditions than in the stereo test. The result: in a dead heat, the Monitor Audio Bronze 1 and Acoustic Energy Aegis One beat out the still slightly edgy Boston Acoustics CR75, with the Jamo E 610 coming in third.

With many musical selections I was unable to discern a difference when switching directly between the Monitor Audio and the Acoustic Energy - a very unusual result. At other times I could hear a difference, but neither sounded "better" than the other. And when one test track led me to believe I was ready to declare a winner, the next track often sounded slightly better on the other speaker!

After sampling a couple dozen more CDs trying to make a definitive judgment, I declared a tie. While the Monitor Audio and Acoustic Energy sounded quite similar, they were equally good overall and definitely better than the other four models - with the sole proviso that the Monitor Audio was slightly better at handling very loud deep bass.