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NHT Classic Three Sound Quality Tests

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I chose to setup the NHT Classic Three speakers in my primary listening room. The speakers were put 3 feet out from the rear wall and over 5 feet from the side walls with a very slight toe-in.  The speakers had plenty of room to breathe.

 NHT with threads for wall mount

The Classic Threes have threaded holes on the back of the speaker so you can optionally wall mount them.
You can purchase wall mount hardware from NHT's web site.

I didn’t have stands on-hand.  Instead, I put them on a very thin, long table that I use for my center channel speaker.  This put the Classic Threes about 10” below the ideal ear-level height.  I placed the speakers at the very edge of the table to prevent any first-reflections coming from the table’s surface. 

013 Emotiva a-100

I paired the Classic Threes with an Emotiva a-100 50wpc amplifier

I paired the Classic Threes with an Emotiva Mini-X a-100 stereo amplifier that puts out 50wpc.  Most people buying an $900 pair of speakers will likely use a receiver.  If a buyer does opt for separates, he isn’t necessarily going to spend a lot of money on an amplifier and I figured that the $219 Emotiva would be a good fit. 

NHT shorter binding posts

The binding posts on the Classic Threes were shorter than I’m used to seeing

I had earlier noted that the binding posts seemed a bit on the shorter side.  I was right.  When I inserted my Audioquest banana adapters into the back of the binding posts, about ¼ to 1/3 of the banana connector protruded.  There was no chance of the connectors touching each other.  The connection was certainly stable enough. It just looked odd.

Music

After setting up the Classic Threes, I initially did something that I rarely do with speaker reviews.  I played the radio.   Because I would be busy taking care of some other things late in the evening, I decided to play the Classic Threes in the background and get a casual feel for them.  As I played the radio, there was a characteristic that struck me about the speakers. The off-axis response seemed to be very good. 

Why is off-axis performance of a speaker important?  If the off-axis response isn’t good, then those off-axis reflections can color the sound.  Through his pioneering research on acoustics and psychoacoustics at Canada’s NRC and then at Harman International, Dr. Floyd Tool has shown that smooth off-axis frequency response is as critical as on-axis response when determining a speaker’s performance.  As I moved around the room, the timbre and overall sound of the speakers remained fairly consistent.  I interpreted that sound consistency as a positive indicator of the Classic Threes off-axis response.  Regardless of the kind of music played throughout my listening tests, the speaker’s off-axis performance remained very good.

When I sat down for some serious listening, I wanted to test out some female vocals and spun up Encore by Elaine Paige.  For those familiar with the theater, Elaine Paige needs no introduction.  She has been called the “First Lady of British Musical Theater” and her voice has graced some of the best-known Broadway shows such as Cats and Evita.   Even if you’re not a theater buff, Paige’s passionate rendition of “Memory” from Cats is the one you’ve likely heard.

Elaine Page Encore

Elaine Paige’s voice shone beautifully through on the Classic Threes

Speaking of “Memory”, the Classic Threes presented Page’s vocals and emotion well.  Her voice came through with a good, smooth presentation.  Paige’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Lés Miserables was beautiful and moving. Instrumentation was good and detailed.   As I kept listening to track after track, I was struck by how large the soundstage was.  I wasn’t expecting such a large stage from such small, bookshelf-sized speakers.  In fact, the height and width of the soundstage rivaled my much larger tower speakers!

I found that the Classic Threes did an overall excellent job.  Especially for an $900 bookshelf, imaging and timbre all seemed to be really good. The bass response from a monitor of this size was surprising.  The bass notes were presented with authority and you could feel the bass.

In fact, the bass was so good that I initially thought it might have been over-emphasized. Yet, after extensive listening I concluded that the perceived over-emphasis was an issue of the bass’ refinement.  Though incredibly good for a speaker of its size, the bass didn’t have the ultimate definition and finesse of the best speakers I've ever heard.

Next, I turned to some Peter Gabriel on vinyl.  I started off by playing side two of So.  On the classic first track, “In Your Eyes”, the soundstage just popped and immediately drew me in. If you have a listening room that will let these speakers breathe, you can really get a large, more lifelike soundstage.

Peter Gabriel’s characteristic vocals were nicely rendered.  “Red Rain” and “Sledge Hammer” had a great sense of dynamics.  Again and again, the bass called attention to itself without overwhelming the overall presentation of the music.  The Classic Three’s didn’t have the overt “box” sound you sometimes get in a small monitor speaker.  The Classic Threes definitely had a warmer, euphonic presentation that some will appreciate.

I loved with how the Series Three speakers presented “Don’t Give Up”.   It’s a duet between Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.  Kate Bush’s vocals were beautifully presented.  However, Kate’s vocals lacked that true purity and openness the best speakers will give you.

Peter Gabriel So

Peter Gabriel’s classic album, So, is a great test of any speaker

I did encounter one anomaly specifically with this track.  At times, Kate Bush’s vocals sounded oddly recessed and I sensed a hint of strain.  To be sure this wasn’t something specific to the vinyl presentation, I played the same track digitally ripped from CD and got exactly the same thing.  I did not get the same response through my other speakers. I wasn’t sure what to make of that occurrence and I didn’t experience it on any other track.

In my particular room and setup, the Classic Threes had a more forward presentation than I’m used to.  Peter Gabriel’s vocals were just slightly behind the speakers and though tall and wide, the soundstage was not as deep as with my towers.

For a classical music test, I put in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Héléne Grimaud on the piano. The NHTs nailed the orchestral dynamics.  Given how the NHTs had performed in with my other tests, I was curious with how the NHTs would reproduce the piano.  There’s nothing like experiencing both the sound and the strike of piano chords.  Unfortunately, many speakers—especially speakers in this price range—will give the piano a tinny, toy-like sound.

Helene Grimaud plays Brahms

The Classic Threes presented the piano from Brahms' Concertos with surprisingly lifelike impact.

I was pleasantly surprised with how well the NHTs handled the weight and dynamics of the piano in this recording.  At times, there was a slight hint of that tinny sound from the piano.  Overall, however, the Classic Threes did a masterful job. 

The NHTs excelled with delicate movements and rendered fine, acoustic detail.  Yes, there were hints here and there where larger and better speakers would have handled things better.  But for $900, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. 

As I concluded listening to Brahms, I felt that the NHTs didn’t do a great job at the defined space and air around instruments.  Instead of the piano and instruments being clearly defined in their own space on the soundstage, they were blended together and more akin to that “wall of sound” entry-level speakers are known for.  Nevertheless, for bookshelf speakers at this size and at this price point, they were truly great in reproducing all the important elements necessary to make classical music reproduction an involving experience. 

Movies

After giving the Classic Threes an extended exercise with a variety of music, it was time to shift over and see how they could handle the audio complexity of some Blu-ray movies.   I played only the single pair of Classic Threes.  All multichannel audio was down-mixed to stereo in a 2.0 configuration.  I did this to see what the Classic Threes could do without the aid of a sub. I figured there would be some readers facing both WAF and aesthetic challenges and would be curious to see how the Classic Threes performed on their own.  If that describes you, I’ll just say you won’t be disappointed.

Avengers on Bluray

The Avengers action sequences and dynamics really came through on the Classic Threes

First up was Avengers. The Classic Threes presented the opening scene with a nice, wide-open stage, good dynamics, and excellent clarity through a phantom center channel.  The opening tesseract scene, when the tesseract opens the portal and Loki first appears, had solid punch.  You could feel chest-thumping bass during Loki’s escape and the subsequent crash of Nick Fury’s helicopter.  I had to remind myself again and again that such impactful sound was coming from a relatively small package.  The speaker’s characteristics were consistent throughout—including the end battle in New York.  

Iron Man 3

The Classic Threes handled the all action and adventure in Iron Man 3

Next, I turned to Iron Man 3.  In my notes I wrote how I was once again impressed with the soundstage, timbre, and dynamics—they were excellent.  However, at the climactic end scene,  with all the iron man suits, I did note hints of what sounded like some harshness amidst all the explosions.  I wasn’t bothered by this minor observation as I was playing the speakers without a sub and at a fairly loud volume to fill my room.

Frozen 

Disney’s Frozen was a real treat through the Classic Threes

Finally, I played Disney’s latest animated blockbuster, Frozen.  Everything I had positively experienced and mentioned before was apparent again here.  One oddity that I couldn’t figure out was that with Frozen, the center phantom image was good but not great.  At times, when the phantom center exhibited a voice that would have been mixed for a dedicated center channel, the speakers exhibited an uncharacteristic “boxiness”.  Because I hadn’t heard that in other cases, I decided to “Let it go, let it go” and attributed it more to the 2.0 down-mix than a weakness in the speakers (for those who have seen Frozen, you’ll forgive my pun).

Overall, the Classic Threes handled both music and movie audio exceptionally well and performed far above their asking price and size.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

warpdrive posts on June 04, 2014 13:50
I had these speakers years ago, when they were on sale for around $500. For that price, they were the bargain of the century. I think they still hold their own against any similarly sized bookshelf speaker I can think of, even ones that cost a lot more. I think the fact they are sealed helped, the bass never sounded boomy, and they dispersed very well, imaging was very 3D holographic.

I really hated the rails and rounded bottom though…when perched up on a standard stand with 6x6 plates, it worked well from a stability point of view it didn’t look like the speaker was part of the stand. Costmetically I really wish they sold an integral stand that mated with the bottom of the speaker better.
TheoN posts on June 03, 2014 11:27
@defmoot, you bring up some really great points and comments. Well said—especially with the installation of the rails!

To your other point, the foam or “mustache” as NHT calls it was indeed included with the speakers. I had asked NHT about it and what they told me was that the primary purpose of the foam piece (moustache) is to smooth a small peak and dip in the tweeter response (near 7kHz). The peak-dip is caused by a reflection from the midrange dome. Since it addressed the peak and dip I then asked why this wasn't pre-installed and the reason was two-fold:

First, some people are sensitive to the peak-dip and some aren’t.
Secondly, the foam piece isn’t perfect. It affects a range from 5kHz to 10kHz. It might make the speaker sound a little dull in a very well-damped room.

In my particular case, I don't have a very lively room so I chose to keep the foam pieces unapplied. The review was a bit on the long side but nevertheless, I should have included a mention about it. Noted!
defmoot posts on June 03, 2014 08:41
Thanks for the review.

I run the Classic Threes with an Outlaw EX in 2.1 for music and think it makes for a really nice “budget” rig. Like zieglj01, however, I'd like to see Audioholics measure this speaker. It's been done before by Stereophile and SoundStage, but the Three has been in service for a while. A new and competent analysis by you guys would be useful and welcome, I think.

A few other comments:

Because of their shape, they are a little tricky to handle at first. Simply orient them upside down when you first open the box. The packing foam is dense and shaped to fit the curved contours of the cabinet. It will hold things fairly securely while you install the base rails.

As mentioned, when installing the rails use a proper size, manual Philips-head screwdriver. I suggest pre-installing the screws about half way, then backing them out, indexing the rail, then re-driving the screws until the rail is secured flush. It takes a bit of effort because the cabinet material is dense and the finish is hard. When pre-driving the screws, take care that they're oriented 90 degrees tangent to the curve and don't go in at a goofy angle.*** Failure to do this may result in the rail “sitting high” with a slight gap, or at the very least, the screw head won't fit properly into its recess in the rail. It's not difficult to do properly and is mostly a cosmetic issue, but it's the kind of thing that'd drive me buggy. I agree with the reviewer that a more elegant solution would've been a nice touch here, but it functions just fine.

Oddly, the review made no mention of the little adhesive-backed, foam “mustache” doohickey that the user should apply between the tweeter and mid before firing them up. It's purpose is to help control diffraction between the two drivers. Maybe NHT has done away with it, one of those “small but measurable” things? I frankly doubt I could hear a difference with or without it. My ears are pretty good, but I know they're not that good.

At the risk of stirring up the break-in debate, I thought the tweeter on the Threes sounded a little harsh for the first hour or so of use. And I'm not even a true believer! But here's the deal. When I received the Threes one of them, unfortunately, had a slight imperfection in the shape of the curve at the top near the tweeter. I didn't even notice it at first, thought I could live with it, then couldn't stop seeing it at every moment. It was minor, but that's just the way I'm wired (glossy black is a harsh mistress for me, apparently). NHT sent me a new speaker, right away, no problem. Great customer service. When I swapped in the new speaker the harshness returned for a while on that side only (confirmation-bias-placebo-wacka-wacka-I-know-I-know). Now, in my defense, my wife noticed it too, despite not knowing which speaker had been replaced. So, maybe it was real.

As far as the pricing is concerned, I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't know anybody who pays full price for audio gear, or much else for that matter. It's the way of the world these days. I got a great deal on my pair (sale plus coupon code). Look to NHT's dealer network for some wiggle room, or, you know, ask around. Someone might know a guy.

Like the reviewer, years ago I had a thing for KEF monitors. Loved my 101s and enjoyed them for a long time. I'm not foolish enough to think the Threes sound anything like them, but with well recorded and mastered material they deliver similar pleasures. Makes me wish I'd had an EX in 1983, though.


***ETA: This worked for my Threes in Feb 2012. Check the angle for your rail screws before proceeding.
TheoN posts on June 02, 2014 18:33
Adam, post: 1034970
Hi, Theo. Thanks for the review. Are you able to compare these to any of their older offerings, such as the 1.5 bookshelves or 2.5/2.9 towers? I passed on these a couple of years ago (back when they were $700/pair, maybe even $600/pair on sale) because I wasn't sure if they'd be much better than the system of 1.5s that I have. Thanks.

This was my first experience with NHT speakers and I was pleasantly surprised as you saw. You must be really enjoying your 1.5s!

Unfortunately, I didn't get any different model NHT's for review to be able to do a direct comparison. My recent experience over the past 7 years or so has been with “higher-end” bookshelf and tower speakers.
TheoN posts on June 02, 2014 18:24
alphaiii, post: 1035007
Very good sounding (and measuring) speakers… and very will built. It's hard for me to say they're a great deal for $900 when they have sold for $600 before… but still nice speakers.

That said, I personally don't like the look much… I've grown very tired of gloss black in general though.

Finding these on sale unquestionably raises the value proposition even more! Likewise, the gloss black is a personal taste, but they really are small for the sound they put out. Compared to the mid-range B&W and Revel bookshelf lines, these are small by comparison. The one thing about black is that it also has the tendency to make the speaker look smaller. I know some people are looking for a particular wood veneer, but at this price point—with few exceptions—I don't tend to find something that's of high quality. Instead, the veneer tends to make the product look cheap.
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