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Equipment Review

April 1999

nOrh 7.0 Loudspeakers

by Frank Alles

 

Review at a Glance
Sound Very musical yet detailed presentation with natural-sounding highs and credible soundstaging; some dynamic compression, and lowest bass is a bit truncated.
Features Unconventional in appearance -- sculpted like a Thai longdrum; pop-off grilles and classy urethane finishes; matching subwoofers available.
Use Atypical tri-pod stance makes stand selection more problematic; closely spaced bottom-mounted speaker posts make hook-up more difficult and accidental shorting easier.
Value Superb parts quality and craftsmanship combined with a high level of performance.

Well now, as you will note from the picture of the nOrh 7.0 speakers, the cabinet for this speaker is somewhat atypical in terms of shape. This is due to the speaker’s design, which is based on the Thai longdrum -- right, a musical instrument! The speaker’s designer, Michael Barnes, a long-time audiophile, got the idea for this enclosure after seeing a musical performance using longdrums. His thinking was that a very thick and stiff enclosure with no parallel surfaces to promote internal standing waves might just make an excellent cabinet for a high-fidelity loudspeaker.

In preparation for this review I was able to correspond directly with Barnes, and he offered the following insights on his personal philosophy:

The nOrh Loudspeaker was an accident in the sense it was designed by observation. The shape of the speaker is similar to a horn except it is inverted. We call it an inverted horn. The name nOrh is actually the word horn mixed up a bit.

A horn amplifies sound.

The problem in all loudspeakers is how to handle the unwanted sounds that are created in the cabinet. Some speakers use bracing and other speakers use damping materials.

Our idea is to force the unwanted sounds through a horn backwards to reduce the energy naturally.

Barnes initially built prototypes using Peerless tweeters and Vifa woofers. These designs lacked refinement in their crossovers and in the tuning of the rear-firing bass port. He took these inchoate up-and-comers around to area audio salons to gauge the level of interest in such a product, and the speakers were received quite favorably by many critical ears.

Because of the encouragement he garnered from that experience, Barnes set out to refine his product and offer the best possible package for the lowest possible price. The result of those efforts has now been realized with the introduction of the nOrh 7.0 speakers.

For starters, the cabinets are manufactured by hand from the trunks of the Monkey Pod tree, which is very common in Thailand, Hawaii and the Philippine Islands. Cabinet shells are hand-carved, and the wall thickness is an inch or greater throughout the enclosure. This makes for a very rigid enclosure with no parallel surfaces to promote internal standing waves and no joints (save for the front-baffle interface) to compromise structural integrity. According to nOrh, this effectively eliminates the need for the additional bracing and reinforcements that are necessary in conventional designs. The shells are then oven-baked at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about a week and hand-sanded to perfection before being coated with a glossy Urethane stain, which looks quite elegant and exotic. My review samples were rosewood-stained, but other finishes such as walnut, gloss black and natural are available.

When the shells are finished, they are sent to a standard speaker-cabinet factory. There workers make the MDF for the front baffle and the grilles, and they install the connectors. A felt pad is glued to the front baffle to reduce diffraction. Since the tweeter is mounted above the centerline of the curved front baffle, the edge diffraction is kept to a minimum. For example, the same tweeter mounted to a rather broad 13" squared-off baffle would suffer more from diffraction effects. This is to say that the nOrh's curved baffle mimics standard rectangular baffles with thinner profiles, and this works in conjunction with the felt damping to result in improved imaging characteristics. Finally the crossover networks are assembled and installed.The process is labor intensive, but it provides jobs for many Thai workers.

The crossover is a third-order design that uses Audiocap 1% polypropylene metal-film capacitors and air-core inductors rated at 600 watts. Capacitors used in high-end products are often rated at 5% tolerance, and the inductors are sometimes ferrite-core types of lower power-handling capacity. Barnes plans to switch to MultiCap capacitors in the near future, and they are even more costly. The wiring, which is high-grade silver wire from Germany that’s hand-braided by nOrh to reduce inductive effects, is all hand-soldered using silver solder. The crossover is tuned using an LMS system, and the coils are positioned so that their flux is going in opposite directions.

With all this going for the nOrh 7.0, Barnes could have tried to cut corners in the area of driver selection -- but he didn’t! Instead he chose some of the very best units available to complete this package. A Scan-Speak 18W/8545 7" carbon-fiber woofer assumes the role of the baritone, and the Scan-Speak D2905/9300 1" silk-dome tweeter is the resident soprano. These same drivers are used in much more expensive speaker systems. To my knowledge the 7.0 is the least expensive speaker on the market to incorporate them.

The frequency response for the 7.0 speakers is stated as 45Hz to 36kHz +/- 3dB and -10dB at 33Hz. The rear port is tuned to 46Hz, and the internal cabinet volume is 17 liters. Sensitivity is 87dB for a 2.83 volt input at 1 meter, and the crossover frequency is set at 2kHz. Nominal impedance is specified at 8 ohms, and the minimum impedance is about 6.5 ohms at 200Hz. The two low-frequency impedance peaks occur at 80Hz (25 ohms) and at 20Hz (30 ohms). Except for the low-frequency impedance peaks, there are no other sharp peaks or dips that would suggest a difficult load for the amplifier.

Setup

For my listening tests, I mounted the nOhr speakers on 22" stands (nOrh recommends 24" stands) with an 8 1/2" square top plate. This size top plate was a good match for the tri-pod feet of the 7.0 which are spaced about seven inches apart in the front. It measured about six inches from the plane of the front feet to the center-rear foot. The closely spaced bottom-mounted speaker posts made connecting the speaker cables more difficult than usual, so you’ll want to be deliberate in doing this to avoid accidental shorting.

To start the show, I poised the contenders roughly six feet apart (center to center), four feet from the side walls, and seven feet from the front wall. My listening seat was set back ten feet from the front of the grilles, and about seven feet in from the rear wall. The speakers were canted in about 20 degrees, and I found that to give the best soundstaging and high-frequency extension.

My digital source was the Parasound D/AC-2000 converter with its partner C/BD-2000 transport. Analog duties were handled by the Townsend Audio Mk-III Rock turntable with a Transfiguration MC cartridge installed on a modified Rega RB-300 tonearm. The phono preamp was a custom AHT-P, and a Bylux Dedicated Line Filter delivered AC to the motor of the Rock. The R.E. Designs LNLSA-1 preamp drove the Monarchy SE-100 Delux monoblock amps via Full Spectrum Signature interconnects. Alternately I used the Music Reference RM-9 Special amplifier and a pair of Monarchy Audio SM-70 amplifiers in their bridged-mono configuration. My speaker cable was an 8' of DH Labs Silver-Sonic T-14.

Party-on Wayne!

For my initial listening sessions I had the luxury of starting with drivers that were already broken-in, so my commentary should be viewed in that context. The reason I consider that a luxury is because these particular drivers are known for taking 200 hours or so to settle in and sound their best. Prospective purchasers need to keep this in mind.

From the get-go I was impressed with the smoothness of the 7.0s and their relative neutrality over the greater part of the audible spectrum. The speakers tended to err more on the side of being musical rather than analytical, yet despite that observation they never failed to reveal a change in character whenever anything was substituted in the system. They clearly revealed sonic differences between audio cables, amps and preamps with chameleon-like prowess.

Both strings and brasses were well served by the nOrhs. Snappy selections such as "The Ghost of Stephen Foster," from Perennial Favorites [Mammoth 354 980 169-2] by the Squirrel Nut Zippers had commendable smoothness and clarity. My main criticism here would be that they lacked the razor sharp incisiveness and ultimate palpability of the real thing. In favor of the 7.0, there was not a trace of peakiness or edginess, or of the roughness intrinsic to lesser designs.

Going to Haydn’s Concerto pour Trompette et Orchestre en Mi Bemol Majeur, track 3, "Allegro," from Maurice Andre Trumpet Masterpieces [Deutche Grammophon D 203919], here again I missed some of the immediacy that is present in a live venue. The attack of the violins on the left was just perceptibly rounded, which diluted their authenticity a tiny bit. My InnerSound Eros speakers are somewhat more adept at presenting the sharp attack of the violins and other fast transient sounds.

One factor that seemed to play a major role in the sound quality of the nOrhs was the volume level. It seemed that when a certain volume plateau was reached, the instruments sounded much more vivid and lifelike. As you might infer, this is not the best speaker for listening at low volume levels. Likewise the macrodynamic contrasts of the speaker, which while totally respectable for a speaker of this size and price, suffered slightly from compression on very loud musical passages. My Paradigm Reference Studio/100s did a bit better in this regard.

I’m sure that some of this dynamic compression was related to a lack of bass extension. In my room, the 7.0s appeared to fade rapidly below 50Hz, which took some of the oomph out of bass drums, kick drums and lower piano notes. However, the bass of the nOrhs is quite clean, and though it sounds a touch soft, it seems well-controlled and not deliberately bumped up by design. This makes the 7.0s worthy candidates for adding a quality subwoofer.

Toward this end, nOrh offers a fast 8" subwoofer in a transmission-line enclosure that can extend the useful system response down to around 26Hz. These are sold in pairs, and they are attractively finished and can double as speaker stands for the 7.0s and other speakers in the nOrh line. The passive (unamplified) version of the nOrh subwoofer is available now for $1500 USD per pair shipped anywhere. A powered version will be available later this year, and it is expected to sell for $2000 USD.

In the area of soundstaging, the nOrhs delivered a stable, well-layered hologram that was both wide and deep. Instrumental outlines were clear and did not wander. Also worthy of note was the fact that the soundstage retained its clarity and distinction even during complex orchestral maneuvers. This was evident on Gershwin’s American In Paris from Dayful Of Song [Delos DE 3216], during the fortissimos. Here my only reservation is that the size and scale of the soundstage was not quite the equal of what I hear from some larger speaker systems, particularly large-panel dipole types. Note that I would be justified in making this same criticism of many other similar designs.

The Scan-Speak tweeter used in the 7.0 offers detailed and non-fatiguing treble reproduction that lent an air of authenticity to cymbals, shakers, and even zydeco washboard vests. It provided plenty of nuance and detail without any forwardness, hardness, or etch. It may miss that last breath of air at the very highest audible frequencies, but it’s very well-behaved and competent over its range. Listening to "How Fortunate the Man With None" by Dead Can Dance, from Into The Labyrinth [Warner Bros. 9 45384-2], the 7.0s provided plenty of depth and space on this ambiance-rich recording. I further observed that the tone of the ominous French horn was very natural and appropriate, both in its tone and location well behind and slightly to the right of the vocalist.

Conclusion

Looking back over my remarks, I realize that I’ve been very critical of this charming product from nOrh. I can’t stress enough that this is a very musical and enjoyable speaker system that will unravel a good amount of detail without becoming irritating. Visually, the speaker is unusual and exotic. The quality of its crossover, drivers and wiring is strictly top-drawer and would be anticipated only in much more costly designs. It is very well-balanced and natural-sounding. The lower midrange is full and pleasing -- this is not a dry or hyper-analytical-sounding speaker. The 7.0 is capable of playing at moderate to loud levels while maintaining its clarity even with complex material. Yes, it is a tad truncated in the lowest bass, and it does exhibit a small amount of dynamic compression. Yet these flaws are not egregious or at all uncommon. At the bargain price of only $1400 delivered to the customer’s door, it is a most impressive package.

So if you’re a typical card-carrying, jaded, ear-weary audiophile seeking a refreshing switch from the hum-drum, then you may like this little speaker built inside a longdrum. It offers value that can’t be ignOred.

...Frank Alles
frank@soundstage.com

nOrh 7.0 Loudspeakers
Price:
$1400 USD delivered direct to buyer in Asia, Europe, or the USA.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

nOrh Loudspeakers
Gaysorn Plaza, 999 Ploencht Road
G-01 Lumpini, Prathumwan, Bankok 10330 Thailand
Phone: (662) 656-1017
Fax: (662) 973-3854

E-mail: info@norh.com
Website: www.norh.com

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