Recently I've been working on moving into an apartment. A small one, on the third floor of the building. One of the things this move has really been driving home is just how heavy and bulky my audio system has become. By the time you add everything up, it weighs more than me (and that is not a small number). The thought of dragging my current 140 pounds of speakers several hundred miles and hauling them up two flights of stairs at the end is not a pleasant one. And trying to find a place to put them in the cramped quarters would be its own adventure. The question all this brings to mind is just what it is that you get both for your money and for your labor out of dealing with big speakers. What's really brought this thinking forward in my mind is dealing with some great little speakers from New England Audio Research. The NEAR 15M gets you more than a little of that big speaker sound out of boxes so small and light that I can haul a pair of them around at once. That's half as many trips up the stairs, you know. At $799 a pair, they sit in the affordable but not exactly cheap part of the market as far as I'm concerned. To really understand what you're paying for with these speakers, we need to talk a bit first about what the typical problems encountered with both small and inexpensive models are (and remember that small doesn't necessarily imply inexpensive).
Typical cone speakers are first classified by how many different types of drivers they have. A two-way speaker divides the frequency spectrum into two sections, each of which is used as the input for one driver. This would be a typical tweeter/woofer configuration. A three-way speaker takes this further and spreads things out to a tweeter, midrange, and woofer. Note that this number isn't the same thing as how many drivers a speaker has. You can often find speakers that are two-way designs implemented with three drivers, like the ever popular Midrange/Tweeter/Midrange (MTM) configuration.
Why is it necessary to have multiple drivers? Because individual speaker drivers only have a limited frequency range over which they can operate. Typical tweeters might only operate around the range of 2Khz-20Khz. Typical woofers start anywhere from 20hz-100hz and go up to maybe 5Khz if you're real lucky. Combine the two, use a crossover to distribute the appropriate frequencies to the correct driver, and you've got a two-way speaker. Simple, right? Well, no, actually. It's never that easy. There's a couple of obvious issues here, not even considering how difficult crossover design is. The first is power handling. If you take a tweeter and feed it lower frequency tones than it's comfortable with, it will burn out even without applying much power. This means that, in order to keep the tweeter safe, you need to push the crossover frequency higher.
Now, as you push the low frequency sound away from the tweeter, it turns into things that are at the high frequency range for the woofer. Normal woofers say on the spec sheet that they can go fairly high with a flat frequency response, but what becomes a critical limiting factor is the issue of dispersion. When you're listening to your speakers, they don't just beam sound directly in front of them. The sound actually expands out from the driver in a pattern that is approximately cone shaped (if you viewed it from above). By most subjective evaluations, the wider this cone is, the better the sound quality. How wide does it need to be? The usual accepted figure is that you need your speakers to spread their sound across a 90 degree angle in order for them to be effective. So along with considering the Frequency response directly facing a speaker, it's just as important to note how things sound up to 45 degrees in each direction from the driver itself. A really good 6" woofer, for example, might have flat frequency response up to 5Khz, but if you expect there to be smooth, consistent off-axis sound you won't push it much over 3Khz.
Want some figures? Here's a little table I'm swiping from Vance Dickason's Loudspeaker Design Cookbook, 4th edition (not the most recent one, but this shouldn't have changed). Vance, who seems to know just about everything on this topic, says that a good criteria for such things is that a driver should be no more than 6dB down in output 45 degrees off-axis compared with the response directly in front. Here's what he states the acceptable maximum crossover frequency is for a number of common woofer sizes if you want good dispersion by that criteria:
|Driver Diameter||Upper Freq Limit (Hz)|
While I don't want to use these numbers as the absolute limits (the book itself says pushing things up to 10% higher is no big deal), it gives you an idea what's going on. You can look at this chart to see whether a manufacturer is doing something sane with their crossover. If you've got a 12" woofer and a tweeter operating only from 2Khz up, you can bet there's a depression (if not an outright hole) in the response around and below 2Khz off-axis. Given that tweeters that can operate well below 2Khz are rare indeed, this gives you some insight into why you don't see two-way designs with 12" woofers from any competent manufacturer.
OK, so the obvious lesson here is that small woofers are obviously better for giving an easy match with a typical tweeter. Unfortunately, small woofers are generally not known for deep bass response or high volumes. In addition, there are some other issues besides just plain old size that hamper bass performance in a woofer/midrange. When you get a woofer moving in time with bass notes, that introduces vibration into the cone itself that distorts the higher frequencies, typically in the midrange. This phenomenon goes by lots of names, from "Doppler distortion" to "frequency modulation distortion" (and here I was thinking that FM meant no static at all). Also a factor is the fact that the actual drive mechanism itself, from the voice coil to the cone, starts flexing and otherwise causing trouble when you feed deep or loud bass notes through a woofer. A related issue is that the enclosure cabinet itself will start moving in time with the music, vibrating in a way to add coloration to the midrange ("boxy" is the term those high-end types like to use for this one).
Man, with all these problems it's a wonder that speakers work at all. What about using a larger woofer? Bigger cones move more air as they vibrate, which does make the bass more substantial without needing to jerk the cone around as much, but that same big surface area comes with a higher weight. More weight means that moving the cone around (either starting it or stopping it once it's going) is more difficult, and the subjective response to that is that the bass doesn't sound as "tight".
Free lunches? None to be found here. There are problems with big and little drivers; balancing those flaws so that none of them show is one of the many aspects to successful speaker design. The obvious concerns mentioned are just the beginning of the things you need to juggle. It's for reasons like these that I generally prefer three-way setups, which is all well and good as far as minimizing some of the things I've brought up here. But you start using a woofer, midrange, and tweeter together and you're talking significantly more cash flying out of your wallet (not to mention the extra costs, both in performance and dollars, to a three-way crossover). You're also going to need considerably more space for that big three-way than your average little two-way.
Fear not, there is some hope. Lots of manufacturers are applying a whole heap of technology to solving the problems you run into with making a poor woofer do a good job both in the bass and midrange without screwing either up. One of the most interesting collection of technologies I've seen comes from the people at NEAR. Their 15M showcases a number of very non-traditional solutions to the problems that plague your average small set of speakers, and the results are impressive.
$799/pair. Two-way vented design, 1.1" titanium-alloy tweeter, 6.5" metal-alloy woofer. Crossover at 2700hz, nominal impedance 8 ohms. Response from 42-21khz +/-2dB, sensitivity 88dB 1W/1M. 15" H, 12" W, 9" D. 24 lbs each.
Ever have one of those moments where you go to pick something up, and you totally misjudge how much you thought it would weigh? You end up with this little fit of uncoordination where you end up fumbling it and just generally feel pretty displeased with yourself . Such an experience was my first run-in with these little NEAR speakers. The UPS guy put them on my porch, so I bent down to grab one. 29 pounds is a lot more than you expect a box this small to weigh. Checking out the spec sheets showed why. The enclosure is made out of 3/4" and 1" MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), which is very sturdy and very heavy. The outside is covered with Black Ash laminate, and looks very nice (it matches the Henry Ford styling on the rest of my system perfectly). Overall, the actual cabinet construction itself and appearance I'd rate as above average for this price range, but it's nothing so spectacular as to be a big surprise.
When I opened the boxes, this little tag was attached to one speaker with a "Made in Maine" logo. The ship-building picture and information about Maine craftsmanship is obviously intended to provide some reassurance that there are generations of woodworking skills behind the product. All I kept thinking was that, with all the ship references, I half expected to find WARNING: NEAR speakers are not intended for use as a flotation device written somewhere.
Unplugging my big speakers, I temporarily placed the pair of 15M models on top (that's one good thing about big speakers- -you can stack things on them). Connecting up my speaker cable was a snap, as there's your expected high-quality, gold-plated, five-way binding post. I spun a CD and gave 'em a quick listen. They sounded, well, not broken in. The bass seemed a bit stiff. No big deal; lots of speakers sound a bit odd until you stretch the woofers a bit. I walloped the cones for a weekend, and everything sounded quite a bit better. It took about a month of listening (I do all my breaking in with actual music, I have better things to do than listen to burn-in tracks) before things sounded like they were settled in and weren't going to get much better. The manual says 50-100 hours of operation is typical to get them good and loosened up, which matches my experience.
Speaking of the manual, it's a non-nonsense six page photocopied and stapled affair that somebody at the company ran out on their laser printer. There's two pages about the NEAR philosophy and technology, two pages about connection details and placement, and two pages of general audio information. That last bit was the most amusing for me to read. There's a bunch of standard copy about how it's easier to blow speakers out with too little power than too much. And here's my favorite line: "Although nearly any high quality electronic components will work satisfactorily with the NEAR-15M, be aware that you CAN hear differences among various amplifiers, preamplifiers, CD players, and other components." Say it ain't so! Amplifiers and CD players sound different? Later, they even say that cables make a difference. No way! I feel so disillusioned now, I think I'll go write a nasty letter to all those measurin' fools magazines. In all seriousness, though, it's nice to see some of this technical background presented to people in a coherent fashion by the manufacturer.
The recommendations on placement in the room are sound. Most notable is that since the port is located on the back of the enclosure, you need a good bit of space (around two feet is best) between the rear of the cabinet and the wall. Getting away from the wall is even more important here than it is for forward-facing speakers. The only serious flaw in the placement instructions is that there is no mention of toe-in. I found that, no matter how close the speakers were to me or each other, I needed to turn them in at least 30 degrees before they sounded right. Not mentioning that this is something important to experiment with is major oversight as far as I'm concerned, but it's mitigated by the fact that most of the market NEAR is going to be selling to already knows all about that anyway. There's also nothing about stands. Making these speakers sound their best really requires at least a decent set; these are most certainly not bookshelf speakers (if nothing else, the rear port would kill that option). I found that between 18" and 36" off the floor seemed best, with the actual height dependent on how high I was. Like most dome tweeter designs, they really don't sound right at all if the tweeters are above your head. If your listening position is high up your stand height may need to be adjusted accordingly.
Enough beating on the manual writers already; if I can correct everything the manual doesn't get right in a paragraph, it's not all that bad. Besides, you never look at that thing after the first week you've got the speakers anyway, right?. It's how they sound that's the real issue. Reading through their literature gives some pretty high expectations, and the 15M does a good job of delivering.
Let's talk about bass first. What originally caught my attention about these small speakers was the rated bass response. Only 2dB down at 42Hz out of a 6.5" woofer? That's fantastic performance for something that size, if it's true. See, this is particularly important to me. As someone who listens to a lot of music with electric bass (i.e. almost any rock album), 42Hz is a magic number; that's typically the frequency the lowest note out of that instrument is tuned to (sure, lots of people lately are dropping lower than that, but that's not all that common). Sure, it's nice to have bass deeper than that, but as far as I'm concerned speakers that don't go at least that low are doomed to be at best infrequent participants in my system. I've never found a two-way setup that met this performance goal with adequate output before, while keeping the midrange coherent (sure, it's trivial to pair a 1" tweeter with a 10" woofer and blast away that deep, but if you go back to the crossover frequency table you'll see why they all stink). I grabbed my collection of abusive bass recordings and worked on beating the poor woofers up to see what they could do.
The NEAR 15M didn't sound like a two-way system. The bass easily met their specifications, with good clean output down to 40Hz. And it pulled it off without screwing up the midrange. If you'd have asked me to describe the speakers I was hearing just from the sound, I would guessed they had a 1" tweeter, 4-5" midrange, and 8" woofer; they sounded like most of the systems I hear with that sort of configuration. No way would I have suspected you could pull that off just two drivers. How did they do it? Lots of good engineering. Lets take a look inside the box and inside the drivers.
Pop the grill and check out those shiny metal drivers. None of those wussy paper cones here. NEAR says the metal alloys make their cones more rigid while simultaneously having lower mass. The extra rigidity means you can drive the cone harder without it breaking up and distorting, and the low mass means better high-frequency performance. The other innovative technology is their patented Magnetic Liquid Suspension (the acronym is trademarked, too, so dont go describing your speakers that way just because you spilled something on them). Normal cones have whats called a spider on them; its the circular hunk of material at the base of the cone, surrounding the voice coil, that usually looks like an accordion. The spider primarily serves to limit the cone excursion and keep the voice coil from jumping away from the magnet, while also keeping it centered there. MLS replaces the spider with magnetic fluid that doesnt directly limit the cone. The first advantage to this that the voice coil is cooled very efficiently, which aids power handling in the same way that tweeters have long been kept cool with ferrofluid. The second is that the magnetic structure keeps the voice coil centered in a way such that the centering force increases as the amount of driving force increases.
All this is all well and good, but what does it really mean? The bottom line is that the 6.5" woofer in the 15M has the kind of authority in the bass that I only expect from a larger driver. Meanwhile, the metal cone and MLS keeps the level of distortion low under the heavy drive conditions required to pull this off with a small cone. Cone breakup drives me crazy, and I heard little of it from these speakers. There was just a limit on volume and depth, where it became obvious that you needed to turn the volume down because the woofer was running out of steam, but everything else still sounded clear.
Lets not go too overboard here, though. Were still talking about a 6.5" woofer. When I played material where there was lots of bass below 40hz, the NEAR did like every other ported speaker and got ugly. Not only did the woofer become unruly, the port noise became considerable (output from the fairly small port on this speaker may very well be one of the limiting factors for this design). I couldnt play things like Peter Gabriels Red Rain at higher volumes without the 15M being quite unhappy with things. In my small 10x11 room, with me and level meter about 6 feet away from the speakers, typical material would play cleanly to about 95dB with peaks into the 98dB range (in the 20x25 big room where I was closer to 9 feet away, it dropped to 90dB and 93dB). I had to back that off at least 3dB in either room when playing bass torture test material because the woofer was going berserk. This is an age old tradeoff; you can get your bass deep, or loud, but doing both takes serious cone area regardless of how well cooled or damped a cone might be. If the recordings you listen to dont have much in the way of low bass, you could play them louder than you could something that dips down low. Just as a point of reference, the volume levels I cited above were reached with the continuous power being about 100W/ch and peaks over 200W/ch (the rated power is 150W/ch). The fact that I can dump hundreds of watts of power into this speaker before it starts to have power handling problems is especially impressive if you note that I normally start to become quite dissatisfied with the distortion of normal 6.5" cones closer to the vicinity of 50w/ch. There was some of the type of distortion that bugs me from cones on the edge of their capabilities, but it was far better than more mainstream designs.
At one point, I tried matching the speakers up with my Hsu research HRSW-10 subwoofers, which have a fixed crossover at 40Hz. While the bass extension on the 15M allowed for near perfect match between these two, the combination had its limits. Playing my usual subwoofer buster, David Baerwalds Triage, the 6.5" NEAR woofer was overloading enough that it was a serious limit on volume capability even though the actual bass was only coming out of the subs. To its credit, that overload didnt take the midrange out with it. If youre looking to match this speaker up with a sub, I definitely recommend filtering out low frequencies from the 15M; relieved of deep bass duty, the speaker should perform even better, since that was the limiting factor on how hard I could push them.
Those who were paying attention during the introduction may be wondering about the one factor from there I havent addressed yet, namely enclosure vibration coloration. Well, NEAR has worked on that one, too. In addition to the heavy cabinet, there are three damping pads from Tekna Sonic used. These vibration absorbers can be tuned to match the specific frequencies where your cabinet has resonance problems. The application white papers Ive got claim a 10-15dB attenuation in noise radiated from the enclosure with these units. I wasnt up for poking around the enclosure with a stethoscope to see exactly how controlled the vibration was, but tapping on the panels gave a remarkably dead sound (or lack of sound, I should say). During normal playing, external vibration I could feel was minimal. Another nice touch that, although not unprecedented, is certainly not expected in this price range.
That pretty much sums up the more unique qualities of the NEAR 15M. Youre probably wondering at this point how they sound on a more grand scale, backing away from the small details for a moment. While Id like to talk about the sound of these speakers, theres this one little problem. See, the pair of them are neutral enough that when I started trying to put a finger on how they sounded, I kept running into how the rest of the equipment fit together instead. When they were hooked up to my super laid-back system with mostly Rotel electronics, they sounded a bit laid-back. Using the super forward setup with mostly Adcom electronics, they sounded a bit forward. I can make these speakers sound pretty much any way I want them to by selecting the right equipment to match them with. Sure, the speakers themselves have their own peaks and dips in response, but the tight tolerance on the system response (+/-2dB) means that these are minimal. Sometimes I thought the midrange was a touch recessed, and there were moments when I thought the upper treble was too forward. But either of these two potential minor flaws are so easily fixed by picking the right components to match with the speaker that its hardly worth fussing over. The 15M appears to be an easy load for any of the amplifiers I tried, without any unpleasant reactions that make it sound significantly different based on amp choice. Since Im used to deal with evil, nasty loudspeaker loads that leave me swapping amplifiers at a frantic pace trying to find something compatible, this was a pleasant change. The sensitivity was good but not especially high, so I do recommend a moderate amount of power for these; you could probably get by with as little as 30W/ch of continuous power, but Id recommend at least 60W with about 100W being a realistic upper limit.
Oh, and what about its ability to push all those audiophile buttons? I dont even bother to talk about imaging and grab some adjectives from my reviewer hyperbole bag unless Im first satisfied with the tonal balance and frequency response, so nows were discussed that its time to bring the whole loaded discussion up. The soundstage presentation was impressive as far as the instruments being clearly defined in space without any fuzziness to their position. The image was at least as wide as the speakers were apart, with the center image stable (as long as the toe-in was sufficient). These speakers imaged as well as any reasonably priced speaker Ive ever heard, without doing any of those fancy tricks that give you a huge (but fake) presentation to everything.
There are some other things worth mentioning about NEAR and the 15M. All of their speakers have a ten year warranty on them, with a guarantee that they will continue to meet all their specs for the first five. Nice to know you can count on these hanging around a while. In addition, the speakers are sold in tightly matched pairs, and they save enough data about every pair sold that they can try and get you a close replacement for any damaged driver. This is standard for many high-end manufacturers, but its not especially common for speakers at this price. Theres a full line of speakers related to this one; the 10M II is a very similar design, but it substitutes a 5.25" woofer to get the price down to $449/pair (and those you can get magnetically shielded, too). The entire line, from the $449 10M to the over $2200 50M, all use the same 1.1" tweeter. I didnt talk about this tweeter much; its an excellent shallow inverted dome unit that actually uses a 3/4" voice coil, making it more like a very small woofer instead of your regular dome construction. I never came close to running into the limits on that unit, which youd kind of expect if they use it in the kilobucks units, too. NEAR also has a number of other lines, including some home theater models and what has to be the coolest high- quality outdoor speaker series Ive ever seen; believe me, if I could justify spending a few hundred dollars for deck speakers, Id order a pair of those in a hurry to install before my next outside party.
The philosophy behind The Entry Level is that there a number of companies making good high-end products for very reasonable prices. Accordingly, in addition to talking about what makes these particular speakers good, its important to see how they fit into the larger speaker market. In this price range, two speakers Ive mentioned before as ones I recommend include the B&W DM602 ($550) and the Magnapan MMG ($500). To be fair, those particular models are probably more suited for direct comparison with the NEAR 10M II at $450. To generalize a bit based on what Ive heard and specs Ive looked at, Id say that the models from NEAR are very similar to the DM600 line from B&W at every price point, with the NEAR being more refined and having a higher power handling capacity while the B&W has a slightly higher sensitivity. The little model from Magnapan is a bit more realistic and the imaging is more spacious than the NEAR, but it requires a whole lot more effort to get an amplifier that will drive it properly.
The 15M in particular is wedged in a tight spot. At $800, it needs to deliver considerably more than the $500 models I mentioned to justify its price. I think it would do that by virtue of its bass extension alone (it goes down about 10Hz lower than the less expensive models mentioned). And since you can often trade off bass extension for overall volume capability, its got an edge there, too. I also happen to like a number of other, less quantitative things about these speakers compared with most of the competition Ive heard for similar amounts of cash (the lower distortion in particular is seductive). While I wouldnt go so far as to say that these speakers are "giant killers", they do give many much larger speakers a competitive run. Youre certainly not going to get 40Hz bass out of anything smaller, thats for sure. Any speaker with noticeably higher volume or bass capabilities is going to be bigger and more expensive; figure on spending at least $1200 if you want typical three-way speakers that are going to be any better than these are. And big speakers have their own set of problems Im not even going to get into here (larger panels mean more enclosure coloration, and more drivers creates further integration concerns).
No, Im not going to replace any of my larger speakers with the NEAR 15M. But they did stay in my system quite happily for over a month without me ever feeling that nagging compulsion to swap back because I was missing out on too much. These would certainly be on my short list if I was looking for excellent performance in a compact space. And they represent a superb choice for someone looking to put together a reasonably priced system where compatibility is high on the priority scale; these are easy speakers to deal with from every perspective. With all the technology and design smarts they are packing into their products, NEAR is a company worth watching and listening to.
For more information, try NEARs home page or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.