NSM Model 5 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Imagine my surprise when the NSM Model 5 minimonitors arrived not by UPS, but by mail -- yes, regular old mail in a box small enough to flip up with one hand and hold under my arm. When I got it back to my apartment I tossed the box to a friend and said, "Look, a new pair of speakers to try out." Heck these aren't minimonitors -- these are micromonitors!
The Model 5 is absolutely minuscule -- the cabinet measures 8" by 5.5" by 6" and weighs in at a scant 7 pounds, sopping wet. It may be small, but it's finished well for the price point. I've seen much more expensive speakers finished to far lower standards. A quick look around the little fella shows audiophile attention to detail that belies the very attractive $385 per pair asking price.
The box is .5 inch MDF, finished on all sides in a plain black satin lacquer (off-white finish is also available). On a larger box this may look a tad industrial, but on a box this small, the nondescript finish allows the speakers to disappear in a room. The cabinet is rock-solid and finished cleanly on all sides with slightly rounded edges. Detachable grilles cover the drivers. Put these speakers on a bookshelf and you may never see them.
High-quality five-way, gold-plated binding posts that look strangely similar to those used on my old $3000 B&W 803s take up the bottom half of the back plane. On the top portion of the back is a handy 14/20 threaded receptacle for "no-fuss attachment of Omnimount[TM] brackets," which NSM also sells. The Model 5 is so small and light that it can be placed almost anywhere, including near TVs because it's magnetically shielded.
The driver compliment is a 4.5" woven carbon-fiber woofer sourced from the Orient and a 1" soft-dome tweeter from SEAS of Norway. It's an acoustic suspension design, first-order crossover, with a claimed 65Hz to 20kHz (+/-3dB) frequency response, 8 ohm impedance and 85dB sensitivity. NSM says you can use anywhere from 25 to 150 watts. Frankly, I'd be scared to throw the full power of the SimAudio 4150se I have on hand at the Model 5s -- I think that those 4.5 inch woofers may fly like missiles and take an eye out (then again, I always err on the side of safety). After playing around with the Model 5s for some time, I would recommend mating them with at least 40 watts of gutsy power (at 8 ohms) and would say that no more than 100 watts is necessary. Lots of good, not-too-expensive receivers and integrated amps would do the job.
The Model 5s arrived immediately following my initial listening period with Cliffhanger Audio's two-piece-per-channel CHS-2 monitor and W-2 subwoofer system. The excellent Cliffhanger system retails for more than $3000 and falls just short of full-range performance. Dual 6" woofers handle the low registers. The system can knock your socks off with great bass slam along with tightness and control to about 30Hz, quite different from the diminutive Model 5. For the most part, the review took place with equipment that is priced many, many, many times that of the 5s. However, the electronics and cables -- Blue Circle BC3, SimAudio 4150se, Theta transport and DAC, Nirvana interconnects and speaker cables, etc. -- are very revealing and allow pretty much everything in signal path to flow through. As a result, the speakers under question get a real high-end workout and compared to other speakers costing much, much more.
The Model 5, likely because of their size and the nature of their design (literature flaunts them as a "point source"), were a snap to set up. I placed them about 6.5' apart, 4' from the rear walls and 3' from the sides. I raised them 27" from the floored and toed them in about 15 degrees. My sitting position was decidedly in the nearfield -- about 5' from the speaker plane. This is closer than most would sit, but the 5's didn't seem to mind. When the first track played, my eyes opened wide -- very wide -- and it was not due to flying woofers. The little NSMs were not doing what the Cliffhangers were doing, but they were surprisingly robust -- in fact they are shocking in their ability to fill my moderately sized 12' by 16' room with sound. Furthermore, they seemed to image like a hologram. My initial impressions were very enthusiastic.
Once I was sure enough break-in time had been put on the speakers, I did some serious listening. Bruce Cockburn's recent The Charity of the Night [True North TNSD 0150] is a nice recording with warm, rich vocals, excellent instrumental separation and a vivid, cleanly defined soundstage with great width and depth. "Get Up Jonah" played through the Model 5s was rich, warm and vibrant. The bass (thanks to Rob Wasserman) was very full-sounding with good texture and control. The drumkit was placed waaaaayyyyy back in the stage. The 5s proved to be a vocal champ, with very realistic tonal balance and full-bodied sound without being chesty while reproducing Cockburn's resonant voice. Backing vocals (Ani DiFranco sneaks in) were easy to discern. Impressive? You bet!
The overall level of detail was very good, not only on this recording, but on the many that followed. From hall ambience to the little noises nestled in a recording, the 5s did an admirable job of bringing them to life. They can't retrieve every last drop like, say, the Merlin TSMs can, but they get you much of the way down the field -- only detail freaks will want more. Furthermore, the soundstage specificity was absolutely scary -- as good or better than that of almost any speaker in my room! Cockburn's vocals were cast so rock-solid in the center that I place it among the best I've heard at any price. Another speaker that is reminiscent of this level of performance is the ProAc Tablette -- also a very small speaker, but with a neck-stiffening price tag in comparison. And this was no miniature stage; the drums, guitar and vocals all had body and size, proof to me that image size does not necessarily correlate with speaker size. The next track on Cockburn's disc, "Pacing the Cage," yielded just as impressive results. The 5s classed themselves above their price point quickly.
Jewel's newest Spirit [Atlantic CD 82950] revealed much the same thing -- rock-solid image focus with excellent width and depth of the stage. The clarity and separation were also impressive, and the bass, although not near subwoofer or even big-woofer terrain, was surprisingly full and fleshed out. Jewel's voice sounded pristine and quite smooth, although a smidgen of sibilance laced the edges and a touch of edge came forth when I played the 5s loud. Both of these recordings played with enough authority and weight that I was left shaking my head at the fact that such big sound came from such little boxes. Surely there has to be a problem with a box this small or all loudspeakers would be this big, right? Besides, I thought only Totem and Platinum knew how to throw massive bass from teeny-weeny woofers.
Next I cued up the Titanic soundtrack [Sony Classical/Sony Music Soundtrax SK 63213], which has excellent bass depth on a number of its tracks. It'll shake your walls (and have neighbors banging on them). I found out quickly that the Model 5s can do extremely impressive bass for their size, but can't do deep-deep bass like a much bigger speaker can, or really loud bass either. The Model 5s gave just a murmur, hinting at the foundation of power that the Cliffhanger system, with its dual 6" woofers, and the Speaker Art Clef, with its 8" job (and at $1299 per pair), hammer through. However, the 5s did more than an admirable job within their limits.
Chantal Kreviazuk's Under These Rocks and Stones [Columbia CK 80246] is a decent commercial recording with good clarity but with many of the mass-market recording sins -- so-so dynamics, congestion, and what proved to be stunted bass response. I was surprised just how similar tracks sounded on the Model 5s as they did on much more expensive speakers capable of much deeper bass performance. Chalk it up to the fact that many commercial recordings simply don't contain all that much deep bass information -- below about 60Hz. The Model 5s handled themselves very well, proving they can mix musical genres with ease. Kreviazuk's piano, although not as weighty or powerful as I've heard through bigger speakers, was certainly reproduced with reasonable weight and rightness of tone that made it sound very real. Recording after recording sounded consistently very good. At the Model 5s price, there is little to criticize about them, but a lot to praise.
How does a speaker get such good sound with such a set of constraints imposed on it? I don't know exactly, but I can hazard a guess because I've heard a few speakers like the Model 5 that do it extremely well at ridiculously low prices. The Model 5s have a claimed -6dB point of 55Hz. While that could hardly be called deep, it is deep enough to flesh out a good foundation at reasonable volume levels -- many recordings don't even reach that low. When you consider that through the rest of the frequency spectrum, particularly the midrange, the Model 5's are smooth and warm, never forward, and that they have highs that sparkle but never shriek and sizzle, the speaker comes across as exceptionally balanced. Nothing jumps out at the listener, and no one area, like the midrange or the high frequencies, is prominent or overbearing. If anything, they forgive a little, which allows them to not only sound more pleasing, but makes them good mates with a variety of electronics and cables. Some speakers that have tipped-up treble can sound exceptionally detailed up top, but thin in the bass. They can also rip your ears off when used with bright, edgy electronics. The Model 5, like the excellent small speakers from PSB and Paradigm, are more laid-back and definitely not in your face. As a result, they tend to sound subjectively fuller than those speakers with accentuated and forward high-frequency and midrange performance. It's a good design -- what else can be said?
This is not to say, however, that they are perfect. The Model 5s are not immune to their size or that they are built at a price point -- obviously they have limits. However, given their price I almost feel bad weighing in with strong criticism -- they are really good! Still, as Marc Mickelson said in his review of the $400 Onix A-60 integrated amplifier: "People looking to buy in this price range have ears too, and so they want to know what the piece of equipment sounds like."
To pick on the little fellas, I would say the Model 5s play plenty loudly for most listeners and have excellent dynamics for their size. However, like other small speakers, they lack full-scale attack and dynamics. They play loudly, but don't expect them to break your lease -- congestion, particularly in the lower midrange and bass sets in with a slight honky quality when the drivers really get pushed (a sound akin to cupping your hands around your mouth). Still, they will irritate the neighbors sufficiently with very decent SPLs. Vocal reproduction, despite a small degree of sibilance, particularly on female vocals, and a whisper of grain, most noticeable on male vocals, was exceedingly good at the price.
Comparison between the 5 and other loudspeakers that approach $1000 per pair and beyond reveal that the 5 is not quite as clean-sounding, particularly at louder levels, as the much more expensive models, but its darn good nevertheless. The high-frequency performance was noted as good, but when comparing the 5s to speakers costing two times as much or more (NSMs own model 10s, for example) the sound produced was not as pristine -- a tad dry and a little coarse in comparison. When the 5s are played very loudly, some grain slips in. On the plus side, the sound was never harsh or bright -- a very good thing! Their ability to unravel detail, particularly through the midrange, is excellent and easily on par with speakers that cost $1000 or more. However, in the cost-no-object league, they do not fall into the ultra-resolving camp. Speakers that I would classify as extremely resolving are the Merlin TSM, Cliffhanger CHS-2, and B&W Silver Signatures. The first two speakers, it should be noted, retail for what a whole pack of Model 5s would cost, and for the price of the last one you could by a bunch of the first two! I would say that the Model 5 could be classified as a tad more forgiving than analytical -- a quality that serves it well in the budget league.
On the other hand, this speaker that retails for less than some very good interconnects and plays music in a very refined and impressive manner does a whole lot of things right. The design boasts an excellent balance of tonality, frequency response, detail and ability to play reasonably loudly. Vocal reproduction, despite the nit-picking, is outstanding at its price. Voice, when reproduced poorly, relegates any loudspeaker to the scrap heap. The tonal qualities of the Model 5 seem spot-on. The soundstaging ability -- well, we've already gone there. The top to bottom balance and coherence will have audiophiles raise their eyebrows and choke back a few gasp when they hear how much they cost. About the only types of music I did not find that the Model 5s were well accustomed to was dance and techno related, along with metal or other music that relies on relentless bass attack. Those are better left to the big-woofer brigade. On the other hand, John Marks mailed me his new Christmas gem Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas, Volume Three [John Marks Records JMR 20]. The Model 5s displayed a rich and vibrant sound -- John's lush recording filled the room and was supremely smooth. The Model 5s are at home with classical as they are with rock, pop, folk and jazz.
I remember back to the beginning of the 1980s well. A Flock of Seagulls was beginning to inspire awful hairdos, the Clash's London Calling was now two years old but still my most-played LP, Madonna hadn't yet taken over the world, Reagan was muttering things about Star Wars, and I bought my first good stereo. The speakers were the PSB Avante -- a two-way bookshelf speaker from a very small Canadian company owned by some guy named Paul Barton. The salesman twisted my arm, and I bought this unknown brand for some $380 per pair. I loved them, listened to them for seven years, and my friends at the local hi-fi shop sold them for more than $400 when I traded them in.
Almost 20 years later the NSM Model 5 is about the same price, a fraction of the size, better built and with much better performance. The Model 5s are the real deal -- very good performers at an excellent price. If you have a budget closer to a $1000, you can do better (except for, perhaps, the soundstaging) -- there are less constraints designing at that price point. NSM, for example, has the nice-sounding Model 10s at $895 per pair that are just breaking in as I write this. As a result, I can't imagine a serious audiophile trading in his expensive monitors and using the Model 5s to form the basis for his main system. However, for the cash-strapped music lover, the Model 5s are an excellent choice -- at the moment I can't think of better. And I can imagine them used in an absolutely killer system in a small apartment, office or dorm room. I could also see them do duty in a second system -- line them up with a good integrated amp and you're set to go. Home theater? You betcha -- NSM sells subwoofers too. The Model 5s would be also be ideal for mobile recording. The possibilities abound. Heck, these things throw such an impressive soundstage(!), you may want to try them just for fun. Whatever your reason, if you're serious about budget buying, place the NSM Model 5 speakers at the top of your list.
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