NSM Model 10S Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
It would seem that over the past two years Ive made finding the ideal bookshelf speaker more or less a mission in my life. Why do I have such an interest in these speakers? Simple. A well-designed small speaker is usually compact, easy to place in a room, and can achieve stunning performance at a very down-to-earth price. Bookshelf speakers cant do it all, mind you. Usually you have to sacrifice deep bass and large-scale dynamics due to their size. However, the performance gains in things like clarity, detail and imaging compared to similarly priced floorstanding speakers can be quite startling and can more than offset the disadvantages.
Much to my surprise, while Ive been seeking to find the ultimate monitor, and going up the price ladder attempting to find it, Ive found a number of lower-priced gems that have so impressed me that Ive begun to rethink what can be accomplished with a budget-priced system. NSMs $385 Model 5, which I reviewed in January, was one of those impressive, low-priced beasts. The fact that it nearly fits in the palm of your hand seems amazing since it is surprisingly full-bodied, very well-balanced and can image like the best speakers Ive heard. Bass, although not necessarily comparable to that of a much larger speaker or even a larger bookshelf model, is surprisingly robust and fleshed out. And then there is the $179 Paradigm Atom. While Ive never formerly reviewed it, Ive heard it enough to know that it is really good too. Suffice it to say that what it does for under $200 per pair should be considered a miracle.
For those on a budget, speakers like the low-priced ones mentioned are a godsend that can launch a listener into the high end with a modest investment. However, serious audiophiles with a little more to spend will likely still want to opt for something that costs a little more and can offer a higher level of performance. While a few dollars can get you some very decent goods, more money can buy you something better. And by better I mean better bass, better clarity, better detail or countless other things that might be better in a particular. The $895 NSM Model 10S is one of those speakers that delivers something better.
The 10S is looks very similar to the Model 5, being a bit taller and deeper and just a bit wider -- 10" high by 5.5" wide by 6.5" deep. The cabinet is finished to the same standards as the Model 5s and is made of 1/2" MDF with internal cross-bracing. The cabinets small size and solid construction make it exceptionally inert. The 10S is finished with an attractive, unobtrusive matte-black finish, although wood veneer is a $100 option, and there is a detachable grille that spans the entire front panel. Compared to the Model 5, the 10S uses higher-quality binding posts that work a little better with big audiophile cables. The driver compliment is a 1" Morel MDT30 tweeter and 4.5" plastic-cone woofer by SEAS in cast magnesium frame. As with the Model 5, the Model 10S uses a first-order crossover and is not biwireable.
Frequency response is rated down to 60Hz, roughly the same as the 5. Sensitivity is rated by NSM as a lowish 82dB. However, it is offset with an easy impedance load -- NSM rates the 10S as a nominal 8-ohm load with a minimum of 6.6 ohms. Theyll need some juice to play loudly, but any modern amplifier of 50Wpc or so should suffice. NSM rates the Model 10S for use with amps up to 250 watts, but its doubtful anyone will need anything near that kind of power.
As with the Model 5, I placed the 10S in my reference system consisting of Theta digital components, the Blue Circle BC3 preamplifier and BC2 mono amplifiers, an API Power Wedge, and Nirvana Audio S-L series interconnects and speaker cables. Since the 10S is a small speaker, fairly high stands are necessary. I found 26" to be a minimum and 28" likely more suitable. Of course, this will all depend on your preferred listening height. Obviously, you can quite easily place them on bookshelves due to their small size. Besides my reference system, I also used the 10S in my living-room system with more affordably priced gear and a DVD player as source.
The 10S is a very small speaker that many novice audiophiles may pass by thinking its not big enough to deliver serious sound. But experienced eyes will note the attention to detail and the quality in its parts. As I found out, in a budget-based system or a reference rig, the 10S is equally suited.
My primary listening with the 10S came during a series of auditions of excellent bookshelf-type speakers ranging from the price of the Model 5, at just under $400, to the Shamrock Eire that retails for almost $3500. It is the qualities that the 10S shares with more expensive speakers that makes it a bargain in its price range.
First up, I compared the 10S against its little brother, the Model 5. The family sound was apparent, but the differences were easy to discern. The 10S sounds a tad cleaner in the midrange, with a more liquid quality. High frequencies through the Model 5 are slightly ragged in direct comparison to the 10Ss pristine clarity. Bass is comparable in terms of extension, but the 10S again sounds a little smoother and cleaner. Tonal balance, particularly with vocals, is dead-on with both speakers. Both speakers can also play much louder than their small size would suggest; however, the 10S, while not sounding all that much louder when cranked up, sounds cleaner and more in control. The Model 5, on the other hand, gets a little coarse. Imaging is comparable with both speakers and can be summed up in a word -- outstanding. The 10S takes almost every aspect of the 5 and steps it up some. Price-to-price comparison tells me that the 10S is worth the increase.
What came forth and held true from this initial comparison was that I found the 10S to be exceedingly smooth through the midrange and high frequencies and comparable to speakers costing well in excess of the $1000, and despite its small size, it has acceptable bass extension. Like its little brother, it does not sound lightweight in the least. No, it cannot produce thunderous bass like many other speakers; instead the 10S delivers a conservative amount of low-end grunt that will work well in small- to medium-sized rooms -- should you want more bass, NSM has subwoofers to deliver it. Finally, although the 10S can play a wide variety of music, I was drawn to its ability to reproduce vocals with uncanny realism. Therefore, I found myself listening to a large number of recording that place vocals at the forefront.
Jewels Spirit [Atlantic CD 82950] and Bruce Cockburns The Charity of Night [True North TNSD 0150] are recordings that I know exceedingly well. On some lower-priced speakers, the relatively dry sound of Jewels voice can become somewhat brittle and edgy. Although the problems of the recording still show, when Spirit is played through the 10S, there is no excess brightness or excessive sibilance like Ive heard through lesser speakers that can impart their own character (i.e., distortion) to the sound. Cockburns much deeper, closely miked voice can become overly resonant and chesty on some speakers, even very expensive ones. With the 10S, nothing extra is added or taken away. In the end, the 10S sounds very natural, and in some ways it is so smooth that I began to refer to it as tubelike!
Vocals arent the only thing a speaker should do well. Instruments like piano, guitar, drums had an impressive, realistic quality through the 10S and showed no excessive bloating, hollowness or resonance that plague many speakers under $1000. The 10S sounds tight and detailed -- in a word, accurate. I noticed that when played within its limits, the 10S has a distinct lack of coloration and boxiness. Perhaps the use of a very small cabinet limits the speakers bass extension, but its lack of resonance helps to eliminate other things.
This exceptionally pleasing nature allowed me to compare the 10S, without shame, to much more expensive speakers. First up, both Speaker Art Clef models, the Standard and Super priced at $1299 and $1599 respectively. The Clefs are musically pleasing, meaning they have a very smooth and full sound thats great for a wide variety of music. As well, they clean house in terms of bass extension and dynamics (they use 8" woofers). The 10S shares the Clefs well-known and highly regarded smooth, easygoing musicality that allows a listener to forget about all the details and play CD after CD, LP after LP. On the other hand, I found the 10S to be a tad more resolving than the Clef, with a little less bloat. No, the 10S could not match either Clefs bass extension or room-filling ability, but the 10S shows more detail, has a bit better clarity in the midrange and allows me to see a tad more clearly into the recording. I liked the high-frequency extension of the 10S a bit better than the standard Clefs (it uses a Vifa tweeter), but it was a tossup when compared against the Super Clefs Scan-Speak tweeter -- both sounded extended and smooth, without any hashiness or brightness.
The Cliffhanger Audio CHS-2 is my bookshelf reference at the $1500 price tag. While it is not a perfect loudspeaker per se, I find it to be a perfectly balanced loudspeaker for the money that delivers just the right amount of extension, detail and musicality. It may not be the best at any one thing, but it does almost everything exceptionally well, and in the end the whole becomes greater than the sum. The 10S is also a lot like that. It does sacrifice some bass extension and large-scale dynamics, but within its constraints it delivers very balanced, even performance that sounds as if you are listening to something costing a whole lot more. And like the CHS-2, it does the right things right -- a lack of bloating and coloration, smooth and extended high frequencies, and a lush, clean midrange.
In the end, the value in the price difference to the CHS-2 is apparent. It can play more loudly, has deeper and tighter bass and is a little more at home with aggressive rock, like Nirvanas In Utero [DGC DGCSD 24606] or The Tragically Hips Day For Night [MCA MCASD 11140]. This type of music, along with dance and techno, is not the small-boxed 10Ss forte. Instead, the 10S is a refined performer that, within its limits, delivers performance ideally suited for jazz, folk, classical, in addition to a good deal of pop and rock. One area where the 10S did edge out the CHS-2 was in terms of imaging. This is not surprising given that the 5 and 10S are some of the best Ive heard in this regard.
Finally, for an absolute test, I compared to the 10S to some heavy hitters in terms of their ability to be called "monitors" -- in other words, speakers that tell the truth about a recording. Shamrock Audios $3450 Eire and the $2495 TSM-SE from Merlin Music search every nook and cranny of a recording and bring everything into the spotlight (including bad components that may be nested in your system). The most subtle musical details to the ambiance cues that bring the music to life are rendered easily through these excellent speakers. Compared to the G or PG rating that I would classify many speakers that either filter and omit, the Eire and the TSM-SE get an X-rating -- they show everything. Thats not always a good thing, and sometimes you may prefer a little Vaseline on the lens, but I consider these thoroughbred monitors. When the components and the recordings are up to snuff, the ability to hear it all is revelatory. There are, of course, a plethora of audiophile recordings containing microscopic detail. I use these and another recording that I find to be one of the best pop/rock discs Ive come across. Blue Rodeos Five Days in July [WEA CD 93846] has a wonderful sense of space with lots of information within its layered tracks. While the 10S doesnt quite reach the level of detail of the Shamrock and Merlin speakers, it comes within a close enough distance. The fact that the 10S is under $1000 per pair speaks exceedingly well for its overall quality.
Dont let size fool you -- some good things really do come in small packages. The NSM Model 10S needs a bit of power to get going, but it is relatively easy to drive and is equally suited for use with modestly priced equipment and reference-level gear. Despite its small size, it is the type of speaker that you can build a very high-quality system around. I compared it mainly to speakers costing quite a bit more, not necessarily to give a price/performance perspective, but rather to bring to light the areas where the 10S approaches the performance of more expensive speakers. People who will identify with the 10S are those who appreciate speakers like ProAcs Tablette, Super Tablette and Response 1SC, as well as Celestions SL-600 and SL-700 and a handful of other diminutive high-quality speakers. These tiny speakers, when properly set up, do very big things within their limits and are high-end in every sense.
The 10S is especially well-suited for small- to medium-sized rooms, where it will reward the listener with an extremely neutral and revealing sound, wonderful high-frequency extension without a hint of hardness, and a liquidity in the midrange that allows vocals to soar. Furthermore, it is small and extremely easy to place and can cast a huge and vividly defined soundstage that competes with speakers at any cost. Bass is good for its size, but obviously wont shake any foundations. I will be playing with the 10S and an NSM subwoofer in the future, so stay tuned. No, the little 10S wont blow your roof off, but its exceptionally refined sound may raise your expectations of what can be achieved for a relatively modest price.
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