NEAR 10M II Loudspeakers
More so than other links of your audio chain, speakers demand subjective value judgments in areas that can't be classified as "right" or "wrong." Further complicating things are both room interactions and physical placement options. Speaker purchasing demands a careful evaluation of everything from matching equipment to décor considerations. Given any price point, there are a dizzying variety of options available to a speaker buyer.
Receiving the NEAR 10M II speakers and listening to them for a while really brought some of the trade-offs present in inexpensive speakers into sharp focus. I've recommended spending around $500 a pair on speakers to quite a few people. Budget less than that and there's no chance you'll get close to full-range output or high-volume capabilities. While small improvements keep coming as you head toward stratospheric prices, the jump in quality you get going from $200 to $500 is dramatic.
I picked up the 10M IIs one day after they were delivered to my workplace. Because I commuted by train at the time, I threw the box containing the pair of speakers over my shoulder and headed to the station. This proved to be a bad move. The compact 7"x9"x11" enclosure weighs in at 14 pounds each; put a pair in a heavy cardboard shipping box, and it started to wear on me after walking a few blocks. By the time I made it home I regretted my choice of delivery location.
As I pulled the speakers out of the shipping container, I was really struck by how small they are. I'm accustomed to thinking that no boxes this tiny could possibly satisfy because it would seem impossible to get real bass out of them. Well, the 10M II is +/-2dB from 48Hz to 20kHz, a remarkably tight tolerance for an inexpensive speaker. The bass goes as deep as any speaker in this price range, even if the enclosure is very small. I eyed the 5 1/4" woofer skeptically, found some stands, and plugged my speaker cable in. The binding posts were of excellent quality, again somewhat remarkably so for something at this price.
As is the norm with speakers I get, for the next few days the NEAR 10M IIs were tortured in ways I cannot fully reveal lest you think me a sadist. Since I had no problem coaxing out fairly high output levels with quite good bass, the volume kept creeping up during my tests. When I got to David Baerwald's Triage [A&M 75021-5392-2], the 10M II finally gave up. During playback of "HydraHead Octopus Blues," I heard a "crack," and the midrange was gone from the left speaker. Since the crossover between the woofer and the 1 1/8" tweeter (common to many of NEAR's speakers) is a low 1.8kHz, losing a woofer means most of the sound from that speaker was gone. I quickly lowered the volume and turned everything off while mentally estimating how much a replacement woofer was going to cost. After chilling out a bit and getting a soda, I fired the stack of gear back up and found the woofer was still toast. Since it was dead anyway, I pushed the cone around some to get a feel for what the suspension was like, while listening for damage. If you burn out a few woofers, you eventually get to where you can learn something about what part was the weak link through this sort of post-mortem exam. After pressing the cone in, I heard a "pop" before I got to the usual range of motion. Curious, I turned the system back on and found the music was back! I'm still not quite sure what I did, but I learned my lesson and kept better control over the remote during future listening. The 10M IIs were bruised, but they survived with no apparent damage after this brief realignment. Don't read too much into this little incident because I doubt any sane person would put these speakers through this sort of abuse.
After things were broken in, I experimented a bit with the grilles. The speaker is a bit laid-back normally, and grille cloth usually attenuates the higher frequencies. Removing the grilles gave a bit more top-end action, which gave a better tonal balance in my system and room. I was a bit disappointed at the amount of cabinet noise from these speakers; if you tap on the big side panels, there's a fairly loud "ring." The more expensive NEAR speakers I've heard (the 15M and 50Me II) both effectively incorporate Tekna Sonic panels to reduce this sort of distortion. Owners of the 10M II might want to investigate using the Tekna Sonic or other cabinet-damping material to improve the speaker a bit.
In this corner...
While I could try and describe the overall sound quality of these speakers versus a more expensive reference, I thought it would be more fun to compare them with two other similarly priced speakers. Since I'm a fan of approximately $500 speakers, in my apartment are both B&W DM 602 and Magnepan MMG speakers. All three feature bass down to about 50Hz, but the rest of the specs vary wildly. I hooked everything up to my reference system at the time, using much more expensive gear to get a feel for the relative performance without limiting anything. The Rotel RCC-955AX, Lexicon DC-1, Warner Imaging VTE-401S, JPS Superconductor Interconnect, and DH Labs speaker cable were all involved.
The first thing that was obvious was the big sensitivity difference. The MMGs are 86dB efficient/4 ohms, the 10M IIs 88dB/4 ohms, and the 602's 90dB/8 ohms. Since most inexpensive gear is hard-pressed to handle either low impedance loads or the high power required for low-sensitivity speakers, the B&W speakers are the only ones really well suited for low-current amplifiers.
But if you're given the practically infinite power of the Warner Imaging amp, I discovered the maximum volume available wasn't related to the sensitivity. While I don't have any gear for measuring distortion on an absolute scale, I turned each speaker up until the playback became uncomfortable to me. The 10M IIs only made it up to 90dB. The larger B&Ws peaked at 98dB. Amazingly enough, the MMGs pushed out a solid 101dB. Sure, they were sucking several hundred watts to pull that off, but it was still impressive. Essentially, the maximum volume was proportional to the driver area on each speaker, which is no surprise. Note that if I'd have limited things by using a less powerful amplifier, the results would have been quite different.
After finding out what were safe volumes for each speaker, I settled at around 85dB and swapped among all three for a while. The overall tonal balance was very different for each model. The B&Ws had very forward vocals and more sizzle on high-frequency material like cymbals. Bass on the NEAR speakers was tighter and more tuneful, but the 602s seemed like they had more bass on many recordings because of the way the bottom-end rolled off. The Magnepan panels produced the most powerful bass, but it wasn't quite as tight as the little woofer on the NEARs. The MMGs had by far the most realistic vocals; the other speakers were really outclassed in this area. On the flip side, they were more laid-back than even the 10M IIs, perhaps too dull for some listeners who prefer a more aggressive treble. The imaging was best on the MMG, worst on the B&W, while the NEAR was in the middle.
There's no clear winner here, just different strengths for different tastes. The buyer who wants the best acoustic performance, soundstage, or highest output would lean toward the MMGs, but only if a big muscle amp and a room capable of housing the sizable panels were available. The NEAR speakers are very well balanced, without any glaring weakness, even with less expensive gear. B&W's DM 602 is the best suited of the three for low-powered systems where clear vocals are a priority and a somewhat hot treble isn't a problem.
I see the NEAR 10M II as being perfectly suited for the music lover who doesn't want to or can't sacrifice a lot of room for speakers, but can afford to spend more than what a normal set of tiny speakers costs. The bass and output capabilities are very impressive for something so small. Another possible application is use as rear speakers in a home-theater system. They have the same tweeter as that in the NEAR 50Me IIs I normally use, and I got terrific front-to-back integration when running some surround demos. I think NEAR's more expensive 15M II model is a better overall value, even at almost twice the price, but not everyone wants to spend so much or occupy that much room. For those looking for under-$500 speakers, the NEAR 10M II certainly deserves consideration. Just make sure you realize what the other options are because no inexpensive speaker is going to be right for everyone.
...Greg Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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