February 2002nOrh SM 6.9 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
The designer of the nOrh SM 6.9 loudspeakers took the phrase "think outside the box" literally. He obliterated the box and left it nowhere to be found. The only box youll see for these speakers is the one they are shipped in to your door. In turn, nOrh has created one of the most interesting reasonably priced speakers to enter my listening room in quite some time.
nOrh is based in Thailand and sells factory direct. Its obviously been a successful strategy because they offer an abundance of products at seemingly competitive prices (although competition is relative since Ive never seen other speakers that look even remotely like theirs). Glancing through the nOrh website, you can see numerous speaker designs in varying shapes and sizes and with differing materials -- from wood to real marble -- and all are very original-looking. Their products are created completely by hand, a factor that I believe adds to the mystique of it all. This is "audiophile esoterica," a group my much-beloved Blue Circle BC2 mono amps and BC3000 preamp belong to. At a price point dominated by boring rectangular boxes, the nOrh SM 6.9s are a welcome sight.
The $995 USD SM 6.9 is part of nOrh's five-speaker "synthetic marble" series (the SM 5.1, 6.1, mini 9.0 and 9.0 are the others). The company used synthetic marble to cut costs compared to using the real thing. According to the company, the SM series achieves performance that is comparable to using real marble -- something that I just have to take their word on since Ive never heard a speaker made from marble before.
The cabinet material is one thing, but its the shape that really sets the nOrh speakers apart. The synthetic marble is used to form a large horn shape cleverly ported out its rear. The company feels that this shape is ideal for a speaker cabinet.
Pictures really dont do the SM 6.9s justice because theyre a whole lot bigger than they look -- 14" tall and 19" long (make sure you have enough room to your back wall). Add to these the fact that each speaker weighs in at 56 pounds and you realize that this is a substantial product. Im still amazed that nOrh can ship something this size to your door for the price theyre asking. If the odd shape isnt enough, the SM 6.9 is available in a variety of colors including blue, red, pink, black, and white. Boring this company is not, and I must applaud them for offering the consumer such a unique product.
However, there are a few caveats. The speaker is handmade and looks it. Remove the grille and youll find that the outer edges on the front are unfinished. The same goes for the back side around the port. And when I looked at the two plugs that hold the grille pegs, I noticed that they had been drilled higher on one speaker than the other (I guess the company could argue that this was done deliberately to "speaker match" the grilles). The finish has minor imperfections throughout.
But, are you a "glass half empty" or a "glass half full" person? Depending on how you look at it, youll either think that the SM 6.9 lacks finesse, or youll find it to have plenty of character. If you look at my Blue Circle amps, youll see a higher level of finish quality (granted, they cost more than $6000), but youll see the same kind of quirky, oddball characteristics that signify that they are made by living, breathing people.
The drivers are by Vifa. Above the 6 1/2" woofer is the nifty-looking Vifa XT-series tweeter with what Vifa calls the Wave-guide center plug. This new tweeter is being used in some pretty pricey speakers -- like Krells $10,000 LAT-2 -- but its also appearing in more sane products like Polk Audios LSi7 and LSi9 speakers, which are priced in the same range as the SM 6.9. The crossover point is 2.5kHz, with a second-order filter on the woofer and a third-order filter on the tweeter.
The SM 6.9 is specd out as having a sensitivity of 87dB and a -3dB point of 38Hz. nOrh says the SM 6.9 can take a whompin amount of power -- 300 watts -- but I didnt come close to delivering that type of lethal load. Nothing on their website indicates impedance; however, my single-ended 75W BC2 amps didnt have any trouble with them, so they cant be too difficult to drive with amps of at least modest power.
The company gives a lot of speaker for the money. The only place they scrimped is with the warranty. Its only one year, with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee thats explained more fully on the website. Ive come to expect five years as being the industry standard, but I guess nOrh's warranty is one way to keep the price low.
System and setup
Carrying the SM 6.9 around takes some getting used to. It feels like a large, overweight dog that wants to jump out of your hands. After a while, I learned to put one hand around its belly and the other up its, um, port -- to keep it from leaping away.
If carrying the speakers around wasnt hard enough, further complications came about when I tried to place them atop my stands. My biggest gripe is the spacing of the little metal pegs that are the speakers feet -- theyre spaced too darn wide for most speaker stands. I tried to place the speakers on my usual Osiris stands and almost dropped them over one edge because the top plate of the stand needed to be an absolute minimum of 8" x 8". I quickly found out that most stands' tops arent that big. In hindsight, I looked back at the pictures of the speakers on nOrhs website and noted that all the stands they use have enormous top plates.
I settled for the stands made for the Revel Performa M20 speakers -- they have an extra-big area for the speakers to rest on. These are a little higher than desirable (24" or 26" would be the best height), but I adjusted my listening height to accommodate. If you get these speakers, I dont recommend using the M20 stands; find or build something more suitable instead.
I used the nOrhs with my usual gear: Blue Circle BC2 amps and BC3000 preamp, Theta Digital Prime II DAC and Basic transport. Initially I found some steeliness in the high frequencies, but that was largely a result of incompatibility with some speaker cables that were too up front in the highest frequencies. In the end, I found Nirvana wiring to work very well. It eliminated the bulk of that problem and proved a good match with the speakers' sound. If you buy these speakers, try a few cable brands to see if one will tune in the sound closest to your liking.
The speaker binding posts are toward the back and underneath. I thought that they would be a little tricky to get at, but they werent. The speakers hang far enough off the back of my stands to make access pretty simple.
People will likely want to walk up and pet the SM 6.9's curved back when it's perched on stands or a shelf because the speaker looks so darn cute just sitting there waiting to sing. But these same people will leap back when they hear the SM 6.9 start to play music. The SM 6.9s dont just dominate a room visually, they dominate it sonically too. The speakers deliver a big and gutsy sound with impressive drive and slam. Playing in my room, they were weighted toward the lower midrange and bass region, and this resulted in a hearty and robust presentation. The upper midrange is a little laid-back, but then the region above that is quite prominent. This is a feisty speaker, and even at low volume, its dynamic agility is apparent.
Im a big fan of Bruce Cockburn, but not so much of the percussion-heavy style he adopted in the late 80s and early 90s. His stylistic change is evident as you play the hits-based Anything Anytime Anywhere (Singles 1979-2002) [Rounder 613180]. Still, Cockburn's music during this period does amply display this speakers strengths. "The Trouble with Normal" sounds almost like an anthem, with heavy drums, deep bass guitar, and resonating vocals. People who like visceral impact will certainly like these nOrh speakers. Guitars are crisp and precise, and the collage of voices leaps from the speaker with conviction. Bass guitar is well defined and pushes forward in the mix even more than Im used to. The SM 6.9 is an exciting speaker to listen to, and it has the rhythm to swing through any type of music. Macy Grays hard-driving The Id [Sony 85200] needs good clarity and strong dynamic ability to sound its best, and these speakers delivered.
Cockburns closely miced vocals have tremendous presence that can charge a room when played through good speakers, but they can become chesty and cloudy-sounding on some speakers that are not well-behaved enough. The nOrhs carve out a good amount of detail, stay quite clear even during very loud passages, and almost seem to thrust the voice forward at you. On "Pacing the Cage," Cockburns voice is just there. The center image is not as miniscule in size as it is with the slightly more expensive Amphion Argon 2 speakers (review forthcoming) -- there is a bit of pull to either side -- but it is solid and full. The SM 6.9 is not a way-back-in-the-auditorium type of speaker. It offers third-row, "Im ready to be part of the action" sound. It's a little in your face, but in a good way.
Bass is surprisingly deep and articulate. "Diner," from David Lynchs moody Mulholland Drive soundtrack [Milan 35971] rumbled through my room with weight and detail. I cranked the speakers a bit, and the woofer did begin to shake itself fairly feverishly, but even at extreme volume levels with deep bass waves rolling out one after another the speakers held together nicely. On the other end of the spectrum, I played the a capella "Lloranda" from the same album at loud levels too. The female vocal was clear, well defined, and had just a wee bit of wispiness.
The prominence in the bass and lower midrange helped convey piano with authority. Alicia Keys' piano-dominated Songs in A Minor [j records 20002] rang through my room with richness and good clarity. I could ask for a little more tightness and articulation when compared to speakers priced two or three times the price, but whats delivered from the SM 6.9 is admirable.
Ani DiFrancos Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe Records RBR007] showed many similarities to the sound with the Cockburn disc, but it highlighted others as well. DiFrancos voice rang out with excellent clarity, but it did not have quite as much of a forward quality as Cockburns. This is what I mean by the sound being weighted to the lower frequencies. As well, there was an ever-so-slight hollowness to her voice (this is a cuppy sound similar to when you hold your hands around your mouth and speak). This was most apparent on the spoken-word track "Tiptoe." Its not that objectionable, but it is noticeable. Imaging on this disc again proved acceptable, with strong left-to-right placement and good, but not outstanding, depth.
I next cued up the soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin 90567-2]. This recording is primarily choral and orchestral tracks. Depending on the system, it can have an expansive presentation left to right and front to back. The collage of voices can have you feeling like youre in a huge hall. On a left-to-right plane, the speakers again imaged with good precision and then some, something Ill get to in a bit. Depth, however, proved to be a bit lacking when compared to what some other speakers do. Noting this, I again went back to "Tiptoe" and listened closely as Ani DiFranco deliberately moves forward in the stage as shes speaking. The solidity of her voice in the center is again strong with a wee bit of smear toward each speaker, as I noticed before, but most notable is the perception of her movement forward. It is cut by half compared to what can be heard on some speakers. I tried other recordings to explore this further and consistently found that although these speakers can display reasonable depth of stage, it is usually foreshortened a bit.
Playing The Mission also confirmed something I experienced with other discs -- the SM 6.9s appear to image left to right very well, but maybe excessively so. Although this depended on the recording to some extent, the speakers have a tendency to place a solid center image, and then also place very strong images that hover very close to and around each speaker -- more than Im used to hearing. With other speakers, the image stays at the speakers' boundaries and inside, rarely creeping beyond the speakers themselves. On the one hand, the nOrh SM 6.9 can sound a little unnatural if youre used to speakers that image within their boundaries. On the other hand, its hard to discount this type of lateral spread once youre accustomed to it, and Im certain that many listeners will love it.
Their own beat
It might seem a tad unfair to compare the SM 6.9s with speakers 25% and 100% more costly, but many elements of their performance are good enough for such comparison.
The $1265 Amphion Argon 2 and the $2000 Revel Performa M20 sound different from each other, but in the end both have much more in common sonically than they do with the SM 6.9. The Revel and the Amphion share a very flat, comparatively lean presentation, where nothing really jumps out at you. The stage can be huge and holographic providing its part of the recording. The width theyll show you may not match the SM 6.9's, but the depth of stage is greater (providing, again, its on the recording). With top-notch recordings, they each play with a little more refinement across the frequency band, particularly in the upper midrange. Essentially, theyll give you what you put in and there wont be many surprises if you know your software well. Boring? Perhaps -- particularly when you compare them to the SM 6.9.
The SM 6.9 has a visceral, up-front presentation that is more lively and energetic. They push things like voices and guitars more out front than either the Revel or the Amphion. The nOrhs breathe their own bit of life into the music and can play impressively loud with great dynamic prowess. Subjectively, they all extend about as deeply in the bass, but the nOrhs have the most wallop. The nOrhs also image in Technicolor. The sound is large and exciting, and it can be quite captivating.
I have a friend who is a jazz musician, and he hates most modestly priced audiophile speakers, feeling theyre too polite and lack the dynamic impact of real instruments. "Real instruments dont sound like that," he always says. Hes the kind of person who would like the nOrh speakers. No, the SM 6.9 is not the pinnacle of neutrality, but it does offer something in the way of musicality. I believe that this speaker strays from audiophile-approved accuracy (i.e., flat frequency response) and emphasizes some frequencies over others -- the lower midrange and bass, for example, which are quite prominent. But the fact that the speaker is not clinical in its delivery doesnt mean its not good. It is. What nOrh has achieved here works -- the sound is pleasing to the ear. I tend to like speakers more like those from Revel and Amphion, but time and time again I found myself captivated by the sound of this speaker. It definitely does something at this price that other speakers dont. This SM 6.9 is like driving a red car when everyone else has boring white.
The nOrh SM 6.9s may be one of the oddest-looking speakers available today, but I doubt very much that many will find them ugly. Theres something strangely endearing about the design. In your home they will become a talked-about centerpiece, as they are in mine. I display them proudly and wait for the comments.
And then there is the sound. To me, this is a speaker with a sonic signature that makes it decidedly different in all ways. But that sound will have strong appeal for some audiophiles and music lovers. Whether you like the SM 6.9 or not will depend on your sonic priorities. This speaker brings the live-instrument sound to your home better than many I know. And what makes this so appealing is perhaps the speakers' best feature -- the price. If these speakers were $2000 or $3000 or more -- which wouldnt be out of the question given the nature of the high-end-audio marketplace -- I would quibble more about the cosmetic imperfections and some of the sonic anomalies. The nOrh SM 6.9 is definitely not a me-too product, and at $995 per pair, it's something of a bargain.
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