June 2000Norwex B-2 Nisse Loudspeakers
by John Potis
"Be sure to try them on a bookshelf!" were Harald Aaslands last words to me upon shipping his Norwex B-2 Nisse bookshelf speakers for review. Was he serious? Do people actually buy bookshelf speakers and place them on bookshelves? What a novel concept that would be! Once I received and unboxed the 11-pounds-each speakers of modest dimensions (approximately 9"H x 7"W x 9"D), it seemed that Aasland was not kidding. Indeed, these speakers would fit on almost any bookshelf. OK, so they fit, but how would they sound there? I mean, most speakers don't take well to being placed against the wall. Hmmm.
The Norwex B-2 Nisse is a small two-way speaker sporting a 4.5" midrange/woofer and a 1" soft-dome tweeter (both of Scandinavian origin) in a 5.3 liter cabinet with a single rear port. Norwex specifies an 8-ohm impedance, 86dB sensitivity and a continuous power handling of 60 watts (with much greater peak capabilities, though Mr. Aasland has never tried to blow one up) and an amplifier power recommendation of between 60 and 250 watts. In-room frequency response is stated as 53Hz-20kHz (-3dB) with the -10dB point at 40Hz. Crossover is at 2.9kHz with first-order slopes (6dB/octave).
Honestly, right out of the box I was less than impressed with these speakers -- and you probably would be too. I was at work with no way to hear them, but for the price of $995 USD per pair , they didnt look like much. Each speaker was very light and had a relatively lively cabinet that resonated quite a bit with the knuckle-rap test. The black-lacquer finish was OK, but if I were going to buy a pair of the B-2s, Id opt for an optional wood finish. But then again, if these were destined for a bookshelf, they would do a slick disappearing act, so the black may actually be cool. The grille is nicely done and has a beveled inside edge to decrease defraction; clearly these speakers are intended to be played with the grilles on (or at least not suffer dramatically). For those wanting to put them on wall brackets, which are available from Norwex, there is a threaded insert built into the bottom of the speaker.
The B-2 bomber takes off
Once home, I wanted to place these speakers where I assumed they would sound best: out into the room. Mr. Aasland also suggested that the speakers be placed up high on at least 34.5" stands, which I did. I placed them about 32" out from the front wall and 36" and 44" from the left and right walls respectively. Once hooked up to my Classé 5 preamp, Classé CA-100 power amp, Sony DVP S500D DVD player feeding a Meridian 563 DAC connected via DH Labs- Silver Sonic T-14 speaker cables, BL-1 interconnect and D-75 digital coax, I settled down for a little listening.
Immediately I was struck by how easy the B-2s were to listen to. They were very smooth and just warm enough to be cozy. True, they didnt have deep bass, but they were so well balanced and their upper bass was so well defined that they didnt leave me craving more extension. As far as it went, the B-2's bass was surprisingly satisfying -- which pretty much sums up the speaker: satisfying. The upper bass/lower midrange region was free of the deleterious hump that many designers of small speakers design in to give the illusion of more bass. Treble performance from the B-2 was very good and a touch sweeter and smoother than that of my reference $1k monitor: the ACI Sapphire III. On the other hand, while the B-2's midrange transparency and detail were good, it was not outstanding in comparison to that of other more expensive monitors I had on hand or even in comparison to my Sapphires. In contrast, the B-2 has a very laid-back and somewhat distant midrange that, depending on the listening material could sound a little veiled. But the B-2 Nisse was more than musical enough to be quite satisfying and not so opaque as to be annoying. And if that sounds as though Im trying to make excuses for a bass-shy, less-than-crystalline speaker, let me assure you that this is not the case. It took no effort at all to truly enjoy the B-2 and the music. Aside from a very mild amount of excess energy in the treble as compared to the Sapphire, which gave some material a breathy quality, the B-2's errors were all of omission, and the midrange was surprisingly uncolored and natural.
Imaging was razor sharp and very easy to obtain. There was no need to get out the tape measure to position these speakers just so. In areas of specificity, depth and width, the B-2s proved every bit as good as my Silverline Sonatinas and much less fussy about set up. But still I was a little troubled when I looked at these tiny speakers that sell for $500 each. Hmmm.
Earlier I said that I placed the speakers out into the room where I assumed they would sound their best. Well, we all know what they say about assumptions! And as soon as I placed the speakers on a bookshelf, I knew my assumption was wrong because thats when the B-2s really took flight and lingering questions of value dissipated. Bass extension took a nose-dive; bass power increased, all the while managing not to become congested and boomy as you would expect when a speaker is placed so close to a wall or corner. The aforementioned excess of treble energy, slight as it was, completely disappeared as it was balanced by the newfound bass. The midrange did suffer a tiny bit, becoming a little more recessed, but this was more than offset by the gains in bass power and extension as well as the newly balanced treble.
Now I must make clear that while the speakers were placed on bookshelves, they do require some breathing room. Place them inside a bookcase and bury them with books and the bass suffers considerably, becoming one-noted and thumpy. And on bass-heavy material, these little bombshells will set your knickknacks dancing, vibrating and rattling. Just as experimenting with positioning within a room reaps great rewards, so does experimenting with the B-2s positioning on the bookshelf. But when the B-2 clicks, it gels into a speaker seemingly greater than the sum of its parts. Overall the speaker maintained that generally easy-to-listen-to-sound I had experienced with them placed out into the room -- albeit with much greater weight. Soundstage depth does suffer once the speakers are placed against the wall, but imaging specificity does not. Placed high on the wall with lots of space between them, the B-2s threw a huge soundstage with excellent instrumental and vocal outlines.
James Horners soundtrack to Casper [MCA MCAD 11240] is a great disc and really cast the B-2 Nisse in a great light. The opening drum whacks on "No Sign Of Ghosts" have been known to turn some floorstanding speakers to jelly. Not so with the Norwex B-2 Nisse. The power and even the bass detail that the B-2 was able to generate were astounding -- really. I could hear as well as feel the ripples of reverberated bass. I was also able to advance the volume control beyond the normal listening position without causing the tiny little woofer to misbehave in any way. Eventually the speaker did compress some, but overall bass performance was still very good from such a small speaker and driver. I guarantee that your friends will be looking around for the subwoofer. Once the music lightened up and started kickin', so did the B-2s, which had no trouble keeping up as they showed good rhythm and pace.
The only time I was really given any reason for pause was on female vocals. For example, Patricia Barber on Café Blue [Premonition PREM-737-2] sounded just a little bit thin, owing, I suppose, to the slightly recessed midrange I mentioned. Barber's voice was missing some of that oozing sensuousness Ive heard with other speakers. But at the same time, a listening partner had to shrug his shoulders and say, "So they are not perfect; they still sound very good." And indeed he was right. This imperfection was not enough to detract significantly from the listening experience. Once again, the speaker just proved entirely listenable.
Orffs Carmina Burana [RCA Red Seal 09026-61673-2] performed by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra proved too much for the little speaker on its own -- no surprise there. It just couldn't reproduce the bombastic piece in all its glory. So I cheated and inserted a Velodyne ULD-15 subwoofer. High-passed at 85Hz, the little speakers were freed up of the burden of bass reproduction and just took off again. Hakan Hagegards baritone vocals sounded spectacular -- rich, full and suave. Sylvia McNairs solos could only be described as lush and velvety sweet. The pieces final track, "O Fortuna," showed that the tweeters performance is a trade-off when compared to that of the ACI Sapphire III. Choral sibilants were tamed by the smoother treble of the B-2, but by doing so some of the reverberated sound was also reduced, lessening the perceived sense of space surrounding the chorus. With the Sapphire III, there was more perception of space, but the vocal sibilants were harder and more irritating.
In addition to the deep bass, the sense of space exploded and the soundstage just opened wide with the addition of the subwoofer. Simply put, everything was better with the sub in use. Perspective was still on the distant side, which will appeal to many who are tired of having music thrust into their faces. Keep in mind also that the addition of a subwoofer pretty much necessitates that the speakers have good boundary support in order for the sub to match well with the speakers at the crossover point. In the case of the Velodyne sub, with the 85Hz point of intersection, when the speakers were out in the room, they sounded decidedly thin in the area of the midbass. Moving the speakers against the wall fully fleshed out bass guitars and tom-toms, and together the sub/speaker combination had real rhythm and drive. Danny Gatons Crusin' Deuces [Elektra 9 61465-2] made things difficult for me as I cant tap my feet and type at the same time! "Thirteen Women" sounded absolutely as good as Ive ever heard it; guitars were clean, bass guitar was full and powerful, and the vocals were immaculately etched between the speakers. Midrange resolution was good enough on "It Doesnt Matter" to reveal the slight cupped-hands coloration on the vocals that is part of the recording, but the slapped bass sounded spectacular. Cymbals and percussion are recorded a little on the hot side and were thankfully less splashy and irritating over the B-2s than they can sound on the Sapphire IIIs and a lot of other speakers.
As a stand-mounted monitor, the Norwex B-2 Nisse runs into some mighty stiff competition from the likes of speakers such as the ACI Sapphire III, the PSB Stratus Mini and the Sonus Faber Concertino -- all of which have a more detailed midrange, better transparency and more bass extension. But the B-2s have a laid-back musicality about them that cannot be denied. At worst, I would characterize the B-2 as a serious listeners casual speaker. Even if you cant quite hear into the music as some other monitors will allow, you are not prevented from the music getting into you.
Once optimally placed on a bookshelf, however, the B-2 Nisse speakers become as physically invisible as they are sonically formidable, and I cannot think of any speaker that offers them competition in such placement. With a soothingly warm and sweet sound accentuated by a subjectively robust bass, these are a music-lover's dream speaker -- a speaker that can be tucked away as unobtrusively as possible (short of sticking them in a closet!) and still fill a room with balanced, clean and satisfying music. Further, while any speaker will benefit from excellent electronics in front of them, I would judge the B-2 very kind to less expensive gear. For a real killer system that remains physically inconspicuous, combine the B-2s with something like the tiny Sunfire Jr. subwoofer or the Norwex SW-1 Troll passive sub (which I haven't heard) and have your cake and eat it too.
While the Norwex B-2 Nisse may not be every audiophiles nectar of the Gods, I suspect that people who put the music before their equipment may find them their cup of tea. And I still recommend the B-2 highly for audiophiles looking for a speaker for the bedroom or den. Just remember to try them on a bookshelf!
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