I drove an hour and a half back to my former home town of Canton, Ohio to listen to the NHT Classic 3's for potential use in my planned 7.1 home theatre system since the dealer locator said Audio Corner is an official dealer. Well, I knew where Audio Corner was. I've been there before. Well, I guess I should have called because they're out of business. So much for listening to NHT that day....
I went instead to the only other place I know in Belden Village (Audio Visions) since I was already there to see what their current lines are. They carry B&W, Martin Logan and Definitive Technology. I talked with the store manager and he seems like a really nice guy. We stayed there an hour after closing running a Tori Amos track I brought with me through 5 varying B&W systems plus a set of $5500 Martin Logans for comparison purposes. I'm used to listening to Carver AL-III planar/ribbon speakers biamped through custom active crossover network (now my music only room setup), so of course that is the basis of comparison I judged by. The Carvers are good to about 27Hz and I have a sub to augment that, when neccessary (not too often with music only).
As I described in another thread, bookshelf style monitors are probably the best fit for my planned theatre room given the bookcases in the front of the room which front a perfect area for a 100" ceiling drop-down screen. So we stuck mostly to the bookshelf monitors, but threw in a pair of Martin Logans and a set of 803S floor-standing speakers as well.
I used Tori Amos' "A Sorta Fairy Tale" track from her album Scarlett's Walk as it's a good recording with lots of different instruments from deep bass to the Bosendorfer Grand to guitar and other percussion instruments plus I'm intimately familiar with almost all her work and know the sound of her voice on my Carvers without having to think twice and any speaker that cannot reproduce her voice realistically is going to fail my test as she is bar none my favorite artist and most of her albums have been well recorded (save Venus & Choirgirl, which are poorly compressed and sound somewhat foggy). And in fact, Tori's voice proved to be the easy comparison factor on all the speakers in question.
First off, the 605, which is the closest priced to the NHT Classic 3's I planned to audition originally. Its bass output was reasonably impressive for a small speaker, but that's about the only thing positive I can say about it. Tori's voice sounded thin and well, speaker-like for lack of a better term. I could instantly tell her voice was running through a speaker and one that strangled the sweetness right out of her voice and gave it a mechanical quality of sorts. I didn't want to hear any more.
The manager got a pair of $1500 705s and there was a noticeable improvement in the reproduction of instruments and imaging and a bit more bass, but Tori's voice while now less mechanical sounding, now sounded almost nasal in character! It's like some kind of grainy hash, almost like she had a sore throat that day and was slightly froggy. This is not the sweet beautiful voice I was used to hearing. At this point, It's occurring to me that perhaps more conventional piston-action drivers simply aren't going to convey what I'm looking for. I was also concerned about bang for the buck because I've heard the PSB Stratus Gold before and for only a little more than the 705, it does a better job all over the entire frequency spectrum, including Tori's voice and has full range bass. It doesn't really fit in my room, though.
As there were a pair of Martin Logans in the room, I asked if we could hear the track on those--not that I was terribly interested in Martin Logan from when I compared it against Carver, Magnepan and Apogee 10+ years ago and ML struck me as the least impressive sounding of the bunch and very nebulous, murky imaging, but who knows what progress 10 years might have brought? I didn't even bother asking what the model number was after I heard the track on them. Tori's voice sounded notably better on them, but the other instruments had lost most of their precision directionality and the whole presentation seemed like a big foggy nebula with instruments dangling like they had been decomposed into a mist and spread around the front of the room. I don't quite get that because Magnepans have a huge surface area to their drivers and yet they sound VERY sweet to my ears. If it weren't for their limited dynamic range and huge floor space requirements, I might have gone Magnepan ten years ago instead of Carver Amazing, which are slightly brighter, but can play dynamic range and loud volumes with no strain, providing they have enough power (deep bass was a little sloppy with the passive crossover, but an active one with a lower Q has improved that to a satisfying degree with minimal cost compared to the alternatives as a $12,000 pair of Vonschweikerts were the only speaker I auditioned at the time that I liked better than the AL-IIIs and then it was mostly in the bass region, but the mid-range was comparable at that point).
Anyway, the manager wasn't about to give up after I voiced my mid-range concerns and he pointed out the Carvers retailed for $2000 a pair back when I bought them, so I needed a price-range comparable speaker to listen to. I'm already thinking I came in for home-theatre speakers and all the sudden I'm looking for speakers that can equal my music system...remember I'm thinking I need 7 speakers plus a sub here, not 2.
He connected a pair of 805s ($2500/pr
) and we ran the same track through it. Bingo! FINALLY, a pair of B&Ws actually portrayed Tori's voice in a believable manner. Imaging was a bit more subdued and lacked the rock-solid presence of my Carvers (which eerily sound like the musicians are in the room with me) and bass is simply not comparable given the Carvers have lower extension than most of the B&W range, but at least tonal harmonics were now right on the money. Tori sounded like Tori again! Instruments were clear, distinct and believable in character. I could live with this speaker, providing I had a good matching sub to fill out the bottom octave and a half or so.
What's troubling, though is the price range when I need 7 speakers and a sub (there are matching surround and center channel speakers for around $1100 each). That brings the total system cost (barring any discounts for a moment) to around $8000 + whatever sub I go with. That still leaves the projector and screen to contend with and if I go with the Panasonic 720P LCD model I've been looking at and a 100" manual pull-down screen, that adds another $1800-2000 or so on top of that, bringing the total system cost to over $11,000, which is about twice what I originally was budgeting for.
I drew a sketch of my room for the manager and he thinks the one rear side-wall (due to a half-bathroom off the back 1/3 of the room) is too close to where the rear left channel would go, causing unwanted coloration from near-wall reflections on that side and so he thinks the room is better suited to 6.1. Plus he said he doesn't like any of the 7.1 matrixed effects used with 5.1 material from any processor he's heard (including the Yamaha I have) except from Lexicon. I have yet to hear 7.1 in action, but I do know my long, narrow room is going to sound a little weird without some rear fill, given half the room is behind the listening couch (compared to my old home setup where the couch was right by the rear wall and so 5.1 was the only real option, but flyover effects never really went way behind me; they just seemed to disappear as they went over my head).
Personally, I think the wall thing could be overcome with a wall-mount that extends the speaker away from the side wall (the ideal location is the rear wall, x amount of feet from the side walls, but seeing the one side-wall is extended to that location, mounting at the back-side should work reasonably well, with the other side mounted on the rear wall, extended outward from it to line up with the side-wall speaker. B&W's surround speakers look as though they are made to be flush-wall mounted or close to it, so maybe that's simply not a good combination there. Using 6.1 instead, though would save me $1100 off the total system cost.
I suppose I could buy 4 speakers for now (use a phantom center and no rear surrounds) and add them later to reduce the system cost to make this system a bit more feasible, but overall, I'm thinking I should probably audition some other competing brands first and see if the old axiom of "sound as good as speakers costing 2-3x as much" might hold true against B&W's range as anything less than 805s from them is sonically unacceptable to me due to the mid-range coloration I was hearing.
I believe there's an NHT and PSB dealer near Cleveland so it looks like I should plan for another road trip next week and see how their bookshelf systems compare.