Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

One of my first memories of wetting my feet in this hobby involved speakers made by Now Hear This (now called NHT), founded in 1987. This was the early 1990s, and I was in my teens -- but I had a driver’s license, and loved hitting Ottawa’s strip of audio stores. These were the days when bricks-and-mortar audio shops abounded, and this single street in Ottawa had no fewer than five -- or six, if you counted the big-box electronics store.

At the end of the strip was Treble Clef. One day I wandered in and noticed a pair of minimonitors finished in shiny piano-black lacquer -- still rare in those days -- hooked up to Parasound electronics. If memory serves, they were NHT SuperOnes. I was struck by these little speakers’ speed and dynamics -- they sound so fast, I thought. I don’t recall any other specifics from that day; that I remember even this much means that the NHTs made a strong impression on me. But after that, I never heard another NHT speaker.

NHT

Until recently, when a pair of NHT’s C 3 Carbon Fiber bookshelf speakers ($1399.98/pair, all prices USD) found their way into my listening room. It’s an upgraded version of their Classic Three, introduced in 2005 and currently selling as the C 3 ($1249.98/pair). Since my visit to Treble Clef almost 30 years ago, NHT has moved online to sell only factory direct. NHT has always prided itself on offering value-oriented, high-performance audio products; when I received the C 3 Carbon Fibers, I hoped they’d continue that trend.

Description

At 13.75”H x 7.5”W x 10.125”D and 16 pounds, the NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber is a bookshelf speaker of average size. Aside from the top half of the speaker, where two big, triangular bevels are cut out of the front corners, giving cabinet a somewhat tapered look, the C 3 is a well-finished rectangular box -- the fit’n’finish were immaculate, with no visible joins.

But not everything about the C 3 is typical of a minimonitor. First is the really slick carbon-fiber finish, which, as far as I know, is the main and perhaps only difference between the C 3 Carbon Fiber and the regular C 3, which has a gloss-black finish and is said to sound the same. The speaker seems to have a wooden cabinet clad in a skin of carbon fiber, this in turn covered with a high-gloss coat of polyurethane. It’s quite nice to look at.

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More important, the C 3 Carbon Fiber is that rare thing in bookshelf speakers: a true three-way minimonitor. Its three drivers are all made of aluminum: a 1” dome tweeter, a 2” dome midrange, and a 6.5” woofer. Only the woofer is black; the other two are raw aluminum. Most minimonitors are two-ways with a tweeter and a midrange-bass driver, and the few that have dedicated midrange drivers mostly have cones, almost never domes. Also worth mentioning is that, like all NHT speakers, the C 3 Carbon Fiber has a sealed cabinet, which again departs from the bookshelf norm -- most such speakers are ported, to boost the bass output and increase their overall sensitivity. But its sealed box doesn’t seem to negatively affect the C 3’s specifications -- the speaker’s claimed frequency range is 55Hz-20kHz, its sensitivity is 87dB/2.83Vm, and its nominal impedance is 6 ohms.

On the rear panel is a single pair of upward-angled five-way binding posts, and two threaded inserts that can be used to mount the speaker on a wall. For $75/pair, NHT also sells adjustable wall-mount brackets designed to work with all bookshelf models in the C Series. The C 3 Carbon Fiber is warranted for five years.

NHT

NHT complements the C 3 Carbon Fiber (or C 3) with the M 7 three-way center channel ($1049.99/each); the C 1 two-way bookshelf ($619.98/pair), which can be used as a surround speaker; and the CS 10 subwoofer ($874.99 each). But the Carbon Fiber finish is found only on -- you guessed it -- the C 3 Carbon Fiber.

Setup

The C 3 Carbon Fibers came very well packed, each speaker and its grille cradled in high-density Styrofoam in their own box, and both boxes packed inside a bigger box and accompanied by an instruction manual. The grilles are not magnetically attached, but the mounting holes discreetly blend right in to the surface of the baffle.

I placed the C 3s atop the 25”-high stands I use with my reference minimonitors, Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2s, and placed them in the positions speakers usually occupy in my listening room: with their rear panels 19” from the front wall, 9’ apart, and 9’ from my listening seat. After experimenting with toe-in/out, I settled on my usual 15° of toe-in. My relatively small (15’L x 12’W), dedicated listening room is treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points and on the long wall behind the speakers.

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Given the C 3’s price, I used my trusty NAD C 316BEE V2 integrated amplifier ($399) instead of my McIntosh Laboratory C47 preamplifier and MC302 power amplifier, which together sell for more than ten grand. The source was a Bluesound Node streamer and its internal DAC, connected to the NAD’s unbalanced line-level inputs (RCA), the NAD in turn driving the NHTs with homemade speaker cables with conductors of 12-gauge, oxygen-free copper and terminated with locking banana plugs. The Node served as a Roon endpoint, with Roon’s Remote app installed on my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 controlling the Roon application installed on a Windows 10 laptop connected via Ethernet to my home network and playing music streamed from Tidal, as well as CDs ripped and stored as FLAC files on a NAS device.

Sound

I cued up a well-recorded rock track that produces quick transients through the right speakers -- “So Much to Say,” from the Dave Matthews Band’s Crash (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, RCA). The strummed acoustic guitar at the beginning, just left of center, was reproduced by the C 3 Carbon Fibers with laser-like precision, no detail masked. As in my memory of those first NHTs I heard back in the 1990s, the first aspects of the C 3’s sound that commanded my attention in 2020 were its speed and dynamics. There was also pinpoint imaging -- each string flicked by Matthews’s quick fingers appeared as an aural image with clearly delineated edges in a space between and behind the speakers.

Equally impressive was the C 3s’ reproduction of Matthews’s voice, dead center above and behind the speakers. His voice was transparent, with no hint of cabinet colorations -- a clear, small image precisely chiseled out of thin air. But when the bass from the drum kit drops 45 seconds in, what I heard was not the last word in roundness, fullness, and weight.

However, the C 3 Carbon Fiber made up for this shortcoming with its speed and attack -- this was one quick- and nimble-sounding speaker. Perhaps aided by the C 3’s sealed cabinet, the leading-edge attacks of Carter Beauford’s kick and snare drums were snappy, and the speaker’s recovery was lightning-fast, easily keeping up with this fast, rhythmic track. I measured the C 3 Carbon Fibers’ in-room -3dB point with my calibrated miniDSP UMIK-1 microphone and got 33Hz -- a respectable result for a speaker with a specified frequency a response of 55Hz-20kHz.

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The NHT’s treble response sounded evenhanded -- the cymbal crash one minute into “So Much to Say” had nice extension and decay without calling attention to itself. The C 3 Carbon Fiber wasn’t the last word in treble delicacy and shimmer any more than it was in bass roundness, fullness, and weight, but I had nothing to complain about -- the sound was neither bright nor dull, but instead struck an ideally pleasing balance in the top octaves.

Next I listened to some women’s voices, beginning with Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s in “Georgia,” from her Room with a View (16/44.1 FLAC, Arista). Within the first few seconds of this track the NHTs had conveyed illusions of realism, air, and intimacy as Johnson’s voice floated above and behind the speakers, accompanied only by subtle acoustic guitar off to the left. Some speakers over-accentuate Johnson’s sibilants in this track, but the C 3 Carbon Fibers didn’t. At 0:24, when the bass guitar and drums enter, I was again greeted with a speed and punch that imbued the sound with an exhilaratingly quick sense of rhythm. Cymbal crashes had good extension and delicacy, often imaging just inside the right speaker. Still, Johnson’s voice at times sounded a bit thin, with just a soupçon of glare.

I next turned my attention to “Dreams Come and Go,” from Colin James’s Hearts on Fire (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal). This slow, melodic track highlights James’s bluesy singing, at first accompanied by only a single acoustic guitar. The NHTs really impressed with their nimbly delicate reproduction of the guitar, which is mixed to the left of and behind James’s voice at center stage. I could really feel the leading-edge attack, the quick fingerwork, the subtle decays -- these speakers drew me in to every spiritedly plucked string. At 2:35 a second acoustic guitar enters, this one at center and mixed farther forward than the first -- through the NHTs, it had even more bite and sparkle. James’s voice was equally convincing, occupying its own distinct space above and in front of the guitars. The C 3 Carbon Fibers presented me with all the subtle, throaty emoting of his singing. The entire sound was engagingly relaxed, not in my face -- I could sink back in my chair and enjoy it.

Comparison

I compared the NHT C 3 Carbon Fibers ($1399.98/pair) with my Bowers & Wilkins 685 S1 minimonitors, which I now use in my home theater and which cost $600/pair when available. (Their current incarnation, the 606, costs $800/pair.) In terms of price, the 685 S1s seemed a more appropriate match for the NHTs than my reference B&W 705 S2s ($2500/pair). Using pink noise and an SPL meter, I matched the output levels of the two pairs of speakers.

The NHTs bested my old B&Ws in terms of transparency, imaging, focus, dynamic punch, and speed. However, the B&Ws sounded fuller in the bass, at times making the C 3 Carbon Fibers sound a bit lean -- a lack of fullness that sometimes crept into the midrange and the reproduction of voices. The B&Ws, though sounding a tad more boxy than the more transparent NHTs, also sounded smoother, fuller, and weightier, with less glare at high volumes. For example, their reproduction of the drum kit in the Dave Matthews Band’s “So Much to Say” made it obvious that the C 3s were on a higher level than the B&Ws in terms of dynamic contrast and speed. However, the B&Ws had more bass output, producing an overall rounder, weightier sound. Nor was there any contest in terms of imaging focus -- the C 3 Carbon Fibers carved out smaller, more precisely delineated aural images than the 685 S1s. Overall, though I missed a bit of the B&Ws’ bass, I preferred listening to the NHTs.

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I listened again to Colin James’s “Dreams Come and Go.” The greater realism and transparency of the C 3 Carbon Fibers reproduced the plucked acoustic guitar with more bite and sparkle than did the B&Ws. Still, when focusing on James’s voice at a healthy volume, I felt more weight and body from the B&Ws, and a smoother sound. Through the NHTs, James’s voice could occasionally sound lean.

I also listened to “Homesick,” from Dua Lipa’s Dua Lipa: Deluxe Edition (24/44.1 MQA FLAC unfolded to 24/88.2, Warner/Tidal). Again, no contest -- I preferred the NHTs for their resolution. I could also hear more of the ambient space in the recording through the C 3 Carbon Fibers, more subtle detail, including the reverb in the room. Lipa’s voice also sounded more transparent, more in the room, more focused through the NHTs. The piano in the opening sequence, imaged off to the right and well behind the speakers, sounded a bit boxy through the B&Ws -- the NHTs managed to conjure the plunks of the keys out of thin air with no hint that all of the sound was emanating from a pair of small wooden boxes.

Conclusion

The NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber is a solid performer in every way. I found its slick, modern appearance -- that carbon-fiber skin under a high-gloss finish -- quite beguiling. And how often do you find a three-way design in such a small package? Three well-designed, all-aluminum drivers mounted on a 13.75H” baffle is a rarity!

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The C 3 Carbon Fibers impressed me with their relatively neutral frequency range and laser-like imaging, along with good amounts of transparency and detail retrieval. Though they gave less than full weight in the bass, they made up for it with the tautness and punch of what bass they had, and their overall quick pace and rhythm -- these little beauties sounded fast and made my toes tap. They’ll also likely be more forgiving of near-wall placement than most ported designs.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with the C 3 Carbon Fibers -- their quick, precise sound rekindled fond memories of my first exposure to NHT speakers almost 30 years ago. If you’re in the market for a small, high-quality, stand-mounted minimonitor, and especially if your speakers must be placed close to wall boundaries, NHT’s C 3 Carbon Fiber should be on your short list.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 685 S1
  • Subwoofers -- SVS SB-4000 (2)
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
  • Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
  • Crossover -- Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A (between preamp and amp)
  • Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
  • Room-correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22D with Dirac Live 2.0 (between digital sources and DAC)
  • Digital sources -- Rotel RCD-991 CD player, Bluesound Node streamer, laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon
  • Analog source -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
  • Speaker cables -- homemade, with conductors of 12AWG oxygen-free copper and locking banana plugs
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics unbalanced (RCA), Monoprice Premier balanced (XLR)
  • Digital link -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber Loudspeakers
Price: $1399.98 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

NHT
533 Stone Road, Suite B
Benicia, CA 94510
Phone: (800) 648-9993 x700, (707) 747-0122
Fax: (707) 982-0004

E-mail: sales@nhthifi.com
Website: www.nhthifi.com