Review: N H T SB-3 Monitor

Category: Speakers

BACKGROUND: I've been at this hobby for about 4 years. My first speakers were NHT SuperOne Xu monitors, which I purchased at the local hifi store. At the store, I compared the SuperOnes with Klipsch KSB 3.1 and Paradigm Mini-Monitor. I liked the SuperOnes because of their clear midrange and tight bass. I enjoyed the SuperOnes at home in my 2-channel "home theater" setup, but after a while I wanted to try something different. I purchased a pair of KEF Cresta 2 speakers online (because of the great reviews) and I gave them a try for about a week. The Cresta is a good speaker, but I decided I really preferred the SuperOnes. The SuperOnes were smoother and more precise, the Crestas were more dynamic and somewhat forward. I sold the Crestas. Eventually I set up a 2-channel audio system in my bedroom, so I bought a pair of Polk RT25i speakers for the "home theater" system. (I had planned to buy Paradigm Titan speakers at the local hifi store, but they were out of stock. I wanted a 2nd pair of speakers right away, so I purchased the Polks at the local Circuit City.) The RT25i is a nice speaker and a very good value. Based on my positive impressions of the RT25i, I purchased a pair of RT35i speakers and a CS245i center channel speaker, to expand the home theater system. This gave me the opportunity to audition the SuperOne, RT25i and RT35i in my 2-channel bedroom system. The room size is roughly 12' x 12' with a sloped ceiling, and I listen mostly to vocals, country and jazz, at low to medium volume. I initially liked the RT25i better than the SuperOne, because the Polk is slightly more dynamic and sounds good at low volume. I also liked the RT35i because of the deeper bass and bigger sound, but to me it lacked "presence" for music. After listening over time to these 3 sets of speakers, I decided I still preferred the SuperOnes overall. The SuperOnes do have weaknesses: they require more power to drive, they sound a little lifeless at low volume, they sound "hard" at higher volume, they lack deep bass, and they don't sound big -- that is, they don't "fill the room" with effortless sound. However, at medium volume there is something "right" about the SuperOnes: they are balanced and coherent, smooth yet detailed, and the bass they do have is tight and tuneful. So, I decided that I was looking for a speaker that possesses the good qualities of the SuperOne, plus (in order of priority): deeper bass, bigger sound, and more dynamics at low volume. My budget was $700 max for a new (or used) pair of monitor size speakers. At the local hifi store, I briefly compared NHT SB2 with Klipsch SB2 and B&W DM303. The NHT was smooth and clear (perhaps a little laid back compared to my SuperOnes?); the Klipsch was too forward for my taste; the B&W was clear but did not seem as balanced as the NHT. I also listened to the NHT ST4 tower speaker, which sounded (not surprisingly) like the NHT SB2 will more bass. I was impressed how much that deeper bass adds to the overall musical experience. Unfortunately, the store did not carry the NHT SB3 model. I intended to audition more speakers (Energy, Acoustic Energy, PSB) at stores further away, but then I came across an almost-new pair of NHT SB3's at Audiogon, and I decided to put in an offer. My offer was accepted, and the SB3's arrived about a week later nicely packaged in their original boxes.

NHT SB3 REVIEW: The SB3 is a gorgeous speaker, and looks very classy in the piano black finish. The SB3 is very solid and well built. The physical dimensions of the SB3 (13"x8"x10") are "just right" for my room size -- not too big, not too small. On the back of the speaker, I was surprised to find the binding posts near the TOP of the enclosure. Perhaps this is because the woofer is located on top, above the tweeter. Fortunately, my speaker cables are long enough to make it that extra distance.

My impression when first listening to the SB3 (which were not yet broken in) is how different they sound from the SuperOne Xu. The sound was fuller (deeper bass), the music seemed to appear from a "blacker" background, and vocals were slightly recessed behind the speakers. I was initially somewhat disappointed about the "recessed vocals" effect. I quickly discovered, however, that toeing the speakers in toward the listening position (the speakers were initially firing straight-ahead like my SuperOnes), and increasing the volume slightly, brought the vocals right back where I like them. With the SB3 I have to turn up the volume more (they seem slightly less efficient than the SuperOnes), but the music does not turn harsh in any way with the increased volume -- it just gets louder. The highs are there, but they don't stand out from the rest of the frequency spectrum. I initially wondered if the highs are "rolled off" on the SB3, but I don't think that's the case. I still hear lots of detail on the SB3, even more than on the SuperOne. I'm not sure if the right word is "smooth", "sweet", or "refined", but in my system the SB3 is nicely balanced from top-to-bottom, offers nearly full range performance, and are pleasantly non-fatiguing even at higher volume.

Compared with the Polk RT35i: The SB3 has a clearer midrange (easier to hear separate voices singing in harmony), and the bass is slightly more extended and punchy. The SB3 requires more power. Compared to NHT SuperOne Xu: The SB3 seems slightly more laid back, but more refined, and the bass is MUCH more extended. Piano is much more realistic on the SB3 than the other two speakers. In conclusion, I got exactly what I wanted with the SB3, and then some: deeper bass, bigger sound, more dynamics at low volume, a clearer midrange and more refined highs. The SB3 is a fantastic speaker and a great value -- highly recommended!

Associated gear
- Audio Analogue Puccini (40 Watts) integrated amp
- CAL DX-2 CD player
- Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects
- Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cable
- Lovan Affiniti 24" speaker stands
- DIY 3-shelf Flexi-Rack

Similar products
NHT SuperOne Xu, Polk RT25i and RT35i
My wife got me a pair for a second system. At times, I have subbed them into the main system instead of the usual Vandersteens and do not feel disappointed. They are a wonderful little monitor-makes me wonder what a big brother might do. They now have "temporary" residence in my daughters apartment, we'll see if I ever get them back-she loves them too.