Stooping really low

A friend of mine is a serious audiophile: Wilson Audio Sixes (no puppy), Nagra pre/power solid-state combo, Art Audio Jota monoblocks, Krell's acrylic-cover CD/preamp, Krell KAV integrated, Hamilton Audio monitors, Rowland Concentra, NBS cabling, the works. K always pays full price. In return, the local dealer responds with truly superior service and support. This leads to repeat volunteer loans, both to obtain golden-eared feedback and to possibly squeeze a few more drops of performance gains from the resident system, heck, perhaps even make another sale.

Knowing K to be a critical admirer of certain Krell gear, said dealer recently dispatched a broken-in pair of $10,000 Krell LAT-2 monitors to her digs. Working on this review, I wanted the scoop. K didn't know anything about Wes Phillip's report - she doesn't read reviews. She simply quipped that the LAT-2s didn't work. (Her room's dimensions are exactly like mine - 13' x 19' x 10', another reason I made this inquiry.)

"Why not?" I needled to find out.

"No bass." Exactly what Wes Phillips had found when he stated that roll-off seemed to set in at 100Hz and drop off severely enough below 70Hz to eliminate the bottom two octaves.

So let me get this straight: For $10,000, your speakers will amputate Lady Music from the waist down. For $995, you can add robust output to 40Hz and roll down the blinds to see her calves, perhaps even occasionally glimpse her lithe ankles. You get the same hi-tech tweeter. You get cabinetry every bit as trick, dense and dead, with more finish options. You get?

I don't. Why so much money on unnecessary surgery to the music even if, perchance, our beloved Lady via the LATs had a more transparent complexion, airbrushed lips and designer do from the waist up?

What I do get is the SM6.9. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it isn't a bonafide audiophile speaker with ruler-flat response, the kind whose presentations usually don't move me. Perhaps the 6.9 is more of a music lover's device, one designed by a music lover who listens to music not just in the sweet spot and looks upon his hobby as a fun, juicy and passionate rather than serious and analytical affair.

Let's spin some CDs and find out.

Music makers

Take the 2000 release Tamally Maak by Amr Diab, a kind of Egyptian George Michael with a super-seductive voice and very sophisticated Pop tunes. "Senean" is up-tempo and propelled onwards by substantial synth and bass beats that provide the foundation pulse without which the entire tune would collapse.

The nOrhs conveyed the tune's innate step full of jounce and vigor as befits its youthful nouveau-disco vitality, each rapidly undulating spike on its cardiology bass monitor a very distinct black-on-white impact without any blunted gray zone fuzz or resonance aura. Never mind tame audiophile proprietary, this beast had the heart beat of a stompin' bronco!

For bouncy acoustic double bass, any track on Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing tribute album to Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt will do. The opener "Swingin' On the 'Ville" features a bass solo workout by Jon Burr that was rendered with the requisite bite and growl on low-down accents, with the elegantly ricocheting footwork of a dancing welterweight fighter when Frank Vignola chimed in on his banjo-timbered guitar, and with each descending note clearly intelligible, no dropouts or appreciable roll-off even in the bass' nether regions.

Mark's merry violin romps through his upper registers showed that the 6.9s are subtly warm, the tonal center of gravity slightly below half-mast to enhance richness by giving up that last iota of metallic shimmer on top. This richness is subtle and, because of that rigid chassis geometry, not at all at the expense of speed or rhythmic incisiveness. It's a crafty trick to pull off - to portray the meat on timbre's bones with just a whiff of extra depth and glow but entirely sidestep the slightly ponderous demeanor this usually entails.

For sheer emotive glory, there's nothing quite like Samuel Barber's transcendental "Adagio for Strings", and the Chandos release 8593 with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra under Yoav Talmi is a beaut. Sure, there's endless layering, clear delineation of individual strings in an ocean of strings vibrating with utmost emotional intensity, a nearly orgasmic arc of zipper-opening gravitas - but if your eyes don't turn moist, who cares about the audiophile trickery?

The little hairs on my nape stood up from the very first note. Hurray, my secret music muscle was still twitching. I was home-free now to notice all the soundstaging wizardry, no doubt helped by the awesome 24/192 resolution of the Birdland Audio Odeon-AG (review in August). The soundstage was positively gargantuan, hanging like Spiderman six stories up in the midst of Manhattan surrounded by skyscrapers. The only thing the nOrhs didn't do to the nth degree was the razor-edged image outlines, that last word in thereness palpability that would require a bit more top-end energy. Zero complaints in my book since pinpoint imaging is an audiophile artifact - but I'm still supposed to notice these things.

What the SM6.9s absolutely excelled at was scaling the slowly building crescendo of the main theme, to the extent that I reached for the volume control before the climax would clip my ears. The 6.9's dynamic fortitude is a thing of grown-up manliness quite beyond customary monitor wimp limitations. If you think this hyperbole, leash them to an amp as unrestrained as the Bel Canto Design eVo 200.4 in 360wpc bridged mode. Then call me a liar if you dare.

What we have in the nOrh SM6.9 is, in Doug Schneider's very appropriate SoundStage! review characterization, a "feisty" li'l un. It can boogie and party with very fit grown-ups, plays loud as the dickens, hangs tight when the going gets complex, portrays music with drive and excitement, casts a gigantic soundstage, errs on the side of timbral warmth and robustness and does bass like a Platinum of old.

On Susana Baca's new Espiritu Vivo, her mature voice was full-bodied and gutsy and, as by now expected, firmly grounded in the soil rather than enveloped by that tangible sense of air that certain tube amps and GigaHertz tweeters bestow. David Pinto's electric bass on the opening Lando reached rather scarily into terra firma, adding the requisite moody cast on this Afro-Peruvian tune.

Stretching into the opposite direction, Jessye Norman's priceless soprano scaled the heavens in Richard Strauss' "Spring" from Four Last Songs even at front-row levels to demonstrate the distortion-free refinement of that Viva tweeter. This is the kind of test that has you involuntarily tense up. Coloratura soprano at full tilt will give any but the stoutest tweeter a terrible enema, either through breakup or nasty ringing. Suffice to say that this ring radiator kept its composure even under extreme duress and proved why we continue to find it in very high-priced and "serious" efforts in the loudspeaker art.

The nOrh SM 6.9, on price alone, does not qualify for entry into these serious leagues. But one listen and you'll change your mind. These are very serious speakers well deserving of anyone's attention who has up to $3,000 to spend (hey, considering the Krells, one may even have to raise the bar). What's more, a purchase supports authentic craftsmen rather than CNC routers and helps keep alive a skilled artisan tradition. And if all that didn't twist your noodle enough, how about a plethora of designer colors including that lovely pale green with swirled white of my review pair?

The jury's out, not hangin' and not coming back - case closed!

Today's verdict is a no-brainer. Unless you didn't cotton onto their admittedly exotic looks, the nOrh SM6.9s are must-auditions for folks who value jump factor and excitement, rhythmic coherence and meatiness, tight bass and precision and on occasion like to crank their systems to rock-approved levels. Even in my 20' x 28' x 10' living room, these things filled the space without breaking a sweat. Expectedly, they lost some weight in the bass but that was easily fleshed out with a very gingerly applied below-40Hz boost from a Hsu VTF-2 sub.

Factor in the ridiculous price, and what's not to like?

You tell me - if you have experience with these speakers either from ownership or exposure at a friend's. Include your full name and email, and your comments will be added for posterity and the benefit of all right below this review. Send comments here.

To contact the manufacturer for more information on these or other models or a real marble version of the SM6.9, visit their website.

nOrh comments

Thank you very much for your review. I believe that it accurately describes the SM 6.9. One of the challenges that nOrh as a company has had is to be taken seriously when our prices are much lower than most other high-end loudspeaker companies. Reviews such as yours go a long way to building confidence in readers who would otherwise spend more money or purchase an inferior product.

The SM 6.9s was our first project after the nOrh 9.0s. While the nOrh 9.0 was our attempt to build the best two-way loudspeaker possible, the SM 6.9 was designed to come as close to the nOrh 9.0s as possible but cost less than $1,000. The nOrh 9.0s are real marble loudspeakers that use top-of-the-line Scanspeak drivers, real marble cabinets and silver wiring.

nOrh 9.0 in black marble, $3,000/pr

It was obvious that we could not build the loudspeaker from real marble and we could not use the Scanspeak drivers. Instead, we opted for a synthetic marble that we believe comes very close to capturing the look of real marble. The Vifa XT25TG30 tweeter and M18W0-09-08 are used here in place of the much more expensive Scanspeak drivers.

The XT25TG30 is showing up in a lot of loudspeakers these days. The XT25TG30 handles lots of power, never sounds harsh and doesn't fall apart on complex music as many metalic dome tweeters do. The tweeter is very good for creating a wide listening area and doesn't beam like some esoteric tweeter designs.

We used the XT tweeter long before it appeared in the Krell LAT1 and LAT2 loudspeakers. For us, using the XT was an appropriate compromise. It would be impossible to use a $250 tweeter, such as the Scanspeak Revelator 9900, in a loudspeaker selling for $995.00. While we admit that using the XT tweeter was a compromise in order to achieve a target price, we wonder why the same tweeter is appearing in loudspeakers costing upwards of $38,000.00. It is hard for us to believe that at these prices, those companies really need to cut costs on the components they choose.

Michael Barnes, president

Reader comments

From Alex Lam, on May 28, 12:40PM:

"You're damn right. The nOrh SM6.9s are simply superb. I pre-ordered mine when the SM 6.9s were just on paper, I powered them with the excellent nOrh ACA, the excellent Odyssey Stratos power amp, a nOrh CD-1 tubed CDP, and a pair of Monitor Audio ASW110 subwoofers, x-crossing @ 55Hz...

Man - I'm in sonic heaven."