Brent has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has reviewed thousands of audio products over the years. He has served as editor-in-chief of Home Theater and Home Entertainment magazines, contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision magazine, senior editor of Video magazine, and reviews editor of Windows Sources magazine, and he also worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He's now on staff at Wirecutter.
The new MS Tower demonstrates NHT's remarkable design consistency. It's a modern speaker, complete with Atmos-enabled top drivers; yet, from visual and engineering standpoints, it's quite similar to the Zero, one of the company's first speakers (and, incidentally, the very first speaker I ever wrote about, way back in 1989).
Like that original Zero and most of the other speakers NHT has created, the new Media Series speakers are compact designs built around small midrange/woofers and a one-inch tweeter, housed in enclosures with a nearly square cross-section and little adornment except for a gloss black finish. They exude an elemental visual appeal much like that of a Parsons table. Audio enthusiasts like this design because the narrow enclosures minimize the harmful effects of diffraction--sonic reflections off the corners of the enclosure that interfere with sounds coming from the drivers. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, narrow enclosures don't have less diffraction. What happens is that the corners off which the sound diffracts are closer to the drivers, so interference effects are shifted to higher, less audible frequencies.)
The top speaker in the line is the MS Tower ($699 each), which stands 39 inches high and incorporates three 5.25-inch drivers. It's a three-way design; the bottom two drivers are used as woofers, handling everything below about 500 Hz. The top 5.25-incher is used as a midrange driver and sits right below the one-inch aluminum dome tweeter. There's also a three-inch (although the specs say two-inch) paper-cone driver at the top, mounted at a 20-degree angle. This is the Atmos-enabled driver, designed to bounce sounds off the ceiling, and it has its own set of binding posts above the standard binding posts. Both speaker grilles are magnetically attached with no visible grommets or fasteners, so the speakers look good with or without them.
The MS Satellite bookshelf speaker ($299 each, shown right) measures 16.6 inches high; it's a two-way design that's more or less the MS Tower without the two lower woofers. The MS Center ($349, shown below) uses the same drivers, arranged in a horizontal configuration with the woofers very close together and the tweeter nestled between and below them.
I'll focus on the MS Towers for this review. I used them as front speakers, and I added the MS Center and two Atmos-enabled MS Satellites as the surrounds. All of these speakers are available through NHT's website, as well as various online and brick-and-mortar dealers.
One note before I dig in: I imagine some might consider NHT's implementation of Dolby's Atmos-enabled technology to be primitive, because many competing speakers use two-way Atmos sections with a separate woofer and tweeter. However, I would argue that a single driver is more consistent with Dolby's original intent. Because a driver's dispersion pattern starts to become directional at the wavelength of sound corresponding to the driver's size, the single three-inch driver will beam sound more tightly--and thus bounce sound off the ceiling more effectively--than a one-inch tweeter can. The driver's cone diameter is 2.5 inches, which means it will start to beam at about 5.4 kHz, whereas a one-inch tweeter starts to beam at about 13.5 kHz.
I used the MS Towers and the other Media Series speakers primarily with a Sony STR-ZA5000ES AV receiver, using as subwoofers NHT's own CS 10, the PSB SubSeries 450, and the Rogersound Lab Speedwoofer 10S. I also did stereo listening sessions comparing the MS Towers with my Revel Performa3 F206 speakers, using a Classé CP-800 preamp/DAC, a Classé CA-2300 stereo amp, and an Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher for blind, level-matched comparisons. I used Wireworld Eclipse 7 interconnect and speaker cables.
I found nothing difficult about the physical part of the system setup, in large part because the speakers are so compact and relatively light, and they have fairly broad, consistent dispersion. I did a lot of listening with the grilles off; however, with some material, I found the sound too bright, so I put the grilles on and left them on. I generally used a crossover point of 80 Hz, but I experimented with other settings, such as 60 Hz for the MS Towers, 110 Hz for the MS Center, etc. More on that in a bit.
Considering the MS Towers are Atmos-enabled, I felt obliged to play an Atmos soundtrack just to "see what the system could do." So I started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3D Blu-ray disc. The "money scene" in this movie is chapter 16, which chronicles the climactic battle between the titular turtles and their nemesis Shredder, including the turtles' efforts to keep a radio tower atop a tall building from falling over. The MS Towers, thanks partly to the Atmos-enabled drivers and partly to the broad horizontal dispersion of the main sections of the speakers, gave me a huge, theater-like sound. Atmos effects, such as the creaking of the tower as it starts to collapse, came through, although more as an ambient effect than an overhead sound. This is what I've experienced with other Atmos-enabled speakers. If you want a strong overhead sound--closer to what you'd hear in an Atmos-equipped commercial cinema--you have to use ceiling speakers.
Back to that big sound. Even when I cranked the film's volume up really loud, the sound from the Media Series speakers remained clear, without apparent distortion. In most ways, the system really did sound like a much larger home theater system, which to me is the real benefit of Atmos-enabled speakers. I also liked the voice reproduction, whether dialogue was coming from the MS Center or the MS Towers. I heard no cupped-hands coloration, no bloating of male (or turtle) voices, and no significant sibilance. I did hear just a subtle amount of treble boost in the dialogue, but it had the effect of making the dialogue a little easier to understand without making it sound unnatural.
The quality of the MS Towers and the other Media Series speakers came through with non-Atmos material, too, such as the Amazon stream of The Hateful Eight. The movie's soundtrack features a wide variety of voice tonalities and accents, along with mock-portentous orchestral swells and gunshots. I loved the way that the MS Center delivered the higher-pitched voices of Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Tim Roth without sibilance or shrillness and the deep voice of Michael Madsen without bloating or booming. The dynamics of the gunshots and the loudest shrieks of the string section didn't faze the system, either.
I used the system for about two months, as my main system for watching movies and TV shows, and I came away with the impression that it's a very good compact system for a media room. In most ways, it sounds like a bigger system, and its ability to reproduce dialogue naturally and clearly proved to be a huge plus.
How did the MS Towers fare with stereo music? Well, it depended on what I was playing.
Simpler music is often a tougher challenge for a speaker. With fewer instruments and voices for your ears to focus on, recordings with just a few elements sometimes reveal tonal colorations and soundstaging/imaging weakness more readily. But the simpler the music got, the more impressive the MS Towers sounded with it. A great example is the classic "Ulili E" from the CD Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii. The recording includes just two voices (Pahinui and bandmate Eddie Kamae), ukulele, smatterings of steel guitar, and slack key guitar providing the bass. Like many Hawaiian singers, Pahinui's voice is deep and smooth; many speakers make him sound bloated. The MS Towers, though, sounded just right on this recording, presenting all the instruments with a natural tonality and minimal coloration--despite the second-rate quality of the recording. (The version here is the same recording from a different album.)
Likewise for "Guitarreando" from La Vida Breve by the Hanser-McClellan Guitar Duo. Nylon-string classical guitars of the type used by this duo are a dead giveaway for substandard tweeters; they're supposed to sound clear but not bright, and some speakers make them sound rather zingy. Through the MS Towers, the guitars had a near-perfect tonality and clarity, perhaps just lacking a bit of body resonance. They also gave the recording (which I assume was done with just two microphones) a natural but not exaggerated sense of space.
Wanting to step up to more complex yet still spectrally balanced recording, I played one of my favorite test tracks, Toto's "Rosanna." Here, too, the MS Towers' clear, natural midrange gave the music a welcome clarity and excitement without substantially altering the character of the music--in other words, they did exactly what speakers are supposed to do. The recording exhibited a big soundstage (as it's supposed to) and clear delineation of the numerous instruments and voices in the complex mix.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
Here are the measurements for the NHT MS Tower speaker (click on each chart to view it in a larger window).
Frequency response (main section)
On-axis: ±2.4 dB from 73 Hz to 10 kHz, ±4.1 dB to 20 kHz
Average ±30° horiz: ±2.0 dB from 73 Hz to 10 kHz, ±2.8 dB to 20 kHz
Average ±15° vert/horiz: ±2.4 dB from 73 Hz to 10 kHz, ±4.0 dB to 20 kHz
Frequency response (Atmos section)
On-axis: ±4.6 dB from 135 Hz to 10 kHz, ±7.5 dB to 20 kHz
Main section: min. 3.8 ohms/820 Hz/+8, nominal 6 ohms
Atmos section: min. 4.0 ohms/355 Hz/-5, nominal 5 ohms
Sensitivity (2.83 volts/one meter, anechoic)
Main section: 82.4 dB
Atmos section: 84.6 dB
The first chart shows the frequency response of the MS Tower; the second shows the impedance. For frequency response of the main section, three measurements are shown: at 0° on-axis (blue trace); an average of responses at 0, ±10, ±20° and ±30° off-axis horizontal (green trace); and an average of responses at 0, ±15° horizontally and ±15° vertically (red trace). I consider the 0° on-axis and horizontal 0°-30° curves the most important. Ideally, the former should be more or less flat, and the latter should look the same but should tilt down slightly as the frequency increases. I also added a 0° measurement of the Atmos section.
The response of the main section of the MS Tower has three noteworthy characteristics. First, it's impressively flat up to 10 kHz. Second is that its bass response is very limited. Third is that, despite the overall flatness below 10 kHz, it has a rising treble response above about 9.5 kHz and a mildly recessed (although flat) midrange between about 1.2 and 4.7 kHz. In other words, the measurements correspond with my subjective impressions of very modest bass response, flat midrange, and rising treble response.
Off-axis response is excellent. Even way out at -45° and -60°, midrange output is reduced, but its response curve keeps that nice, flat shape out to 3 kHz. Significant response anomalies don't appear at these angles until you get up to 7.7 kHz, where there's a narrow, shallow dip. The grille reduces treble output between 4.5 and 5.9 kHz by 1 to 2 dB, and between 9.5 and 12.7 kHz by 1 to 4 dB.
I didn't do full measurements on the MS Tower's Atmos section, but its response looks reasonably flat for a cone-type midrange/tweeter. Although its response at 30° off-axis starts to roll off slightly at about 1.5 kHz, it starts to beam significantly above about 6 kHz; response is down -7.8 dB at 10 kHz and -17.7 dB at 20 kHz.
Sensitivity of the MS Tower is rather low at 82.4 dB (measured at one meter with a 2.83-volt signal, averaged from 300 Hz to 3 kHz). Its impedance is also fairly low, averaging about six ohms and dropping to a low of 3.8 ohms. You'll want to drive this one with a halfway decent receiver. Incidentally, impedance of the Atmos section (not shown) is comparably low, although I expect this part of the speaker won't be playing loud or often enough to tax any receiver.
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency responses using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The MS Tower was placed atop a 36-inch (90cm) stand. The mic was placed at a distance of two meters at tweeter height, and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. Bass response was measured by close-miking and summing the responses of the woofers, and splicing this result to the quasi-anechoic results at 280 Hz. For the measurement of the Atmos section, I suspended the microphone at a distance of one meter from the driver, directly on axis. Results were smoothed to 1/12th octave. Measurements were made without the grille except as noted. Post-processing was done using LinearX LMS analyzer software.
The downside of this system is that its treble sounds a little bright, depending on the content. On simpler fare such as The Hateful Eight, the Silicon Valley TV show, the guitar duo I cited above, or audiophile recordings from Chesky Records, I loved the vividness and apparent sense of detail I heard from the MS Towers and the rest of the Media Series system. The denser the sonic spectrum became, though--as with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and heavy rock recordings--the more I wanted to bring the treble down.
With movie soundtracks, simply putting the grilles on brought the treble down enough to where the sound was more subtly bright than obviously bright. With some music, though, I found myself searching for a way to bring the system into better balance. Not sure if what I was hearing was because of elevated treble or the limited low-frequency output caused by the speakers' small drivers, super-compact enclosures, and acoustic-suspension design, I tried various remedies. These included setting the subwoofer crossover points higher to take some of the load off the speakers' woofers; trying different subwoofers; playing with the subwoofer level setting; and moving the speakers closer to the wall. Still, I couldn't get the big, full, kick-ass sound I wanted when I played "Outshined" from Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger. (My measurements, shown above, later confirmed an upward-tilted treble response.)
I don't recommend using the MS Tower without a subwoofer. Its small woofers tend to distort when playing heavy bass notes at fairly high volumes, and it doesn't play deep enough to capture the groove of R&B and rock music or the impact of action movies.
I did try NHT's CS 10, a 10-inch, 300-watt model that sells for $649 on the company's site. However, because its internal limiter was adjusted to an extremely conservative setting, I found it insufficient to fill out the towers' sound. The similarly sized, $399 Rogersound Lab SW10S gave me an average of +8.2 dB more output from 40 to 63 Hz, which is a big difference, and the SW10S accomplished this with better-than-average distortion results. NHT counters that the company focuses on music, not movies, with its subwoofers; but, in my opinion, the output of the CS 10 wasn't enough for satisfying bass with music, either.
Playing revealing, audiophile-oriented recordings, the MS Towers compared pretty favorably with my $3,500-per-pair Revel F206s. The big difference was that the tweeter used in the MS Tower doesn't sound as smooth as the Revel's, but that's typical of speakers in this price range. I also noted that, on Cécile McLorin Salvant's version of "The Trolley Song" from her For One to Love CD, the MS Towers sounded less open in the upper midrange and lower treble than the Revels, with a more directional, less spacious sound on the snare drum.
Comparison and Competition
The only speaker I can find that seems targeted to the same audience as the MS Tower--i.e., people who want a slim, stylish, Atmos-enabled tower speaker--is the $699/pair Pioneer Elite SP-EFS73. It's also a three-way design, although it has three woofers and a four-inch midrange, with a tweeter mounted inside the woofer. Like the MS Tower, it's tall and slim (just 0.4 inches wider than the MS Tower), although I think the MS Tower's gloss black finish and clean lines give is a sleeker look. The SP-EFS73 is one of the last speakers that Andrew Jones designed for Pioneer before he left to join Elac. Unfortunately, I've heard it only at trade shows and thus can't comment in any depth about its sound quality.
Of course, there are lots of good non-Atmos tower speakers you can buy for about $1,000 per pair, which could probably save you enough money to afford ceiling speakers or Atmos-enabled modules if you want Atmos. Examples I've reviewed include the Elac Uni-Fi UF5 and SVS Prime Tower. Both sound more robust and balanced than the MS Tower, both will blend more easily with a subwoofer, and both give you the capability to get full sound without a subwoofer.
NHT's Media Series is a compact, nice-looking way to get Atmos without resorting to large speakers, add-on modules, or ceiling speakers. It has a clean midrange and plays loud for its size. I do find its treble response a little hot, but because the sound is otherwise smooth, a receiver with auto EQ or tone controls could tame that. I don't love it as a music-only speaker; but, for a small media room or a living room in which style is as important as sound, and where the focus is on movies and music, I think it's a great choice.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the NHT website for more product information.
• What Your System Needs to Enjoy Dolby Atmos Today at HomeTheaterReview.com.