While not technically a soundbar, this two speaker 6.1 systems does aim to trick the ear into thinking that its hearing surround sound material from just a few speakers. Niroson never really made a splash in the United States but the concept is still interesting nonetheless.
Maybe it's too early to be doom-y about it, but spare a thought for speaker manufacturers. Having rubbed their hands with glee - multi-channel seeming to be a license to print money because it increased speaker yield from two to five per customer - they weren't prepared for the most powerful form of backlash on earth: Bitch Wives From Hell. It wasn't cost, software nor set-up complexity which kept multi-channel growth from level pegging with the actual penetration of DVD (it's believed that the VAST majority of DVDs are played through two-channel systems). The real problem is convincing She Who Must Be Obeyed that you need to house more speakers.
Now they have a new nightmare. While we await the populist version of 1Digital's 7-channels-from-a-single-enclosure ultimate solution, something far less expensive than the mooted £20,000 or so for the current device, there is a new product which - for non-purists at least - completely eliminates the BWFH's protests because ALL SIX CHANNELS COME FROM TWO ENCLOSURES MEASURING ONLY 21.87in WIDE, 7.87in DEEP AND 6.87in HIGH. Read that again. And again. Then factor in that the two modules - one front, one rear - can be wall-mounted. And we're talking SIX channels. And they're pretty. If they work, what non-audiophile in his right mind would even bother fighting for five or six separate enclosures? In other words: Why Bother The Bitch? (Note to whoever prints up T-shirts with that slogan: I want points.)
Niroson's TWO6.1 Cinema System is an answer to a zillion prayers. In-between the low-end all-in-one purchases for £399 and the new breed of upscale single-box systems from Linn, T+A and others, the Niroson bridges both the performance and convenience gaps, while keeping an eye on price. Let's dispense with sub-£500 swill; I don't even want to acknowledge its existence. Sticking instead with decent products from respectable, serious brands, we find that Linn's all-in-in Classik and T+A's K6 give you everything bar speakers and monitor. But the Linn costs £2000, the T+A around £3000, AND you have to add speakers and monitor.
Niroson, on the other hand, gives you EVERYTHING bar monitor and DVD player for £1999. [Note: There will be a version with DVD player next year, for under £2500.] And I mean everything: the TWO6.1 comes with all the wiring (which it has to - see below) AND a remote control which can learn the commands from the majority of TVs, DVD players, VCRs, satellite boxes and more. If you add one of those super-value 28" or 32" widescreen-TV-and-DVD-player packages from 'name' brands such Philips, Samsung, or a dozen others, you can have a genuinely decent home cinema for under £2500. And if you think that £2500 is expensive, then maybe it's time you entered the 21st Century.
TWO6.1 consists of two speakers, a subwoofer, a remote and an A/V receiver with the processing which allows two enclosures to deliver credible surround sound. The heart of the system is the receiver which contains the newest Cirrus Logic CS49400 series processor. In addition to handling the 'conventional' surround duties of Dolby Digital EX, DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby ProLogic II, Music and Cinema, there's 32-bit processing for the post-surround Niroson Cinema processing, system equalization and 24db/Octave Butterworth crossover. [Note: The forthcoming DVD version will also handle MPEG.]
Note the words 'post-surround', which why nobody will be trying a Niroson with a half-dozen separate conventional speakers. Niroson is close-lipped about the processing, but, suffice it to say, their receiver and speakers are dedicated to each other. Although the speakers have conventional spring-clip connectors - they take bare wire so the supplied flat leads can be fed under carpets or behind skirting - the back of the receiver accepts the leads via dedicated single-connection blocks because the wiring is conventional. Each speaker accepts only four leads for the three channels - L, C, R and common earth - while the front also accepts three wires for the remote control IR receiver. While you could, if you wanted to, find a way to split the common earth to try other speakers, don't bother. As Niroson's Mr Toyozumi said, 'It would sound awful. The post-DTS, post-Dolby processing remains in circuit at all times because of the dedicated speakers. It cannot be switched off.'
Which means that the Niroson components MUST be reviewed as a single system, the ONLY possible variables being TV and source components. Even the subwoofer lacks any adjustments; it's truly dedicated to the TWO6.1. So, piece by piece, here's what you get:
Editor Steve Harris was driven to comment about the receiver, 'What a beautiful piece of industrial design!' It's so clean, handsome and reminiscent of Nakamichi of yore (the 'Niro' in Niroson is Niro Nakamichi) that you can only hope Niroson will extend the look to other separates. Occupying 3.125x17x15in (HWD), it's absolutely minimalist because everything bar five controls - on/off from standby, volume, source select and radio up and down - has been relegated to the remote. To the right of the centrally-positioned volume control is the display which provides source ID, volume level, radio frequencies, which of the 30 presets is in used, identification of the surround mode and a graphic representation of the speaker layout.
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Below the display, a flap opens to accept another source, handy for occasional use of a video camera or computer game, the connectors being S-video, composite, L&R audio and optical digital, plus a mini-headphone socket. Around the back are the primary inputs, including analogue audio, coaxial video, S-video and coaxial digital inputs for TV/Aux, Sat/Cable and VCR. Additionally, there's an optical digital input for DVD, inputs for AM and FM aerials, audio and video outputs for VCR or DVD recorders, PCM digital output, a dedicated subwoofer output, a socket for the IR receiver and video outputs to the monitor via composite RCA or S-video. Main power on/off is also on the back.
Most crucial, though, are the speaker connections. The TWO6.1 feeds its 6x30W via two dedicated speaker terminal blocks, the rear output through four wires for L, C and R plus the common earth, the front block carrying the same plus three wires for the IR. What's nice about this IR arrangement is that you simply aim the remote at the front speaker or TV, NOT the A/V receiver. Thus, you can put the electronics anywhere you like. The system comes with as much of the dedicated wire as you require, heavy-grade flat cable with bare ends for the speaker connections, and the dedicated terminal blocks pre-fitted.
But you want to know about those magical speakers. Identical except for IR receiver up front, each sculpted aluminium enclosure houses three 3.5in mid-woofers and three 1in ceramic-coated metal dome tweeters. Crossovers are not specified, but all signal manipulation is handled digitally, hence the lack of user adjustments bar relative volume levels. (The sub, described below, has no controls whatsoever on it.) The left and right speakers fire outward at a carefully calculated angle, but positioning is surprisingly non-critical. (See sidebar.)
Finally, the Compact Triple 8 Active Subwoofer contains a 150W amplifier, driving an 8in woofer. There are also two passive 8in 'steel cap' radiators, to increase output while improving heat dissipation and reliability. The unit measures only 12.75x12x12.37in (HWD), and it's utterly gorgeous, its non-cloth-covered areas finished in a steely blue-grey gloss, and bearing the Niroson legend on the top. It's too pretty to hide.
Set-up took 20 minutes, and I didn't even need the manual for the basics. I fed the Rotel RDV-1080 DVD player into the Niroson with S-video and coaxial digital audio, and the Niroson to Marantz's superb 42in T4200 plasma screen, also via S-video. OK, so the Rotel costs around 750 and the Marantz around 10,000, but I wanted to see and hear the Niroson at its best, not its worst. Note that the video signal path was crystal clear, with no perceptible difference between the DVD fed through the TWO6.1 and directly into the Marantz.
Actual fine-tuning included little more than using the TWO6.1's onboard pink noise and the remote, to set relative levels. Blessedly, the remote control is fitted with up/down volume controls for rear, sub and centre, for quick and dirty on-the-fly level adjustments. As Steve Harris noted, when switching from a demo clearly optimised for cinema, two-channel music-only material seemed too bass-y. A quick level drop of the bass requires the mere push of a button rather than ploughing through menus.
Let's dispense with the two-channel sound: it's OK, not great. Because the sound is deliberately diffuse for cinema usage, it does influence the stereo performance. The tuner section worked fine and actually benefited from the wash of sound, but CDs suffered slightly vague imaging. Don't get me wrong: it's better than what most people hear, clean and consistent, but there are better ways to spend 2000 for stereo-only listening. So, for the sake of this review, let's accept that the raison d'etre of the TWO6.1 is painless home cinema.
Blade II for DTS ES 6.1, episodes of the (2-channel) Angel TV series for Pro-Logic II and Lord of the Rings for Dolby EX, plus a mix of discs for regular DTS and Dolby showed no glitches whatsoever. It read every surround type correctly, and quickly. Most impressive was the fuss-free way the TWO6.1 matched Blade II's DTS ES without any confusion, showing why that centre rear channel ain't the waste of time some cynics (including me...) have regarded it. But it was also clear that the Niroson, because it doesn't use five widely-spaced speakers and depends on processing for its sound 'throw', needs DTS ES and the like.
At the risk of pissing off Dolby, I still maintain that DTS does a better job of creating pin-point images. Because of the 'soundwash' nature of the Niroson, in EVERY case the DTS playback seemed more convincing and precise to my ears than the Dolby equivalent. Don't get me wrong: the very nature of the way the TWO6.1 works means that its greatest strength is the all-enveloping sounds regardless of format: rainfall during The 13th Warrior, the sewer sequences in Blade II, the underwater elements at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan - all of them encircle the listener convincingly. The problem is the positioning of specific sound images within the vast and all-encompassing soundstage. And it's here that the TWO6.1 struggles in comparison with discrete speaker systems. But DTS minimises the concern.
As for the sound itself, it's way beyond the quality of the all-in-one stuff we know and loathe, with clear dialogue, crisp transients, a nice openness to acoustical instruments and enough snap in the bass to please modernists. It is not overly detailed, but it is certainly easy on the ears. In essence, it is about as 'everyman' a system as I've heard without exhibiting the sort of deficiencies which make audiophiles leave a room screaming when they see hardware from certain Northern European makers. What surprised me least is the software which the TWO6.1 most favours: that neglected genre, the concert DVD. With Juice Newton's Every Road Leads Back To You, ELO's Zoom, Lou Rawls Live - the sense of a hall was conveyed perfectly. Spacious, open, airy - they sounded truly 'live' in the best dimensional sense. The effect is mind-blowing because logic dictates that you cannot be hearing what your ears clearly discern.
If you need convincing that the Niroson is revolutionary, that its multi-channel claims really do work, try this party trick. Instead of listening to some obvious surround spectacular like Twister, which feels like a surround event even in two-channel because of the visuals, ask the dealer just to play the pink noise test tones, which cycle through the six channels. Do it with your eyes closed. I defy you NOT to respond like every reviewer who left the Niroson room at CES, or at the London show: in utter amazement. Then, listen to a helicopter or rain or earthquake sequence. You will ask where the side channels are hidden.
It is unlikely that anyone will not forsake Theta or Lexicon or Proceed or TAG or Meridian and six speakers if they have the space and money. But if you know some poor, movie-lovin' shlemiel with a wife straight out of a Restoration Comedy, just tell him, 'Niroson TWO6.1'. Consider it your Good Deed for the day.
BBG Distribution 020 8863 9117
SIDEBAR: The Niroson Solution Niro Nakamichi founded Mechanical Research Corporation (MRC) in September 1998. Mr. Nakamichi's CD includes the first true hi-fi cassette deck, the discrete three-head model 1000 and much more. Having called attention to MRC's capabilities with the TRUE high-end goodies in the NIRO 1000 "Power Engine" range, he dropped his real bombshell at the 2002 CES with the prototype of the Niroson 2-box surround system.
Nakamichi found a method to control the interference between the front stage speakers and between front and rear speakers by precisely determining the travel patterns of sound waves, through a process develped for monitoring a listening room environment. He did this by plotting the sound every two inches with a specially developed robot. The robot measures the reflections, calculates those reflections and feeds them into the corresponding speaker; e.g the right speaker's reflections on the left wall are fed to the left speaker and vice versa. This differs from speakers which bounce sound off the walls. The data has been used to create unique, proprietary DSP algorithms that can, when combined with a patented loudspeaker design, recreate a multi-channel sound experience through a subwoofer and two compact 'Super Speakers'. Each delivers discrete L+C+R channels - one positioned centre-front and one positioned centre-rear. Niroson Cinema processing is applied AFTER Dolby or DTS processing, so it's also totally compatible with any two-channel matrixed or discrete 5.1 or 6.1 source.
Somehow, Niroson's system manages to create a convincing 360 degree circle of sound without relying on 'physically' reflected sound, hence no lawsuits from litigious rivals. I remain stunned.