Product: Norh 4.0 bookshelf loudspeakers
Manufacturer: Norh - Thailand
Approx.: 400 $/Euro (pair)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu
Now, what is Norh? Without the Internet few of us would have known the answer. Norh is a HiFi Company located in Bangok (Thailand) which specializes in fancily shaped loudspeakers. Thanks to the strange looks of their 'speakers, the extremely low prices, the factory-direct selling system and, last but not least, some positive reviews appeared on different HiFi magazines (Soundstage, Audiofile etc.) the Norh products are quickly becoming very popular all around the World.
My credo is that if you really want to have success, no matter what you do, you should pay attention to two vital factors: originality of the main idea and will power. Certainly Mr. Michael Barnes of Norh loudspeakers knows what he's doing and how to do it successfully.
There are thousands of loudspeakers Companies out there, if you want audiophiles know your products you should have something original to offer. So here comes the brilliant Mr. Barnes's idea: design fancily-shaped loudspeakers (with a good "Form follows Function" factor - FFF), sell 'em direct to keep the prices down and build 'em the right way: good drivers (Vifa, Scanspeak etc.) and accurate crossovers with hi-quality passive components.
Fancy shapes come at a price, though. But Mr. Barnes knew what he was doing: pick some Thai tradional wood drums up and build a loudspeaker into these. The villages which specialized in building traditional wood drums (hard-carving them!) were suffering because of the lack of interest in traditional Thai Music. The youngest generations were mostly interested in modern Western-World Music. Mr. Barnes decided these hand-carved wood drums were the PERFECT cabinet for his speakers.
The final result can be seen in the picture above: gorgeously finished hard-carved wood cabinets that are a departure from the usual concept of box-shaped loudspeakers. Cool looks aside (and believe me, pics don't tell the real truth), these drums are so solid and non resonant that you can knock them hard without hearing a single "tumpf" coming out from the cabinet.
So Mr. Barnes had the cabinets, the villages started to build them again in large amounts and everyone was happy, included the audiophiles who could get cool nice loudspeakers for less.
I've tested the entry-level model from Norh, the 4.0: a small wood drum
20,5 cm (8.5 in.) large (diameter), 40 cm (15 in.) long and 28 cm (10.5 in.) tall (there's an externally mounted tweeter).
It uses a 6" VIFA TC 14 WG-49 woofer coupled to a VIFA external tweeter (used also on the Rogers LS/1).
The crossover, as it can been seen from the picture here, is nicely built with hi-quality components and cables. The cabinet has a diminutive amount of damping foam inside and certainly the wood is so stiff that these 'speakers are among the less resonant ones I've ever tested.
The woofer is loaded by a bass reflex system with rear-firing port. Mr. Barnes calls this a "reversed horn loading". Actually the brand name Norh is nothing else that an anagram of the word horn.
The sensivity of the Norh 4.0 is quite low though, being around 84 dB/w/meter while the price is 400 US $, packed and shipped anywhere in the World right to your door (local taxes aside).
The "drum" makes use of 3 soft rubber feet and even some dedicated stand is already available (see the Norh site for details).
As for connectivity: no biwiring is allowed while the binding posts are gold-plated, easy to use and reasonably spaced.
You can use virtually ANY cable, the posts accept bare cables, bananas, forks etc. A soft dust grid protects the woofer from dirt while the tweeter is protected by a metallic grid.
The WAF factor of these 'speakers is extremely high, everyone visiting my listening rooms (there's two of them :-) ) was simply amazed by the cool looks of the 4.0. The quality of the finish is top-notch, also. The 4.0 comes in three different "flavours": walnut, rosewood and black.
The Norh 4.0, as suggested by the Norh site, are 'speakers meant for upgrading small HiFi systems or as satellites or surround speakers into an Home Theater system. Actually, a shielded version is available as well as a complete package of five 4.0's.
Disregarding these suggestiions I've tested the 4.0 as stand-alone HiFi 'speakers, using 'em into both a hi-end chain and a budget hi-quality system.
The results have been quite astonishing and follow from a 3 months long period of continuous testing and listening.
Reviewing HiFi components is sometimes boring, let me tell ya. It happens that, for one reason or another, you can't be "in sync" with the tested product and, while this doesn't affect the evaluation of the item, as I make use of a restricted panel of experienced listeners too, it can be relieving putting everything into the box again and shipping the product back to the Manufacturer/Distributor.
Not so the Norh 4.0. Since the first moment these small drums have been connected to my systems, they have made me happy like a child with his new toy. I bet you know the feeling, as it is common among audiophiles, rarer among HiFi reviewers :-)
Sound quality aside, these babies were so nice looking, easy to place, connect and use that I was even prepared for an "average" sound. But, surprise surprise, these babies were able to play good tunes, too! After having let them breaking in for 100 hours or so, the Norh 4.0 were a revelation! Home Theater? Inexpensive Japanese systems??? Naw, these 'speakers are meant for serious HiFi!
Their voice is clear and open, a bit on the dry side but still very precise and rich of harmonics. Not much bass below 70 Hz but, believe me, what they do above that frequency is sometimes stunning, given their diminutive size and price tag. Sometimes HiFi designers try to get a bass as deep as possible out from small drivers, paying the price of a slow bass response. Not so the Norh 4.0 as, while they easily refuse to deliver very deep bass, their bass range is quite fast and powerful. No boomy, artifical bass, only clean, articulated and coherent bass notes.
The VIFA tweeter does its job flawlessly, never sounding shouty or compressed, just losing some detail here and there when compared with much more expensive drivers. Thanks to the fact the woofer isn't forced to play miracles under 70 Hz, the reproduction of male and female voices is indeed very good, always precise and controlled.
These Norh 4.0 can play anything, though you can't ask to play heavy metal with the same impact of a large floorstander, of course! When listened into small rooms their ability to "rock" takes its revenge and even the bass lines can make your body vibrate, no kidding.
As for coherence between woofer and tweeter: I'd rate this parameter as simply excellent, clearly the crossover network has been designed by someone who knows his work pretty well: there's no audible "step" at the crossover frequency and the Music flows effortlessly as there was no crossover at all.
The same coherence can be found even with respect to the "speed" of the two drivers. Kudos!
The extremely non-resonant cabinet certainly helps to keep the musical message clean and natural, the sound doesn't appear to be "boxed in", both at low and high listening levels. When playing extreme bass at loud listening level, one can hear the sound of the air passing through the bass reflex port.
To cut a long story short, these babies are extremely correct, considered the price tag, and able to deliver good bass lines while remaining coherent and linear.
These 'speakers do have a very low sensitivity, around 84 dB. This means you can't use low powered tube amps to drive them, unless you listen just to background Music :-)
A good "audiophile" 20-30 watts integrated amp is just what you need to make them sing. And since the drivers should be able to handle even 100 watts (peak) there's no doubt these 'speakers can sound VERY loud. With a 100 watts amp they have been able to play extremely loud into my 30 sqm listening room. Into a smaller room their ability of playing loud easily exceed everyone's needs.
As for overall dynamics, you shouldn't expect a breath-taking performance but still the Norh 4.0 are quite lively and punchy, given the size. No doubt, they can positively surprise you: they have survived even during the earthquake low frequency notes contained into Massive Attack's Mezzanine.
At low listening levels the tweeter seems capable of decent low detail resolution, though my opinion is that these 'speakers like to play LOUD.
The unusual cabinet and the external tweeter certainly help creating an impressive soundstage. Not very large or tall, it is the depth that surprises, matched with the ability of these 'speakers to disappear from the 3D scene.
I'm not talking of the outstanding soundstage you can get from the Diapason Micra minimonitors, just to name a loudspeaker that is simply thrilling with respect to soundstaging, but still the small Norh drums are able to create a reasonable stage, deep, stable and even quite precise.
It is hard, very hard to find such a good performance on similarly priced loudspeakers.
Sorry, I've havent been able to find flaws in the Norh 4.0, no matter how hardly I tried. Everything is exactly like it should be: the finish, the quality and ease of use of the binding post, the home-friendliness, the ease of installation and, last but not least, the extremely high WAF factor.
Even the rubber feet are as good as they should be: they allow a safe placement of the 'speakers and spikes make the 4.0 sound worse.
From a sonic point of view I'd have preferred a less "dry" character but is is rather a matter of personal taste. It may become a problem if the amplifier matched to the 4.0 shares the same character, as it often happens with commercial low-priced amplifiers. The "escape key" is to choose an audiophile-oriented amplifier like a Rotel, a NAD, an AMC...
It is very hard to criticize the sound of these 'speakers, consider a friend of mine, after having listened to them, was so crazy about the 4.0 he said his Snell large floorstanders sounded worse.
Crazy? You bet, but this fact should make you think about the sound quality of these inexpensive 'speakers from Norh.
And yes, they have almost NOTHING below 70 Hz, they don't shake the walls, the tweeter isn't so refined as on more expensive 'speakers but, believe me, considering the price tag (400 $) there's so little to complain. Every friend who has listened to these 'speakers agreed upon the fact they sounded as good as 'speakers costing TWICE their price. At least.
Avoid low powered amps like the plague. Avoid large listening rooms. Don't expect real deep bass. Place them everywhere you want, even a (aaaargh!) bookshelf works fine, though proper stands are the best choice.
I've had mixed results with different stands: too high and the bass range became too light, too low and the soundstage became too low :-) and this behaviour was also strongly room-dependent. I'd suggest, as a rule of thumb, to use stands not lower than 50 cm and not taller than 90.
Keep the speakers far from the rear walls for better imaging, though the rear firing reflex port doesn't cause serious troubles for bass performance.
Finally, no spikes, thanks. The rubber feet get the job done excellently.
There's a major limit to the success these speakers deserve: the fact they are sold factory-direct with NO possibility for the audiophile to test listen them. ANY, I mean, ANY HiFi choice should be done only after a serious private listening test at home.
HiFi reviews on magazines can help to shed some light on interesting products but the final choice MUST be left to the customer.
Then there's another problem: depending on your Country laws, you may be forced to pay "importing" taxes so the price of the speakers may be higher, hard to tell how much higher so please investigate carefully before buying.
Letting these concerns aside, the Norh 4.0 have strongly impressed me like few HiFi components have been able to do during all these years.
So cleverly built, nicely looking and good sounding...yes, these drums have made my heart beat LOUD.
A warm thank you to Norh (Mr. Michael Barnes) for having sent us these delicious toys to test.
© Copyright 2000 Lucio Cadeddu - http://www.tnt-audio.com