Blue nOrh 4.0 Ceramic with grill in place
Product: nOrh 4.0 Ceramic
Manufacturer & Distributor: nOrh Loudspeakers - Thailand
Retail price: $400 USD per pair, including shipping
Reviewer: Richard George
Reviewed: October, 2001
nOrh Loudspeakers of Thailand has continued development and refinement of its inverted horn design since its introduction to the audio world a scant three years ago. The reasonably priced nOrh 4.0, which previously was reviewed by TNT Audio about a year ago, has been modified and upgraded to the version being reviewed here.
The drivers, networks, posts, and wires remain unchanged. nOrh has however, been experimenting with materials out of which to make the cabinet. The original 4.0 was carved out of a single piece of wood. While the wood version is still available, the two latest versions have cabinets made of either ceramic or marble.
The 4.0 Ceramic speaker is a drum-shaped, bass-reflex, inverted horn, with the tuned port located on the back of the cabinet at the apex of the horn. It has approximately the same dimensions as the wood version. The test units measured 28.6cm high x 22.2cm wide x 39.4cm deep (11.25 x 8.75 x 15.5 inches). As with the wood 4.0, the drivers in each speaker include a six-inch VIFA BC 14WG49-08 woofer coupled through a high quality cross-over network to a VIFA tweeter.
An easily removable, black cloth, speaker grill covers the woofer. The tweeter is mounted externally in a small pod on top of the cabinet; the speaker cover over the tweeter is not removable. A very small, plugged hole was visible on the back of the tweeter pod. Two, gold-plated, three-way binding posts are located near the back on one side of the cabinet. There are no provisions for bi-wiring.
All nOrh 4.0 speakers have been upgraded to the VIFA BC 14WG49-08 woofer. However The cabinet is the component of the 4.0 Ceramic that differs from other versions. It is hand-made ceramic and is offered in a variety of colored glazes. The test units were "blue-silver", medium blue glaze with silver highlights.
The 4.0 Ceramic rests on four, turned, metal feet that have rounded tips. At $400 USD for a pair, the 4.0 Ceramic loudspeakers are priced the same as the wood version.
nOrh 4.0 Ceramic, high quality crossover just visible
Setting up the 4.0 Ceramic is very easy, although it will require a speaker stand to elevate it to the proper height. Plug one set of speaker wires to the binding posts, position the speaker on a stand at least 25cm from the back wall, and place the speakers with a little toe-in. Positioning does not seem to be as critical as with some loudspeaker designs.
As with many nOrh, inverted horn speakers, the 4.0 is happiest with amplifiers significantly stronger than flea-powered, single-ended triodes. While a low-powered amplifier will drive the 4.0 to surprising volume, it is unable to allow the nOrh to sound its best. When fed proper amounts of high-quality amplifier power, the 4.0 Ceramic has a rich, full sound that belies its small size.
It is detailed, with excellent dynamic range and very good sound staging. While deep bass is not produced (the cabinet is only 6 liters in volume), the bass that is present is full, strong, and very quick - an attribute difficult to attain with large drivers.
The first impression of the 4.0 Ceramic is visual. It is unique in appearance, even among nOrh products. While it has the drum shape of many nOrhs, it has a very slightly uneven appearance to the shape that shows it is handmade. The finish is beautiful, with a deep, rich glaze. The silver highlights create a more dramatic visual impact than would plain glaze. A few minor irregularities are visible in the glaze finish, further evidence of its handmade origin.
The tweeter pod on top is finished with the same glaze. With the speaker grill removed, unglazed, white ceramic is visible around the edges of the drum. This is a very fine ceramic, almost porcelain in appearance. It is not made from cheap pottery ceramic.
nOrh 4.0 Ceramic, grill removed
The nOrh 4.0 Ceramic speakers are very detailed, allowing the listener to hear the recording with great clarity and strong presence. The little nOrh will allow well-recorded CDs or vinyl to sing. Transients, both high and low, are quickly, sharply, and accurately reproduced. The dynamic range is also very good.
Softly played passages remain audible and intelligible, while loudly played passages rise in volume, while still maintaining clarity. The little nOrh loudspeakers will play amazingly loud with only 35 watts; loud enough to force evacuation of the room while someone reduces the volume.
The frequency range is rated down to 65Hz; this appears to be quite reasonable as the 4.0 Ceramic measured -4dB at 65Hz (in my listening room). Bass is very quick and lively with no hint of booming or extra resonance. Percussion instruments sound sharp and clean.
Kick drums deliver the expected quick thump. Bass drums sound strong, but lack some of the richness due to the frequency dropoff below 70Hz. The Cello of Yo-Yo Ma seems to be in the room with the listener, every tone and nuance clearly rendered.
The clarity of mid-bass and bass is quite remarkable, and it is probably largely attributable to the relatively inert material of the cabinet. Ceramic simply doesn't resonate the way wood does.
Mid-frequencies sound clear and open. Vocals sound particularly natural. Linda Ronstadt, in the What's New LP with Nelson Riddle, sounded as though she was singing in front of the listener. While some of the sheer impact of her voice was not quite accurately portrayed by the 4.0 Ceramic, it does a better job than anything in its price range.
High frequencies are delivered without the distraction of acoustical error. High frequency musical instruments, from cymbals to bells, are rendered cleanly, clearly, and without audible distortion. Bells, in particular, are reproduced with a very smooth, even tone. Most speakers in this price range tend to reproduce highs with either a metallic undertone, or a grainy presentation. The nOrh 4.0 Ceramic speaker has no metallic tone, and, at worst, only faint grain is audible.
The nOrh 4.0 Ceramic produces a soundstage that is fairly wide and very deep. Instrument and vocal placement within the soundstage is usually quite sharply defined, depending on the recording. Additionally, these speakers are nearly invisible; when playing, sound simply seems to emanate from space between the speakers.
Different colors of nOrh 4.0 Ceramic
The quality of the music source is very important with these loudspeakers. The 4.0 Ceramic is so detailed that a poor source, for instance, a DVD player, can sound harsh and brittle. Not only is all musical detail audible, so is all unwanted noise. Dirty records are almost unbearable as every surface noise is reproduced and thrown at the listener. While the excellent transient response of the speakers allows for accurate musical reproduction, it also allows for sharper and harsher playback of unwanted noise.
However, as an experiment, the nOrh 4.0 Ceramic was connected to a less detailed, more "commercial grade" amplifier. Lower quality sources, such as a DVD player, were then rendered much better and easier to listen to than with a more detailed, higher quality amplifier.
However, while easier to listen to, the experiment revealed how much music is lost through a mediocre-quality amplifier. Results are best with the nOrh 4.0 when better quality sources and amplifiers are used.
The nOrh 4.0 Ceramic reproduces bass accurately and cleanly down to about 65Hz. Below that, the speakers roll off rather quickly. Any deep bass below 65Hz will not be reproduced audibly. Pipe organs, in particular, lose all impact with the little nOrh's. To play back any music with instruments that reach into the deeper bass, a subwoofer will have to be added.
Placement of the 4.0 Ceramic isn't particulary critical; it is generally quite forgiving of placement. However, if placed to close to a wall, the nOrh loses its "invisibility"; the sound then is easily identifiable as coming from the little speakers.
In addition, the soundstage will compress in size and lose accuracy of instrument placement if the speakers are too close to the wall. This may result from the rear-firing port reflecting too strongly off the wall.
When first hooked up, the nOrhs sounded thin, dry, and very light. After about 30 hours of break-in time, they started loosening up. By 40 hours, the nOrh 4.0 sounded very good, and continued to improve as they were played. At least one listener thought the tweeter pod looked decidedly alien, like some sort of Cyclopean E.T. (an opinion not shared by anyone else, but still noted).
The nOrh 4.0 Ceramic loudspeaker is absolutely unique. This is a handmade, ceramic speaker with high quality drivers and crossover components. It is unusual in design, beautiful to look at, and sounds as though it should cost many hundreds of dollars more than it does. It truly is a piece of art. Provided it fits with the decor, the WAF (wife acceptance factor) of this speaker is quite high.
Some may criticize the 4.0 Ceramic for the minor flaws in its handmade finish; but, that would be ridiculous. The character of handmade items comes from its slight irregularities; perfection comes from machines. Others may complain that the 4.0 Ceramic barely registers bass below 65Hz; again, this would be absurd as no speaker with a cabinet size of only 6 liters can produce deep bass, either.
Quite simply, the nOrh 4.0 Ceramic loudspeakers sound amazing for the price: $400 USD including shipping. Some speakers priced at three times that much do not come close to the quality of sound produced by the nOrh 4.0 Ceramic. nOrh states that the 4.0 Ceramic is "ideal as speakers for value systems", "hooking up to your computer", and "upgrading your hi-fi".
While the 4.0 is priced to be used in this manner, the fact remains that the best use would be as main speakers for a mid-fi to modest high end system, or, as nOrh notes, "rear / center speakers for hi-end system". Anything less would be a waste of the fine quality of sound produced by these overachievers.
Some photographs used in this review are courtesy of nOrh Loudspeaker Co., Ltd.
Many thanks to Michael Barnes, president of nOrh, and everyone else involved for providing the units used for this review.
© Copyright 2001 Richard George - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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