Ask any veteran audiophile to suggest good speakers in the $800 price range and odds are that he or she will name one of the many fine two-way bookshelf models now available. This is a hotly contested market segment, so there are plenty of attractive and sensibly price options to choose from. But if you wanted my opinion, the speaker I’d propose wouldn’t be a two-way model at all. Instead, I would direct your attention to NHT’s brilliant new Classic Three—a three-way, stand-mount monitor that reproduces music with refinement, resolution, and imaging specificity that few affordable two-way speakers can match.
Many of us instinctively think of the audio spectrum as having three main constituent frequency bands—bass, midrange, and treble—and a clear-cut advantage of the Classic Three is that it provides three anodized aluminum drive units specifically optimized to cover each band (the anodizing process is said to eliminate the hard, “pingy” quality some listeners associate with aluminum-diaphragm-equipped drivers.) By comparison, many affordable two-way speakers can sound somewhat compromised, as if their woofers are being forced to go higher and tweeters to go lower than would normally be optimal. The Classic Threes, however, neatly sidestep this problem by covering the middle range of the music with dedicated 2" dome midrange drivers that offer excellent transient speed, the ability to resolve details well, and a healthy measure of dynamic punch.
NHT’s switch to the three-way format pays sonic dividends at the top end of the audio spectrum, too, allowing use of an incredibly light and responsive small-diameter (.75") dome tweeter. This driver offers terrific dispersion and captures highfrequency details with disarming ease and a near-complete freedom from treble histrionics. Just be sure to take time to install the NHT-provided, X-shaped, foam-rubber dampers that go between the Threes’ midrange drivers and tweeters. Once the damper is in place, the tweeter rarely sounds like a separate driver at all; instead, it sounds like a natural integral extension of the voice of the midrange driver, which is as things should be.
The one criticism I would offer of the midrange driver/ tweeter array may actually be a backhanded compliment: These drivers are truth tellers that will faithfully report shortcomings, if any, in associated components or program material, sometimes exhibiting traces of edginess or momentary hardness on abrupt transients. But the good news is that, in spirit, the Classic Threes are more honest than finicky, meaning good affordable amplifiers and A/V receivers can drive them effectively. At the same time, however, the speakers offer more than sufficient resolution to show why higher-performance ancillary components might be a worthwhile investment.
Finally, completing the picture is a 6.5" woofer housed in a sealed enclosure. This driver doesn’t offer as much low-frequency reach as I’ve heard from the best competing bass-reflex twoway systems (e.g., the Paradigm Studio 20s), but it compensates through extremely good pitch definition and control. This design choice makes perfect sense given that the last thing you would want to match up with the Classic Three’s responsive midrange/ tweeter would be a sluggish, lugubrious-sounding woofer. Bass extends down to about 45Hz, but enthusiasts who crave deeper bass response should perhaps consider NHT’s Classic Four floorstanders ($1800). The Fours are based on the Threes, but add an excellent, built-in, passive subwoofer that pushes bass response down to the mid-20Hz range.
Put these elements together and you’ve got a bookshelf speaker that reveals subtleties in music with the effortless grace typically associated with more expensive designs. I put on “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” from master blues harpist Little Hatch’s Rock With Me Baby [Analogue Productions, LP], and marveled at the way the Classic Threes showed Hatch’s amplified harmonica dancing along the fine line between a saturated but clean sound and a deliberately raw and overdriven one. In fact, the Threes made it obvious that Hatch not only plays the harmonica, but his microphone and amplifier as well, picking and choosing moments where he deftly pushes the amplifier into momentary distortion. Many affordable speakers would have homogenized Hatch’s harmonica sound, but the Threes instead caught all the little details that show Hatch’s true mastery of the instrument.