If you are under the age of 30, you may not have heard of Niro Nakamichi, but considering his impressive list of audio achievements in the early '70s and into the turn of the century, now is a good time to take notice.
As old-school audiophiles will tell you, the list of technologies and products developed by Nakamichi reads like a home theater and high-end audio pioneering smorgasbord. Among them are the three-headed cassette deck (Nakamichi technology was responsible for 70% of hi-fi cassette decks by the late '70s), a classic turntable from the early '80s whose "absolute center search" feature could detect and compensate for eccentricities in LP disks, and car CD changers in the early '90s. First and last, Niro Nakamichi is an inventor, so perhaps it is not too surprising that his new company, Niro, should produce compact 5.1- and 6.1-channel surround systems that use, respectively, just two or three speaker enclosures (no, that's not a misprint!). We've previously reviewed Niro surround systems in The Perfect Vision and AVguide Monthly, including the 1.1 Pro and the Two6.1, but this month focus on the Niro Reference system (Niro's top-ofthe- line, two-enclosure 5.1-channel system—which Niro would term a "1.1" system). With the Niro Reference system, Niro Nakamichi continues to deliver innovative enhancements to the world of audio and home theater.
Unlike other HTiB (home-theaterin- a-box) systems, where getting speaker level and distance settings properly adjusted are crucial to optimizing system sound, the Niro Reference offers "plug and play" performance in the most basic sense of that term; apart from a few dirt-simple cable connections, the system is ready to use right out of the box. And at $1090, the Niro Reference rig not only makes going from zero to surround sound easy, but highly affordable.
The Niro Reference is a robust and hip-looking 5.1-channel loudspeaker and amplification system that can be set up in less than five minutes, with no calibration. Both the speaker cabinet and the subwoofer contain proprietary umbilical cables that connect to the digital amplifier. Simply make your speaker connections with these oneplug connectors, connect your DVD player's video outputs directly to your display and its audio outputs to the Niro digital amplifier. There you have it; setup is complete.
The Reference is designed for rooms up to 600 square feet and performed quite well in my test room of about 400 square feet. The system is ideal for small apartments or rooms where large speakers are just not an option.
The Niro Reference package comprises three units: the digital amplifier, the main (5-channel) set-top speaker cabinet, and the subwoofer. The digital amplifier measures less than a square foot and weighs less than 5 lbs., but don't let its small size fool you. Although the amplifier supplies a seemingly modest 30 watts of power to each of the speakers in the SSU Reference cabinet as well as 50 watts to the subwoofer, the system has plenty of juice to power the speakers. The digital amplifier also provides enough connections to support four digital audio inputs (three optical, one coaxial) and two analog audio (RCA-type) inputs. Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital and DTS decoding are all supported. Video outputs from your DVD player are connected straight to your display, bypassing the Niro Reference altogether.
Complementing the digital amplifier is the attractive SSU Reference speaker cabinet. Available in gray piano gloss finish with acoustically transparent industrial grille covers and weighing in at 8 lbs., the speaker cabinet features five magnetically shielded 3" drivers. A quick rap of my knuckles on the cabinet reassured me that it is solidly built. Rounding out the system is the compact WSU Reference subwoofer featuring one 8" woofer in a bass reflex cabinet.
The included remote allows the control of most of your home theater equipment using its supplied code book, or through the remote learning function. Optional accessories such as speaker mounting brackets and a MovieMouse speaker module can enhance the experience of using the Reference, but were not reviewed.
The Niro Reference reproduced music better than any HTiB system I've experienced in its class. With other systems in this price range, I've detected either bloated bass or shrill highs. With the Niro Reference, however, the high end was buttery smooth and the low end had extension with tightness and definition.
I listened to David Chesky's "52nd Street" from The Body Acoustic [Chesky Records] in red book audio format and was quite amazed at how close the system came to my reference Definitive Technology setup, at half the price. Of course, the soundstage wasn't as deep and wide as with my Definitive reference system. Instead, the Niro Reference system presented a narrower stage where the musicians seemed to be squeezed toward the center, which, I presume, is caused by the grouping of five channel's worth of speakers within one cabinet. Other one-box surround systems try to solve the stage-width dilemma with DSP (digital signal processing) effects to simulate a broader, more open soundstage, but this approach involves tradeoffs. DSP can create the illusion of greater stage width, but it typically reduces the perceived clarity and focus of the sound. For this reason, the Niro Reference system uses DSP processing only on its surround channels, leaving the front and center channels untouched. As a result, the soundstage sounds a little smaller and narrower than it might if DSP enhancement were used, but the system's overall sound is also purer and cleaner than in most DSP-driven systems. DSP is a double-edged sword, and I think Niro chose the best-sounding alternative.