I was surprised at how open and detailed the midrange was. Normally in HTiB systems, the mid-bass lacks warmth and detail, but this was not the case with the Reference speaker system; the lower registers of piano, trumpet, bass clarinet, and congas sounded satisfyingly full-bodied. Also, I was pleased to find out that the crossover point wasn't noticeable between the speakers and the subwoofer. When a poorly designed system gets this design detail wrong it can stick out like a sore thumb, but the Reference system's subwoofer seemed to disappear, and I was left with pure musical transparency. The subwoofer handled lower bass with finesse and articulation without the plague of one-note flabbiness. The treble was velvety smooth, though perhaps just a little rolled off in the upper registers. Both are telling indicators of the clear, smooth sound the Reference system brought to music.
I don't expect anyone to hook up a dedicated SACD or DVD-A player to the Niro Reference speaker system, but it is possible, albeit limited to stereo output. I listened to quite a few DVD-Audio and SACD tracks, and was only slightly impressed at the increase in resolution and fine details over standard red book audio tracks.
The Niro Reference outperforms any HTiB system I've heard previously in its ability to accurately reproduce a live performance in an acoustic setting. The only caveat is that, owing to its design, its soundstaging and imaging are slightly compressed.
The Niro's reproduction of movie soundtracks astounded me. I was first blown away by its ability to shift from small dynamics to full-on loud volume levels at the drop of a hat. It handled the overtly violent The Passion of the Christ [Fox] with vivid results. Although unable to understand Aramaic, I could nevertheless tell that the dialogue was clean and crisp without sibilant harshness. And I literally jumped from my seat in the scene after Jesus was arrested when John bursts into the house of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. If a simple door opening towards the beginning of the movie could be reproduced so accurately, I was eager to find out what else the system could do.
During the stormy crucifixion scene, the sound of the rain was realistic without coming across as white noise, and thunder blasts were full bodied, showing just how low the subwoofer could go. I was able to play the system at near ear-splitting levels without any observable distortion, an impressive feat for such a small system.
If you must have a surround channel behind you when you watch movies, you might be a little disappointed in the Niro Reference speaker system. I noticed that with 5.1-channel source material, the image wasn't around me but in front of me. The Reference won't put a surround channel behind you; rather, it seems to extend the imaging from left to right and add soundstage depth behind the speakers. It's worthwhile to note that in many competing single-enclosure surround systems, all channels (front, center, and surround) use DSP-driven virtual surround-sound processing. The use of DSP effects enables a wider soundstage and phantom rear channels at the expense of tonal accuracy. The Niro Reference's front and center channels are unique in that they are unprocessed—only the rear channels are processed by proprietary SIP software. The Niro Reference speaker system foregoes a wide soundstage, rear channel perception, and allaround DSP processing (except for its rear channels), but gains greater tonal accuracy.
I was able to look past this minor shortcoming based on what the Reference did so well, which was to reproduce music accurately without thinness or exaggerated bass and to portray movies with excitement and realism.
The Niro Reference outperforms any home theater in a box system I've heard in its class on both music and movies. What astounded me was the size and quality of the sound that could come from such a tiny system. Although good for music, you'll want to purchase this system for its superb film playback. In the case of the Niro, big things really do come in small packages.