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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater
 



No. 2 [No. 1] [No. 3]  •   December 2003



Niro 1.1 Pro Home Theater System
SRP: $799
Nirotek America Corporation
370 Amapola Avenue, Suite 207
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 533-6000 (voice)
(310) 533-6005 (fax)
http://www.niro.net/
Basic Description

Home theater system consisting of: DVD/Receiver w/ 30Wx5 and 50Wx1, sleep timer, 2 pairs of analog audio inputs, 1 pair analog outputs, 3.5mm headphone output, and outputs composite/s-video/component (with progressive capability) video for DVD. DVD player plays DVD, SVCD, VCD, CD, CD-R, CD-RW, and supports mp3 playback as well as JPEG picture viewing. The subwoofer is an 8” bass reflex design and the main speaker (shielded) contains five 3” speakers in a single housing! System has fan cooling in back and offers AM/FM Tuner with remote control. One year warranty on electronics and three year warranty on speakers.


Associated Equipment

Toshiba 34-HDX82 34” Widescreen Television. Brief comparisons were made to a more “conventional” surround system consisting of Definitive Technology BP-8, C-1, BP-2 speakers, Sunfire True Subwoofer IV, Marantz DV-8300 DVD player, and Sunfire Ultimate Receiver.


Background Information on HRTF

Although simulated surround sound is not new, the way that it is implemented in the Niro system is: a single enclosure with five separate speakers. The design is NOT based on utilizing reflected sound off walls or other surfaces, but is purely computational using information from HRTF (Head-Related Transfer Function) theory. This way, the Niro system can create discrete sounds from the single enclosure. As opposed to me bungling through mathematical representations, here are four links that should elaborate on the technique as well as provide lots of background information on its purpose:

http://sound.media.mit.edu/KEMAR.html
http://interface.cipic.ucdavis.edu/CIL_html/CIL_whatis.htm
http://interface.cipic.ucdavis.edu/CIL_tutorial/3D_HRTF/3D_HRTF.htm
http://www.ircam.fr/equipes/salles/listen


Setup

The entire system comes in one large box made up of three smaller boxes, and took no time at all to unpack. I was given a reviewer packet that I looked at, but made sure to read through the manual as well. The main unit is incredibly slim and measures only about 2” in height. Something could be stacked on it as the ventilation is out the back. Both spikes and little cups for the spikes come packaged with the subwoofer. As I was using the system on a carpeted floor, I installed the spikes. The spikes are gold which seemed curious to me given the rest of the system is some shade of gray or silver, but when they were installed it was impossible to see them from a distance. The Niro system uses proprietary cabling (two lengths) that is approximately 4 meters (13’) in length. There are special connectors on each end that easily plug into the speakers and electronics.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do (as the manual explains) although there are a few diagrams to help the user if he/she intends to connect other devices. There are two sets of analog inputs and one set of analog outputs. There are no digital connections whatsoever. The unit offers component video outputs as well as s-video and composite video. One of the necessary set-up steps involves setting the proper video output for the DVD and on-screen displays. Aside from that adjustment and setting the TV shape, etc., all I needed to do to get the system going was to attach the supplied antennas. (I only tested the FM section, and not the AM.)

The manual suggests that a seating distance of 2-3 meters from the main speaker is optimal. I began the listening fairly close (at about 6’ away) but settled at a distance of 8’. The speaker (if measured from the bottom) sat about 53” off the floor. I felt this was representative of a typical user system with a rack below the TV for equipment (or a stand) and with the speaker sitting on top of the television.

The manual says to “put the subwoofer anywhere, it is not that critical.” I placed the sub to the left of the stand and close to the wall. At first I thought there was no way to adjust the level, but found out that it is possible by pushing the “mode” button. This control also allows adjustment of bass and treble. The unit has progressive scan capability that is accessed via a combination of button presses on the remote. I didn’t see a big difference on this television in doing so, but left it in that mode after verifying the change. This code (that changes from interlaced to progressive) was on an entirely separate sheet from the manual, and might be missed by the casual user.

The remote control is not learning or universal, but worked well enough. You’ll need to use another remote for TV and/or auxiliary components. The display of the main unit was clear and easy to read at the 8’ distance. There are different colors and shapes that correspond to different operational modes, so even if the exact lettering is not legible at a distance, you know what the display is indicating.


Listening to the Radio

I thought I’d start off with a feature that many people might not even use, but that is still worth testing in my opinion—the radio. The tuner, unlike the DVD drive or auxiliary source, does not offer a ProLogic II mode setting. This wasn’t a big deal as I found out that even in the stereo mode, I felt as if the unit was offering some surround sound. It might have been due to the fact that when the unit was in the stereo mode (which makes use of the subwoofer by the way) the speakers that were operational were the two drivers that fired out to the side of the main speaker enclosure. This tended to give the sound a different presentation from what most people would consider ‘normal’ stereo. I kept being reminded of the 3D sound settings of the older Hughes SRS Spatializer systems. These effects used to sound relatively fake, processed, or give me a headache. This was not the case with the Niro system. It offered a bigger space, not nearly as pinpoint as conventional stereo, but fairly deep and extended out into the room. Depending on material, the sound would clearly appear to come from behind and well out to the sides.

Unfortunately, with the supplied antenna, the radio performance was marginal at best. The quality of sound was poor on about 2/3 of the stations I received, while the remaining 1/3 were below average. There was an unacceptable amount of background hiss/scratching that I don’t find present in $10 radios. The good news is that most of this can be remedied fairly easily. Simply take the supplied antenna and throw it in the trash. Go down to Radio Shack or your favorite local stereo shop and buy the cheapest dipole you can find. You’ll also need a 300-ohm to 75-ohm adapter. Luckily, I had one lying around and it greatly improved the performance of the radio. It didn’t make a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but it did make the radio at least listenable.

On the classical station, the image was not huge, but did seem much larger than the size of the speaker enclosure would suggest. I happened to push the “display” button on the remote and the display on the main unit up lit up and said “no RDS.” For a minute I thought the radio would receive RDS information, but was quickly convinced it could not. (The stations that I know broadcast it did not have any information in the display.) I don’t recall reading any information about this in the manual, but thought I’d give it a shot anyway.


Listening to DVDs

The first DVD I tried was U-571. It offers a DTS soundtrack; lots of surround, good picture quality, and scenes with tremendous bass output with which I intended to test the system’s dynamic capabilities. I used chapters 2 and 15 for the testing. I evaluated the performance of the system in a few areas: clarity/resolution, dynamics, and surround effect.

Chapter 2 opens with a bottle uncorking at a party. Instantly there was the feeling of being surrounded by a crowd of people, band sound from all directions, and with side conversations coming from the extreme right and left. The surround presentation is somewhat different from what most people may be used to. If you have ever hooked two speakers out of phase either intentionally or unintentionally, then you’ve heard the exaggerated spacious quality imparted by phase shift. The sound offered by the Niro seemed like a much more refined and controlled use of this technique. Off-screen sounds were extreme in their placement relative to the screen—sounds came from many feet beyond the edge of the screen in both directions. Front to back sounds were diminished and not as localized in comparison to a more conventional surround system. Generally, the sound was more spread out and not nearly as directional. When the depth charges were dropped in chapter 17, the Niro wasn’t able to give the same “over your head” sound like the comparison surround system.

Although Matthew McConaughey’s voice was a bit congested, I determined this was mostly due to the actual recording. Lower midrange on the Niro system was not as full as systems incorporating larger speakers than the 3 _” drivers in the main enclosure; however, many people would not notice/be bothered by this slight lack of fullness. (It was clearly evident in comparison with a larger speaker as mentioned in the Associated Equipment section.) Without the direct comparisons, it was only slightly obvious that there were limitations in fullness due to the size of the drivers and enclosure. In fact, two of the people who listened to the system while I had it said that if there were a better model offered (with better drivers) that it would be a “killer” system.

Dynamics were simply impressive. I was (at first) concerned about turning up the volume, but I was soon enough turning it down because the system was playing too loud! I further adjusted the subwoofer level, and it blended about as well as possible with the main speaker. It wasn’t overpowering in any way, but served as a nice foundation to the main speaker. When the German ship dropped explosive depth charges in the later chapter, the bass sounded surprisingly good. Listening room size was approximately 30’ x 15’ and the system was placed on the long wall.

On a side note, some of the discs I put in the Niro were not always free of scratches. At times, the player would fail to initiate playback or cause a visual anomaly on the screen when playing through these problem discs. The discs did play well enough on other players. This may be a concern if you play a lot of rental discs in the machine, or it could be sample related.

I switched gears and put in Matrix: Reloaded. I used chapters 20 and 25 for comparison listening/viewing. Immediately I noted that there were effects and music coming from behind and around the listening area. In the earlier fight sequence, bullets appeared to come from behind and when the “bad” guys swung their weapons around there was the sensation of back to front surround. On this disc, there was less difference in this regard when comparison was made to the conventional surround system. Otherwise, the comments made above apply to this disc as well.


Listening to Music—Surround CD

After hearing some differences in the surround experience in comparison to the more conventional system, I thought I had a good line on what material might pose more of a problem for the Niro 1.1 Pro system: namely, surround material that was very directional. I dug up an older DTS CD, Boyz II Men II. On track 13, “Yesterday,” the intention is to have the vocalists sing from each of the speaker locations at times, and at other times the singing would come from most, if not all, of the speakers at once. Although the sound was spacious and pleasing through the Niro 1.1 system, it did not accurately convey the intention of the recording. There was a significant difference in presentation through the conventional surround system. The Niro could not replicate the directional sounds although the voices were not placed in the front either. When the singing came from every direction, the conventional system overwhelmed me (in a good way) with sound. The Niro system offered a sound that was not as distinct and defined in space.


Listening to Music—Stereo CDs

I was anxious to see what the Niro could do with conventional stereo CDs. I put on Abba’s Greatest Hits, track 1, “Dancing Queen.” The “listening” button did not work exactly as I had expected. There was no way to simulate surround, although, even in the stereo mode, there was a sense of surround and added spaciousness. Some people will like this effect; although I felt it was a little off-putting hearing the soundstage extended 15’ to my left and 10’ to my right. It will come down to personal preference. When I pushed the “listening” button, the ProLogic II decoding kicked in and everything sounded like it was coming from straight ahead. Clearly, it would be useful if a satellite decoder, cable box, VCR, etc. were connected to the auxiliary inputs. I don’t imagine anyone would prefer this mode for listening to music, but if you object to the artificial spaciousness created under normal listening conditions, then perhaps you might. Since the speakers are shooting sound out sideways, this may not be as much an issue in a room that is less wide than the room used for auditioning the system.

This would be a good time to mention one of the other quirks found while listening to the Niro 1.1 Pro system. Turning your head away from the main speaker enclosure greatly altered the surround effect. This would not be the case in a conventional surround system due to the individual speakers providing a more directional sound. Off access listening was not greatly affected however, which should put most people at ease. This means that you can get most of the sound quality offered by the Niro system even without sitting directly in front of it. Most people will listen critically while watching a DVD or other video source, and therefore not have their head angled in a different direction.

When recordings are mixed with information solely in one channel or the other is when the Niro has the most trouble. On track 2, “Lester Left Town,” from Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ Africaine this was easily demonstrated. The performance overall is very much centered, but the cymbals seemed to echo around me. Although there was space added to the recording (to the sides of the speaker enclosure) it did not feel like a realistic stereo representation. To me, this was a huge limitation with the Niro system that was noted with all stereo music sources. You will have to weigh how important this alteration in sound is to you.


Listening to an Auxiliary Source

To test the surround capabilities of an external source, I connected the 2-channel outputs from the Marantz DVD player and ran them into the auxiliary input on the Niro. I felt this would give similar results to testing with a satellite decoder, cable box, VCR, or other stereo source capable of passing surround-encoded material. I used chapters 3 and 4 from MI-2. The ProLogic II mode was appropriate with this material, and sounded quite good. It was easy to sit back and just enjoy the sound from the system without being critical. Alas, it is my job to be critical. When switching over to the comparison system, I noted a more spacious sound with the listener being better placed in the center of the action. Without a comparison I would have been happy with the Niro 1.1 Pro sound. For anyone upgrading from TV sound or something similar, the difference will be huge (by going to the Niro). Just to experiment, I tried the stereo mode. It sounded “off” in comparison to the ProLogic II mode. I didn’t listen for more than ten seconds or so to realize that the material sounded best in the ProLogic II mode. The Niro was more than capable in the area of surround sound from an external source.


Conclusion

It was very easy to be wowed by what the Niro 1.1 Pro system could do. I was consistently impressed by the amount of sound that came out of this single speaker enclosure (as were others who heard the system). It was not just an issue of quantity, and the surround effect offered was uncanny. In my mind this system was designed for one purpose: to allow consumers who don’t have the space for multiple speakers or the desire to locate them in their listening room to experience surround sound. In this endeavor, the Niro 1.1 Pro system succeeds handily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the best sounding non-conventional surround system that I’ve ever heard. It’s not perfect, as detailed above, but for the person looking to buy this system, I doubt it will matter. You get exactly what you pay for: a DVD/Receiver and surround sound with only one main speaker and a subwoofer. There is no other system I know of (excepting Niro’s own 1.1 Standard system) that can do that.

-- Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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