2 little speakers' big output nears sound that surrounds

October 14, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

ALTHOUGH I like to keep current on the computer world, I admit to being a bit old-fashioned when it comes to the family room.

We're perfectly happy with the 36-inch analog television we bought a couple of years ago. It delivers a crisp, color picture, and we haven't yet found any compelling reason to spend three or four times as much for HDTV.

The only real complaint we have is the sound -- the TV speakers don't deliver much in the way of fidelity. Hooking up the cable box or DVD to our stereo receiver produces better quality, but it sounds unnatural -- particularly with dialogue -- because our equally old-fashioned speakers are set rather far apart.

Home theater fanatics solve this problem with expensive Dolby 5.1 channel surround-sound systems. These replicate the three-dimensional sound of movie theaters by using six speakers -- a great solution, but one that's expensive and hard to set up.

So when a company called Niro1.com promised to deliver theater-quality sound with just two speaker boxes at a price that's less than stratospheric (although $450 is nothing to sneeze at), I was willing to give it a try.

I was impressed. Although it wasn't perfect, the low-end Niro 400 set produced a lot of wow for the buck. And if the family room wasn't transformed into the audio equivalent of a stadium theater, it was a lot closer than I thought it could be.

First, a word about surround sound.

The Dolby 5.1 system developed for theaters squeezes six digital audio channels into the space between sprocket holes on 35mm movie print. You don't notice it when you watch the average Meg Ryan comedy, but noisy, big-budget epics such as the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings series films will rattle your cage with 3D sound.

When these signals are encoded onto DVDs or transmitted in digital cable or satellite broadcasts, it's possible to reproduce these effects in the home with a system that supports Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and six speakers.

Three speakers in front provide traditional left and right stereo channels, plus a center channel for dialogue. Two rear speakers add depth (since real sound comes from all around us), along with the possibility of flashy effects, such the sound of a gun being fired behind your back or a helicopter circling overhead.

Finally, there's a single subwoofer for deep bass sound, which is omnidirectional. That means your ear can't tell where it's coming from, so it requires only one speaker that most people set up anywhere they have room.

Not surprisingly, these systems are expensive, hard to install, and even harder to tweak. Installing rear speakers requires running cables around the room, through the walls, or under the floor or rug. The speakers have to be mounted on the rear wall or set on freestanding pedestals. Even then, for the proper effect, the viewer should be sitting near the center of the room, with speakers in front and behind. That is not easy in the average family room.

So what can two little Niro 400 speakers do to simulate all this technology? Its trick is modifying the sound so that the ear believes it's coming from different directions -- which requires complex mathematical calculations and a lot of computing power.

The manufacturer, Niro1.com, was founded by Niro Nakamichi, who was a key developer of high-fidelity tape cassette technology 30 years ago. And in 1998, he formed his own company to bring 3D movie sound to the masses.

The heart of the Niro system is a 160-watt SPA 400 Sound Process Amplifier. Inside, the company says, is a digital signal processor that can perform 600 million calculations a second.

The amplifier, directed by its own remote control (a rather clunky one at that), connects to two speaker enclosures via 14-foot cables.

The Niro 400's main speaker package, designed for smaller rooms, includes a 9-by-12-by-5-inch subwoofer and a 7-by-5-by-2.5-inch box that contains five small speakers set at various angles. The smaller, multi-speaker box sits unobtrusively on top of a standard tube-based TV, or attaches to flat panel screens with a bracket.

On the back of the amp are standard analog RCA-type stereo jacks (for non-digital sound), a coaxial audio input and two optical Toslink jacks. These last are the key, because they use fiber-optic cables (not supplied) to process digital sound from a DVD player, digital satellite or cable TV box, and even a Sony Playstation 2 or Microsoft Xbox game console.

I connected my DVD player to the amp with an optical cable and sat down with a handful of really noisy movies -- including the two Star Wars prequels, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a digitally mastered version of Top Gun.

(Top Gun's mix of '80s chart-toppers, golden oldies and screaming jet engines, by the way, makes it sonically the King of Testosterone, in my opinion.)

Although our family room is a bit bigger than the Niro 400 was designed for, it filled the place with roaring, booming, near-3D sound.

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