Product Review - B&W Nautilus HTM2 Center Channel Speaker - December, 1999 Joseph Caraciolo
B&W is well known for their high-end Nautilus speakers. Those $40,000 giants set standards that B&W was forced to compete with in their own lower lines. Recently the B&W "Matrix" series went through a complete product upgrade to more closely resemble the Nautilus titans. In fact, B&W renamed them as the "Nautilus 800 series" suggesting the quality put into this new line. The benefits of this upgrade are technological ideas adapted from the original Nautilus' at a lower, more reasonable, price. Of course, there are always the bragging rights to owning those oversized sound shells.
The HTM2 is the less expensive of the two center channel speakers in the Nautilus line, omitting two bass drivers and having a smaller cabinet than the HTM1. But practically speaking, from the standpoint of home theater, the disadvantages of having a limited low-end extension versus the cost of the product may be a reasonable tradeoff to many consumers. And after having spent some time with the HTM2, I can't image what more anyone could want out of a center channel speaker.
Aesthetically, the HTM2 more closely resembles a work of art rather than a conventional speaker. With a high arched back, slim profile, rounded edges, and of course the tweeter on top, B&W has gotten far away from that black box template that many manufacturers are using today. Removing the grille reveals a bright yellow mid/bass driver with a 3.5" flared port opposite a silver B&W logo. On the back, the four shielded binding posts are of top quality, and, unlike B&W's 600 series, they include special spade connectors for bi-wiring instead of the conventional gold plated jumpers. The HTM2 is a quality made speaker, from the research that went into designing it, to the acoustically dead housing that eliminates cabinet noise. The grille is solidly constructed with an MDF inner surround that curves outward and is covered with a tightly stretched, acoustically transparent cloth. Although there was little difference in the sound with the grille on or off, most of these tests were done without the grille, because the speaker just looks prettier that way.
Technically, the driver array is very unique for a center channel speaker. Instead of the more common arrangement of Woofer-Tweeter-Woofer (MTM), the HTM2 has its single 6.5" woofer centered with the tweeter in a separate "taper tube" enclosure directly above. According to B&W, this is to assure that the "output is both time aligned to the other drive units and is minimally affected by diffraction effects at the cabinet's edges" and is one of those stolen concepts from the Nautilus speakers. The results are better off-axis response and the elimination of internal reflections that are detrimental to sound.
I set the unit on top of my Sony Trinitron TV and bi-wired it according to the manual's diagram. The binding posts are constructed with spades in mind, but they will accept banana plugs if you remove the small plugs that are there to begin with (European electrical code requires the plugs be there). Along with the high quality jumpers, B&W includes a cleaning cloth and a lab test that shows how much this speaker deviates from 0 dB reference standard. I suspect that most of the HTM2's graphs are as flat as the one I received. B&W also recommends a 15 hour break in time, so to be fair I put on some wideband pink noise and set the volume to 85 dB.
The most important duty of any center channel speaker is to present dialogue accurately and therefore understandably. In a bad theater (home or otherwise) the dialogue blends in with the musical score and becomes hard to comprehend. Deep voices become bloated, treble sound is painful, and the seats left and right of center are dialogue-vacuums.
The overall performance of the HTM2 is very accurate. Voices sounded smooth, which is critical for a center channel speaker, rather than chesty which usually muddies up male dialogue. David Duchovny's raspy voice from "The X-Files" DVD has the tendency to sound nasal, like he has a cold. Played through the HTM2, dialogue sounded clean, not overly heavy or boomy and most importantly, it was never harsh. The fast paced screaming between "Mulder" and "Scully" during the first few scenes was clear and understandable. Each syllable was definite without blending together. The speaker performed admirably, adding none of the usual bass that clumps up inferior speakers.
Though the HTM2 does have its share of bass output, with a frequency response rating of -3 dB at 49 Hz, and usable bass output to 38 Hz, it could hold its own as a large (full range) speaker, although I would definitely suggest a good subwoofer to handle the lower octave.
At the higher end of the frequency response, the treble was smooth, rolling off around 19 kHz to -3 dB at 22 kHz. The opening scene from "The X-Files" features an alien screech that needs to be startling but not painful. This scene has the tendency to hurt some ears at higher volume levels. I was expecting to hear some jagged treble as the HTM2 uses a metal tweeter, but to my surprise, the high end was very soft. The only sound heard was the alien, not the speaker construction. In fact I had a hard time detecting any distortion even at volume levels in excess of 100 dB.
The off-axis response was the best I have ever heard, even from extreme wide positions. People sitting on the floor to the far right will hear the same thing as being heard from the sweet spot. And since some of us don't have the luxury of a professional installation, off-axis response is crucial to any amateur home theater presentation.
On 5.1 channel music, the HTM2 had a wide-open soundstage, but not to say it sounded airy. The violins from Mozart's Symphony No 35 (EMI classics) were smooth rather than harsh. There was no audible sign of fatigue at high volume levels where the presentation remained constant. This speaker is the perfect match for DTS CDs where the wider frequency range can be fully experienced.
$1000 may be a lot to spend on a single speaker, but if you're looking for a center channel speaker at even half this price, you owe it to yourself to give the HTM2 a listen. Also, remember that the center channel is the most important, since it has most of the sound. The HTM2 will satisfy the most demanding soundtrack with ease and, because of its wide dynamic range, solid build, and accurate presentation, is a wonderful speaker at any budget. So even though it may be the little brother in a wide Nautilus range, with the Nautilus HTM2 on top of your television, you will easily have bragging rights in your neighborhood.
B&W DM 602 (4)
Sunfire Signature Subwoofer
Sony Trinitron display
XLO/VDO ER-12 (speaker cable)
TICE DC 1A digital cable
Radioshack SPL meter
Avia A/V test DVD
Frequency response was measured with the Avia test DVD frequency sweeps and the Radioshack SPL meter. Using the A/B setting on my DVD player, I was able to locate the point where the sound is inaudible (or unusable) at about 38 Hz. I also used the wideband Pink Noise on Avia to break the speaker in.
- Joseph Caraciolo -
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