The fabled white cone with the black box. Yahama ns10’s. CLA swears by them, it seems every high-end mixing engineer agrees, and it’s publicized a lot more than we’d expect.
The question is, why? How did a hi-fi speaker seemingly conquer the world?
Why would a speaker that people mostly hate to listen to be a tool so many can’t seem to live without?
Let’s try to look at its history and answer that question today.
Roughly 36 years ago, the first ns10 was created. The ns10m’s were designed it as an upright bookshelf speaker, and yahama had no intention of this being used in a music studio. They tried to create something for home use but ended up doing such a terrible job at that; in a funny twist of fate, the speaker turned out to be one of the most sought-after speakers in a studio for the very reason they were hated for its original use. In fact, the speaker was so bright that Bob Clearmountain had to put tissue paper over the tweeter.
It mostly sounded terrible to listen to and relatively harsh across the board, but it did have a very fast attack of roughly 30ms, whereas most speakers nowadays have an attack of 100ms. This meant that you could hear the transients accurately, and compared to what they had at the time, it changed a lot. Also, the idea of it being fairly revealing when you’ve mixed something poorly or made a mistake cottoned on to studio owners, and they started repurposing the use of these speakers for studio use.
After that, yahama realized people were doing this and designed an ns10m Studio version that’s only real difference was that it was horizontal, which made it easier for it to sit on the meter bridge of consoles and looked better in the studio, making the ns10’s studio version another cash source for them at the time.
A couple of other versions came after the original units, some for surround sound, some just refreshes with a slightly different low-end frequency extension. Still, honestly, it wasn’t much different.
A Techincal Look
In 2001, they decided to write a paper to the institute of acoustics that attempted to solve the problem of understanding what made the speakers what it is today.
Newell's / Netherlands article was based on acoustic measurements from 38 different near-field monitors recorded in the UK's Advanced Research Room at the University of Southampton. Audio measurements include frequency response, harmonic distortion, and time domain response (the speed at which the speaker starts and stops in response to input). At the end of the exercise, one speaker stuck out remarkably: NS10. While the frequency response wasn't particularly flat and speakers limited the low-frequency bandwidth compared to many others, the time-domain and distortion performance were pretty outstanding.
The stiffness of the driver suspension, the air in the cabernet, the mass of the cone, combined with the closed box sealed design, seemed to attribute many of the “tight” sounding characteristics we hear in the ns10, especially in the low end.
A reflex-loaded ns10 would have had significantly delayed low-frequency response.
However, one of the interesting things is that short attack time actually extends up to the mid-range response time as well.
My final thoughts on the speakers
I think that the ns10’s are quite revealing because of their short-time domain response. In addition, I think we’ve become quite accustomed to responding well to transients as human beings, and as a result, I think we can make better judgments on quick-sounding speakers on a variety of matters. Sure, they’re discontinued now, but you can pick up a new pair from Avantone as the CLA10’s, but make sure you get the new active ones as they include the variable tissue paper control knob, which controls the brightness. I’ve looked at the frequency response, and it seems to be quite identical on the active versions, but on the original cla10 passives, they were pretty off and didn’t sound very good.
Why did they discontinue the ns10’s?
They say they couldn’t source the materials for the white cone, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s because Nakamura moved on to other projects and the people left to make the decisions didn’t see the value in keeping something that didn’t work well for the wider audience. While it made a lot of sales for studios, that pales in comparison to the level of income they could receive from the widespread consumer market. They eventually ended up likely thinking that the unit needed more bass, and a revamp, and essentially killed the speaker without even realizing what they had done. It’s a shame, but money speaks.
What would I choose?
I’d still choose something like the dutch and dutch 8c’s over it because of its wide use case and full range set up, with high-end quality. I personally believe you can’t mix what you can’t hear, but that doesn’t diminish what the ns10’s have achieved. Thinking they’re a silver bullet to solve all your mix problems might not be the right way to approach it, though.
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