NOCS gave us our first sneak peek at its Airplay-friendly speakers in the crowded (and noisy) North Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center over a year ago at CES 2012. Since then, NOCS worked feverishly to get the speakers ready for prime-time before finally sending us a sample a little over a year later.
The wait was long, and though it was never our intention to do so, we wound up keeping NOCS waiting around for this review as well (Sorry, guys!) But in those months between the time the NS2 showed up at our desks and the point at which we finally sat down to write this review, an interesting thing happened: NOCS completely sold out of its first production run.
Clearly, a lot of people already know about these relatively new, compact and somewhat pricey speakers. For those who don’t, here’s our take on the Swedish company’s latest effort.
Out of the box
If you’re making a consumer electronics product and decide you want to try to align it with Apple, you best be patient. Part of the reason it took a while for the NS2 to make it to retail shelves is that making an Apple-approved product involves a lot of back-and-forth with Apple, and that back-and-forth doesn’t always go so quickly. We’ve heard this many times from countless manufacturers – it’s just how it goes.
We also know that if your product gets embraced by the omniscient tech-gods in Cupertino, you are almost guaranteed some measure of success … if you steel yourself against inevitable delays and go all in.
NOCS went all in.
Everything about the NS2’s packaging screams Apple. From the individual white boxes and the font printed on them, to the careful segmentation of accessories within the little white boxes – it’s all Apple, all the way. And we like it.
Then there’s the first impression upon peeling away the cloth sacks wrapping the speakers, which was equally pleasing. The NS2 are clad in that rubbery, fingerprint-resistant material everyone is going bonkers for these days and, well, we still like it (check back in about a year… maybe we’ll be tired of it by then).
In the box(es) with the speakers we found a power supply, AC cable, and two lengths (one long, one short) of a proprietary speaker cable used to link the speakers.
Features and design
The NS2 are impossibly cute little speakers – each cabinet measures just 5.5 x 4.3 x 6.3 (H x W x D – in inches) and weighs just over 3 lbs.. But the NS2‘s cuteness can’t be attributed solely to their diminutive stature. The speakers’ softly rounded enclosures have a lot to do with their appeal, as do their petite drivers, which you can’t help but notice since the NS2 comes with no grills.
If you dig having a wide array of colors to choose from, then you’re in luck. The NS2 are available in six, including white, black, red, orange, yellow, and gray.
Each speaker is outfitted with a 3/4-inch silk tweeter and a 3-inch Kevlar-reinforced midbass driver. Powering the drivers is a built-in 80-watt amplifier augmented by a 32-bit DSP chip, all found in the right-hand speaker. On the back of the control speaker is a small antenna, a power port, and a 3.5mm input jack. Behind a little rubber door is a mysterious looking port which NOCS tells us is a service port – not intended for the end user.
Anyone looking at the NS2 is bound to notice that the speakers look very similar to the AudioEngine A2. By comparison, the A2 is a fraction smaller in each dimension, and just a bit heavier – an interesting combination of size/weight difference. Both the NS2 and A2 have slotted ports in the front of the cabinet with similarly-sized drivers. Around back, the A2 offers a set of RCA input jacks in addition to a 3.5mm input. It also uses standard speaker wire to tether the speakers, supported by classic binding posts rather than a custom cable. The A2 also supports an auto-sleep function to reduce power consumption; the NS2 does not.
Two much more notable differences between the two speakers are the NS2’s AirPlay functionality (kind of a big deal) and price. While the NS2 go for about $450, the A2 can be had for $200. With that said, the A2 comes with no wireless functionality at all – not even Bluetooth – putting it in a slightly different class of speaker, though we’re not sure all that accounts for $250 worth of price gap.
update: NOCS recently informed us that the NS2’s price will soon be reduced to $400
If you haven’t already bought a pair of NS2 speakers, then chances are the pair you receive will come with updated firmware which allows the use of AirPlay direct. AirPlay direct allows iOS and Mac users to stream audio to AirPlay devices without the need of a network connection. Essentially, the AirPlay device acts as its own Wi-Fi hotspot. You simply connect to it with your device like you would any other Wi-Fi router and begin streaming.
… the speakers stretched their sonic wings and provided a sound stage that belied their size
NOCS provides the firmware as a download on its site. Pulling that down is no problem, but getting the speakers to update is a bit trickier. In order to do it, your AirPlay speakers must already be connected to your network. This process is as easy as any other AirPlay speaker, which is to say it is mildly time consuming, but easy enough not to frustrate novices. NOCS recently informed us it is developing an app to make the process even easier.
With the speakers already connected, you must log into your wireless router as an administrator (hope you remember your password, or you’ll be resetting your router) and use the router’s firmware to find the IP address it has assigned the NS2 speakers. For us, finding the section in which this information was stored wasn’t so hard, but once we got there, we found the speakers weren’t distinguished from other devices connected to our network (like over-the-top boxes, Blu-ray players, etc.) so we had to try several IP addresses (12 in all) before we landed on the right one. Those homes with fewer devices or more advanced routers may not have such a tough time.
Again, most folks buying a pair of NS2 from this day forward probably won’t have to update the firmware for many months since AirPlay direct will already be active right out of the box. Still, those who must endure the process are sure to be a little put off.
We tested the NS2 in a number of different sized rooms with a wide array of music served up by an iPhone 4s, iPhone 5 and an iPad 2. For this evaluation, we streamed music files of varying quality, from 128k right up to Apple Lossless. For reference, we kept a pair of NuForce’s BT3 monitors nearby, often switching between them and the NS2. Prior to critical evaluation, we let the NS2 break in for approximately 40 hours.
Without any break-in, the NS2 sounded pretty good, but they came off as trying too hard to sound bigger than they actually are, and in a rather awkward way at that. What we noticed was a bit of a hole in the lower midrange, just before the NS2 kicked in with some rather sizeable low-end bass. We also felt like the sound was more compartmentalized than we had hoped for, sounding as if it was coming from the speakers’ individual locations rather than “filling the room” with what seemed to be some very refined sound.
After some break-in time, however, the NS2 were completely transformed. The lower midrange region had enough meat to support a smoother transition to the low bass, and the speakers seemed to have stretched their sonic wings out enough that they were able to provide a soundstage that belied their size. Now we’re talking.
The NS2 are a spritely speaker, with a treble response that carries just a bit of zing and resolves a good amount of detail. We threw every heavily sibilant album in our arsenal at the NS2 in an effort to get them to sound strident, but we failed. Brass, woodwinds, cymbals, hi-hats, violins, and closely mic’d vocals were all full zesty, but never so much so that we felt like the NS2 strayed too far from the source material.
Forced to tender a criticism of the NS2, we’d reluctantly point to the speakers’ midrange response. During the voicing process, engineers have to confront the ugly reality that compromises must be made. When you’re dealing with a speaker this small, some part of the speaker’s response curve is usually going to take a hit for the betterment of some other part. In the case of the NS2, it would seem that swath of midrange where the voice lives is just a little bit leaner than the rest of the speakers’ response. Don’t mis-understand, this speaker mids sound perfectly well, just not as round and warm as some listener’s may want. By comparison, the NuForce BT3 is much fuller, rounder, resonant sounding speakers. But, then again, they can’t hold a candle to the NS2 when it comes to low bass.
… with the NS2 sitting on your desk, you’ll likely want for nothing more than the NS2 can provide.
While the NS2 is capable of making great-sounding music in larger, open spaces, they shine brightest as a near-field monitor. When you snuggle up with these speakers, they treat you to a wide stereo image with an admirably deep soundstage. In a small office, with the NS2 sitting on your desk, you’ll likely want for nothing more than the NS2 can provide.
The NS2 is what happens when dedicated audiophiles sticks to their guns and patiently jumps through Apple’s hoops for the sake of delivering a great-sounding speaker to the masses. The NS2 is a handsome set of speakers, ready to class up whatever environment you’re inclined to set them in. Moreover, they sound very good. While some may prefer a slightly warmer speaker, we were plenty satisfied with the NS2’s articulate treble, impressively-deep bass and uncongested midrange output.
The one thing keeping us from going hog-wild over these speakers is their asking price. At $450, the NS2 are not cheap. Sure, they feature AirPlay, and we all know that adds significantly to the cost, but when adding wireless playback to speakers that cost less than half of the NS2’s asking price runs less than $100, we can’t help but think some will balk at the price tag. Then again, maybe we worry too much. After all, NOCS didn’t have any trouble running through its first production run. Something tells us it isn’t going to have any trouble unloading the second run, either.
- Sparkling, articulate treble
- Surprisingly deep, controlled bass
- Cute and compact for any décor
- Rock-solid AirPlay connection
- Very good soundstage
- Midrange lacks a little warmth
- Firmware update is tricky