Like any great mini-monitor – and the Nel Signature both fits and exceeds the mini-monitor mould in terms of performance, if not in physical form – this speaker is all about clarity, articulation and communication. With its small, stiff cabinet, tonal neutrality should be pretty much a given and the Nel certainly matches those expectations: so much so that I don’t intend to dwell on this aspect of performance. Just rest assured that, if you really know a voice or instrument, you are going to recognise it if you hear it through the T&Ts. Instead, one thing that sets them apart from the established mini-monitor crowd is that they go deeper. The clever and carefully honed design marries that bottom-end seamlessly to the wide-open mid-band and, as a result, it grooves like Marvin Gaye. Oh – and it looks as pretty as Marvin too, which makes it WAY prettier than any stand-mount, ever!
Traditionally, small speakers excel on voice and struggle with larger scale works. The Nel Signatures defy that assumption too. Yes, they excel on voice, but they present larger, more complex works with a clarity, scale and impact that belies their slender stature and shames many, more substantial designs. The key to that musical authority lies in their remarkably even frequency response, seamless integration and consistent energy spectrum. There’s no pumped up or tailored bottom-end to add the impression of weight at the expense of muddying the musical and rhythmic intent. The overall balance of the recording is preserved, beautifully and faithfully scaled, the performance it captures reproduced as a single coherent whole – one whose disparate energy arrives on time and all at once. For a small speaker, this packs one serious punch – when the music calls for it.
Let’s start with the most unlikely of programme material for a speaker like this: Basie big band. The insistent opening rhythm of ‘Way Out Basie’ (Farmer’s Market Barbeque – Analogue Productions APJ 023) has an infectious, propulsive drive that makes you realise just how deep a groove these speakers cut. The extended guitar, bass and drums opening, complete with Basie’s understated interjections and subtle prods, builds with a glorious inevitability into the full band brass tuttis, the stabbing notes, surging fanfares and dynamic prompts that come from the collective horns. There’s no missing the sense of pace, connected energy and dynamic impact that the Nel’s deliver. But play on through ‘St. Louise Blues’ and ‘Beaver Junction’ – no hardship at all when the music sounds this great – and you realise that this isn’t the pushy, chopped, toe-tapping drive of a classic PRAT system. These speakers lock to the music’s tempo, whether it’s the relentlessly up-beat ‘Way Out…’ or the casual, relaxed smooch that comes so easily to Basie’s band. The off-beat hesitations and pauses in Basie’s opening to ‘Beaver Junction’, an almost fractured phrase that many a system stumbles over, are navigated by the Nel with an ease, grace and clarity that magnifies the off-hand brilliance of both Basie’s initial statement and the band’s development. This speaker not only allows you to ‘see’ into the recording, it allows you to appreciate the performance and the sense of purpose behind it.