Test Drive: The NTI EQ3 High Definition Audio Sound Enhancement System

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by Jerry Vigil

After hearing about the EQ3 recently, I was quite excited to get my hands on this box, anxious to find out what could possibly put the price tag of an analog equalizer at $4,300. The manufacturer, Night Technologies International, based in Provo, Utah, has more eloquently named their device the NTI High Definition Audio EQ3 Sound Enhancement System, a name one might expect to find attached to a complex, multi-effect, audio processing device. On the contrary, the EQ3 is nothing more than a 6-band equalizer. And it is as simple to operate as the bass and treble controls on your car stereo.

The 2 rack-space stereo unit features six dual-function controls for each independent channel. The outer knob of each control is for course EQ cut and boost. The inner knob on each control is for fine adjustments. Each channel has a bypass button with an LED that illuminates when the unit is in line. These are the only lights on the EQ3. There isn't even a "power on" LED. In fact, there isn't a power on/off switch! Like we said, it's simple to use!

The first five bands are set at the following peaks: 10Hz (labeled as Sub), 40Hz, 160Hz, 650Hz, and 2.5kHz. The bandwidths are very broad, around 2.5 octaves. The sixth band is labeled "Air" and is a high frequency shelving EQ that can only boost highs. The shelf on this control is from 6 to 10kHz and extends to 330kHz at -3dB.

The outer, course EQ controls "click" from setting to setting allowing ±3dB adjustment per click for a total of up to 15dB of cut or boost on the first five bands. The inner, fine adjustment knobs, which also "click" to position, are used to adjust cut or boost in ¼dB steps. The initial "flat" settings of the unit have the first five outer controls in the 12 o'clock position allowing for course cut and boost. The flat setting for the inner controls is in the full clockwise position. So, if you wanted a 3dB boost of 40Hz, you'd simply click the second outer control clockwise one time. If you wanted only a 2dB boost, you'd click the outer control clockwise once, and the inner, fine control counter-clockwise four clicks. This is a different setup from the norm, but it only takes a moment to get used to. The outer control of the sixth band, the high frequency "Air" band, is initially set in the full counter-clockwise "Off" position with its inner fine control in the full clockwise position. As mentioned, you can only boost highs with this control. The outer knob provides course boost and the inner control provides fine adjustment in ¼dB steps.

That's it! As simple as a toaster. On the back panel you get balanced XLR ins and outs and a pair of unbalanced outputs on ¼-inch jacks.

By now you're probably saying to yourself, "Wait a minute. $4,300 for an equalizer with only six bands? I can't cut highs? I can't adjust center frequencies? I can't adjust bandwidths? Hello?" Well, let's take a moment to talk a little about equalization.

Equalization is nothing more than boosting or cutting specific bands of frequencies. Equalizers can be as simple as the bass and treble controls on your home stereo, or they can come in a variety of multi-band graphic and parametric styles. Without getting too technical, let it suffice to say that the very nature of the circuitry of these conventional equalizers is such that the more their effects are applied to a signal, the more phase shifting and distortion is likely to occur. To many, this noise and phase shifting is not noticeable, or it is simply accepted as the very effect the equalizer is supposed to create. To other, more discerning ears, this phase shifting and distortion are unwanted side effects of equalization. Either way, the side effects have been accepted as part of the game, and people have either lived with them or tried other ways to alter the sound of the audio. For example, if you wanted to add some bass to your voice without equalization, you could simply get much closer to many mics and get that effect. Back off, and you'll cut the lows, or, in effect, boost the mids and highs (if you back off and raise the volume). Your ability to really "equalize" your voice without an equalizer is quite limited, but you are not introducing any of the side effects of equalization that you get when you start cranking the knobs on the equalizer.

Well, leave it to the folks at NTI to develop a way to get equalization with virtually no phase shift and no added noise. The technology is rather unique and has caught the ears and attention of quite a list of interested companies, we're told, including Mitsubishi, Sony, TDK, and National Semiconductor, to mention a few.

We asked the technical gurus behind the EQ3, Cliff Maag and an associate who likes to be referred to as Mr. X, exactly what they were doing with the EQ3 to get rid of the phase shift. It turns out that you can't have virtually no phase shift in an equalizer if you're going to have multi-bands with varying center frequencies. And you can't have adjustable bandwidths either. That's why the EQ3 doesn't offer these features. How does it work, guys?

"We get virtually no phase shift by overlapping the broad bands with each other and centering the frequencies at these particular points so that they are equally spaced. The overlap of the lower band negates the phase shift of an upper band. So, where the bands overlap, they cancel their own phase shift. They have to be at these set frequencies, so, when they add, they add in just the right manner to cancel the phase shift."

And when was the last time you saw an equalizer with a frequency response of 5Hz to 330kHz at -3dB? Yes, 330 kilohertz! Why is this, guys?

"This is much like oversampling is to digital recording. If frequencies are rolled off at 20kHz, then there is phase shift in the audible range."

If you're technically inclined, the reported phase shift of the EQ3 is 30 maximum with one control at maximum and others set flat -- 10 Nominal Operating Range. The THD+Noise spec is at 0.005%. Needless to say, the EQ3 is incredibly quiet and clean.

We put the EQ3 through the usual array of radio production tasks. We started by putting a Neumann U-87 microphone on line with the EQ3 for some experiments with the voice. Because of the wide bandwidths, there are some EQ effects you can't get with the EQ3 that you can achieve with other types of equalizers. You're not going to get a "phone EQ" effect out of it. You're not going to be able to do narrow band boosts and cuts. However, you can narrow the bands to a degree. For example, if you want to boost the 650Hz band, but not the entire bandwidth, you can boost the 650Hz band and cut the bands on either side. Because the bands overlap, the effect is a narrowing of the band being boosted. But, don't look for lots of special EQ effects from the EQ3. In fact, don't even think of the EQ3 as an effect box. It's not. It's an equalizer.

Now, for the simple purpose of adding some crispness to the voice at the very high end, we found the Air band alone was ideal for this. For more present crispness and punch, a little boost with the 2.5kHz band was quite nice. A slight boost of the 40Hz band put a nice, clean "boom" in the voice. (Again, bear in mind that frequencies well above 40Hz are getting boosted.) Of course, how it will sound on voices will vary from mic to mic and voice to voice.

How does the EQ3 perform on music? If you use several production libraries from different companies, you're aware of the different processing used by the individual producers. Some libraries are more "bassy" while the mid-range instruments are too present in others. Some tracks need a little more bass to make 'em sound just right. The EQ3 is ideal for EQ-ing music for a couple of reasons. Because there are only six bands, there isn't a lot of choices when it comes to what frequencies to cut or boost. This saves time. And it just so happens that the frequency bands available are just fine for EQ-ing music, unless, again, you're trying to do a special effect with the music like create a "transistor radio" effect or something like that. Also, because the controls "click" into specific settings, you are able to set the EQ on the left channel to EXACTLY what the EQ on the right channel is. For the audiophile, this is the ONLY way to EQ stereo music.

Another great application of the EQ3 is in the mastering process. Take your stereo mixdown and send it through the EQ3 for any final EQ-ing of your entire mix. If you're like me, by the time you've EQ'd voice tracks, sound effects, and music tracks on a multi-track piece of production, the final mix can sound a little rough. Sometimes there's a little more highs present than should be, or the bass in the entire mix is lacking. Again, the EQ3 makes this final EQ-ing step a fast and accurate one, limiting you to the six bands, and allowing you to set left and right channels so they are identical to each other. If you run your final mixes through a compressor/limiter first, the EQ3 is handy on the back end to add highs that tend to get lost in the compression.

Another good application of the EQ3 would be at stations playing re-mastered oldies from CD. The EQ3 would be ideal for adding some spark to the CDs, especially if the music is being transferred to another digital storage medium.

For many, the idea of so much emphasis put on the "quality" of an equalizer used for tasks in the radio production room may seem like overkill. After all, when it gets to the transmitter audio chain where more processing takes place, and everything gets rolled off at 16kHz anyway, who's going to notice the difference, right? Well, that's where the line is drawn with the EQ3. This is not an equalizer for everyone. If you're slapping 30 spots a day together on an old analog 4-track and dubbing your spots to four-year old carts, chances are nobody is going to notice how great everything sounds since you started using your new EQ3. On the other hand, if you're like the many who are discovering just how unforgiving the new digital recorders and workstations are when it comes to noise, then you might well appreciate the benefits of an equalizer like the EQ3.

Then there is a group of people out there who don't like to use equalizers at all. You know the type, the audio purist who believes everything should sound just as natural and unprocessed as possible. The person who won't EQ anything, won't compress anything, and really isn't too crazy about reverb, either, unless it's natural. This is the person with the expensive microphones, expensive pre-amps, gold connectors, digital recorders that sample at 48kHz, and so on. The EQ3 is an equalizer for people who don't like equalizers.

Now, if you're running a part-time production biz out of your basement on a low budget, the EQ3 is not for you, unless you also happen to be one of those people who spends $20,000 on their stereo system. (In that case, the EQ3 is the equalizer for your stereo system!) And, if you're the Production Director at a station that insists on the quality components and specs of a Pacific Recorders console, for example, instead of a Tascam for one-tenth the price, then you'll like the EQ3. And tell your engineer about this box. The specs on the EQ3 will impress him. In fact, the EQ3, with its minimal phase shifting, may well be the ideal box to place in the audio chain of the transmitter instead of using the usual 3 and 4 band equalizers found in many transmitter chains.

The EQ3 has already made quite a splash in other areas. It is now in use by NBC for the Tonight Show. For final recording and mastering, the EQ3 has been used by the likes of Kathy Mattea, The Indigo Girls, Tim McGraw, Aaron Neville, and Tammy Wynette. And it was used to master the soundtrack to the movie Maverick. All the reports we've read from the recording and film industry have been quite positive, and understandably so. This is where audio engineers constantly battle for sound superiority.

We generally don't get into revealing the people behind the machines in our Test Drives, but the folks that make up this relatively unknown company are quite a colorful bunch. The Chairman of the Board is Arlo Sorenson, who manages a major trust and is President of Whittier Trust. He's currently serving as a member of President Clinton's National Petroleum Council, and is the Chief Financial Officer of Western States Petroleum Association. Yea, he has some money to play with. The President of NTI is Richard Zimmerman, on the Board of Directors for the Utah Chapter of the National Association of Tax Practitioners. He's a principle partner of a 16-year old financial planning firm, Progressive Planning, Inc., and he's on the Board of Directors of the Utah Boys' Ranch. Richard King is an NTI board member and will be behind the building of the chips that will one day contain the EQ3 technology. He is also the Executive VP/General Manager, Network Systems, for Novell Corporation, and he developed the chips for Novell's successful network operations. NTI's VP of Operations is John Mosely. This man won an Academy Award for his work on Return of the Jedi. He's an expert in sound recording and has 25 international patents. He has worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Leonard Bernstein. Of course, there's Cliff Maag whom we mentioned earlier. He and Mr. X invented the EQ3. Cliff is NTI's VP/R&D. He owns his own recording studio, The Record Lab, and has recorded top celebrities from Bob Hope to Tanya Tucker and the Osmonds. Other principal operational executives include some successful gentlemen offering their expertise in the area of sales, legal administration, and consultation. Quite a bunch, heh?

So, basically, what appears to have happened, is this lively group of fun-loving people has assembled to bring us a $4,300 equalizer that will let us boost and cut various bands of audio with the knowledge that we're doing so in perhaps the purest way possible. It's like drinking Dom from a brand new Waterford Crystal champagne flute instead of a paper cup.

Regarding the high price tag, that's due to several factors. When the unit was pulled from the box, my first reaction was, "Whoa! This is heavy!" -- about 13 pounds. We're told the box is loaded with the finest components money can buy. It features a unique power supply unit that is responsible for a lot of the weight. The controls are custom made. To get the bands to work interactively with each other in such an exact manner as to cancel phase shift, the controls have to be extremely precise. This is probably why they "click" into position rather than slide or turn like a regular pot which would provide widely varying values. The EQ3 is "Made in America, with help from the British," John Mosely being the help from across the pond, though he resides in the U.S..

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