Dr. Vinyl and the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 | On the Road
March 26, 2023 by Marc Phillips
It's not often that I travel across the country just to hear a new audio product, but last weekend I did exactly that when I met with Dr. Vinyl, a dealer outside Baltimore, to hear the new Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 loudspeakers. With "baby" in the name, you might think these were small petite floor-standers or even a pair of bookshelf monitors. But no. These are massive towers, and they will set you back $150,000 per pair.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
That right there is an excellent reason to make a trip -- after all, I did go all the way to Copenhagen last summer just to hear the flagship DALI KORE ($110,000/pr USD). But Nola is all about Carl Marchisotto and his wife Marilyn, who are genuine legends in the high-end audio industry. I remember reading about Carl's designs back when Sam Tellig was still writing The Audio Cheapskate. When I met Carl and Marilyn a few years ago, I felt like I'd just met royalty. So when Carl asked me to travel from Portland to Baltimore to give his new speakers a personal audition -- which lasted three whole days, morning to night -- I said "Of course!"
That first meeting with Carl and Marilyn, pre-Covid, led to me reviewing the Nola Champ S3 loudspeakers last year. I was truly impressed with them, too. Those speakers will set you back about $15,000/pr USD, and to tell you the truth they have a somewhat superficial resemblance to the Baby Grands. Both sit on large rollerball platforms, both have multiple midrange drivers and tweeters, and both have an open baffle behind the higher frequency drivers. Upon close inspection in the Dr. Vinyl showroom in Middle River MD, the Baby Grands are beautiful works of art with a whole new level of fit and finish.
That "Baby" designation does imply there are bigger, more expensive speakers in the Nola line-up, and there are -- the Grand Reference VII Gold and the Concert Grand Reference Gold 3. The Baby Grands do feature much of the technology and features of those larger models, and they do seem very tall, and very elite. But Dr. Vinyl and I were able to move them around the room without much problem -- even though they weigh about 200 lbs. per side.
What's new about the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3? Here's the summary from Nola:
"These include the development of 220mm magnesium cone bass drivers driven by massive Alnico ring magnets for lowest distortion and improved clarity over the whole range. These two bass drivers incorporate gold-plated solid copper phase plugs -- the soft 24K gold plating damps the copper plug to eliminate any vestige of coloration from these drivers. These bass drivers are now twin ported to the rear in separate chambers, to provide deeper, smoother bass with improved dynamics. System sensitivity is now increased to 91 dB at 8 ohms.
"Four new midrange drivers have been developed. These incorporate massive Alnico ring magnets with greater force and provide "lifelike attack" and improved transient response. These drivers now incorporate the gold-plated phase plugs as used in the bass drivers.
"The proprietary true ribbon tweeters extend response to 100 kHz. The extended bandwidth provides an increased sense of "reality" from recordings.
"The Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 is a mirror-imaged, open baffle dipole design that provides lifelike image size. Coloration throughout the 400 Hz to 3500 Hz midrange is eliminated due to the open baffle dipole design for the 4 midranges.
"The three 3½-way, hand-wired Unison crossovers employ the latest exotic passive components. For maximum quality, no PC boards are used in the crossovers.
"The loudspeaker includes a twin ball-bearing isolation base with premium spikes that eliminate coloration from floor-borne vibrations."
Dr. Vinyl: Amplification
What I found most intriguing about the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 was its ability to melt into the music and not dominate the system -- like most six-figure loudspeaker systems do. The Baby Grands are able to step back and let you listen to what the amplifiers and the sources are doing. We tried three very different amplifiers with the Nolas: the McGary Audio SA-1E ($7,000 USD), the AGD Productions "The Audion" Mk. II monoblocks ($7,500/pr USD) and the JMF HQS 6002 ($39,000 USD).
The differences between the sonic signatures were very different, with the McGary sounding warm and tubey yet still generous with the detail, the tiny little AGD monoblocks saying yes, I'm yet another sonic miracle when it comes to well-considered class D circuitry. (The glass "tubes" actually house the PCB boards, if you look carefully.) The JMF amps, however, gave me a seductive little smirk and muttered, "Bet you didn't think you were going to love the sound of solid-state anymore, yes?"
For the preamp, we decided on the Backert Labs Rhythm 1.4 ($14,000). Dr. Vinyl told me that he feels that you have to spend at least double the price to beat the Backert, and as soon as the tubes were warmed up I concurred with unbridled enthusiasm. (Now I know why Graig Neville bought his Rhumba preamp after reviewing it.) When the JMF was in the system, however, we used the matching JMF PRS-1.5 dual mono preamplifier ($34,000).
Dr. Vinyl: Sources
As for the sources, Dr. Vinyl and I switched back and forth over the course of the weekend -- with me, surprisingly enough, on digital duty. I'm not a big fan of running someone else's super-duper expensive turntable until I get used to all its foibles, and the J. Sikora Reference turntable with the intricate Tru-Glider tonearm from Integrity HiFi and the DS Audio 003 optical cartridge system seemed a little too daunting at first. My digital rig was pretty heckin' sophisticated, though -- the Ideon Audio Absolute digital stack -- but all I had to do was man the laptop.
Most of this system was cabled with ArgentPur. Coincidentally, I've been talking to this company about reviewing a loom of their cables very soon, so it was a pleasant surprise to scout them in the Dr. Vinyl listening room. The racks were mostly from Mosart Fine Art, and they were quite gorgeous.
As I mentioned, I spent two-and-a-half very full days with Dr. Vinyl, listening to all of these combinations. I'm talking from 10am (the earliest I could manage on EST) to 11:30 pm at night. Dr. Vinyl would play his favorite LPs, some of them quite rare, while I would dig out my favorite reference tracks to stream via Roon.
Yes, "Chocolate Chip Trip" was played, and more than once. Dr. Vinyl's son Joey, who works with his father on set-ups, is also a Tool fan so he had no problem helping me find the right tracks to play. The Yulunga test was performed as well. I got really weird at times, with lots of Hans Zimmer and Hildur Guðnadóttir, but I also managed to get Dr. Vinyl hooked on Arvo Pärt and Lucinda Williams. He, in turn, got me hooked on plenty of new artists -- new to me, of course. The only issue we had was when I played some grunge, which Dr. Vinyl's wife Mariem doesn't care for. (She is the owner of Dr. Vinyl -- this is a family business in every sense.)
Here's my verdict on the sound of the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3. As I mentioned, they're very revealing of all the other pieces of gear in the system, and all of the switches we made during the weekend were not subtle. The Baby Grands also did an outstanding job of delivering the music in the appropriate size. As I also mentioned, huge speakers tend to assert themselves almost relentlessly at times, but the Baby Grands could be small and delicate when needed, particularly late Sunday night when the Doctor played a rare pianoforte recording on LP to wrap up the day's listening.
But if you're wondering if the Baby Grands can party, oh yes they can. These are speakers that have a frequency response of 20Hz-100kHz, so they have the extension at both ends. Dr. Vinyl, however, insists upon a sound in his room that's never ever bright or aggressive or forward. That meant tight, well controlled bass, sweet highs and absolutely no listener fatigue -- which is how I could sit for 14 hours a day and still want more.
The Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 could also clearly define the distinct differences between digital and analog. Now, the Ideon Audio Absolute digital rig is certainly no slouch -- this was one of the finest DACs I've heard. But that J. Sikora/Tru-Glider/DS Audio analog rig was stupendous when it came to delivering a natural and lifelike sound. I feel like I've been swimming around in the new digital technologies for the better part of the last year, and the Dr. Vinyl rig reminded me that I needed to get back home and tip the scales back toward analog for a while.
If you're not familiar with the DS Audio optical cartridges yet, you need to get with it. This is one of those rare innovations in high-end audio that has many perplexed, befuddled and ultimately seduced with a direct, clean voice that gets right to the heart of the music with few mechanical or electronic artifacts. (Heck, the people at Audio Group Denmark are busy designing products around the DS Audio optical cartridges.) Dr. Vinyl loves these carts, and now I'm pretty sure I do too.
There is only one caveat about the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3, and it has a lot to do with its considerable height. (I noticed this same thing when I reviewed the much smaller but still high Champ S3.) I started off in a supremely comfortable Eames chair, the model without the acoustically intrusive headrest, but it was simply too low. That resulted in a sound that was a little rolled off on top. The fact that I was craning my neck just to see the top third of the speaker was my first clue that I needed to sit a little higher. I tried a second chair and the heavens parted, as I like to say. Everything dropped into its right place, and I basked in that incredibly wide frequency response for the rest of the weekend.
One More for the Road
While my assignment was to cover the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 loudspeakers, I did get a message from our own Grover Neville during my lengthy auditioning. He noticed that Dr. Vinyl was a dealer for ampsandsound, so he asked I could listen to the Nolas with one of Justin Weber's little tube masterpieces. There was only one pair of monoblocks -- the Kenzie Monos, which have just one mighty watt per channel. The Baby Grands have a sensitivity of 91 dB with an 8-ohm impedance, but that was too tall of an order. (We did give it a try, and the tonality was still superb, but the dynamics and the soundstage had shrunk considerably.)
Enter the Heretic Audio AD614 loudspeakers, with its 97 dB efficiency and 8-ohm impedance. This was a far more suitable match, obviously, one that I truly enjoyed as sort of a coda for this fabulous weekend.
Until Next Time, Dr. Vinyl!
My visit with Dr. Vinyl was seriously entertaining. All we did was listen to music, eat, then return to listening to music. I get so busy with PTA sometimes that I forget the most important part of the job is listening to music and having a wonderful time doing so. Jose and his family reminded me of what's important in this industry -- hanging out with good people and sharing a love for all kinds of music.
I was truly surprised by how much we had in common. Dr. Vinyl carries so many of my favorite brands -- Lab12, Pear Audio Blue, Qln, and more -- that if I still lived in the Mid-Atlantic I know Dr. Vinyl would be my high-end audio dealer.
This trip was focused on hearing an incredible pair of speakers, the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3s, that delivered the sonic goods while letting so much of the music through to my ears. As the Doctor exclaimed at least a couple of times during the weekend, "Carl's still got it!" That's 100% true, in my opinion. But this was also about the importance of having a great high-end audio dealer on your side when you're in this hobby, someone who will take care of your needs and familiarize themselves with your tastes as well as your budget. At Part-Time Audiophile, we still get requests for private consultations and advice, and our response is always, "That sounds like a dealer's job." Dr. Vinyl is the strongest possible reminder of this core concept at the center of our beloved hobby.