Nola Contender

Price: $3,600


Review by

James Darby

 

The Nola Contender is the latest model in Carl Marchisotto's pugilistically named speakers – the “Boxer” and “Announcer”. The Contender, a floor-standing extension of the bookshelf Boxer is definitely “ready to rumble”. Weighing in at 50 lbs. and 44" H x 8" W x 12" D represents a rather small footprint – the same as the bookshelf Boxer. Floats like a butterfly…..

Both the Boxer and Contender are departures from Nola’s usual fight strategy because they are not the open baffle designs for which Nola is notably regarded as the best in the business, most of which have been reviewed by Stereomojo in times past. Perhaps that’s why we get the fight game nomenclature since these are ported “boxes” rather than no box/baffles. These might be right down your Ali.

But then, pictured left is the just announced "KO" speaker of which Carl has promised us an early review, that is, as you can see, very much an open baffle design. So much for that theory.

Instead, what the head promoter gives us is a true 3-way design with two low mass 6 inch bass drivers and one high resolution silk, soft-dome tweeter in a vertical array. Each bass driver is housed in a separate chamber and is individually ported. The upper driver is ported to the rear, while the lower driver is loaded by a downward firing port. The chambers are tuned to different frequencies to provide the smoothest and most extended in-room bass response that is advertised as low as 35 Hz with “usable response” to 25 Hz! That’s very low for a speaker in this price range. Pretty high, however, is the Contender's sensitivity at 90 dB with a nominal 8 Ohm impedance that doesn't dip below 4, Carl says.

One thing that has not changed with the Contender is Nola’s stunningly gorgeous high-gloss finish. The build quality is flawless. Carl’s “piano” finishes are better than any real pianos I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen and played thousands. The black towers he provided were very hard to photograph because they are so reflective. They also come in cherry, but not Nola’s signature rosewood. Producing multi-lacquered cabinets of this quality is expensive, and I cannot overemphasize  just how magnificent the workmanship is and how gorgeous they are.

 

 

ENTERING THE RING

The primary quality of any speaker, as beautiful as they are or not, is to completely disappear when playing music. The Contenders do. There is no sense that you are listening to objects de hi-fi. Listening to Gwen Hughes' version of "I'm Not in Love" (an easy Bossa Nova rendition with muted trumpet swaying along) from Lost and Found, Linda said, "I feel like I'm in the club. There's no speakers! I expect to hear people talking in the background any second...".

The first thing that made a huge impression, literally, was the soundstage, particularly the midrange. If I didn’t know better, I might have guessed these were open baffle designs. We listen to a lot of vocalists of every genre – country to opera. Solo voices were so separate, distinct and detached from backgrounds, whether it was an orchestra or a guitar, it was spooky. Really remarkable. I swear Joe Cocker was spitting on us during “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”.

Speakers were moved about quite a bit, but ended up slightly toed in, per Carl’s recommendation. We listened to hundreds of different tracks, easy to do with a music server, but also via vinyl. Here are some real-time listening notes:

Sitting well to the right of the center sweet spot, Linda said she could hear a perfectly formed stereo image with great depth and width. You say your wife doesn’t like to listen with you? Sit in her chair and check out what she’s hearing. If it sounds all askew, can you blame her?

Paul Simon’s "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes".  Abe Laboriel’s bass very tuneful, easy to follow. When toms came in made me blink, dynamic! Background singers very distinct. Bass very fast and rhythmic. But is it too emphasized?

“Songo” by Andrea Bocelli; he’s way out front and huge. Speakers give the impression of being much larger than they are. They render height (music extending well above the speaker enclosures) particularly well. The soundstage also extended well beyond to the right and left, but only when the recording went there.  

 

"Jack Sparrow" from The Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. It features a huge Hollywood orchestra playing as loud as humanly possible, especially the double basses that can grind some speakers into the floor. The Contenders didn't explode or melt at moderately loud levels. Yes, they were working hard, but they pulled it off and didn't make my ears explode or melt either - I sometimes just have to turn this track off with some other "contenders", but not Carl's. I've heard more detail and texture, with Carl's own Baby Grand for example, but hey; they're $59,000 and several times the size.

Something occurred during one listening session that, in 50 years, has probably only happened a handful of times; while listening to one particular song for the first time, I got so emotional that tears actually ran down my face. What's really strange is that the song is in 6/8 time and is rather up-tempo, not a slow, maudlin, typical tearjerker.

Entitled “OK, Here's the Truth”, it’s a story told by a husband about his beloved wife who has suddenly started coming home late and when asked why, says “OK, here's the truth” and proceeds to come up with one lame excuse after another.

 

Okay here's the truth

I ran out of gas

And I didn't call cause I thought you'd be mad

So I started to walk

Took an hour and a half

To get off that highway and fill up that can

I was hoping that you'd understand

 

 

The next time she says she took a new route home and got lost, just solidifying the husband's worst fears. Then there's more;

 

Standing there watching her secretly talking

It is just about all I can bear

Now I know why she's been wearing

More make-up and caring

So much about changing her hair

 

The telephone vibrates on the table again

Another damn private call coming through

And now she's visibly shaking

And I just feel like taking that phone

Throwing it clear across the room

 

She answers “hello”

A mans voice I don't know

Says “it's time that you tell him the truth”

Now I can't take this no more

Honey I'm out the door

No, I won't relax

I've got my suitcase all packed

But what she said next stopped me dead in my tracks

 

Okay here's the truth

It's not what you think

The man that you heard is head of oncology

I'm sorry I lied

To you all of those times

I didn't know how to tell you

I might not survive

 

Okay there's the truth

I've got six months to live

Only wanted what's best for you and the kids

I promise I'll fight

With all of my might

But if I lose this battle

I lived a good life

So baby just please hold my hand

And tell me that you understand…

 

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DA-yum!

 

The thing is, the lyrics go by pretty fast, but over the Contenders, they are so clear as is the turmoil in the guy’s voice, it just brought home the high degree of expression and feeling of which the Contender’s are capable, aided not at all by the recording’s rather mundane audio quality.

 

What happened that night friends, is a large portion of something that cannot be measured on an oscilloscope or any other machine, something we call “musicality”.

 

The singer is Javier Colon – winner of the first season of the TV show “The Voice” and the album is Come Through For You. Unfortunately, that’s about the only song on the CD that I liked. The rest is mediocre at best.

 

I often found myself nodding with the beat or even snapping my fingers a few times. That doesn't often happen either, especially when listening to songs I've heard a million times. Impressive.

 

I love brass, especially trumpet players. I played trumpet when I was a kid till I had to give it up to concentrate on piano in college. When you talk about trumpet players you have to think Maynard Ferguson. One of my favorite cuts is "Fox Hunt" from M.F Horn 4 & 5 - Live at Jimmy's, a hard bop arrangement that showcases his speed and his supersonic range for which he is best known as well as that of his band. Several soloists are featured in the right and left channels before Maynard comes blasting out in the center channel. Man if it didn't sound like Maynard was in my room.

 

Sibilance is the sound of "S"s being smeared, mostly on recordings by female artists. It can be caused by amps, preamps, disk players, DACs, cables or speakers. I know my reference components don't smear them so if I hear them over a speaker, it's their fault. My torture test is "So Nice", sung by Stacey Kent on an album by saxist Jim Tomlinson.  Even the title has two Sssss’s in it – “so” and “nice”. The recording itself, while containing many s sounds, is as natural as can be. No smearing on the track, but baby this track can make your ears bleed (and my lower jaw ache) if the system and especially the speakers don't get the upper mid's timing right, often a driver or crossover issue.  The Contenders? Pure as a nun’s vesper  prayers or Jennifer Love Hewitt's cleavage, whichever image works best for you.

 

I mentioned that these speakers love singers.  They can place the singer way out in front of the speakers (and the instruments) in life size form, if it the recording dictates so, and good recordings do. Choirs sound like choirs, not just blobs of singers. Every expression, every nuanced phrase is portrayed without compromise. I never felt as if the Contenders were forcing perspective. Sometimes singers were back between the speakers and sometimes even a bit recessed; sometimes big and bold, other times just sitting in the mix. The speaker's will was subservient to the recording - the way it should be, but often is not.

 

They can be very revealing, too. I engaged in some serious tube rolling in my Purity Reference preamp, our Best of 2011 in that category, and the little Nola's let me hear every difference. Easily. Which brings me to this: we've said many times that the quality of a system can be judged by the effort it takes for the listener to hear everything in every recording. The more one has to work at it, the poorer the system. Throughout the midrange and above, I never had to work to hear anything the Contenders were saying, playing or singing. I never had to lean forward, squint my eyes or concentrate to detect anything. Great music and great music systems just allow the music to happen to you while you just relax and let it wash over, around and through you, bypassing the analytical left brain and passing straight through to the right brain where all the creativity and emotion live.

 

Criticisms are few and far between and I had to dig pretty deep, literally and figuratively, to find any. When I do hear something that I perceive might fall short, even a little, of the best I've heard at any price, I explore it with moving the speakers, myriad recordings, components and in this case, different tubes in the preamp to make sure what I'm detecting is not a room issue or a flaw in something upstream.  Also in this case when I reference "the best"' it includes Nola's own; and that is a very high standard. I also spend a lot of time over several listening sessions, just to make sure that what I hear is consistent and not just a one night stand. Also, different volume levels are explored.

 

I know we say this a lot, but it bears repeating; nothing is perfect on this side of heaven. It is our job to not only laud the strengths of the item under review, but also any potential weakness.

 

The vast majority of audiophiles will rightfully marvel at the quality and quantity of the bass and LOW bass the Contender's produce, especially at this price, as do I. Those who revel in lots of bass that does not fatigue and is not boomy, along with all the exemplary qualities already noted, will embrace these lovingly. Again, as do I. So here goes:  the low bass, to me, sounds a bit boosted. Not over exaggerated or artificial, just a little north of normal.  Now a lot of people will say, "That's a criticism? Dang Darby, most speakers sound so lean and lacking down deep to me, those sound exactly like what I've been looking for!" And they would be right. Personal taste, man.  Now what I heard varied quite a bit over different amps, tubes and positions. I even moved the speakers to our second listening room that is much smaller – 12’ x 10’ with a low 9’ ceiling. Different room, completely different system as well.

 

Different also was the flooring material – rug versus wood in the main room – and this may be the biggest key. On our wood floors, because the port is on the bottom of the speaker, the Contenders must use the included spikes to elevate them to give enough room for the port to breathe. However, there’s no way we’re putting naked spikes to drill into the hardwood and (and this is also important) there are no alternative supports, so if you have floors you don’t want ruined, you have to do something else. “Something else” in this case was to stick some wooden platforms underneath them to absorb the needlefishes spike points and spare the wood.

 

No matter what I did in that scenario, changing everything in the system including positions, I just could never get the Contender's low end to sound “right”. I should mention that I have used the same platforms with other speakers in the same room with no ill effects. In fact, the platforms are the ones that came with and are employed under my reference Vaughn Cabernet towers. Therefore, it is probably not the biggest   determining factor.

Best case in the large room was a 12 wpc 300B tube amp. The Contenders with their high sensitivity love SET (single ended triode) amps that can sometimes be a bit rolled off down low. SETs with their beautiful midranges also love the Contenders that can sing and dance with any speaker in that crucial area where most of the music lives.  Absolutely breathtaking.

 

In the owner’s manual, it says that other footer options are “available from your dealer”. I don’t have a dealer – the speakers came from Nola, so that might be a solution. But most tower speakers come with two types of footers, even much less costly models, so it might be worth considering that if there are more cases like mine.

 

In the smaller room with carpets, the bass was more linear and less pronounced, but there was still a bit of the same characteristic I heard in the big room.

 

Also noted was quite a bit of cabinet vibration immediately in the vicinity of the  midrange driver right beneath the tweeter – not the woofer at the bottom of the cabinet. The whole tower does not resonate as many competitors do, due no doubt to the separately sealed chambers. Carl is the master of isolation and I believe he has done the very best in that regard for the price point he gave himself with which to work.

 

Again, this is a matter of personal taste and many people will love the extra bottom end I heard. Or perhaps they won’t hear it at all.

 

The only other thing I'd note is that if you like your music extremely LOUD, you probably don’t want these in your corner. Sustained levels of around 95 dB with peaks reaching higher sound a bit strained in the large room. Got a really big room to go with your ear busting appetite? Carl makes many other speakers that will party hard all night long.  Linda and I were very comfortable with them in our main room with its high ceiling and 24 by 30 foot size, as long as levels stayed around a civil and moderately loud sustained 85dB with peaks reaching 95db or so on very dynamic tracks. And again, these speakers sound huge.

 

Now. Would either of these two perceived weaknesses make me hesitate to spend $3,600 for this pair of gleaming black beauties if I were in the market? No, no and oh yeah, NO. Would I be happy living with these as my only speaker, even after living with many much more expensive speakers? Careful now. I don't say this often, but the answer is yes.  And Linda, who is perhaps even pickier than I, loves 'em and also would happily live with these as well. When I asked her point blank, she smiled and said, “OHhh yes”.

 

I don't know why Carl named these the Contenders because they never contended with anything other than our time to listen to music being played through them. Even as jaded as I am, I always looked forward to my time with them and hated when life or sleep demanded that I leave them.  

 

One listening note said this; “As I write this note, it is just after midnight on a Friday, the end of yet another four hour listening session that ended too soon. I am calm, relaxed yet exhilarated by what I've experienced this night”.

 

 

If appearance means anything to you, the mirroresque piano lacquered cabinets are gorgeous in either black or cherry. They give you very big sound in a rather small footprint, especially the lush (particularly with tubes) midrange. Bass goes very low for a speaker of this price and quality, but some may find it a bit overdone. Very easy to drive with sensitivity at 90 dB with a nominal 8 Ohm impedance, you should be able to drive these with a good quality 30 watts per side in a normal, small to moderate room. Even with high power amps (we used a Sanders Magtech at 500 wpc and the BFA integrated at 150 wpc among others), the Contenders don't like to play at extreme volumes. They do very well with all genres of music, a big plus. They tend to play on more of the romantic, lush side rather than a hyper-detailed, cool presentation. Excellent musicality with loads of expression.

If you have uncarpeted floors, the Contenders only ship with needle-sharp spiked feet. Raised feet are mandatory because of the model's bottom mounted port.