FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 20
Viper II loudspeakers
as reviewed by Karl Lozier
The name Nola may not be familiar to many of you. Carl Marchisotto, well known for his designs for the Alon by Acarian group, now calls his company Nola. His top-of-the-line model, the Grand Reference Series III, is the reference system for the editor of one of the most popular high-end print magazines. With a price in excess of $100,000, it darn well should be a true reference. It features two very large and heavy cabinets per channel. The Pegasus, a very different design that attempts to come close to the Grand Reference in sound quality, was introduced at CES in January 2005. Impressive in its size and its near-state-of-the-art performance, it is still pricey at $45,000 a pair. One step down from the top of the Nola line is the trio of Vipers—the I, II, and Signature—which differ internally but share the same attractive and unusual appearance.
The Vipers are small floor-standing speakers that will not dominate most listening rooms. If the speaker is viewed from the side, it becomes evident that the main part of the enclosure—the part that contains the woofers—is only two and a half feet tall. An open baffle extending up from the front of the box contains the midrange driver and the tweeter. Including the baffle, the speaker is three and a half feet tall. You must see a good picture of the Viper to appreciate its attractive, form-follows-function design. The function is to allow the midrange driver and tweeter unimpeded front and rear radiation, eliminating common problems like vibration and internal reflections. The cabinet construction is impressively solid, helped by the fact that there are no large panels that can easily vibrate. Theory and measurements indicate nulls to the sides of the enclosure, which allows the user more freedom of placement and less influence from adjacent objects or walls. Most samples have black or cherry finishes of ash wood, but I had told Carl that people living in semitropical areas like lighter finishes, so the review pair had a natural ash finish similar to natural oak. The appearance of the speakers garnered positive comments from everyone. My guess is that this finish will be available as a special-order option at no extra cost.
Another unusual aspect of the Viper's design is Marchisotto's use of Alnico magnets in the drivers, as he does in all of his top-line speaker systems. Alnico not only produces a particularly stiff magnetic field, but the drivers sound better. Carl has built identical drivers, some with Alnico magnets and the others with conventional magnets, and preferred the Alnico drivers in every case. The only downside of using Alnico magnets is that they are far more expensive than conventional ones.
All of the Viper loudspeakers look identical, with one exception—the top-of-the-line Signature model adds a small outboard crossover box to protect it against internal vibration and other influences, electrical or magnetic. All Vipers have dual eight-inch woofers except the $2995/pair Viper Is, which have one. Each woofer has its own sealed enclosure, each a different size, a technique that results in a smoother in-room response and tighter, clearer, and more extended bass. This design lends itself to excellent mating with an appropriately designed subwoofer. The Viper IIs use Marchisottos's beloved Alnico magnets for the cast-frame midrange driver. The Viper Signature model utilizes Alnico magnets for all the drivers. I should mention that there is another model that can be ordered, called the Viper II Plus. The "Plus" refers to the substitution of Alnico magnets for the standard tweeter magnets, as in the Viper Signature.
The Vipers are shipped with simple and effective setup instructions, screw-in spikes, and jumper cables. Marchisotto is a firm believer in bi-wiring, and designs his crossovers to take full advantage of the potential of bi-wiring. A true bi-wire speaker system has two separate crossover boards, one for the low-frequency range and the other for the high range, each with its own set of terminals. This prevents any mixing of high- and low-frequency signals, lowers distortion in the upper midrange and lower treble, and gives greater transparency and a larger soundstage. Bi-wiring has been controversial in the past, but for the reason that many supposedly bi-wired speaker systems actually are not.
The modest size and weight of the Vipers made them easy to handle. I placed them where most speakers have performed best in the past, and moving them around over the next few weeks resulted in a final placement within a few inches of those original positions. Start with them six feet apart center-to-center and aiming straight ahead. They can be toed in slightly, but their excellent dispersion does not require it. If speakers in your listening room typically need rear-wall reinforcement to aid bass response, try placing the rear of the enclosures about two feet from the wall. If that sort of help is not needed, start with them about three feet from the wall. In either case, experiment by moving them an inch or two at a time till they click into position.
Although Marchisotto had very thoughtfully broken in the loudspeakers before shipping them to me, he had not done the same for the Blue Thunder bi-wire speaker cables that are a six-hundred-dollar option for all Viper models. I first installed them as single-wire cables, and while I had not completely broken them in, the benefits of bi-wiring was quite obvious. I say that because when I later hooked them up in bi-wire configuration. The improvement was more distinct than the improvement gained over some other cables I had in house when using them as single-wire cables. (While experimenting with single wiring, I tried a pair of DiMarzio Super M Path cables, which gave a richer, sweeter, though less detailed sound than the single Nola cables.) Going to bi-wiring had little effect on tonal balance, but the improvements in detail, clarity, and soundstaging were noticeable.
After weeks of using the Viper IIs, and only the Viper IIs, in my main two-channel system, I believe I have a pretty good handle on them, though perhaps not a perfect grip. For a long time I could not decide whether the Vipers were designed for music lovers or audiophiles. I know that many listeners are both, but music lovers are more willing to compromise on performance to save money for concert tickets or software. I could argue that the Vipers do not fit exactly into either camp. My quandary lies in the Viper's bass extension. Audibly the bass response is powerful and solid down to approximately 50Hz. That seems to be sufficient to let most (not all) bass notes played by almost any instrument to sound as they should. Very deep organ pedals, of course are an exception. The other reasonably common deep bass range notes, such as tuned drum thwacks, while sounding correct, are simply not felt. What the Vipers' lack is not bass, but that bass punch or a sense of pressurizing the room.
This will not bother good old-fashioned music lovers for a number of reasons. First off, the bass extension of the Vipers cleanly and clearly extends into the deep bass range thanks to Marchisotto's fine engineering. There are no added resonances and bass bloom to distort the signal, just a progressively weakened signal. Two, that careful engineering allows for a seemingly near perfect match for his T Bolt II subwoofers. Meaning audiophiles will be extremely happy; a Nola subwoofer (or two) finishes off the project convincingly.
Nola subwoofers are noted for their clean and detailed bass response, but in combining one (or two) with the Vipers, care has to be taken because of the speakers' relatively extended bass response. It is very easy to set the T Bolts' level or gain too high and depending on variables such as room acoustics, little or no increase above the minimum frequency setting should be needed. In my experience the added deep bass response has a positive effect on the tonal balance of the system. This is done by adding some fullness and the hinting of a more relaxed or subtly smoother treble range. One subwoofer would be a revelation to most music lovers. Having a pair will definitely add to the sensation of realism in a number of aspects—not just feeling the really deep bass punch.
For a number of weeks I used only the Vipers, even for music reviews of recently received CDs. In none of these new (unfamiliar) recordings did I ever feel a need for more or deeper bass. Though accurate, that statement did not clearly make the point that I had intended. Here I am referring to only the Vipers before adding the T-Bolt subwoofers. Put another way, with new recordings I never felt as if something was missing or lacking. Pulling out a couple of the older CDs famous for their demonstration quality of deep bass extension and powerful impact, was a different kettle of fish. The Gladiator track from Telarc's Epics SACD-606003 and Reference Recordings RR-93CD Fanfare track readily show the low end limitation of unaided Vipers. The available T-Bolt subwoofers filled in that area and how! That exclamation point is a reminder that a separate outstanding subwoofer, and particularly a pair of them, will often be superior in the bass range to a more expensive full range loudspeaker system. And you know why—the subwoofers can each be placed optimally for the best bass response while the rest of the system is positioned for the best overall musical enjoyment. Unfortunately, these different positions seldom coincide.
Jazz lovers will appreciate the clearly detailed low-end response of the Viper IIs when dealing with a really good recording featuring an unamplified double bass. For typical pop recordings of your favorite male or female vocalists, the Vipers are fine with no added chestiness or fullness to baritones. But, less than the best recordings of female voice cannot hide from the Vipers. Edginess or high frequency distortions are immediately obvious.
A couple of seemingly contradictory observations aimed at classical music lovers were noted. The Vipers, not surprisingly, seem to make the older EMI recordings, such as with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting, really come alive. Many of the Mercury recordings, such as the outstanding compilation with Frederick Fennell conducting (Mercury 434-322-2), seem to mesh outstandingly well also. This is surprising because the Mercury series are usually thought of as being a bit on the bright side of neutral, or at the very least, revealing with a highlighting on the cool side.
The soundstage was unexpectedly large, and not overblown in any respect, though the stage was higher than usual. There was no apparent tweeter creep—the tendency of some instruments to rise within the stage as the sound emitting from a top-mounted tweeter rises. The fact that much of the soundscape was a foot or two higher than the cabinets can be attributed to the Vipers' open-baffle design. Though the efficiency of the Vipers is a tad less than average, they are easy to drive to sane listening levels.
The Vipers do not have level controls for either the midrange drivers or tweeters. If they did, I would try turning each one down by about a half a decibel to compensate for the slight upper midrange elevation that added a bit of edginess to some recordings, particularly ones with female vocals, as heard in my room. Extensive investigation led to a partial explanation of the perceived brightness. On the back wall of my listening room, behind the Vipers, were a series of framed drawings. My reference loudspeakers are much taller than the Vipers, and though they are also an open-baffle design, they have absorbent material under the rear grille cloths to reduce the amount of rear radiation. I also toe them in a bit, so they are angled away from the picture frames. With the Vipers aimed straight ahead, their un-damped rear radiation was being reflected back from the glass in the frames. A quick fix was to place a piece of absorbent cloth over the rear of the open baffles, and voila! If I were keeping the Vipers, I would simply hang some cloth over the pictures while listening, or move the pictures to another wall.
To summarize, the Nola Viper IIs are compact, moderately priced, floorstanding loudspeakers housed in uniquely attractive cabinets. They deliberately do not extend into the very lowest octave. They will reward a little effort to ameliorate possible variations from the ideal. They are such an excellent value that it would be interesting to compare them to the Viper lI+ and Signature versions to see how much better the more expensive models could possibly be. Karl Lozier
Nola, Accent Speaker Technology
Thanks to Karl Lozier and Positive Feedback for an excellent review of the Nola Viper II loudspeaker. I think Karl did an excellent job of describing the sound of these loudspeakers when used in his system. I believe I would have heard exactly the same sound had I been sitting there. Since this is the first official review of a Nola Viper series product, I would like to add a few comments in the interest of filling in some information. Because of time constraints, it was not possible in the review to try different equipment such as amplifiers with the loudspeakers.
At Nola, we are trying to bring the "live' experience home as closely as possible. We design for a neutral musical balance with bass, midrange and high frequencies portrayed in neither a "forward" nor a "recessed" manner. However, this balance can be altered by the system to a significant degree. Regarding the amplifier's contribution to the balance equation, we have felt for a long time that in the world of solid state, amplifiers can fall into one of two categories. The first are those that are transparent, detailed, and provide good low level nuance. The second provide good balance, authority, and a sense of ease during demanding passages. The first type tends to provide its clarity at the expense of a somewhat lean tonal balance. Bass may be quick and tight, but may not display the satisfying room-filling quality that the speakers are capable of. Also the lean tonal balance may not show up as such, but instead show up as a highlighting of the upper mid range. The second type is more the "muscle" amps, and displays great room filling bass, but generally at the expense of the overall clarity of the first type. What is interesting in what Karl found was that adding two of our TBOLT II subwoofers restored the balance and room filling bass, but did not sacrifice clarity. But what if you do not want to use subwoofers? After all, we quote usable room response below 35Hz with the Viper II and this should provide reasonable balance.
There is another possibility and that is in using a tube amplifier. Now let me state I do not love tubes. However, I do love the sound of music. And there is the rub. A good tube amplifier (of which there are many) provides a flat tonal balance with excellent clarity through these loudspeakers. Also, you do not need a great deal of tube power to do this. We have used SE amps and push pull amps to great effect with the Viper series. Because of the sealed infinite baffle design for the bass transducers, which we chose in order to maximize transient response, the amplifier need not provide a great deal of damping as the damping is built into the loudspeaker. We feel this is as it should as the loudspeaker should be able to reproduce a music signal without needing an amplifier that provides a great deal of speaker control. We have found that with a good tube amplifier, the speaker will provide full musical balance from 35Hz up without subwoofers. Adding the subwoofers would then extend the response below 20Hz, but would not be required to improve the balance.
I feel that there is a great deal still not known about the speaker-amplifier interface. One amplifier we use which is also priced about the same as the loudspeakers and has provided great results is the ASL Hurricane. I am sure there are others. I feel that at this stage of technology it is very difficult to get clarity and room-filling satisfying authority at the same time from solid state. However, in cases where the system employs powered woofer systems (our Grand Reference for instance), solid state can work very well as the bass balance can be "dialed in".
Thanks again for letting me comment.