Issue 205 / September 2010
Nola Baby Grand Reference Loudspeaker: No. 1 Contender
Frankly, this turn of events was unexpected. Although Carl has been making loudspeakers since before most of you were born, and is, for guys like me, forever associated with Jon Dahlquist and the revolutionary baffleless Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers Carl helped design, and although I've heard these very same Nola Baby Grand References sound swell at trade show after trade show, in my heart of hearts I wasn't convinced that Carl's design was "New School" enough to compete toe-to-toe with the latest ultra-high-tech offerings from Magico and Rockport. That they do is a sobering lesson to me -- and perhaps to some of you: The sexiest new drivers, the most esoteric cabinets, the most advanced computer modeling mean a great deal, but clearly they don't mean everything.
On paper, the Nola Baby Grand Reference shouldn't work at all, much less sound like one of the most lifelike loudspeakers I've heard in my listening room. First of all, they combine short line arrays of ribbon tweeters and cone midranges (treated paper cone midranges at that); while I've very occasionally heard ribbons mated successfully with cones (the demure Von Schweikert Unifield Threes that I recently reviewed in TAS, for instance), far, far more often I've heard them do anything but sound coherent. Because of the vast differences in speed (or mass), dispersion, distortion, passbands, and breakup modes, ribbons and cones almost invariably mix like coffee and spoiled milk. Even ribbons combined with quasi-ribbons have an audible "seam"; when ribbons are combined with cones, that seam becomes a virtual chasm. Add to this, the Nola -- which is a three-and-a-half-way loudspeaker -- uses twin woofers (one acting as a lower-midrange/woof that crosses over at about 250Hz, the other as a pure woofer) in a sealed box, one of the most difficult designs to bring off successfully without producing bass that sounds dry and overdamped, and that is often difficult to get out of the box and into the room.
On the other hand, line arrays do have their own sets of virtues. I've reviewed several of them over the decades -- the Nearfield Acoustic Pipedreams being the most memorable -- although none that mated such disparate kinds of drivers. One of the biggest advantage of a line array is that when you use a multitude of drivers to cover a certain segment of the passband the "work load" is spread out among them. Each individual driver has to work considerably less hard than it would if it were reproducing the signal all by itself. Indeed, a transient that would cause a single driver to make a substantial excursion (and to possibly break up at very loud levels) can be reproduced by a multitude of the same drivers with only a miniscule excursion. (On low-level signals, the drivers scarcely move at all.) All of this means that distortion is greatly lowered and low-level and high-level resolution is, concomitantly, greatly increased; moreover, in a dipolar line array sound pressure levels are 6dB louder for the same amount of amplifier power (at a given distance from the loudspeaker), allowing the speaker to play with remarkably lifelike ease at SPLs that would make many other speakers (horns, excepted) sound strained or distorted.
In addition, a dipolar line array, by design and definition, does not have an enclosure. Equal amounts of sound are radiated front and back (although the rear-wave is 180-degrees out-of-phase with the front wave). In addition to eliminating or, at least, greatly reducing the resonances, reflections, and energy-storing colorations of a cabinet, boxless dipolar radiators almost always add a congenial and lifelike spaciousness to the soundfield. The soundstage sounds bigger, wider, deeper, taller, airier, less constrained by the physical presence of a box; moreover, images, though often less tightly focused, are more lifesized, more freed-up, less pegged to individual drivers or to the baffleboards of enclosures. This, of course, makes for a sensationally good "disappearing act." While a dipole's remarkable openness and expansiveness could be construed as a "coloration" being added by the figure-eight radiation pattern of the speaker itself, it is, in my opinion, a coloration that is entirely consonant with the sound of music being played live by acoustic instruments in a real hall.
Line arrays do have their downsides, however. First there is the little matter of comb-filtering. A multitude of drivers means, perforce, that those drivers must be located at a multitude of slightly different positions on the speaker's baffleboard. Since the drivers in the array are all reproducing the same signal, the slight differences in the "path lengths" of the individual drivers in the array (to the listener), caused by their slightly offset locations vis-à-vis each other, result in a multitude of signal-arrival-time displacements, which, in turn, result in phase shifts that selectively cancel or strengthen certain frequencies. In short, comb-filtering.
Although this may sound like a serious problem, in practice it isn't. Once you get a certain distance from a line array (in the case of a short array like that of the Nola Baby Grands, a seating distance of about ten-to-twelve feet), the multitude of cancellation effects cancel (or even) themselves out, and the line array starts to act like a linear point source. In other words, you don't hear the comb-filtering at normal listening distances.
There is another problems with dipole line arrays, however -- at least with dipole line arrays that join the arrays to cone woofers in a box, as the Nola Baby Grand References do. How does one mate a driver with an omnidirectional dispersion pattern in the bass frequencies (the woofer or woofers) with line-array drivers with figure-eight dispersion patterns in the midrange and treble (the midranges and tweeters), without inducing bafflestep-like suckout in the power range (100-400Hz)? Bass discontinuity was, in fact, the Achilles' Heel of the Nearfield Pipedreams, which never quite sounded like one cohesive thing in the bottom octaves (though they were great in the mids and the treble).
Here again, the problem appears worse than it turns out to be -- or at least than it turns out to be in the Nola Baby Grands. Marchisotto's two 9" acoustic-suspension woofers -- one of which acts as a mid/woof that crosses over in the lower midrange (around 250Hz) and is apparently tailored via crossover to help "fill in" power-range suckout -- are faster, smoother, and much better integrated with Nola's ribbon/cone lines arrays than the Nearfield's four tar-barrel-sized push-push 18" subwoofers (which crossed over at a much lower frequency). This does not mean that the Nola's bass is completely unproblematical, however. But we will come to that in a bit.
In spite of Carl's Old School approach to speaker-building (the first line array speaker I heard was the Bozak Concert Grand, which was introduced in 1951, almost before I was born), loudspeakers don't just exist on paper. They aren't merely the sum of expensive parts, computer calculations, and superb measured response. When push comes to pull, speakers have to perform in actual listening rooms, not just on spec sheets, lab benches, and anechoic chambers. And it is here that the Nola Baby Grand References simply trump all reservations and exceed all expectations. No, they may not be high-tech like the Magicos and the Rockports; rather, like the Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II, they are the summation and quintessence of Old School tried-and-true.
I don't want to overdo this New School/Old School business because (once again like the Walker Black Diamond) every single aspect of the Baby Grand has been carefully thought through and time-tested. Moreover, the parts Marchisotto uses aren't chopped liver. He has chosen the very finest crossover components -- gold and gold/silver Mundorf caps and coils and the highest precision resistors, just like You Know Who. Moreover, unlike You Know Who, he houses his crossover parts, which are hand-populated-and-wired on custom traceless board, in a outboard box that sits (well, floats) on a triple-layer ball-bearing mounting base behind or to the side of the speaker itself. The speakers also float on multi-layer, ball-bearing isolation bases. The four (per speaker-side) four-inch tweeters are the finest Raven pure aluminum ribbons (equipped with powerful neodymium magnets); the four (per speaker-side), four-and-a-half-inch, open-baffle (dipole), treated paper midrange cones are outfitted with huge Alnico magnets (Alnico remains Carl's magnetic of choice); the two 9-inch woofers use magnesium cones and outsized magnets; and the heavily braced, one-hundred-and-fifty-pound "enclosures" -- open on top to allow the tweeter and midrange line arrays to operate as virtually free-standing dipoles, and sealed on the bottom to load the two woofers -- are gorgeously finished in piano rosewood and wired with Nordost Valhalla.
When my friend and colleague (and boss) Tom Martin reviewed the Nola Viper Reference in Issue 181, he said: "If stunning transparency on the occasional recording is essential to you, the Viper is not your speaker. If you listen to a certain kind of music and must have some particular parameter just so, the Viper won't be your speaker either. If, on the other hand, you are frustrated by products that occasionally impress but don't really allow you to focus on the music, I think you'd find the Nola Viper to be a breakthrough. I did."
Though I agree about the breakthrough part of Tom's assessment -- and about the speakers' exceptional musicality and long-term listenability -- I'm going to have to disagree about their transparency and overall excellence in specific audiophile parameters (with the understanding, of course, that I am listening to a newer, considerably more expensive, and much differently configured Nola loudspeaker than Tom reviewed).
To my ear (and those of almost every other listener who has heard them in my digs), the Baby Grand References aren't just good at, they are absolutely standouts in seven areas: 1) surprisingly seamless driver-to-driver, octave-to-octave coherence from top almost to bottom, especially for a hybrid, with an overall balance that is positively ARC-like in its sunny neutrality; 2) a disappearing act that rivals the best; 3) phenomenal soundstage width, depth, and height; 4) exceptional resolution of very-low-level detail (including engineering detail), some of which has gone previously unheard even with the best New School speakers; 5) exceptionally realistic dynamic range and scale in every octave at every volume level; 6) lifelike accuracy of timbre from top to bottom; and 7) what for lack of a better word I would call sheer listenability or ease, even at the loudest levels (and these babies will play loud, I'm talking 110dB+ peaks).
This, folks, makes for quite a remarkable package, which is why I am elevating the Baby Grand References to my itsy-bitsty pantheon. I've simply never heard a full orchestra in full cry sound more "there" in my listening room than I did with the Baby Grand References playing back a test-pressing of Chesky's reissue of the greatest RCA of the early stereo period, Fielder and the BPO's incandescent reading of Gaîté Parisienne. Not only do you hear every single instrument's timbre and dynamic (including those instruments buried deep in the mix), you also hear their ensemble with an authority, majesty, power, and concert-hall realism that are mind-bogglingly like the real thing. This, folks, is very very very rare in my experience. And the soundstage! It spreads from wall to wall (well, past wall to wall), floor to ceiling, with the envelopment of an omni.
And here's the kicker, the Baby Grands don't just do this trick with big-dynamic-range acoustic music, like Gaîté, they do it with wall-of-sound, play-me-as-loud-as-possible, limited dynamic-range electric stuff like Nickleback's "How You Remind Me" or Meatloaf's live VH-1 Storytellers' recording of "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth," which, at its thrilling climax (when the backup singers and the whole band joins in and Meatloaf soars), sounded more like a live performance in a rock club then virtually any other speaker I've heard.
As for inner detail... I've listened to the Bozay Improvisations for Zither [Hungaraton] on almost every speaker I've had in house. No other -- not even the mighty CLXes -- have reproduced the distinct sound of the individual strings of this 40-string instrument with the jaw-dropping clarity of the Baby Grands. When Bozay strums the instrument, you hear every single string (when Technical Brain electronics are in the system), and you hear this without any trace of X-ray analytics. In other words you don't just hear the attack of the individual strings, you also hear their timbre and decay. It's kind of amazing.
Imagine a cross between a super-open, super-soundstaging, super-dynamic MBL 101 X-Treme and a super-natural, super-present Maggie 20.1, without the MBL's painful brightness at high volume levels or the Maggie's limited dynamics or its low-bass limits, and then add much of the low-level resolution and low coloration of a Magico M5 and the previously incomparable ease, bass authority, and unstinting musicality of Rockport Hyperions (as well as a good deal of their lifelike image size), and you'll get the idea. I'm not the only one who is sky-high on the Nolas, BTW. Every single person who's heard these things in my rooms -- driven alternately by ARC, Technical Brain, and Soulution gear -- has said the exact same thing. Outside of the Magico M5s and the Rockport Hyperions, I don't believe I've had a speaker in my home about which so many different people listening to so many different kinds of music at so many different volume levels have said, each and every one: "That's just the best I've ever heard that cut sound!"
What is equally astonishing about the Baby Grand References is that they never wear on you (as Tom Martin noted). No matter how loud you play them (or how soft), their ease and listenability remain constant (as do their other virtues). You can listen for hour after hour, even at very very loud levels, and never feel fatigued, bespeaking very low levels of distortion.
Now for the nitpicks. As good as these speakers are -- and they're great -- I have a qualm about their bass. Unfortunately (or, maybe, fortunately), that qualm may also be part of the reason why I find their bass so terrifically entertaining and addictively exciting. Here's the thing: Where the seam between the Baby Grand's Raven ribbon tweeters (which have to be high among the fastest, airiest, most detailed, most dynamic, most lifelike I've heard) and its treated paper cones is virtually inaudible (oh, all right, you can very occasionally hear the ribbons, which have a slightly rising response in the upper treble, adding a touch of extra pep, detail, and glamour on certain recordings), the joint between the line arrays and the woofers isn't quite as hard to discern. To put this bluntly, I can, on occasion, hear the woofs as a separable element of the sound. This is not a matter of a loss of resolution, transient speed, or timbre. In these regards the woofers are perfectly at one with the mids and the highs. It is, rather, that the sound of the bass frequencies -- at least in my smallish room -- can be a bit more forward and a bit, well, louder than that of the mids and the highs.
I'm pretty sure I know why this is the case. Baby Grand References bass is the most outright exciting bass I've heard since the MBL 101 Es. Like the Es, the Baby Grands have tremendous midbass slam (and very good deep bass extension and resolution -- enough to give you that "subway-rumbling-under-the-floor" effect with deep synth-and-drum ostinatos on recordings like the soundtrack to The International [Varese Sarabande]). In fact, the Baby Grand References' slam in the midbass sounded so much like that of a really good ported speaker that, at first, I thought the enclosures were ported underneath their cabinets (like those of the MBLs). They are not, of course. But what I think is singing along with the woofers -- and occasionally making their presence more noticeable (particularly on extremely bass-heavy recordings like Holly Cole's great compendium of Tom Waits' songs, Temptation) -- is the cabinet they're housed in. To come to the point, I think the Baby Grand's woofer enclosure is effectively acting like a port in the midbass, adding energy of its own to the sound. (You can certainly feel it vibrating in tune to the music if you put a hand to the cabinet while music is playing.)
You can see the bump of energy (centered on 60Hz) that the woof/enclosure is adding on the following (impressive) RTA, taken from roughly the seating position in my listening room. (Keep in mind that it is very tough to measure a speaker like the Nola, which uses two short line arrays and two woofers that are considerably offset from each other in space, and that my room may be adding two or three dB to the plot in the mid-to-low bass).
As I said, I'm not exactly complaining about this added excitement; in the listening, it's thrillingly realistic! And the cabinet doesn't comb-filter pitches the way room resonances do; pitch definition is superb. It's just that, to my ear, the Baby Grand's bass drivers (and their enclosure) give you that added excitement with one hand while taking just a little away from overall coherence with the other. Maybe you'd have to have experience with truly exemplary drivers and a truly exemplary (and inert) enclosures like those of the Magico M5s to hear this difference. Then again, maybe not. In any event, the slight midbass bump is not a major issue for me since, as I've made clear, the "problem" makes bass-range instruments sound incredibly exciting and lifelike without making their pitches and timbres unduly boomy or unclear. As I said at the start, it is damn difficult to get bass "out of the box and into the room" with a sealed-box speaker. It isn't with the Nolas. (In fact, it's almost too easy.)
Properly placing these speakers -- at least in a moderately sized room -- may be a bit tricky, however. Carl recommends that the speakers be situated parallel to the rear walls (and away from side ones), with little or no toe-in. This certainly makes for the most expansive soundstage and the most neutral overall balance; however, parallel placement may make it more difficult to integrate the energy of those woofers (and their enclosures), whose slight port-like bump of energy around 60Hz can play right into the hands of room nodes. Parallel placement may also result in slightly bigger, less sharply focused central images of vocalists or instruments. (Dipoles simply aren't going to give you the razor-cut imaging of monopoles; on the other hand, they're not going to miniaturize instruments or singers, either -- a trade-off I am happy to make.) All will depend on your room, of course, and on your ancillary equipment. In my digs, I would tend toward a solid-state amplifier with a little more control and grip and a slightly leaner balance in the low end to offset any room/bass issues, although I'd have to say that the sound of the Baby Grands with the tubed ARC 610T was more ravishingly beautiful, more three-dimensional, and extremely realistic, too.
In case some of you are wondering how the Nola Baby Grand References compare with my current references, the Magico M5s, I would have to say quite impressively well. When all is said and done, the Magico M5s are more of a piece top to bottom and (below the treble) lower in distortion; their heroic enclosure is also more neutral, making their bass response flatter and more colorless; they are also flatter-measuring in the power range and treble, are superior imagers, and are equally great soundstagers. But do remember that the M5s are the best (the most lifelike, the most complete) dynamic speakers I've heard and cost $35,000 more than the Nola Baby Grand References. And keep this in mind, too, that in certain important respects -- such as the ease with which they reproduce hard transients and play at very loud levels (the M5s can sound just a wee bit "overcontrolled" by comparison, and take much more power to drive to extremely high SPLs), their dynamic range and scale (particularly at very loud levels), their superb resolution (particularly in the treble) -- the Nola Baby Grand References are at least competitive with the M5s. (I don't know about the Magico Q5s -- yet. They may be game-changers.)
In sum, the Nola Baby Grand Reference is one very very fine, very very realistic, very very easy-to-listen-to loudspeaker. And -- and this is nearly unique -- it maintains all of its remarkable virtues on every kind of music, from rhapsody to rap. If I were in the market at this price point, I would give the Baby Grands a long careful audition. (To be fair, I would also listen very carefully to the same-priced Magico Q5s.) The Nola Baby Grand References may not inculcate the latest cutting-edge technology, but they are most certainly capable of cutting-edge sound, in many respects as good as -- and in some, better than -- the finest I've heard. They earn my highest recommendation.
Type: Three-and-a-half-way hybrid loudspeaker
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 45kHz
Dimensions: 12" x 62" x 16" (overall with bases)
Weight: 150 lb. net per side
ACCENT SPEAKER TECHNOLOGY
JV's Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M5, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan 1.7