I'm not sure I've heard the Nola loudspeaker/VAC combination before, but I sure hope I hear it again. I thought the sound very fine, with tremendous depth and fine piano timbres on a DXD-to-CD recording of the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. A classic Saint-Saëns track on LP, whose name I've intentionally blanked out due to overexposure, sounded exceptionally smooth, with beautiful timbres. I would have wished for a bit more bottom-end weight and color from timpani, but the system's smoothness and musicality were exceptional.
But wait: Those observations, I've now learned, were made during a compromised performance. On the last day of the show, while I was away from my e-mail, Kevin Hayes of VAC wrote, "Just discovered someone had bumped the balanced/Se switch on the preamp. We've been running until now with one hand tied behind our backs. Really wish you could hear it now!... It is the irony of the zero feedback, step down transformer coupled preamp circuit that it can swing enough current to continue working fairly well even when half of the output is short-circuited. Sadly, it does take away from bass extension and general dynamics. I am quite chagrined and embarrassed! It is not like me not to check that periodically."
So there you have it. The only fault I found with this otherwise superb sounding system was the one thing that the correct preamp setting could have remedied. With the caveat that some of my prices may be off, hats off to Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold loudspeakers ($19,800/pair), VAC Signature 200 iQ amplifier ($14,000), VAC Signature IIa line stage with phono option ($26,000), discontinued VAC DAC Mk II, Esoteric K03 transport, and Acoustic Signature Challenger mk III turntable with SME 309 arm, Lyra cartridge, and Synergistic Research RCA phono cable. All other cabling was Nordost Odin 2, with Nordost power treatment added to that mix. What a great way to end my time on the amazing second floor! -Jason Victor Serinus
Nola's new Studio Grand Reference Gold ($19,800/pair) has all of the features of the larger speakers in the Studio Grand series, such as the alnico magnesium woofer with gold phase plug and alnico open-baffle midrange -- all in a compact, room-friendly footprint.
Best of all, it sounds like the larger speakers: open, spacious and airy, and more authoritative in the bass than you'd expect. Sensitivity is low -- 86dB -- but impedance is friendly at 8 ohms nominal and 6 ohms minimum.
In the words of designer Carl Marchisotto, Nola builds "about half" of the ribbon tweeter itself. The driver definitely imparts the immediacy of a ribbon tweeter, but without any glare or grain. Like so many other Nola speakers, this one sounds relaxed, refined, and resolving.
Carl Marchisotto's $19.8k Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold sounded very alive dynamically and quite neutral driven by VAC electronics and wired with Nordost cable. Though lacking a little presence on my Dream with Dean disc, the Nolas made Dean sound, as he should, like a baritone rather than a bass; they also offered excellent reproduction of his distinctive articulation and breath control (or lack thereof).
When I entered the Nola/Valve Amplification Co. room at T.H.E. show in Newport, a distinctive repeating pattern of delicately plucked notes began playing. As the rhythm line continued on the acoustic guitar, suddenly there was a loud burst: "Wham-whoom-wham, wham-whoom-wham." It could only be one person: "heavy mental" steel-string genius Michael Hedges.
Indeed, the cut was "Aerial Boundaries," a four-minute instrumental in which the composer plays with two hands simultaneously -- his left hand not only fretting but also strumming and tapping the strings high on the neck, while his right hand finger-picks countermelodies, sharp accents and lighting-quick runs. The 1987 song shocked and awed both listeners and other musicians. It also established the free-spirited, Oklahoma-raised composer as a unique voice on the Windham Hill label, which generally favored mellower performers.
Being a resident of the Sooner State myself, I began to follow Hedges' career early on and attended many of his mind-blowing live shows. I even did a lengthy magazine interview with him in 1997, several months before he died in a car accident. The memory of those concerts and the genuine connection we formed during our talk made it emotionally difficult to listen to his music for a long while after his passing.
So, when I heard his trademark attack on the guitar emerge from Accent Speaker Technology Ltd.'s Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold speakers ($19,800 a pair) in Newport, I immediately sat down in a center chair.
The Nolas were driven by a system which included VAC's Signature 200 iQ amplifier ($14,000) and Phi 170 iQ amp ($9,900), VAC's Renaissance Mk. V line stage ($12,400 with phono) and a discontinued VAC digital converter. The CD transport was an Esoteric K03, turntable was an Acoustic Signature Challenger and cable was Nordost Odin.
Although I hadn't heard the Hedges tune in some time, it was one I was very familiar with. It was recorded in the living room of the Windham Hill Inn in West Townshend, Vermont, and -- on a capable rig or good headphones -- contains an almost spooky degree of ambience and reverberation.
The floorstanding Nola speakers, with their unique open-top cabinet design and ribbon tweeter, recreated this atmosphere to a degree I'd rarely heard before. The decays from Hedges' taps, strums and strikes seemed to hang in the air forever, while the direct sound of each note was clear and focused. There also was an analog-like warmth to the track, which was being played in digital form, that likely was due to the VAC tube gear.
At a time when many show demos focus on the same dozen stereo spectaculars (such as Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go," the hundredth playing of which makes me want to beg the song's subject to leave as quickly as possible), it was an unexpected treat to hear Hedges' work showcased. In life, he had few boundaries as he pursued his gift. The Nola/VAC system took me back to those days and rekindled memories of a singular artist who shouldn't be forgotten. Thanks, guys. Well done.