Nola Contender loudspeaker
I've long been fascinated by Carl Marchisotto's speaker designs, first for Alón by Acarian Systems and currently for Accent Speaker Technology's Nola family of models. The Alón Circe has been my reference loudspeaker for over a decade, and it replaced my previous reference, the Alón V Mk.III. During my tenure at Stereophile I've also reviewed the Alón PW-1 woofer system (February 1997, Vol.20 No.2) and the Nola Mini speaker (January 2006, Vol.29 No.1), both now discontinued. In recent years, however, I hadn't paid much attention to Marchisotto's newer speakers, as he's focused on expensive designs featuring the Raven ribbon tweetercurrently, four models ranging from $15,200 to $238,000/pair. Although I've been impressed with all of the Raven-tweeter models I've heard at shows, dealers, and audiophiles' homes, my taste over the years has leaned toward Marchisotto's simpler two- and three-way, all-dynamic designs.
So when, last year, Nola introduced the Boxer, a two-way dynamic bookshelf model ($1500/pair), I was intrigued. I was impressed when I heard it in a dealer's unfamiliar system, and my curiosity grew when Marchisotto announced that he was introducing a $3400/pair floorstanding speaker whose design had been "trickled up" from the Boxer's. As I'd recently had a positive experience reviewing a competing speaker, Linn's Majik 140 ($2995/pair), I thought I'd request a review sample of Nola's newest floorstanding, all-dynamic-driver model.
The Nola Contender has three drive-units in a vertical array: a 1" silk-dome tweeter and two low-mass 6.5" polymer-cone bass drivers, these separated by almost the entirety of the speaker's remaining height. However, the speaker is a true three-way design, not a "2.5-way" design in which both a woofer and mid/woofer reproduce the bass frequencies. The upper 6.5" unit, mounted in a rear-ported enclosure separate from the lower unit's, is a true midrange driver. The woofer is loaded by a port that flares downward through the bottom of the cabinet, which is raised above the floor on four spikes (included). By providing a different tuning frequency for each port, these two "stagger-tuned" enclosures are intended to produce deeper bass response without sacrificing bass speed.
The Contender has two crossover boards: one each for the mid-high and low frequencies. This is claimed to improve clarity by reducing the vibration and magnetic interference between the crossover sections. Using the same driver for the bass and midrange sections permits the use of gentle slopes in the crossover, which, Nola claims, provides for better transient and phase response as the overlap between the drivers allows each to reinforce the other's output over a wide range. The Contender's crossover has the same Mundorf polypropylene 3%-tolerance, 630V capacitors and point-to-point wiring with Nordost monofilament as those in Nola's more expensive models. The Contender is available in a Piano Black or Piano Cherry finish. The Piano Black of my review samples was gorgeous, and the most mirror-like of any gloss-finish speaker I've seen.
The speaker has one set of terminals, for single-wiring. I tested the Contender with two sets of Marchisotto-designed speaker cables: Acarian Systems' Black Orpheus, the reference I normally use for most of my speaker testing, as well as a sample of Nola's own Accent Speaker Technology Blue Thunder. Marchisotto provided me with a "shotgunned" set of the biwire Blue Thunder cables, each end of which has a single set of spade lugs. My review comments reflect the use of both sets of cables. Both have natural timbres and good dynamic articulation; however, the Blue Thunder resolves a bit more detail, removing just one more veil between me and the music. Still, the Black Orpheus is revealing enough to let the Contender's capabilities come through.
Carl Marchisotto's speakers have always had a rich, luscious midrange, and the Contender was no exception. Joni Mitchell's entire vocal range in "Urge for Going," from her Hits (CD, Reprise 46326-2), was silky and holographic, and presented as a dramatic counterpoint to the pristine, extended harmonics of her Martin guitar. As the Contender's tweeter is the same as is used in the Boxer, Nola's least expensive bookshelf, I wasn't prepared for the high level of resolution, extension, and delicacy that this tweeter was capable of. I went right to my acid test for high frequencies, Mariko Senju's recording of Paganini's 24 Caprices for Solo Violin (CD, JVC JVCC-6504-2). The Contender reproduced a perfect balance of fundamentals and harmonics, from the bottom to the top of the instrument's range, with a near-perfect realization of the attack of Senju's bow on the strings. Steve Nelson's vibes solo in "Decision Point," from Jerome Harris's Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), was shimmering, with perfect attack and a long decay that revealed the acoustic of the recording venue: Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios.
All of the tracks on guitar iconoclast Derek Bailey's Improvisation (CD, Ampersand ampere2) were reproduced with every nuance intact, including the sustained upper harmonics of Bailey's unconventional plucking and chiming technique. On the electric front, the interaction of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's just-tuned Fender Jazzmaster guitars was very easy to discern; although the two guitars share similar tunings and timbres, the two parts are very individual and distinct. Liam Sillery's trumpet in "Tristan's Way," from his Priorité (CD, OA2 Records 22082), had the requisite bite in attacks, while the fundamentals of the instrument's lower register were bathed in a golden glow.
On the bass end of the spectrum, the interaction of Eberhard Weber's bass and Rainer BrÅninghaus's bass synthesizer on Weber's Endless Days (CD, ECM 1748) created a big, bloomy, open, dynamic, airy sound, with a sense of thundering solidity and bottom-end anchor. A similar effect was achieved with the bass/synthesizer interaction in "Aurora," from Jon Hassell's Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (CD, ECM 2077), which created a solid but shuddering foundation for the airy, spacey music that follows. The organ-pedal notes in John Rutter's Requiem, from the recording by Timothy Seelig, the Turtle Creek Chorale, and the Women's Chorus of Dallas (CD, Reference RR-57CD), were clean, clear, and distinct throughout the pedalboard's range. And that recording really let the Contender show off its ability to render detail and ambiencethe layered voices of the choir were clearly delineated, and it was easy to imagine the size of the church.