No. 1 Contender: Nola Baby Grand Reference Loudspeaker

Nola Loudspeakers Baby Grand Reference
No. 1 Contender: Nola Baby Grand Reference Loudspeaker

Up until about three weeks ago, if someone had asked me who in the States makes the best dynamic speakers I would without hesitation have answered: “Alon Wolf of Magico and Andy Payor of Rockport.” Now I’m going to have to add a third name to my pantheon—none other than old hand Carl Marchisotto, whose Nola Baby Grand Reference hybrid ribbon/cone dipole floorstanders are, undoubtedly, high among the best speakers I’ve heard.

Frankly, this turn of events was unexpected. Although Carl has been making loudspeakers since most of you were still in your fathers’ balls (to quote the late lamented Riccardo Kron, who once bellowed these words, in re his own long experience building amplifiers, at an amused friend of mine at CES) and is, for guys like me, forever associated with Jon Dahlquist and the revolutionary baffleless dynamic Dahlquist 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 Nola 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 do 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 two or three 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. On top of this, the Nola Baby Grand References are boxless dipoles from the lower midrange up (like, well, Dahlquists ), with both ribbons and cones freely firing forward and aft (toward the backwall), which, one would think, could excite more room modes, as well as lower overall sensitivity and blur imaging. True, the absence of a box eliminates “box colorations” in the midband and treble, but the very best of today’s boxes have very low coloration and, in firmly securing the drivers and artfully terminating their backwaves, help to control and shape overall response, increasing linearity and focus and lowering distortion and confusion. 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.”

Of course speakers 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 New School 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 from a can. 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 Whom. Moreover, unlike You Know Whom, 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 magnetics 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 dipole radiators, 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, rather strongly, 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 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 to bottom, especially for a hybrid; 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), much 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 fabulous live VH-1 Storytellers’ recording of “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” which, at its fabulous climax (when 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 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 goddamn 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 the low-level resolution and much of the 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. I don’t believe I’ve ever 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 these things 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.

I will have a handful of nits to pick when I formally review the Baby Grands—about center imaging, the tricky art of smoothing out the speaker’s prodigious, extremely deep, and unusually lifelike bass response, the best way of handling the backwave of its dipole ribbon/cones, and general setup tips. When all is said and done, I’d have to say that 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 more colorless; and they are superior imagers.  But do remember that the M5s were the best (the most lifelike, the most complete) dynamic speakers I’d heard and cost $30,000 more than the Nola Baby Grand References. And keep this in mind, too: In certain other important respects, the Nola Baby Grand References are at least competitive with the M5s. (I don’t know about the Q5s—yet.)

In sum, this is one very very fine, very very realistic, very very easy-to-listen-to loudspeaker. And--and this is very 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 best I’ve heard.