Sonus faber Olympica Nova III Loudspeaker

More Than Skin Deep

Equipment report
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Sonus faber Olympica Nova III Loudspeaker

The aluminum plate forming the speaker’s bottom surface extends laterally in its four corners to create an outrigger structure that the supplied spikes screw into. Aluminum cups to receive the points of those spikes are provided in the event the Nova IIIs are sited on a surface you need to protect.

Sonus faber’s ingenious version of a grille, a long-time feature of the manufacturer’s products, continues with the latest Olympicas. There’s a loom of elasticized strings held taut between two metal bars that attach to the Nova III’s front baffle—another design element that evokes a musical instrument. No, they won’t protect the drivers from a 3-year-old armed with a screwdriver but their organic appearance is welcome, and they are at least as sonically transparent as any “real” grille I’ve come across. And what of the “genuine Italian leather” that’s been a luxurious touch gracing many Sf loudspeaker models over the years, here found bonded to the front baffle adjacent to the drivers? An elitist affectation? No, says Tezzon. “Honestly, the leather surely has a strong aesthetic impact in the Nova design,” he told me, “and it’s a powerful display of our artisan tradition. But it is also true that it works as a decoupling element and provides its own special contribution to the tone of our speakers: The loading baffle’s material always has an impact on sound.”

Setup presented no difficulties. Although I can’t say for certain that a dealer or another reviewer hadn’t played them before me, the pair of Nova IIIs I auditioned required no break-in to sound their best. In my 15' x 15' room—ceiling height varies from 11' to 13'—the speakers ended up positioned 21½" from the front wall, 8' apart, and 9' from the primary listening position. Bass was better controlled with the ports facing outwards, an orientation that was also advantageous in terms of spatiality. Mostly, the Nova IIIs were driven by Pass XA 60.8 monoblocks, though a Classé Delta stereo amplifier saw service for several weeks. Both amps have dual binding posts that expedited bi-wiring with two pairs of T+A Speaker Hex cables. I listened only to digital sources—an Oppo BDP 103 as a disc transport as well as MusiCHI SRV-1 and Baetis Reference servers, the latter streaming files from Tidal. The DAC was a T+A DAC 8 DSD connected directly to the amplifier(s) with Transparent Gen V balanced interconnects. An Ideon 3R MasterTime reclocker was inserted between the MusiCHI computer and the DAC. Digital cabling included wires from Furutech (USB), Ideon (USB), Revelation Audio Labs (AES/EBU), and Apogee Wyde Eye (coaxial/SPDIF). 

For two socially distanced months, the Olympica Nova III was my only loudspeaker and not once did I find myself counting down the days until I could return to my usual Magico S3 Mk2s—a larger, heavier, and significantly more expensive transducer. This surprised me because of what I know—or thought I knew—about the relative capabilities of these two products with recordings characterized by extremes of dynamics, low-frequency content, and tonal density. The objective superiority of the Magicos when playing loud and low was incontrovertible. Yet the more I listened to big band jazz, pedal-to-the-metal rock, exuberant synth-pop, and orchestral “power music” though the Nova IIIs, the more I admired these Italian beauties. Bass was punchy and tuneful with the B-52s’ Party Mix, fully communicating the loopy ebullience of those songs, and when I put on Olivier Latry’s Midnight at Notre Dame, it was impossible not to listen all the way through this program of occasionally over-the-top pipe organ arrangements of pieces by Bach, Wagner, Berlioz, and others.  Experiencing this kind of challenging recording through the Nova IIIs didn’t feel like a compromise, despite the absence of some of the more visceral aspects of low-bass reproduction—the rattles accompanying the deepest organ pedal stops as the listening room is energized or the wavefront of air produced by a closely miked kickdrum hitting you in the chest, as it would if you were standing near the band in a bar. To be sure, substituting a beefier power amplifier like the Classé Delta resulted in more snare drum “sock” and fuller bass, but even with the 60Wpc Passes driving the Sf speakers, there was no sense of anything fundamentally lacking with large-scale music. 

The Olympica Nova IIIs can bring off this sleight-of-hand, I believe, because other key aspects of their performance are exceptional. First of all, these speakers are fast—nearly electrostatic-fast. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s technique is legendary and it’s on full display with Kaleidoscope, a collection of 20 miniatures, including the soloist’s own Etude No. 6: Essercizio per pianoforte (Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti), a not entirely serious tribute to the Baroque composer. The notes fly by with astounding velocity, yet there’s no blurring, smearing, or overhang—each is distinct from the one behind and the one that follows. Related is the Nova III’s capacity to reveal meaningful musical detail. Lucinda Williams’ 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road features multiple acoustic and electric guitars on most tracks; the nuances with which the parts interlock and complement each other is presented with a natural ease. The same can be said for jazz guitarist Timothy Young’s comping behind leader Wayne Horvitz’s solos on “LTMBBQ” from Sweeter Than the Day. The spotlight may be on the pianist but Young isn’t slumming and each of his supportive licks registers as thoughtfully considered.

Soundstaging and image stability are excellent on symphonic recordings and specific to the venue, as with the Haitink/Concertgebouw version of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. The most cataclysmic orchestral eruptions—for example, the opening bars of the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony—maintain coherency to a surprising degree when played back at levels approaching those in a concert hall. But the one sonic attribute that makes the Nova III more than the sum of its parts is the neutrality of its reproduction of instrumental/vocal color and texture.