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accent speaker technology
Nola Viper 1A loudspeakers
as reviewed by Karl Lozier
Carl Marchisotto, well-known veteran designer of high-end loudspeakers, seems to have a clear idea of what he is out to accomplish with this upgraded design. He has attempted to bring much of his high-end designs and their internal components to a more affordable offering. This successful newly designed model obviously has to be smaller than his famous reputation making efforts (the $45,000 to $100,000 plus flagship models) and of course, price has to be lower too.
Even so, there are many things that he refuses to significantly compromise. That is why the purchaser of these extremely attractive loudspeakers is attracted by and appreciates the outstandingly beautiful cherry wood piano gloss furniture finish; instead of the more common black covering found on many other cabinets. This finish (and visual overall design) is easily the equal of any I have seen at any price, and every person who has entered my home has commented favorably or exclaimed on their obvious beauty. The "spousal acceptance factor" is very high.
The relatively diminutive size adds to its appeal for many listeners, but a big part of Marchisotto's efforts had to be expended to make sure that the loudspeakers do not sound small or diminutive—he has definitely succeeded with this design. They project a big soundscape that easily fills my relatively large listening area from left to right. Even the apparent vertical height is much taller than one would expect. Even so, at almost three and a half feet tall, they simply cannot quite equal a well designed six-foot tower in this respect, though the differences are not nearly as much as I had expected. Yes, there are differences, but they turned out to be rather slight. The relatively short Vipers run out of space for woofers rather quickly though the visually similar model IIA manages to add another one, and the typical six-foot towers have plenty of space for large or numerous woofers. But again the audible difference is not as great as you might have guessed (definitely dependent on fully broken-in woofer usage). More on that subject will follow.
So enough about Nola's value priced floor-standing Viper IA, let me digress a bit on a short tale about Carl, Karl, Kimber, and Blue Thunder; as briefly as possible and in order. The loudspeakers arrived in excellent condition, triple boxed, and well handled. I inserted the shorter spikes in the rear screw-in holes and the longer spikes into the front pair of holes. The result was a very slight upward tilt to the attractive cabinet. Carl is a believer in bi-wiring his excellent designs and these loudspeakers, as one would expect are specifically designed for bi-wiring; though they are easily used with single wiring and the supplied jumpers.
I learned long ago that he was right about bi-wiring—if the loudspeakers are specifically designed for bi-wiring, you got to use them that way! For you doubters, mull over what may have never entered into your thought processes. With bi-wiring, simply and wisely consider using cables designed for woofers (bass range) on the appropriate rear connectors and do the same with specially designed cables (or ones proven to have smooth upper end response) for the other connector pair. Fortunately I had purchased, some years previously, pairs of all three of the top models by Kimber Kable. In other words, I have the all silver, the all copper and the hybrid copper/silver Select series' models. I would not usually expect anyone to use nor would I typically recommend such expensive cables on such modestly priced loudspeakers, but I had them and am intimately familiar with their superb sound quality—so if you got ‘em, use ‘em. It seems that these Vipers are very comfortable using such cables while taking advantage of their well-earned reputations.
Without really listening to the speakers, I had set them up to settle-in for an extended break-in, but upon some casual listening, I found myself to be a bit disappointed. Prior to their shipping, Carl had asked if he could come down after they had settled-in to make certain all was hooked up and positioned correctly based on his recommendations. I had him come on down, and he and his very personable wife Marilyn showed up a few weeks later. After a rather quick look and listen, he agreed with my very rough generalization of how they were rather disappointing. He asked if he could hook up a pair of his recommended Blue Thunder cables, and after some more casual listening we both commented that the difference was very noticeable. With the Blue Thunder cables, there was a significant change for the better in the speaker's tonal balance. So much so that I made the casual comment that the change sounded like what I would have expected from changing from very good/neutral solid-state units such as the Herron to very good tubed amplifiers. Except in this case, the change was from the very expensive and respected Kimber Select loudspeaker cables to the very moderately priced Blue Thunder models. Nothing else was said about cables and Carl and Marilyn Marchisotto left the next day. Obviously Carl offers some moderately priced cables that sound good with his loudspeakers.
I listened to a bit of everything for the next couple of weeks. During this time I definitely turned the gain/volume control up a significant degree. The sound seemed to subtly improve with continued use of the Blue Thunder cables—they were new, so an extended period of break-in was in order. After this time, it was apparent with extended sessions that the only noticeable, though relatively slight negative quality of the Blue Thunder cables was a bit of a smearing in the treble range. This effect masked high frequency details in some forte passages for orchestra or chorus, but the only really disappointing recording turned out to be the quite excellent SACD release of David Russell's Art of the Guitar. On this release his masterful playing was not to be realized by the combination with the speakers and Blue Thunder cables as they robbed the solo guitar of its natural transients.
Then as a parting double check I gave the pairs of Kimber Kables another round of listening. Wow, one of the larger unexpected changes, for the better, in my many years of reviewing was instantly apparent! The very expensive Kimbers proved their worth in this case, I mean like big time!
The subtle beauty of the recent RR release of Serenade by the Turtle Creek Chorale (accompanied by a string septet, plus oboe and piano/celesta) made me sit up straight and recheck the situation with other more demanding releases. I immediately put on the superb, and I do mean superb, RR Crown Imperial (festive music for organ, winds, brass, and percussion). Wow, double wow! With those expensive Kimber Select Kables the audio quality was now reaching a much higher plateau leaving me wondering how and why.
The only thing lacking was the very bottom of the deep bass range, though each of the instruments that can go down into or near that bass range was easily (and surprisingly) recognizable for exactly what instrument was at play. Only the deepest part of the range, and the part responsible for its palpable sensation, was noticeably diminished. RR's recent release of Yerba Buena Bounce by the Hot Club of San Francisco came out in pristine glory, with nothing diminished. The well known old Mercury release of Frederick Fennell conducting Ballet for Band would not completely give up the last touch of deep bass response and feel-able power, but it took careful comparison to prove it. Frank Sinatra's famous baritone voice came through cleanly, clearly and unchanged on the relatively few really neutral releases of his. Other recordings bloomed forth cleanly, clearly, and powerfully included Hanson's Organ concerto on Naxos, and Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" symphony outstandingly well recorded and performed on a new Telarc SACD release. That previously mentioned Art of the Guitar featuring David Russell now sounded like the outstanding guitar recording it really is: an excellent Telarc SACD. All of that from an attractive pair of small floor-standing Viper IA loudspeakers that feature a design to presumably not hamper the performance in the critical upper bass and lower mid ranges - by using a bass driver neither too large, nor too heavy. Each attractive cabinet contains only a single metal cone bass driver of less than ten inches diameter.
How can this be, what had happened, our faithful readers are asking by this time. In retrospect, I realize it is mainly my fault. The many hours of so-called burn in time were done at too low a gain/volume level. That simply did not begin to work or stress the drivers nearly enough; particularly the woofer. That was the reason behind Marchisotto's encouraging words "turn the gain up Karl, you don't need to worry about hurting them, they are built to take whatever a music lover cares to throw at them". That definitely turned out to be true. In a nutshell, and following phone conversation with Carl, we both realized that that the answer was simply a lack of "complete burn-in" even though he had mentioned having played them at a high volume level for at least a hundred hours prior to shipping them!
I, Carl and other manufacturers have become familiar with this phenomenon, usually associated with shipping, though we cannot logically explain it! Having to turn the gain up more than usual compared "to my large reference loudspeakers", showed that these smaller models have rather low efficiency. That simply means that listeners may possibly need to turn up the volume control higher than with previous loudspeakers, or maybe not. It might mean that lower power output amplifiers or receivers might not be the best match for these Vipers, especially in a very large room.
Summing up I would say that Carl Marchisotto has successfully designed a uniquely attractive small cabinet floor standing loudspeaker at a reasonable price. Obvious care has been taken to offer what he has learned with his famous large loudspeaker systems. It was not designed to be a low cost low performance model. If your listening room is relatively non-supportable of deep bass response some listeners might consider adding one or a pair of his T-Bolt subwoofers. On
the other hand (or ear) listening to new releases for the first time, I was never aware of any lack of bass response or fullness. If ever desired, I can attest to the fact that the T-Bolts are quite superb (with excellent bass detail) proven by a pair residing in my home theater system. Only some listeners may feel a need or desire for an added touch of deep bass response. Money could have been saved here with cheaper parts and a less spectacular cabinet. Then that would not be a Carl Marchisotto design. The grille cloths actually aid the visual design and have only a rather subtle penalty on audio quality. Ultimately my relaxed listening sessions found the grilles in place much of the time. Woodwinds acquire almost as much prominence as the brass with excellent recordings and keep in mind that the revealing mid-range and tweeters reveal warts and distortions as clearly as they do for music. Enjoyable listening remains at low volume levels. At times there seems to be a bit of prominence somewhere in the upper mid-range that may be adding a bit of lively sparkle. Long time readers know that I love level controls to be able to at least slightly adjust the levels of mid-range and tweeters though here the balance was so excellent that I seldom missed them. So be careful using a CD player or amplifier that does some of the same thing. For loudspeaker cables, I cannot feel comfortable advising expensive ones. If you have them, they will not be wasted on these fine loudspeakers! Experiment and experiment and certainly give his Blue Thunder offerings a trial run. If you ever get a chance to try Kimber's Monocle series of cables—do it; I would guess they might be a fine match.
I feel compelled to again mention their extremely attractive appearance. As time has gone on their excellent sound has continued to improve revealing a truly outstanding loudspeaker system. If my memory serves me correctly (and Carl says that it does) these newly designed Viper IA's overall sound better than the more expensive Viper II models I reviewed a few years ago even in the bass range. That is a mark of continuing design improvement. These loudspeakers are the first components in a very long time that my wife, Pat and I hated to see leave. She had grown very fond of the beautiful cherry finish and unique visual design plus the fact they are twenty inches shorter than my current reference loudspeakers while providing excellent overall sound quality on an absolute basis. By that I mean without considering their value pricing. They may be a benchmark at their price for others to strive to equal or possibly surpass. Neither I nor other reviewers can be familiar with all or even most of the competition in the crowded $3000 to $5000 (per pair) price range. I certainly do not know of their superior. Karl Lozier