Let’s get right down to it: This speaker sounds significantly different than most other speakers anywhere near its lofty $12,000-per-pair asking price. A natural follow-up question would be, “Is that a good thing?” And I’d give a solid “Yes” as an answer. I really, really liked listening to this speaker, and I can’t say that about more than a few speakers in the $7000 to $20,000 price range. Because the differences between the Viper Reference and other speakers are so big and so musically beneficial, I think every audiophile should consider the issues this speaker raises.
The Vipers’ sound isn’t obviously a function of their design. They appear to be fairly conventional three-way, floorstanding, acoustic-suspension speakers. They use two smallish (8.6") woofers instead of one larger woofer, which is hardly exceptional. The midrange and tweeter are mounted on an open baffle board, which allows some of the midrange and treble sound to be directed rearward, which is a bit less common. And the Vipers incorporate a few certifiably unusual technologies, including Alnico magnets in their drivers, crossovers that are separate from the speaker enclosures, and ball bearing-coupled isolation platforms. But, if we really need a technological reason for their different sound, it seems most likely to lie in the years of experience and attention to detail that Carl Marchisotto—head of the Nola design team—brings to this speaker.
A better way of understanding the Vipers is to consider a few characteristics of their sound. First, let’s take the analytical view. Here are my listening notes from that perspective:
• Even tonal balance, though definitely not bright
• Not the last word in transparency, though quite open-sounding
• Shy on deep bass; upper bass warm and full
• Good central image and depth; image height a bit constrained
• Dynamics slightly soft, but large-scale material seems uncompressed
Most products end up with listening notes that resemble this list in the sense that there are pros and cons. Most products we review in the pages of this magazine have more pros than cons because the staff spends a large amount of time vetting the interesting products from the mass of average products in an endeavor to focus their reviewing time and your reading time on the real contenders.
Judged simply from this analytical perspective, you could conclude that the Nola Viper is “another good speaker.” By “another good speaker” I mean that the designer, facing the laws of physics with a specific budget, wisely chose certain trade-offs from what was possible. But the designer could have made other wise choices from among those tradeoffs, which would have yielded other pros and cons, and “another good speaker,” albeit a different one.
As a reviewer (and perhaps as a reader) you tend to hate this situation because it doesn’t serve up very interesting narrative material. “New Techno- logical Breakthrough” or “David Beats Goliath” or “Much Closer to the Sound of Live Music Than Anything I’ve Ever Heard” are more compelling story lines. But in the case of a lot of analog equipment, the technology is relatively mature and many of the designers are quite good, so the reality is that there are multiple “good products” making different tradeoffs in sensible ways.
Leaving our view of the Nola Viper at the level of “another good speaker” has several problems, however. While we’re still thinking analytically, I believe that the reader who cottons to this perspec- tive intuitively salutes a certain philoso- phy. This philosophy could probably be expressed in multiple ways, but basically it comes down to the idea that the best audio products, especially speakers, are those that do the most things well. If a speaker has deep bass and extended highs and flat frequency response and wide dynamic range and even polar re- sponse, and low resonances, and wide and deep soundstaging, etc., then it is good. One speaker is better than another when it does more of these things well. That seems pretty reasonable, at least on the surface.
The problem with this view for the Nola Viper is that I don’t think it looks so hot when judged this way. Frankly, there are other speakers at lower prices that will do “more.” So, if you take my comment seriously that I really, really like the Viper, we have a problem. Either I mean that the Viper would be a very likeable $5000 speaker that, at its price, ends up being another (kinda, sorta, but not really) good speaker, or I mean something that falls outside of the analytical perspective.
Of course if you’ve stayed with me this far, you can guess I mean the latter. We tend to call the perspective where the Nola shines the musical perspective. Let’s take a look at my listening notes from this perspective:
• Natural sounding
• Unstrained, not edgy
• Sense of grip and control
• Each instrument sounds like it exists in a real space
• Nice sense of air
I value these things rather highly, and so I’d have to say that in my world this musicality trumps the analytical score- board, although ideally I’d like to have my cake and eat it too. From listening to the Nola Viper, I would suggest that there are ways to make the analytical trad- eoffs that I’ve described either in more musically coherent or in less musically coherent ways. The Viper design seems focused resolutely on musical coherence and lets some of the typical audiophile- checklist things fall by the wayside. My experience is that the Viper’s musical design philosophy is decidedly in the minority.
Now I want to add a third view, which I think helps explain my positive response to the Vipers even more than the musical perspective. Let’s call this the Kodachrome perspective. Long, long ago, photographs were taken using cameras that recorded their images on chemically-coated film, not on silicon sensors. There were many types of film, and photographers chose a type of film based in part on how well that film’s recording of light and shadow seduced the viewer into the feeling of the image being recorded. Re-read that sentence, please. Yes, I said, “seduced the viewer into the feeling of the image.” Now, photographers and pho- tographic journalists are professionals, so they didn’t talk about it this way. They discussed seemingly neutral terms like “color accuracy” and “contrast” and “resolution.” But somewhere at the core of this discussion everyone knew that this was a seduc- tion process because everyone knew that they were representing a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional form.
Because they understood that they weren’t literally reproduc- ing reality but were creating a feeling, photographers felt a certain freedom to distort their images. Everyone knew that Kodachome film distorted colors, but some loved it because that distortion did a better job of seducing the viewer into the feeling of the scene than a more technically accurate film would have. Another way of saying this is that accuracy is accuracy-to-feeling and is measured not at the surface of the print but in the mind of the viewer. This is philosophically very different from the way we tend to discuss audio.
Returning to the Nola Vipers, from the Kodachrome perspec- tive I give you this one, final listening note:
• Lots of discs sound very involving versus a few discs sound- ing stunningly realistic
The “involving” part of this note is interesting. Whenever I hear the phrase “musically natural,” I think, “Yeah, and boring.” But that isn’t the Viper. Music on the Vipers is exciting and enter- taining with the richness and texture of good live music.
The other interesting part of this observation for me is the realization that rather frequently the pursuit of stunning realism on the occasional disc yields products that are close to unlisten- able on most other music. I don’t know if that is because some ultra-high-transparency products actually strive for transparency through some kind of distortion. Or because most recordings are “off” and musical-sounding products are distorted to com- pensate. It doesn’t really matter to me. I simply note that a few recent products, like the Viper, seem designed to sound good on a lot of material without the side effects of obvious color- ations. At the same time these products rarely sound completely amazing on some parameter on certain (very few) discs. That’s a “tradeoff” that I could live with every day of the year.
The Vipers seem to accomplish this consistent listenability in part by being so well balanced across the musical spectrum. The Vipers reproduce the frequency range of each major instrument solidly and clearly. This seems rather mundane, except that when we say most other speakers are balanced we are making a much broader statement, something on the order of “bass, midrange, and treble are in proportion” to one another. That’s true of the Viper, but it also regularly spotlights instruments whose output occurs in narrower frequency ranges than “bass” or “midrange.” If I had to hazard a guess, part of the Viper’s secret is that it reproduces the upper bass and lower midrange quite richly, and that is where the fundamentals of many instruments lie. Getting this part of the spectrum right lends the Viper’s presentation a sense of weight similar to what you hear at concerts. The Viper’s smooth and open midrange and treble ensure that the sense of weight seems musically right and never slow or ponderous.
A noteworthy parallel to the Viper’s ability to make many discs sound good is that the Viper is quite easy to set up. Roy Gregory, reviewing the Vipers as part of a system in Hi-Fi+, had a similar experience. The Viper doesn’t seem to be as sensitive to room placement as some speakers, which suggests that more than a few consumers will be able to take advantage of its many merits.
So, the Viper is a different beast to be sure. If stunning transparency on the oc- casional 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.