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Equipment Review
July 1998

Nova Rendition Loudspeakers

by Marc Mickelson

There’s nothing in the audio reviewing biz that’s as potentially tiring, exasperating, fulfilling and/or magnificent as evaluating a pair of big speakers. It’s been written that big speakers can have big problems. These include placement requirements that can eat up floor space in your room, driver-integration anomalies, and the inability for the pair of big boxes to disappear sonically. But such speakers, when they’re on their game, can provide you with reproduction that scales the heights and plumbs the depths of the frequency range while creating a soundstage that’s closer in size to the real thing than anything a pair of smaller speakers can conjure. Big speakers can be next to impossible to place properly in a fully furnished room, but they also may be the only speakers that will properly fill a large space with good sound.

Nowhere at last January’s CES did I hear a better sonic demonstration of a big speaker than in the Nova Audio room, where the Nova Renditions held court with a full complement of Krell electronics. I knew a few moments after I walked into the room that the sound was special, but I played it cooool. I paged through some literature, walked around the room, looked at the electronics—all as the orchestra swelled to crescendo. And then I blew it—the bass-drum thwack made me jerk my head around to the speakers. So I let the facade drop, talked a bit with Jack Rubinson, Nova’s national sales manager, and left with the idea of reviewing the Renditions planted firmly in my mind. Luckily, Nova agreed.

Ins and outs

Although the Renditions are big—60"H x 12"W x 20-3/4"D and weighing in at 200 pounds each—they are not at the top of the Nova line. Above them is the Evolution II ($32,000/pr and really big), while below sit the Applause ($4990/pr), Bravo ($3300/pr) and Ovation ($1990/pr). The Renditions use the same 1" soft-dome tweeter as the Evolutions along with two 7" carbon-fiber midwoofers and two 8" subwoofers. The tweeter is especially noteworthy and noticeable because of its machined aluminum front plate, which, Nova claims, helps the driver provide excellent dispersion both horizontally and vertically. A fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover is used, with crossover points of 1.8kHz (tweeter to midwoofers) and 100Hz (midwoofers to subwoofers). On the back of the cabinet are three rectangular-shaped bass ports and two sets of heavy-duty Tiff binding posts ready for biwiring. The cabinets are especially stout—lots of bracing inside, I bet—and handsomely finished in matching rosewood veneer. Pictures don’t quite capture the beauty of the Renditions.

Nova reports for the Renditions a nominal impedance of 4 ohms (3.2 ohms minimum) and a sensitivity of 88dB/W/m. They recommend an amplifier of 100Wpc minimum for driving the speakers. This seems like a good suggestion to me because I thought it obvious that the 100Wpc Lamm M1.1 monoblocks drove the speakers with greater authority—and produced slightly better sound overall—than the 80Wpc Lamm ML1 triode tube amplifiers, which in addition to having less power than the M1.1s also have a higher output impedance. However, both of these amps were splendid with the speakers, as was the Mesa Baron, which sounded especially fine in 2/3-triode mode. I bet any number of less expensive amps would make a fine match with the Renditions too.

Review equipment

As has been the case for the last few of my reviews, I listened to the Renditions along with a veritable gold mine of fine electronics: Lamm L1 and Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III linestages, Wadia 20 transport, and Timbre TT-1 DAC. Amps included the fab Lamm M1.1, M2.1 and ML1 monoblocks, and Mesa Baron tubed stereo amp. I used JPS Labs Superconductor2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables as well as the Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect between DAC and linestage. Power cords were from JPS Labs, API and Audio Magic, and the digital cable was the Marigo Apparition Reference Series 3A. I used a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution Center to provide minimal AC filtering for the amps and transport, while the DAC and linestages were plugged straight into the wall.

Of course, for direct comparison I had my reference ProAc Response Four speakers on hand, a tall (and heavy) challenge for any newcomer. I’ve owned the Fours for nearly two years, and I’m still consistently amazed by them. Although the Response Fours are only slightly taller than and not as deep as the Renditions, they weigh 100 pounds more each. Moving the two sets of titans around became a chore and a half until I thought of putting some surplus mouse pads (the kind with the hard top surface) face down under each speaker. Although this didn’t exactly make for one-finger ease of movement, I was nonetheless more readily able to slide the speakers around my room, which made swapping the Response Fours and Renditions something less than an ordeal.

Listening

Right off the bat, I was surprised by some obvious sonic characteristics that the Renditions share with my reference ProAc Response Fours. Both speakers have soft-dome tweeters, and as expected, this translates into some very smooth and non-metallic sound. The Renditions have excellent treble clarity and extension that’s reminiscent of that of the Merlin VSM-SEs, which excel at presenting fine detail without inherent etch or grain. Playing "Peel Me a Grape" from Diana Krall’s Love Scenes [Impulse! IMPD-233] reveals the perfect hissiness of Krall’s vocal—her words seemingly disappearing into air—which in turn helps reveal the amount of reverberant space around her as she sings. Love Scenes is an exemplary recording, but the Renditions don’t discriminate, making Richard X Heyman’s less-than-perfect Living Room!! [Cypress 71335], with its intricate mix, come alive with nuance and smoothness not there with lesser speakers.

In general, big speakers like the Renditions have little trouble sounding big, but they can have problems sounding small when the music dictates. At both extremes, the Renditions excel. The Renditions can portray the scale of a performance with dexterity, sounding large or small, with gradations in between, when the music requires it. Green Day’s pounding Insomniac [Reprise 9 46046-2] is expansive, especially the two-song cycle "Brain Stew"/"Jaded." On the other hand, Keith Jarrett’s La Scala [ECM 1640] is intimate, as it should be, just Jarrett on the piano. Here there’s a very direct connection to the performer, which enhances the experience, and the Renditions are responsible for this.

People make room for and buy big speakers because they want full-range sound, which also means bass that extends with power. The Renditions don’t disappoint here either. I measured their in-room bass as -2dB at 25Hz, which means it’s not flat at 20Hz, which is often considered the reference point for the lowest bass. But don’t think that this means there are any compromises involved. The Renditions can shake the walls, but they don’t do it solely with volume. Their bass isn’t a bit boomy, which is probably why the speakers sounded so impressive in the imperfect rooms at the CES; it’s also very nimble, which is what you want if you’re going to pay the big bucks for a pair of big speakers. "Headshots," from Suzanne Vega’s Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 31454 0583 2] is a great test track for discerning the quality and quantity of bass that any pair of speakers projects. With the Renditions, the bass line was easy to follow—and very present, meaning that you could feel it as well as hear it. It doesn’t get lost in the mix, even though it’s very prominent, because the Renditions are so able to reveal detail down low.

An audiophile friend of mine made a trip over to hear the Renditions shortly after I had properly set them up—big speakers will bring listeners from far and wide. His quick reaction to the sound is very telling: "It sounds like a live mike feed." I knew what he meant, and he was right: There was an undeniable sense that the performers, Diana Krall and the band, were in the next room feeding the signal to us—no playback involved. The highs were open and uncolored, the transients were fast, and the soundstage was enormous and airy. The Renditions cast solid outlines of the performers amidst a spacious soundstage that competes with the very best I’ve heard. Overall, the sound took a giant step away from reproduction and closer to the special immediacy of the live event.

Head to head

There aren’t many speakers more suited to direct comparison than the Nova Renditions and ProAc Response Fours. They look similar, have similar driver complements and configurations, and cost essentially the same amount of money. And the similarities don’t end there—they also sound rather similar, although, as you would expect, there are some differences too.

Although the treble of both speakers is certainly natural and non-fatiguing, the highs of the Response Fours are sweeter, but they don’t sacrifice this for detail. In fact, the Response Four’s top end is just as airy and alive as that of the Renditions, especially when the ProAcs are driven by the magnificent Lamm ML1 triode monoblocks. Although the Renditions’ highs are just a little less present and solid than the ProAc’s, I speculate that toeing the speakers in a bit more may negate this. In any case, it’s a fine, almost infinitesimal, point to make about speakers that sound as right in the treble as the Renditions.

Both speakers throw wonderfully populated soundstages that are both deep and wide, but here the nod goes to the Renditions, which are simply without peer when it comes to creating a sonically believable approximation of space and the musicians that occupy it. The Response Fours are no slouch in this regard—especially when, once again, they’re driven by the Lamm ML1s—but the Renditions just seem to disappear more readily, especially with small-scale recordings. Roseanne Cash’s 10 Song Demo [Capitol 7243 8 32390 2 3] was very impressive when played back over the Renditions. Cash’s voice was planted between the speakers and about four feet back, while the other musicians filled in around her. If a curtain were hung between the listening chair and the speakers, the listener would never guess the size of the Renditions (or perhaps that there was an audio system in the room).

The bass of the Response Fours measured flat at 20Hz in my room, a bit lower and with greater output than that of the Renditions. However, as any seasoned listener knows, this difference shows up only on a select few recordings capable of taking of advantage of really, really low bass. "Joe Slam and the Spaceship," from Harry Connick’s She [Columbia CK 64376], could show it, but only because it opens with a wash of amusical bass tones. I preferred the greater weight of the Response Fours’ bass, but I also liked the way the Renditions resolved bass lines.

Both sets of speakers will work well in just about any system—neither leans too far toward ultimate resolution to be abrasive nor too close to romanticism to be veiling. Both respond well to upstream changes in equipment, but I found that the Renditions beg for some good solid-state amplification, and the resulting current, while the Response Fours are not picky—and really sing with tubes. However, when you hear the Renditions with, say, a pair of Lamm M1.1s, you’ll wonder why anyone would want the extra hassle of tubes. The sound has all of the presence and dimensionality of a great tube-based system, and it also has deep, solid bass and control throughout the entire frequency range. The Rendition/M1.1 combination is superb; if you can find a dealer who carries both products, beg for a demonstration.

After all is said

So often the writing of a review involves picking out a few things that a component does well and then discussing them. While there is value to this approach, especially if you want to convey important system-matching information to interested readers, the Renditions make doing this somewhat difficult because of their overall self-effacing character. This is not to say that the Renditions are without obvious merit, however. In fact, the opposite is the case. They do everything equally well—up and down the frequency range, in terms of space and definition, and in regard to the more cerebral characteristics of involvement and musicality. The Renditions speak with an honest voice that steers clear of an obvious "personality." Perhaps this is their trait, and it’s impressive.

Now the hardest work begins—saying good-bye to and then packing up the Renditions. They went toe to toe with the heavyweight champion of my house and came out with a draw, which some might proclaim as the equivalent of kissing your sister because there is no clear-cut winner. But I know the real truth—that, like the ProAc Response Fours, the Nova Renditions make speakers that are even more expensive (as if $19k per pair weren’t expensive enough) work very hard to justify their price—if they can at all.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

Nova Rendition Loudspeakers
Price: $18,900 USD per pair

Nova Audio, Inc.
P.O. Box 40569
Houston, TX 77240
Phone: 713-466-1880
Fax: 713-856-0278

E-mail: info@novaaudio.com
Website: www.novaaudio.com


Nova Audio Responds:

I would like to thank Marc Mickelson for his kind words regarding the Nova Rendition. It is always heartening to have others appreciate the work that has gone into a product.

Marc rightly points out that these speakers have a "you are there" presence. "Overall, the sound took a giant step away from reproduction and closer to the special immediacy of the live event." This is what music/audio reproduction has always meant for me--getting that performer in your room. It is easier said than done. The Nova's deliver the goods; they have the ability to disappear and to create a convincing illusion of a live performance. The first time I heard a Nova speaker I was captivated by their ability to draw me into the music and to hold me there; a special quality that allows you to enjoy the music on a higher level, to transcend, to soar, to engage in an aesthetic experience. When you have this aesthetic experience you are changed, the merging of self and music creates the transcendental. The Nova speakers are only an aid in making this happen, but what an aid they are!

Again, thank you Marc Mickelson for a wonderful review.

Jack Rubinson
National Sales Manager
Nova Audio

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