The Neoteric Listener...
and the Nola Boxer loudspeakers
If you're looking for a pair of standmount monitor speakers and you have about $1500 to spend, buy the Nola Boxers. End of review.
Ok, so maybe it's not as cut and dried as all that, but I'm pretty confident that 98.6% of the readers of this column would be pleased as punch with a pair of Nolas playing music on a fine Sunday morning. Or on a reckless "Forget you, I quit!" Monday morning, for that matter. I've had my eye on these speakers for some time now, having seen and coveted them at this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and at CES 2010. Some of us have great products thrust upon us, but most of us have to rely on the will of whatever gods govern fortunate reviews. Lucky for me, then, that Nola speaker designer extraordinaire, Carl Marchisotto, is a straightforward and gracious fellow, granting me a review pair to audition over a two month period.
If you've read Michael Mercer's excellent review in these pages (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue46/nola_boxer.htm), you know that he touted the Boxers' exceptional tonal balance, sound staging, and imaging, and all I can do is echo that he is absolutely dead on in his appraisal. No need to rehash what's been said better than I could say it, so I'm not about to try. But my experience with the Boxers was novel in that I paired them with a range of eclectic amplification of the decent-but-not-divine type that could easily be found in the listening rooms of the readers of this column. The results told me a great deal about the Boxers, and the Boxers are a great deal.
To start with, as I always do, I paired the Nolas with my tried and true Arcam A-80 amplifier. Even after all the wonderful gear that has graced my shack, I still enjoy the A-80's affable and perfectly pleasant presentation. The Boxers took to the British kit like a born punter. The Nolas instantly made a big hit with everyone in the room, and comments such as "the ported bass really makes a difference" and "incredibly rich sounding" were bandied about by all and sundry. In this incarnation, the Boxers excelled in reproducing instruments accurately and in proportion. Albert Lee's Telecaster in the solo of Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" had that chicken-pickin' edge that reminds you why the Tele is the hillbilly's choice. The speakers relayed every note of the fluid run with strings and pickup distortion intact. Similarly, R&B musician Brian McKnight's soulful ballad "6 8 12" is a festival of strings: arch top hollow body guitars, Les Paul slide, several acoustic fills, and a full string section. Tone, attack, and sustain were all accurately reproduced, and there was no smearing of harmonics, so the overall presentation was compelling and natural. Even though the Arcam is an entry level amplifier, it's more than capable of revving up these monitors to show many, if certainly not all, of their superior attributes. Like many of us, experiencing something new is instantly referenced to what we have already, so I felt compelled to compare the Boxers to my Tannoy Eyris speakers. The dust-up was short-lived. I like the Tannoys because they are moderately successful at avoiding the hyper-precision and artificial bass depth of many monitors, and because I can listen to them without fatigue for a long time. Compared to the Boxers, however, the Tannoys sounded like toys for tots (galling as it is to admit it!). The Nolas bettered the Tannoys in everything, and it's obvious that the Boxers are in a different class. It was unmistakable that the Boxers were designed to have many of the attributes of the larger and more expensive speakers manufactured by Nola.
Moving on, I pulled out an amp that I recently acquired on a whim, an ancient Luxman L80-V. A solid state Caprice station wagon of an amp from the bicentennial 70s, I mainly bought it for the paneling and all the filter switches (best seen and not heard, but positively right on for catching on the flip side). Haunted by the feeling that I was putting sugar in my Sauvignon Blanc, I hooked up the Nolas to the Luxman's maddening speaker inputs (like trying to thread a needle without knowing the password). I'll be damned if it didn't sound, well, maybe not totally awesome, but pretty cool, Barbarino. Refined is the last word I would use to describe this amp, and using a compact disc player as the source produced a sound that was robust, but definitely constricted (and, no, the mono switch wasn't on). When I switched to the Devilsound DAC; however, the Luxman/Boxer pairing was really quite nice. The extra oomph from the Luxman's ample power reserves enabled the Boxers to supercharge the digital files in a way that frequently made me stop and remark, "You know, this sounds really good." Granted, the type of music I was playing could have just matched well with this May-September system, for precious few of the recordings wear the audiophile school tie. All I know is the Luxman's Quasar beam of a sound field sent Brooks and Dunn's splendid cover of B.W. Stevenson's "My Maria" all around the shack. What's more, the venerable Japanese amplifier coaxed plenty of great sounding bass guitar and kick drum out of the Boxers, something that I didn't expect from these monitors, even if they were nicely finished and apportioned. Finally, while listening to the exquisite breathlessness of Julie London's vocal performance in "Cry Me a River" and staring at an ugly USB cable and an amp more "Electric Company" than super chic, it was hard to reconcile the delicacy of the vocals coming from speakers.
If you are familiar with the Nola speaker line, you know that they make products on a par with the finest speakers currently made. When listening to Boxers paired with the iDecco integrated amplifier (recently reviewed in these pages), I reflected on the perfectionism that invariably drives talented people. We've all seen shows where a master chef, forced to make a meal of simple fare, can't help but employ skill and talent to turn it into a stunningly delicious meal. So, it seems, is the case with these monitors. Fifteen hundred bucks is not pocket change, at least in my pockets, but compared to the five digit price tags of the priciest Nolas, these are affordable speakers. The Boxers are competing with manufacturers that turn ‘em out by the palette load, that is true, but you can tell by the cabinetry and sound that Nola just won't do things on the cheap. The Boxers don't try to out duel other speakers by producing sonic exaggerations. Paired with the iDecco's decidedly modern sound, some speakers might sound sterile or bright, but the high quality parts and solid design of the Boxers enable it to express the iDecco's best tendencies without turning attributes into faults. On popster Mandy Moore's "So Real," the Boxers produce bass that is pulsating and rhythmic, but never in danger of swallowing up every spare inch of sonic space. While I had the iDecco's excellent DAC on hand to listen to, I started ripping a passel of cds that have come into my possession. Apparently I missed these icons from the past three decades because I was too busy arguing with people who preferred ZZ Top over John Lee Hooker. ZZ Top! Hair metal bands, long-forgotten R&B superstars, English alternative artistes, "audiophile" pop stars: it was a wonder my computer didn't throw up (sorry, hubris is tough to shed). Anyway, the Boxers and the iDecco worked so well together that Luther Vandross, Mel Torme, and Depeche Mode all capitalized on the speaker's dazzling midrange. In fact, the iDecco and Boxers pairing offers a stunningly good combination of contemporary features and sophisticated sound at a very affordable price, and is definitely a great way to get the basics of a system that will wear well for a long time.
Before I let the Boxers go, I was quite aware that I had not shown these speakers to their best advantage. One noticeable strength of the Boxers is in is the perception of space between instruments within the soundfield. Simply described, instruments and vocals appear to have a separate identity and are never clustered in an indecipherable grouping. To fully explore this remarkable quality, I knew that I needed tube amplification. Fortunately, I was able to get hold of the JD 302BRC Integrated Stereo Tube Amplifier (review forthcoming) to pair with the Boxers. Ah, spirits! Although the bass lost some of its heft at lower volumes, the midrange blossomed and the highs sweetened in equal proportion. Most strikingly, however, was the expansion of the soundfield. "Sorrow of the World", from Peter Lieberson: Rilke Songs: Six Realms. Horn Concerto, is a lament for the human condition, and the Boxers reveal each instrument—cello, piccolo, contrabasses, and finally the entire orchestra—so that the individual melody lines of each "lament" ebb and flow in suitably depressing, and magnificent, fashion. Although my mental hardware is still operating at Classical Music 1.0, even I can appreciate the resplendent playing of Yo-Yo Ma in Schubert's "Apreggione" as presented by this system. The dramatic piano chords that open this piece foreshadow the expressive fluidity of Ma's instrument, and the Boxer's presentation of the atmosphere of the recording highlights both keyboards and cello. The Boxer/Jolida system's excellent imaging creates a soundstage that is deep and wide, but not preternaturally so, thus focusing one to hear the musical performance, and not the audio gear. Drawbacks? Well, some people like speakers that are so revealing that it's like a sonic x-ray (and I do for a little while until I inevitably turn them down, and then off). Other folks like a Day-Glo colored sound that blinds you at the highs, knocks the wind our of you with the lows, and barks the mids in your face (again, so do I, but for a very little while). The Boxers are neither of these. Also, these are standmounts, not meat locker-sized speaker cabinets, so don't expect SPL's to blow down the brick houses of little piggies. That said, when the chorus in Carmen makes its entrance in Leontyne Price's rendition of "Habanera," I laughed to myself just because it was so loud and powerful. And just to see if the Boxers could really rock opera, I played Tina Turner's version of "Acid Queen" from the soundtrack of the Who's Tommy. Yep, the Boxers burned rubber on every quavering note of Tina's vocal delivery, and I was fully satisfied that the little Nolas handled genres and electronics like a pro. Tube amps, however, are probably the best match for the Boxers, so that may affect some people's thinking. But it shouldn't...
Whether or not these speakers are for you, well, most of us read a ton of reviews and still feel like Don Knotts in the movie "The Shakiest Gun in the West," about to face the bad guy, and getting advice from everyone and everybody about which way is best...with disastrous results. Keeping in mind Dave Clark's sage advice in his latest Ramblings (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue48/dac.htm) that nobody can tell you what will sound best to you, playing your music, and in your listening environment...I still say that these speakers are the best standmounts I've heard in my listening room (and lots of other places, too!). So highly recommended, in fact, I bought a pair for myself!"