February 1999Nova Audio Ovation Loudspeakers
by Mike Masztal
I first was hooked on audio equipment as a teen back in the late 60s. My dad had some great-sounding tube gear that I loved to listen to even though I didnt know squat about electronics. His EICO and Fisher electronics and Wharfdale W-60 speakers sounded pretty good, as I recall.
My first system was a combination record player/8-track deck/AM-FM tuner. Even at that young age, I realized that the speakers that came with it were the pits. I first started modifying the no-name speakers by installing better drivers. Later, I bought some driver components from the Lafayette shop and built my own cabinets. They were butt-ugly, but they sounded a lot better than most of the low-end stuff I could afford on my paper-route and dishwashers salary. Even my girlfriend didnt mind that I wasnt spending all my money on her! Thirty years and many other hobbies later, Im still hooked on audio, and I doubt that will ever change.
Since Ive had the privilege to write for SoundStage!, Ive enjoyed having the opportunity to review several stand-mounted speakers. Some have had stunning performance, like the Shamrock Eire and the Silverline SR17. The performance Ive heard from these speakers shatters the myth that "bigger is better." Even when looking back at some of the audio systems Ive owned, I recall that some of the better sounds came from systems that used smaller speakers. These speakers tended to image better and cost less, and they were usually a bit easier to place in the room. Unfortunately, many newcomers to audio still view large speakers as superior to smaller ones and subsequently sacrifice decent linear response for the bloated bass resulting from cabinet resonance. In time, serious audiophiles learn what to listen for and end up enjoying music much more than thought they would. As Martha Stewart says, "Its a good thing."
So when I received an e-mail message from Marc Mickelson asking if I was interested in reviewing the stand-mounted Nova Ovation speakers, I thought Id better take a look at the entire Nova line because I wasnt too familiar with the company or its products. Before I committed, I again read the review Marc did on the Nova Rendition speakers. Clearly, the gang at Nova is serious about speaker design. The Ovations looked like another worthy product, so I told Marc to send them along.
The Ovations arrived via UPS in a large cardboard box. The packing materials are quite good and should protect the speakers from even the worst handling. The Ovations are a bit larger than the average minimonitor, measuring 16"H x 9 1/2"W x 10 1/2"D and weighing in at a hefty 26 pounds each. The cabinet work and finish of the Ovations were excellent -- as good as Ive seen anywhere. The sloped front baffle is veneered (indeed, all six sides are), which makes the speakers more aesthetically pleasing for those who prefer to listen without the grilles. The Ovations come with one set of five-way binding posts, and the drivers are the ubiquitous Scan-Speak 7" carbon-fiber woofer and 1" tweeter; both were derived from those used in the companys flagship speaker, the $32,000 Evolution II. They are also similar to drivers used in several other two-way designs, including the Condor SC7, ProAc 2.5, Meadowlark Shearwater, and the Shamrock Eire. Being familiar with these drivers, I knew a long break-in would be required, so the Ovations were treated to about 300 hours of music before any critical listening was done. The published specifications showed the sensitivity to be 88dB/W/m, a frequency response from 45Hz to 20kHz and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms (minimum 6 ohms). With these specs, the Ovations should be fairly easy for any decent amplifier to drive.
Source: CAL Delta transport, CAL Alpha DAC retubed with Mullard 12AX7 tubes. Preamp: Aronov LS-9000. Amps: Aronov LS-9100 monoblocks sitting on Golden Sound DH cones and squares. Speakers: Silverline Panatella. Interconnects: JPS Superconductor, Silverline Sterling. Speaker cables: Silverline Sterling Signature. Power Cords: JPS Labs Digital AC, Analog AC and Power AC cords. Accessories: TDS Passive Audiophile. All components were plugged into a homemade, non-filtered outlet strip that in turn was powered by a dedicated outlet. My listening room is 12'W x 18'L x 8.5'H and complimented by Corner Tunes and homemade "room tunes."
After some experimentation with in-room placement, I found that the Ovations like to have some breathing room to perform their best. I placed them 44" from the back wall and 33" from the side walls with a 10-degree toe-in. Moving the Ovations back toward the wall tended to decrease the soundstage depth and muddy the bass a bit. When set up correctly, the Ovations have a good-sized sweet spot. I remember some speakers Ive heard in the past that were great, but they only had a one-head sweet spot -- and that person had better not move his head much. Im too old for that stuff anymore.
Because jazz is my favorite type of music, first up were some of my frequently played standbys. Diana Kralls Love Scenes [Impulse IMPO 239] is one of the best jazz recordings Ive heard since Patricia Barbers Café Blue [Premonition PREM-737-2], and it has gotten a lot of play time on my system. In addition to Kralls competent piano playing, Christian McBrides bass accompaniment really puts this recording together. On "All or Nothing at All," McBrides bass is well reproduced with excellent tonality. Soundstage width was excellent, but the depth was not quite what the Shamrock Eires could do. Bass extension was also a bit limited. A problem? Clearly not, because the Eires cost considerably more. The Ovations are indeed worthy, and they make me wonder what extra growl could be coaxed out of them down low if they were biwireable.
On John McLaughlins The Heart of Things [Verve 314539 153-2], Dennis Chambers cuts loose with some rapid double-bass-drum kicks on "Seven Sisters." The speed and dynamics of the performance were there, and I heard no chuffing from the rear-firing port. Cymbal crashes maintain their shimmer, but they dont degenerate into a "frying- hamburger" sizzle.
Small-scale classical music is well served by the Ovations. All of the performances on John Marks well-recorded Music for a Glass Bead Game [JMR 15] show the instruments to sound their proper size, not some giant cello and violin. No sibilance was heard on any of the selections.
OK, the Ovations are good at the small-scale stuff. How about rock? Well, rock fans will also like these speakers. They can kick butt when they need to. While listening to "My Way Down," from the Chris Duarte Groups Strat Magik [Silvertone Records 41546-2], I heard Duartes Stratocaster snarl, growl and really bite into the music. One of my favorite recordings to judge low-level detail is the well-known Cowboy Junkies disc The Trinity Session [BMG 8568-2-R]. Granted, a lot of the low-level detail is foot taps, spurious sound emanating from the heating system and the like, but it is there. The Ovations did an admirable job reproducing it, but not to the level of the Silverline SR17. Again, a problem? No, the SR17 also costs quite a bit more than the Ovation.
Nova has also done its homework on the cabinet design and construction. On none of the recordings did I hear any noticeable cabinet resonance giving the music a boxy sound. Sometimes Ive found this characteristic to be difficult to detect in the absence of a reference speaker without any resonance, but once you hear that cabinet resonance, youll know it.
The Nova Ovations are at the head of the pack in the under-$2000 minimonitor offerings. Their tonal accuracy and dynamics, and capability of reproducing a broad soundstage make them an excellent all-around speaker. Even the criticisms I noted are minor and may potentially be alleviated with different speaker cables or upstream equipment. The Ovations are a speaker that an audiophile can build a system around and be satisfied with for a long time. If youre in the market for a sub-$2000 speaker, the Nova Ovation belongs on your list of models to hear.
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