November 1999Nova Audio Applause Loudspeakers
by Jon Gale
A welcome wind of change seems to be blowing in from the speaker-design camp as of late. Advertisement bylines touting musicality are appearing with regularity. Could this be a sign that the detail-above-all-else school of voicing is coming to an end? Or could this be a resignation on the designers part that he just cant sell a speaker over and over again to the same crowd that "tunes" their systems to play a particular recording labels output? We all have a friend who has such a system, dont we? Play an RCA, Mercury or London, and the sound can be wondrous. Play a normal commercial disc, though, and youre running for the street. In regard to such a narrow focus of tuning, this way lies insanity.
We all must face one cruel fact: the majority of software we are being fed is nowhere near the standards of the home gear being designed presently. While the re-creation of the "sound of the absolute" is most certainly the Holy Grail in the endeavor of home playback, we are reliant on the encoding side of our industry for a quality product. While Im hesitant to make this an Us vs. Them argument, until the encoding side at least accepts high-end precepts, we as audiophiles and music lovers are swinging at absolute windmills. Perhaps through utilizing certain colorations or deviations from neutrality (in my opinion, inserted at the end-transducer point), we may better portray the "absolute" using the generic software available.
Which brings me, in a derailed rant sort of way, to Nova Audio. While a relative newcomer domestically, Nova has been manufacturing speakers since 1992, supplying the international market under the name First Audio. Based in Texas, their line consists of five models ranging from a stand-mounted two-way to a giant state-of-the-art attempt. Squarely situated in the middle of the line is the subject of this review, the Nova Applause loudspeaker. Lets have a look at these to see if they are, as Novas website proclaims, "Simply Music."
Facts and figures
The Applause is a two-way vented design comprised of three Scan-Speak-origin drivers arranged in a midrange/tweeter/midrange layout. The woofers are 7" and use carbon-fiber composite materials in magnesium frames. The free-air resonance of this driver is stated as being a very low 28Hz. The tweeter is a 1" soft-dome, dual-chamber, pressure-release design used to further minimize the rear-wave launch and compression. Said to not possess the usual ringing in the top end, it has very linear dispersion down to 2kHz. Unique to this tweeter is a very heavy machined front plate said to make a large contribution in the tweeters performance. Integrating these three drivers is a fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover at 2.2kHz, with internal wiring by Cardas. The concept of the Applause is said to derive from the Evolution and Rendition speakers further up in the companys line. Basically, it is the Evolution and Rendition without the subwoofers.
Dimensions are 48 1/4"H x 9 1/2"W x 14 1/4"D, with each cabinet weighing in at 85 pounds. Bandwidth is stated as being 30Hz to 20kHz (± 3dB), sensitivity as 89dB (1W/m). Impedance is 4 ohms nominal (3 ohms minimum), with a recommended minimum power input of 30 watts. Connection is via two pairs of high-quality binding posts to facilitate bi-wiring. Finishes available are black oak, light oak, natural cherry or sapeli on front, back, top, and sides. The cabinet material is MDF, with a combination of 1" and 3/4" panels, utilizing multiple internal braces.
The Applause are also shipped with some of the finest supporting cones I have seen. Finished in glossy gunmetal, these cones are very sharp. Too bad they become half hidden by the carpet nap!
My system is housed in a dedicated area measuring 25'L x 14' 7"W x 7' 2"H and ensconced in a basement, meaning three of the walls are concrete backed. The remaining separator wall is 5/8" MDF under 1/2" and 3/8" drywall. It is fairly sturdy as these things go.
The front-end consists of an Enlightened Audio Designs T-1000 transport feeding Camelot Technologies Dragon Pro-2 Mk. I (for jitter reduction resolution enhancement). Next is the Theta DS Pro Gen. III D/A converter, which in turn feeds a Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i preamp. The Bryston 4B-ST holds down amplification duty. The Bryston admirably powers a pair of Vandersteen 3A Signature loudspeakers. A Vandersteen 2W-Q subwoofer augments the speakers. Cables are generally handled by a system-wide use of MIT: MIT MI 330 Proline Terminator Balanced, MIT Digital Reference, MIT-330, MIT-MH-750 BI-Wire, MIT-MH 750 Plus, MIT-Z Cord II. Also in use are Kimber KCAG, Altis Ultimate ATT glass fiber, van den Hul The First cables.
Acoustic treatment consists of an assortment of ASC Tube Traps and Flat Traps. I also use an assortment of Sorbothane pucks and machined cones. Notably, the BBC Professional Vibration Isolators work near miracles under the Bryston amp.
Setup and room coupling
I found the Applause rather tricky to set up in my room, although all but one full-range speaker in this room has proven to be just as persnickety. While lateral placement (proximity to side walls) did not seem to have a profound impact on the presentation, fore and aft positions did. As the relatively large bottom-rear-mounted port is in an already deep cabinet, I could not get proper bass response until the speakers were pulled out at least three feet from the rear wall. Final placement was just under four feet from the back wall (rear of the cabinet) and 36" from each side wall (center of speaker). With the speakers almost exactly eight feet apart, the listening position was just over nine feet away.
As the Applause was my first long-term exposure to the DAppolito (MTM) driver array, I was eager to test the different radiation pattern this configuration delivers. This array undoubtedly puts further constraints on the crossover design, as the given spacing of the two midrange drivers leads to comb-filtering when not listened to at a reference axis. Critical listening showed a midrangy coloration when listened to off the vertical axis of the tweeter. Indeed, the whole power response of the Applause had a midrangy signature. Walking around the room, or even heard from another room, the sound was extremely laid-back in perspective. This undoubtedly is a major factor in the easy musicality the speakers put forth. Listened to on the tweeter axis, the Applause have plenty of life and sparkle in the upper midrange and further up in frequency.
Aware of the fact any speaker must be dialed in to the given rooms acoustic, I wondered if my room was overtreated for the Applause. To test this, I literally stripped the room of all acoustical treatment save for front corner Tube Traps and minimal damping on the side walls only. While this indeed "lightened" the presentation, the signature remained. Surprisingly, the treble stayed quite in line in terms of balance, never becoming too hot. But the removal of the bass traps led to further losses in transient snap in the bass, so pair by pair, they were reintroduced into the room. As the drivers are mounted quite high in a rather tall cabinet, I placed a taller coned spike at the rear of the enclosure to angle it downward toward my listening position. This vertical aiming of the array, along with modest toe-in that left a sliver of the inside of each cabinet visible, provided the best imaging and tonal balance.
With break-in and final tweaking dispensed with, the Applause received a (musically) well-rounded work out in the few months they were in my room. Immediately evident, and sustained throughout the review period, was a polite nature to the presentation. The upper midrange voicing was totally devoid of peakiness or icy coloration, leading to a very presentable offering up of certain less-than-pristine discs (80% of most discs in an average collection). This voicing had me many a night going deeeeep into my music collection making selections based on what I wanted to hear, not what sounded good.
Lateral imaging via the Applause was quite good by any measure. Even prior to break-in, centered images had at times a spooky holographic roundness to them, especially vocals. There does seem to be a narrow frequency range where images want to localize at the speaker, specifically female consonants and the upper registers of piano/violin. This effect is presumably from cabinet diffraction, making at times a beamy radiation pattern at this narrow band of frequencies. What was quite unexpected -- oh heck, startling really -- was imaging that occurred outside the physical boundary of the speakers. Quite literally, and I wont say this too often, I heard things spatially I had never heard before on well-known discs. Take, for instance, the cut "Were Going to War" from Mark Knopflers Wag the Dog soundtrack [Mercury 314-536-864-2]. At 2:06 into the piece, a "flangy" echo zooms over and hangs directly over my preamp. The preamp is 90 degrees to my left! This is just one of many examples of phase-manipulated spatial cues that the Applause seemed to project with ease. And yes, this means that on very well-recorded minimally miked acoustical discs the ambient envelope of the recorded soundscape was easily projected at least one to two feet outside the boundary of the speakers, many of them having that eerie crawling up the walls surround effect. As I consider the main advantage of stereo reproduction to be the sculpting of space, this was getting fun.
Overall depth presentation was quite good. Helped by the speakers laid-back voicing, the sound never seems thrown out at you. More importantly, it seems that you are invited in to seek out the musical meaning. Voices were generally placed just rearward from the plane of the speakers, definitely helping overprocessed and sibilant vocal lines. Also, the height of the speaker tremendously helped choral recordings. You can actually sense the risers at times!
This forgiving voicing does come with a price, however. The effect would not be unlike someone dimming the lights on the rear half of the orchestra. In my opinion, the price paid for the slightly forgiving nature of the Applause is more than made up for in opening the door of enjoyment to a much larger room of your music collection. This forgiving voicing could be described as being able to give 90% of the best performance of the best discs. On the other hand, it is just this voicing that will enable you to enjoy 90% of your record collection. Take a hard look and ask yourself how much you are enjoying presently. If this perhaps leads to major soul-searching on whether you are an audiophile or music lover, you have some work to do, Grasshopper.
This laid-back voicing seems to be centered at the midrange though. The tweeter level is well balanced save for a slight peak around the 5kHz-6kHz region. Pure and non-aggressive, the tweeter is capable of delineating fine nuances and projecting a sense of air. The effect on imaging with this midrange/tweeter balance is rather quirky though. While not fatal, this combination in a speaker leads to a discontinuity in the musical fabric, seemingly placing the listener in mid-hall and front-hall simultaneously. While certainly not fatiguing with regard to tonal balance, I nonetheless found myself at times working to hold the presentation together.
The Applause does have an Achilles heel, however, which serves to roughen the sheen of this gem: its less-than-stellar transient performance, specifically the midrange on down. In speaking with the manufacturer at the recent HI-FI 99, he suggested I try Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables, and arranged a delivery. The insertion of the Neutral Reference made a very, very large change with this speaker. A good deal of dynamic life was found at the expense of (some) lateral imaging. But, alas, transients still possessed a somewhat muted quality.
As I have an affinity for plucked and struck strings (I was raised with Martin and Guild guitars, banjos and mandolins in the house), I am particularly sensitive to this area of reproduction. Queuing up most of the Chet Atkins repertoire one evening, I was struck by how his already muted fleshy, fingertip style was rounded off, almost as if he were having a lazy night. (Say it isnt so Chet!) Ditto for some Leo Kotke and Doc Watson I pulled off the shelf. In the case of the Kotke, old Leo didnt seem to have that neck-bending funkiness that is his trademark. This area of performance slightly worsened as volume levels were increased to realistic levels (just below party levels).
Bass performance, considering the Applause is still a two-way, was very well proportioned, giving a good account of itself down to a solid lower 30Hz in my room. While the bass was certainly well defined and delineated, and capable at times of shaking the room, it too suffers from a relative lack of transient impact. With classical music, this was only noticeable as a slight softening of the basss rosiny edge. With rock, however, it seemed to remove the slap of the skin transient on kick drum, and softened the dramatic impact that well recorded toms can have.
Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers were also ensconced in my listening room. While the 3A Signature is hard to beat in many ways, one of them is not in terms of imaging. I have found that most, but certainly not all, speakers with first-order crossovers exhibit a narrow soundstage. The Nova Applause certainly shines in this area where, save for a very narrow band, the music totally escapes the confines of the cabinet unscathed. While the tweeter in the 3A Signature is quite good, the Applause had just a touch more layered delineation in the treble.
The tide turns when we approach the midrange on down. Not only does the 3A Signature possess a wonderful fullness to the mid/upper bass, it is also quite lively in comparison, especially in the pianos left hand and the explosive transients from toms in a drum kit. In the low bass, there is no contest; the 3A Signature is much more delineated and powerful.
The wrap up
With respect to the above overall critique, I have inserted one very strong real-world bias. The retail price of the Applause puts it squarely at the point of diminishing returns. A $5k asking price for a speaker is not an inconsiderable sum. In my opinion, this price level should purchase a very large percentage of the best there is, while shaving a few Hertz off the frequency extremes. The Nova Applause comes very close to filling this bill. While the lack of transient crispness and pace could be a detriment at times, I found myself more often than not enjoying these speakers. As your mileage will certainly vary, the Nova Applause should be on your audition list if you are fortunate enough to be searching in this highly competitive price class.
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