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.