May / June 2013 · Issue 233

Nola Contender
A Boxer with Legs
Neil Gader

"And in this corner, standing 44" tall and weighing in at a trim 50 pounds per side is the Nola Contennnnnnnnnn-derrrrrrrrrr!" This playfully pugilistic loudspeaker theme (that I've admittedly been exploiting) began with the Nola Boxer, a two-way compact that I reviewed a couple years ago and that went on to nab a TAS Product of the Year Award for 2010 (Issue 209). Last year Nola released the subject of this review, the Contender in the middleweight ranks. And Nola's "trainer," aka owner/designer Carl Marchisotto, wasn't done yet, as he recently introduced the $10k KO, built to compete in the heavyweight division.

Boxing metaphors aside, the $3600 Contender is a three-way design in a floorstanding, bass-reflex enclosure. Visually it maintains the no-nonsense, working-class silhouette that the Boxer exemplifies but with some critical differences. While the silk soft-dome tweeter from the Boxer is retained, this slender tower loudspeaker adds an additional 6.5" laminated pulp-cone woofer and downward-firing port. The identical upper and lower bass drivers are housed in separate chambers with non-parallel walls. In this instance the upper driver is ported to the rear, while the lower driver is loaded via the downward-firing port. The chambers are tuned to different frequencies to provide the smoothest and most extended in-room bass response.

Internally the Contender features two separate, shock-isolated, hand-wired crossover boards of a shallow-slope design. In critical areas, the Contender also uses Nordost monofilament silver wire -- the Boxer does not. The Contender also retains the high 90dB sensitivity and 8-ohm impedance of the Boxer, so that any high-quality amplification beyond roughly 30Wpc will drive it comfortably. In dimensions, except for the extended enclosure, the Contender retains the overall footprint of the Boxer, making it an easy fit even in rooms that are normally uncomfortable with floorstanders.

The Contender is designed to fire straight into the room -- no toe-in is recommended. This also yields the most expansive soundstage and most neutral treble response. But since no two rooms are identical, it's always worth experimenting with placement. In order to allow the port to work properly, the included floor spikes elevate the speaker 1.5" above the floor. However, since this is a narrow-baffle speaker, special care should be used around rambunctious kids, pets, or over-caffeinated audiophiles. My suggestion is that Nola consider offering, on an optional basis, outrigger-style supports for additional stability.

I asked Marchisotto about the distinctive low placement of the woofer relative to the floor and he stated that "with a very low crossover to the lower woofer (about 60Hz), the wavelength is long at the crossover frequency (about 20 feet), and so I am allowed to mount the woofer low to the floor for best low-bass loading, while still maintaining a good phase match with the upper woofer." He adds that "as in all three-way designs, the midrange quality and resolution will improve, as the upper woofer (midrange) covers less range than in a two-way or 2.5 way design. The lower woofer is also ported to the floor to better couple deep bass. Anyway the goal here was to produce a speaker that had the virtues of the Boxer with 90dB sensitivity, but with addition of bass extension to a usable 25Hz."

Them's Fightin' Words

Making the transition from compact to floorstander is never a sure thing. A lot can be lost in translation. However, Marchisotto-no rookie at this game-designed the Contender to share many of the Boxer's sonic traits. There is the familiar lively rhythmic pulse that I found so appealing in the Boxer-an effervescent energy that gets the toes tapping. Its midrange personality is an outgoing one that doesn't lay back or recess images to create false soundstage depth and exaggerated dimensionality. Bass lines are tight and articulate, and kick drum rhythms and skin timbres are distinct. Music is presented with a resounding weight and scale, particularly given the speaker's modest dimensions. I especially loved the rich soundboard resonances that this speaker imparted during solo piano selections from Bill Carrothers' Civil War Diaries -- the sheer mass and solidity of the instrument materializing in my room. Transient action is solid as well, and there is a wide dynamic envelope that pumps extra juice into the raids. Pushed really hard the Contender loses just a bit of steam dynamically as it descends into the lower mids and upper bass, the range where the artillery of heavy brass and winds swing into action, but the subtraction is mild.

The key differences of the additional driver and expanded enclosure volume are heard and felt in two areas. The midrange is livelier and more visceral. The presence range is more neutral and charismatic than that of the slightly more reserved Boxer. The Contender reproduces both female and male vocals with precise articulation and a stronger sense of vocal textures such as the chest and body of the performer. The soft-dome tweeter is very good, reasonably smooth, and free from noticeable material colorations. While it isn't the last word in silken airy response or ribbon-like liquidity, it's more than up to the task in this range. Still, I think male vocals benefit the most from the nicely weighted lower midrange of the speaker, so that during Leonard Cohen's "Darkness" on Old Ideas [Columbia] the cavernous power of Cohen's iconic baritone is fully revealed. On the other hand, a female voice like Holly Cole's on Temptation shows some added top-end brilliance and sibilance-traits that add definition to each note but that also result in a cooler timbre.

Bass response is nicely controlled, but still retains the warmish character and looser feel that I find is more consonant with lifelike low-frequency reproduction. And rhythmically the Contender has a sure-footed and springy quality that doesn't sag on its heels. This was exemplified during the classic Blood, Sweat & Tears track "And When I Die" [Columbia], a cut that's all about pitch and precision and good rhythmic timing in the bass line-elements this speaker has in droves. In my room the Contender extended flat down to 40Hz although there was perceivably a good deal of response below that. The stated 25Hz is a bit optimistic, however.

The Contender's overall performance was even more impressive when I turned to orchestral music-material recorded in a hall with natural acoustics. In such voluminous environs the Contender showed its flair by painting a soundstage on a grand scale. During "Jupiter" from Hoist's The Planets [EMI] I was able to "see" from the front of the stage to nearly the back wall of the hall. The Contender also generated impressive low-frequency reverberant information during Britten's Four Sea Interludes. The sensation of an active, acoustically expansive venue was impressive for a speaker of this spec, as was the lack of enclosure coloration, which allowed low-level percussion and deeply pitched brass and tympani to be reproduced cleanly and convincingly. The Contender seemed to revel in the wealth of ambient information it could reproduce. It's a skill that bass-restricted compacts like the Boxer, for all their point source-like focus, struggle to master.

No question, the Contender impresses with a lot of the right moves, but it isn't without a couple of minor hitches. There's an added glint and sheen on top that can make brass sections and upper-octave piano sound a bit leaner and drier when they play full-bore. In some instances I could also detect a hint of port tuning. For instance, during Fanfare For The Common Man [Reference] the Contender's lower octave thickened slightly, masking resolution.

While not perfect, at the end of the day there's essentially little that throws the Contender off balance for long. And at its price, no scorecards will be needed for this bout. No split decision here. With the Contender, Nola has built a bigger, better Boxer -- a Boxer with legs, higher energy, and higher musicality, top to bottom. And for money that won't leave you feeling sucker-punched after the purchase.


Frequency Range: 35Hz to 28kHz
Sensitivity: 90dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 8" x 44" x 12"
Weight: 50 lbs.
Price: $3,600

1511 Lincoln Avenue
Holbrook, NY 11741
(631) 738-2540

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT: Sota Cosmos Series IV turntable; SME V tonearm; Sumiko Palo Santos, Air Tight PC-3; Parasound JC 3 phono; BMC CS2, Hegel H300 and Vitus Audio RI-100 integrated amplifiers; Synergistic Element Tungsten, Wireworld Platinum interconnect & speaker cables, Audience Au24 SE phono cable; AudioQuest Coffee USB & Firewire, Synergistic Tesla & Audience au24 powerChord, Wireworld Platinum power cords