Reprint from Listener Magazine - Volume 4, Number 2 (Spring 1998)

Freestanding Ovations
We finally get to the Novas.
Review by Michael Trei


"...Oh, and Mike, go check out a company called Nova." It was Editor Art on the phone, giving me my brief before the CES. "Nova? You mean the preamp company? I thought they went out of business years ago." "No, this is a new Nova. Go check them out, but don't tell them who you are: They sent us some speakers we haven't reviewed yet, so they might be mad at us." A couple of weeks later at CES, I flip over my Listener ID badge and walk into Nova's room. "Hey Mike, how's it going?" It's Jack Rubinson, the congenial former owner of Chestnut Hill Audio, a high-end emporium in Philly. Instantly my cover is blown. "Oh, not bad. What're you doing here?" "I just became sales manager for Nova," he said. At least now I knew that I was on friendly ground. Nova had two rooms with active demonstrations. The sound in the larger room was good, but I was more impressed with the sound in the smaller room, with their entry level Ovation. When I returned from Vegas, Art called to ask if I would review those languishing speakers - which were, in fact, Ovations. Hey, youbetcha.

My friend and fellow Listener contributor Steve Guttenberg has always said that finding the right speakers is the hardest part of selecting an audio system. I'm inclined to agree; I think I can count the number of speakers I really like on both hands. However, I really don't believe that they're the most important part of a system, per se. I guess it goes back to having cut my audiophile teeth in England in the late 70s, when the Linn/Naim stranglehold on that part of the world was at its peak. And I learned: A pair of good but modest speakers driven by a superb front end and amplifier will always outperform some mega-speaker driven by a modest front end. I once heard an extreme example of what could be achieved when I used an Audio Note Ongaku to drive a pair of AR's wonderful little M1's. The results were spectacular. I can't imagine that the reverse - say an NAD integrated driving a pair of Wilson X-1s - would sound good at all.

Choosing a piece of hi-fi equipment to live with and enjoy over a long period of time requires many of the same things as choosing a mate: You must be able to look past the outer beauty, or lack thereof, and see if there's any real substance underneath. (By outer beauty - with speakers, anyway - I mean the initial sonic impression, more than the physical attractiveness of the product.) Many speakers can dazzle you with a soundstage the size of Baltimore, or a bodacious bottom-end boom, but, unless the basic communication skills are there, it is likely to be a short relationship.

Well, the Nova Ovation is an interesting prospect. The smallest, and - at $1995 - least costly model in their product line, it's a two way design with a seven inch woofer and a one inch soft dome tweeter. At 16 inches high, I found they worked best on a stand a little over 20 inches high, and used the excellent Target HJ-20/2 stands, recommended by Nova. The cabinets feel very rigid and solid, and come supplied with grilles of the stretchy-fabric over-a-wooden-frame variety. I found the speakers sounded notably better with the grilles removed, and I did all my listening that way. No bi-wiring option is offered, but as this is an area of some debate right now, I can't assume it's just a cost-saving measure. (After all, Wilson's $76k X-1 doesn't offer bi-wiring capability either.)

The review samples came in a black painted oak finish that had a kind of glossy sheen to it. Personally, I didn't care for the glossy look, and would probably investigate one of the optional natural wood veneers. As to choosing a partnering amplifier, I found the Ovation to be somewhat fussier than most. Despite having a reasonable sensitivity of 88dB, and an impedance that doesn't fall below 6 Ohms, my Audio Note P2 SE Signature was not really up to the task. The amp wasn't clipping, but the sound tended to be a bit soft and lacking in dynamic contrast; as I know this is not a characteristic of the P2, I decided to look further. Next, I tried a couple of solid-state amps: The Meridian 105s (two Listener brownie points for anyone who remembers this one; try looking at www.meridian.co.uk/p_h100s.htm) and the Omtec CA25s. The best results were achieved with the Omtecs. "The what?" I hear you say. The Omtecs are a superb sounding pair of 25-watt, class-A German amps I've owned for about the last 10 years. Think of them as a kind of German Levinson ML2. With these amps, the Ovations sounded dynamic, open, and exciting, so I would suggest that you think solid-state when choosing an amp for these speakers.

The sound of the Ovation is big and open, with a very smooth mid-band and a bottom end that belies their relatively small size. In many ways they remind me of a speaker like the ATC SCM10, with a similar wide-range, uncolored sound. I was impressed by the way they captured the speed and steeliness of the slide guitar on "I Want to Go" from John Mayall's A Sense of Place. They accurately caught the dynamics of this very natural sounding recording, and gave a good sense of heft to the prominent kick drum.

I put on Eric Dolphy Live in Europe Vol. 2, also known as The Copenhagen Concert. This early 60's recording has Dolphy cooking up a storm on alto and baritone sax. The Danish backing band is merely passable, but Dolphy takes charge and there's nothing to stop him. On some live recordings, without the applause between songs, it would be hard to tell they weren't made in a studio. Not so here, the recording is very natural, with a great sense of room to the sound. The Ovations were able to project a soundstage that gave an excellent portrayal of a real space, yet they were also able to focus the sound accurately within that space. This has always been a great strength of smaller speakers, and in this respect the Ovations are better than most.

I decided I needed to give the speaker a tougher hurdle to jump, so I put on "Family Affair" from James "Blood" Ulmer's album Black Rock. Ulmer is a guitarist who synthesizes rock, blues, jazz, and country into a unique, loose-cut form that is entirely his own. His records can be challenging to listen to, with frequent changes of tempo and form. On "Family Affair," the chorus stops and starts fitfully and doesn't make sense on first hearing. With the Ovations, one gets a good sense of what's going on, but then I've heard this record a hundred times; I'm not sure if I would understand if it were the first time.

Large scale orchestral music is often thought of as the province of large scale speakers. The Ovations however, sound much larger than they are, and were able to tackle the scale of Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler's Symphony No. 2 on Decca superbly well.

The more I listened to the speaker, the more I could admire what it was able to do. It had a Superman-like ability to handle whatever you could throw at it. It could play loudly without choking, yet remained subtle at lower levels, and its imaging qualities were hard to criticize. But then, the world is full of loudspeaker companies, and the Ovations have a lot of worthy competition. My personal shopping list would include the Totem Model One Signatures, the Audio Physic Steps, and the Anthony Gallo Nucleus Solos, in addition to the Novas and the aforementioned ATCs.

This is a fine sounding, very capable speaker. But I found myself more respecting what it could do than falling in love with how it did it - much as I respect NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani's abilities without its turning into a love fest. Let's just say I don't feel the need to grow another finger to add to my list of speakers I really have fallen in love with.

Quality: ***
Value: (-1/2

View the Ovation Specifications

For Listener subscription information contact:
Eastern Bee Publications
36 Chestnut Street
Oneonta NY 13820, USA
Circulation Dept: (607) 433-0808