When NVA claimed it could replace the hi-fi of any Audiophile reviewer with its own gear, and then try to convince them it was better, we chuckled up our sleeves and gave them the green light.
For a small company, NVA has a lot of balls. The company's latest ad campaign suggests as much. The `NVA Challenge' is an open invitation to the world to shoot NVA equipment down in flames. We couldn't resist having a go.
The idea is simple: NVA people come round to your home laden with NVA goodies. And if after an evening's demonstration you're not convinced that they've bettered your system, c'est la vie...
Richard Dunn (right), the main man at NVA, turned up on my doorstep armed with mountains of equipment - a turntable, more amps than I care to mention, loudspeakers, cable, tables. You name it, he had it with him.
it was immediately clear from his comments that synergy is a concept he whole-heartedly embraces. Refreshingly, however, he doesn't insist that you use a complete NVA system, Dunn is happy for you to fit NVA equipment with a front-end or speakers from another firm, whatever he finds in your home in fact.
My resident system is real in the sense that I've assembled it for my own use and bought it mainly from retailers. It consists of Arcam Delta 170, Musical Fidelity Digilog, a home-brew passive preamp (see Audiophile December 1990), Albarry M408 Mark II monoblocks, Tannoy DC2000 speakers, Monster Interlink 500, and biwired Audioquest Green speaker cables.
Since NVA does not make a digital front end, the plan was for me to compare my chosen amplification system with NVA's. Although Richard prefers analogue to digital sources, I'm the reverse. Nevertheless, I let Richard Dunn bring round NVA's analogue front end - my 800 LPs have been gathering dust for months.
Attractive as it may appear, the NVA Challenge is not a perfect way of buying hi-fi. First, anyone contemplating buying even a since piece of equipment should devote far more time to auditioning equipment that the few hours available for the NVA Challenge. The number of permutations open to us left only a limited time to audition each combination.
A confident man, then, this Richard Dunn. If the session hadn't worked, NVA would be seen to be spouting so much male cattle droppings. Here's what happened.
Having arrived at about 7.00pm, Richard Dunn spent half an hour or so listening to my system while his amplifiers had time to warm up. He took the opportunity to outline the amplifier designs he'd brought along for me to hear, and to explain more about the NVA Challenge concept.
The outward appearance of the amps is in the grand tradition of Brit hi-fi: black anodised boxes, epoxy glued, but rather better looking than average.
Lined up against my system were two NVA A60 stereo power amps, a P80 moving coil preamp, with separate power unit, a Senior turntable, with Musician arm and Stilton modified Audio Technica cartridge. The line-up was completed by NVA's own turntable table, a Mana-like object with glass top supported on four metal spikes. Without it, I was told, the turntable will not give its best.
Richard Dunn of|
NVA, on location
with a bootful of
gear and an
reviewer with a
system to equal -
improved upon -
the original. And
he claims he could
do the same for
NVA's stated belief, to which I'm sympathetic, is that the best circuit is no circuit at all. Accordingly, the preamp is passive except for the phono stage (which can be supplied for moving magnets).
For NVA's power amps Dunn strongly recommends his own LS1 silver alloy stranded cables, which have the correct loading for his output stages. If pushed he will also recommend conventional solid core (mains) cable.
There was one other item - the speakers. Having looked at my room and listened to my DC200s, Richard conceded defeat. His Cube designs have to be placed against a large area of blank wall for correct bass balance. My DC2000s are placed way out of the alcoves. He also felt that the DC2000s were performing exceptionally well (flattery, flattery). One up to the home team!
With my CD front-end feeding the P80 and the pair of A60s, the sound was immediately pleasing. Cabling was my usual Monster Interlink 500 between DAC and preamps. This was obviously not equipment that was going to draw much attention to itself. I needed to play a large number of CDs before I really got to grips with the character.
Switching between Dave Holland's excellent new album Extensions, Baada Maal and Reeves' Never Too Far and (just to shake up the poor man), Living Colour's Vivid at skull-crushing volume, the overall impression was of a highly detailed sound. Put another way, with the NVA gear in place of mine, there were couple of veils removed, resulting in a light airy soundstage.
While you may expect this would favor acoustic music, the NVAs did an excellent job with Living Colour's heavy rock. There wasn't the weight and sense of things being hit, a hallmark of the Albarrys, but on the plus side, the sound was tight, controlled and completely integrated. Rhythm sections had real integrity, and there was a convincing sense of people playing together. I suspect the NVAs slightly lost out to my own amps on front-to-back. Within the NVA soundstage instruments were located exactly, giving a sense of being slightly further away from the musicians. All-in-all, then a commendable result.
Having listened to about an hour and a half's worth of digital, it was time to try out the analogue. The Senior is rather nice looking turntable, mite larger than most on the market, simply because Richard likes it that way. For the singles freaks among you, the thing even turns at 45rpm.
The finish is fine, the arm attractive. It's easy to use, to boot. The sound was slightly smoother than the digital front end, but not at the expense of involvement. This was a smoothness veering on over-politeness.
Having listened to a couple of old favorites, I felt the sound was a little clogged, a little leaden. `Ha!' said the man from NVA, `I'll soon fix that'. By reducing the tracking weight, all was soon sweetness and light, with the same kind of clarity and lack of veiling exhibited by the CD.
While I've highlighted the differences between the NVAs and my own system, the truth is that this was the kind of sound I like. The equipment was really unobtrusive, getting right to the heart of the music. There was no sense of the musicians being stifled, as in the case of some more expensive systems I've heard recently and in the past.
I like the analogue front end, but admit my own experience with competitively priced vinyl spinners is limited. What I can say is that the presentation was not so far from my favoured CD - tightly controlled, clear and involving. I was slightly disappointed that NVA failed to supply the promised cartridge, and I was left assessing the system with one costing five times as much. The realistically priced alternative would have been useful.
I still prefer my CD front-end to the analogue option, even though the turntable, arm, cartridge, phono stage and power supply were together almost twice the price. I cannot come to terms with surface noise, and therefore find it almost impossible to suspend my disbelief. For that reason, to my ears, a competent digital front-end is always going to be preferable to an analogue one. OK, so the Linn LP12 Lingos of this world are probably sonically superior to all but the most bone-crushingly expensive digital gear, but they still allow the imperfections of the medium to intrude.
Time to sum up. Had I been a real customer I might well have bought the NVA equipment. It works very well indeed with CD. My only real reservation was the feeling that drummers really do hit drums harder than the NVA was allowing them to. It's not an overall dynamic range thing, it's simply a lack of grunt (away Setright!), which Richard says he could fix by using a different set of cables with the bass/midrange amp. He claims there would be trade-off in transparency, however. Within the terms of the Challenge, this was a failing, because my objection could not be refuted within the timescale allotted.
Sonically, it's a qualified victory to NVA. Like all things in hi-fi, it's a compromise, but a highly workable one. At the end of the day, the whole system is very good value, and comes from a designer whose priorities very closely match my own. What's more, NVA gear certainly attains Richard's stated aim of presenting a highly detailed, musical sound. The NVA system could occupy space in my living room easily.
Unconventional as it may be, this is a perfect valid way of assessing the gear. The last thing you'll have is a pushy salesman who doesn't know the equipment he's demonstrating. When he visited my flat, Richard was scrupulously fair, allowing the equipment to do the talking. He's very confident of his products, and rightly so. Richard also intends that the same high standards will be adhered to by any of his dealers when they are setting up a Challenge. I was very pleasantly surprised - blast and botheration!