Well, rockrink, I guess Clarke was carried away to an alternate dimension by the Nolas S3s and hasn’t returned yet. No fear.
I’m taking possession of a pair on Friday and I promise to let you know how they sound. I wrote Carl, as I’ve owned many Nola models since 2003, and he told me that the Contender S3 model was outselling the standard Contender 3 model by a factor of - and I quote - "9 to 1."
SO, it must be pretty spectacular. My first version of the Contender was made in 2010. I think this is the one Jonathan Valin heard at CES 2011, and made a point of mentioning in the March 2011 issue of The Absolute Sound. He found them completely dazzling. I got a pair in November 2013 and out of the box, they WERE dazzling, and I’ve owned many versions of WATT/Puppies/Avalons/Goldmunds/Manger (a killer speaker that, no matter how good it is, I doubt the Contender S3 would rival it. The Manger had something like an electrostatic upper element, and my brother - no audiophile - said, "This is the first speaker you’ve ever had where it actually sounds like a live person is playing it." And he was not wrong.) I am not expecting that level of performance from the S3, because the Manger was - by far - the most "honest-to-God-there’s-a-violinist-in-this-room" speaker I’ve ever heard - or reviewed (when I wrote for TAS), and even when I was the Equipment Manager for (the too-soon-demise of) Fi Magazine. I heard quite a few of the "Big Boys" speakers, up to and including Infinity IRS Vs, and a couple of others. The Manger was in some damned exalted company, but one of the speakers was damaged in shipping, so I only heard them for a short period before one stopped working. I was never able to complete a review of them, but if I had, I would have praised them to Heaven. Nothing I’d heard came close: not Martin Logan CLS, not the Infinity IRS (although the lower frequencies of the Manger were nothing to write home about, that upper -Star-of-Bethlehem looking element was to die for. I can still get chills just remembering how completely real it sounded).
Back to the Contender S3. If they sound that much superior to my S1 (my first pair, or what I call the "early version": I caused a tweeter to short (the positive and negative speaker terminals touched and BOOM, there went the tweeter), and, when it was replaced, it was obvious that even though it was the same tweeter, it was NOT the same tweeter, and the speaker was no longer magical). SO, I bought a second pair, which was built in 2013. It did NOT have the same magic, although it sounded great. I asked Carl, when I still had the first pair and had listened after my repair shop replaced the tweeter, if the replacement tweeter I put into the first pair ( I did not know that he had changed the materials) was made of the EXACT same materials, and he honestly answered, "no." So, something about the earlier (2010) Contender tweeter’s physical materials possessed a magic (maybe the crossover was slightly different) the later one (made in 2013, which I purchased in 2014) did not. The harmonic detail of the second pair would be scored at, lets say, an 7.5 (which is a very good score). However, if the second pair was an 7.5, then the original (2010 manufactured) pair would have scored an 11!! (I suspect that’s why Jonathan Valin was raving about them, and he was only supposed to be writing about speakers ABOVE $20,000. Knowing him as I do, I knew they must’ve knocked his socks off, as they did mine when I bought that first pair 2 years later.) You could easily hear the spaces between individual rows of players, and individual players themselves (which is pretty rare, and as I said, I’ve heard some of the greats, even in HP’s house). The depth layering was superlative and even a Moody Blues live album showed a tuba (they had an orchestra on this album, can’t remember the title) was sitting FAR to the rear of the row of musicians in front of it, and the "air" coming out of the tube resounded in all dimensions (front, side and rear.)
So, while I’m not holding my breath the the S3 will match that magical version of my first pair of Contenders, if it does, it should have a phenomenal sense of realism to it. Even the WATTS (which I owned from 1986 through all versions up through 1994 ( WATTS 1, 2 and 3 versions, along with the Puppies), while outstanding in their resolution, did not sound as "real" as the $3400, 2010 version of the Contender. I’m trying to keep my expectations down, so as not to be disappointed. I’d kill for another 2010 Contender: it was THAT eerily real-sounding. Voices did not sound recorded: they were continuous in the way that you only hear if you listen to performances of the Metropolitan opera broadcasting live 10 years ago, and using merely a GOOD tuner, not a great one, where, nonetheless, you KNOW it’s not Memorex: IT’S LIVE! And every single recording, from Peter, Paul and Mary, "Album 1700" to almost ANY Rolling Stones or Beatles albums were so lifelike, I FORCED my friends to come over, and every single person went, "Jesus, it sounds like they’re live in the room." So, it’ll be either be Ecstasy or utter disappointment if this S3 doesn’t sound as realistic as that first pair of Contender S1s I had. Either way, I’ve got a new pair on the way, and I’m sure they’ll be great. They just have to be "100% as good as..." that original S1.