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Volti Audio Rival loudspeaker

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  • May 27, 2020
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If, like me, you’re a dues-paying audiophile who’s circumnavigated the upgrade block a few times, you’ve seen a lot of gear and set up many systems. I’ve carried 80-lb line conditioners up the six knee-crunching flights to my bachelor’s penthouse, managed 50-lb loudspeakers downstairs to a waiting van, and made more trips to FedEx than I can count. I’ve owned dozens of audio products and reviewed dozens more.


In hopes that with perseverance comes wisdom, I of course practice what I consider to be the skills of precisely executed system setup, even—or especially—in the case of unconventional turntables. My Kuzma Stabi turntable is a merciless machine to accurately level, align, balance, and tweak. This ‘table—lovingly referred to as the “pipe bomb”—features a unipivot tonearm, its two counterweights acting as both balance weights and azimuth controls. The hollowed-out circular area (aka headshell) provided for affixing cartridge to arm is so small as to practically require a child’s hand to navigate its miniature construction. Say you want to play a 45rpm record? You must first remove the Kuzma’s heavy platter and the rubber belt from its subplatter, install a rubber grommet over the motor spindle, then reattach the belt and reaffix that finger-crunching platter—and push Play!


Coexisting with my kvetching is the smug satisfaction that—when properly fine-tuned with carpenter’s level, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Geo-Disc alignment tool, the Hi-Fi News Analogue Test LP: The Producer’s Cut, and various screwdrivers and Allen wrenches—my Kuzma produces topnotch analog sound. Or so I thought until New York City turntable guru Michael Trei—the man most likely to maintain turntable heaven—came calling.


One day, after we’d lunched together, Trei (a Sound & Vision contributor) and Steve Guttenberg (CNET’s Audiophiliac) brought over to my place a Dr. Feickert Analogue NG Protractor, a Fozgometer Azimuth Range Meter, and a Winds ALM-01 stylus-pressure gauge. As Trei gently nudged here and prodded there, lifted the Stogi S tonearm out of its oil-filled well, and peered askance at my Goldring Elite cartridge, I was skeptical. But the differences I heard following Trei’s maneuvers were far from subtle. Turned out my biggest error had been in aligning the cartridge: the Geo-Disc had failed (okay, I’d failed) to judge with precision the line from the tonearm’s headshell to its pivot point. But when overhang and offset had been exactly dialed in, every LP—from Shelly Manne & His Men’s At the Black Hawk 4 (Contemporary S7579) to a German pressing of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (Apple/EMI Electrola 1C 072-94 449)—gave up its secrets as I’d never heard before. Every voice and instrument was better focused and more coherent. Acoustic and electric bass notes were tighter, deeper, and more identifiably taut or loose. Resolution increased radically—not in degree of detail, but in sounding like instruments and voices fully fleshed out from stomach to backside, from head to toe. A shocker!


From our perch on Planet Ego, we audiophiles sometimes think we know everything about a given audio subject. But our staunch preferences, opinions, and volumes of hot air can be no more than signs of aging and/or closed minds. I thus approached this review of Volti Audio’s Rival loudspeaker as one who knows little about horn-loaded speakers and had heard less, but who’d also heard that once you hear horns, you never go back. My curiosity was piqued.


Buzz Feed!
The Volti Audio Rival, which costs $7900/pair in satin-lacquered birch, was one of the biggest buzz products at the 2016 New York Audio Show. But as I was assigned to cover a different floor, I’d never made it to the Volti suite, and had never met Volti Audio’s majordomo, designer, and engineer, Greg Roberts.


A former Maine resident who now lives in Baxter, Tennessee, Roberts built his own horn speakers when still a kid, as the rest of the neighborhood throng pieced together their Soap Box Derby cars. As Roberts told me in our e-mail correspondence, he turned his woodworking skills to the money-making custom-home industry:


My wife and I had a very good run building some of the most technically advanced homes in the U.S., the last of which, a “zero-energy” home in Belfast, Maine, was completed in 2014. After the economic slow-down in 2009, I picked up work doing speaker restorations, mostly with Klipsch KHorns. What had been a hobby became a way to put my shop to work and be creative again. I wanted to improve the sound of my KHorns, and so I developed/discovered upgrades that included a drop-in replacement midrange horn, crossovers, tweeters, and woofers.


Roberts eventually designed his own first loudspeaker, the Vittora. Praise was heaped on this horn-loaded beauty from far and wide. In his review of the Vittora in the September 2013 Stereophile, Art Dudley said: “listening to a speaker such as the Volti Vittora . . . is like hearing your favorite musicians take off the three or four heavy overcoats that you didn’t know they’d been wearing all that time.”


“I am proud and humbled by how the Vittora has been received,” Roberts wrote. “Many people have expressed an interest in a smaller and/or less costly speaker with the Vittora sound. The Rival is the answer to those requests.” (The Volti Rival has the same drivers as the Vittora, in a somewhat less grand enclosure; the Vittora now costs $25,750/pair.)


Reporting from Capital Audiofest 2016, our own Herb Reichert wrote of the Rivals: “The sound, while not quite as sweet and sophisticated as the Vittora, was ‘oh my my’ tight fast and textured. The box, the drivers and the music reproduced seemed properly scaled, utterly uncompressed. The new 99dB-sensitive Rival delivered a great portion of the bigger speaker’s pleasures. Bravo Volti!”


So: The Rival is 100% handmade by a dedicated craftsman. Roberts has one US dealer—Fidelis Music Systems, in Nashua, New Hampshire—but otherwise sells his speakers direct from his factory. Would the Volti Audio Rivals fill me with a sense of wonder similar to what Art felt when he heard the Vittoras?


Design
Like the Vittora, the Rival is a three-way, horn-loaded design. Its cabinet measures 41.5″ tall by 19″ wide by 16″ deep, is made entirely of 1″-thick Baltic birch plywood, and stands on four felt-lined blocks of solid maple measuring 2.75″ square by 2.5″ high. Each speaker takes up as much space as a potbellied stove, and throws off a similar sense of purposeful authority. And it’s biwirable: two pairs of binding posts are snugged into the bottom of each Rival’s rear panel.


The Rival employs the same drive-units as the Vittora, with slight modifications: The midrange horn is smaller, and while the Vittora’s woofer has an intricately designed folded horn, the much smaller Rival is a bass-reflex design, with a front-mounted port. Roberts explained:

The Rival’s tweeter consists of a 1″ compression driver mounted to an elliptical tractrix-flare horn. The midrange driver has a 2″ outlet, a 3.5″ phenolic diaphragm, and a neodymium magnet. The midrange horn is a wooden horn built by me, it has a tractrix expansion and a 2″ throat. The (pro audio–sourced) woofer is a 15″ high-sensitivity driver with a paper cone. Crossovers are designed by me, and use 12-gauge open-core copper inductors for the woofer filter, Litz copper inductors for the midrange and tweeter filters, and Mills resistors.


The Rival’s crossover network, located behind a small plate at the top of the rear panel, can be easily adjusted by the user by swapping out resistors that attenuate the treble and midrange output. From the Rival’s webpage: “By simply moving a wire, you can choose a softer or sharper upper midrange tone. The tweeter capacitor is easily changed out to adjust the tone of the high frequencies.”


Not content to let owners merely swap out resistors, Roberts also lets you tweak the Rival’s low-end response: “By removing a plate at the top of the port—easy to do, since the plate is held in place with magnets—the port becomes effectively shorter, and the user can hear a slightly different response in the lowest frequency range that may better suit their room or tastes.”


Boasting a frequency range of 32Hz–20kHz and a sensitivity of 100dB, and a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, the statuesque Rival is designed, Roberts said, to work well in small (!) rooms:

The Rivals are [intended] to provide a big horn speaker sound in a smaller room. They work well pulled out from the walls, up against walls, or even in corners. I like to space them 10′ apart center-to-center, and turn them almost 45° toe-in to the listening position. My goal is to replicate the characteristics of live music that make it so engaging to listen to. Not just the dynamic range and power, but I want to fool myself into believing that there really could be a saxophone player in the room with me. So the setup to produce this image of music in front of me is of prime importance. It allows me to visualize the music, while the equipment that is reproducing it disappears. The notion that horn speakers don’t image well is a myth.


Setup
Greg Roberts delivered the Volti Rivals to my door, having already been briefed on the gasp-inducing climb to my seventh-floor apartment. To ease the lifting, he attached two straps to the back of each Rival. I then pulled on the straps from above as Roberts pushed the speaker from below. Getting two 125-lb speakers to the top of Mount Micallef turned out to be far easier than either of us had imagined.


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