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Starting Points: Riva Turbo X Bluetooth loudspeaker

Starting Points: Riva Turbo X Bluetooth loudspeaker

No matter how involved in high-end audio some of us might now be, odds are our passion for the hobby had modest beginnings. Somewhere along the line, most of us probably heard a component (or an entire system) that convinced us not all audio components are created equal, that some actually do sound markedly better than others, and that sound quality really does matter. 

Once individuals are bitten by the sound quality bug, however, our hobby can become expensive—in some cases dauntingly so. While I believe, as do many of you, that the musical rewards ultimately outweigh the costs, I cannot help but wonder about the plight of modern music lovers just discovering high quality sound for the first time. In particular, I’m wondering where ‘audiophiles-in-the-making’ operating on tight budgets might get their start?

Granted, satisfying ‘starting points’ can be found among that rare handful of audio products that offer impressive sound quality at modest prices and perhaps for that reason many of us assume that the best path for beginners is for them to acquire good, well-sorted, entry-level hi-fi systems. But at the So Cal CanJam 2015 event, I heard a product that radically reshaped my thinking on audio ‘starting points’ – a product so convenient, so cool, so affordable, and so fundamentally enjoyable to listen to that it forced me to ask, “What if the best ‘entry-level hi-fi system’ isn’t a hi-fi system at all? What if, instead, it’s an uncommonly good Bluetooth speaker?”  

The product that triggered this ‘Eureka’ moment for me was the Riva Turbo X Bluetooth loudspeaker, which sells for a sensible $349.99 in the US or about £229.50 in the UK. These prices might seem a bit steep as Bluetooth speakers go, but once you hear the Riva Turbo X, I think the price will start to make perfect sense.

I suspect some dyed-in-the-wool Hi-Fi+ audiophiles are probably rolling their eyes about now and thinking, “Has it really come to this? Has Hi-Fi+ fallen so low that it now publishes blogs about—blecchh!—Bluetooth speakers?”

Frankly, that point of view is perfectly understandable given the severe sonic limitations typical Bluetooth speakers exhibit (in fact, calling their sound ‘mediocre’ would pretty much be an act of kindness and generosity). Happily, though, the Riva Turbo X is no typical Bluetooth speaker; on the contrary, it offers up a sound sufficiently pleasing to stop even veteran audiophiles in their tracks to give the little speaker a more careful listen. Though the Turbo X is certainly no threat to full-on high-end music systems (or even well-sort entry-level audio systems), its performance is more than good enough to represent something better—way better—than the mediocre norm. In short, its performance can gently, but persuasively, open closed doors, wallets, and minds, and that’s what makes all the difference.

 

Background:

The marketing and design team behind Riva is a firm called Audio Design Experts, Inc., or ADX for short, which is headed by the charismatic rock’n’roll impresario-turned-audio-entrepreneur Rikki Farr. Farr has numerous gold records to his credit, is on a first-name basis with many members of British and American rock’n’roll ‘royalty’, and was, at one point, manager of the Byrds. But these days Farr serves as the Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of ADX—a role he plainly enjoys. But apart from his sheer enthusiasm, what I believe Farr really brings to the party is a keen, intuitive sense for the factors that make for an uplifting and engaging sound—the sort of sound that essentially bypasses the usual high-end audio ‘checklist of virtues’ to appeal to the listener instead on a more direct, visceral, and emotional level.

Helping to bring Farr’s product ideas to fruition is ADX’s President and Chief Engineer, Donald North, whose has played a huge role in shaping not only the Riva Turbo X’s core amplification, driver technology, and user interface elements, but also the two very cool sound processing modes that do so much to give the Turbo X its distinctive voice. Together, Farr and North wanted the Turbo X to be everything any good Bluetooth speaker should be (small, cool-looking, affordable, and easy and fun to use), but also something more. They wanted the Turbo X to be good enough that, for many listeners, it would offer sufficient sound quality to stand in place of a more complicated entry-level music or A/V sound system. If you’re thinking that’s probably too tall an order for any Bluetooth speaker to fill, you aren’t alone. Nevertheless, when I heard the Turbo X in action at the SoCal CanJam 2015 event, its unexpectedly rich, full-bodied, dynamically energetic, and astonishingly three-dimensional sound the left me and many other listeners surprised and impressed.

 

Technology:

To help turn the small-size/big-sound dream into a practical reality, ADX/Riva has equipped the Turbo X with a 45-watt, three-channel amplifier, a seven-driver internal speaker array, and two very sophisticated sound processing modes.

The first is called the Turbo mode (from which the product draws its name), which allows the Turbo X to bump up its output levels by about 6dB versus normal listening levels, with maximum output of about 100dB. One of the first things newcomers notice about the Turbo X is that it plays much more loudly and with less apparent strain, than any other device of its size that I’ve yet head. Indeed, the Turbo X makes many other Bluetooth speakers sound like skinny, tinny-sounding, 98-pound weaklings getting sand kicked in their faces at the beach. Think of Turbo mode, then, as a ‘kick out the jams’ mode that is perfect for those moments when temporary musical boisterousness is precisely what your music requires. The only caveat is that Turbo mode operation will run the Turbo X’s battery down much more rapidly than normal operation (though you can still get about six hours of playing time with Turbo mode engaged and the volume cranked up).

The second is ADX’s proprietary Trillium Surround mode, which—unlike many circuits of its type—really does enable the Turbo X to produce convincingly wide, deep, three-dimensional soundstages, yet without sounding garish or artificial. To my way of thinking the Trillium Surround mode is the magic ‘X’ factor that enables the Turbo X to rise above its competition. I say this because the mode offers a generous (indeed, almost unbelievable) amount of perceived breadth and depth, but delivers these qualities is such a natural and convincing way that in practice many may find they want to leave the Surround mode engaged all the time.

Finally, the Turbo X has a pleasing user interface, with top plate-mounted, capacitive touch-sensitive control switches and Riva’s available Ground Control apps for Apple and Android devices. The unit also ships with a useful mix of accessory I/O cables, plus a power supply/charger and power cord.

Riva also offers an optional padded carrycase that lets users take the speaker, its various accoutrements, and power supply/charger with them where ever they wish to go.

 

Size, Convenience, and Versatilty:

The compact Turbo X measures 105mm high x 230mm wide x 89mm deep, and weighs just 1.6kg. The unit is offered either in attractive gloss black or gloss white finishes with silver trim. Atop the unit is the aforementioned row of touch-sensitive capacitive switches; controls include a power on/off switch, a Trillium Surround “S” mode switch, an input switch, volume up/down switches, and a Turbo “T” mode switch. If you look closely, the top plate also sports two tiny openings for the Turbo X’s noise-cancelling microphones, which help give the Turbo X speakerphone capabilities.

By pressing various combinations of top panel control buttons, users can set or disable a Key Lock function, accept/reject/disconnect phone calls from a paired smartphone, can enable—get this—a Phono Mode, or can restore Factory default settings, if desired. In other words, there are more functions and features available in the Turbo X than at first meet the eye.

On the rear panel, one finds an auxiliary analogue input, a USB mini-port that is presently reserved for software and other (unspecified) future upgrades, a master battery on/off switch, a colour-coded battery status light, an iPod/iPhone charging port, and an inlet socket for the Turbo X’s 19V power supply. Riva thoughtfully provides soft rubber pads to prevent the Turbo X from scratching surfaces upon which it is placed, but one of those pads is detachable and can be re-positioned to plug-up rear-panel sockets, thus giving the Turbo X a degree of ‘splash-resistance’ when it’s taken to the beach (but note: giving the Turbo X the full-on Jacques Cousteau undersea treatment is emphatically not recommended).

 

Sound:

The Riva Turbo X does not provide and does not need tone controls, per se, as it offers a naturally warm, full-bodied sound that generally seems bigger, more expansive, and plays more loudly (without apparent strain) than seems possible for such a compact device. Granted, the Turbo X does not have much in the way of low bass or even mid-bass, but the bass that is present seems to make up in punch and gusto what it may lack in sheer depth. Riva’s manual includes a room placement guide that shows how various room positions can be used to help give the Turbo X welcome touches of natural bass reinforcement. To give you some idea of how effective Riva’s design really is, let me mention that my wife, upon hearing the Turbo X for the first time, said without any prompting from me,  “How did they get something that size to produce such realistic bass? How is that even possible?”

The Turbo mode, as I mentioned above, is fun for those moments where you want to ‘put the pedal to the metal’, or for moments when you want to use the Turbo X as the sole sound source in a medium to large-sized room. Those who require moderately high output levels in order to feel their music is delivered with an appropriately ‘big’ sound will be very glad the Turbo mode is available. One ballyhoo detail worth noting is that whenever the Turbo mode is engaged, the speaker emits a fierce ‘engine revving’ noise that sounds like somebody has just blipped the throttle on an F1 car (this detail is sort of a love-it-or-don’t feature, but you’ve got to admit it is colourful).

In passing, I should also mention that apart from ‘voicing’ in the audiophile sense of the word, the Turbo X also has an announcer’s voice (actually, a woman’s voice speaking in a charming British accent) that advises when various functions are switched on. For example, when first engaging the Trillium Surround mode, our lady of the Turbo X simply says, “Surround”, and so on.

To my way of thinking, however, the real pièce de résistance is the Turbo X’s Trillium Surround mode. While many Bluetooth speakers claim to provide some sort of ‘surround’ mode, my experience has been that these are more often than not glitzy, over-hyped special effects that don’t in any way sound natural or realistic. The Turbo X Trillium Surround Mode, however, is different. Trillium Surround really does open up spacious—but never flashy or ostentatious—soundstages that enable this compact, single-box speaker to image in much the same way that a good, entry-level stereo system would do. This, I think, is a pretty impressive achievement for a box that is only 230mm wide. In short, Trillium Surround is the icing on the sonic cake: it enhances everything else the Turbo X already does right, giving the speaker a more sophisticated sound overall.

Summing up:

Basically, you have here a clever, convenient, and compact device that, although smaller than a full-size box of facial tissues, sounds more then a little bit like a decent entry-level hi-fi system, but at a fraction of the size and cost. Seriously, what more could you ask for less than $350/£300?

For anyone seeking that initial first taste of serious sound for not a lot of money (or space, or complexity), Riva’s Turbo X offers a brilliant solution—one that makes a terrific ‘starting point’ on the journey toward audio excellence.
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Readers: Please let us know if you enjoyed reading this ‘Starting Point’ blog and if you would find it useful/entertaining for us to include more ‘Starting Point’ articles in the future. Until next time, Happy Listening. 

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