Announcements

Hello, goodbye: Six weeks with the Volti Audio Vittora

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Part The First

Volti Audio's Greg Roberts arranged to send the pair of Vittora loudspeakers he used at RMAF directly from Colorado. Apparently, Stereophile's Art Dudley wasn't ready for them [cough], so in a very D-List kinda twist, they came to yours truly. Even better, and for me, the icing on the cake was that this was to be an extended stay. Yes! I was gonna get months with a pair of gorgeous, hand-made, horns. Dreams of sugar plums and micro-watt triodes were dancing in my head at the very thought! [Sigh]. That was the plan. Plans ... yeah. Well, lets say the emphasis might best be on was. And therein lies a tale ... more on that soon enough. But first of all, let me declaim loudly with borrowed authority and great pomposity, that the Volti Audio Vittora is one damn fine loudspeaker. Let me follow that by saying with equal bombast and no little fanfare that the Volti build-quality may well be the best I've seen in a loudspeaker. It's a stunner. Finally, let it be known far and wide that I wept the day they left my home. Wept. Like a baby! Yes -- like one who'd been kicked cruelly to the curb, unfed, sporting a poop-filled diaper, left there to wail and wail and wail till his miserable little voice gave out with a pathetic croak. My friends, it was a sad, sad day. Okay, now -- on with the show.

What and Who

It’s probably best to start any drama with a what’s what and a who’s who. I mean, otherwise it gets all French and nobody knows what’s going on where or why.

So, first up. We’re talking about loudspeakers here. Big horn speakers, actually. Not like Godzilla big, but still big — bigger than you’d think. More on all that soon. Specs and design parameters can be found with some startling level of detail and explicativity on the Volti website. Here’s the quick specs:

  • Frequency response is 50Hz to 20Khz (subwoofer not included)
  • Power handling is 100watts RMS
  • Sensitivity is 104db 1W/1M
  • 32″ wide at the front, 15″ wide at the rear, 27″ deep, 40″ tall
  • The bass horns weigh 127lbs. each, and the upper horns (“tophats”) weigh 60lbs. each

Greg refers to the Volti as a system, and as a system, it’s more of a tri-partite affair — two loudspeakers and a subwoofer. The subwoofer is a commercially available as an optional (not really) upgrade, and will take the performance of the system down to below 20Hz. Note that if you choose to go that route (which makes sense as the subwoofer has the same gorgeous finish — it’s a natural match), you’ll need an outboard crossover/amplifier — the Marchand MB42 ($1,500) is recommended.

About the loudspeakers proper: the horn design varies by function. The tophat includes an in-house built wooden Tractrix horn for the mid range with the tweeter off-set in that horn. The bass cabinet is a folded-horn design fronting a 15″ woofer. Together, the two-cabinet Vittora presents a squat, furniture-style look that might be reminiscent of … well … a vintage Klipsch. For good reason, as it turns out.

Wanna know where a designer is coming from, and why? It helps to ask. Last year, I asked Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio John Atkinson’s question: “why do all cost-no-object loudspeakers sound different?”

This is a rather typical Atkinsonian question — one of those “still waters run deep” things — and one who’s interesting complexities sailed completely past the panel it was put to at AXPONA last year, sadly. Anyway, Jeff’s answer was intuitive and straightforward: “all designers are chasing a certain sound”. He offered that it all probably stems from something in their formative years, but whatever the genesis, the point is that somewhere along the way, a designer makes choices about what sounds good or right and the subsequent decisions made and actions taken reflect an alignment along that meridian. Pretty interesting, right? I thought so. So, where does Volti’s Greg Roberts align on that chart? With the Klipschorn. See? Told you the design of the Vittora makes sense.

If you haven’t had a chance to hit up the interview Dr. Borden did with Greg Roberts over at Dagogo, I recommend it — link is here. Dr Larry doesn’t really get all James Lipton on Greg — I really need to start adding that in — but he does get at where he’s coming from and why. Greg, a patient and thoughtful dude, responded to my tedious questions with the following:

Prior to Volti Audio, my wife and I built custom super-insulated homes in here in Maine for 23 years.  I didn’t see it all clearly at the time, but the crash of the housing market and economy coincided with my burn out in that industry, which all happened at about the same time I was making great strides in developing upgrades for my own Klipsch Khorns.  The upgrades, which completely overhaul every component in the iconic Klipsch Khorn, became successful enough for me to launch Volti Audio.  It wasn’t long before I was using the knowledge gained to design and build my own speakers. Volti has provided a challenge to me that I had lost in my other business.

There are a few things that are very important to me when it comes to designing a Volti speaker.  High sensitivity, wide dynamic range, and one of the most important, tonal accuracy.  I can’t tell you how many times I walked into a room at the NY Audio show this last spring and was surprised by how wrong a vocalist or bass guitar sounded.  I mean can’t they hear that it sounds like the vocalist has a 16” cardboard box around their head?  I’ve been thinking this might be a good demo in our room at the shows – me wearing a big cardboard box around my head to demonstrate what that sounds like.

I get the feeling that many of the speakers I listen to at an audio show are working somewhere near their limit during the demo.  Don’t you get that feeling too, like just one more click of the volume and woofers will start farting?  I like to build speakers that will be listened to most of the time performing at less than 10% of their capacity.  This effortless sound is something that really appeals to me, and I think it is why my speakers have that big, wide-open, live sound.  Once in a while someone comes into my room at a show and asks me if these speakers can play louder!  Woohoo!  You bet.  And they don’t even break a sweat as we push them higher and higher.

I have certainly been influenced by the work of Paul Klipsch.  As a young man, I discovered how music could be a physical sensation when I first heard Klipsch La Scalas and a 200 wpc McIntosh amplifier.  I have never forgotten that first experience, and I work hard to make sure that as tonally balanced, smooth, and audiophile-accepted as the Volti speakers are, that they can also deliver that “reach out and grab your face” kind of kick.

I don’t know why I started out in business designing and building something as difficult as the Vittora.  Horn speakers are very tricky to design because each individual horn seems to be a mix of a little bit of good and a whole lot of bad.  The limitations in bandwidth, the non-linear acoustic amplification, frequency cancellations caused by folding a bass horn, etc… all make for a frustrating experience that is really a game of minimizing, avoiding, and hiding problems.  Almost nothing is “right”, and yet in the end, with hundreds of hours of tweaking, testing, prototyping, and building, we get something that is really special.  Horns are classic examples of speakers that may not test great, but they can sound amazing.  It’s an art-form and a challenge that appeals to me.

The design of the Vittora bass horn is what I spent most of my development time on.  I knew that the low bass from the Vittora bass horn was going to be dictated by physics, the length of the horn and the size of the mouth – not much to do there except a little math.  But what I could control, and what ultimately gives the Vittora its voice, is the shape of the throat of the bass horn.  If the midrange is the heart of the music, the mid-bass is the meat of the midrange.  I believe there is nothing more important in speaker design than accurate mid-bass reproduction.  The basis of all music is in the mid-bass.  It’s where it all starts.  I used trial and error to develop a bass horn shape that gave me the sound I was looking for.  I have become proficient at building prototype bass horns, and my shop gives me the perfect setup for building in one room, and testing in another.

Setup

Speaking of rooms … the Vittoras are rather large, as loudspeakers go. When they showed up at my door, well, they didn’t show up at my door, they showed up at the end of the driveway with a large, sweaty dude named Bob in a large freight truck and Bob wouldn’t back that large truck down my driveway. Probably a smart move. But that meant off-loading, carting, hauling, and setting up. By myself. Yeah. Not happening. I just wasn’t ready to do much with 1,000lbs of wooden crates, each of which could have doubled as a hot tub for two. No, I called in a favor and BorderPatrol’s Gary Dews and fellow audiophile Kemper Holt swung by and helped me uncrate the speakers and set them up.

The following setup instructions came from Greg, shortly before the speakers arrived:

Inside the big speaker crates, the tophats of the speakers are located in the top part of the crate, separated from the bass horns located in the bottom part of the crate.  Before you remove the tophats from the crates, make sure you have a soft and secure place to put them.  They should be removed and set aside in a safe place by two people.  Also in the upper part of one of the crates, you will find a plastic bag with miscellaneous parts.  After you remove the tophats from the crates, remove the bass horns and put them in place in your listening room.  The bass horns and the tophats are labeled with serial numbers.  The odd numbered speaker goes on the left and the even numbered goes on the right, looking at them from your seating position.  The only difference is the location of the tweeters, either inboard or outboard of the midrange horns.  I prefer outboard, but feel free to try them the other way.

Locate the small spike feet in the plastic bags and install them on the bottom feet of the tophat sections, three per tophat.

Once you have the bass horns in place, two people should move the tophat in place on top of the bass horn.  The spike feet fit into the brass plates located on top of the bass horns.  One person should be on the back and one on the front.  Lower them down carefully without hitting the spike feet on the wood top.  Please be very careful with this step!!!!  The person on the back places the rear foot into the plate first.  The person on the front has their hands made into fists, wrapped around each of the front spikes to keep them from hitting the top of the bass cabinet.  Once the back foot is in place, the person on the back should move to one side and guide one of the front feet into the cup, and then the third foot will drop right in.

We followed the instructions, more or less to the letter, and had pretty good results. I have to say, I can’t reinforce Greg’s instructions enough — lowering the tophat onto the bass horn is a tricky thing. The problem? Those spikes are wicked-sharp and the finish on the loudspeaker is soft. Damaging the loudspeakers is a rather easy task, which would be a total bummer. Because Greg promised to kill me, slowly, if I damaged his speakers. That’s why I let Gary and Kemper assemble them for me. It’s all about deniability, folks. Moving on.

Aside from the life-ending possibilities involved in moving a thousand pounds of furniture around, the speaker setup proceeded pretty swiftly. Greg had included the Full Monty with the Vittoras, including the Vittora sub (wow, that was heavy), an external bass amp/cross-over for it from Marchand, and a pair of nifty little widgets Greg called “bass contour filters”.

About this last bit — what this looks like is a 8″ high ladder, with a rack of resistors on one side and a stack of capacitors on the other. Depending on the effect you’re going for, you can alter the resistor/capacitor combo/count. Using a laptop, a Behringer microphone, and some RTA software, we were able to map the room response and build an appropriate filter that very neatly knocked flat some errant mid-bass peaks. I think this is a wickedly sharp move — every room is different. Anyway, the kit Gary sent along was surprisingly effective and fun to fiddle with — I’m sure those of you with active room correction already know of the joys that this kind of thing can bring to your listening setup, but it was cool to do this all-analog. Greg told me he’ll be building these things into the cabinets of future models of the Vittora, so you downstreamers will not have to wonder what to do with the “ladders” or where to put them. Sucks to be you.

Dialing in the subwoofer was a snap. The Marchand MB42 Greg recommends is a 300wpc affair with all the adjustments sitting on the front with big, easy to understand dials. I dialed in a zero on the phase, a steep slope, and a low-pass of about 50Hz and got very good results.

I tried toeing the loudspeakers in and found that preferable to firing straight on. As you can see from the pics, the angle wasn’t big. Something like 15-20º dialed in the sound stage — more would have caused issues with domestic tranquility. More on that in Part The Second.

Anyway, the setup in my living room never hit “optimal”, or even came close enough to hit it with a stick. I was confined to the short wall, which was all of 15′ across. I think that’s usually fine, but whatever it’s worth, Greg recommends space — look for something like 18′ or more to get enough of the scale and drama that the loudspeakers are capable of. This is the way he sets them up at audio shows, positioning them along a long-wall if necessary in order to get the requisite spacing.

Perhaps contrary to expectation (if you’re a Klipsch-o-phile), Greg designed his horns to stand alone, out in the room — no room boost required, and in fact, it’s discouraged. This approach is too irregular, too hard to predict, to unreliable under load, says he. So — treat the Vittoras like “regular” loudspeakers and be prepared to give ’em a little room.

I had them setup about 3′ off the back wall and 2′ off the side walls (~7′ apart, cabinet-corner to cabinet-corner). Fiddling with spacing, that is, a couple of inches here or there, didn’t seem to matter much as the lateral dispersion was excellent, at least given the constraints of my living room.

Furniture in the living room was a problem, and one I was only able to “fix” when my wife wasn’t around, which usually involved me pushing everything out of the way and shoving it back in place before she got home. Again, more on all that in Part The Second.

Touchy, feely

Some notes about the look and feel — these are hugely robust loudspeakers. They’re not necessarily tall, so you might not realize how big they are until they’re right in front of you (or consuming space in your listening room. They’re squat! That might be a bad thing (depending on how much of a struggle you’re having with your significant other about the spaces we’re talking about), but it might not matter. Why? Well, because they’re beautiful.

Okay, so this may just be my personal preferences talking, but I found the level of finish and fitment on these veneered Baltic-birch enclosures to be one of the best I’ve found in today’s high-end audio. I love it. It’s completely beyond furniture-grade. In fact, it made everything else in my living room look a bit shabby by comparison. The satiny smoothness of the gently curving wood surfaces just beg to be touched. Personally, I prefer the sandy-colored woven-cane front to the black-fabric option — it’s an elegant touch and has a bygone chic that makes me itch with envy. I’ve made a pile of Mad Men references in the past when writing about these speakers, but you get the point — there’s a retro look and feel here, and the cane front highlights that. Personally, that look just works for me, and if ever I can find a way to have the room decor (and layout) work to my favor, these loudspeakers will be involved.

Getting back to the finish, this is most definitely not polyester. There is no “I’m wet!” look of the just-dipped that seems to be the standard approach with expensive bits of wood. That is, the finish is not “mirrored” or anything remotely approaching it. And that’s a very good thing.

Whoops. So, what’s my problem with a high-gloss finish? Simple. It doesn’t look real.

Last time I looked, real wood tends not to come encased in glass. Or amber. Or some kind of weird plastic. If I wanted a bug-in-amber, I’d have gotten that. Wood-under-glass certainly has a look, but it’s really easy to damage, and honestly, it’s also easy to get wrong. You’ve seen this, I’m sure — hop in your friends expensive car and look at the so-called wood trim. Tell me — does it look or feel like wood? Or plastic? If the latter — FAIL.

Okay, just to make sure we’re on the same wavelength, I have a pair of TIDAL loudspeakers, and their gloss level is the highest my refinishing expert has ever seen. Quite frankly, it’s stunning. Part of that is how they managed to get the grain to show through, and with the poly coating, there’s a pleasing and elegant sense of depth.

I also have a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsars — these have a pair of veneered sides finished with the more standard I’m-not-really-sure-it’s-wood finish and while it is a far cry from the so-called “wood trim” you’ll find in a Ford, it’s not what TIDAL has managed. The Clearwave loudspeakers I’ll be reviewing next fall neatly between the Joseph and the TIDAL, and until the TIDALs showed up, they were my reference for a truly superior gloss.

But all of them are missing something. They have a certain feel to them, and I mean “feel” in that when I run my (cool, dry, and dust-free!) hands over them, they feel like … glass. And they kinda look it, too, no matter how well done. It’s pretty, but it’s not exactly correct, if that makes sense.

By contrast, the Fritz Rev5SE monitors I have here are a softer finish. It’s still a veneer, but it’s blazingly obvious that it really is wood — it looks like wood, it feels like wood … and perhaps more importantly, it looks correct. Even from across the room.

Like the Fritz’, the much bigger Vittoras are also a “satin” finish, with a moderate gloss but a high level of luster. Greg calls it a “medium-rubbed catalyzed lacquer”. Old-style lacquers were made from beetle-shells (nitro-cellulose), but Greg says the new stuff is far more durable. Like Fritz, Greg also leaves the grain showing through, instead of leveling and sealing it all away before applying the lacquer, an approach that would, yes, leave a glassy-surface. And yes, this looks correct. My thought, on seeing these unpacked and setup was “wow, that’s some gorgeous wood furniture” — exactly what I’m supposed to think. If I wanted it to look like “something else”, I’d have opted for automotive paint — and you can gloss the living tar out of that and yes, it would look spectacular.

Interesting aside — that high-gloss, just-dipped-it-in-water, finish is absurdly labor-intensive. This is one of the reasons why cabinets coming out of the non-Chinese manufacturers cost so much — and why many brands that leverage Chinese labor can crank those finishes out (cheap labor costs). Whatever. Put it in the hopper.

So, fine — this is a personal thing, but I think this looks far better than a full-on high-gloss polyester finish. You? Well, you may think differently (but you’d be wrong). It is a bit more delicate, however. While lacquer does have some protection to it, it’s not as robust as plastic and is primarily for stabilization — protection against dryness or humidity — so, you need to be a bit more careful.

The more specific warning as to do with setup. The tophat-to-bass cabinet junction is a brass spike/cup. Perhaps unfortunately, the spikes are on the top cabinet, so lowering them into the cups is a bit problematic — hence the care and detail in Greg’s instructions (above). It’s really easy to miss the cup, especially on that first spike, and just a FYI, but remember that there’s a fair bit of weight in that tophat, so an incautious moment will drive the spikes right through that bass cabinet like it was cheese. I’m guessing, of course, because I followed the instructions. Because I was terrified. Ahem. Anyway, if you were a tweaking audiophile, I think that this would be an interesting place to add in some after-market interfaces, like the RollerBlock Jr from Symposium. Is suspect that Stillpoints will also have a useful solution here, too.

Gear

The best sound I got out of the Vittoras came courtesy of Gary’s BorderPatrol gear. He very helpfully volunteered a pair of his 300b-based amps to play with. The first, the P20 amplifier, is a push-pull with dual external power supplies. I had fantastic results with this amp on a pair of middling-sensitivity Living Voice loudspeakers (94dB), and it’s extremely high on my personal lust-o-meter. He also left me his intro level amp, the SE300b, a (not surprisingly, given the name) 300b-based SET. This SET was simply outstanding and presented with more power than I ever needed or wanted with the 104dB Vittora loudspeakers. For whatever it’s worth, Greg has shown with BorderPatrol amps at recent audio shows — his favorite is the parallel amp, the S20 — but even at the volumes that Gary listens to, the extra power may simply be a security blanket. There’s no way you’re ever going to need more than 1-2 watts of total output with these loudspeakers.

Gary, during setup, whipped out his voltmeter and actually did something thoroughly unexpected — he dialed the noise down to something south of .9mV. Didn’t know you could do that! But it resulted in a hum that wasn’t audible unless my head was stuck directly into the horn. A BorderPatrol Control Unit handled the volume, and would have handled input switching if I’d been using something in addition to my my old Accuphase DP-85 SACD player which ably stepped in as a source.

At various points during their too-short stay, I was able to spend some time with an Electra-Fidelity 45-CU integrated. The week before extraction, a Yamamoto A08S amp landed, and that’s the amp I used for those last few days, paired with either a Wyred4Sound STP-SE preamp or a Luminous Audio Axiom II Walker passive. Cabling came courtesy of a combo of WyWires Silver and Gold interconnects and speaker cables with a hand full of Juice II power cords. Power distribution and conditioning came from my new-reference, a Tchaik 6 from Silver Circle Audio.

Listening

There is something that high sensitivity loudspeakers, and a horn speaker specifically, does better than any other. For lack of a better word, I call it “ease”. It’s this effortless quality that simply isn’t present in today’s ultra-mega speakers from whatever manufacturer. With a good horn, the sound can physically move you — that is, the dynamic swings can be so huge and happen so fast that you’ll finally come to terms with the saying “jumping out of your own skin”. It’s just insane. And if you’re a horn guy, this may be the thing that keeps you from ever seriously considering a Magico or Verity or MBL loudspeaker. Don’t get me wrong, those loudspeakers can be breathtaking — but nothing jumps like a horn except a horn. It’s a thing apart. With the Vittora, I finally “got it”.

There’s a thing that many horns have, however, that would prevent a Magico or Verity or MBL owner from ditching, and that’s color. No horn I’ve ever had a chance to spend any serious time with is uncolored. Neutral? Bah. Not the point. A friend mentioned the “cupped hands” phenomena that plagued the early Klipsch designs — and horn designs generally — but I didn’t hear it here during normal listening.

I did, however, hear quite a bit of extra resonance, especially in the male vocal register. This came through as “chestiness” to me, probably because I don’t have the appropriate audiophile vocabulary to describe it. Anyway, some aggressive tweaking of the bass-contour filters tackled this and simply left that part of the range as “full-throated” as opposed to “wet”. I love a tweaky speaker! Again, note that this feature will be embedded in the next generation.

Speaking of which, there were a pair of knobs on the back of each tophat on my review pair of Vittoras to help “dial in” the performance of the loudspeaker. I started with both set to 3. This is meant that the mid-range was “normal” (according to Greg), and that the tweeter was set to -3dB. Each notch represented approximately a 1.5dB step up or down. I found the 3 setting to be a bit dull, so I moved to a 5 (zero attenuation) in the treble and left well enough alone. I mention them because you’ll see them in the pics below, but speaking with Greg this week, it turns out that these handy adjustment knobs will be removed in all new versions of the cabinets. Too many fiddly bits? Oh well. In the future, if you want to adjust the response, you can — but you’ll have to crack that back panel and make the changes.

Another point — while the Vittora cabinets can and did produce real, tuneful, and articulate bass, they also began rolling off a bit north of 80Hz — it’s a horn, after all, and one that doesn’t happen to be housed in an enclosure the size of a minibus. You get what you get. Which brings me to the subwoofer! The Vittora Sub is wicked-strong and hits like a hammer. An 18″ driver will do that. And like a good subwoofer, all issues with tympani strikes, kick drums, or canon shots were summarily dealt with. Ka-pow. Available in two options, down-firing and front-firing, Greg strongly recommends the latter for those of you lunatics interested in willfully violating his recommendation to run the sub below 50Hz.

I had the down-firing version, and yes, for fun, I tried crossing the subwoofer in around 120Hz with a shallow slope. This provided a stunning degree of slam but was a bit “thick” (i.e., slow and muddled). This was may be the domain of the front-firing sub, but for mine, following Greg’s recommendations and coming in at 50Hz avoided stepping on the main speakers.

My recommendation for this kind of speaker is actually two subwoofers, not one. Ahem. Well, aside from the obvious — cost and price — why not? So — got room and a want/need to match the aesthetic? Go nuts! Two subs and you’re able to generate a response sure to draw in the largest sandworm anyone has ever seen.

The now-$2,900 asking price (over $4k with the Marchand) is high enough to wonder about something competitive from JL Audio or REL. Those subs, especially the ones with their auto-setup routines, will create an optimal cross-over slope that will nail the Vittoras to the room. You can get some of that with the Marchand, aside from the room correction, but that’s a big feature. However you decide to go, a sub really helps.

Music

Okay, a sensitive horn speaker pretty much demands low-power tube amps. I mean, it’s written right there above the binding posts. Joy! What you’ll really want, at most, is a beefy current supply, but that’ll depend on your musical preferences. For me, my typical fare wanders a bit far and wide, but … well, it tends to veer sharply away from large-scale orchestral pieces. At least on a day-to-day basis. But I’m finding a steady diet of Russian composers more of a requirement with this reviewer gig.

Dave Stanard, of Silver Circle Audio, insisted that I acquire a copy of the Living Stereo SACD of Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, “Pathétique“. This is grand, full-scale, big orchestra sound. It was here that the little 8wpc BorderPatrol lost some composure — a quick swap to the 20wpc P20 snapped this piece back into focus, but the rematch actually made me break out in a panic-sweat. I … ahh … might have had the volume up a bit to compensate for those quiet bits …. ahem. Gives me shivers just thinking about it … I could have sworn I was going to die. My mad scramble across the room to reach the no-remote-control BorderPatrol Control Unit left me shaking and making little uncontrollable “aah aah aah” noises. On the plus side, the Vittoras didn’t break a sweat — even at 4 million decibels, the crescendos came through with a crystal sweetness and purity. Breathtaking, in a literal, life-threatening kind of way. On an unrelated note, this was the last listening session my dog joined me for. Curious.

Anyway, on everything but shattering crescendos (fortissimos?), the little SE300b was overkill. Hell, the Yamamoto was overkill. But on those few, complicated bits, the double-shot with the way-bigger PSUs on the P20 made all the difference. Interestingly, Adele’s 21, that tragically trashed and over-compressed mastering train wreck of an album, also needed the additional help. “Rolling In The Deep” sounded like a bag of smashed glass on the SE300b; the P20 sliced through and at least rendered it, though truth be told, there really is no saving that album.

Another classical entrant came from a Reference Recordings release of Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra through a Copland sampler. Clarion brass is stirring stuff and the dynamic range of this kind of music is something that pop, rock, jazz and blues — my normal fare — doesn’t really do. So, going from quiet to stunning load — with all the steps in between — is fun. Really fun. Bum bah BAAAAAH!

During setup, we dialed in the loudspeakers with a variety of music, including Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’. “Breakfast in Bed” and “Just A Little Lovin” were played pretty much to death that first day. The breathy sexiness of Lynne’s stripped-down performance was certainly a crowd pleaser — the first 347 times through. After that, I shelved the disc and I don’t think I’ve played it since — I really need to reshuffle my demos. But — the rimshot during opener of the title track was electrifying, a shocking snap! that exploded into the room. Dynamics. It’s what’s for dinner. Mmm mmm, delicious.

Detail on Chris Jones’ Roadhouses And Automobiles, especially with the BorderPatrol SE300b, was about as transparent a window as I’ve been able to get here at the house. Crickets? Hell yes. On that title track, the Vittoras took me outside, onto the front porch, while a traveling minstrel sing a life of melancholia to an uncaring night sky. That was fun and on a par with the best I’ve heard that track sound.

One of my new favorite discs, Blood Like Lemonade from Morcheeba, came through early and stayed way late. This is where the mid-bass strength of the Vittora came through in spades — this is a wicked disc, with a driving beat threaded through with ethereal vocals. What I was hearing is most definitely not what I’d expected from 8 watts. Nuh uh. Power. Power is what I got. Room-filling power. Hulk SMASH.

I queued up some SACD tracks came from Alison Krauss + Union Station Live. I mean, why not — that Accuphase is a fantastic disc player and even better with SACDs. And with Krauss, I got fast fiddlin’ and an angel’s voice — seriously, what’s not to like? Cake for the Vittora. I was anticipating problems with a move back to Chris Jones, this time from the SACD sampler Closer To The Music. “No Sanctuary Here” is a track I take with me on the road to shows as a way to show off midbass presence. The trick is stuffed with big sound. The humming chorus can be as huge and as threatening as a thunderhead, with a ton or rich harmonic content, and that bass guitar opener is like a harbinger of death and mayhem. You don’t need a full bass extension down to the center of Mother Earth to get this right, but still, it’s rare. In my untreated room, we tipped directly into room overload and picture frames fell over in the adjacent media cabinet. Whoops. I ran downstairs and grabbed four Tube Traps and stuck them in the corners behind the Vittoras, which helped, but turning down the subwoofer helped more. Ahem.

As a tool, the Vittoras are very interesting — you don’t find 104dB loudspeakers every day of the week. That level of sensitivity really does highlight all manner of things — hiss and hum being a good example. Wanna know, exactly, how screwy your grounding scheme is? Get a horn. Wanna know which tubes are microphonic? Horns. Wanna scare the crap out of your dog? Horns!

Pricing

Initially offered at $8,800 per pair a couple of years ago, a brand new pair of Vittoras will now set you back $17,500. Add the sub, and your tab will bounce in at $19,900 before shipping (and you still need an amp for the sub). This is a big jump in three years, and Greg is acknowledges the issue directly:

It’s just the way I decided to do it.  I decided it would be better to start with a low price and work it up as time went on, rather than setting a high price right in the beginning.  Right or wrong, good or bad, this is the decision I made. I tend to go with my gut on these matters, and this is what felt right to me.  The decision to sell them at a very cheap price spurred sales.  There’s no denying that the practice we had in the shop building the first ten pair really helped us to refine our process, increase quality, and reduce the number of man-hours it takes to build each pair.  Had we not offered them at lower prices initially, who knows how many we would have sold. Possibly none. Where would Volti Audio be if that had happened?

I’ve had plenty of feedback along the way regarding this decision, and there is no consensus as to whether it was the best way to do it.  I have always been brutally honest about it though.  My customers never had any doubt about what I was doing because I explained it in great detail in my webpages and in my newsletters.  I’ve said almost from the beginning that Vittoras are a $20K pair of speakers being sold for much less.  I go on to detail exactly how many man-hours it takes to hand-build these speakers, and I tell people how much the material cost is.  There are no secrets here.  Just straight forward, honest hard work and quality materials put together by American workers in an American shop to produce a product that reflects that honest value in every way.  Whether or not the price was initially $20,000 or became so over a long period of time should not be the subject of as much discussion as some people like to make it.  I hope the customers that took advantage of the opportunity to buy Vittoras at a lower price are really, really enjoying the heck out of them!

The issue of value here, however, isn’t that hard to argue — you’re getting quite a bit of bang for your buck. Remember all that stuff I said about the finish?

It takes 240 man-hours of labor to complete a pair of Vittora speakers, and more than $6,000 in materials cost.  My shop labor rate is $60 per hour.  That means we should be figuring $14,400 for labor cost and $6,000 in materials cost just to break even on building each pair of Vittora speakers.  Total of $20,400. With a small profit, the selling price should be around $22k-ish.

I’ve looked into pricing before and I’m surprised by these numbers. By my count, Greg’s labor/materials cost would translate into an MSRP of at least $45,000/pair. So, those of you getting in below $15k got a steal. Lucky bastards.

And out

I enjoyed the heck out of my time with the Volti Audio Vittora loudspeakers, and the time with them was spent pretty much evenly with soaring music and byzantine plots of how to keep them in the house. While the latter plan was foiled, this did nothing to mute my fascination. The look, the sound, the capability … yeah, horn folks have been on to something for years and yes, I’ve been missing out, it seems. I want some!

The strengths of the Vittoras are pretty obvious — high sensitivity, robust voicing, lacking obvious colorations at normal listening levels, with lots of options for in-room tuning/tweaking, and wrapped in a truly world-class finish, the Vittora is a winner. On the downside, you have a large loudspeaker that really deserves a large space to sound their best. Since we’re talking about at least one subwoofer, they’re also going to take up a lot of that space.

They’re not exactly cheap, either, but that’s more an industry problem than a product problem. It also opens up the conversation for competitive products that populate that $20k tier — and as Art Dudley has mentioned, this is an increasingly crowded segment. But in the world of horns, there’s really very little that plays at this level in the sub-$20k space that is a real horn. I mean, there are a ton of Lowther-based designs, or designs that use some other high-sensitivity driver, but they’re not precisely horns, at least, not like the Vittora.

Whether or not these loudspeakers are a fit for you is a matter of taste, pretty much like everything in audio’s high-end. I, for one, loved my time with these loudspeakers. I am — now — thoroughly enchanted by the low-power amp/high-sensitivity loudspeaker thing, and I really do hope to be able to return sooner rather than later.

I miss them.

Happily, heartily and thoroughly recommended.

James Lipton

If you’ve never seen James Lipton do an interview for his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” series, I can’t recommend it enough. Lipton is frighteningly good at getting notoriously private folks to open up and tell the most surprising things. His signature sign-off is a series of 10 questions he borrowed from a French series, “Bouillon de Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. Greg humored me, so let me present his responses here, with thanks.

What is your favorite word?

  • Opportunity

What is your least favorite word?

  • Cancer

What turns you on?

  • I’ve been married thirty years, I’m fully trained, and I know enough not to answer this.

What turns you off?

  • Tattoos

What sound or noise do you love?

  • A Hammond B3 Organ through two Leslie cabinets turned up to eleven.

What sound or noise do you hate?

  • Feedback

What is your favorite curse word?

  • Fuckin’a

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

  • Cook

What profession would you not like to do?

  • Doctor

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

  • Don’t worry son, there’s a fully equipped woodworking shop here.

Next

That’s pretty much it for the review. There’s a bit more to the story, however, so stay tuned for Part The Second if you want to see why my room setup here was so … er … challenged. Ahem ….

Part Two: WAF, the Volti Audio Vittora, and Why I’m a Dumbass

Part Three: Volti Vittora and a little bit of subterfuge: a follow up 

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Initial living room setup, rejected on WAF inspection: Accuphase on the BorderPatrol Control Unit (Symposium Rollerblocks and Svelte shelf separating them), BorderPatrol SE300b and Tchaik 6 from Silver Circle Audio

WAF appeasement — a cleaner install in the living room. Furniture rearrangement had to occur during pre-arranged WAF vacated hours

Talk about suboptimal setup: subwoofer with Accuphase SACD player sitting on Symposium Rollerblocks II+ and Svelte Shelf isolation platform. Border Patrol amp and PSU off to the right. Marchand amp sitting on top of Silver Circle Tchaik w/ Symposium Rollerblock Jr and Svelte Shelf isolation platform.

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Rear of tophat, bottom view

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Rear of tophat

Rear of tophat, with mid and tweeter adjustments and binding posts

Rear of bass cabinet, binding posts with bass contour filters installed in parallel to tophat jumpers

Rear of bass cabinet, binding posts

Bass cabinet, rear binding posts

Tophat spike/cup interface

Cane front

Finish on the Vittora, setback on tophat

Volti Audio Vittora, corner view, finish

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Bass contour filter, capacitor side

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11 Comments on Hello, goodbye: Six weeks with the Volti Audio Vittora

  1. Dear Greg, I am very interested in auditioning the Volti Vitora Speakers. For over a 1/4 century I’ve been splendidly treated to music from another Maine based speaker creative force – Mark Pearson. His shop was in Sanford ME in the 1980s. You might be interested in an appreciation I blogged of Mark’s “two box ” solution to optimizing the transmission line enclosure design’s intrinsic advantages.
    My post is on the whatsbestforum about 164 on the ” speaker” thread titled ” jump factor in hi end speakers.”
    For about 16 years I was at what evolved into Maine General Hosp in Augusta/Watterville.
    Jim Harley helped design the Ekosea, home inside an outer home, super insulated place we had in Richmond ME on the Kennebec. Basilio Lupchenko built the 7′ tall, Russian masonary fire place that had a transmission labyrinth inside it, too, come to think!
    I’m delighted by what electronics I’m using these days after enjoying Electrocompaniet gear from Norway for over two decades — Keith Herrons 3A pre and monoblock transistor based amps — 150 watts per channel.
    I’ve been here about a half hour from Seattle for 16 years. Any dealer near Seattle or Portland, OR ? Bob Reinach reinachrc@embarqmail.com

  2. Volti Audio, which is primarily Greg Roberts, is the finest example of a small American audio company that we have:)

  3. Kemper Holt // February 17, 2013 at 6:57 PM //

    The Vittoras are beautifully built & finished, but the packing was so professional, protective, and precisely fitted, these could survive being thrown from a truck. They are big, heavy, solidly built, and are detailed to a level that would make any custom furniture maker proud. The Vittoras have an understated look that would blend in with many decors, unlike many taller speakers. I only heard them for a short time when the speakers and electronics were cold, it was late October, but they had a dynamic ability rarely displayed.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // February 17, 2013 at 9:38 PM //

      Thanks again for all your help, Kemper!

    • Hey Kemper – glad to see you’re still at it. I still have the Monarchy M33 DAC that I bought from you many moons ago. The Vittoras look fantastic, wish I could listen to a pair.
      Cheers!

  4. I want em!

  5. I agree with your wife. Who needs a pair of refrigerator-size speakers in the listening room. The new price-point is a non-starter. I heard the Volti’s when they were $8,800, and one could overlook some of their faults at that price. At double that price; sorry, but no. Plus they seem to need more support of various kinds than the 6th Fleet.

  6. Scott, this is one one the best–no, THE best–loudspeaker reviews ever. A true pleasure to read. It’s funny, clever, informative, well-written. Great pics too. You set the bar high for other reviewers. I must have me some Vittora! Thank you.

  7. great read, and I am glad to see somehow spend some time with these speakers and report in detail. Usually, the show reports of these speakers are just drive-by snapshots of the speakers and their sound.

    Missing from this review…so far…are words such as, or similar to, “bright”, “sizzle”, “fatigue”, and “migraine”, which many horn-haters love to toss out upon the mere mention of the words “Klipsch” or “horns”.

    Looking forward to Part The Second.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // February 17, 2013 at 9:37 PM //

      Part The Second is more WAF, so let me address your questions here.

      I had zero listening fatigue with the Vittora. Might be because they’re not bright — and even if your room and taste run to the “sweet” (where sweet = “rolled off”), there’s an attenuator for that.

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