Disclaimer: I have not traditionally been a fan of horn speakers such as the Volti Audio Razz LE. Why then did I decide to accept an invitation from Greg Roberts, head man at Volti Audio, to review just that- a horn speaker? Normally, we audio reviewers tend to stick to stuff we think we will like, right?
Let’s just say that this whole adventure has been the result of a slow education coupled with some more recent real-world experience. I’m not the kind of guy who would just jump in head first… or am I?
Words and Photos by John Richardson
I must admit that until recently, I had very little direct experience with speakers employing horn-loaded drivers and/or cabinets. I’d always viewed myself as a dynamic driver kind of guy, maybe with a little bit of love toward electrostatics. Sure, I’d heard big horn speakers at shows and yet typically walked away unimpressed. You know the mantra: too colored, too hooty, and too in-your-face. I prefer to be bathed in my music, not slapped in the face by it.
I had to admit though, that certain horn designs had their attributes; things such as speed, crazy dynamics, and a certain you-are-there immediacy. I just couldn’t get past the perceived flaws enough to dig deeper.
A few years ago, my education in such horned things began in a gradual sort of way. I heard Brian Charney’s single driver designs, and they somehow touched my soul. I was amazed by the articulate, natural, and fast bass, which Brian taught me came from (you guessed it…) a HORN loaded cabinet. Hmm, maybe these horn things weren’t so bad after all. Perhaps, like in all things audio, it’s the design and implementation that matter the most.
To be sure, I’d heard Volti Audio speakers at shows, coupled with BorderPatrol electronics. At first, I can’t say I was all that impressed, but year after year, the sound began growing on me. By the time Mr. Roberts approached me about a review of his newest design, the Volti Audio Razz LE, I felt ready (as in open-minded enough) to take the challenge.
Inside the Volti Audio Razz LE
So what’s the deal with Volti Audio’s newest affordable design? According to Greg, the Volti Audio Razz LE, which I like to call the RazzLE (as in RazzLE DazzLE), is a limited edition of Volti Audio’s most affordable speaker, the Razz. The new speaker is reportedly sonically equivalent to the popular Razz, but with some upscale visual features. These include colorful tinted wood veneers (mine were deep blue) and more advanced footers upon which the speakers stand.
Inside of the $10,000 budget, there are similar horn-type speakers that can be obtained and enjoyed, and some at considerably less cost, but I believe that the $6,500 Volti Audio Razz LE stands out from the crowd for reasons I’ll elaborate upon below.
Within that realm, I’d venture to say that Volti Audio speakers will be a particularly good choice for those who tend more toward the perfectionist end of the audio realm. The sound is one thing (we’ll get to that…), but overall design considerations and build quality combine to bring the budget-level Volti Audio Razz LE real high-end value.
According to Mr. Roberts, the three things that combine to make a good-sounding speaker are the cabinet, the drivers, and the crossover. So far, I’m in total agreement with this philosophy, as you probably are as well. The big deal, however, is that these three components have to perfectly mesh in a symbiotic sort of way for a speaker to truly become great.
Let’s have a brief look at the Volti Audio Razz LE design then, shall we?
First up is the cabinet. Here, we have top-notch construction using inch-thick Baltic birch ply with full internal bracing utilizing the same. Tolerances are tight, and there’s no particle board or MDF in sight. Likewise, the veneer work is exquisite, with flawless corners and seams. Overall, this is furniture grade work coming out of the Volti Audio shop.
Next, we have the drivers. Like the regular Razz, the Volti Audio RazzLE is a hybrid three-way system employing a dynamic cone bass unit coupled with true horn-loaded midrange driver and tweeter. Greg reported to me that he used the best-sounding drivers he could find that fit within his allotted budget for building the speaker, considering mostly how well they would play together. For example, the midrange driver assembly features a two-inch outlet compression driver with a dome-shaped composite diaphragm, an annular phase plug, and a neodymium
magnet, all feeding into a shallow profiled midrange horn with a two-inch throat. The larger-than-typical throat diameter reportedly leads to a bigger, more expansive, and less colored sound.
Finally, there’s the crossover. We don’t think about this component as much since we can’t see it, but it’s crucially important to how well the individual drivers are voiced and blend together. Greg Roberts spared no expense here either, separating the bass crossover board from the mid/treble board to minimize distortion. Further, he uses top-quality components (think Solen, Jantzen, and Lynk) with copper crimping buttressed with solder. All components were again chosen for proper overall voicing. I was even supplied with extra resistors that could be swapped in and out of the exposed rear-panel midrange/treble board to adjust the output level
to suit my own listening preferences.
Overall, the Volti Audio Razz LE is an impressively designed and engineered speaker that I dare say looks nothing short of fabulous in my listening space.
Volti Audio Razz LE: Sonic Impressions
As with any audio component, learning my way around the Volti Audio Razz LE took some time.
My journey began one day in late September when Greg Roberts and Gary Dews (Mr. BorderPatrol) stopped in to make delivery of the RazzLE speakers. Greg did set-up and tweaking while we had the opportunity to try out a few different amps I had on hand. We tried out the little 1.5 watt per channel Oliver Sayes 45 triode amp, and while it made music, we decided that the 97 dB efficient RazzLEs could benefit from more power. Next up was my Tool Shed Amps Transcendence 300B single-ended beauty. This amp did the trick, and the sound immediately
opened up. I could readily hear the tonal purity of the 300B amp and feel the dynamic capabilities of the speaker. In fact, this amplifier was a good enough match with the RazzLEs that I ended up enjoying over 50% of my overall listening time with it doing the honors.
Greg himself likes tube amps, and with his speakers prefers something a little more powerful than the typical SET design. Imagine a good EL34/KT77 push-pull design putting out 20 or 30 solid watts per side for example. (I’m thinking of you, Mike McGary.) Volti Audio highly recommends the 20 watt per channel push-pull P21 EXD 300B amp from BorderPatrol Audio, which they often use at shows. Having had this amp in-house for the better part of a year (but unfortunately not concurrently with the RazzLEs), I would agree. I also wouldn’t rule out solid state, as I had slightly different, but nonetheless excellent results when using several of Nelson Pass’ First Watt models.
As for initial impressions in my listening space…well, I had several.
First off, I have to admit that maybe I have been wrong all along about the unnatural sonic colorations of horn speakers. I was immediately taken aback at how tonally correct the Volti Audio Razz LEs could sound when properly set up and powered. As an added bonus, I still heard all of the characteristics that make horn loaded speakers really sing: speed, dynamics, and immediacy.
I also think it’s worth mentioning here that while the RazzLE is a relatively large floor-standing speaker, it and the standard Razz are still the babies of the Volti Audio line. That said, my room isn’t exactly huge and cavernous, so I’d wager that I’d not gain much sonically by moving up the line to a larger model.
Now that I have several months’ worth of time on the Volti Audio Razz LE speakers, I feel that I can shed some well-thought light on their attributes.
As I mentioned before, my appreciation for horn-loaded speakers and drivers has come gradually. I own Charney Audio’s single-driver Maestro X speakers and love them unabashedly. However, I will admit that they can be bass shy in my room when compared to a true(r) full-range design. I can look past this omission due to the other things the speaker does so well.
However, Greg Roberts differs somewhat in his philosophy: he told me that he doesn’t want to waste his time listening to a speaker that can’t go nearly full-range. While I may slightly disagree with his assessment, I can certainly understand where he is coming from. The RazzLE speakers do bass, and in a really good way. I somehow felt a sense that I was cheating physics when I could finally listen to a symphony orchestra going full-tilt when using a six-watt-per-side SET amp! Bass drum thwacks and double-bass pizzicatos had a real sense of impact and depth that I hadn’t expected to hear.
I was equally impressed with the Volti Audio Razz LE’s midrange performance, as this is where I expected the speaker to falter. But falter it did not, as I was rewarded with some of the cleanest, clearest midrange sound that I have heard in my room. I’ll admit that the sound might not fit every listener’s tastes due to its honesty. For example I often listen to Living Voice IBX R3 speakers, and the midrange I get from these has an open, easy sweetness that’s just so pleasing to the ears. If such sweetness is a pleasant coloration, then the RazzLE lacks it, preferring perhaps a more neutral, up-front presentation.
Nor did I have any complaints about the treble presentation of the Volti Audio Razz LE loudspeakers. Again, what I heard was an honest, slightly forward, but never aggressive tonality. Plenty of detail and airy extension were at hand, but not in an overly metallic or etched sort of way. Again, I would classify the high-frequency performance as open and realistic to the natural event.
What really struck me as a particular strength of the Volti Audio Razz LE was its ability to weave the sonic event into a single, cohesive unit. We often speak of sonic coherence, and this is a tough thing to get right in speaker design. A truly coherent design is one that offers near-perfect integration of the drivers such that the sound emanating from the baffle sounds as if it is coming from a point source. There’s no sense of one driver handing off to another; they all work together as a single unit orchestrated by a properly designed crossover. This is a hard effect to verbalize, but a listener will know it when they hear it. That such a large multi-driver speaker
could accomplish this little trick was something of a small miracle indeed.
Hand-in-hand with the RazzLE’s excellent coherence are its spatial characteristics. I came away quite impressed with the speakers’ ability to cast a wide and deep soundstage, even with their rear panels placed close against the wall (front porting helps here…). These speakers do a more than decent job of “disappearing” in spite of their size. Presentation of image was also considerably better than I would have suspected, with solo instruments or vocalists suspended in precise three-dimensional space within the soundstage.
Of course, the Volti Audio Razz LE loudspeakers easily pull off that one trick that pretty much all efficient horn-loaded speakers do so well: they let go of the notes in such a way that I never felt them to sound overly polite, or more to the point, constipated. Couple that with the killer dynamics, both micro and macro, that only good horns can provide, and you’ve got yourself a heaping plate of audio fun.
I love comparisons when it comes to gear. Not gauging “better” or “worse” per se, but “different.” At first I was thinking that the Volti Audio Razz LE loudspeakers would more directly compare to my single-driver Charney Audio Maestro X speakers, given that both utilize horn technology to some degree or another. However, once I got a feel for how dynamic, tonally neutral, and full-range the Volti speakers are, I quickly figured out that they actually have more in common with my reference ATC SCM 100 studio monitors.
That’s saying something, as the ATCs are well over three times the asking price of the RazzLEs. Both of these speaker designs easily pressurize my listening space and go as loud as anyone could want with minimal distortion. I’d have to say that the ATCs are the more refined sounding of the two, but they do seem to give up a bit of the “bounce” and fun factor that’s so endemic to the Volti design. Both speakers go nicely down to 35 Hz or so, providing me as much powerful bass as I need in my room.
The difference is that the ATC SCM 100s do it with more control and less overhang; the downside is that you need a lot of power to get that level of controlled slam. Conversely, I got really satisfying bass performance out of the Volti Audio Razz LE loudspeakers with only six watts of SET power! Toss on a solid state amp such as the First Watt F8 (25 watts per channel), and the low end gets even better, as in slightly more extended and a bit tighter. Either way, I really appreciated the freedom of using my low-powered amps to make such a big and satisfying sound.
Speaking of solid state, I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed powering the Volti Audio Razz LE with my First Watt amps; I ended up trying out the F7, F8, and SIT-3. All performed beautifully, and the speakers were more than resolving enough to allow me to easily hear the subtle differences among the trio. Of the group, I ended up spending the most time with the F8 (more slam and control) and the SIT-3 (wow, almost triode-like in tone).
Despite what you may have heard, don’t rule Volti speakers out if you are a solid-state amp kinda person! I’m just filled with gratitude that I had such an array of both tubed and sand-based amps on hand to more fully explore and enjoy the finer points of the RazzLEs.
Re-cap: Why I Like the Volti Audio Razz LE
I really enjoyed my time with the Volti Audio Razz LE speakers in my listening space.
These are truly wonderful speakers in pretty much every way, shape, and form in which I have employed them. Let’s re-cap if we may…
First things first. The prospective owner of these babies gets two beautiful pieces of furniture that happen to make a glorious noise. Fit ’n’ finish are exquisite at the price point, and really at almost any price point. One also gets Greg Roberts’ attention to detail and passion built into every pair that comes out of the shop.
Summarizing performance, I’d have to say that the RazzLE is a home run for folks like me who love the refinement of small, lower-powered amplifiers, both of the tubed and solid state varieties. What a treat it has been to turn up the volume and go full-on dynamic with big orchestral works and maybe a little Snarky Puppy just for grins. For all the refinement of the RazzLE, it’s really about having fun more than anything else, and I think Mr. Roberts would wholeheartedly agree!
Lastly, I still keep coming back to the amazing coherence and tonal accuracy of the Volti Audio RazzLE speakers; this was something I just wasn’t honestly expecting from such a “horny” speaker. Again, careful design and proper choice and implementation of cabinet, drivers, and crossovers really pays off.
As with any audio component, the Volti Audio Razz LE loudspeakers aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s absolutely OK. My advice for anyone considering these gems would be to hit up Mr. Roberts at one of the shows he attends and have a listen for yourself. You might end up taking the show pair home with you!