Riva Turbo X Bluetooth Speaker

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One of the Hottest Audio Products of 2014

Brent Butterworth

Riva Turbo X Bluetooth Speaker

One of the products from a previous CES show that most impressed me was the Riva Turbo X, a prototype of a new Bluetooth speaker. What could be so interesting about yet another Bluetooth speaker, you ask? Mainly, the Turbo X didn't sound like a Bluetooth speaker.

When I hadn't heard about the Turbo X since then, I was starting to wonder what happened. But then I got a call from Riva Audio president and chief engineer Don North, who offered to stop by my house and give me a demo of the nearly finished version of the Turbo X.  

It's important to note that Riva Audio isn't just a few guys buying random stuff from Chinese ODMs. It's a Southern California audio design firm founded by veterans of Aurasound, and working in partnership with Wistron, a huge Taiwanese manufacturing firm with more than 700,000 employees.

I'll give you my assessment of the sound and features on the next page. First, I wanted to hear North's pitch on what's so different about the Turbo X.


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An Interview with Don North, Chief Engineer of Riva Audio

 Brent Butterworth: Can you refresh me on what the intent was behind this product?

Don North: We wanted to bring high-fidelity sound to a 21st-century audience who have grown up listening to MP3s on their iPod, who aren’t accustomed to traditional hi-fi stereos with separate components. We wanted them to hear something closer to what the artist intended, with a sense of space, not the one- or two-dimensional sound you get with most wireless speakers.

BB: OK, but other companies have said similar things. What's different about your approach?

DN: It has a bigger sound and a broader listening area because of our Trillium technology. It's an algorithm that upmixes two-channel stereo sound to three channels, which in our case is a full-range driver on the front and a full-range driver on each side. [Most wireless speakers have just two drivers on the front. -- BB.] This provides a much greater sense of space and depth, without the tight sweet spot you get with two-channel systems.

It also gives you more bass than you’d expect from its size. With the three active drivers and four passive radiators, we're able to get some of that big, rich, immersive sound you’d normally expect from a traditional hi-fi system. It's even braced inside like a good hi-fi speaker, to minimize the enclosure vibration.

We also used a dedicated DSP [digital signal processing chip] inside the unit to do the signal processing and tuning. A lot of amp chips have DSP built in, but none of the ones we looked at had sufficient processing power to do what we wanted to do.

BB: Did you design the drivers specifically for this unit?

DN: Yes. All the transducers were developed in-house here in Southern California. All of the industrial design and acoustical development was done in-house. The electronics design started with consultants in SoCal and was fine-tuned for production by Wistron.

BB: Is there anything special about the drivers?

DN: The passive radiators, especially. Most of the passive radiators in wireless speakers are just a flat diaphragm with a flexible surround. Our passive radiators use a more traditional hi-fi approach, with a bobbin and a spider like a normal active driver. They work more like a piston and they're more stable, so we get less distortion and higher maximum output. We also placed them on opposite sides to cancel vibration and keep the speaker from scooting around while it's playing.

We have put a lot of effort and skill into the development of the 60mm drivers, too. They have dual neodymium magnets and aluminum diaphragms. Plus some other tweaks I can't share. What results is a very wide frequency range with a high linear excursion for their size, and that creates a natural bass reproduction.

BB: How would you compare the sound of the Turbo X with its competitors?

DN: I would say it sounds richer and purer. It has greater detail. It has a better sense of ease and space, without sounding strained or processed. You can place it pretty much anywhere in a room, but the Trillium upmix and the opposing passive radiators allow it to get a greater benefit with corner placement than most wireless speakers can get.

It also plays louder than most of what's available. We have a Turbo mode that allows the speaker to play 9 dB louder by engaging a dedicated limiter/compressor/EQ curve, so you can use it for an outdoor party. Without Turbo off, there's no processing other than the upmix, so that's what you'd probably use for normal listening.

Next page: Listening to the Turbo X prototype...

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Riva Turbo X: Features and Sound

Brent Butterworth

But How Does It Sound

When North played a few jazz cuts on the Turbo X prototype, with the unit running off the internal rechargeable battery, I was surprised to hear how much like a decent little stereo system it sounds. The sonic coloration was low and the sound definitely wasn't "trapped in the box" the way it is with so many wireless speakers. The bass, in particular, sounded satisfying -- not what I'd call powerful, but never thin or distorted. That's rare for a wireless speaker, especially a relatively small one like the Turbo X.

I even liked the Trillium Surround mode, which Riva intended mostly for gaming and movies. With the middle speaker providing a solid center image, and the processing kept to a tasteful level, the sound expanded almost the way it would with a pair of computer speakers spaced 6 feet apart. Yet it wasn't sweet-spotty, i.e., the effect didn't change much when I moved my head side to side.

I took the chance to do some quick and dirty maximum output measurements, using the same technique I always do: playing Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart" full blast (or at least as loud as the unit will play before distorting), and measuring the average C-weighed output during the first verse at 1 meter. I got 88 dB in normal mode and 96 dB in Turbo mode. That's 1 dB louder than I measured from the Wren V5AP.

The features package has some nice advantages, too -- including a dual-mic speakerphone (which automatically activates a voice-enhancing EQ mode on the speaker). Wave your hand over the top of the unit and the power button lights up; hit the power button and all the buttons illuminate. Two Turbo Xs can be used as left and right speakers in a stereo pair, or you can slave one to the other and have wireless sound in adjacent rooms. There's also an iOS/Android app that lets you control volume, input selection and listening mode from a phone or tablet. The internal battery's rated at 20+ hours for normal listening levels. The unit will be splashproof and dustproof; North says Riva's shooting for an IP54 rating.