OUR FULL REVIEW OF THE RIVA IS BELOW, BUT YOU CAN SEE THE ORIGINAL MAGAZINE PAGES BY CLICKING RIGHT FOR THE PDF >>>>
We first encountered the Riva Festival at the Australian Hi-Fi & AV Show, where it was playing in one of the dramatic 21st floor rooms of the Intercontinental Sydney. It was something new and, for a hi-fi show, pleasingly affordable. Brave, too, for this is a multiroom-capable streaming audio speaker, which puts it in a market dominated not only by Sonos, but by many other platforms developed by some of the most experienced audio companies on the planet.
Who is taking them on? Riva Audio, which is a brand created by Audio Design Experts, Inc. (ADX) in California, an organisation which started out by creating some high-profile solutions for other companies including Vizio, before launching its own Riva brand at CES 2014. Behind the Riva design, in audio terms, are two key names — its President Don North, an audio engineer who “has worked on loudspeaker systems for companies including Apple, Beats, Ford, Monster Cable, McIntosh Labs, Legacy Audio, Epson, Pioneer and many others”, and Riva’s CEO and founder, who is the legendary Rikki Farr, whose career as concert promoter (continued in music recording and audio design) is so illustrious that were we to begin talking about him, we would fill this whole review space before running out of enthusiasm (Isle of Wight 1970, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, etc).
And Mr Farr, he doesn’t like the current trends in audio — no, not at all.
“I sat and thought for a long time, listening to the devices people are listening through today... and it’s horrible”, he says. “I listen to a beautiful song from Joni Mitchell or I listen to Stanley Clarke with Chick Corea and Billy Cobham and I can’t even hear the splash cymbal. Or I listen to Wood by Brian Bromberg playing a 357-year-old Matteo Guersam Italian bass, and it’s coming out like an elephant’s fart. Why are millions of people listening though these little tiny boxes they’ve paid good money for? It’s wrong. So I set out to challenge that. It’s not a crusade. It’s just something I want to do. Let’s find a way to have that music!”
Encouraging stuff, then, but how to deliver it?
One key to the brand’s goals is what Riva calls ‘Trillium’ technology. The development team clearly has the same horror as us when it views the prevailing trend to mono in the wireless speaker market — Rob North refers to this as “21st century streaming with 1950s’ audio reproduction”. Riva’s products are firmly stereo, and further emphasise that with Trillium processing, which aims to create an even wider stereo soundfield using three speakers, redistributing what’s common and what’s different from the two channels. At lower frequencies all channels tend to work in unison to deliver a ‘big’ sound, but the mid and high bands, where most of the spacial cues occur, are distributed (in simplified terms) as L-R and R-L. The result is a wide soundfield, and indeed ADX describes it as creating two virtual speakers which are actually outside the box itself. No comb filtering off-axis either, says North, because of the centering effect of that middle speaker.
So this Riva Festival is one of two units in its WAND multiroom system so far; the other is the smaller $369 Arena, which can become portable with the addition of an optional battery pack. The Festival is firmly non-portable, weighing an impressive 6.4kg and with a fairly purposeful footprint of 36 × 20cm, and around 18cm height. Build quality is high (ADX has a strategic partnership with the massive Taiwan-based Wistron Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers) and it’s almost a shame the grille doesn’t come off, because the driver complement is fairly extraordinary — ten in all, with a two-way tweeter and woofer pairing on each of three sides, and four additional passive radiators, two at the front and we presume two at the rear.
Connections to the rear look simple enough — optical in, minijack analogue in, a USB slot and the mains socket. But the bulk of your music playing options are wireless — indeed, so many technologies does the Festival include that the list of embedded third-party licenses fills two pages in the excellent colour Quick Start Guide.
Among these is Chromecast, so that if you’re already using Google Home for anything else, that app is a fine and easy way to do initial set-up. With the Riva plugged in, open Google Home, there’s the Festival already identified, connect, set the Wi-Fi, get the update (a couple of minutes) and done. Prefer Apple to Google? There’s also AirPlay, so your iOS device can use ‘Set up new AirPlay speaker’ with almost similar ease. You could just about use the Festival without a smart device, using the top controls to select analogue or optical input and control the volume, etc. There’s also Bluetooth, so you could just send from your device point to point.
Playback options, then, are legion! — AirPlay, Bluetooth, Chromecast and Spotify Connect, plus from the WAND app (see overleaf) you can have on-device Wi-Fi streaming, DLNA streaming from network shares, and USB-A music playback. It plays file formats from MP3 and WMA up to Apple Lossless, FLAC and PCM/WAV, with high-res capability up to 24-bit/192kHz. The USB slot can also be used to charge your devices.
We’d sat the Festival on our most solid of desks, looking purposeful beside a pillar, listening casually to many selections from Spotify delivered by our spoken order to a nearby Google Home — “Hey Google, shuffle Crowded House on the Riva”. A few seconds later, off it would go. It was clearly delivering a large and scaleable sound, its bass deep and full — perhaps a little too full, we thought. But we did have it tucked in a corner, where the various side speakers weren’t fully free to do their stuff.
Bringing it out into free space transformed the bass from deep and rumbly to clean and nimble. It served Leonard Cohen’s Going Home absolutely perfectly — rich yet edgy, his vocal full and singular while characteristically wry.
Its handling of detail was equally impressive. For Chick Corea’s Australia concerto it lent detail to the opening percussion, full dynamics to the piano, and each element of band and orchestra was properly separated in an overall space. This is indeed something more than stereo, as was evident by the odd result when we AirPlayed the Riva a basic L-R channel test. We decided not to get geeky on exactly what Trillium was doing and instead just enjoy the sound, which we felt didn’t so much spread out into space beyond the Riva’s position, it was more about the spacious and detailed image the Riva created around its location, a fine-etched performance holograph.
But how it could belt out the most surprising music choices. We keep to hand The Teardrop Explodes’ Colours Fly Away because of its tendency to leanness in a clinical system. But here — OMG! It burst forth with a deep bass resonance to the intro and chorus lines, tighter and full roving bass to the higher verses — most definitely to the benefit of the music, as if the Festival released under-EQd bass that was waiting to get out. Get out those thin 1980s tracks and rejoice. Dan Hartman’s Instant Replay was another such, served here with the bounciest of bass while the vocal emerged with an impressively hi-fi treatment and a real sense of space across the mix.
And the richness of tone! It brought depth and delight to the bass on kd lang’s The Air that I Breathe. It didn’t quite grab the lowest note of Neil Young’s Walk With Me in the thirties of hertz; the Riva held on to the F, dipping out just around 40Hz, above the big D. That’s extraordinary support for a standalone speaker, and it’s certainly able to drive a beat while keeping bass tight — the drum and bass dimension was much enhanced to the benefit of Dion’s I Read It in the Rolling Stone, another track that normally carries a ‘Warning, it shrieks’ sign, but not here — the most loaded we’ve ever heard it.
Perhaps this points to the Riva’s balance being not entirely hi-fi natural — there seemed a small peak and then a dip in the hundreds of hertz, but it was hard to analyse given drivers all over the thing (and Trillium’s EQ might even vary algorithically according to the input). But whether it’s emphasis or optimisation, it’s downright enjoyable and never excessive, serving rather than distorting, in a mix that really was making musical magic.
A pertinent comparison is, of course, with the Sonos Play:5, similar size, similar price. So we set them up next to each other. The Play:5 created a larger sense of bass, but clearly over-emphasised — the Neil Young bass notes simply created nasty noises. The Riva did its stuff while managing to sound more natural and more musical.
We enjoyed all this from a good few metres away. Given its size, its preference for free space, and those side speakers which are crucial to its imaging, this is perhaps not a speaker to sit desktop in front of you. In isolation, the frontal sound is less spatial, almost mono until you’re far enough away for room effect to enhance its ‘virtual speakers’. And cornered up it really had gone rumblefest at times, the rolling toms on the ‘Before the Dawn’ take of Kate Bush Hounds of Love so overpoweringly rumbly in the Riva’s tumbly that we were searching for a bass control. But there is none, and the app is refreshingly free of the usual and usually redundant EQ modes — Trillium perhaps being too much of a set algorithm to be messing with. There is one other sound option in the WAND app — ‘Power’ — but this is designed for parties rather than subtlety. Its effect is interesting in that it seems designed to create the highest possible combined output from its drivers and to hell with the soundstaging, perfect choices! And of course the two types of Festival speaker can gang up in a multiroom eco system so you can have several going in one room, or all through the house, if you like.
Indeed, the Riva app is very simple, especially in terms of music delivery. It’s hard to see why you’d use it to play music stored on your phone itself when you can leverage the Festival’s multiple streaming methods to stick with whatever apps you already prefer. Cast to it, AirPlay to it, Bluetooth to it. The app can play from USB files plugged in and can access DLNA music servers on your network, initially not in any clever or nippy way, though much improved (above grabs) after an update came through, quickly playing MP3, AAC, WMA, Apple Lossless and FLAC and WAV to 24/192, though apparently not able to handle AIFF or DSD.
Once we’d set up nearby the second Riva WAND speaker, the Arena, we returned to the Riva app to group them, and were told to do so in the Google Home app. We did so, and the Riva app played to the new group from our device or a music server (it managed 24/96 in this way but 24/192 doubled up was too much for our Wi-Fi to handle) — oddly the USB and physical inputs disappeared as playback options for grouped playback. Nor did it offer separate volume controls (other than by, heavens, actually walking over and touching them). Spotify cast to the grouped Festivals fine; TuneIn stubbornly refused until the speakers were ungrouped again.
Another path, and indeed our preference for flawless multi-play playback, was to use either our Mac or Apple’s Remote app on iPad to control our main iTunes collection and AirPlay songs to both Rivas at once. This worked flawlessly and perfectly synced between the two. AirPlay 2 will presumably increase the ease for iOS users to group speakers in this way.
So don’t think of this as a new rival to existing multiroom systems. Bluetooth, Google Home and AirPlay integration allows the Festival to fit into any home, while we loved its large and exuberant but always musical sound. Mission accomplished, we think, Mr Farr.
Inputs: minijack analogue, optical digital, USB, Chromecast, Bluetooth, AirPlay, Wi-Fi