Right Down the Middle: The Riva Turbo X Portable Bluetooth Speaker

I walked into a darkened room at T.H.E. Show Newport earlier this year. I heard music being played...but I didn't see the speakers right away; the room looked empty. And then I saw the little Riva Turbo ($299) alone on a small shelf.

What the heck! How is this thing filling the room?

Ah! The power of someone who knows how to do a good demo. This thing sounded great. Unfortunately, when I got it home, I could never quite replicate that magic.

I've spent quite a bit of time talking to the Riva Turbo's chief designer, Donald North. You might recognize the name, Don is relatively well know for his DNA Stratus 2A3 directly heated triode tube headphone amp. Well it's a long way fromthat to the technical gizmology going on at ADX—Riva's parent company and an ODM designer for numerous high profile consumer electronics manufacturers like Vizio, Westinghouse, Sharp, Hitachi and more. Evidently, ADX felt a little creatively stifled producing designes for others, and decided to make their own in-house brand to explore some product ideas more deeply.

My first conversations with Don was about trying to replicate the experience I had at T.H.E. Show. He agreed the processing effect of the Surround mode was somewhat subtle, and I quickly jumped in to say I'd much rather have subtle than whiz-bang artificial effects. He explained that getting the surround effect is largely a task of finding just the right position of the speaker in the room, and that it was particularly designed for the acoustics of a medium sized room.

Armed with that knowledge I brought the speaker into my bedroom and played around with positioning. I found—as Don had assured me—that placing the speaker in a corner (not too deeply) and having some reflective walls to either side worked best. Next best was with a flat, reflective surface a little behind the Turbo. This did indeed allow a bit more spacial quality to the sound heard...but it never did quite get to the experience I had at the show, dag nab it.

On the other hand, projecting a 3D image is not really what I'm looking for in a bluetooth speaker. What I really want is something that doesn't sound like it's modulating the bottom of a 5 gallon plastic paint bucket. The horrific honk and coloration of plastic enclosures can, at its worst, make speech close to unintelligible.

The Riva Turbo nails it in this performance category. It simply, and competently, fills a room with good sound. The bass is not well extended, but it's also not the one-note blurt heard from most BT speakers. Mid-range is even and nicely natural sounding. Treble is articulate and, very thankfully, inoffensive.

The Riva Turbo web site does give the impression that it was designed to take BT speaker listening to a level that gives listeners a taste of real speaker listening. That seems a bit of a stretch to me. (I need to say that Riva is far from alone in claims like this and, in fact, I thought their marketing copy was more even handed than most.) But making a 9"x4"x4" box that doesn't sound colored and which competently fills a room is surely taking the lowly boom-box to another level. So yes, the Riva Turbo is a very good sounding BT speaker for its price and type.

Where the Riva really takes an astonishing step forward, in my mind, is how well it plays LOUD! I don't listen to anything at loud levels, so I didn't notice this characteristic at first, but I always test BT speakers outside in my back yard to see how well they project when they're played at full volume. In most cases this test doesn't last very long...distortion is annoying.

The Riva Turbo on the other hand would play really loud and sound very clean. There is a "Turbo" button on the top of the player used to dynamically compress the bass response below around 140Hz to prevent distortion from extreme driver excursion. Don tells me that the Turbo mode DSP only cuts in on the top few volume clicks and does nothing to the signal otherwise. Users will note a volume change when engaging Turbo mode; this occurs simply due to a shift of the volume table to allow for higher max volume in Turbo mode.

Because of this ability to play loud cleanly, the Riva Turbo would make for a great BT speaker on a construction work site or other applications where sound is desired to fill a large space. I know of no other portable BT speaker of a convenient size that can do this as well as the Turbo.

I've mentioned the Turbo uses DSP to limit bass distortion in Turbo mode, but the digital signal processing is actually active in all modes. (Yes, the Aux In is digitized for processing.) The primary job of the DSP in the Turbo is to seamlessly create left, right, and center channels for the Turbo X's speakers in those positions. In devices with only left and right speakers, you can get a comb-filter effect from the mono component of the audio signal being reproduced by the two speakers separated by some distance. It is heard as a "swishy" sound in the treble as you move you head laterally back and forth.

The Turbo X's "Trillium" DSP filter synthesizes a center channel from the mono-component of the stereo signal, and removes some of it from the side channels to reduce comb filter effects. It can't be turned off, so I couldn't A/B the process, but my experience was that the speaker sound was always rock steady no matter its placement or my position relative to the device.

Riva_Turbo_Photo_Top

The Riva Turbo X uses illuminated capacitive touch buttons. From left to right: power; surround; bluetooth; mute; volume down; volume up; and turbo mode.

The Surround mode adds some DSP to create a bit of reverb and phase trickery to expand the image. I would characterize this effect as subtle and effective to varying degrees depending on the room and placement. After a while I just basically left it on—sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn't, but it never seemed to harm the listening experience.

There is one more mode that's not talked about much in the marketing materials: Phono Mode. This mode is intended for use with turntables that have built in phono stages. Usually these devices have fairly low output levels. The Aux input of the Turbo has an AGC (automatic gain control) that is accomplished by the DSP. Incoming line-level signals between 500mV and 2V are level controlled (about 12dB of automatic adjustability internally) in order to align the steps of the volume table with desired output SPL levels at each step. Because the all-in-one turntables tend to have output levels below 500mV, placing the Turbo X in phono mode will adjust the level upward an additional, and fixed (disables the internal DSP AGC), 6dB. If you are using a smartphone headphone jack as a line input to the Turbo X and find the volume is not loud enough, you can switch to Phono mode to increase the gain. To enter phono mode simply hold down the "+" and "-" buttons simultaneously for three seconds. The phono mode is not designed to take signals directly from the tonearm cartridge, and does not have RIAA EQ.

The Turbo has no tone controls. Don said they spent a lot of time tuning it with various sources and volumes and believes most users would inadvertently degrade their listening experience if given too much control. The geek in me wants buttons to push, but with this type of product, and sensible well engineered tuning, I tend to feel my inner-geek needs to be told to shut up and just play the music. I fundamentally had no issues with the tonal balance of the Turbo X other than wanting more bass. Of course, physics says, "Sorry, no bass for you with such a small box." I thought it actually does bass quite well given it's compact size—doesn't stop me from wanting more bass, though.

When bluetooth is connected to a smartphone, the Turbo X can act as a speaker phone. The Turbo X does have some noise canceling circuitry for the mics, and the reproduced audio does have a different DSP filter applied for speech intelligibility with phone calls. I did make a few phone calls and found it a capable feature.

Switching between Bluetooth and Aux In is automatic, but a little un-intuitive. Basically the BT source must be paused or not playing, in which case the Turbo X will automatically switch fron BT to Aux In and the BT button light will switch from blue to green.

A couple of other features on the Turbo X seem a bit counter-intuitive to me as well. First, there is a proximity sensor that will "wake up" the Turbo when your hand gets near it, and the power button will light momentarily. This feature exists so that if you're in bed at night and fumble in the dark, the power button will light so that you can find it. It's a decent feature, but initially I wasn't sure if I had turned it on or not until I got used to the button lighting sequence.

Riva_Turbo_Photo_RearPanel

Rear panel controls and connections left to right: 3.5mm aux in jack; USB data in from computer for firmware updates only (can not be used for USB audio out from computer); battery charge/power button; USB jack for charging smartphones (again, no USB audio); 19VDC power input jack.

The other odd control is the battery on/off button on the rear panel. Basically, this button controls whether the battery is connected to the charging circuit and is available for power when unplugged from the wall. I did have an instance where I disconnected from the wall, but having forgotten to push the battery button in while connected to the AC and found I didn't have a charge. Bottom line: battery management is up to the user. When plugged into the wall, once the unit is done charging (battery light goes from flashing while it charges, to steady indicating a full charge) it's good practice to turn the battery circuit off. Managing the number of charge cycles the battery goes through will extend battery life.

The Turbo has two USB connectors on the rear panel. The small connector is used to connect it to a computer for firmware updates, and is not capable of computer audio playback via USB. The larger USB connection is available for charging smartphones.

Riva_Turbo_Photo_InCase

The cordura Turbo X Travel Bag ($29.99) is separately available, and includes a pocket for all cables and power supply. I highly recommend it if you're going to be transporting the Turbo X for portable use.

Summary
The Riva Turbo X is not some amazing breakthrough that will have audiophiles agog with its stunning acoustic performance. Physics says, "No. Don't be silly" What the Riva Turbo is, is an outstandingly competent performer for a portable BT speaker of this size. It's got DSP, and AGC, and all sorts of interesting technologies, but their not there to wow you with whizz-bang effects. Rather, the Turbo X is very intelligently designed, including some novel and advanced features, and all come together to simply deliver much better sonic performance than a box this size has any right to.

While it doesn't have monster bass, it does deliver a solid, undistorted response down, to my ears, into the 60-80Hz region. More important, by far it seems to me, is that it doesn't have the typical "plastic box" colorations found in most devices this size. Response is mid-centric, and quite competent. Treble is articulate, but not hot or strident.

The Riva Turbo X can play very loud and clear. If you are looking for a job-site speaker that can be heard over a fairly large area, don't mistake the Turbo's small size for a lack of volume; this thing can crank it out!

I've not posted a Wall of Fame page for bluetooth speakers yet...but I will soon. And when I do, the Riva Turvbo X will be on it. This is an outstanding BT speaker at a very fair price, that will confidently and competently fill a room—and more—with enjoyable music. A strong and solid recommendation from me, yupper.

Resources
Riva home page and Turbo X product page.
Parent company ADX.
Head-Fi reviews and thread here.
Changstar thread here.

COMPANY INFO
Riva Audio
support@rivaaudio.com
844-GET RIVA

COMMENTS
Audioaddict's picture

The Marshall stanmore does a very nice job of having good bass for the size, something I was genuinely impressed with. A clean and prominent vocal range, and a good clean innofensive treble. The stanmore doesnt do electric guitars, female vocals and upper midrange as well. The Riva audio might fare better for good midrange but if you want a BT speaker with bass get the stanmore. Hopefully you'll come across one soon.

oluv's picture

Aiwa Exos-9 will blow the Stanmore away with bass, if bass is your main intent, besides the Aiwa is portable and cheaper as well.
Even more bass (boosted bass but also some nice lower bass down to 20hz) can be got out of the Beolit 15, but overall the Beolit sounds a bit artificial, also due to their half-assed 360° sound with just 1 main driver and 3 tweeters, not sure how they get proper stereo signal out of this combination.

Guitarist9273's picture

So from what you've heard, how does it compare to other Bluetooth speakers? UE's boom offerings, Fugu's stuff, the Bose products, the Marshall stanmore, etc.?

HammerSandwich's picture
Quote:

What I really want is something that doesn't sound like it's modulating the bottom of a 5 gallon plastic paint bucket.

Right on, Tyll! Everyone knows that kind of thing's only good for a subwoofer.

JC77's picture

One of my favorite mini bluetooth speakers is the Soundlink mini. I've tested quite a few in retail stores (not the idea testing location, I know) and it is simply the best for it's size.