Amedeo Schembri is the designer and proprietor of Viva Audio Devices of Italy. Combine his homeland's panache and high style with its Dionysian penchant for unabashedly embracing the senses. Add to this heady blend the Mozartean call name his parents gave him. No genius is required to appreciate how his company was predestined to carry the Viva moniker in its banner. One arrives spontaneously also at a predilection for certain core qualities: contemporary and unique cosmetics eschewing black squareness like the Bubonic plague; saturated sonics spoon-fed on the emotional romanticism of Italian and Wagnerian opera.
Particularly if the hapless interrogator turned out to be Teutonic like your scribe here, attempts at ferreting out secret engineering data about design parameters and circuit details from an Italian - especially one who believes in the seniority of heart over mind, of ears over exacting test gear - will find themselves bound for an inevitable destination of both terminal frustration and heartwarming inspiration. As surely as a derailed freight train looses steam before it self-destructs, there'll be frustration galore since precious little hard information will be forthcoming. Still, any authentic music lover without a notebook will derive inspiration from this very fact. After all, such insistence upon the non-essentialness of technicalities tends to butter us up like a Holiday turkey ready to pleasure the palate.
Here is Amadeo's response to my journalistic and very Germanic inquisition. I have edited only for grammar in an attempt to maintain the unique meter of his non-native cadence:
"Our philosophy is of pushing us to use the electronic configurations that drive us to the most complete perception and deep feeling of musicality, according to what we hear and feel during live music. Personally, I have and still deal with live music and recordings (of mostly non-amplified performances). I'm used to staying in close quarters with the musicians while they play. This creates the impetus for what we do. There are many musicians and clients who help us in our listening evaluations. This process is very important for our cultural improvement. We engage in it with the mood of trying not to be opinionated about particular techniques, configurations and components, in the sense that we use these mechanical instruments only for the final results. When we discover something that is better than what we currently use or previously believed to be superior, we change. Particularly with our amplifiers and recording equipment, this led to the use of tubes about six years ago, after having been involved with the design of solid state gear for many years prior. Looking at the circuitry, one can be led to thinking that ours is "old" technology: direct heated triodes, single-ended, no feedback, tube rectification, point to point wiring, very short circuit paths etc. but we care a lot about how we apply this. In our kind of application, every unbalance in the areas of work, power supply blending, the choice of components etc can be a disaster, due to the fact that we find these kinds of circuits to be very linear, fast and very revealing."
About the subject of our review, the Sintesi integrated, Amadeo volunteered only this:
"The voltage supply of the Sintesi is not so high, 650V, with a very fast power supply. Though many designers don't agree with that, it is non-regulated since regulation distorts the power supply energy delivery and we find that it sounds better this way. The power is 12 Watts RMS. There is a direct input that permits the use of an external preamp, jumping the first stage, volume control and selector, permitting a future improvement in case of a good preamp. The components are not common audiophile-grade but chosen and blended for the intended sonic behavior."
One senior chief in Amadeo's war party of golden-eared listener/collaborateurs -- and thus quasi co-designers -- is Terry Combs of Sound Mind Audio/Viva Musica of Dallas, Texas. My friend Brian Kurtz' eponymous Sound Mind Audio of Austin is a direct offshoot of Terry's older establishment. Over the years, BK has shared with me numerous stories about Terry's impeccable system setup credentials. Apparently many a manufacturer in years past has contracted for Terry's expertise during the setup of their analogue front-ends during CES shows. BK and Terry further share a longstanding fondness for the huge SoundLab full-range electrostats, in Terry's instance now challenged as object of primary affections by Avantgarde Duos and Trios.
BK's audio business routinely sees him visit Dallas where he stops over at Terry's to compare notes, harangue the audiophile bull like two master matadors and enjoy the resident system. Kurtz -- former manufacturer's rep, ex national sales manager for Tara Labs, latter-day audio enthusiast incarnate - always describes this system in the hushed voice of a pilgrim who suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself in the towering presence of the Almighty. Seeing that he runs Ultimate 1 Sound Labs himself, powered by Red Rose Music, Accuphase, Airtight electronics and of late Viva Aurora monoblocks, all this rightly suggests that Kurtz is not one to readily loose his been-there-done-that wits and fly off his handle for nothing. BK has gone ape sh-t over the Viva Sound.
Brian's mentor Terry Combs is Amadeo's US representative and thus his importer/distributor. In fact, by virtue of its dialed-to the-max nature and all-out nuts-and-bolts-accounted-for completion, Terry's personal system is ground zero for all new Viva product development. Amadeo regularly departs his beloved homeland of pasta, gelato and high culture for - without Debbie -- Dallas' flatter appeal as a frequent flyer beneficiary. He tests modifications, develops new models and brainstorms with a like-minded music lover in what has become his home-away-from-home, secondary aural laboratory and reference environment.
BK was directly responsible for today's review. He acted as my initial go-between with Terry by vouchsafing professional review passage for Viva's product that has not really participated much in the usual audiophile critics' circus. Naturally, I was strongly motivated to feel as enthused about the Sintesi as my friend Brian. However, my first bout with the Sintesi was less of an orgiastic love fest and more of a somewhat syrupy, slow, dark but still very voluptuous encounter. This, as it turned out, was due to a faulty rectifier tube that worked just fine electrically but acted like gelatin in a soup - things thickened, glazed over and congested. Not suspecting that the Sintesi suffered from thermionic hot flashes, I wrote a review based on those impressions. Upon fact-checking the copy, Terry Combs cried foul and requested a revisit. I dropped off the first Sintesi with the original tubes at CES to give Terry the benefit of the doubt. Sure enough, when he powered the unit up, he heard exactly what I had heard. He swapped rectifier tubes, which presumably cured the problem (I was not present during this test) and then loaned the amp to a speaker manufacturer who apparently enjoyed fabulous tradeshow sound with it. Duly committed to return to Taos with a Sintesi in the passenger's seat, I took another listen once I got home.
Houston, We're Good To Go
First things first. The Sintesi is built like a tank and weighs in accordingly. It's literally finished like a fine motorcar, in immaculately applied automotive lacquer available in a variety of designer colors. The first review unit was outfitted in very becoming metallic silver that seemed hot-swapped from an older Merc or Porsche, while the second unit was decked out in a very posh deep-hued red. With its "V for Victory, or Viva la dolce Vita" black-lacquered, slightly curved massive front panel, the i-dot of the flush-mounted decal doubling as red power indicator, the Sintesi is the Aragon of tube amplifiers (remember the original Mondial designs?) and a paragon of cosmetic and constructional class. It is also dead quiet, both mechanically and electrically, surviving the 103dB affront of the Avantgarde Duos without flinching, humming or hissing, and that with yours truly sticking his swollen head inside the midrange horn as far as it would fit.
Four line-level inputs convert the Sintesi into an integrated amp with active line stage, while a direct input bypasses the preamp stage, volume control and selector switch. True dual-mono, with the transformers hiding to the sides of the central tube forest in two longitudinal casings, the glow-in-the-dark contingent consists of --front to back and cleanly paired and lined up military style behind each other -- two Sylvania 5U4G rectifiers, two Svetlana SV 572-3 direct-heated power triodes, two Ruby Tube 6SN7GTC drivers and two Sovtek 6SL7GT preamp tubes.
With 12 watts RMS per channel, the Sintesi is a classic zero-feedback, low but not micro powered SET that, from very first turn-on - this second unit was fully broken-in as was the first - gushed of thermionic romance, exuding the famed triode palpability like an exotic dancer in radiating heat. Its top-end was a mite reticent to give it that burnished, nearly over-developed and deeply saturated midrange quality. What little I know and have shared in my intro about Amedeo and Terry, it went far to confirm my own listening impressions. Like a woman who masterfully applies subtle makeup to enhance her features while hiding or downplaying minor flaws, the Sintesi is quite obviously voiced to sound gorgeous. And make no mistake, it does sound unapologetically gorgeous. From the glowing vocal range to a very strong, every so slightly ripe midbass, punchy yet weighty extended low bass and elegant treble, the Sintesi epitomizes an idealized sound of a bygone era - when villains were purely evil rather than complex, leading ladies had elegance rather than a loose mouth, and tube sound presented a clear-cut alternative to the faster but thinner, technically more honest but emotionally much less appealing transistor version.
Houston, Anybody Listening?
By settling on the 572 as his output triode of choice, Amedeo wedded himself to a particular sonic flavor intrinsic to this tube that has seen nowhere near as much use as the venerable 300B or high-power 845. As viva-ciously implemented as here, it recalls a lower-power version of the 845 as I've enjoyed it in the Bel Canto Design SETi40. Similar to the SETi, the Sintesi's timbral girth was subtly enhanced to make for a very rich, creamy yet still realistic presentation that only by comparison to the Art Audio PX-25 and triode-morphed Audiopax Model 88 appeared a bit slower and not as lit up in the treble. It traded that last iota of inner detail, of snap and spunk, for romance - the lover's full moon rather than the astronomer's crater-ridden science object.
On copasetic material like female vocals, operatic or Jazz, World or choral, the Sintesi stood for masterful seduction. On massive and convoluted material like Khatchaturian's orchestral Spartacus suite, the minor surface sheen of thermionic saturation caused a slight loss of intelligibility, as though the textural weave wasn't quite fine enough to unravel all individual threads. On high energy material like authentic flamenco, Latin brass/percussion fare, Techno et al, the Sintesi lacked the sense of raw drive and edge of aliveness, that certain tension which, like healthy muscle tone or the famed pace & rhythm thang, holds things together tightly and communicates artistic charge and musical energy.
For all its gloriousness of tone, for all its saturated richness, the Sintesi's presentation didn't communicate as well as the somewhat leaner but more propulsive and half-as-expensive PX-25. With the review pair of Audiopax Model 88s gone and my tax-return personal pair in Audi Kaktus Grun Mica not here yet, I could no longer compare the second Sintesi directly to the Brazilian designs. Since I've done extensive comparisons between them and the Art Audio SET, I feel very comfortable including them on the other and far side of this ledger. It's in this domain of reaching across space, of drawing the listener into the aural event with the intensity of emotional projection, the snap, crackle and pop of live music intact, that the Sintesi didn't raise my hackles. Its intensity lived instead in the tonal domain, inviting me to become a fascinated observer rather than an overwhelmed participant.
Curiously, the half-as-powerful PX-25 - either by virtue of its gain structure or higher input sensitivity - required much lower preamp output levels. On the Bel Canto Design Pre1's display, it occupied a range considerably below that of the Sintesi when used as stand-alone and then polarity-inverting amp. On my 93dB sensitive Triangles, the 12wpc Sintesi required levels in the upper 80s to lower 90s range. This indicated that I was about to run out of steam with the Pre1 that maxes out at 100. This only occasionally caused the wish for more headroom, on raunchy tracks that asked for priming the pump. Still, it suggests that a high-gain tube preamp would be a better mate for the Sintesi than my Bel Canto unit.
Of course, it is doubtful that many listeners would use the Sintesi as an amplifier only. Why spend $9,500 and only use half your prized catch's functionality? When used as integrated as its maker obviously intended, the Sintesi only further emphasized the character thus far described in amp-only mode. It became a bit denser still, a mite slower again yet tonally even more radiant. I'd describe it as a very well implemented, mechanically utterly noise-free, somewhat traditionally voiced, moderately euphonic integrated tube amplifier. When compared to the Art Audio PX-25 at $5,000 (add $200 for attenuator), it seems rather on the expensive side but does add three inputs. Compared to the equivalently priced Audiopax monos, it offers 12 versus 30 watts, a stereo versus mono chassis, an active preamp stage versus none, and what I perceive as deliberately contoured added harmonic distortion versus de Lima's attempt at reducing this distortion.
The Sintesi will certainly gift prospective owners with contemporary yet super-elegant cosmetics, very serious high-class appeal and the aural equivalent of a well-aged Sherry: golden in color, slightly thick when swirled in the glass, but providing layers and layers of glorious (timbral) bouquet. If that fits your aural prescription, the Viva Sintesi should heat your blood to dangerous levels. Incidentally, the integral active line-stage provides plenty of gain. Unlike going via the direct input, it will make you quickly forget that you've only got 12 watts on tap.
Houston Shut Up, We Are Enjoying The Ride!
Not everyone is bound for the same aural destination as this writer. Neither, as Heraclitus reminds us, do components, in different systems, ever interact exactly the same way. What's more, an octal-valved amp as the Sintesi becomes prime playground to engage in the old ritual of tube rolling. In fact, together with the original amp, Terry had sent me seven different pairs of matched preamp and driver tubes to play with, from Sylvania 6SN7GT/VT231 to Electron 5691, Sylvania 6SL7GT/VT229 to Philips JAN 5691, from brown-base CBS 5692 to black-base Raytheon 6SN7GT and GE 6SN7/5692. And this only covered the amp's thermionic front end. Someone even madder or more daring could swap the power and rectifier tubes as well.
There might be further considerations. I was unable to personally verify them since my resident stable of speaker loads doesn't house a single example of a reactive and challenging impedance or sub-optimal sensitivity for low-power tube amps. Both BK and Terry Combs use Viva amps to drive the big SoundLabs. BK reports that while ultimate output levels - perfectly adequate in his environment - are not unlimited, he hasn't heard better bass control from his panels yet, nor, for that matter, more ravishing sonics. The SoundLabs are traditionally very SET-unfriendly loads. The fact that the Viva devices can control them speaks sufficiently about their abilities.
There also is the new Viva 300B-based integrated amplifier. It's said to not quite incarnate the typical Viva house sound, i.e. it's apparently not as luscious or full-bodied. Translated, this could signify a more agile and energetic mien to someone with my preferences, while devotees of the opposite pole might call it leaner or tonally less developed. Also, owners of Avantgardes like Terry can adjust their speakers to optimally complement the voicing of the Sintesi, something that regular speakers like my new Triangles -- without crossover and bass gain adjustments -- of course don't provide for. (Incidentally, the Ventis 222 is quite an improvement in bass control and pitch definition over the original xs model. This presumably is a function of lower distortion due to the new flared port, and certain internal xover refinements.)
In the final analysis, today's careful hedge betting reminds us again why High-End audio is as populated with brands as it is: unlike sight, our aural faculties leave far more room for individual interpretation. Accordingly, more options are required to satisfy our unique orientations and requirements. The Viva Sintesi is a highly sophisticated tube amplifier from the land of high style, Italy. Like secret dreams of Venice, of age-old Renaissance paintings, of bespoke shoes and sexy motorcars, the Sintesi is an object endowed with the obvious imprimatur and personality of its maker. Based on its performance, I'm certain that Amedeo absolutely adores the sheer beauty of music. It shows. While the Sintesi might lack the vitality or final word in resolution that I personally crave, it never failed to sound gorgeous. And let's face it, there is a lot to be said for that in our often hectic and anything-but world.
Type: Single-ended, zero feedback, transformer-coupled, dual mono, direct-heated triode
Operation: pure Class A
Power: 12 watts RMS per channel
Tube complement (two each): 572, 5U4G, 6SN7, and 6SL7
· Very direct signal path with the shortest possible stage-to-stage connections
· Mil-spec paper and oil filter capacitors
· Resin impregnated paper coupling capacitors
· Signal and critical power wiring is pure copper with silk insulation
Dimensions: 16.8" x 9.5" x 20.5" (WxHxD)
Weight: 75 lbs.
Distributed in North America by Viva Musica
Voice: (214) 327-2073