As is my wont, I woke up early on my first morning in Treviso, Italy. My presence here, an extension of my week in Munich covering High End 2023, was arranged by Steve Jain of Fidelity Imports. A US distributor of high-end audio gear, Fidelity represents Opera Loudspeakers, Unison Research, Gold Note, and Audia Flight—all of which I’d be visiting over the course of the week, along with several other journalists and one dealer. Jain had arranged this trip so that we could gain some familiarity with these Italian brands.
We’d taken a train from Munich down through the Alps into Northern Italy. Here we were in Treviso, home of Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, on the outskirts of Venice. We were staying at the Hotel Crystal, an older, beautifully maintained establishment full of classical marble tile and mahogany trim.
As I stumbled around the lobby looking for the restaurant so I could grab a coffee, an extremely well-dressed gentleman who looked like he was straight out of a Federico Fellini film intercepted me and inquired as to my needs. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian, but coffee is a universal language. He walked me over to a serious-looking espresso machine and went to work.
“An Americano?” I inquired as he was preparing to pull the shot.
He gave me a pitying little smile and looked at me as if I were a child displaying very poor judgment. “No. Italiano,” he said, and he handed me one of the best espressos I’ve ever had.
I’ve been aware of both Unison and Opera for many years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to review any products from either brand, So Jain’s outing was already making good sense. On various occasions, I’ve seen Unison’s luxurious tube amplifiers and Opera’s speakers, which feature walnut side panels and tightly stretched leather baffles, and I’ve always been curious about them. But Italy’s just so far away—yet here I was, in a hotel where Sophia Loren had probably stayed. So after one espresso and two cappuccinos, we were off.
Our day started with Bartolomeo and Riccardo Nasta, the owners of Unison and Opera, taking us on a drive through rich countryside covered with vineyards and hazelnut orchards. Opera was founded by Giovanni Nasta, Barto and Riccardo’s father, who later purchased Unison Research. When the senior Nasta passed in 2020, the two brothers stepped up to run the two companies.
Our first stop was at Arte & Wood, a large cabinet and furniture maker that’s local to Opera. I’ve seen this sort of arrangement before at DALI in Denmark. Really, what is a speaker besides a well-made cabinet? And what sort of company has the most experience building cabinets? Do I need to drive this point home?
Here we had a chance to see how A&W builds curved cabinets out of several layers of MDF and veneer that are bonded and formed with glue, heat, and high pressure in a huge, custom-made jig.
I noted a couple of interesting design points. First, these cabinets are seriously well built, with multiple horizontal braces and thick front panels, both of which point to a very rigid structure. Second, the insides of the cabinets are veneered with the same wood as the outside in order to equalize stresses on the whole enclosure. The braces and front panels are made using Arte & Wood’s seven CNC machines.
A&W spans several buildings, one of which is dedicated to the completion of Opera speakers. While A&W has several CNC machines that construct the cabinets proper, much of the construction of Opera speakers is done by hand. Here, the curved, laminated side panels are finished in the lacquer booths and then polished—first by machine and then by hand with increasingly fine compounds—after which they’re attached to the main MDF cabinets.
Prior to this, the leather is glued and stapled to the cabinets, again by hand.
Opera uses Scan-Speak and SEAS drivers in its speakers. There’s no magic to the drivers or choice thereof. Careful selection of components, well-designed crossovers and enclosures, and lots of listening are at work here.
What turned out to be of paramount importance about the A&W experience was Unison and Opera’s insistence on sourcing components from local companies. Combined with the supply-chain issues that have affected many companies, a tax on parts from outside the EU makes the local-sourcing effort financially worthwhile. But more than that, the Nasta brothers just radiate pride in their products, and I think it’s fair to say that a verifiable “Made in Italy” provenance is worth a lot to them. After all, would you be ok with your Lamborghini having seats with leather sourced from anywhere other than Italy? Made in Italy has value, but that value is directly related to the pride and effort that’s injected into each product by genuine, verifiable Italians like Barto and Riccardo.
A short pause to explain something of vital importance when traveling in Italy and accepting the hospitality of Italians: be prepared to eat long and hard. Lunches span two hours; dinners often last four hours. As hasty, uncultured North Americans, we’re conditioned to lunge at the bread and eat two or three pieces before loading up on appetizers cos there are more important things to do than just sit around a table.
It took me a few days to learn this lesson, as the courses kept on coming. Bruschetta (several kinds) and then cheese and charcuterie usually started things off. Then at least two pasta dishes, followed by a meat dish or two, and then, more often than not, an ungodly large slab of tiramisu. With these dinners often concluding at midnight, I’d go to bed with a food baby pushing against my heart, just hoping to God I’d see the morning.
It was here in Treviso, out to lunch with the Nasta brothers, that I had the best steak of my life (and I’ve had a few). A giant T-bone sliced and served medium rare. Oh my.
And wine between courses. Several kinds of wine–one white and usually at least two reds. So at both lunch and dinner for a solid week, I was drinking several glasses of wine, but the huge food buffer seemed to stop the alcohol from getting into my system, so I guess it was OK.
Back at the Unison/Opera facility, we did a walkabout of the electronics production floor. The circuit boards are made and stuffed at a thoroughly modern facility located nearby, which we had a chance to tour. Barto told us with pride that every part is sourced locally except for tubes and the aluminum front panels.
Once the circuit boards are delivered to Unison, final assembly begins. Although the company offers a number of hybrid integrated amplifiers (i.e., a mix of solid-state devices with tubes), Unison is most famous for its pure-tube amps, and we saw plenty of both as they cycled their way through the well-organized production line.
Each component is hand-assembled, and each finished unit is individually burned-in and tested on an Audio Precision analyzer. Every amplifier is further auditioned with headphones to ensure it’s working correctly.
As I wandered the factory, I felt that it was vitally important that I touch everything. I got my nose into the backside of the company’s largest integrated amplifier—the dual-mono Absolute 845 SE—and was thrilled to see that the guts are mirror-imaged in a pair. This sort of detail is undoubtedly more difficult to accomplish, and likely not overtly noticeable from outside of the amp, but from my viewpoint, it shows a pride in design and construction.
These are beautifully made amplifiers, with tidy wire routing and a clean, well-ordered parts layout.
Back at the Unison/Opera facility, we did a whole bunch of listening sessions. On one of the upper floors, the company has built a good-sounding room with three comfy chairs and plenty of space around the speakers.
We started off with the big guys: the top-of-the-line Grand Callas loudspeakers, driven by the Unico 90 hybrid integrated amp. This combination was juicy, rich, and full of texture, with a delicate, restrained top end.
Next up were these big retro-looking speakers that I’d spied earlier downstairs. With their 15″ woofers and huge horn-loaded compression drivers, they looked voluptuous and pneumatic. And driven by the new Simply 845 integrated amplifier, they were a hill of fun. The sound here was dramatically different from the Grand Callas—fuller on the bottom, with a slightly cupped-out midrange and airy, crystalline highs.
We also had a chance to listen to a comparison between the Opera Callas monitor and an unfinished prototype of a new speaker—an upgraded version of the Prima minimonitor from Opera’s lower-end Classica line. The Opera folks asked us not to take photographs because the prototype speakers were very rough-looking: unfinished MDF cabinets with visible screw holes, and crossovers heaped on top like an unruly updo. But the pair of prototype Prima monitors sounded fantastic: open, detailed, dynamic, and alive. The Callas monitors were wonderful in their own way—much more controlled and precise, but darker sounding and less exciting. If this prototype ends up going into production and retailing for significantly less than the Callas monitor, it might cause some trouble for its more expensive stablemate.
After we’d listened for a couple of hours, swapping around the prime seat and control of the iPad, we said our goodbyes. I went to shake Bartolomeo’s hand, but he pulled me in and gave me a big hug. I’m not a touchy sort of guy, but this felt natural. It felt like we’d become friends over the course of these two action-packed days.
As we were getting into the cars to leave the factory, Donatella Vigilante, Barto and Riccardo’s mother, told us to hold up, and she hustled back inside all in a bustle. In short order, she returned with a bag of fat, juicy lemons, which, she told us, were grown locally and should be absolutely delicious.
Once on the train heading down to Florence, I thought about that hug, and about those lemons. I’d like to say that Unison is family oriented, but that’s such a tired idiom that it’s practically worthless. Every company that’s not yet gone public is family oriented, right? No, it’s more than that. There’s a feeling of peace at the Unison/Opera headquarters, from the large, open warehouse with everything neatly in its place to the carefully racked electronics in the process of being built. Not to mention the relaxed competence of the employees, each of whom seemed to know where to be and what to do, while still making it home in time for one of those long dinners.
This feeling of organic grace is totally reflected in Opera’s speakers, which don’t sound like hi-fi and which look like they could have grown out of the ground—and in Unison Research’s amplifiers, with their rich walnut chassis and the comforting glow of their tubes. What a pleasant place and what wonderful people.
Senior Editor, SoundStage!