Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Have You Seen?


In my write-up about the unveiling of Sonus Faber’s Homage Tradition lineup of speakers, which took place on February 2 in New York City, I described acoustical engineer Paolo Tezzon and industrial designer Livio Cucuzza as being to speaker design what Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or John Lennon and Paul McCartney are to rock ’n’ roll songwriting. There’s definitely a synergy and timelessness with what the Italian speaker-making duo creates.

Laurence DickieLaurence Dickie

Drawing a rock ’n’ roll parallel to Vivid Audio’s chief designer, Laurence Dickie, the name that immediately pops to my mind is David Bowie -- both are creative, flamboyant, and avant-garde in their approaches to what they make. Pick any number of Bowie’s songs and you’ll hear in them something unique; likewise, look at the shapes of Vivid Audio’s speakers and you know there’s something very different going on with what the company makes.

Despite these two straying so far from the norm (or, perhaps, because of it), David Bowie’s songs and Laurence Dickie’s loudspeakers tend to stay relevant for a very long time. Just think, Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which was released in 1972, still receives significant airplay today and is identifiable by almost everyone; in fact, it was used in an Audi car commercial last year. Dickie’s most famous loudspeaker is the Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus, which he designed when he worked there in the 1980s through to the early ’90s. Originally released in 1992, the Nautilus is still being manufactured, making it, by a long shot, B&W’s most enduring speaker design.

In my opinion, Dickie’s second-most-famous loudspeaker isn’t the Oval B1, which he and Vivid Audio cofounder Philip Guttentag used to kick off the company in 2004 (I think that would be his third-most-famous speaker); instead, I believe it to be the Giya G1, which Vivid first displayed as a prototype at Munich’s High End in 2006 and released into the North American market in 2008.

Like everything Dickie designs, the G1 has legs -- it remains in Vivid Audio’s product line, currently retailing in the United States for $68,000 per pair. It’s hard to say if it will stay in Vivid’s line as long as the Nautilus has in B&W’s, but there’s no indication it can’t, particularly since Dickie has found no reason to completely replace it. Rather, he’s made it the beginning of a line that, in the years that followed its release, spawned the smaller, less-expensive G2, G3, and G4 models, as well as the latest one -- the G1 Spirit (or G1S for short), priced at $93,000 per pair.

Vivid Audio Giya G1 SpiritVivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit 

Nicknamed the “G1 on steroids,” the G1S’s main technical ch-ch-changes that differentiate it from the G1 include brand-new woofers that have far more powerful motor systems, giving them twice the “shove” (as Dickie puts it), which is something he found vital when he developed the Oval B1 Decade (more on that below); an improved lower-midrange driver that also has a beefier motor system, as well as a carbon-fiber ring around the diaphragm, which pushes its inherent high-frequency breakup mode even further from its passband; and a shorter, fatter-at-the-bottom cabinet, which accommodates the deeper woofers (they’re mounted on the cabinet’s sides, near the bottom, in a force-cancelling configuration) and also allows the tweeter, midrange, and lower midrange to be brought down to about the G2’s height, something Dickie realized he liked when he developed that speaker. The cabinet material -- a vacuum-infused fiberglass-based composite sandwiching a balsa-wood core -- remains the same.

The newest thing that the G1 Spirit has that no other Vivid model has is the option for an external crossover. Some may think this was done primarily for performance -- and perhaps there’s a little bit of that there -- but Dickie told me that it was really done for future expansion into active speakers (i.e., fully powered with either line-level analog or digital crossovers). Dickie has made no secret about his affinity for active speakers, so this allows a way to one day transition the G1S to active operation -- G1 Spirit Active, perhaps.

The G1 Spirit was first shown last September, at two shows held the same weekend: the Tokyo International Audio Show, in Japan, and HiFi Messen, in Norway. I saw and heard it at the Japan show. That, though, was just the warm-up, since the initial design of the speaker had just been completed by that time. As a result, the speakers in Japan and Norway were production prototypes. With full production now underway, the official launch of the Spirit was in the United States on February 11, in Itasca, Illinois, which is near Chicago. Responsible for putting on the event were Vivid Audio’s United States distributor, On a Higher Note; local-area dealer Kyomi Audio; and of course Vivid Audio.

That said, although the unveiling might’ve been on the 11th, the event actually began on the 10th, not long after Philip O’Hanlon and George Vatchnadze picked me up from the airport. Philip owns On a Higher Note, while George has two jobs: owner of Kyomi Audio and Professor of Piano at DePaul University, in Chicago. Already in the car with them when I arrived were John Atkinson and Jana Dagdagan, who both work for Stereophile, one of only two remaining hi-fi print magazines left standing in the United States. (The other remaining print magazine is The Abso!ute Sound. It was represented too, through Greg Weaver, who arrived on the 11th.)

Philip, Laurence, GeorgePhilip O'Hanlon (left) and George Vatchnadze (right) with Laurence

Philip’s schedule for this preliminary day included having us first listen to some live piano music, courtesy of George himself, who, besides being a professor, is a renowned performing pianist who has played all over the world. Therefore, our first stop was George’s studio, at DePaul, where he had three identical-looking Steinway pianos set up, which all sounded a little different -- something he demonstrated for us. George told us he had the three pianos there to assess each one’s sound to determine which, if any, they’d keep at the school. It was there that we met up with Laurence Dickie, who’d just flown in from England, where he’s based and does the R&D (Vivid Audio’s manufacturing is in South Africa).

George VatchnadzeGeorge playing Prokofiev

It was on the middle-positioned piano that George played the four movements of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 in A Major, Op.82, a performance that lasted about 30 minutes. Obviously, it’s not every day that you get a pianist of George’s caliber to play for you in a setting like this -- quite something, I must say.

Following George’s performance, we grabbed a quick dinner and then went to his house, which is where he runs Kyomi Audio. It was there that the group listened to a pair of Giya G1s till way past midnight. Listening to the G1s, I concluded the same thing that I had numerous times before -- in most instances, it is more than enough speaker for the needs of most audiophiles.

Kyomi AudioLate-night listening

But for those who want more, there’s now the G1 Spirit, which we got to hear the next day at the home of Mario Presta, where the unveiling took place. Mario is a hardcore audiophile who has multiple systems in his house. He is also the consummate host -- Mario not only gave up his house for the day; he cooked food for the dozens of people who arrived there to listen to the speakers and meet designer Dickie himself.

John AtkinsonJohn Atkinson

John Atkinson and I opened the event by each of us saying a few words about our experiences reviewing Vivid Audio’s speakers. From there, Laurence Dickie took over. Despite him being jetlagged, Dickie was his usual high-energy self.

Doug SchneiderDoug Schneider

First, Dickie conducted an informative, hour-long presentation where he talked about the development of the G1 Spirit and explained how the company’s proprietary technologies factor in. To best describe the technologies, he brought out his “bag of tricks” -- very interesting demonstrations to illustrate how the technologies described actually work. For example, he played a music box in the air and then against the wall to show how vibrating devices can excite panels they’re attached to if they’re not properly damped. In the world of loudspeakers, that transfer of energy from one thing to another is what happens with drivers and cabinets. He’s therefore devised a way with Vivid’s speakers to pretty much eliminate that problem by the use of O-rings for the driver mounts. In another demo, he showed the resonance properties of a simple foam block. Then he pulled out a similar foam block, but with two sheets of foil glued on either side -- referred to as a stressed-skin composite, or a composite sandwich -- in order to show how attaching materials together that way changes the strength, stiffness, and resonance properties completely. The benefits of using a stressed-skin composite are why Dickie chose fiberglass and balsa wood for the Giya-series (and now also the Oval B1 Decade) cabinets. For those who didn’t get enough from his presentation, Dickie stuck around for the entire day to answer questions personally -- and there were many of them.

Laurence DickieLaurence and the music box

Then there was the listening session, which ran the rest of the day. The system the G1 Spirits were set up in was as elaborate as it was expensive, composed entirely of products from On a Higher Note and/or Kyomi Audio: a TechDAS Air Force 3 turntable ($29,750) with a Graham Elite 9" tonearm ($12,000) and a Koetsu Jade Platinum MC cartridge ($10,000); a Luxman EQ-500 phono stage ($7500); an MBL 1621a CD transport ($28,000) feeding a Merging+ NADAC MC8 music server-DAC running Roon v1.3  ($14,000); and a Luxman C-1000f control amplifier ($35,000) driving Luxman B-1000f monoblock amps ($60,000). Supporting and connecting the components were stands from Artensia, which ranged in price from $3690 for an amp stand to $9990 for an equipment rack, and Stealth cables, which are big, attractive, and gasp-inducingly expensive, with their 1m-long Sakra V12 interconnect costing $12,000 per pair and the 2m-long Dream V16 speaker cables costing $14,700 per pair.

SystemThe electronics

The room for the system was adequate for introducing the speakers, but not ideal for auditioning them critically -- it wasn’t big or symmetrical enough (there was an open wall to one side, which murders imaging). Furthermore, with hardwood floors and bare plasterboard walls, it was also far too lively and resonant sounding overall. For speakers like the G1 or G1 Spirit, which can really charge up a room, particularly in the bass region, you need a bigger space and more damping all around. That’s why, later on in the day, in order to compensate for the room boundaries, George Vatchnadze starting playing with the speakers’ toe-in, to the point that he probably had them pointing inwards to the tune of almost 60 degrees. Some of the listeners liked what they heard, but I wasn’t so sure I liked it.

My hunch is that the Giya G2 is probably the biggest Vivid Audio speaker you’d want in there, but even then, the lack of symmetry and the liveliness might still cause issue. On the other hand, I don’t hold it against the organizers for this deficiency, because no one promised a highly critical listening session for the speakers. Instead, it was intended to be a fun unveiling where people could meet Dickie, hear him speak, ask him questions, and get a flavor of the system and Vivid Audio’s sound, which this new speaker appears to take to new heights. All of that was delivered.

What is the Vivid Audio sound? I’ve always found the company’s speakers to be very neutral sounding, meaning no part of the audioband is either too forward or too recessed, and no colorations are added to the sound. That’s a very good thing, but certainly that’s not what defines them -- there are any number of neutral-sounding speakers you can find. Rather, I’ve found that Vivid Audio’s speakers have a powerful, free, open, and transparent sound that few other dynamic speakers can match (horn-based speakers often exhibit those qualities, but they almost always display other deficiencies). Whether you play Vivid speakers at low or extremely high volume levels (they can take it!), they’re unfettered in the way they project sound into the room and get out of the way of the music. When I go back to listening to most other speakers, I usually find myself getting bored or irritated because all too often they sound less lively and far more constrained -- as well as strained, when you push them too hard. All told, it’s rare for me to find a speaker that gets the sound out into the room as easily and effortlessly as Vivid’s speakers do.

The Giya G1 Spirit retains those hallmarks, but most definitely presents even greater depth and slam in the bass than even the G1 can muster -- no doubt, entirely due to the new woofers. In terms of transparency, openness, and high-frequency sweetness, the G1S also seems to at least be the equal of the B1 Decade, which I reviewed last year (the B1 Decade, mind you, cannot come close to producing the G1S’s bass or matching its overall output capability). To know this for sure, though, I’d have to hear them in my own room. But overall, I feel it’s safe to say that the G1 Spirit at least provides the best attributes of the company’s existing speakers, plus adds deeper and more powerful bass than all.

Being something of a student of speaker design, I’ve long wondered what it is about Vivid Audio’s speakers that accounts for them sounding so free, open, and powerful. Is it the way the cabinets are shaped? Is it the unique composite the cabinets are made of? When I sat down and talked to Dickie about it on February 11, he told me that those things certainly account for some of it, but it mostly has to do with the extremely powerful motor systems he puts into his drivers. “The more the better,” he said to me. “It’s kind of like having a really big engine in a very small car.”

Laurence DickieLaurence explaining his speakers

This big-motor thing is something Dickie’s known for a long time, which is why he has consistently “over specced” the drivers’ motor systems on all of the speakers he has designed so far. Yet when he was developing new bass drivers for the B1 Decade, he found that when he went far beyond what anyone would deem necessary for the motor system -- even what he previously thought was required -- there were further sonic improvements. It was because of his experience with that speaker that the G1 Spirit drivers’ motor systems wound up being obscenely overbuilt. That’s also why it’s one heck of a powerful-sounding loudspeaker that really needs room to breathe. So, if you get to hear a pair, make sure the room is pretty big and well treated.

Vivid Audio’s Giya G1 Spirit launch was a lot like Dickie and the speakers he makes -- completely out of the ordinary. After all, where else could I have heard a world-class pianist play in a private setting one night, then, the next day, watch one of the world’s top speaker designers unveil his most ambitious creation to date? I felt privileged to be there, so what I did for this occasion was similar to what I did at Sonus Faber’s launch just a week and a half before -- I took as many pictures as I could to give our readers a flavor of what happened. Those photos are in the gallery below. Enjoy!

Doug Schneider
Founder, SoundStage!