- WORDS FROM HIGH-END AUDIO
- Art Dudley
Things that single-ended amplifiers seem to do better than
• A single-ended amplifier allows voices
and instruments to retain their natural presence to
an uncanny degree—or, as Harvey Rosenberg once
quoted Gertrude Stein as saying, "There is lots of there there."
A very good single-ended amp goes further, pulling solo
voices and instruments away from whatever else is taking
place in the recording, musically and sonically. Either way,
the effect isn't like the fussy, fey, over etched imaging
that some audiophiles and reviewers hanker for: It's not as
if an SE amp wants you to think there's a trumpet or a
tambourine between your speakers, but rather that there is
real music, made by real people playing the
trumpet or tambourine, between your speakers—solid, of
course, but still alive and breathing.
The difference between typical high-end audio
imaging and the musical presence of a single-ended amp is
the difference between listening to somebody type a
manuscript and listening to them read what they've written.
• Single-ended amps allow music to retain
its sense of flow and momentum. Failing to do so is the most
egregious shortcoming I hear whenever circumstances force me
to listen to some overwrought system built around an
overpriced and overpowered push-pull amplifier: Despite
being able to produce attractive or even
"realistic" sound, the thing doesn't damn make
REVIEW OF THE NEW $16,900 VIVA SOLISTA
me, touch me, hear me!” Those would be the Solista MkII's
first words, if it could talk. The amplifier's flowing lines
and voluptuous shape couldn't be from anywhere but Italy.
And it is, entirely hand-crafted in Vicenza. The chassis'
undulating curves and exquisitely machined knobs show this
is no ordinary high-end amplifier. Listen to your favorite
tunes and it becomes clear the Solista MkII was designed to
preserve, above all else, the essence of the music.
sounded more flesh-and-blood human with the Viva Solista
MkII hooked up to my speakers. Frank Sinatra was in the
house! This amplifier is almost magical in the way it plays
tunes. Music, especially acoustic music, never sounded this
natural before; it moved like the real thing. It breathes!
Viva's founder Amedeo Schembri is something of a
perfectionist; he's an engineer who flat-out refuses to
compromise his designs. For example, instead of using
printed circuit boards, the Solista MkII's innards are
entirely hand-wired and soldered. Schembri makes the effort
because he thinks wired amplifiers sound better than ones
with printed circuit boards.
amplifiers' transformers are all designed by Schembri and
custom built by a local supplier. Again, that obsessive
level of design is rare, even for most of today's high-end
vacuum tube electronics manufacturers. Schembri's custom
transformers are absolutely crucial to the Solista MkII's
sound because the music signal is routed through the
transformers and printed circuit boards would dramatically
improve profit margins, but at the cost of sound quality.
Schembri is a good listener—he wouldn't build amps any
founding Viva in 1996, Schembri designed and built gear for
recording studios and concert sound systems. In those days
he designed solid-state electronics, but he now works
exclusively with vacuum tubes. He knows what solid-state can
do, but it can't approach the musicality of tube designs.
can't miss the Solista MkII's tubes as they stand proud in
the chassis' "V" notch; the tubes near the front
are unusually large (approximately 6.25 inches high). Upon
powering up the amplifier, the front tube quartet lights in
spectacular fashion, much brighter than the soft orange glow
of smaller power tubes you see in more common tube designs.
The Solista MkII's four smaller rear tubes are literally
overshadowed by the power and rectifier tubes' brilliant
white light. The all-aluminum chassis helps dissipate some
of the tubes' heat. Even so, the amplifier should be placed
out of reach of small children.
rear panel hosts four pairs of stereo RCA inputs, plus a
"Direct" that bypasses the volume control and
input selector. If you have a turntable you'll need to buy a
separate phono preamplifier to play records over the Solista
MkII. (Viva offers a matching phono preamp). The integrated
amp has a set of stereo RCA outputs, intended for use with a
powered subwoofer (or two). A small remote is provided to
control volume. Viva products are built to order. The
standard finish is a medium, metallic-grey lacquer, but
custom-ordered paint jobs are available. My favorite Vivas
are the drop-dead gorgeous two-tone, fiery red and black
jobs. Oh so Italian they are, but Viva's creamy white
electronics are also stunning.
use, the Solista MkII is a model of simplicity and unfussy
ergonomics: Turn it on, bask in the tubes' glow, select an
input (such as CD), adjust the volume and enjoy the music.
The sound is a good deal warmer and richer than my reference
Parasound JC-1/JC-2 electronics, but I like it! The Solista
MkII's 22 watts per channel sound far more powerful than
you'd expect, but the amp didn't have enough gusto to make
my Magneplanar 3.6/R speakers sing. They require gobs of
power. But the Viva came alive when partnered with my
Dynaudio C-1 speakers. I used XLO cabling for the entire
system, specifically Signature 3 interconnects and speaker
tube components are mystical objects. Maybe it has to do
with the way the tubes glow, inflamed with voltages that
produce the sound of music. Since most recordings aren't
"flat," accuracy isn't the goal, musicality is.
Solista MkII produced a solidity to the sound of instruments
and vocals that transistor gear never quite achieves. I
loved what the Solista MkII did for less-than-terrific
Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon's In Paris CD,
recorded in November, 1962. It's a monophonic recording and
the Solista MkII brought not just the sound, but the music
back to life. Every meaty pluck, slide and pull on Dixon's
stand up bass's strings energized the beat, and his
down-and-dirty vocals added to the excitement. The duo's
rhythms and toe-tappin' grooves were a total joy. The
Solista MkII is a feel good machine. The Solista MkII makes
almost every recording sound better than it really is. Big
band jazz, like Mel Lewis/Bob Brookmeyer's Live at the
Village Vanguard, 1980 CD absolutely knocked me out. Massed
brass and winds are tough to get right—they can sound
bright or thin—but the Solista MkII was magnificent here.
sounded like the real-life counterparts, probably because
the Viva supplied the full-bodied dimensionality and
presence you'd hear from live instruments. Nirvana's Nevermind CD
revealed new textures and palpable details. Kurt Cobain's
vocals floated above the fray, sounding more humanly present
than I've ever heard.
is, 22 watts per channel will probably limit the appeal of
the Solista MkII for Nirvana fans. Not that the amp won't
play reasonably loud with suitable speakers, and my Dynaudio
C-1s were definitely in that category. But wham-bam dynamics
aren't in the cards. Viva makes stereo preamps, stereo and
mono power amps, and integrated amps like the Solista MkII
I'm reviewing here. The company also offers a dedicated Fono
(phono) preamplifier ($15,900) for analog lovers; a
"baby" integrated amp, the Solista Lt ($8,500);
the Verona TRE power amplifier ($24,900) and more.
Solista MkII looks, feels and sounds like nothing I've
heard. It's a tough act to follow.
Viva Solista MkII: $16,900