Laurence Borden: Greg, welcome to Dagogo. I know that you have a background in music. Please share with us when and how that developed.
Greg Roberts: My earliest recollection of music came when I was just five or six years old. We lived just a few hundred yards from the New England Music Camp on Messalonskee lake in Sidney, Maine; and every Sunday in the summer the students and faculty would give free concerts in the “Shell,” which we could hear from our home. I spent many days sneaking into one of dozens of little practice cabins set up all over the camp, each with a tired old piano, lovingly maintained by the staff. Every piano sounded different. It wasn’t long before my mom had me taking piano lessons, which I dutifully committed to until other pursuits took over my 17 year old brain.
LB: When did you become interested in audio, in particular high-end audio?
GR: In fourth grade, having moved to a different town and away from all my friends, I spent a lot of time listening to my mom’s L.P.s on her Turntable Console – the kind where the speakers fold out from the center and the turntable platter flips down into position. I remember Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Lynn Anderson and Glenn Campbell. Fifth and Sixth grade, and in a different house, I started collecting my own L.P.s and 45s; Elton John, Boston, Grand Funk Railroad to name a few. In Junior High, we moved back out to the lake and this time a quarter mile down on the other side of the Music Camp, I was gifted my first stereo, a Soundesign all-in-one unit with an 8-Track player, cassette, and tuner. It came with two little speakers that had only one driver in each box. Of course those speakers were taken apart and modified many times! I got to attend the New England Music Camp for two seasons, taking my little power boat down the lake each day. That was an amazing experience to be among so many gifted students and faculty. The highlight of my stay there was a Wednesday evening concert in front of the faculty and friends, when at the age of 14 I strolled out on the stage and played the entire Beethoven Moonlight Sonata with no sheet music in front of me.
It was about that time that I started reading stereo magazines and saw an advertisement for Speakerlab speakers. In the ad the manufacturer claimed performance similar to the Klipsch Klipschorn loudspeaker. That made me wonder what a Klipsch Klipschorn was. Shortly after reading that, I was riding with my mom in downtown Waterville, and saw a big Klipsch sign in the window of a store. I talked her into stopping so I could check it out. The store was run by college-age guys, and I thought they were really cool. I started spending a lot of time there, and learned a lot about the equipment they sold – McIntosh, Klipsch, Tandberg, Bang and Olufsen, Yamaha, etc They had great demos – they would bang on the front corner of a B&O Turntable while it was playing to demonstrate the superior suspension. They would play music through the little Klipsch Heresy speakers sitting in front of the Khorns and ask you which speaker was playing. Most would say the Khorns, and would be surprised to find out it was the little guys in the front. The best demo though was the big black Klipsch La Scalas hanging up in the corners of the room. With the 200 watt per channel McIntosh amp cranking Pink Floyd through them, the big glass windows at the front of the store would pulsate back and forth, and people walking by on the sidewalk had big eyes. I was hooked, and I just had to have those La Scalas. I sold everything I had, my dirtbike, my Soundesign stereo, my 4000 piece football card collection, and bought those big black boxes. I dragged them down into my basement bedroom, located directly below the living room above. I didn’t have any equipment to play music through them, so I hooked up a small portable radio. I had heard the story of Paul Klipsch visiting his stores and demonstrating the high sensitivity of the Khorn by playing a pocket-sized radio through one. But my mom felt bad for me and bought me a Technics turntable and a McIntosh integrated amp. I thanked her by providing pulsated bass beats into the living room night after night. She only said something the time I made pots and pans fall out of the kitchen cupboards.
It wasn’t long after getting the La Scalas that I figured out I could make money with them. I started my first business, “The Rock and Road Show” providing DJ music for school dances and other functions, which I did right through my high school years. At age 18, I took it a step further and added more gear and started doing live sound for bands, a job I did for 14 years, traveling all over New England and beyond. Being around talented musicians playing live music night after night really taught me a lot about instruments, music, live sound, and of course a host of other worldly pursuits having nothing to do with music. I hung it up in 1994, but still miss being out on the road with the band.
LB: You are well known in the DIY community for modifying Klipschorns. What is it in general that attracts you to horns, and what specifically is it about Khorns?
GR: My introduction to horns at an early age stuck with me. The guys at New England Music Company didn’t just sell me speakers, they taught me why Klipsch speakers were as good as they were. These were my first technical lessons, about modulation distortion, efficiency, dynamics, etc. Most of these lessons came directly from the Klipsch papers “Dope From Hope.” I became a Klipschophile in my teens, and my opinions about which speakers were the best were made during a formative period of my life, so what reason would there be to ever regress to other topologies? LOL. And with all my years sitting behind a sound board and in front of big horn speakers, and having owned Klipsch Khorns for the last 25 years, it has only been recently that I’ve come to realize the merits of other speaker topologies.
Still, big horns are what make me smile. I can listen to the highest of high end and think they are very nice sounding, but when I get home and put Boz on the Khorns, the music just makes me smile.
LB: What prompted you to start modifying them, and what exactly do the mods entail?
GR: As I grew older I started to realize that the sound coming from my Khorns wasn’t all that it could be. The internet, and specifically the Klipsch Forum, opened me up to possibilities for upgrading my speakers. I built a room for my Khorns (which my wife still thinks is her living room) and that helped tremendously. Khorns are not forgiving of the room they are in. To get optimum sound from Khorns, everything has to be just right. I tried different midrange horns and different crossovers, but the sound quality really didn’t get that much better. I heard about someone using bigger midrange horns with 2” outlet drivers on top of their Khorns and I thought that it would be really cool if a 2” throat horn could be built to fit under the tophat of the Khorn. One thing led to another, and before long I was building a pair for myself. “Hey Greg, can you build me a pair?” Yup, and the next thing I knew I was in business building horns. I’ve built and sold over 200 now, in just a few years.
But that part of my business is waning, which is something I expected. There are a very small number of people who still own Khorns, listen to them regularly enough to spend the money on upgrades, and who also spend time enough on the computer to find Volti Audio. New speaker designs is where it’s at for Volti Audio in the future. At some point I will stop making and selling Klipsch upgrades.
LB: The Vittora, designed and built by Volti Audio, is the latest addition to your product line. Was this your first foray into speaker design? Did others assist you?
GR: The Vittora is the first speaker design I’ve done that is completely original. The midrange horns and tweeters did not require as much work to implement as the bass horn, since I had so much experience working with the former in my Klipschorns. The crossover work was done by John Warren of North Reading Engineering in North Reading, Massachusetts.
Most of the time spent designing the Vittora was in the bass horn. It’s a completely new design. The front “V” obviously looks like a Klipsch La Scala, and it is a single folded horn with a 15” driver, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Vittora bass horn is much larger, much better built, and performs very differently from the La Scala. On the technical side of things, I had a lot of help with the design of the Vittora bass horn. I know my limitations and when to ask for help. It’s not easy to find this kind of help, especially when you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend, but I got lucky and found two people willing to put time in on the project with me. The scale, format, and aesthetics are all my own work. I did all the prototype work and testing during the development, taking almost a year and about 600 hours of work. After the testing, I used my ears. I trust my ears.
LB: What were the design goals for the Vittora?
GR: The Vittora was inspired by the Klipsch La Scala, though it does share aesthetic cues from the Klipschorn. Before designing the Vittora, I considered a Volti Cornerhorn design, reworking the Khorn design to make improvements to the bass horn, and I do think there is room for improvement. But in the end I would still have a speaker that is limited by the room and by having to be in corners. The Khorn is one of the least flexible and most room-dependent speakers there is. The Vittoras are just the opposite, and this is the one main reason why I chose this format for my first speaker design. They are very flexible as far as the room parameters are concerned. They work in small rooms, large rooms, live rooms and dead. They can be incorporated into just about any situation and perform with excellence, and this makes the marketability of the Vittora much better than any cornerhorn design.
LB: Without giving away any trade secrets, what can you share with us regarding your choice of drivers?
GR: One of things I learned about during my development of the Vittora, was the importance of choosing drivers that can be reliably sourced. This is especially important with a bass horn, where the horn is specifically designed around a particular driver. It would be disastrous to develop a new bass horn only to have your driver supplier go belly up after only a few months.
I chose all the drivers based on reliability of my source, on durability and longevity, and finally on sound quality, determined by listening. I think it’s a good combination of parts that have been integrated nicely by John’s crossovers. John did all of the final acoustic testing of the Vittoras as well, and he provides individual test results for each pair of crossovers delivered to our customers.
LB: The Vittora is a two-piece design, in which the top unit houses the tweeter and midrange horns, and the bottom the woofer and folded horn. While this obviously allows for easier shipping and maneuvering, it also provides for potential flexibility. Is this something you intend to take advantage of?
GR: Absolutely. My plans are to integrate several different top horn options with the Vittora bass horn. For instance, I have the Lavera Horn that I manufacture, which is a unique wooden horn that some people have called sculpture worthy of having in your home even if they aren’t hooked to the stereo! They are very pretty, and they would work wonderfully on top of the Vittora bass horn. My hope is that I’ll eventually have many different options or versions of the Vittora for customers to choose from. This will provide aesthetic options as well as options for better integration with different rooms, equipment, and listening tastes.
LB: You spoke earlier about the challenges you faced in designing the bass horn. What were your sonic goals, and how did you achieve them? Did you experiment with other configurations before settling on the final design?
GR: The prototype process would still be going on right now if I didn’t just stop. There’s no end to it really, there’s always something else that you can do to make something just a little bit better. I got pretty good at building prototypes out of inexpensive sheathing like oriented strand board (“OSB”). I got it down to about four hours to cut and build one cabinet. Not pretty, but it enabled me to try out many different configurations of the internal structure. I learned a lot about designing bass horns with this hands-on experience. There’s just no substitute for building a bass horn, testing it, and listening to it. Do that over and over again dozens of times, and you gain a certain amount of information that you just can’t get any other way.
Any designer who takes on a fully horn-loaded design struggles with the issue of low bass extension versus the size of the cabinet. I did too, and this is what really shaped the Vittora design early on. There are a few things I came to realize:
• A bass horn ends up being very big if it is asked to produce very low frequencies
• A bass horn has a limited range that it can produce optimally
• Go low with a very large horn, and the mid-bass frequencies suffer
• Go for great mid-bass, and the low end extension suffers
• There is always compromise when it comes to speaker design
• So-called bass horns that are back-loaded, or what I call horn/reflex designs, where there is a driver in a ported enclosure and with a small horn in front of the driver to help with mid-bass do not sound the same as a bass horn that has a driver “loading” the horn all the way down to its low cutoff
• Real bass horns are rare to find in the marketplace
All of these things led me to an understanding of why most horn speakers on the market have something other than real bass horns. The size of the cabinet might be too large with one design, the low end extension might be compromised with another, or the accuracy of the mid-bass might be compromised. So manufacturers have come up with mixed-topologies to solve these problems, using horns for midrange and tweeters, and matching them to a bass reflex bass cabinet, or a backloaded horn. For me, these types of “partially horn-loaded” speakers are ok, but it wasn’t what I wanted for the Vittora.
I wanted a fully horn-loaded speaker, with a real bass horn, in a relatively compact cabinet, with a focus on mid-bass tonal accuracy and integration with the midrange horn. It’s a tall order, and guess what? There is always compromise when it comes to speaker design! LOL. So the Vittora is not perfect, but it is darn close. The one major compromise is in the low bass extension, and that is easily cured with a subwoofer.
LB: Does the Vittora have any adjustments to allow the end-user to optimize the sound for both the listening room, and for individual preferences?
GR: The Vittora just fits in. It’s not the type of speaker that requires a lot of fiddling to get it to sound right. I have a customer in Hong Kong who just received his speakers the other day and one of his first comments to me was that the Vittoras sounded great right from the first note. He thought that was a rare thing. That said, on the back panel of the Vittora are attenuators for both the midrange and tweeter. Whereas other companies use resistance potentiometers, I instead use stepped attenuators that offer the flexibility of balancing the midrange and tweeter to the bass bin.
LB: Please tell us about the optional subwoofer.
GR: The Vittora subwoofer system is still a work in progress. I have the subwoofer part done, but I’m still working on the amplifier/processor. For power and processing right now, I recommend a Marchand Electronics MB42 as the perfect match to the Volti Vittora subwoofer. When time and money permit, I will be working with Marchand to develop this further, and add remote control volume with a large number display that is easy to read from the couch.
The Vittora subwoofer is only used for frequencies below 50Hz, which is a much lower crossover point than you find with most systems that use subwoofers. As a result, I would say the subwoofer is optional with the Vittora speakers.
I have customers who don’t use a subwoofer at all with the Vittoras, then there are others who do. It’s a personal decision based on the type of music one listens to, the volume level, and personal taste. Any good quality powered subwoofer will work with the Vittoras. If a customer wants a sub with the same type of construction and veneer as their Vittoras, the Volti Vittora sub will fit the bill.
LB: The Vittora’s cabinetry is first-rate. Please tell us about your wood-working experience and background, and some of the details of the way the Vittoras are constructed.
GR: I’ve been building custom homes in Maine for many years, so working with wood just comes naturally to me. I’ve always been good with my hands, and a day coming to an end without me making something just doesn’t feel right. I like to produce work efficiently, and I like the physical aspect of working, so there’s just no better day for me than one that starts and ends in my shop building speakers. I have found that building high-end custom speakers is much more of a challenge than any custom home I’ve built.
The Vittoras are built the way I would want my own pair of speakers built. I don’t like MDF, so I use Baltic Birch plywood. I make the laminated curved panels myself out of eight layers of eighth-inch Baltic Birch plywood. The veneers are installed with one of several vacuum membranes in my shop. I apply the lacquer finishes myself, just as smooth as a baby’s butt. I make the midrange horns, the grills, the rear plates, and the wiring. I do all the assembly, final cleaning, testing, and build the crates to ship them in. There’s over 240 hours of labor in each pair. They really are heirloom quality cabinets that can be passed down from generation to generation.
LB: Let’s turn now to business considerations. Although the market is inundated with speakers, there are actually few horns commercially available, and those are generally far more expensive than the Vittoras. Did this factor enter into your business decision?
GR: No, not for the Vittoras. With future designs I think I will pay more attention to the market, but for the Vittoras I built what I wanted to build for myself. If I had considered the market, this wouldn’t have been a bad choice anyway. It’s easier to sell something you are passionate about.
When I look around at what’s available for horn systems, I think the Vittoras compete quite well. As I said earlier, most of the horn speakers on the market are “partial” horn speakers with a hybrid of topologies. The Vittoras provide fully horn-loaded sound all the way down to 50Hz, and that’s something that is very rare in the marketplace, especially considering the relatively compact size of the Vittora cabinet and of course their cost.
LB: You currently sell direct to the consumer. An obvious advantage of this model is that it keeps the price to the consumer considerably lower (by about 50%) than if sold through dealers. On the flip side, dealers provide greater access to potential customers who may not be familiar with your product, or who have heard of it but never had a chance to actually hear it. Is it your intention to continue selling direct?
GR: We’ll see. Right now I’m going to stick with the plan, which is to market primarily through shows and sell direct on the internet. As I bring new speaker models out, I may change my approach though. Maybe just certain models will sell through distributor/dealers and other models through direct sales.
Like anyone who has chosen to get into this business, I have to find a way to pay the bills with it first, then I’ll move on from there. It’s tough in this current economy.
LB: I know that you also repair speakers. Please tell us about this aspect of your business.
GR: Yes, I’ve been doing complete cabinet restoration work for years, more as a serious hobby than a business. I have a passion for it. I love taking an old beat up pair of speaker cabinets and bringing them back to new (or better than new) condition. Most of the restorations have been on Klipsch Klipschorn speakers, but I’ve also done many other brands, big and small. I offer all kinds of custom work too. Basically anything a customer asks for I can do or arrange to have done. I’m right in the middle of an intensive and complete restoration of a pair of Infinity IRSV speakers. These things are monsters! I had to purchase a larger vacuum bag just for these. I’m doing repairs and repainting on the fiberglass bases, having metal frames made for the tops, and completely re-making the grills. It’s quite a project and it provides much needed cash flow for the business right now. As with the Klipsch upgrades business, I think someday I will phase out of the restoration work in favor of building new speakers, but for now it’s just another part of what I do, and I am still actively seeking new projects to work on.
LB: I first heard the Vittoras’ at the 2011 Capital Audio Fest, and subsequently at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest; at both shows the speakers were very well received. Do you intend to continue presenting at shows? Do you feel that shows will take the place of brick and mortar dealers?
GR: I haven’t been in the business long enough to say if shows will replace dealers. My gut tells me no, not completely, because if you’re located in a city where there is the opportunity for a good customer base, being a dealer can be profitable and it’s a very cool business to be in.
I am humbled by the response Volti Audio received at our first two shows. I wasn’t sure what to expect. At the first show I felt like I was the new kid knocking on the clubhouse door, wondering if they would let me in. I felt very welcomed as I found many doors open up to me at these shows.
It remains to be seen if attending shows is going to be profitable or not. I hope so because I like getting out there and meeting people and showing off our work. I’m seriously considering the Munich show in 2013. That’ll be a trip!
LB: What plans do you have for Volti Audio? You spoke earlier of different variations of the Vittora. Will there be any additional speakers in the line?
GR: I’m not going to stop working with the Vittora bass horn. It is a really good sounding horn, and it’s flexible enough to work with many different top sections.
I’m just now coming out with Volti’s second speaker design, which is a small single-driver speaker using the Feastrex NF5 driver. Developing this one provided me with another huge batch of information on speaker design, from a whole different perspective from working with horns. The new speaker is called the Veretta, and it’s got a curved, boat-tail style cabinet that sits on a two-layer plinth base. It is completely different from the Vittora, which was by design. This new design will debut at this year’s Capital Audiofest in its own room.
There’s another Volti Audio speaker that’s been out longer than the Vittora called the Alura, which is a high-sensitivity partial horn speaker, using a bass reflex cabinet for bass. I anticipate a re-work of this design in the future.
I also have plans for a tower speaker that is fully horn-loaded. Sort of like a Vittora that is stretched upwards with a smaller footprint.
I would also like to offer lower priced speakers. I have an idea for an entry level partial horn speaker that would sell in the $3,000 – $4,000 range.
LB: Greg, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We wish you continued success, and I look forward to spending more time listening to the Vittoras.
GR: Thanks Larry. I look forward to seeing you at CAF and RMAF this year.
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