Riviera AIC10 Headphone Amplifier
Just wanted to share my impressions of the Riviera AIC10 headphone amplifier, which I have had for several weeks now.
First, a little background: I have been an audiophile for many years, listening mainly to classical music, but from a hifi perspective I also listen to a broad range of music when checking out new gear, with a bias towards acoustic / unplugged tracks.
I consider myself a fairly discerning and fussy listener, and my main goal with hifi is to get the same musical satisfaction and emotional experience from a recording as what I get from a live performance. It is not about how a piece of equipment measures in the lab, it’s about how the music makes me feel when I listen to it.
Interestingly, it does seem that the more accurate, uncoloured and transparent the equipment is, the closer it gets to my goal, so the equipment that works best for me probably does measure well in the lab.
Hifi has been a constant cycle of upgrades for me, mainly because most consumer hifi equipment simply sounds terrible, and the reality is that the more you pay for kit, the better it sounds (Although the law of diminishing returns does set in…).
A lot of my listening these days is done on headphones. I’ve used several headphone amps over the years, starting from fairly modest Musical Fidelity X-CANs to other newer kit, including Schitt Audio’s Lyr+, which is also a decent headphone amp. My current headphones are the Sennheiser HD800S, which were a big leap up from my previous HD650 and HD600.
In the good old days of CDs, my source was a Wadia 861 CD player, which was excellent for its time. My primary source these days is an iPad Pro with Apple Music, with an Audioquest Cobalt DAC, playing lossless / hi-res and Dolby ATMOS tracks, although standard lossless tracks (i.e. CD quality) also sound pretty good on Apple Music.
The Riviera AIC10 is a big leap up from from the previous headphone amps I have used. It can probably be better matched with a higher-end source, and even better headphones, but I do have to say that from the perspective of obtaining a musically satisfying experience, the setup I have described i.e. pairing the Riviera AIC10 with Apple Music lossless/hi-res, Audioquest Cobalt DAC and Sennheisser HD800S headphones works very well. I have never enjoyed the music so much, even from familiar recordings which I have known for many years.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the beginning.
The amp itself is a hybrid/tube Class A amplifier. It is massive for a headphone amp (It can connect to speakers as well as an integrated amp, but I am only using it for headphones). It is slightly larger than a shoebox, and extremely heavy – built like a proverbial tank.
While very large, it does look very attractive, and sits very nicely on my desk.
It comes with a very chunky remote, with just a volume control, which I don’t actually use since the volume knob is right next to me when I sit at my desk.
This is the back panel. There is a balanced input and 2 single-ended/RCA inputs.
Similarly, there are 2 headphone jacks in front, one balanced and one single-ended plug. I used the single ended inputs and headphone jack for all listening.
I used the amp with Vertere Redline interconnects and a Vertere A/C power cable.
When I first unboxed the amp, I was told to leave it on for several hours to warm up, but I couldn’t resist listening to it right away.
Initial impressions? Very transparent & holographic, with a dynamic punch and weight to the sound that just bowled me over. And yet, there was a sweetness and warmth to the sound as well.
Left to run for a few hours, the essential characteristics remained the same, however I was just struck by how tangible and present everything sounded. It’s a cliché, but with the right recordings, I felt I was among the musicians, with the orchestra playing around me, or the the soloist or vocalist right in front of me. At other times, I kept thinking, this is what the recording engineer at the mixing desk must have heard while making the recording.
I listen to lot of solo piano – the recorded sound of the piano is notoriously hard to get right. I’ve never heard recorded piano sound so “right”, with the attack and decay of the notes, and the delicate overtones of felt hammers on the piano strings faithfully reproduced. This was so of classical recordings, such as Daniil Trifonov playing Rachmaninov’s transcriptions of Bach’s Partita BWV1006 (Apple Music Hi-res Lossless).
Orchestral works sounded spectacular too. When I put on Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic (Apple Music Hi-res Lossless), it was as if I was in the concert hall with the cellist and orchestra, which was amazing since this was a recording from 1969.
I couldn’t resist putting on the Getz/Gilberto classic, The Girl from Ipanema. While I have owned this recording in various formats over the years, the Dolby Atmos Hi-res Lossless version on Apple Music sounded excellent.
On the jazz front, Keith Jarrett’s classic Koln Concert recording (Apple Music Hi-res Lossless) sounded much smoother and rounder than the CD version.
I am not an authority on pop/rock, but the Riviera does an exceptional job of reproducing vocals, whether it's Whitney Houston, Freddy Mercury or The Eagles. Even heavily mixed tracks like “We Will Rock You” / “We are the Champions” from Queen’s classic album News of the World had a visceral impact I had seldom experienced.
To sum up, Riviera had many qualities which I really appreciated. In no particular order:
- Musicality, transparency of sound
- Immediacy of voices and instruments
- Dynamic sound, with super fast transients
- Wide, holographic soundstage
- Weighty, powerful sound, solid as a rock when needed, but at the same time delicate
Downsides? None I can think of, although I think for poorly mixed, over-engineered recordings, or pop recordings mixed to be played on typical consumer gear, every flaw in the recording will be exposed, and this type of music would be wasted on this amp.
It all adds up to an amp that just disappeared and let me enjoy the music to a level I had never experienced before.
What am I comparing this system to? My “reference system” is not a system at all, it’s what I hear in concert halls when I attend live performances. I’ve listened to orchestras and recitals in various cities, not least the wonderful Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore where I live, with its amazing acoustics, but also other great halls such as the Philharmonie in Berlin, the Concertgebeouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna, and the Wigmore Hall in London.
The Riviera has brought me closer to the music than any other system I have heard. It’s an incredible amp, and worth an audition if you are looking for an exceptional way to appreciate good music.