Review: Riviera Labs APL10 Preamplifier & AFM25 Monoblock Amplifiers

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been having a recurring dream about finding a hidden room in whatever house I was living in.

My interpretation of these dreams, apologies to Siggy, is the once hidden room represents possibility—while every house should be a home, a house can also become restrictive in its comfort, like a personal fortified city keeping the rest of the world out. A new heretofore hidden room, and its always a dark and mysterious room, acts like a messenger delivering the life-saving message—there’s more out there to be discovered. Which also means there’s more in here to be discovered.

Music affords a similar kind of discovery, which is why I am obsessed with music that’s new to me and why the advent of streaming is a dream come true. All day every day I can fill my mind with new sounds, tip of the hat to John Schaefer, and if I pay complete attention, new possibilities abound.

If we choose to also pay attention to the quality of music reproduction, a similar kind of discovery awaits. While there are countless people who view hifi as an appliance, something with one job to do making difference in reproduction a case of better or worse, people who have real experience listening to music on the hifi understand that its value is much more personal.

The APL10 Pure Class A Tube Preamplifier has three unbalanced and one balanced input with two pair of unbalanced outputs. The review unit came with a pair of NOS RT ECC82 / 12AU7s in place.

Outside of hifi friends, I don’t know many people who sit and listen to music. Sit and listen while doing nothing else. For non-hifi people, doing so would be like pulling up a lawn chair to watch the clouds go by. Day after day, week after week, year after year. But that’s what we hifi people do—sit and listen to music day after day, week after week, year after year.

Of course we also spend time and money on hifi itself. I listen to music on the hifi for a living, and have done for about 10 years. It’s what I do. Some hifi hobbyists enjoy the difference different pieces of a hifi kit bring to reproduction and spend a considerable amount of time and money deep in the gear. Which is like every other hobby in existence. Painters care about their materials, cyclists care about their cycles, and so on. When people peer into a hobby from the outside, this behavior can seem foreign and with hifi some people choose to recoil and lash out at the thing they don’t do, the thing they don’t understand, and write it off as some kind of deviant behavior. As if they are better off, in life, because they don’t care about the quality of music reproduction. For some, this attitude is a badge of honor as if not caring about what music sounds like makes you someone who cares more about music.

The AFM25 Pure Class A Hybrid Mono Power Amplifiers offer 25 Watts of hybrid Triode (12AU7/ECC82) / Bipolar Junction Transistor/Mosfet power. A pair of NOS Brimar 12AU7s were installed in each.

All of this flatulent thinking completely ignores the people who make hifi gear. I suppose the thinking goes, if hifi is but a tool with a clearly defined job to do—you can measure how good it is!—the people behind the products don’t matter. Armed with thought blindness, you can also ignore the simple fact that different hifi gear sounds different because the people who made it made it sound the way it does on purpose, and different people enjoy different kinds of sound qualities in their reproduced music. How something looks and feels and functions are also factors that come into play for many hifi hobbyists. The most extreme hifi-as-appliance thinkers are rattled to the bone with the thought that this is OK, that there’s no single measurable goal when it comes to the enjoyment of music on the hifi unless that goal is enjoyment. Certainty hates enjoyment.

Listening through the Riviera Labs separates was like that recurring dream—music reproduced by the APL10 Preamplifier and AFM25 Monoblock Amplifiers had qualities I’ve not heard before, as if the Riviera electronics opened an undiscovered room of sound, expanding my enjoyment of and connection to music beyond what I thought were its limits.

I hinted at this Riviera sound in my review of their Levante integrated amplifier (review):

“To put an even finer point on it, like pinning a butterfly to a page, I was most taken with the Levante’s ability to reproduce harmonic content beyond anything I’d heard before, making each and every instrument, voice, and sound sound more fully formed. Listening to simple powerful music like the Revered Gary Davis performing “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” from Harlem Street Singer drives home the Levante’s ability to present a Reverend-sized Gary Davis as a solid sound image planted right here in the barn as if my hifi turned into a Star Trek transporter.

OK, here’s a comparison — imagine the sound of lesser amplifiers as the Star Trek transporter getting interrupted by your favorite alien villain, so you are left with a relatively vague, particulated Reverend as opposed to the in-the-fleshness of the Levante’s Gary Davis and his big, badass Gibson Hummingbird sounding so fully-formed you can nearly stick your hand in the sound hole.”

I also called the Levante seductive and none of these thoughts have changed with my experience of the Riviera separates. However, I now know, as clearly as I know the Barn’s walls are red and brown, that the Riviera separates are more quietly seductive as compared to the Levante. Not as splashy. Within minutes of putting the APL10 preamplifier and AFM25 monoblocks on my Box Furniture Fallen A rack and making all the appropriate connections, one being two runs of AudioQuest Robin Hood speaker cable to the DeVore Fidelity O/96, I heard that Riviera holographic sound loud and clear. As if an old friend walked into the Barn and said hello with a voice so distinct there was no doubt it was Joe even though I haven’t spoken to Joe in some years.

The people behind Riviera Labs, Luca Chiomenti (audio designer and engineer) and Silvio Delfino (sales and marketing), spent years making this gear and making it sound the way it does. On purpose (you can read about their process in my Levante review). To state the painfully obvious, the sound they went after and embodied in their electronics suits my tastes and predilections perfectly. I could, and did, fall under the Riviera spell with the Levante and even more so with the Riviera separates because the latter are more quietly seductive, meaning their particular charms take real time and attention to fully appreciate. But once I entered this new room of music reproduction, it quickly became my favorite.

“Go Your Way” from Devon Hoff’s lovely Voices From The Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs) features Sharon van Etten on vocals with Hoff’s plucked and bowed bass the only accompaniment. To my ears, van Etten’s voice has never sounded sweeter—sometimes I think that songwriters sing other people’s songs with a more careful voice—and here, with the Riviera Labs gear driving the DeVore O/96, voice and bass took on dimensional reality in Barn, feeling as full and rich (and rewarding) as the real thing. While I’m no synesthete, I could nearly see Hoff’s wooden bodied bass’ deep rich color, which played off van Etten’s scarlet sweater nicely (I imagined that last part).

Mal Waldron’s “Warm Canto” from his masterpiece of an album The Quest (1962) is about as perfect a story in song as I’ve heard, told by a fascinating cast of characters. Featuring Eric Dolphy on clarinet, Booker Ervin on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on cello, Joe Benjamin on double bass, and Charlie Persip on drums, and Waldron on piano, Dolphy then Carter then Waldron take turns out front and each instrument and player was given their fully distinct voice, timing, and feel by the Riviera separates, turning this 5:40 minute track into timeless beauty. I’ve listened to this track (and album) countless times on countless systems, it’s always a show favorite, but I’ve never been so completely connected to the intricacies of timing, timbre, and movement.

I also gave the Credo EV 1202 Ref. Speakers (review) some time on the Riviera (Labs). These slender speakers sound bigger than you might expect in a number of ways and the Riviera gear brought out their uncanny ability to replace their physical presence with the physical presence of music more than any amp I paired them with. Once again I’m highlighting the Riviera’s ability to turn the recorded event into a dimensional physicality with full voice no matter the tune or musical makeup.

Among the many stunning debut albums of all time, Tricky’s Maxinquaye from 1995 is a personal favorite for its groovy lush beauty. Martina Topley-Bird’s vocals are pitch perfect, sweet fragile and powerful, atop the full world of Tricky sound. With the Riviera separates in control, the full sound world of Maxinquaye opened up in Barn, unfolding like so many weird and wonderful origami birds, filling the space around me with exotic delights. If I closed my eyes and let Maxinquaye pour in completely, the Barn’s walls and ceiling faded into endless space running on Tricky time. A dive so deep I thought I might come up dripping.

Pierre Bastien pieces together his music from automated orchestras. Here on Blue As An Orange these pieces are comprised of amplified Meccano parts, motors, fans, rattles, paper, and nails mixed with live instruments including prepared trumpets, African kundi harp, Javanese rabab, sanza, electric harpsichord, bass, drums, and gongs. Somehow Bastein makes all this sound all-too-human. The sounds of this record are very much a part of the musical message and once again the Riviera separates imbued every crazy mechanical tick and tock and each distinct instrument’s voice with stunning real life dimension, depth, and clarity. I love this record for all its apparent love of human foibles and I’ve never heard it so fully formed, so seriously silly, as through the Riviera APL10 preamplifier and AFM25 monoblocks driving the DeVore O/96.

These are just a few samples of the music that graced the Barn during the Riviera’s 3 month residence. In that time, mood and music’s interconnected web led the way through old, new, borrowed and blue but one thing tied everything together—pure unadulterated enjoyment in music’s transformative magic.

The Barn lives in the woods down a private dirt road, miles (and miles) from most things that make noise. Most days, you can hear the echo of a pin drop. All to say if I want to listen in to what a hifi is doing to music, the only thing that gets in the way is attention, or lack thereof. Seeing as music is the healing force of the universe, props to Albert Ayler, and I use music to sooth, I am all attention most of the time when listening. As I said, this is an activity I’ve been at, professionally, for more than a decade and we live in this place down a private dirt road because it had a Barn for me to work within. I mention the obvious because it speaks to a certain degree of seriousness in approach to this work, which is not really work at all.

When a hif system reveals new things about old, familiar music—as if you’ve discovered a hidden room within—the experience of listening takes on greater importance. At least that’s the case for me. The Riviera Labs PL10 Preamplifier & AFM25 Monoblock Amplifiers worked like archeologists of sound on all of the music I sent their way, turning reproduction into an experience worthy of all the time and attention I had to offer. For people who like to listen, I can think of no greater compliment or recommendation.

Riviera Labs APL10 Preamplifier
Price: $17,500

Power 25W / 8 Ohm
Zero Feedback
Pure “Class A”
Hybrid design (Triode, BJT, Mosfet)
1 RCA Unbalanced input
1 XLR Balanced input (true balanced)

AFM25 Monoblock Amplifiers
Price: $32,800/pair

Power 25W / 8 Ohm
Zero Feedback
Pure “Class A”
Hybrid design (Triode, BJT, Mosfet)
1 RCA Unbalanced input
1 XLR Balanced input (true balanced)
Dimensions: 26×43.5×14.5h cm. Weight: 14.4 Kg

Company Website: Riviera Labs
US Distributor Website: Tone Imports