Things move fast in multichannel. No, I'm not referring to the speed of sound effects as they whip around a roomlet's leave that for the home-theater mags. I'm talking about audio technology. Since I began writing this column in June 2003, we've seen serious technological changes almost annually, some driven by real needs, some imposed by marketing considerations. To me, the rate of change seems strikingly rapid, compared to that of the products I review for the main portion of Stereophile, based, as they are, in the two-channel world.
Kal reviews the Yamaha Aventage BD-A1000 universal Blu-ray player and remarks "a sharp-looking, great-sounding machine that will play any extant digital format well. It sounded better in my better system, where I could really relish its low-frequency performance." He also takes a listen to the Meridian 861 Reference v6 Digital Surround Controller and ponders "how to reconcile the internal complexity of Meridian's 861 Reference v6 with the disarming purity of the sounds it reproduces?"
The AV7005 is Marantz's second multichannel preamplifier-processor and, at $1499.99, the least expensive pre-pro I've used or reviewed. The Integra DTC-9.8, which has been resident in my stable since 2007, when it cost $1600, and its successors, have since then steadily risen in price. The Marantz's predecessor, the AV8003 ($2599.99), was highly praised in many quarters. I never got my hands on one because, like a churlish child, I felt it lacked features I considered essential. Other reviewers didn't seem bothered by those limitations, or were unaware of them. The AV7005, however, looks and feels like a winner for music and home theater. I see no evidence of skimpingthe AV7005 sports such high-end features as balanced outputs, network controllability and streaming, and, of course, HDMI v1.4a for compatibility with 3D and all audio codecs.
As I wandered the displays and demonstrations at the 2010 CEDIA Expo last September, I found few multichannel products worth writing about. Sure, there were many interesting new speakers from Pioneer, GoldenEar, Atlantic Technology, Adam Audio, MartinLogan, and others, but really, you could just use two for stereo. I saw the requisite number of new multichannel players, processors, and receivers, but most boasted no more than some new features that made them easier to use (iPad apps were rife) and/or gave them access to new sources (audio and video streaming were obligatory).
I remember my first experience with headphones. In 1960, I bought a set of Trimm dual 'phones (less than $5) and rewired them for stereo. The experience was remarkable for several reasons. First, it brought the sounds into my headI was thrilled with the impact. Second, stereo effects, especially with Enoch Light's ping-pong LPs (eg, Provocative Percussion, Command RS800SD), were striking. Third, I could play them really loud without bothering others. Of course, they had no bass, brittle treble, distorted at high levels, and their wire headband and Bakelite earpieces were uncomfortable. My fascination with this gimmick quickly faded.
When I started out on my multichannel mission in 2000, it was with an all-digital Meridian system that relied on lossy, compressed sources like the original Dolby Digital and DTS formats, or on synthesized surround based on Dolby Pro-Logic or Meridian's own TriField. With the appearance of first SACD and DVD-Audio and then Blu-ray, discrete lossless multichannel recordings became available, but there was no way to output those signals in digital form for interconnection to other components for playback or further manipulation. Most audiophiles, me included, already had analog preamps and power amps. It was only with the appearance of HDMI and the accompanying HDCP content protection that we could output those digital signals, and over a single cable to boot. Today, there are A/V receivers, some costing less than $500, and more than a handful of audiophile-oriented preamp-processors, that can accept such lossless high-resolution multichannel content as PCM, DSD, Dolby TruHD, and dtsHD Master Audio.
The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.
It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturersif it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.
It seems only yesterday, but it's been 10 years since I began using the original Paradigm Reference Servo-15 subwoofer in my system. It was good then, and it still is, although a lot around it has changed. At first, I hooked it up via Paradigm's X-35 crossover, then via a Technics SH-AC500D surround processor, and finally to the subwoofer/LFE outputs of the various preamplifier-processors and A/V receivers I've used. Y'see, the Servo-15 is just a powered sub. It has an amp and a level control, but no crossover, no channel mixing, and no phase control. Just plug in the signal and it plays it. Along came in-room response correction from Audyssey, Anthem, Velodyne, etc., and the Servo-15 became an even better sub. For music, it entirely satisfies my needs.
It began when my oldest brother, 13 years my senior, returned from military service and told me about "hi-fi." Until then, all I'd known was our ancient tabletop radio-phonograph with its insatiable appetite for osmium styli. Back then, in the early 1950s, audio componentry was scrappy, still evolving from World War II military electronics and public-address systems. I began reading the electronics magazines and learned that, to get started, I needed a record player connected to an amplifier and a speaker. I toured the shops and stalls on old Cortlandt Street, before the building of the World Trade Center, and made my selections based on appearance, reputation, and specifications rather than on sound. Still, compared to what we were used to, the results sounded hair-raisingly good.
We all recognize that the Super Audio Compact Disc, despite being an almost ideal format for high-resolution audio, has not replaced the "Red Book" CD. However, Sam Tellig's comments in the June and July issues of Stereophile, and Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" in July, unleashed e-mails urging me to champion multichannel sound (don't I do this already?) and smite the unbelievers (not a chance).
HDMI is the invention of the Devil. I grant that the Devil is very smarthe has put on a single cable both hi-rez audio and video, and paid tribute to the gods of industry by incorporating obligatory content protection. However, he has confounded the rest of us by using a connector that, while it relies on friction to maintain physical contact, has so little friction that the cable connector can be easily displaced from or misaligned with the chassis connector. The traditional audiophile predilection for heavy cables is, in this case, actually counterproductiveexerting just a bit of torque on a stiff HDMI cable can be enough to break the connection.
The first time I ever heard stereo sound, it was in a shop on Manhattan's Radio Row. In addition to the Studer staggered-head tape deck, the system consisted of pairs of McIntosh C8 preamps, MC60 power amps, and monster Bozak B-310 speakers. I can still picture the room and almost hear the sound. I was then an impecunious high-schooler, and while I always strived to buy the best equipment I could afford, I unfortunately was never able to own any of these iconic products. However, when I saw McIntosh's new MC303 three-channel power amp glowing brightly on silent display at the 2008 CEDIA Expo, a light bulb went on over my head: I'd been assessing a series of three-channel and monoblock amps, and the MC303 would fit nicely into my New York City system.
I've been enthusiastically tracking the development of Bel Canto's class-D amplifiers, from their original TriPath-based models to their more recent designs based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEpower modules. With each step, Bel Canto has improved their amps' sound quality and reliability.