2015 Recommended Components Surround-Sound Components

Music Surround-Sound Components

A

Bryston SP-3: $9500
The SP-3 combines a true analog preamp and a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor in a beautifully built, relatively compact (17" W by 5.75" H by 14.25" D) case. It uses Bryston's high-quality 24-bit/192kHz DACs and offers a full suite of connections, including: eight HDMI inputs, two HDMI outputs, a 7.1 set of analog inputs and two 7.1 sets of outputs, four S/PDIF inputs, two AES/EBU inputs, and USB, RS-232, and Ethernet jacks. The sound from the SP-3's analog stereo inputs was "absolutely pristine, powerful, and a breath of fresh air," while digital S/PDIF or TosLink datastreams sounded transparent and convincing, with especially detailed and extended treble. "I think the Bryston SP-3 is the first great audiophile preamplifier-processor," KR concluded, "It almost redefines Class A sound for a surround processor." (Vol.35 Nos.5 & 7 WWW)

Bryston 9B-SST2: $8095 ✩
The 9B-SST2 power amplifier (called 9B-THX at the time of the review) boasts five channels, 120Wpc into 8 ohms, and is built like pro gear; ie, like a tank. Hand-soldered, double-sided glass-epoxy boards and elaborate grounding scheme front special-grade steel toroidal transformers. According to JA, "the excellent set of measurements indicates solid, reliable engineering." LG was impressed by this amp's speed, power, extension, its tightness and definition in the bass, and its "excellent" midrange. Fully the equal of more costly amps, with wide dynamic contrasts and "involving" vocals, and sonically similar to previous Bryston ST amps. THX conformance, a 20-year (!) warranty, and a reasonable price make this beefy, reliable amp an attractive package—a perfect choice, suggests LG, for home-theater and multichannel music systems. KR's long-term multi-channel reference. (Vol.23 No.9 WWW)

Classé CT-SSP: $9500 ✩
With its clean front panel boasting only a small touchscreen and a single knob, the solidly built CT-SSP surround-sound processor has an all-business look and is extremely simple to use while retaining complete control. It offers 10 output channels and multiple subwoofer configurations, and can support up to 20 audio/video source assignments and six different speaker configurations. Inserting the CT-SSP into KR's Connecticut system resulted in a deeper, wider soundstage, more impressive imaging, and seamless integration of the subwoofer and speaker outputs. "The performance of my system was elevated to a level beyond anything previous," said Kal. The CT-SSP sounded clean, tight, and powerful in KR's Manhattan system, with greater low-end weight and impact than the Meridian HD621/861 but a less expansive soundstage. (Vol.33 Nos.7 & 11 WWW)

exaSound e28 multichannel DAC: $3299
Like exaSound's e18, the e28 uses a Sabre32 D/A chip capable of handling almost any PCM format with resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz; but, while the earlier model could play DSD files only in stereo and at the base sampling rate of 2.82MHz, the e28 handles DSD sampling rates of 2.82, 3.072, 5.64, 6.14, 11.28, and 12.28MHz without converting the signal to PCM. In addition, the e28 includes an enhanced headphone output, and is specified as having lower distortion and noise than its predecessor in every measured mode. The sound was smooth and balanced overall, with sweet highs, a decidedly pure midrange, and an exceptional sense of space, said Kal. "The exaSound e28 is a real-world, second-generation, cutting-edge, multichannel DAC. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for something better to come along any time soon," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.11 WWW)

Illusonic Immersive Audio Processor: 16,000 CHF
Made in Switzerland, the unusually versatile—if very expensive—Immersive Audio Processor includes a five-band parametric equalizer in each of its 16 output channels. It processes two- and multichannel sources into one of 168 loudspeaker setups with the ability to manipulate the presentation's spatial distribution using three parameters: Center, Depth/3D, and Immersion. A superb control app provides an attractive graphic interface for accessing all of the IAP's functions, and works in real time so the user can immediately hear the effects of any adjustments. Though it lacks high-resolution decoding and doesn't accommodate multiple remote zones, the IAP has four HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, three coax and two optical digital inputs, three analog stereo RCA inputs, an XLR analog stereo output, and 16 additional XLR output connectors. Setup was relatively simple, operation was flawless, and the sound was remarkably clean, transparent, and balanced, said Kal. (Vol.37 No.1 WWW)

Integra DHC-80.3 preamp/processor: $3200 $$$ ✩
Though similar in appearance to Integra's DTC-9.8 and its successors, the DHC-80.2 preamplifier-processor adds a host of features, including: HDMI v1.4 (eight inputs, two outputs, Audio Return Channel and 3D), two USB inputs, two subwoofer outputs, a Universal Port for an iPod dock or HDRadio tuner module, network connectivity, and the latest versions of Audyssey MultEQ XT32, Dynamic EQ, and Dynamic Volume. Compared to the DTC-9.8, the DHC-80.2 had a more dynamic, better-balanced sound, with a fuller midrange and improved transparency. "The Integra DHC-80.2 redefines value in a multichannel preamplifier-processor for the serious music lover or home-theater fan," said KR. Early production samples suffered from an incorrect implementation of Audyssey's MultEQ Pro room correction software, resulting in a glassy midrange and dull treble; a later firmware update corrected the problem and produced smooth high frequencies and a balanced overall response. Current 80.3 version added new video circuitry and additional features. (Vol.34 Nos.7 & 9 WWW)

Krell Foundation preamplifier/processor: $6500
Despite some wrinkles with the EQ system, this is an excellent-sounding and proficient pre/pro for audiophile ears. DSD capability is now being added. (Vol.37 No.5 WWW)

Marantz AV8801: $2999 $$$
The Audyssey-equipped AV8801 is an 11.2-channel preamplifier-processor with a hefty toroidal transformer and a heavy copper-plated chassis. Behind its front-panel dropdown door are a brilliant display and a plethora of controls and jacks, including ports for headphones, the Audyssey calibration microphone, iPod/USB and HDMI/MHL, as well as three jacks for analog audio and video. Around back, the AV8801 has a moving-magnet phono input and 13 XLR and RCA analog outputs. All 13 channels feature 32-bit/192kHz DACs driving proprietary Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module circuits. Setup was simple. The Marantz offered a coherent, powerful sound with a smooth treble and clean midrange, said KR. "Overall, the Marantz AV8801 is the best-sounding preamplifier-processor I have heard at or below its price," he concluded. (Vol.36 No.3 WWW)

McIntosh MC303: $11,000 ✩
The three-channel, 300Wpc MC303 amplifier measures 17.75" wide by 12.4" high by 22" deep and weighs 155 lbs. Its large front panel is home to three blue power-level meters, two gold-rimmed knobs for meter illumination and power, and two substantial handles. Driving KR's B&W 802D loudspeakers, the MC303 delivered "the relaxed spaciousness and transparency of master tapes." There was a smoothness that extended through the frequency spectrum and seemed to erase the 802Ds' crossover transitions. The Mac couldn't quite match the firm bass or natural treble of the Bel Canto Ref1000 Mk.II monoblocks, however. (Vol.32 No.5 WWW)

Meridian Reference 861: $18,995 ✩
Multimedia controller with video, DSP-based decoding for matrixed and discrete multichannel audio sources. Functions as analog preamplifier-controller, digital and video controller, and A/D–D/A converter. Built-in, reprogrammable decoding of multichannel sources (Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, Ambisonic, etc.), plus THX and Trifield output from two-channel sources. All inputs digitally processed. Of Trifield's synthesized front-three-channels output, KR observed, "I came to regard the loss of air and the narrower soundstage as acceptable concomitants of the richer, tighter, better-defined central images. 'Audiophile air' began to seem an artifact rather than an enhancement." DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 music recordings "injected" ambiences whose acoustics superseded his room's. Multichannel is immersive, but our KR would rather not sit in the middle of a string quartet or orchestra. For two-channel, "equal to the best...beyond significant reproach." Multichannel, he declared, is the future, and Meridian is ready now. Logical but complicated setup and option procedures entered via PC; heavy dealer involvement is key to getting the best from this ultimate component. But when the 861 is programmed for precise time alignment and amplitude balance among the speakers, and the crossover and bass management adjusted independently for the main, center, and rear channels, "everything seemed just right, and it made for consistently satisfying listening," he decided."The TriField DSP is a greatly advantageous feature that deserves more recognition. I felt confident that whatever little silver disc I put into the 800-861, it would sound superb." Meridian's new MConfig program replaces pages of configuration options with a drag-and-drop graphic user interface, and offers guided channel-level settings and room-correction setup routines. KR: "The upgraded 861 Reference's sound was delightfully and characteristically transparent....Still Class A after all these years." The updates in Version 6 of the 861 preamplifier-processor include SpeakerLink connections for Meridian's DSP speakers, an "endpoint" card for optimal performance with Meridian's Sooloos music-server systems, a proprietary apodizing upsampling filter for all digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz DACs. The 861 v6 partnered a delicately pure and transparent midrange and treble with exquisite delineation of voices and instruments, said KR. "The 861 has always been and still is the best-sounding audio processor I have heard," he concluded. Of the V8 refinements, some—most notably the newly required use of Meridian's SpeakerLink digital cable, which ensures a digital path from source to each speaker's integral amp—impact only users of Meridian's DSP speakers; others include a digital-input card that has a USB input—which itself may open the door for 24/192 input—as well as a linear power supply for lower noise, and redesigned oscillators and clocking that, according to Meridian, reduce jitter by 40%. KR's verdict: "Overall, the Meridian Reference 861, especially in its V8 incarnation, is still my favorite audio preamplifier-processor to live with." Price varies with options chosen. HD621 outboard processor (see "Digital Processors") adds HDMI capability. (Vol.23 No.2, Vol.26 No.8, Vol.29 No.7, Vol.34 No.5, Vol.37 No.11 WWW)

Meridian HD621 HDMI Audio Processor: $2995 ✩
Meridian's HD621 HDMI Audio Processor smoothly integrates six HDMI inputs, HD audio processing, and SD upsampling with any Meridian processor that can handle a Smartlink/MHR, including the G61R, G68, C61R, and the 861. It extracts the PCM audio data from the HDMI input, FIFO-buffers the PCM, and up/downsamples it for output to the main processor. Upsampling is accomplished by "apodizing" filters identical to those used in the Meridian 808i.2 player-preamp. HDMI from the HD621 sounded "more detailed and open" than PCM data via the Oppo DV-980H's three S/PDIF connections, while "Red Book" CD sounded "superb" through the Meridian. "So rejoice—the HD621 brings HD audio to Meridian systems, and it sounds superb with non-HD sources as well," said KR. (Vol.32 No.9 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M17: $5499
In KR's view, NAD's Masters Series of products has of late taken a turn from the conservative to the adventurous—evidence of which he sees in the Masters M17, which contains individual, updateable modules for digital video, analog video, digital audio, and analog audio. Although the current model lacks a USB port and audio-data Ethernet port, a fifth module, to support streaming and Bluesound, is said to be in the works. Although KR criticized the poor positioning off the front-panel Off/Standby switch, he declared that "the M17's remote control was an unalloyed delight: slim, and just hefty enough to feel good in the hand." According to KR, "The M17's sound, too, was delightful." He noted dynamics that were "precise and satisfying," and bass that was "delivered with authority"—and that "playing hi-rez and/or multichannel files from my server, connected to the M17 via HDMI, was simply glorious, especially as these signals were passed through a Dirac Live speaker-and-room–correction filter set at [24-bit/96kHz]." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M27: $3999
No mere afterthought to the Masters M17 pre-pro," according to KR, the Masters M27 is a seven-channel class-D power amp based on the recent Hypex Ncore module. Single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs are provided for all channels, and the Masters M27 is rated at 250Wpc—or 180Wpc with all seven channels driven. A mildly wonky on/off switch was the only fly in this multichannel ointment: KR praised the M27's sound as "notably clean and punchy," adding that "[the amplifier's] midrange and treble were completely free of any grain or, significantly, the grayish character that is a consistent flaw in the sounds of many of the otherwise excellent class-D amps I've used." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 31: $3295 $$$
Based on circuitry developed by John Curl for the highly praised Halo JC 1, the three-channel A 31 power amplifier is rated to deliver 250Wpc into 8 ohms or 400Wpc into 4 ohms. Like other Halo models, the A 31 is solidly built and has a clean, attractive, brushed-aluminum faceplate. On the rear panel are three groups of connectors/controls, one per channel, including balanced and unbalanced inputs and gain controls. Though it lacked some upper-bass richness, the A 31 had a "clean, luminous" overall sound, with a sophisticated, detailed treble; rich, clean midrange; and firm, extended bass, said KR, adding that "the sound is full, balanced and detailed and packs a wallop." (Vol.35 No.9 WWW)

Parasound Halo P 7: $2295 $$$ ✩
The Halo P 7 is a full-featured analog stereo preamp with six stereo inputs, balanced and unbalanced outputs, front-panel headphone and MP3 jacks, and an MM/MC phono preamp. It also provides two 7.1-channel unbalanced inputs that can be set for home-theater bypass, optional bass management for all sources, and RS-232/12V connections to integrate with modern A/V systems. With its "delightfully open, balanced sound" and outstanding versatility, the Halo P 7 is "the category killer of analog multichannel preamps or HT bypass," raved KR. (Vol.32 No.1 WWW)

B

Anthem MRX 710: $1999
Made in China, the 90Wpc MRX 710 (originally called MRX 700) is Anthem's top-model audio/video receiver. It has all the requisite A/V connections, including USB and Ethernet inputs; is compatible with HD radio and iTunes tagging; comes with a complete Anthem Room Correction kit; and uses a large toroidal power transformer. Though it lacked the transparency of Integra's DHC-80.2 and couldn't match the bass clarity of Bryston's 9B-SST, the Anthem offered a warm midrange, well-focused images, and a deep soundstage, said KR. (Vol.35 No.1 WWW)

Marantz MM8077: $2399
The 150Wpc MM8077 is a seven-channel power amplifier. Each channel has selectable unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR inputs, driven by a common power supply equipped with a huge transformer and a generous capacitor reservoir. The MM8807 matched the much more expensive Bryston 9BST in terms of power, transient response, and imaging, but lacked some bass definition and control, said KR. An excellent multichannel amplifier, and a perfect partner for Marantz's AV8801 pre-pro, he concluded. (Vol.36 No.3 WWW)

NAD T 187: $2999
The versatile T 187 preamplifier-processor's modular construction enables various combinations of: 7.1-channel inputs and outputs, six pairs of stereo analog inputs and outputs, several video inputs, up to six HDMI inputs, three each coaxial and optical inputs, one each coaxial and optical output, an Ethernet jack, and a mini stereo jack for mobile players. Additionally, the NAD's unique application of Audyssey's MultEQ XT room-correction software includes a custom target curve developed by Paul Barton. Easy to set up and use, the T 187 offered a full-bodied sound with a smooth, detailed treble, said KR. Paul Barton's target curve added a touch of warmth, with stronger, tighter low bass. "Even if it doesn't do everything possible, the NAD T 187 does everything right," concluded KR. (Vol.36 No.1 WWW)

Rotel RMB-1585: $2999
A powerful and transparent 5-channel amplifier. (Vol.37 No.9 WWW)

Rotel RSP-1572: $2199 ✩
This compact, handsome preamplifier-processor offers six HDMI, two component, and two composite video inputs; two HDMI, one component, and four composite video outputs; four optical and three coaxial digital audio inputs; eight stereo analog inputs; one 7.1-channel analog input; and one USB input. Audio outputs include one optical, one coax digital, two stereo analog, and one analog 7.1-channel preamp output with dual jacks for two center and two subwoofer outputs. While the RSP-1572 lacks auto-setup and room EQ capabilities, its variable filters allow the user to effectively deal with room acoustics. The Rotel offered transparent highs, a clean midrange, and full bass, said KR. "Those of us who don't mind getting our hands dirty with some measurement tools can have it all with the RSP-1572: great sound and great looks," he concluded, though he adds that the room EQ is a bit challenging. (Vol.35 No.3 WWW)

Yamaha Aventage CX-A5000: $2999.95
In addition to its 33 CinemaDSP modes and extensive video processing, the substantial (17" W by 7.5" H by 18" D, 30 lbs) Aventage CX-A5000 pre-pro offers 11 channels of balanced outputs, dual audio configurations, the ability to stream 24-bit/192kHz FLAC and WAV files, ESS Technology Sabre32 Ultra DACs for all channels, and Yamaha's parametric EQ room-optimization software with multi-point/speaker-angle measurement. Yamaha's graphic user interface was attractive and intuitive, and the included remote, though difficult to read, was powerful. Compared to the popular Marantz AV8801, the CX-A5000 lacked low-end resolution but extracted more information from the upper midrange and treble, said Kal. "Once they hear it, many listeners will pounce on this excellent pre-pro," he concluded. (Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

C

Nuforce AVP-18: $1095
Built into a slim, minimalist case, the AVP-18 multichannel preamplifier-processor offers two coaxial, one TosLink, one combination coax/optical, and four 24-bit/192kHz-capable HDMI inputs; USB A and B connectors; an output jack for a 12V trigger; an HDMI output; a TosLink output; and a 2x4 array of RCA jacks for the 7.1-channel analog output. An 11-filter parametric EQ is provided via a potent Cirrus chipset. Setup was relatively simple and operation was flawless. Although the NuForce lacked some soundstage depth and lower-midrange richness, its overall sound was well balanced and satisfying, with good detail resolution and image specificity, said Kal. "The all-digital NuForce AVP-18 is a good choice for an easy-to-use and easy-to-look-at preamplifier-processor," he summed up. (Vol.36 No.11 WWW)

Yamaha Aventage MX-A5000: $2999.95
Measuring 17" W by 8.25" H by 18" D and weighing 56 lbs, the MX-A5000 is a massive and versatile 11-channel amp rated to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms. Rear-panel Channel Select switches and front-panel Speaker Select buttons permit a wide range of configurations, including: five-channel biamping, five main channels with two independently amplified zones, a triamped center channel in a mono- or biamped five-channel system, and other, more specialized arrangements. A perfect sonic partner for Yamaha's Aventage CX-A5000 pre-pro, the MX-A5000 produced a clean, open overall sound, with a slightly soft treble, well-defined midrange, and solid bass, said Kal. "If you need 11 channels, regardless of how you choose to use them, I highly recommend Yamaha's MX-A5000," he concluded. (Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

K

Classé Sigma SSP, Emotiva XMC-1, and Marantz AV-8802 processors, Classé Sigma AMP5 5-channel power amplifier.

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

Interesting that Digital Processors and Signal Processors are separate categories, given that I encounter the term 'DSP' (Digital Signal Processor) so often. Maybe it's a hardware-software thing.

corrective_unconscious's picture

The digital processors are DACs or things to route digital sound somewhere. There is some overlap if there's a CD player with inputs to its DAC, and some overlap with preamp/DACs, some of which of those might have some additional, secondary digital EQ functions.

The signal processors are mostly about varieties of digital EQ, with again a few hybrid products having some secondary functions.

The separation seems clear enough to me. It is the whole universe of modern audio which seems complex, i.e., the products themselves.

John Atkinson's picture
dalethorn wrote:
Interesting that Digital Processors and Signal Processors are separate categories, given that I encounter the term 'DSP' (Digital Signal Processor) so often.

The Digital Processors category is almost exclusively digital/analog converters. The Signal Processors category is reserved for things that do something to the signal and includes analog-domain processors, such as the BSG Q0L.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

I'm going to profess a bit of ignorance here, so .... one of the places where DSP or some variant shows up in my world is related to music players such as built into the Pono device, or in computer software such as Foobar2000 etc. The great thing about EQ included in these players (or as plug-in software) is that the digital data gets EQ'd before it hits the DAC, so that whatever DAC or amp is used, the EQ remains constant in playback. Ignoring any negative impact on the EQ due to which peripherals are used, I've always assumed that EQ pre-applied to the digital data as described will reduce the resolution of the playback. If that's true, are there common analog EQ solutions that would provide better sound?

tdixon's picture

Does this mean there are no plans for an app being released like there were in previous years?

John Atkinson's picture
tdixon wrote:
Does this mean there are no plans for an app being released like there were in previous years?

Unfortunately, that's correct. No plans. However, this website reprint replaces the standalone free app.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Dushyant's picture

From your comments prefacing the Recommended Loudspeakers 2015, I understand that category A (Full Range) has LF extension down to 20Hz. What about B (Full Range) and C (Full Range)? Do they also need to have LF extension down to 20Hz? If not, what is the LF extension for inclusion? For the restricted LF I assume that LF extension is to 40Hz for all categories. Clarification will be helpful and appreciated.

Thanks
Dushyant

leesure's picture

Despite there being 25 Class A preamps, there are only 2 Class B preamplifiers (both from the same company) and NO class C Preamps? There are 18 Class A Power Amps and Zero Class C or D Power Amps? I thought, "Perhaps there are just no products that fit those categories any more. No more Adcom's. No more B&K's." But then I looked around and found that there ARE musically satisfying budget electronics.

So I am left to wonder...do they no longer submit their products for review or is Stereophile no longer interested in reviewing them?

I began reading Stereophile in my 20's when there was no way I could even consider a $10,000 amplifier. I aspired to a system like that, but also loved reading about gear that I could stretch to afford. I loved building a musically satisfying SYSTEM for well under $10,000. Had I only been able to read about the gear that was so far out of reach, I would likely have dropped the hobby altogether. Without the bridge, I would never have been able to get across to the ultimate destination. That bridge is being taken away from the next generation of Audiophiles.

I think that's a real shame.

Christopher Mankiewicz's picture

Kal, Please let me know. Thanks, Chris