Music in the Round #16 Page 2
Do I hear what it hears?
I wish I could have easily A/B'd my original pink-noise–based channel balance against the Denon AVR-4806's, but I strongly believe that, even with Audyssey MultEQxt defeated, the new settings, with stronger right-side levels, did improve the subjective left/right balance. Depending on the source material, the front/rear balance was similarly improved. That is, the envelopment was more complete with strongly surround-managed material such as the new Talking Heads DualDiscs (see sidebar), but the rear signals, as well-mixed and balanced as they are, did not overwhelm the front and sides. Nonetheless, with more traditional material—such as Shostakovich's Symphony 1, from the new Kitajenko set (see sidebar)—laterally located high-frequency transients such as cymbals and brass could annoyingly "bleed" around to the rear. Knocking off about 2dB from the Denon settings for the rear channels cured this, yet left the Talking Heads tracks as solidly immersive as ever. Even when there were discrete signals in the rear, they were more focused and palpable, yet ambient sounds were not overbalanced. The familiar Ubi caritas from the DMP Surround Demo had more depth, ambience, and spread up front with the new balance settings.
Audyssey MultEQxt did even better. One can quickly switch between the equalized and unequalized sounds with the AVR-4806's remote control. I could easily discern the difference anywhere in the room, although it always sounded best where it was supposed to. In my setup, the differences wrought by the MultEQxt, though real, were small. I've toiled over this system for years, and it was sounding very nice before Audyssey put in its 2¢. While I was at first disappointed not to hear the huge improvements I'd heard at Audyssey demos, I know that my system had much less to fix than did the demo systems. What I hear now from the EQ'd system is an almost seamlessly integrated soundstage encompassing 360°, and most notable for the distinctiveness of sounds in the center rear and along the sides. Moreover, the boominess I'd associated with reclining on the sofa, almost at the rear wall, is gone. The sweet spot is greatly enlarged in width, depth, and height, and I can bask in the music without a care.
What have we achieved?
First, the pairing of the Denon DVD-5910 universal player with the AVR-4806 has eliminated the practical restriction that requires most of us to use two to six analog cables from player to control unit and two to six more from there to the power amp in order to listen to SACD or DVD-Audio discs. Using Denon-Link or FireWire transmits all signals in digital form from player to receiver over a single wire, and all channel selection and bass management can be accomplished there without additional A/D conversions, external boxes, or cables. I see no downside to this. I wish that more pre-pros included such an arrangement.
The second issue was the positioning and balancing of the speakers. Few of us can position all the speakers of a multichannel system equidistant from the listening position (the ITU standard setup—see the diagram in my first column), and merely adjusting levels doesn't compensate for different arrival times. The AVR-4806's microphone-and-DSP setup figures out how many speakers you have, where they are, then sets appropriate levels and delays. Audio purists may feel that such digital manipulations conflict with the ethic of "simpler is better." I think that as long as the data remain in the digital domain, manipulations for delay are likely to be purer than any analog equivalent. For volume and balance, of course, I could argue on both sides.
The third issue is that of the acoustics of the listening room and how they interact with the speakers. As anyone who has heard music in an anechoic chamber can attest, proper two-channel stereo requires from the room an acoustic contribution, albeit a controlled one. Proper multichannel playback requires a little less room sound, but not anechoic conditions. However, very few audiophiles, including those who titrate speaker position with a micrometer, know much about their rooms' reverberation times or spectral properties. Many of us have not even tried to minimize first-order reflections, although that alone can make a huge audible improvement in clarity and imaging. You can follow general guidelines for setup and room treatment, but if you don't use room-analysis hardware and software, you're blindly groping. Audyssey's MultEQxt is the easy choice. In my experience, MultEQxt does best with really poor setups; its contribution to my acoustically treated room and obsessively tweaked system, while positive, was small.
Finally, audiophiles tend to eschew receivers and remote controls. Of course, there's always the potential for compromise and corruption when you cram many competing functions into the same box, including such nonaudio functions as digital switching and remote sensing. But today we live in a soup of mostly digital signals, and there do seem to be ways of dealing with them. The AVR-4806's remote also handles all the functions of the DVD-5910, as well as of several other audio and video gadgets. Maybe I'm getting old, but for a tweako who's constantly adjusting things, it sure beats getting up all the time.
So, with only the Denon DVD-5910 and AVR-4806, a D-Link or iLink interconnect, and the willingness to follow simple onscreen instructions, one can easily set up, in less than half an hour, a two/multichannel system that uses sophisticated channel balancing and bass management to compensate for speaker positions and room interactions, all without redigitizing the audio signal and controllable from a single remote.
But is this simple setup really the sonic equal of the separate components and cables it replaced? In its Direct mode, which bypasses most of the digital signal processing, the AVR-4806 was barely less open or transparent than the purely analog preamps I've recently used (Bel Canto Pre6, McCormack MAP-1, Sony XA-P9000ES). But that ignores the Audyssey MultEQxt processing, one of the Denon's crucial features. Switch in the Audyssey EQ and the comparison quickly becomes unfair and nearly impossible.
But here I must be a bit evasive for the moment. First, I used the AVR-4806 to feed my resident Bryston 9B-ST power amp rather than run my speakers from the Denon's own amps. This was done in the interests of speed and convenience. Second, the DVD-5910 I received, labeled "SHOW STOCK," lacked the Third Edition of D-Link and therefore defaulted to iLink for SACD. Finally, as I write this, I have learned the MultEQxt software installed was not the latest version and lacked, according to Audyssey, "All the latest Audyssey improvements on crossover frequency detection, improved mic cal curve, improved low frequency correction." All of this is being corrected, but you'll have to wait till next time for details about D-Link vs iLink and how the AVR-4806 stands up to the separates. In the interim, all I'll say is that I'll be enjoying the AVR-4806 in my system.
Another AC gadget
I was so impressed with the $1499 American Power Conversion S-15 AC conditioner/backup system in my city system—see "Music in the Round," September 2005—that I got one for my country system. Here, it boosts the local voltage from its usual 112VAC to a constant 120VAC and protects our plasma display as well as the rest of the equipment. What I gave up when I swapped out the Panamax 5510Pro for the S-15 was the balanced power option and protection of the audio signal lines. Balanced power did nothing significant that I could hear, but loss of the audio-line protection did concern me. The APC S-15 handles almost everything because my powered subwoofer is on the other side of the room and on another dedicated circuit. In theory, induced surges on that line or a malfunction in the sub could bypass the S-15 and invade my other components via the subwoofer interconnect.
Enter Panamax's Max 2 Sub ($49.95), a tiny surge protector that mounts directly into an AC outlet and protects its own two outlets with the "protect or disconnect" function that worked so well in Panamax's 5510Pro. It also has two sets of similarly protected RCA input/output connections, and LEDs that indicate the AC status. So the interconnect comes through the wall from the main rack and, along with the sub's interconnect and the sub's AC cable, connects to the Max 2 Sub. Monster Cable makes a similar product, the similarly priced Subwoofer PowerCenter SW200, but I opted for the Panamax because it occupies only one wall outlet, not two.
I hope I never know when or if the Max 2 Sub will earn its price, but I can say this: 1) My subwoofer sounds and works as it did without it. 2) The Panamax 5510Pro proved that my country house has frequent AC aberrations. 3) The Max 2 Sub is inexpensive and unobtrusive. Together with the Environmental Potentials EP-2050 whole-house protector and the APC S-15, the Max 2 Sub makes another small contribution to my peace of mind.
Next time in the Round
I'll finish up with the updated Denons and follow up on an updated Meridian Reference 861 preamplifier/processor. New subwoofers are in the wings, along with my own approach to bass trapping. All that and CES, too.