Music in the Round #35 Page 2

The midrange and, particularly, voices were convincingly natural, and whatever residuum of grayness or dullness I'd heard in the earlier amps was gone. Because the midrange was where I could most easily hear the differences and divine my preferences among the original Refs and the best conventional, nonswitching, analog amps, the Mk.II iteration makes the Ref1000 now competitive in every parameter. The extreme treble, too, sounded cleaner, perhaps because of its better balance with the now-improved midrange. Power and dynamics were more than sufficient for any of the challenges I could set it—as far as I was concerned, the Ref1000 Mk.II was essentially limitless in application.

How much of an improvement is the Mk.II over the original Ref1000? In some ways, it's only incremental—both models sound clean, powerful, and neutral. On the other hand, these incremental improvements move the Mk.II beyond the category of "really good for a digital amp" to just plain "really good" (footnote 1). The Bel Canto Ref1000 Mk.II can be compared with the cream of the other amps I've had in my system: the Classé CA-3200, Mark Levinson No.433, and Ayre Acoustics V-6xe. Each of these distinguishes itself in different ways, and particularly with different speakers. Because of this, I think I must keep the Bel Canto Ref1000 Mk.IIs as a reference amplifier—an easy decision even when based solely on its sound, but also: in my living room, none of the others can be so easily hidden in plain sight.

Audyssey MultEQ Pro3.0 room-correction software
I understand why many readers are confused about the various products and configurations of Audyssey Laboratories' room-correction software. Beginning with the room-and-system equalization products installed in A/V receivers and preamplifier-processors, there are: Audyssey MultEQ, MultEQ XT, and 2EQ. There is also a standalone component, the Audyssey Sound Equalizer, which now comes with balanced or unbalanced input/output versions. Recently, new features that rely on Audyssey's EQ have been added. Dynamic EQ is a variable loudness control that compensates with equalization (EQ) and channel-balance adjustments to make low-level listening more like the sound one hears at high or reference levels. It's better than any other loudness-control system I've heard, and will have great value in some situations, but it's just not the same as listening at reference levels. Dynamic Volume is a smart dynamic range control that compresses dynamics and bass for listening at times when and under conditions in which others might be disturbed. For TV and some DVDs, it can also keep you from being blasted by high-level ads or promos. But it's not for serious music listening, in my opinion.

Looming over all of these is MultEQ Pro, a package of software that provides, by means of a calibrated microphone, preamplifier, and the user's laptop computer, more sophisticated measurements and calculations for many of the products listed above, if they are MultEQ Pro–ready. However, it's designed to be used only by professional installers who have completed a training course with Audyssey, which means that it will cost more than using a pre-installed version of MultEQ bundled with an AVR or preamplifier-processor. I reviewed earlier versions of MultEQ Pro with Integra's DTC-9.8 pre-pro and Audyssey's own Sound Equalizer, and the software was selected as one of Stereophile's Joint Accessories of the Year for 2008.

Although the raison d'être of Audyssey MultEQ Pro is its ability to measure room responses more accurately and generate better-matched correction filters, like the nearly automatic MultEQ, it is not plug'n'play. Proof of this is easy. First, the "Official Audyssey" thread on AVSForum.com—which is closely attended to by Audyssey's chief technical officer, Chris Kyriakakis—has grown to over 9000 posts and over 450,000 views, and much of the wisdom it has generated has been compiled in a useful setup guide. Second, MultEQ Pro training includes far more than reading the instructions. Room configuration and seating arrangements complicate the positioning of the calibration microphones, and speaker designs and placements influence the choices of bass management and crossover—all well and good, but some users simply do not want objective accuracy, much as they may dispute that. Many, because of habit, history, and/or taste, want their system to sound a particular way. Don't we all? Still, I believe that even those who demand a custom "house curve" will benefit from the correction of their rooms' major modes, which has been an Audyssey specialty from Day 1.

Two important new features are introduced in MultEQ Pro3.0. The first is the ability to store and reinstall multiple measurement sets, and to generate and reinstall multiple correction-filter sets. In earlier versions of the software, all of these data were stored as encrypted files accessible only to Audyssey technicians. (A few Denon AV receivers have this ability.) Thus, with all prior versions of Audyssey, every attempt to improve on a prior measurement and filter set meant that you had to discard the previous set. This often resulted in taking several steps backward to achieve a single step forward. More than once, I've gone to bed having deleted a decent result and replaced it with an inferior one. It's hard to sleep when I know I'll have to make more rounds of measurements in the morning. Now, I can always just keep the best I've come up with so far, and use that until I can do better.

This feature also makes it possible to keep on hand different correction sets for different conditions. For example, in the summer, I leave the drapes and windows open, which creates a very different acoustic from that in winter, when there are no openings and the drapes cover more than a third of the wall area. By storing two filter sets on my laptop, I can switch to the appropriate one as the seasons change without needing to remeasure. How about different filter sets for those of us who change speakers or seating arrangements for private or group listening?



Footnote 1: I am so impressed with what Bel Canto has achieved that I have asked John Atkinson to put the Ref1000 Mk.II on his test bench and offer his comments. Look for his Follow-Up in the near future.
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