Music in the Round #49
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.
Practical stereo for the home began in the late 1950s, when the basic paradigm, which still reigns, was established: source component, two-channel integrated amplifier or separate preamp and power amp, and two speakers. Of course, the sources changed with the appearance of CDs in the 1980s, and with streaming audio files in this century. I don't regard the difference between separates and integrated amps as being anything more than a redistribution of the same parts, and I feel the same about the trend to externalize digital-to-analog converters from a disc player or USB DACs from a streaming source. High-definition sound is an obvious and inevitable evolution made possible by the advances made in digital delivery systems.
Fundamentally, I see two big changes over the last five decades. What most of the high-end manufacturers seem to feed on is the constant reworking and optimization of the basic paradigm from the 1950s. That that's not a bad thing is evinced by the high level of performance we can expect from these components, particularly from loudspeakers, which have evolved remarkably over the decades without the benefit of major breakthroughs in their basic technology/technologies.
Sure, many of us were tantalized by analog surround via DynaQuad, SQ, Ambisonics, Dolby Pro-Logic, and myriad other ambience recovery or synthesis techniques. All of those technologies were but pale precursors of their digital successors, and certainly of discrete multichannel sound. True multichannel sound was born of the digital age, and, unlike stereo, depends on digital technology. It also, for good and for ill, rides on the coattails of home theater. The good part is that the wide success of home theater amortizes the costs of the research into and development of multichannel sound, and has provided us with electronic/automated setup and room equalization. It has also encouraged the production and adoption of acoustical treatments that are affordable and domestically acceptable. The ill part is the implementation of technologies that support constraints on content access, such as HDCP and HDMI.
My original multichannel system was an analog two-channel rig with a hodgepodge of additional analog components arranged to accept the analog outputs from the then-new DVD-Audio and SACD players. I had no master volume control until I got my first multichannel analog preamplifier, Sony's TA-P9000ES (which Larry Greenhill and I respectively wrote about in the November 2001 and July 2002 issues of Stereophile); no bass management aside from what was on the disc; and was able to achieve accurate channel balance only with Acoustisoft's ETF software (July 1998), a microphone, a mike preamp, and a laptop computer. What a far cry this is from the useful, powerful, convenient features of a modern multichannel preamp-processor or A/V receiver like the one reviewed below.
Integra DHC-80.2 A/V controller
The Integra DHC-80.2 ($2300, footnote 1) is the fourth-generation Integra preamplifier-processor to appear in the age of discrete multichannel audio that began with SACD, DVD-Audio, and HDMI. Could it be only three years ago that I reviewed the first generation, the DTC-9.8? (See Stereophile, January 2008.) At the time, the DTC-9.8 embodied all the features I thought necessary for multichannel music playback in the home. As I said then, "Its appearance is timely and exciting for music lovers because it: 1) decodes and processes all current digital music formats, including DSD, Dolby True-HD, and DTS-HD Master Audio; 2) can apply bass and channel management and room equalization to all formats without redundant A/D/A conversions; 3) has a 7.1-channel analog pass-through with volume control; 4) has both RCA and XLR outputs; and 5) even has a phono input." Even today, some pre-pros can't claim all of those features.
Since then, Integra has offered the DTC-9.9 and DHC-80.1, and a parallel series of pre-pros has appeared under the Onkyo brand. (There are only minor functional differences between the Integra and Onkyo lines.) While there have been incremental improvements along the way, the new DHC-80.2 seems so much more advanced and sophisticated as to warrant a detailed examination.
The DHC-80.2 bears a family resemblance to the DTC-9.8 in the layout of its controls and display. Integra has managed to add a few more front-panel buttons and jacks to accommodate new features without complicating the model's operation. The rear panel fairly bristles with jacks and connectors, but, thanks to the ubiquity of HDMI, and the neat row of XLR jacks across the bottom of the panel, basic connections are a breeze. Given my experience with setting up systems, it's hard for me to appreciate the uncertainty and frustration of first-time users, but while the DHC-80.2 has even more features and options than its predecessor, I found that setup was greatly accelerated by a far more coherent organization of the menus.
All of the features listed above for the DTC-9.8 have been retained and enhanced. Add to them HDMI v1.4 (eight inputs and two outputs, with Audio Return Channel and 3D), Dolby Pro-Logic IIz (for front-high channels, Audyssey DSX (for front-wide and/or front-high channels), two USB inputs, two subwoofer outputs, a Universal Port for an iPod dock or HDRadio tuner module, and network connectivity that accommodates Internet radio as well as the streaming of audio files from your local devices.
Footnote 1: If you want the performance and feature set of the Integra DHC-80.2 with a sleeker if less communicative front panel, the Onkyo PR-SC5508 is the ticket.