Music in the Round #49 Page 2
To assess the DHC-80.2's basic audio quality, I did my initial auditions via its multichannel analog inputs and, for digital sources, prior to EQ with Audyssey. Regular readers of this column may recall that the DTC-9.8's sound through its analog inputs, direct or processed, was its Achilles' heel. I'm happy to report that the DHC-80.2 is significantly superior in this regard, although it was limited by the range of channel-distance settings in the menus of my Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player. Two-channel signals from the Oppo and the Sony XA-5400ES players, the latter via balanced XLR connection, were also satisfying. Gone was the abidingly thin sound that had characterized the '9.8, though I still preferred to use HDMI with the DHC-80.2 any time that option existed, in order to take advantage of the pre-pro's own processing. (See my September 2010 column.) Transparency, too, was excellent, though it didn't reach the levels heard through such analog preamps as the old Sony TA-P9000ES, or the Classé CT-800 pre-pro. Still, this is a significant improvement; unlike with its predecessor, the DHC-80.2's analog input option is now a valid option.
Digital sources, too, were dynamic and well balanced. Balance, of course, depends on the source components, the speakers, and the room acoustics, but given the physical constancy of my moderately treated room, the DHC-80.2 was thrillingly good as a stereo DAC-preamp (no bass management, no Audyssey) with my resident Paradigm Studio 60v3 speakers or a visiting pair of KEF Q900s. Streamed Internet radio was as good as the source materials would allow, and while sometimes blunted in the highs, with good channels like LinnRadio or RCOLive, the sound approached CD quality.
I had similar feelings about music streamed from my PC or from a USB-connected portable drive. The Integra was almost always as good as the source permitted. It couldn't handle DTS tracks in a WAV file, but it did handle hi-def PCM tracks with resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. While the sound of the HD tracks from my PC sounded spectacular, they seemed a bit less open when taken from the one USB drive I triedbut I hesitate to generalize about that. Overall, this performance confirmed the fundamental quality of the DHC-80.2's DACs and analog output stages.
Ah, but the DHC-80.2 is a multichannel processor. It includes the latest and most advanced version of Audyssey's EQ software, MultEQ XT32, which comes with filter resolution that exceeds that of the standalone Audyssey Sound Equalizer ($2500). The Integra also implements Sub EQ HT, which handles dual subwoofers with the same resolution as Audyssey's Sub Equalizer ($799). Through some programming legerdemain, Audyssey has managed to accomplish this in a way that permits MultEQ XT32 to run on the same digital-signal-processing resources as the previous version of MultEQ XT. This is importantin addition to room EQ, the processor's DSP engine must simultaneously handle many tasks, such as: decoding Dolby, DTS, DSD, etc.; encoding DPL, DTS Neo, etc.; speaker level and distance correction; and myriad possible modes for gaming and acoustical enhancements. The result has been that some AVRs and pre-pros have to limit the formats or bitrates to which Audyssey can be applied, and less expensive AVRs and pre-pros are often provided only with less potent versions of Audyssey's software. Both compromises represent efforts to cram as many functions as marketability requires into a DSP section that is constrained by cost. Bravo, Audyssey.
MultEQ XT32's basic calibration procedure should be familiar. The user puts the provided microphone in the preferred listening position and plugs it into its own front-panel jack. When two subwoofers are used, however, the software requests that the user set the output of each sub to 75dB with the sub's own level control; the DHC-80.2 then provides test tones and level readouts. Following that, Audyssey pings each speaker to determine level, distance to the listening position, and frequency response. When MultEQ XT32 gets to the subs, it pings each separately, then both together. Audyssey thus sets levels and distances independently for each sub, then equalizes them as a pair. MultEQ XT32 can accept up to seven additional mike positions. For more information and guidance, interested readers are advised to consult the Audyssey Set-Up Guide developed by AVS Forum users, as well as the official Audyssey website.
The calibration results were unsurprising, and the sound was glorious. Even using heterogeneous speakersthe KEFs as the L/R mains and the Paradigms as the center and surroundstonal consistency across and around the soundstage after calibration was impressive. One of my favorite reference multichannel discs is Willie Nelson's Night and Day (DVD-A, Surrounded By SBE-1001-9), which has a very immersive mix in which the instruments surround the listener. With the Integra DHC-80.2 and my mash-up of speakers, each instrument sounded tonally true and balanced, regardless of where it came from. Even more than that, the channels blended so well that the soundstage was continuous all around the listening position. I wasn't so aware of individual instruments as of an uninterrupted soundspace within which the instruments were arrayed.
A significant part of that seamless re-creation of the recorded stage was bass management and the integration of the dual subwoofers. Audyssey measurements determined, by Integra's set of rules, that all of the speakers were full-range, but, as usual, I changed those settings. In this case, because I planned to run MultEQ Pro on the Integra, I changed all of their bass-frequency cutoffs to 80Hz. Nonetheless, the subs were aurally undetectable with music signals, and low bass seemed unusually directional; that is, I could closely associate low-bass sounds with the soundstage placements of the instruments that I assumed had produced them. For example, in Dmitri Kitajenko and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln's recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6 (SACD, Oehms Classics OC666), the frontal soundstage is deep and wide, perhaps at times a bit too wide. But the bass drum seemed to be just right of center and deep in the back of the orchestra, even though my subs are placed one right up front and the other behind me! The fact that this is a 5.0-channel recording in which all the bass information is in the main channels demonstrates the generally excellent sonic characteristics of the DHC-80.2, and the cutting-edge channel management and EQ of MultEQ XT32.