Music in the Round #55
In my review of Bryston Ltd.'s SP-3 preamplifier-processor ($9500) in my May 2012 column, I found that it sounded outstandingly open and dynamic when used as an analog stereo or multichannel preamp. This was evident regardless of the rest of the system, which began with a McIntosh Labs MC303 three-channel power amplifier driving B&W 800 Diamond speakers, but eventually included Bel Canto REF1000M and Anthem Statement M-1 amps, as well as Adam Audio's Classic Column Mk.3 speakers. Didn't matter. The Bryston's transparency allowed each component to perform as well as I'd ever heard it. After that, I disconnected the SP-3 from my Manhattan system, tossed it (figuratively!) in the car, and took it out for a weekend in the country.
Hooking up the SP-3 to my Connecticut system was easy, and I transferred to it the settings for speaker distance, delay, and crossover I've long used there. Because the SP-3's country visit would be brief, I connected only one subwoofer, a Paradigm Sub-15, which, using its Perfect Bass Kit, I'd already equalized for its location in the room.1 The only critical adjustment needed was to balance the output levels of the sub and main speakers, handily accomplished with the dandy sound-pressure-level and RTA functions of an XTZ II Pro analyzer. The total time I spent on the SP-3's installation and setup was well under an hour, aided by the use of HDMI connections for all inputs.
Not only are my Connecticut and Manhattan rooms and setups quite different, but for some years now I've been using Audyssey and other EQ softwares in my New England system. In fact, I haven't lived with an unprocessed signal there, except when making A/B comparisons to assess the effectiveness of an EQ. Since my vote has almost always been strongly in favor of the EQ'd sound, the Bryston faced the daunting challenge of my own expectations.
My main reason for taking the Bryston on this trip was to feed it a rich diet of high-resolution, music-only recordings on Blu-ray and SACD, but I soon learned that it had some dietary restrictions. In New York, via HDMI, I was able to feed the SP-3 only up to a 24-bit/88.2kHz PCM signal from my Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player. That's the same sample rate I'd gotten, and was happy to use, with either the Meridian HD621/861 combination or the Classé SSP-800but the Bryston is supposed to accept signals of up to 192kHz, including full 24/176.4 from transcoded SACDs. None of the three preamp/processors will directly accept DSD datastreams.
While the Sony's HDMI output is determined entirely by HDMI handshaking, the Yamaha BD-A1000 Blu-ray player does let the user choose between PCM and DSD output, and it can output 176.4 LPCM. Still, all I got was 88.2 PCM. I then tried a few of the Blu-ray Audio discs from Norwegian label 2L, which offer a selection of hi-rez formats, and found that the SP-3 did a first-rate job of decoding and playing bitstreamed dts-MA and DolbyHD tracks of up to 5.1 channels and 24/192kHz resolution. Ah, but when I told the Yamaha or the Oppo BDP-83SE universal Blu-ray player to convert those same tracks to PCM, the Bryston's input, according to its own display, was limited to 96kHz.
I exchanged e-mails with Bryston about this, and even installed new firmware in the SP-3, an easy task that requires a PC and an Ethernet link. Still, I was never able to get more than a 96kHz signal from either disc player via HDMI. Bryston tells me that this is unexpected and will be resolved. By contrast, I was able to play 24/192 stereo files through the Oppo via the Bryston's S/PDIF input.
Despite all this, the bottom line was that my Connecticut rig had never sounded better than when the Bryston was running things. Even with noncritical sources such as cable TV or Internet radio, the difference the SP-3 made in the sound of this relatively modest system was immediately audible. There was an overall ease and smoothness in the midrange that, by contrast, made the Integra DHC-80.2 and Rotel RSP-1572 pre-pros I'd previously used sound somewhat pinched. The effect seemed analogous to comparing signals with an irregular midrange frequency response to those with a flat response, even though those other pre-pros undoubtedly measure flat as a ruler. A corollary of this was better imaging; I found myself less aware of the speaker cabinets being the sources of the sound.
Most striking and addictive was that the SP-3 opened up the lower midrange and upper bass of my Paradigm Studio 60/v3 speakers: lower strings and male voices revealed felicitous details, and a richness that I hadn't believed they were capable of. This was apparent whether I used the Paradigms as full-range two-channel speakers, or with the Sub-15 for stereo or multichannel recordings.
Had the SP-3's magic comparably transformed the Paradigms' treble, I might never have considered updating thembut the Bryston was only too willing to expose the inherent glint of the Studio 60s' metal tweeters, which is usually tamed by the soft rolloff of Audyssey EQ. One result of this was to decrease my tolerance for some of the SACDs from the LSO Live and Mariinsky labels, which before had seemed to have central imaging that was only slightly unstable. My ears and brain now found it impossible to integrate the somewhat disembodied sound of Denis Matsuev's piano with that of Valery Gergiev's St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, in their recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (SACD/CD, Mariinsky MAR0505). Conversely, and despite the outsized piano image, I had no trouble conjuring the event with Lang Lang performing the same work, also with Gergiev and the Mariinsky (SACD/CD, Deutsche Grammophon 477 549-9).
Overall, though, I was astonished by the SP-3's ability to transform and upgrade the sound of my system without the assistance of any EQ (except for the subwoofer). I listened to Mahler's Symphony 6, with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (BD, Euroarts 2055644); Wagner's Die Walküre, with Zubin Mehta and the Valencia Community Orchestra (BD, C Major 700804); Mozart's Requiem (SACD/CD, Linn CKD 211) and Symphonies 3841 (SACD/CD, Linn CKD 308), both with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Sara K.'s Hell or High Water (SACD/CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.4039.2); and the three-channel edition of the Oscar Peterson Trio's We Get Requests (SACD/CD, Verve/Analogue Productions CVRI 8606 SA). In every case, the sound had levels of detail, presence, spaciousness, and a natural, relaxed quality, that one would expect from a much better setup in a much better room.
All that made me a bit reluctant to schlep the Bryston back to Manhattan, but I had to have it with me in my main system. Here, too, the multichannel sound was excellent via HDMI. I spent more time with the same set of recordings, and while the bigger B&W 800 Diamond speakers were, as expected, more authoritative in the low end and more smoothly balanced at the top, the Bryston's influence was as apparent here as it had been in Connecticut. Listen to the bass drum in Ole Kristian Ruud and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra's recording of Ole Borneman Bull's La Verbena de San Juan (BD-A/SACD/CD, 2L 2L-067-SABD). It had always been powerful and deep, but now, as the upper bass was stripped of masking boom, it had tauter definition and, properly, a less defined pitch. Similarly, the rich male voices whose "oohm-mas" and repetitions of the refrain of "No Sanctuary Here," from the late Chris Jones's Roadhouses & Automobiles, make this song such a popular audiophile demo (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), were now discrete and close at hand but no less imposing.