Music in the Round #75

Outside of the listening I do for this column, I always audition, assess, and review components without using any equalization or room correction—primarily because I assume that most Stereophile readers listen in two-channel stereo, and that most aren't all that interested in EQ. Besides, two-channel is the tradition I come from, and my first instinct is to try to get at the essence of the individual component itself, without applying extraneous tools or accessories. John Atkinson's bench tests are based on the same philosophy.

Consequently, when I reviewed Monitor Audio's Silver 8 speakers for the January 2015 issue, I set them up as a stereo pair with all EQ bypassed. I loved the way they sounded. However, I wondered if the acoustics of my room so influenced what I heard that my findings might not be applicable to other rooms, and therefore not as useful to readers.

So, hedging my bets, as is my wont, I waited to see JA's measurements before pulling the trigger on three Silver 8s, plus a pair of Silver 2s to use as surrounds, to comprise my new speaker system in Connecticut. They replaced a Paradigm Reference array of Studio/60 v3s and Studio/20 v2s that had been my reference speakers for that room for nearly a decade—and I was immediately delighted by the change. Most notable was the increase in clarity and detail throughout the audioband, particularly in the midrange and upper bass. The bigger, heavier Paradigm Studio/60s might have had the edge in bass extension and power, but the Monitor Silver 8s outdid them in bass resolution, and the surprisingly large-woofered Silver 2s seemed cut from the same cloth: The Monitor Silver quintet made me smile as I played through all my favorite multichannel recordings.

However, now that the Monitors were my speakers, it was time to induct them into the Music-in-the-Round clan by running Dirac Live EQ for file and streaming playback and Audyssey MultEQ XT32 for disc and TV sources.

By now, Dirac Live and Audyssey should be pretty familiar to my readers, so I'll skip the installation and setup procedures and tell you the results. Both of those systems showed a set of in-room measurements that looked very much like fig.4 in JA's "Measurements" for my review of the Monitor Silver 8—the speaker's "overall response on its tweeter axis at 50", averaged across a 30° horizontal window and spliced at 300Hz to the complex sum of the individual nearfield responses." Like JA's graph, my measurements of the Silver 8's in-room frequency response revealed large and obvious room-mode irregularities below 200Hz, as well as problems between 1kHz and 4kHz. But in my Connecticut room, the positions of the speakers in the room changed the magnitude of a shallow dip in the range of the midrange-tweeter crossover: It was deeper in the left front and center Silver 8s, as well as in the right surround Silver 2—but the slight dips in the right front Silver 8 and the left surround Silver 2 were identical to JA's fig.4.

Taking into account the two EQ systems' slightly different target curves, Dirac Live and Audyssey predicted almost identically smooth corrected responses—and indeed, the results sounded very much the same: the low end was now even tighter, cleaner, and more extended, and the correction of the midrange dip resulted in disarmingly natural reproductions of voices. Soundstages were also now more stable and continuous. Most important, however, was that the sound had not been transformed: The Monitor Silvers still sounded like the speakers I chose, but now I knew that they could sound even better in every way.

So what do you think? Does minimizing the effect of my room's idiosyncrasies with EQ provide useful information about a speaker's inherent performance, or do you think that EQ changes the performance unfairly?

Marantz AV8802A preamplifier-processor
For two years, I've been a pretty happy owner and user of Marantz's AV8801 preamplifier-processor (footnote 1), and didn't expect to see a replacement model any time soon—but the AV8802 was released almost a year ago. I resisted its siren song because its major new features were the inclusion of such new "immersive" digital signal processing (DSP) formats as Dolby's Atmos, Auro Technologies' Auro-3D, and, soon, DTS:X. I doubt that any significant audio-only recordings will ever be produced in any of these formats; whatever sonic value they have will probably be only for home theater. The AV8802 is also trumpeted as having "4K Ultra HD Video Processing; 4K 50/60Hz Pass-through; 4:4:4 Pure Color"; and, consequent to the retrofittable upgrade to AV8802A status, HDCP 2.2 copy-prevention technology. I can't hear those trumpets. So I'd planned to sit out this upgrade, but was won over by a Marantz rep's statement that "we've made some nice changes to the audio path. Great theater preamp that is equally suited for audio . . ."

What caught my eye was that the AV8801's analog outputs had been completely re-engineered for the AV8802—significant because Marantz's attention to their analog output stages had been what made the AV8801 so good for music. (Stereophile even included a photo of the AV8801's impressive 13-channel array of HDAMs, or hyper dynamic amplifier modules, in my review in the March 2013 issue.) Fine-sounding though it is, the single-ended, discrete HDAM output in the AV8801 is buffered by an op-amp, and yet another op-amp is used to derive the inverted phase for the XLR output. What Marantz has done in the AV8802 is to banish the op-amps and use five discrete HDAMs per channel to drive both the RCA and XLR outputs.

Without formal announcement, Marantz made the change from AV8802 to AV8802A (footnote 2) in order to include support for HDCP 2.2. The AV8802A looks very similar to the AV8801—the faceplate, even with its front door open, is identical. The rear panel is a bit different, mostly due to the greater numbers of output channels (13.2 vs the AV8801's 11.2) and HDMI inputs (7 vs 6, in addition to the front HDMI input on both models), and to eliminate the Ethernet switch. Setup was somewhat more complex due to fundamental differences in how Atmos and Auro-3D define their channels, but this will affect only those who use those formats. Besides, Marantz has greatly improved their built-in GUI-based Setup Assistant, a feature that was always useful but is probably now essential.

I swapped out my AV8801 and set myself some simple goals. One was to determine if the AV8802A's analog outputs were sufficiently better to support Marantz's claim that the AV8802A can be taken seriously as an analog preamp. The other was to see what, if anything, Atmos and Auro-3D might do for someone who uses a surround system mostly for listening to music. Remember, there was a $1000 price increase from the AV8801 to the AV8802, and close-out and used prices for the AV8801 have only widened the gap.

To hear how the AV8802A performed as a preamplifier, I fed its analog inputs with analog output from a miniDSP U-DAC8 (eight channels, RCA), a Korg DS-DAC-100m (stereo, RCA), and, briefly, a Benchmark DAC2 HGC (stereo, XLR). In almost every way, the AV8802a was an improvement over the AV8801. As I switched among sources with a wide range of recordings, from 16-bit/44.1kHz to 4xDSD, the Marantz reproduced music with sufficient resolution that I convinced myself that, most of the time, I could distinguish among them. (Because the degree of difference dwindles as the data rate rises, I find the above is a useful regimen for assessing the purity of the downstream components.)

The AV8802A was also able to let me hear the subtle effects of some digital tweaks (see below). The best things I can say are that it didn't seem to impose any constraints on what it was fed, and that listening to some of my favorite tracks was wholly satisfying. My only quibble was that the AV8802A delivered the same gracious, rounded sound as Marantz's esteemed Reference-series components—some may prefer a more prismatic clarity. That exact distinction was evident when I compared the sound from the Benchmark DAC via the Marantz's XLR inputs to the Benchmark going directly into the power amp. Although the difference was clear, the matter of my preference was a toss-up.

To dabble with Atmos or Auro-3D, I needed to add, at the very least, a pair of front height channels, but I wasn't going to punch holes in and thread wires through my ceiling for just a short test. In response to similar consumer diffidence, some speaker makers have developed small Atmos-enabled speakers to be placed atop the main front speakers and that fire, at an angle, toward the ceiling (footnote 3). In principle, their output will reflect at a precise angle to simulate a virtual height source at a point on the ceiling. In addition, there is a frequency-response correction in the electronics to simulate the head-related transfer function (HRTF) for an elevated source. It sounds complicated but isn't. I prevailed on Peter Tribeman, of Atlantic Technology, to lend me a pair of his 44-DA Atmos-enable speakers, which I placed atop the front left and right Monitor Silver 8s, driven by a Parasound Zamp v.3 that I keep on hand. I also entirely relied on Marantz's Setup Assistant, and on Audyssey MultEQ XT32, to configure the AV8802a for Atmos and for Auro-3D.



Footnote 1: Marantz America, 100 Corporate Drive, Mahwah, NJ 07430-2041. Tel: (201) 762-6500. Fax: (201) 762-6670. Web: us.marantz.com.

Footnote 2: The AV8802A costs $3999. US owners of the AV8802 can get a free upgrade to "A" status by returning their units to Marantz or one its agents. See http://marantz.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/3800/~/av8802-hdcp-2.2-upgrade.

Footnote 3: Click here for details.

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COMMENTS
ssimon's picture

I've got a question I'm hoping you can answer. I've got a Marantz 7702 pre/pro. I'm happy with it. I also have an Oppo 103. I'm happy with it. But I have a feeling that both are processing the video signal, which is something I probably should not be happy with. If that's the case, which component should do the processing? And how do I block the other component from processing?
I apologize for the bottomless ignorance that generated this question...
Best S

Kal Rubinson's picture

Just saw this post and have to admit equal ignorance of video issues.