Music in the Round #78 Page 2
In terms of sound quality, the exaSound and Merging Technologies installations set the standard for multichannel playback, but they weren't indistinguishable. With each connected to a multichannel input of a Parasound Halo P7 preamplifier, I was able to directly compare them via remote control. The three comparisons were:
A) exaSound e28 (USB) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using JRiver with DiracLive EQ
B) exaSound e28 + PlayPoint (DLNA) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using JRiver
C) exaSound e28 + PlayPoint (NAA) vs Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 (Ravenna) using HQP
The distinctions between the exaSound combo and the Merging Technologies DAC in comparisons A and B were similar, with or without EQ. The exaSound had a more emphatic but tightly defined low bass, and seemed a bit warmer than the NADAC Multichannel-8, which seemed simultaneously less forward and more open. But each was so excellent that I found it hard to choose between themmy preference was swayed by the recording played. For example, Willie Nelson's Night and Day (DVD-A, Surrounded-By SBE-1001-9, out of print) seemed more present and palpable with the exaSound, but Roy Orbison's Black & White Night (SACD/CD, Image Entertainment ID2770OBDVD) had greater impact and better spatial delineation with the Merging+NADAC. The most significant result of this comparison was that the sound quality of the e28 direct via USB was equal to that with the PlayPoint inserted.
The Internet buzz about HQPlayer made me want to try it, despite its library and GUI limitations, and now that I have it working, I see and hear what that buzz is all about. I decided that to fiddle with the myriad filter options as part of this comparison would lead to confusion and madness, so I stuck to exaSound's recommended settings (footnote 2). Both the exaSound and the Merging Technologies NADAC were revealed as sounding even more transparent and balanced than I'd previously realized. The exaSound's slight warmth became an uncanny presence, particularly with small groups, and a staggering immediacy with large ensembles. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony's recent recording of Beethoven's Symphony 5 (SACD/CD, Reference Fresh! FR-718) was rendered with clarity and hair-raising dynamics. In A/B comparisons with this recording, the Merging Technologies NADAC sounded slightly more distant, but with the impression of greater physical size of the orchestra to go with the dynamics. The scaling of image size and weight to dynamics, as well as the more subtle ambience, was a signature trait of the Merging Technologies NADAC. Sure, the exaSound did that, too, but with less conviction. I'm not going to toss my e28, but the Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8 does justify its far higher cost.
Theta Digital's Dreadnaught D Sails On
According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, the word dreadnought means: a warm garment of thick cloth, or the cloth itself; a British battleship of that name or class; or anything that is among the largest or most powerful of its kind. The alternate spelling dreadnaught seems to be used mostly, or only, as a proper noun: eg, as the name of various US battleships, of rock bands in Australia and the US . . . and of a power amplifier from Theta Digital. Select company.
For the past three months, I've been using Theta's modular Dreadnaught D as my go-to amp. To refresh your memory, Theta sent me a review sample configured for five channels of 225W each, but I've been using only three of those channels. At first, fed by my Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier, the Dreadnaught D powered three Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond speakers; currently, it connects a Parasound Halo P7 multichannel preamp to a pair of B&W 802 D3 speakers (to be reviewed in the June 2016 issue), and to a lone 800 Diamond for the center channel (footnote 3).
From the moment I installed the Dreadnaught D in my system, I recognized that it was special. Since then, I've assessed it more carefully and compared it with several other amplifiers. The Theta's abiding quality has been its lack of any distinctive sound of its own, which allows me to discern subtle distinctions in source, speaker, and setupand, most important, frees me to delight in the melodies, colors, and schwung of the music I love. Sure, some folks choose components whose sound compensates for faults elsewhere in their systems, or to enhance the tonal features of their music. That's okaybut a power amp is the last component I'd choose for this. Compared to amplifiers, speakers and room acoustics are so nonlinear that one has no choice but to base buying decisions on preference. But heckan amp should, as Stewart Hegeman suggested, be "a straight wire with gain."
The Dreadnaught D's sound fit that description. My initial impression of its rightness was based on my ability to hear lots of detail without effort, but also without the magnifying glass of tonal emphasis. As I shifted my attention from the sound of singer to band to hall, everything I sought was there, and all without calling out to grab my attention. Bass weight and extension were excellent, and that did catch my attention when I switched between DACs (see above), or when the new B&Ws replaced the older ones. Power and dynamics were satisfying. Some have suggested that my speakers and system might benefit from more than the Theta's 225Wpc. Perhaps it would, but most of my listening is in multichannel, with contributions from more than just a stereo pair; the additional contributions from the other channels, as well as the contributions of the surround field, mean that less is demanded of the front L/R speakers than would be in a two-channel setup. That said, with the Dreadnaught D, Supertramp's remastered Crime of the Century (24/192 download, A&M) was more than fulfillingand room-fillingat neighbor-disturbing levels in plain old stereo.
With regular multichannel fare, the front three channels could throw a deep, spacious stage of believable reality. From the warm basso continuo and the silvery song of Rachel Podger's violin in Biber's Rosary Sonatas (2 SACD/CDs, Channel Classics CCS-SA 37315) to the full panoply of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir, conducted by Mariss Jansons in Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (SACD/CD, RCO Live RCO 15003), nothing sounded out of place or strained.
In comparison to some other amps, all in the range of 200300Wpc, the Dreadnaught D was distinguished by its lack of distinction. The McIntosh Laboratory MC303 is nominally more powerful and decidedly heftier, but it sounded softer at the extremes of bass and treble. That softness made even higher levels tolerable with the Supertramp remaster, but without increasing my satisfaction. Although NAD's compact Masters Series M22 is nominally more powerful than the Theta and has a subtle liveliness that the Dreadnaught didn't, I preferred the Theta's more natural-sounding lack of liveliness in my room and systemalthough, in another context, the M22 might be my choice. Finally, Parasound's Halo A31 was quite neutral, with barely a tinge of treble liveliness. With music such as the Brahms Requiem, the Parasound better delineated choral voices, but I'm not sure the result was any more musical information than I got from the Theta. Actually, all four amps sounded very good, and each, heard in isolation, could be quite satisfying.
So, my knee-jerk first reaction to Theta Digital's Dreadnaught D is the same as my considered response. I've been on a long search for a powerful, transparent three-channel power amplifier that I can lift. The Dreadnaught D meets the first two criteria. Maybe I should start going to the gym.
Footnote 2: For PCM: filter = poly-sinc, dither = TPDF. For SDM (DSD): oversampling = poly-sinc and modulator = DSD5.
Footnote 3: The Parasound Halo P7 is on loan while the ARC is back in Minnesota for maintenance.