Music in the Round #17

When I got married, my mother pulled my bride aside and said, "Now it can be your fault!" You see, I have always practiced blame-avoidance. Now I get to do it again.

When I left you at the end of January's column, I was anticipating speedy upgrades for Denon's AVR-4806 receiver and DVD-5910 universal disc player (each costs $3500) so that I could assess my system with the latest version of Audyssey's MultEQxt equalization software, and compare Denon's DenonLink 3rd Edition with iLink to transmit the multichannel digital data while playing SACD and DVD-Audio discs. Then we could move on to Meridian's MRC Room Correction software and other goodies. Ha!

Here's what happened. Getting an upgrade for the AVR-4806 receiver was fairly easy: I was e-mailed a copy of the software and instructions for its installation. This entailed connecting my new Fujitsu laptop to the 4806 with either an RS-232 serial or an Ethernet link. Though the former would have been a little simpler, for no good reason I chose the latter, which required me to set suitable IP addresses in both my laptop and the 4806. Either way, the procedure was brief and successful. Once I'd reset the 4806 to its factory default settings, the receiver was refreshed and reprogrammed without incident.

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The second part of the trip was bumpier. As I wrote the last column, the DVD-5910 was traveling back to Denon USA for an upgrade from DenonLink 2nd Edition (DL2) to DenonLink 3rd Edition (DL3). After awaiting its return for more than a month, I asked when I might expect it back. "We're waiting for the firmware," said Denon. But there are DL3-enabled players already on the shelves—why can't I get one? In fact, how about a DVD-3910 player, since all of them are supposed to have DL3? We agreed on that, and I heard nothing from Denon for another three weeks. Finally, after a call in which I threatened to tell them to forget the whole thing, a shiny new DVD-3910 arrived, just two weeks before the deadline for this column.

But this DVD-3910 had only DL2. The difference is pivotal: DL2 does not support multichannel SACD and DL3 does. Now I was really desperate. To my great relief, I found that by registering at www.usa.denon.com, I could download the files needed to install DL3 as part of a firmware upgrade. This entailed burning the files onto three CD-Rs and then running them, per instructions, in the 3910. Whew! After many e-mails and return shipments, I now had the AVR-4806 and the DVD-3910 able to converse in DL3 or iLink with any disc source.

The foregoing is not a plea for sympathy, but a cautionary tale of the uncertainty about what, exactly, the box you've just bought actually might and might not contain. You can read the model and serial numbers, and perhaps even the date of manufacture, but how can you know which level of functionality you have? In this world of technologies that advance at ever-increasing rates, the advantages of software and firmware upgradeability in deterring obsolescence are very desirable.

Overall, I think Denon is doing a fairly good if imperfect job. While its shipping carton displayed no easily interpretable information, the DVD-5910's rear panel was clearly labeled "DenonLink SE" (SE for Second Edition). However, the manuals accompanying the DVD-5910, DVD-3910, and AVR-4806 were written by people who cannot see into the future, and thus do not advise the user to go to Denon's website and check for updates. Register your products on the website and check regularly for updates. You bought this sophisticated stuff; make sure you get what you paid for.

I apologize for making Denon the whipping-boy in this tirade. I compliment them for their tireless efforts to extend the capabilities and useful lives of products already sold, a practice that enhances the value not only of those products but of products to come. I know that other companies take similar trouble, but judging from Internet posts and discussions, Denon goes further than most in this direction. If the process requires the participation of the buyer, it's only reasonable. After all, there is no requirement for upgrading, unless the user wants it.

Linked at last
You can only imagine how satisfying it was to be able to listen to SACDs and DVD-As as I and Denon had intended. With Audyssey MultEQxt and the bass management in both player and receiver defeated, SACDs played through DL3 were indistinguishable from Denon's completely analog Pure Direct pathway. Listening this way was suboptimal, because the player's and receiver's bass-management parameters are somewhat different, and the EQ would bias the observations. Nonetheless, my experience shows that there is absolutely no disadvantage to using DL3 instead of the traditional purist arrangement of analog out to analog in. It also says that no price need be paid for getting the ease and sophistication of the AVR-4806 receiver's digital signal processing.

Switching to iLink took a little fiddling. I could easily select the IEEE1394 input on the AVR-4806, which recognized that there was a DVD-3910 at the other end of the FireWire. However, the DVD-3910 would not output DL3 and iLink at the same time, and switching between the two required defeating one of them in the player's setup menu. Although this made direct A/B comparisons impossible, I was unable to detect a difference even though I had been somewhat biased toward finding one by reports elsewhere that DL3 has less jitter than iLink, as well as reports of its superior sound. But I could hear no evidence of DL3's superiority in this setup.

DL3 and iLink were both sonically identical to the Pure Direct pathway, and were equally efficient in switching the receiver into the correct decoding mode: SACD, DVD-A, DD, DTS, stereo. The AVR-4806 also had no difficulty recognizing the iLink output from my Sony XCD-SA9000ES SACD player. Indeed, both links worked so well that I grew increasingly annoyed that they have not become universally available on all receivers and preamplifier-processors. Most of us are still wrestling with bundles of six interconnects to connect player and pre-pro, and probably will continue to do so. Although multichannel audio via HDMI looms in the hazy future, I'm less than optimistic about its penetration into audio componentry.

Audyssey MultEQxt: some are more equal than others
Last time, I didn't say as much as I might have about Audyssey's MultEQxt, which is featured in the Denon AVR-4806 receiver, because I lacked the latest version of the software. Now I and they have no excuses. The new software entails no operational changes, so all my blather about procedures and setup still stands. However, MultEQxt now seems a lot smarter:

1) MultEQxt never erred in thinking that my rear right speaker, a dipole Magnepan, was in opposite phase to the rest of the speakers.

2) The Audyssey software correctly calculated the subwoofer as being 6.2' from the supplied microphone. The earlier version of the software claimed that my Paradigm Servo-15 sub, which sits next to my sofa, was 20' from the mike in a room that measures only 15' by 16'. (I'm guessing that it was detecting sound reflected off the front wall.) However, the new version of MultEQxt set the rear channels even higher than before, again necessitating a manual reduction of 2–3dB.

3) The parametric EQ settings on the Denon receiver's onscreen display (OSD) were similar to those with the previous version. The AVR-4806's OSD showed these as follows: The L/R/C channels were boosted from 100 to 300Hz and from 700Hz to 2kHz, and were rolled off in the extreme treble above 10kHz. The surrounds were boosted below 200Hz and above 500Hz, with cuts at 250Hz and above 10kHz. Readings for the lowest frequencies (–2dB for L/C/R and +2–4dB for LS/RS) are meaningless because, according to Audyssey, the OSD graphs have grossly inadequate resolution and are not really representative of the fine resolution of the MultEQxt settings. Subjectively, the bass was not as extended and integrated as when I used the Velodyne SMS-1 equalization system that I wrote about last November.

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