As I write this, in early August, the global economy is in flux and the stock market gyrates, seeming in stark contrast with the gleaming, luxurious audio components that surround me. Perhaps there is some prescience in my rising interest in reasonably priced, high-performance products, as exemplified by the Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player, which I reviewed in this column in September. Surely there must be other products that provide truly excellent sound at prices strikingly lower than expected.
In my last column, in November 2011, I mentioned that preamplifier-processors are generally at a price disadvantage in comparison to the same manufacturer's A/V receivers. The economies of scale almost ensure this. Typically, to design a pre-pro, a manufacturer uses one of its AVR models as a platform; the result is most distinguished from its parent AVR by its lack of power amplifiers.
When I attended the 2011 CEDIA Expo last September, one thing I was looking for was a rumored top-of-the-line preamplifier-processor from Rotel with all the bells and whistles and a large TFT display. It was nowhere to be seen or even rumored, but the Rotel folks did introduce me to a less exalted pre-pro, their RSP-1572 ($2199). I've always liked Rotel's styling; I guess you could say that the pretty RSP-1572 caught me on the rebound (footnote 1).
Bryston describes its SP-3 ($9500) as comprising a true analog preamp plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. That statement is a slight modification of the sentence that began my September 2006 review of the SP-3's predecessor, the SP2. It is indicative of the enduring philosophy of the manufacturer that, in the more than five years since, Bryston has worked to create a new pre-pro that fully reflects new developments in audio and video but without compromising analogquality. Audio is extracted from an input HDMI signal for processing while the video signal is routed, unprocessed, to the two HDMI outputs. Digital audio of all formats, including high-definition audio codecs, are supported, and stereo and multichannel analog inputs are handled by discrete class-A circuitry. Completely separate power supplies support the analog and digital functions, and the internal construction is highly modular, to ease future updating of the SP-3 to keep pace with evolving technology.
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.
Late in May, Dolby Laboratories held a two-day press event, Fidelity Forum 2.0, to announce a new feature added to the production tools included in their flagship codec, TrueHD. While I could not attend, Jason Victor Serinus reported all the details for Stereophile.
I'm writing this in the dog days of a hot August. Over the past few months, a couple of interesting devices have accumulated, but were bumped from the column in favor of bigger things, as it should be. So this column is an end-of-season close-out.
NAD's T 187. Another pre-pro? And not inexpensive at $3000! Why do I care?
First of all, NAD has come to the forefront of established full-range manufacturers as innovators in digital audio. From their original digital preamp, the 118, which I reviewed in the July 1998 issue; to the M2 Direct Digital amp, reviewed by JA in March 2010; to the Masters M51 high-resolution DAC, reviewed last July by Jon Iverson; and their Masters M50 and M52 music-streaming devices, NAD has never simply repackaged available chips and modules, but has always gone their own way.
Growing up as an audiophile in the 1950s, I always aspired to owning Marantz equipment, and finally attained that status when, late one night in 1974 in Greenwich Village, a friend found a Model 8 amp sitting on a pile of discards on a curb. He quickly ran for his car, and scarfed up the amp and a pair of Acoustic Research AR1 speakers. All turned out to be in perfect working order, though their appearance reflected their history of ill-use. The speakers went into his machine shopbut I got the Model 8! Few products have ever given me so much pleasure and pride; Marantz will always occupy a warm spot in my heart.
Yes, more Oppos. First off, let's put aside the expected superiority of the D/A conversion and outputs of the BDP-105 ($1199) and state that the BDP-103 ($499) is itself no slouch in these departments. In two or many channels, the '103 was good enough to let me distinguish among various high-resolution media, and to provide me with satisfying enjoyment of music in even the best of systems.
Sometimes, things happen so fast it's almost unsettling. DSD is the high-resolution recording format used on SACDs and I closed my May column with the expressed hope that the exaSound e18 multichannel DAC would eventually be able to decode DSD data, that Oppo would implement DSD streaming in its universal players, and that I'd be able to get my hands on a working trio of Mytek DSD DACs. I didn't expect that, even before that issue went to press, I'd have to add a footnote (p.61) indicating that stereo DSD streaming was a reality for the exaSound e18, and that Oppo had made available "test" firmware to empower their universal Blu-ray players for stereo and multichannel DSD. On March 26, Oppo publicly announced that this DSD capability was part of the comprehensive "Public Beta Test Release" made available that day. Then, with the May issue not yet hitting the streets, I got a proper multi-Mytek setup. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Recently, my wife and I made a trip to Europe, where we heard some great music in some great halls. Those concerts reinforced my already strongly held opinion that the acoustic of the venue is a major determinant of the sound of music heard in that venue, and that each space has its own sound. One evening in Amsterdam, we heard Iván Fischer conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in their own hall, the Concertgebouw, in a concert that underscored this interaction of performance and place.
Make It Simple. . .
Ah, for the old mono days. I remember assembling my first audio systems in my early teens and as a novicethings were easy. My first amp had four RCA input jacks, each clearly labeled and corresponding to an identically labeled setting on the input selector switch. There were screw-down speaker connectors for 4, 8, and 16 ohms, and ground. Tape output was defaulted to whatever input I was listening to. The amp had but four knobs: Input Selection, Volume, Bass, and Treble. And although it would seem almost impossible to go wrong, I did exercise focus and care as I tended to my first setup.
In my November 2013 column, I looked at the NuForce AVP-18 multichannel preamplifier-processor ($1095) and the exaSound e28 multichannel DAC ($3299), each of which offers fresh options in its category that break with the predictability of mainstream products. That predictability is the result of market analysis that supposedly tells manufacturers which features users want most. However, it's just as true that users can buy and choose among only those components and features already offered. Many of us are more peculiar in our demandswhat's generally offered doesn't always fit our needs. This month, I look at an unusual pre-pro and a multichannel digital equalizer at opposite ends of the price spectrum.
My experience at last May's Home Entertainment 2004 East confirmed that even a big cheerleader for discrete, high-resolution multichannel music must be realistic about the vast heritage of two-channel recordings, which will dominate collections for years to come. Although we can enjoy these recordings with a good stereo system, a multichannel system can offer options that give them new life without superimposing false and disturbing directional effects or smearing the two channels around and behind the listener.