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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I began my July column by talking about how quickly things are changing these days in multichannel audio. What I didn't pay enough attention to is that some things can change quickly enough to create inefficiency. Given that most multichannel digital products are based on digital signal processing (DSP), and many are network-enabled, they can be updated with relative ease. Almost every preamplifier-processor or A/V receiver I've reviewed has needed a firmware update during the reviewing process, and such updates are de rigueur for Blu-ray players, as more and more features (!) are added to new releases. And in addition to providing new performance features, firmware updates often also include corrections for operational glitches that have slipped by the designers and their alpha and beta testers, no matter how assiduously they've done their work.
Things move fast in multichannel. No, I'm not referring to the speed of sound effects as they whip around a roomlet's leave that for the home-theater mags. I'm talking about audio technology. Since I began writing this column in June 2003, we've seen serious technological changes almost annually, some driven by real needs, some imposed by marketing considerations. To me, the rate of change seems strikingly rapid, compared to that of the products I review for the main portion of Stereophile, based, as they are, in the two-channel world.