Welcome to the wonderful world of firmware and software updates. With almost every audio device now microprocessor-controlled, and the tasks to be performed increasingly complex, it's not surprising that "finished" products leave the factory only to be stymied by reasonable but unpredicted user practices. It's not that we're all becoming beta testers, but we are contributing to the intelligent evolution of product capabilities.
Last time in "Music in the Round," I wrote about the fading presence of SACD in the hardware and software markets. However, the enduring interest in LPs seems to tell us that where there is a demand for high quality by discerning audiophiles, there will be a supply.
Recently, I got an e-mail from a colleague at another audio magazine complaining about the paucity of new SACD hardware. We've been hearing about the slowing pace of new SACD releases, and about Sony's neglect of a format they themselves developed, but I now realize that, apart from the High End (footnote 1), machines that can play SACDs have been fast disappearing from the middle of the market. When the battle of SACD vs DVD-Audio was raging, universal players that could play both formats were available from almost every major manufacturer. Even John Atkinson jumped on the bandwagon, acquiring a Pioneer DV-578A universal player for $150 to use as a reference. The exceptions were the very companies that had developed the new formats: Sony offered only SACD players, and Panasonic, at least at first, only DVD-A players. No matteryou could buy a universal player at any national electronics chain store, even if that store didn't stock recordings in either format and their staff had never heard of DVD-As or SACDs. Some things never change.
In January, I reported on my experiences with the Integra DTC-9.8 preamplifier-processor, which I found to be outstanding with digital sources. That assessment was due, in no small part, to the performance of the Audyssey MultEQ XT room-correction system, which is included in the DTC-9.8. With only a little serious effort, MultEQ opened up the entire soundstage, making possible a better appreciation of the hi-rez sources now available on all sorts of discs. I have no doubt that any careful user can achieve similar satisfaction.
For years, I have espoused the use of the same speakers (except subwoofer) in all positions for multichannel music. To have no speaker in the system contributing a different voice to the choir seems as intuitive as having the room acoustics not color the sound. Of course, this still doesn't guarantee perfect timbral match—positioning and room acoustics usually impose some unique characteristics under all but the most perfect and symmetrical conditions. You can hear tonal imbalances even between the left and right speakers of most two-channel systems simply by switching pink noise between them. On the other hand, there's no reason to superimpose on these unavoidable differences the additional imbalances inevitable with using different speakers in a multichannel array.
I had planned to feature a few intriguing new products I saw at CEDIA's Expo 2007 held last September in Denver, but I did that on the Stereophilewebsite. Instead, I'll just tell you about the only big audio trend I saw there: HDMI.
Back in October 2001, when Larry Greenhill told us about the Sony TA-P9000ES multichannel preamplifier, it seemed the best thing since sliced bread. This affordable ($700) analog controller had two six-channel inputs, a six-channel bypass input, level controls for all channels, and a stereo bypass input. For those of us just dipping our toes into multichannel, it was welcome. Though no longer manufactured, the Sony is still a unique component, and one highly prized in the second-hand market. The TA-P9000ES was not, however, the answer to all our prayers—made to complement a digital processor, it basically has only two 5.1-channel inputs, if the TA-P9000ES is used independently.
The great format battle of our time continues to rage between the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps. For many reasons, some discussed in the July installment of this column, this battle may be the last one waged over physical media formats. But whether either or neither format wins, the outcome will be decided on the basis of video quality—issues of audio quality are being ignored. This is unfortunate for audiophiles for two reasons. First, we have a big stake in whatever will be the standard medium for movies and music, but second, this battle makes it apparent that the major forces in the marketplace are ignoring what matters most to us.
I've been reading and sometimes participating in a number of Internet discussions that begin with something like "Is SACD (and/or DVD-Audio) Dead?" Regardless of your one-word answer, it seems that the issue is still quite lively. I won't address the question here (you know where I stand), but it almost doesn't matter. Many high-resolution multichannel recordings are still being made. It's just that they may be distributed in different ways.
Good things come in threes, they say. Well, three-channel power amps suit me just fine. My main component rack is at the back of the room, so I split power duties between a two-channel amp under the rack to drive my rear-channel B&W 804S speakers and, way at the front, either three monoblocks or a three-channel amp for the front three B&W 802Ds. I do this to ensure that the timbre of the front three channels is consistent. The outstanding performance of the Simaudio Moon W-8 dual-mono power amp (Stereophile, March 2006) almost tempted me to go with a stereo amp and a monoblock, but voicing and balancing a multichannel system with equanimity makes me want as much simplicity as possible. I guess manufacturers and users see it the same way; many new three-channel amps are coming on the market.
My reviews of the TacT RCS (Stereophile, September 2001) and the Rives PARC (July 2003) are ample evidence that I've been fascinated with room equalization for quite a while. This is because I don't have a dedicated, purpose-built listening room in either of my homes, and having experienced what such rooms can do for recorded sound, I've always been somewhat dissatisfied with what I do have. Sure, I've got lots of great equipment, and a wife who understands enough to let me install some acoustic treatments (as long as she approves their appearance). Still, I'm sympathetic to those audiophiles who, when I suggest acoustic treatments to resolve their particular problems, say that it's simply not possible for them, either because of the Spousal Acceptance Factor or the need to accommodate other activities in the same room. Room equalizers seem to offer the hope for a panacea for what ails such spaces.
California company Now Hear This (NHT), which has been around since 1986, has always taken a no-nonsense route based on good engineering principles and innovative thinking. Two of their strikingly good ideas were the use of side-firing woofers, and integrating an active subwoofer with a pair of small monitor speakers. Both philosophies culminated in the Xd series of DSP-EQ'd active loudspeakers, which I had the pleasure of reviewing in the November 2005 issue. My first reaction to the concept was "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" The results completely justified an approach that, I believe, points loudspeaker design in a new direction.
I've been tweaking my weekend multichannel system for years, but with my city system I've kinda faked it. I now realize that I listen more actively to the weekend system, and not only because that's when I have the time for it—the sound of that system is simply more engaging and psychologically immersive. So, with the growth of my library of SACD and DVD-Audio recordings to almost half the size of my CD collection, I told my wife that it was time to transform of "our" city stereo rig into a full-blown multichannel system.
Bryston describes its SP2 multichannel preamplifier-processor ($4995) as consisting of a stereo analog preamp with a volume-controlled 5.1-channel analog pass-through plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. The analog preamp is fully equivalent in features and performance to their BP26 preamp. The digital processor includes all the latest Dolby Digital, DTS, and THX modes, and is based on Texas Instruments' powerful Aureus DSP chip, which can be updated via an S/PDIF input. The digital and analog sections have independent power supplies, and there are no video inputs or functions other than a control port for the optional, external SPV-1 video switcher.
It seems these days that everybody and his brother is doing something about room equalization. Sure, we had the old-time graphic and parametric EQs—now we're seeing much more sophisticated and dedicated devices, from the TacT and Z-Systems standalone products to the auto-setup and EQ systems found in many A/V receivers. I was impressed with the Audyssey MultEQxt in the Denon AV-4806 receiver—see my "Music in the Round" column in March, p.50—and a standalone AudysseyPro unit was demonstrated at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.