Music in the Round #54

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.

For all that, the SP-3 looks like a Bryston and works like a Bryston, while providing all the features—with one exception—that users expect from a modern multichannel pre-pro. Even that exception, room correction or equalization, is consistent with the goal of making the output as accurate to the source as possible.

When I unpacked the SP-3, I was surprised by how heavy it was, at 22 lbs for its size—the case measures 17" wide by 5.75" high by 14.25" deep, significantly less than those of other high-end pre-pros I've used, such as the Meridian Reference 861, Classé SSP-800, Krell Evolution 707, and Integra DHC-80.2. In size and weight it's most similar to the Anthem Statement D2v. When I replaced the Meridian 861 and its companion HD-621 HDMI processor with the SP-3, the impression was of a reasonably compact device.

The SP-3's rear panel is nicely organized and clearly labeled. Across the top are eight HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs. Below these is a tier of RCA jacks: from left to right, a 7.1-channel set of analog outputs, two Aux outputs, Zone 2 stereo output, tape and DVR processor loops, a 7.1 set of analog inputs, and four S/PDIF inputs. Below these are a set of 7.1 analog XLRs output, two Aux outputs, two pairs of balanced analog inputs, a 7.1 set of analog RCA outputs, and two AES/EBU inputs. On the far right, below the AC input connector, are three more tiers of connectors: at the top, USB, RS-232, and Ethernet jacks; in the middle, an IR jack and four TosLink jacks; and on the bottom, four trigger connectors.

The logic of this arrangement is that, although the 7.1 sets of RCA and XLR outputs are simultaneously available, most users will choose one or the other; placing one set above the other makes for uncluttered access to all other connections. The Aux outputs, both for RCA and XLR, support use of an additional subwoofer and center-channel speaker. The digital inputs, HDMI excepted, can be assigned to any input button. In keeping with Bryston's philosophy of minimizing complexity, each analog input is assigned to a particular input button, as are the HDMI inputs.

The front panel is equally logical in layout and functions. On the left, above the Bryston logo, is a relatively large and clearly readable four-line alphanumeric display (this briefly converts to a large numeric display when the volume control is used) and the Standby/On button. Across the top are the familiar four navigation buttons, as well as a button for Display (selects brightness), two for Surround Mode (how nice to be able to step through the choices in either direction), one for Digital (selects S/PDIF or AES/EBU sources), HDMI (selects source), 2 Ch. Bypass (selects the front L/R from whatever analog source is active), and Stereo (conventional stereo, or a mixdown from a multichannel source). Across the bottom are the input selector buttons. HDMI input assignment is fixed for the first eight inputs, but the identically labeled analog audio input can be selected, or a digital audio input for each can be programmed through the menus. Similarly, the USB and 7.1 Bypass buttons are associated with those jacks. To the right are buttons to select Main or Zone, and a headphone jack. At the extreme right is a large knob for volume control and navigation.

Again, the logic of this is that, after programming one's preferences in the user menus, one needs only the input selector buttons and volume control. On the other hand, one can make on-the-fly selections with the upper row of buttons. So easy and intuitive are the control and display arrangements that the lack of an onscreen display is unimportant. The SP-3 lacks a front-panel mute button, but I found that toggling the Main button serves just as well.

The menus, too, show Spock-like logic. The two main sections are System Setup and Source Setup. System Setup settings apply to all sources and include speaker distance, S/PDIF, and TosLink button assignments, display and utility settings, and the pink-noise test signals. Source Setup settings are made on a per-source basis, and include speaker size and crossover, speaker level, subwoofer use, triggers, dts/Dolby options, HDMI and digital outputs, as well as lip-sync adjustment. Most interesting is Auto Save, which permits the system to save all your manipulations as you do them, and revert to these saved preferences on boot-up. This means that the SP-3 can almost program itself as you use it.

The compact metal remote control provides all necessary controls, and lights up automatically if picked up. All buttons are identical in size and feel and are fairly symmetrically arranged, but the auto-illumination (and the additional rubber foot I added to the back) made it easy to find and use them.

Part One: The SP-3 in NYC
I inserted the Bryston SP-3 in my Manhattan system, and connected the Sony XA-5400ES SACD/CD player and Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player to the first two HDMI inputs, the two balanced analog inputs, and the Oppo to the multichannel RCA analog inputs. My Pioneer FM tuner went into a stereo analog input, while the Squeezebox Touch music server and the coaxial digital feeds from the disc players were connected to S/PDIF inputs. XLR outputs for the left, center, and right channels went to the McIntosh MC303 three-channel amplifier; XLR outputs for the surround left and right channels went to the McCormack DNA-1 Rev.A amplifier, and an RCA subwoofer output went to a JL Audio Fathom f113 sub. Why RCA? Read on.

I programmed in the measured speaker distances and set the speakers to Small, crossing over to the subwoofer my three B&W 800 Diamond front speakers (at 45Hz) and two B&W 804 surrounds (at 80Hz). I used the Bryston's built-in pink-noise generator to set speaker levels, using XTZ's new Room Analyzer II Pro (see below). I considered running the front three speakers full range, but my room has some low-end problems that add muddiness; as the SP-3 lacks EQ, I thought it best to divert the very low end to the subwoofer, where it could be dealt with by the Automatic Room Optimization (ARO) system in the Fathom f113 (see this column, November 2006). However, I prefer using DSPeaker's multiband Anti-Mode 8033 bass equalizer (see this column, January 2009), which has only RCA outputs, not XLR. The success of the 8033's EQ was confirmed by ear and by measurement with the XTZ, which found no residual modal behavior in the passbands of the subwoofer or the main channels.


Treasuremountain's picture

Good article about an interesting product. Since you reviewed the Rotel RSP 1572 recently I would be interested to learn how you would rate the audio performance of these two surround processors both in conjunction with the Bryston 9B SST.  

Kal Rubinson's picture

See part 2 of the review in the next column.


growboxguy's picture

I am convinced that when it comes to sound quality there still is not a surround preamp made in 2021 that compares to the Sp3. Correct me if I am wrong but the new Marantz and Yamaha 5200 are noticeable steps down when compared to the SP3. I tried both those preamps, they sounded ok but the moment the first notes came out of the SP3 I knew it had high end two channel preamp sound quality. Frankly it sounds as good as or better than the Parasound JC2 plus the SP3 has six more output channels. Your input is greatly appreciated, thank you.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I am convinced that when it comes to sound quality there still is not a surround preamp made in 2021 that compares to the Sp3.

It has been a long time since I have used or heard the SP3 but I would not dispute your statement. Also, I have not heard the SP4 under suitable conditions but, unfortunately, it has but one 7.1 channel analog input and that one is RCA, not XLR. Too bad, for me.

growboxguy's picture

My only concern with the SP3 is it uses a BDA1 DA converter and there has been much advancement in DA processing over the last 9 years. At some point a modern DA converter with modern processing will likely pass the SP3 in pure SQ. Thoughts on this? I know the BDA3 is a much better DA converter compared to the BDA1, at what point do I make the move to the modern setup without giving up any SQ? Advice appreciated.