Bryston 9B-THX five-channel power amplifier Welcome to the Real World

Sidebar 2: Welcome to the Real World

Watching The Matrix over the home-theater system I used to review the Bryston 9B-THX was a kick. The sound was highly dynamic, extended, and effortless, and the visual action was non-stop. Laurence Fishburne, who plays the prophetic leader, Morpheus, says, "Welcome to the real world" after the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, undergoes a rigorous education that teaches him a new way of thinking. Neo was re-educated the Hollywood way: kicked, stomped, tossed against walls, shot at, and thrown off buildings. While not as vigorous, my multichannel education got my attention just as firmly.

Although I've uncrated and positioned huge 250-lb loudspeakers and wrestled sharp-finned 100-lb amplifiers up my stairs, their installation always followed one simple rule. Like Noah's Ark, everything came in pairs: two channels, two main loudspeakers, two interconnects, two pairs of speaker cables. With the advent of the CD player, all non-speaker components for two-channel stereo can be stacked, if necessary, in a single, central column. With monoblocks like the Bryston 7B-ST, the amplifiers can be placed on the floor behind the two loudspeakers, so the large speaker cables are run out of sight behind the equipment stack to behind the loudspeakers. One can minimize the clutter of speaker cables and interconnects by running them behind the speakers and the equipment stack without major renovations of one's living-room walls or floors.

This is not the case with multichannel. Six-channel systems obviously can't follow the Rule of Pairs. Furthermore, there is much more equipment in the simplest multichannel system than is found in a component stereo system, even if one owns monoblocks. Where to put it all?

I found I couldn't stack a large television monitor, a five-channel amplifier, a video processor, a subwoofer, and a central-channel loudspeaker in one neat array. As they say in the counseling business, who goes on top? The amplifier and TV monitor are both heavy, and should go on the bottom. Yet the amplifier runs hot and can't be stuck under all those other boxes. I could put it on the floor...but the system's six 1m interconnects keep the amplifier closely tethered to the Lexicon MC-1 processor. The sizes of these boxes differ greatly, so one can't make a neat little Tower of Hanoi. On a visit to Sony's cavernous retail store in Manhattan, I learned that they install their home-theater control centers in huge credenzas. I didn't have room for a huge credenza and all the loudspeakers necessary!

So I made two stacks, starting with the Velodyne HGS-18 subwoofer on the bottom. Then came a Mark Levinson No.334, for using Revel Salons as my two front-channel speakers when I needed a huge bass response (no more than three times a day!). Then came the Mirage HDT FCH-1 center-channel speaker, the Theta Carmen DVD player, and the Lexicon MC-1 digital controller. Finally, atop everything, I perched—like a cherry on an ice-cream sundae—a very lightweight Panasonic 13" video monitor. (The stack wouldn't accommodate the weight or width of my 27" Sony Trinitron.) The Bryston went in a second stack, sitting by itself on a piano bench next to the subwoofer. That gave it good ventilation and easy accessibility for wiring loudspeaker cables. But it wasn't pretty.

After the electronics were installed, I followed Bart Lo Piccolo's advice and made certain that the front-, center-, and rear-channel speakers all came from the same manufacturer. I temporarily replaced the Revel Salons and B&W 805 Nautiluses with Mirage HDT-FCH-1 front-channel loudspeakers 11' apart and 10" from the listening chair, 1' from the rear wall, and about 3' to each side of the HDT-FCH-1 used for the center channel. The rear-channel speakers were placed on stands next to the side walls and 5' 6" behind my listening chair. On Lo Piccolo's advice, the Velodyne HGS-18 remained as my powered subwoofer.

Then there were the speaker cables. I prefer very-high-quality audiophile speaker cable sourced from such manufacturers as PSC, Audiolink, and Coincident Speaker Technology, but their heavy spade lugs were thicker than the ?" slots in the plastic shrouds of the 9B-THX's binding posts. Of the cables in my cable box, only Sumiko OCOS cable's spade lugs were thin enough for the rear-channel speakers, and only Mark Levinson HF-10 for the front channels. Bryston's Chris Russell says this problem has been corrected in current-production 9B-THXs: the shroud slots have been enlarged to 5/16" wide.

Finding the optimal video outputs of the Theta Carmen required me to RTFM (read the factory manual). I hadn't initially, and so got to enjoy Run Lola Run in pure black and white. Setting the Theta Carmen's composite video outputs to Component turned my color monitor into a black-and-white TV. Toggling to Composite returned color to the screen. I then had to decide on the digital audio output: "PCM Only" or "PCM/AC-3/DTS"? The latter position was the only one that let me listen to my DTS demo disc.

The next lesson was simple: Hook up the center channel and ask questions later. As an aging two-channel man, I hadn't hooked up the center channel at first. Impulsive and eager to hear what my DTS demo DVDs sounded like, I'd connected the front-channel speakers, fired everything up, and put on track 3 of the DTS demo disc—a scene from The Haunting. I heard lots of smashing glass, creaking doors, blowing wind, and rumbling thunder—everything but Catherine Zeta-Jones' voice. I had transformed Hollywood's technological masterpiece into a silent movie! Wiring up the center channel uncorked the missing dialogue.

To fully test the Bryston 9B-THX, I needed brand-new source material. None of my "Records To Die For" were going to give me discrete channels and video signals, so I bought a selection of DVDs and DTS-encoded CDs featuring wide-ranging special effects or music. Among the former, I found many that were revealing and enjoyable: The Bone Collector (Universal DVD 20716), Kiss the Girls (Paramount 331887), The Long Kiss Goodbye (New Line N4446), Godzilla (TriStar 231129), Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks 84433), Run Lola Run (Sony Pictures Classics 04014), The Fifth Element (Columbia Pictures 82409), The Matrix (Warner Bros. 17737), and Blade Runner (Warner Bros. 12682). For video and music I turned to Run Lola Run (Sony Picture Classics 43396 04014) and Digital DTS Surround Demonstration DVD 4 (DTS DVD 99121). For DTS source material I listened to Holst's The Planets (Telarc 20CD-80466) and Don Henley's The End of Innocence (Geffen 69286-01062-2).

Finally, I learned that listener participation differs greatly between multichannel and two-channel systems. A surround-sound home-theater setup had me involved every minute. I find two-channel audio at its best to be a more meditative experience in which I literally sit back to savor the intricacies of the stereo soundfield: its depth, breadth, three-dimensionality, transparency, and effortlessness. With no visual signal, I close my eyes and become gradually more and more involved with the music. To enjoy the experience, I have to bring more to it.

Surround sound was dramatically different. I had to be more active, as it took two remotes to control the system: one each for the Theta Carmen and Lexicon MC-1. I sat forward and was pulled into the action instantaneously, because all my senses were activated. Paradoxically, in another way, I had to do less work to get into this very active experience. The sound, instead of being the main component, is only a part of the experience. The soundstaging was around me instead of in front, and that enhanced the involvement. All these factors made the multichannel, multimodal experience exciting and different, but not necessarily better than two-channel audio.—Larry Greenhill

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