Music in the Round #25 Page 2

A case in point is Cary Audio Design's Cinema 11 surround processor ($3000). Last fall, when I first stumbled on a prototype Cinema 11 at the annual Expo of the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association, I was impressed by its small size, sleek lines, and intriguing features. Although it lacked any video inputs or video processing, it was Dolby-HD compatible, and had room equalization (EQ) and a 7.1-channel analog input that could be bypassed or digitized. As it turns out, the production version contains all of these, though not exactly as I'd imagined them. In the broadest terms, the Cinema 11 shares functionality with the Bryston SP-2 and the NHT Controller that preceded it in my system (see the September 2006 and January 2007 "Music in the Round" columns, respectively). Nonetheless, I found it distinctive in operation and sound.

Right off the bat, I loved the Cary Cinema 11's front-panel controls. There is a discrete button, with tactile feedback, for every function, and—notable in this day and age—a real rotary volume control. This is one digital box that an analog refugee could operate without a paradigm shift. The display, too, is clear and informative.

The Cinema 11's rear panel, however, is probably more revealing of its functions and capabilities. There are no video ins/outs at all, but more audio jacks than you can shake a stick at: eight pairs of analog stereo inputs (one balanced XLR, seven RCA), eight digital ins (one AES/EBU, seven TosLink or S/PDIF), one 7.1-channel RCA analog input set, one stereo RCA analog output for a second zone, and two sets of 7.1 analog outs (one balanced XLR, one RCA). In addition, there are various trigger, sensor link, communication, and upgrade ports, along with an IEC power receptacle and connections for an AM/FM radio antenna. Finally, there's an XLR input for the supplied microphone used for the Cinema 11's Auto Setup and EQ. All that's missing is a tape-monitor loop, and I didn't miss it.

Because the Cinema 11 has no video circuits, setup is simple, accomplished using only the front-panel display and the remote control. First you customize the input names, set analog input levels, configure analog inputs for bypass mode or DSP, program the AM/FM tuner, set up the Zone 2 options, adjust audio delay for A/V sync, and manage other utilities. Then you can either let the Cinema 11 run through its Auto Sound Setup (speaker check, distance, level, EQ, crossover, phase), or perform all such settings manually. Auto Setup was a piece of cake, but I did it the hard way.

It's not that I have to do everything the hard way. I'd been using the NHT Controller and Power5 amplifier with the Audyssey Sound Equalizer between them, and I wanted to simply swap the Cinema 11 for the Controller. In order to keep the Audyssey Sound Equalizer as-is, I transferred the Audyssey-dictated settings directly into the Cinema 11 and kept the Power5 in the system. This should be okay because the Audyssey measurements are dependent only on the components downstream—the amp, speakers, and room—and these remained unchanged. In essence, I'd duplicated my earlier setup.

Consequently, when I powered up the Cary Cinema 11 and sat down to listen, I was completely unprepared for what I heard. Whether from an S/PDIF input in stereo or an analog 5.1 input, the Cinema 11 was both remarkably open and transparent, yet completely lacking in tizz or glare. Its tonal balance was hard to characterize—the Cinema 11 seemed to neither favor nor discount any part of the spectrum. Nor did it favor any particular type of music or source. I could listen at low levels without a substantial loss of bass, and at high levels the bass remained rock-solid but never excessive. The sound through the analog inputs, in particular, was as good as with any of the other analog preamps I can recall having had in this system, regardless of price. Multichannel imaging and balance, using the same levels and bass management as determined by the Audyssey some months before, seemed spot-on as if for the first time.

In fact, it was the outstanding sound I got with the Cinema 11 that made me reconsider my comments on the sound of the Melba label's surround recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (see sidebar, "Recordings in the Round"). Surround sounds other than recorded ambience, on recordings such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the Berlioz Requiem, were more stable and specific.

That was all to the good—but when I turned off the Audyssey Sound Equalizer, the sound became somewhat overripe in the midbass and a little bit peaky in the lower midrange. The treble changed minimally. (I noted similar changes when I toggled between the Audyssey and the NHT Controller.) But because the Audyssey correction is independent of the upstream Cinema 11, I interpret this to mean that, in this A/B comparison, the Cary was letting me hear my room's acoustical problems more clearly than before. After all, how could the correction be tailored to a device that had not even been in the house when the measurements and EQ were calculated? In other words, those coloration problems are mine, not Cary's. It seems only confirmation of this that I readily re-adapted to and thoroughly enjoyed the sound in all modes with the Cinema 11 and without any room correction. It was just that, with room correction, the sound was even better.

I then tried Cary's Auto Setup and EQ. Procedurally, this was easy—but here's where things got strange. The instructions tell you to plug in the provided microphone, place it at the primary listening position, press Test, Enter, Enter, and get out of the way. I did this a dozen times and never achieved a satisfactory result. When I positioned the microphone horizontally at my listening position, it never "found" my surround speakers. After a number of trials, I found that only by placing it flat against the rear wall could I get it to recognize all 5.1 channels. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise—the microphone looks like a Pressure Zone model, complete with two keyholes on the back for surface-mounting.

But that wasn't it. Even when the mike recognized all the channels, the measurements were screwy. One pass measured all of my speaker distances as being between 30' and 40'—in a room whose longest dimension is 16' (footnote 1). The figure for the front-speaker distance varied wildly, and individual channel-amplitude levels varied by more than with my other measurement tools (RoomEQ Wizard, TEF, or even the RadioShack sound-level meter). The Cary's crossover recommendations for bass management were reasonable: 38–40Hz for my Paradigm Studio 60 speakers, 45–50Hz for the Paradigm Studio 20s.

The Auto EQ settings were equally confounding. No EQ was ever applied to my Paradigm Servo-15 subwoofer, but the Cinema 11 always inserted a peak at 250 or 800Hz and sucked off the highs at 8 or 12.5kHz so that the sound with the EQ settings On was consistently dull, boomy, and inferior to EQ Off. I also tried running the Cary's Auto EQ with the Audyssey, but the results were similarly disappointing. Furthermore, while the other settings (Distance, Level, Crossover) were effective for all digital inputs and modes (only Level is effective in analog bypass), the EQ settings were applied only to stereo digital inputs, direct or when subjected to DPL11x and DTS Neo:6 processing. Auto EQ does not affect the multichannel Dolby Digital or DTS inputs.

In Cary's defense, the Cinema 11's owner's manual does offer detailed instructions for manual setup, and Cary has posted "unofficial" statements on the Web indicating that "This is not a sophisticated EQ program . . . that is included in the DSP chips. It is meant to do the auto levels, balance, etc. If you wish to use the EQ section it is enabled for stereo playback. . . . [W]e are expecting a serious user to do a manual setup with test tones and a sound level meter." I cannot completely buy that—judging by the performance of the Cary 11's Auto Setup in my room, an unsophisticated user would be better off not using it at all, even if it meant balancing by ear with the built-in test tones.

After all this, you might think that I'd have been happy to toss the Cary out of my rack and say good riddance to bad rubbish. I wasn't. First and foremost, I'm thoroughly infatuated with the Cinema 11's inherent sound quality with analog or digital inputs. Second, the EQ itself seems well thought out and useful, if you can set it manually using an external real-time analyzer. Perhaps an update of the Auto Setup software or a better microphone will resolve the problems. Third, Cary promises a separate but operationally integrated video processor that will route all audio signals from HDMI sources to the Cinema 11 for processing, while keeping all video signals away from it.

Reviewers are often criticized for finding ways to praise flawed devices, so I want to make this clear: The transparency and dynamics of the Cary Audio Design Cinema 11's sound trumped any strangenesses of Auto Setup and Auto EQ. Imagine that the Cinema 11 lacks those features, and it represents an excellent choice at $3000, combining the finesse and clarity of the Bryston SP-2 with the smoothness and depth of the NHT Controller. Besides, as Joe E. Brown said in the closing line of Some Like It Hot, as he motorboated away with the cross-dressing Tony Curtis, "Nobody's perfect!"

Next Time in the Round
The Audio Research MP-1 multichannel preamplifier is warmed up and ready to go, and a new Blu-ray player will let me get a taste of how music sounds via that new hi-def format. Did you know that, aside from the new Dolby and DTS codecs, Blu-ray can accommodate multichannel hi-rez PCM without compression? And, of course, lots of recordings, when I see you in September.

Footnote 1: I suspect that the Cary's DSP is not compensating for the latency of the mike input's A/D converter.—John Atkinson