Music in the Round #26 Page 2

Me, I'm still a music guy. As my wife said, after watching and appreciating the drop-dead-gorgeous quality of HD video, "It's nice, but I don't see the big deal." I guess she's a music gal. On the horizon—perhaps to be unveiled this month, at the 2007 CEDIA Expo—is a new generation of players and processors that will take full advantage of the audio capabilities of these media. I hope that that will encourage the recording industry to release music titles of equal quality.

Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier
Y'see? There's still a need for analog multichannel, and the Audio Research MP1 multichannel preamplifier ($6995) can accommodate three (count 'em) three 5.1-channel analog inputs! One could connect a universal audio player, a Blu-ray player, and an HD DVD player, along with nearly a handful of two-channel sources, without having to use an external switch box such as I struggle with in my country-house system. Well, the MP1 is a big box: 19" (480mm) wide by 6.97" (76mm) high by 16.5" (417mm) deep.

When I saw the MP1 at a Consumer Electronics Show a few years back, I was impressed with the sheer size of its chassis and the size, brightness, and clarity of its display, which occupies most of the front panel's left half. Displayed are input selection and connection (balanced or single-ended), input format (5.1- or 2.0-channel), and level (as a large numerical display, and as a cursor on a bar scale). The faceplate's right half has two rows of six pushbuttons each, all in a panel as dark and obscure as the display is bright and communicative.

But not to worry: anything you can do at the MP1's front panel you can also do from its dandy remote control—and more: power on/off, select any input, volume up/down or mute, and whether the volume is to be controlled normally or switched to Proc to act as a Home Theater Bypass input, bypassing the MP1's own volume control. That's great flexibility—some will want a 2.0-channel bypass, others a 5.1 bypass, and still others more than one. Still, having this switch on the remote gave me chills. I feared inadvertently hitting it and sending through my system an unattenuated, speaker-damaging blast from a noncontrolled source. AR says that hitting the Proc button will mute the input at first, and that it does. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this control belongs only on the front panel.

Controls that appear on the remote but not on the front panel include stepped adjustment of the display brightness, selection of balanced or single-ended for each input, a polarity-inverting toggle, and a Ste/Mult switch, which mutes the center and rear channels of the 5.1 inputs. Finally, the Adjust button lets you step from channel to channel and then, using the volume up/down buttons, trim each channel's gain. The MP1 not only remembers those settings even when unplugged, but they can be set separately for each input.

By now, you can probably predict what's on the MP1's rear panel. The left side has six rows of six connectors each. The top two rows are the RCA jacks for multichannel inputs 1 and 2. Below these are two rows for multichannel input 3: single-ended RCAs above, balanced XLRs below. That arrangement is repeated on the bottom for the multichannel output's RCAs and XLRs. This is neat and coherent: each channel's inputs and outputs are in a single vertical column. On the right are left and right pairs of RCA and XLR jacks for the four stereo inputs above the EIA power-cable socket, a fuse post, and 12V trigger ins/outs. Between these two main banks of connectors is a pair of RCA jacks for Record outputs.

Connecting the MP1 to my main system was child's play. I used the XLR outs to the main power amp—initially a three-channel Mark Levinson No.433—and fed the MP1 with the single-ended inputs from my Bel Canto PL-1a universal player, Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD/CD player, Audiolab 8000PPA phono preamp, Pioneer Elite F-91 FM tuner—and, via a balanced input, the Bel Canto's two-channel output. As indicated in the manual, when powered up, the MP1 goes into mute mode for about 30 seconds, after which it can be unmuted. My review sample must have been damaged in shipment; at startup, the center channel was intermittently noisy—and I do mean noisy, as in louder than my air-conditioning and louder than the traffic noise that seeps in from Third Avenue. During those periods of sputtering, there was also signal leakage in the other channels. AR sent a replacement for the center channel's circuit board (all channel boards are identical). I snapped it into place and all was well.

The MP1 wrought a substantial change in my system's overall sound. Starting with the Mark Levinson No.433 power amplifier, the MP1 made the entire system more dynamically alive at decent listening levels, if somewhat unexciting at low levels—turning up the volume was essential. A very "surroundy" recording, by Wojciech Rajski and the Polish Chamber Philharmonic, of Beethoven's Symphony 1 (SACD, Tacet S157) places the listener in the middle of the orchestra. At low levels, the instruments were too separate to form a coherent whole. At higher but still domestically compatible levels I felt totally immersed in a continuous orchestral array. Dynamics were highlighted by the separation of the instruments, with the brass behind and the timpani at the center front. This is a vigorous performance and a thrilling experience.

A more conventional orchestral arrangement was equally satisfying. In Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder, on Jac Van Steen and the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur's Music of the Viennese School: Berg, Webern, Schönberg (SACD, MD&G 901 1425-6), soprano Claudia Barainsky is front and center, the orchestra behind her. The scoring leaves all performers pretty exposed, but via the MP1 there was a combination of warmth and mordancy that seemed wholly appropriate for the music. This carried over to the other pieces, especially Webern's terse Variations for Orchestra, whose every nuance was clearly communicated.

Finally, I gave the MP1 a run with a remarkable new demonstration disc, Blue Coast Collection: The E.S.E. Sessions (SACD, Blue Coast BCRSA 1012a). Clearly intended to show off the talents of the recording engineers-producers, Cookie Marenco and Jean-Claude Reynaud, The E.S.E. Sessions is a spectacularly natural presentation of acoustic instruments and voices in a rich, defining ambience that envelops the listener. Via the MP1, the Levinson No.433 amp, and my B&W loudspeakers, I felt transported to some unknown but very comfortable space in which I sat 6–10' from an array of talented musicians, each of whom seemed to want to communicate with me. The folky language most of them spoke is not my usual dialect, but it was impossible not to be engaged when the message was so immediate and personal. And don't miss the last track, which features Glen Moore's bowed double bass and a curious whisper.

When I switched to the Classé CA-3200 three-channel power amp, the communication became even more intense and focused, and I could listen at lower levels. The MP1-Classé combo filled in some more of the midbass richness that I'd appreciated from other recordings—including a new one of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4, with Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra (SACD, Ondine ODE 1104-5), in which the pizzicatos in the third movement were rich and round, but with defined edges. Compared to my resident Bel Canto Pre6 preamp, the MP1's greater midbass authority made it seem to have less deep bass. The MP1 and Pre6 were equally transparent in the treble, but the AR had that strange ability of some great preamps of seeming to roll off the highs—except when the music came along. Perhaps it had something to do with the MP1's noise spectrum; my sample produced a bit more background noise than did the Bel Canto, though even this was inaudible any more than a foot away from the speakers. All of my listening was done with three B&W 802Ds at the front and two B&W 804Ses at the rear, but now I wish that I'd had the MP1 when I auditioned the Pioneer S-1EX speakers. That might have been an even better match.

Overall, it's hard to fault the MP1 for its sound or its ergonomics. It was as good a stereo preamp-controller with FM and phono sources as with digital, and it completely lacked any gimmickry in its features or sound. In fact, I found a new level of enjoyment in listening to radio broadcasts. If you're thinking of assembling a single system to do both multichannel and two-channel duties, the Audio Research MP1 would be an ideal choice: it does it all, and it does it all so well.

Next Time in the Round
On the horizon are new surround speakers, new preamplifier-processors, and, with any luck, much more music in a variety of formats.