Music in the Round #35 Page 3

The second new feature is one that permits the user to modify the target curves provided by Audyssey. This is important, not so much because it lets you construct any weird frequency-response curve that suits your fancy while still correcting for the major room modes, but because some implementations of MultEQ have limited options. For example, the Integra DTC-9.8 and some other preamplifier-processors offer only three curves with different degrees of high-frequency rolloff, but don't offer a flat response curve (footnote 2). With MultEQ Pro3.0, you can select a target curve for one or more channels, then edit it by grabbing and dragging inflection points in the curve. Thus, for the first time, I was able to change the curve with the most gentle rolloff (down by about 8dB at 20kHz) to a curve with a slower slope that was laser-straight o 20kHz. The new target curves can, like the measurements and filter sets, be labeled, stored, and reused. Similarly, you can easily introduce "room gain" compensation, such as is included in the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software, or bump up the upper bass for more "kick."

I used the Pro3.0 software with the Audyssey Sound Equalizer and with the Integra DTC-9.8. Since my room and speakers were unchanged, I could take measurements made while my laptop was connected to the Sound Equalizer and transfer them to calculations used for the Integra, and vice versa. I also ran separate measurement trials for the two to confirm that, indeed, I could reliably repeat a set of measurements. However, even with the handy curve editor, the corrected results were slightly different. The corrections to the subwoofer channel were remarkably similar, but I saw the greatest differences in the low-end corrections for the main speakers. This is not surprising: low-frequency correction requires more filter resolution than high-frequency correction and "the SEQ has twice the resolution for the satellite channels, as well as for the subwoofer (as compared to the AVR products)."

Compare the traces in fig.1, which show the uncorrected right front speaker (top), correction with the Integra DTC-9.8 (middle) and with the Audyssey Sound Equalizer (bottom). The Audyssey achieves remarkable flatness down to the low rolloff, while the Integra DTC-9.8 shows a residual bumpiness, although even this is greatly improved compared with the uncorrected state. Because this frequency range is so close to the range of reasonable crossovers for bass management, it's no surprise that the success of correction varies with the crossover selected.

Fig.1, response of right front speaker (top), corrected with the Integra DTC-9.8 (middle), and with the Audyssey Sound Equalizer (bottom) (5dB/vertical div.)

Fig.2 shows a similar set of curves for the right surround speaker, which sits on a 4' stand in a rear corner of my room. Again, the uncorrected speaker output is shown at the top. The Sound Equalizer result is still bumpy with a 70Hz crossover (middle), but remarkably, the curve is almost perfect with a 40Hz crossover (bottom).

Fig.2, response of right surround speaker, uncorrected (top), corrected with Sound Equalizer and a 70Hz crossover (middle), and with a 40Hz crossover (bottom). (5dB/vertical div.)

All of this underscores, on the one hand, that optimizing Audyssey's equalization is not possible with the plug'n'play approach implied by the simplistic guidance provided in the user's manual of a typical AVR or pre-pro. On the other hand, it also underscores the value of the evolving sophistication and usability of MultEQ Pro.

After all was said and done, however, the subjective results using MultEQ Pro3.0 with either the Audyssey Sound Equalizer or the Integra DTC-9.8 were superior to what I'd previously achieved. In part, this might have been because I was now more careful and patient in the process, knowing that I needn't be concerned about losing an earlier acceptable outcome. Mainly, though, the ability to tweak the results by trying different bass crossovers for the different channels, and by nudging the response targets, let me experiment with correcting perceived flaws. In most cases, Audyssey MultEQ Pro was dead on—but with v3.0, I could flavor to taste.

Pioneer BDP-51FD Blu-ray player
My first Blu-ray player was also Pioneer's first, the Elite BDP-HD1, and for what it did it was just fine. It played the new discs, and the image quality was a revelation compared to that from regular DVDs—but the sound was a constant source of disappointment. That's not to single out Pioneer for criticism; it was clear that the entire industry had rushed BD players to market with little concern for high-resolution sound. There were references to Dolby TrueHD and dtsHD MA in the Pioneer's manual, as well as in the manuals for the Sony and Panasonic players I tried, but mostly to indicate which sound formats the players could not play, or how it would limit the bandwidth of the digital and analog outputs. So much for the cutting edge.

Finally, we're now seeing Blu-ray players that promise to decode and/or bitstream the hi-def sound codecs without limitations, and the Pioneer BDP-51FD ($599) is one of them. I say promise because every player I've so far tried has some minor limitation that its manufacturer promises to eliminate with a future firmware update. The BDP-51 is no exception, but its only current limitation is minor, at least for those of us whose A/V processors can decode hi-rez data.

Those familiar with earlier Pioneer players will see the family resemblance in the BDP-51FD's glossy black front panel, blue display, and LEDs. At nearly 5" high and weighing more than 12 lbs, its physique is beefier than most current Blu-ray machines but fits nicely with higher-end audio components. The BDP-51FD's operation, too, is similar that of its predecessors, but it responds and loads far more quickly. Setup, too, is similar, with a Setup Navigator for initial configuration, plus many tools and adjustments.

The rear panel, in addition to providing the usual array of connectors—including the essential HDMI 1.3a output for video and audio—has both dedicated stereo RCA connectors and a full 7.1-channel set of RCA outputs. This last is important for those who still lack the ability to decode bitstreams or multichannel PCM. Many manufacturers cut corners by offering outputs for only 5.1 channels, or even fewer.

Connected by HDMI to my Integra DTC-9.8 preamplifier-processor, the BDP-51FD was set to my preferred default, bitstreaming the HD codecs (footnote 3). I could hardly wait to get to a new raft of ballet and opera Blu-rays from Universal Music. These were usually in dtsMA 5.1, but some offered 5.1 PCM as well. No matter—the Pioneer-Integra combo sounded equally superb with all; any differences between the sound formats were small. The sound of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, and Dmitri Hrvorostovsky, conducted by Valery Gergiev (Decca 074 3298), was romantically luscious. Similarly, Gergiev's performances of two Tchaikovsky ballets with the Mariinsky Theatre, The Nutcracker (Decca 074 3301) and Swan Lake (Decca 074 3302), were delightfully detailed, balanced, and dynamic (but where's Sleeping Beauty?). A new production of Wagner's Die Walküre with Sir Simon Rattle in the pit (Belair Classiques BAC434) offered magnificent orchestral sound, although the singing varied from outstanding (Willard White as Wotan) to disappointing (Robert Gambill as Siegmund). An embarrassment of riches!

The audio performance of the Pioneer BDP-51FD, via PCM or bitstream, was as satisfying via HDMI 1.3a as the Denon DVD-3800BDCI, which costs more than three times as much. Keep in mind that the Denon's Realta sxT2 HQV video processor and beefy analog stages contribute to its $1999 bottom line, and it will be highly sought by those who, unlike me, use the analog outputs or are highly demanding viewers. For me, it's the sound that's important, and I couldn't really distinguish between the two with the Integra doing the dirty work of decoding, processing, and D/A conversion. Going back to the wonderful audio-only Blu-ray Divertimenti, with the Trondheim Soloists performing works for string orchestra by Britten, Bacewicz, Bjørklund, and Bartók (2L 2L50SABD), the Pioneer BDP-51 drew the best from every sound format on the disc, leaving me to hope that Blu-ray will someday become a real music medium that need not rely on the support of video.

Next Time in the Round
McIntosh's first three-channel amplifier, the MC-303, which I saw glowing at the CEDIA Expo; Sony's statement SACD player, the SCD-XA5400ES, which sports HDMI output; and whatever I can grab at the upcoming International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Footnote 2: There is a clumsy workaround in the Integra DTC-9.8 that involves switching to THX mode and turning off Re-EQ. Unfortunately, you can't do this in all modes, and the selection is not "sticky." I was able to edit the most gentle rolloff to approximate a flat response up to about 17kHz.

Footnote 3: However, when I switched to PCM output, I found that, although I've so far performed two firmware updates on the BDP-51FD, the player still lacks the promised dtsHD MA decoder. The estimated released date for this is January 2009; it's likely to be implemented by the time you read this.