Music in the Round #50

I began my July column by talking about how quickly things are changing these days in multichannel audio. What I didn't pay enough attention to is that some things can change quickly enough to create inefficiency. Given that most multichannel digital products are based on digital signal processing (DSP), and many are network-enabled, they can be updated with relative ease. Almost every preamplifier-processor or A/V receiver I've reviewed has needed a firmware update during the reviewing process, and such updates are de rigueur for Blu-ray players, as more and more features (!) are added to new releases. And in addition to providing new performance features, firmware updates often also include corrections for operational glitches that have slipped by the designers and their alpha and beta testers, no matter how assiduously they've done their work.

My favorite example of this inefficiency is my experience with my reference SACD/CD player, Sony's SCD-XA5400ES. The Sony can output a DSD or PCM signal via its HDMI connection, but there is no hardware or menu option for user selection of one format over the other. Based on HDMI's handshaking protocol, the Sony sends DSD if the connected processor can handle it, plain-vanilla PCM if it can't. However, there is something unique (read: funky) about the signals the Sony delivers, though they're clearly proper and within HDMI protocols. Some processors, such as Integra's DTC-9.8, had no problems with the Sony. Others, including processors from such established and reputable companies as Classé, Arcam, and Meridian, failed to play properly. None of those processors can accept DSD, yet none of them could tell the Sony to send it PCM rather than DSD. All displayed error messages rather than playing the music. However, all three companies promptly stepped up to the plate, providing firmware updates that enabled their products to properly communicate with the Sony. That's how updates are supposed to work.

But the firmware-update procedure can create problems of its own. I've read of owners who claim to have "bricked" their processors during an update, though I've successfully updated many devices, some many times. I remember that updating my late, lamented Bel Canto Pre6 multichannel preamplifier required partial disassembly, the attachment of a custom link device from Bel Canto between one of the circuit boards and a serial port on my PC, and the use of a debugging utility to transfer and install new firmware. It worked, but it was scary.

Since then, updating has advanced to the use of serial and USB ports on processors and players, to USB flash drives, and now to wired or wireless network downloads. Oppo Digital's disc players and the Integra DHC-80.2 A/V controller are great examples of the last: Simply navigate to the Firmware Update screen of the setup menus, select Network Update, and sit back. The device connects to the mother ship, determines if a newer firmware or utility update is available, and if there is, downloads and installs it. If not, you're returned to your regularly scheduled programming. That's it.

Of course, the general assumption is that an update always makes an unalloyed improvement in the product it's applied to. But does it? Oppo has been remarkably responsive to its customers' needs, and to the moving target of Blu-ray bells and whistles, by providing frequent firmware updates for its players, even some discontinued models. For this, they deserve praise. Still, longtime users have seen some faults in this responsiveness: at times, niggling little errors that have popped up in updates have resulted in problems that didn't exist in earlier versions of the product's firmware. An example is the accumulating discrepancy of track timing displayed for SACDs, which appeared after one update was installed, but which Oppo corrected in a succeeding update.

No company or procedure—or end user—is perfect. Adding or changing something in a complex firmware package demands scrupulous testing for reliability, and I wonder if, in most cases, this is being done with the same care as in the original factory release it is intended to correct. Many firmware routines are licensed from outside sources (just look at all those brand logos on the chassis!), and yet, as any responsible programmer will admit, changing any one part of the code demands retesting the entire product, even with functional modularity. While I have no doubt that the outside licensors all tested and approved the original factory firmware, I wonder if they're even informed of updates that aren't targeted at their portions of the code.

As a reviewer, I jump on all updates. My own gear has never been "bricked," but sometimes I want to go back to the prior firmware version, and that isn't always possible. Consequently, when people ask me if they should install new firmware as it becomes available, I ask them if they're having any problems with the player or processor. Of course, a user might not be aware of a problem or the usefulness of an improvement, so I suggest they visit the manufacturer's website, and read there what a particular update is supposed to fix or enhance. If you see something necessary or attractive, go for it. If not, why look for trouble?

Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player
Oppo Digital's DV-980H universal DVD player was a pivotal design among audio sources because it permitted digital output of all audio formats. (See my review in the January 2008 issue.) It wasn't the greatest-sounding player of its time, but it pointed out the road that Oppo and others would travel to arrive at today's universal players. Now, more is meant by universal than ever before. As well as adding the playing of Blu-ray Discs to CD, DVD-V, DVD-Audio, and SACD, as well as any compressed format that might be inscribed on any of them, we now expect these players to be able to stream music and video from the Internet and from storage devices in the home. While it's not unreasonable to think that if a player can play any format from a disc, it could also be configured to play any of those formats from other sources, I still find it utterly remarkable that these little boxes, some of which weigh well under 10 lbs, can be so powerful.

Oppo made the well-appreciated BDP-83SE (see my March 2010 column) by adding to their universal BDP-83 higher-quality DAC and output stages and obligatory modifications of the power supply. These clearly indicated that the model's platform had great potential, and other manufacturers soon picked up on it, modifying or adapting the BDP-83. This culminated in Ayre Acoustics' DX-5, in which the BDP-83 was transformed into a true high-end player with a true high-end price of $9950! (footnote 1)

Footnote 1: See Michael Fremer's review of the Ayre DX-5 in the December 2010 Stereophile, and my Follow-Up in January 2011.