Music in the Round #9 Page 2

As expected, setup was a breeze; I was enjoying the DV-79 in minutes. Its two-channel CD sound was immediately discernible as distinct from that of the Sony SCD-XA9000ES and Denon DV-5900, with which it shared the rack. While the sounds of the other machines vary around a common character of full bass extension, presence, and good details all the way up into the high frequencies, the Arcam had a lighter, more diaphanous sound. Playing the CD layer of Ivan Fischer and the BFO's hybrid SACD recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphony 2 (Channel Classics CCS SA 21604), the DV-79 presented a wide, open soundstage with deliciously sweet string tone. With the DV-5900 in CD mode, I heard a more centrally concentrated soundstage, albeit one with greater midbass, but also with a more forward string tone. When I switched the Denon to multichannel DSD playback of this wonderful disc, the tables turned predictably, the Denon now offering spaciousness, clarity, and weight. Tonal balance, however, remained a bit darker than with the Arcam. But the DV-79 was no wimp, seeming to complement my room's acoustic such that no portion of the bandwidth dominated or characterized the sound. Very refreshing.

Arcam's DV-79 was less markedly different but still distinctive with multichannel DVD-As. Recordings with a full complement of bass were rendered with power but also with a remarkable degree of transparency not always associated with this part of the spectrum. Whether the music was (mostly) acoustic, such as Dar Williams' The Green World (Silverline 288226-9), or decidedly synth, such as Crystal Method's Legion of Boom (DTS Entertainment 69286-01116-91), the Arcam seemed to open up the mix and let me hear all the details, way down into the nether regions. Dar Williams' voice was rich, sultry, and comfortably front and center; the relatively subtle surround effects were icing on the cake. With Legion of Boom, however, the effects are the main event, to which the DV-79 gave full, er, effect. Bass on both discs was powerful but surprisingly articulate (thanks, in part, to the Auralex SubDudes). In 5.1-channel mode, even center-rear images were stable. The Crystal Method's music may not be to everyone's taste (it sure ain't to mine), but the sound should impress anyone.

The DV-79 did superbly with my more usual fare: classical orchestral music. I've been less than satisfied with most of Silverline's remasterings on DVD-A of the classic Vanguard recordings of Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony. My concerns have been with the violins' sharp-edged treble and the somewhat excessive left/right separation. Brahms' Symphony 2 (Silverline 288243-9), however, demonstrated how generous the DV-79 could be to violins and violas, and to a spacious but well-defined lateral soundstage. Except for the extraneous rumbles, deep bass was a bit light, but this is characteristic of the entire Silverline/Abravanel/USO series. The Denon DV-5900 added a little more weight, but the Arcam DV-79's overall presentation was superior, and closer to the sound of the Artemis SACD series from the Utah tapes.

A more modern recording, such as Korngold's film score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (Marco Polo 5.220501), confirmed that, as with pop music, the DV-79 could do as great a job in the bass as in the rest of the spectrum. Comparing the Arcam with the Denon, I slightly preferred the Arcam's strings and muted brass; that, combined with its slightly wider presentation, tipped the scales for me. Reproduction of soundtracks from DVDs was equally satisfying, and, save for the absence of SACD playback, there's not much to carp about with the DV-79. Whether its overall grace in performance is due to the DSP, the Wolfson DACs, or anything else, the DV-79 is simply a great DVD-Audio (and CD and DVD-Video) player with up-to-date video and communication facilities.

An input selector
Some months back, I posted queries on a few Internet discussion groups asking for multichannel preamplifier-processors that satisfied all of my requirements. One of those requirement was the inclusion of two or more multichannel analog inputs that remain undigitized from input to output.

I've since found a way to finesse that requirement. In the past few months I've been using a really neat little three-input, six-channel switcher for those who have more sources than inputs. Zektor's MAS3 multichannel input switcher ($449) is, on the one hand, simplicity itself: three banks of input jacks on the rear, three corresponding selector buttons on the front; use it just as you might guess. On the other hand, it's surprisingly sophisticated in a number of ways that make it extremely easy to use and integrate with the rest of your system.

First, you need not use the power switch at all—touching a selector button will both power up the unit and connect the selected input. Second, the MAS3 can be operated with almost any remote control you might already be using for another component, such as the one to which the MAS3 is connected. This is accomplished either by choosing one of the eight preprogrammed control protocols, or by teaching the MAS3 new remote codes directly from the remote control of your choice. Third, the MAS3's PowerOn defaults and Dimming modes are customizable.

The MAS3 expanded my input facilities in a way that was transparent in use and in performance. I've used it to A/B/C multiple players, to accommodate external processors with DVD and SACD players, and even to swap components and inputs. The MAS3 has never had any effect on the sound. While some have commented on the Web that the MAS3 is expensive at $449—after all, it's just a passive multiway switch—I've found no alternative to it. Besides, its contact relays and RCA jacks, gold-plated for low loss, crosstalk, and distortion, make it worthy of use with the very best equipment.

Bottom line: The Zektor MAS3 is, as Einstein said, simple but not too simple.

Mozart's Requiem: three multichannel recordings
Lauded by David Patrick Stearns and selected as Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for September 2004, Nikolaus Harnoncourt's outstanding new SACD recording is a fascinating performance of the Beyer edition of Franz Süssmayr's completion of Mozart's final work (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876 58705 2). The multichannel sound is streamlined and, while not lacking power, places an emphasis on horizontal linearity and detail. There are no artificial spatial effects that distinguish the multi- from the two-channel mix; rather, there's a sense of a larger space rather than a larger ensemble, with a resulting emphasis on the middle to upper ranges. Some of the brass outbursts are strikingly dynamic, and the four vocal soloists are well presented, but the balances and acoustics swallow up the diction of the chorus. The impression given is of the performing forces as a tightly focused musical engine nestled in the richly ambient space of Vienna's Musikvereinsaal. While this is probably an accurate re-creation, I kept wanting more weight and presence—parameters that I could not enhance by turning up the volume or turning down the rear channels.

Before I drew any final conclusions, I compared the Harnoncourt with the two other multichannel SACDs of the Requiem: Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus (Linn CKD211), and Jos van Veldhoven with the Netherlands Bach Society (Channel Classics CCS SA 18102). Mackerras conducts an edition by Robert Levin that, in distinct contrast to Beyer's, includes significant editing of Süssmayr's—and Mozart's—portions in an attempt to create a more echt Mozartean version. I leave arguments about these approaches to musicologists, but the differences in performance and recording are striking. Mackerras' tempos are everywhere much faster than Harnoncourt's, as reflected in the playing time. Mackerras kept me on the edge of my seat throughout, while Harnoncourt, with his more flexible tempos, often startled with his use of contrast. The sound on the Mackerras version was significantly closer, especially for the soloists and instruments, and the ambience of Caird Hall in Dundee, though noticeable, did not obscure chorus details. However, almost as much as with the Vienna recording, there seemed to be a discrepancy between the acoustical size of the musical forces and that of the hall, resulting in a lack of power in the midbass. Timpani, however, had good impact in both Vienna and Dundee.

The Dutch recording was much the most sonically satisfying of the three, with excellent presence for all the performers, and a better integration of their sounds with the ambience in which they were produced. The period instruments were well balanced in warmth and detail, the soloists clear, and the chorus eminently so. While I would be thrilled to hear this performance live, and I have enjoyed it many times on this outstanding multichannel SACD, the performance fades a bit in contrast with the competition. Jos van Veldhoven uses Flothuis' more modest touchup of Süssmayr's edition, and while his timings are closer to Mackerras' than to Harnoncourt's, he often seems slower than either. Harnoncourt has a tendency to further extend the slower portions, lending them a gravitas that van Veldhoven does not.

But there are no losers in this contest—each performance and recording has much to recommend it. By virtue of its greater drama and fine individual performances, the Harnoncourt will probably be the popular choice, and deserves to be. I prefer Mackerras, finding his tension and agitation exhilarating from beginning to end. Van Veldhoven's is the audiophile's choice: a fine performance brilliantly recorded. You pays yer money and you makes yer cherce!

Next time in the Round
It's about time someone rethought power-amplifier configuration in the multichannel age—next time, I'll discuss an integrated multichannel amp. And, in addition to telling you about lots of new multichannel recordings, I'll continue to fuss with such important ancillaries as cables, and room and power treatments.

See you around!