Music in the Round #98: Trinnov Altitude 32 & Essence Evolve II-4K

As I wrote before in these pages, I have long been acquainted with French electronics manufacturer Trinnov. Years ago, at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York, a Trinnov rep used a mastering console equipped with their processor to move, at will, the sounds of instruments around the 3D soundstage and left me thoroughly impressed. That was before my conversion from stereo to multichannel music listening, and before the blurring of borders between home theater and mainstream audio.

Subsequently, I reported on an AVR with a simplified version of Trinnov processing, and later still on a full-blown Trinnov MC Optimizer. The former was tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying, while the latter was satisfying but too demanding, operationally and financially. But recently, Trinnov entered the home theater/domestic-audio market with their line of Altitude preamp-processors. These sit at the high end of such products in appearance, convenience, DSP potency—and price.

Earlier this year, I received for review the Trinnov Altitude 32—actually the Altitude 32-816, with optional 3D audio decoding package ($26,750), plus a Trinnov 3D microphone ($750). The "816" designation indicates 8-channel (actually 7.1) input capability, either digital or analog, as well as 16 channels of outputs; the optional 3D package enables Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X, along with their respective upmixers for legacy material: Auro-3D, Dolby Surround, and Neural:X (footnote 1). The Trinnov Altitude 32 is the most prodigious HT pre-pro that I have ever used. Aside from DSD support, I cannot think of a single facility or function that's missing, including the option to go beyond the number of built-in channels by adding cards and an external box.

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Getting up to altitude
In my earlier experience with the Trinnov MC Optimizer—in that instance, a standalone signal processor, although the name also applies to the suite of DSP software inside the Altitude 32 and other products—I had to rely on a phone and VPN connection with a Trinnov technician to get it going. The Altitude 32 has a much friendlier user interface. But such is its complexity that new users won't be able to follow a simple series of setup screens to use it. Trinnov strongly advises that users read the entire 167 pages of the User Guide—and I agree—but a printed copy is not included. Since I had some prior experience, I chose instead to sample my way through the PDF guide, consulting it throughout the process.

Weighing in at an impressive 32 lb, the Altitude 32 takes great physical effort to install, compared to a power amplifier of comparable weight, because it must go on a high enough shelf that its controls and its myriad connections can easily be accessed. I started by connecting a few HDMI sources, including my Mac mini-based JRiver server, and an expanded playback system that included my standard 5.2 setup plus two pairs of front and rear Dolby-enabled speakers: small upward-aimed speakers that reflect off the ceiling to emulate height sources. The resulting 5.2.4 system required 11 of the XLR output jacks for the power amps and subs, and I inserted them in what seemed a logical order based on experience. I turned on the Altitude 32 and, yes, stereo was excellent from the left and right speakers, but the outputs from the additional channels were strange and skewed. Clearly, my default was not congruent with that of the Altitude. I needed to face the setup procedures outlined in the guide. But how?

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The Altitude 32's front panel controls and display serve only for in-use functions—not configuration or calibration. There is also direct network access to the Altitude 32's webpage, which is somewhat more detailed, but it doesn't support setup operations, either. The only effective user interface for setup at this moment (footnote 2) is via VNC. My iPad made the connection quickly and dependably.

This makes great sense if one looks at the back of the Altitude 32 chassis and sees the characteristic I/O panel of an Intel-based motherboard poking through on the lower left of the main array of A/V I/O connections. There's a PC in there: Consider it the Trinnov's left hemisphere, in that you must communicate with it if you want to deal with the A/V operations in the right hemisphere. Of course, you're welcome to connect a keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor to that PC to access it directly, but that entails more devices, more connectors, and more clutter. So VPN it is—and I have been won over by that approach's ability to give me the most granular and global control from my seat on the sofa.

The basic setup tasks are defining and mapping the output channels; bass management; speaker measurement; target curve specification; and calibration/equalization. In addition, one is likely to have special preferences for different uses—eg, stereo music with or without bass management, single person vs group listening/viewing, etc. Trinnov lets you store individual sets of controls, calibrations, and settings as individual Presets, and you can have dozens to suit your needs.

Taken in order:

• The speaker-mapping page allows you to assign any physical speaker channel to any logical speaker output in any of the commonly used layouts or codecs. I discovered that I had connected my front subwoofers to jacks that Trinnov had assigned to SurroundR/SurroundL; as a result, the rest of the assignments were displaced as well. Rather than doing a lot of plugging and unplugging, I just reassigned the remaining outputs.

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Channel assignments page for each codec and, in last column, speaker output.

On that page, one also enters room and screen dimensions to aid in visualizing speaker mapping. I saved Presets from this as 5.1 and as 5.2.4 so that I could use them as needed.

• The bass management page provides for setting the LFE low-pass (LP) frequency for each subwoofer and the high-pass frequency for each of the main channels. These settings can be global (applied to all channels) or individual (per speaker). I chose no LP filter for the LFE, 80Hz for every main speaker, and 110Hz for the Dolby-enabled speakers. I applied these to each of my Presets.

• Speaker/room measurements utilize the unique Trinnov 3D microphone—actually an array of four microphone elements, each fastened to the end of its own stem, with all four stems fastened to a cylindrical base. Three elements are on rather short stems, arranged in a triangle; just behind the triangle, the fourth element is fastened to a longer stem. With this array, the Trinnov processor can measure a speaker's distance, level, and frequency response as would a single microphone, but it can also assess the angular position of the speaker in both the vertical and horizontal planes. It's so effective that Trinnov says that just one measurement position can be used, although they recommend 4-5. I made five measurements, in front or below and left or right of the main spot. It took all of 15 minutes and, again, I applied the results to both Presets.

• Target curves are, of course, optional, but in this particular room, with these particular speakers, I have become comfortable with a target response that raises the bass just a little and gently rolls off the treble. My choice was a 3dB boost of frequencies below 100Hz, with a progressive down-slope to -4dB at 20KHz, applied to all the speakers. Since I had Presets for 5.1 and 5.2.4 with a flat target curve, I saved duplicates of each with my personal target.

• The calibration is a simple matter of clicking on a button, but you can also dig deeper to customize the outcome. You can, for example, add parametric EQs for each and every speaker, if you or the speaker manufacturer can provide the correction information. Another option is to adjust the resolution of the correction process beyond the 1/3-octave default, but my results were satisfyingly smooth and flat. I ran the Optimizer on each of my four presets as defined above.

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From top, FR curves for all channels before and after correction filter. Note flatness and tight grouping.

Whew! All that may sound challenging—and I can't deny that it's more complex than is typical. However, the results are well worth the effort, whether you undertake it yourself or get your dealer/installer to do the job. I recommend the former, because that way, in the process, you gain the power to manage future changes and enhancements.

In flight with the Altitude 32
Turning on the Altitude 32 with the front-panel button is like turning on a desktop computer: It takes a minute or so to boot up. I'm impatient, so I left it on, muted, when it wasn't in use.

The big knob to the left of its display is the volume control; just below that is the mute button. The knob to the right of the display and the three buttons that flank it control the menu operations and four buttons below the display select inputs. They and their labels are all as matte black as the panel and effectively invisible. Unless you need the exercise of getting off the sofa, you will find that remote control or smartphone/tablet access is friendlier.

From the moment the music began, it became apparent that this is not just another pre-pro. Stereo sounded nice, but that ain't what we are here for: Multichannel music, as in 4.0, 5.0, or 5.1 discrete files, was simply amazing.


Footnote 1: Natively, the Altitude 32 handles Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, DTS Digital Surround, and DTS HD Master Audio.

Footnote 2: The software version supplied on my Altitude is 4.2.8.2, but there is a new release candidate (late beta) called 4.2.11rc4+ that includes a setup wizard that walks the user through the configuration and calibration process. Unfortunately, it was not yet available in time for this review.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

If I had the wherewithal, that review would be enough to make me simply buy and enjoy! Then I read about the set up effort. When I think of the infrastructure involved and what you as an expert had to go through to make it work, it strikes me dead where I stand.

Color me lazy, but interested! The review was exceedingly insightful and made me want to hear this thing!

I am holding out hope that this will all someday be wireless, I can buy something like this, toss a few dozen powered speakers around the room in 'convenient' locations, and let the device set my room up while I go for a margarita.

The only cords will be for AC power and otherwise all wireless.

This is my dream.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

That dream could become a reality sooner than we think ........ Think multi-room set-ups like Sonos, Blue-OS, Denon HEOS, B&W Formation Suite etc. ..... Same type of set-ups could be used for multi-channel audio also, in the very near future :-) ........

Apple and Google could also get into the mix :-) ...........

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yeah but none of those, afaik, can do what the Trinnov does. (Of course, you can also assert the inverse.)

stevebruzonsky's picture

The beta firmware with the easy setup has been available for some months now. I bought my Alt32 - 16 channels and had it sitting for months as I was intimidated. But last Feb I got in the beta program and got the easy setup. First, I read the manual again over and over. Then I did the setup the hard way. then I went to the easy setup feature, and guess what - it was easy, led me through all the basic steps I had already done! My understanding is the non-beta firmware with this should be out soon!

This damn SSP sounds so good that I sold my Theta Casablanca SSP of many years (since 1997) and I do not look back or miss it one bit! And I had the Casablanca IV-A SSP's best D3 DACs and also had their Generation VIII Series 3 DACs as well for a time!

What's really nifty is no more entering speaker distances/delays or measuring speaker levels - its all automatic and perfect as far as I can tell! ANd as you have stated you can quickly calculate and enter different seating positions, I use a front row for video, a back row for music (ROON).

With my prior SSP, I used an expensive Sonore Signature Rendu SE Optical USB out into a Berkeley Audio Alpha USB to digital converter for two channel ROON music; and a custom built Computer Audiophile computer HDMI out for multi-channel ROON music (I used JRiver and changed to ROON going on 4 years ago). Multi-channel music via HDMI was nice but didn't sound nearly as good as two channel. NOW with the Altitude 32, using ROON Ready ethernet, two and multi-channel music sound as good as it gets, better than ever, and equally sonically. I sold the Sonore and Berkeley pieces because I found ROON Ready to sound just as good!

Do not forget the Altitude 32's Auro-3D mode particularly for music via ROON! With my prior SSP I never care for Dolby and DTS expansion modes for 2 channel, listening in strict 2 channel almost always. With the Altitude 32, I don't care for expension in Dolby and DTS, but I love using Auro-3D for both 2 channel and multi-channel. The front soundstage, instruments, vocals lose nothing and I only gain re dynamics, ambience, etc using Auro-3D. Its amazing! I have five Aerial Acoustics 7ts, floorstanding, currently, with four in ceiling KEF speakers. The Altitude 32 has a processor display via VNC that shows you the channels input and output, too! Using Auro-3D for two channel music via ROON, I can see that the front left and right share with my front center pretty equally, with other channels used for ambience and effects, and again musically its wonderful.

I find the volume control on the Altitude 32 to be so very transparent. As I turn it up or down I just don't hear harshness at all, even better than my prior SSP. Its simply a question of what level do I want to listen at. I go to a lot of live concerts, especially jazz, at excellent local acoustic venues and its amazing how Auro-3D adds to the illusion of being there.

Note Auro-3D by design only "expands" up to 96-24 stereo. If the track is higher resolution, say 176-24 or 192-24, it will just play in stereo. I find the sonic difference between 192/176 and 96/88 to be very minimal compared to the benefits of Auro-3D at 96/88,so I have ROON set to downsample to 96/88 (88 for DXD and DSD), and play up to 96/88 at native rate.

For a lot less money you can get the Altitude 16, limited to 96-24 resolution and "only" 16 channels, and ROON Ready, too! Sonically should sound the same! Glad I got the Altitude 32, because this allowed me to upgrade to 24 channels, and my dedicated home theatre is about to undergo a major remodel, from 5.2.4 to 9.4.13 (3 Aerial Acoustics 7t floorstanders, 6 Aerial Acoustics 7LCR on wall, 2 JL Audio f212 subwoofers, 2 Paradigm Persona subwoofers, 13 Triad inceiling Silver Rotatable/Sat 9 speakers) (in current system already have the 7ts and JL Audio subwoofers). So I must warn you, save money and buy the Altitude 16 and limit yourself to 16 channels - buy the Altitude 32 even the 16 channel version and you will be more easily hit with the upgrade virus/bug and add channels and add amps and speakers. Its costly!

Distinctive's picture

Kal, given your review of the Trinnov - is the Bryston SP4 in queue for a review?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Kal, given your review of the Trinnov - is the Bryston SP4 in queue for a review?

Not at this time.

JMR's picture

Hi Kal
Great review, many thanks for the interesting insights. I had the Altitude 32 set up in my room for a day but the unit was faulty and I was unable to really assess it. I had also had a StormAudio I.ISP 3D.16 set up in my room for a few days about a month previously. I was impressed with the StormAudio and Dirac sound but was not able to make a direct comparison.
I have been a long term user of a Tact Audio system and use a TCS3 and a combination of Tact 2150 amps and Boz 216/2200 amps. I am very happy with my Tact system sound and feel that it still compares favourably with the two systems I mention above although I was not able to do them justice in terms of tweaking etc due to the short time I had them in the room.
My interest in the Trinnov and StormAudio is due to my concern with the longevity of the Tact system as the company no longer exists. The Trinnov is very flexible and appears to be more comprehensive wrt crossovers etc than the Dirac system but I have no experience with Dirac V2. Trinnov is closer to what I am used to with the Tact system albeit it much more advanced features and modern components which is understandable.
As a keen follower of you column I am aware that you have used Dirac previously and am interested to know your view on the final multichannel audio capabilities of the Trinnov system vs Dirac. To your ears are they comparable or is there a clear winner?
regards
Jose

Kal Rubinson's picture

As a keen follower of you column I am aware that you have used Dirac previously and am interested to know your view on the final multichannel audio capabilities of the Trinnov system vs Dirac. To your ears are they comparable or is there a clear winner?

It is hard to declare a winner because it is hard to make a fair comparison. Trinnov is always linked to specific hardware implementations, none of which are configured as I would find ideal. DiracLive, otoh, can be employed using a number of embedded hardware implementations (none ideal, imho) or as an application/plug-in in a computer-based player.

The other difference is that DiracLive seems to be quite user friendly but somewhat inflexible compared to Trinnov which is flexible (almost to a fault) and is only now approaching user-friendliness with the new Set-Up Wizard.

I have no experience with the yet-to-be released DL 2.0 but I can say, speaking out of both sides of my mouth, that I have obtained greater satisfaction with the audible results of Trinnov but prefer to use DL for practical reasons. I'd love to see a purely software release of Trinnov and compare it with DL 2.0.

Gort's picture

Curious...have you done a comparison with the Datasat RS20I with the new software?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Nope.

retro's picture

" I'd love to see a purely software release of Trinnov "

Do you think that will ever happen..maybe you have some inside information..;)..?

swolpert98's picture

Given the cost of the Trinnov, it'd sure be nice to know how it sounds when playing a simple stereo source. I understand the Trinnov's design goals and purpose, and that playing simple stereo music is not that primary design goal. Assuming Im like most listeners and that surround sound constitutes a small part of my listening, who is going to dole out $26,000 for this if the Trinnov is weak compared to a non-surround high end $26,000 preamplifier? Would I be better off with a DiracLive professor of say, $4,000, and a standard stereo preamp of $22,000?

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