Proceed PAV audio/video preamplifier Page 3

A surround-sound processor for films must get four primary things right: dialogue, music, sound effects, and directionality. First of all, the dialogue must be believable—free of tizz, spit, sizzle, boom, or boxiness. If it doesn't sound reasonably convincing—or worse, is actively irritating—it will quickly destroy the illusion. The whole carefully constructed house of cards collapses instantly.

The PAV doesn't have this problem. I listened to a wide variety of discs and broadcast material and never heard any consistently identifiable dialogue artifacts. Dialogue sound wasn't always ideal, but it rarely is with such source material. The Proceed let me hear clearly into each individual dialogue mix without exaggerating its inherent aberrations or adding any obvious ones of its own.

Film music
And the music? I confess that, for me, this is a make-or-break quality in a film. Many laserdiscs have very fine musical tracks—in some cases they're better-recorded than the soundtrack albums spawned from them. The Proceed did a terrific job with the best of these recordings. Listen to the superbly recorded scores on Dave and Rudy; neither is at all bombastic or showy, but each adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of two first-rate films. (Dave is, by a hair, the better-recorded. Rudy, however, counters with a marvelous Jerry Goldsmith score, and, for my money, was one of the best films of 1993.)

Or how about the music from 1492, Conquest of Paradise? While I'm not convinced that Vangelis's dramatic, synth-heavy score is quite right for this Ridley Scott film (by far the better of the two Columbus vehicles produced in 1992, though still hardly a classic), there's no denying that the combination of image and music here works to great effect in several eye-popping and ear-pleasing sequences. The PAV did them full justice. If the music reproduced on other well-recorded laserdiscs I watched is not up to the quality of the best audio-only recordings, I in no way ever felt shortchanged in listening to them in the PAV's THX mode.

Incidentally, dialogue tends to be overly prominent in many mixes, forcing the music too far into the background and, in the process, reducing soundstage depth and spread. I often reduce the level of the center channel—where the dialogue is concentrated—by as much as 3dB, which often results in a dramatically improved soundstage and a more rewarding balance in the musical score. In my room and system, this doesn't degrade dialogue intelligibility when films are played at near-reference playback levels. There are, however, some soundtracks where the dialogue is actually slightly recessed; Backdraft is a good example. In this case, the opposite cure is called for. (One important benefit of Home Theater over actual movie theaters is that you can control such balances.)

This leaves sound effects and soundstaging. With the former, the PAV left nothing to be desired; but whether or not it reproduced the sound effects naturally is an open question. The big effects in films are often totally artificial constructs in the first place, and are designed with impact, not realism, in mind. The T-Rex in Jurassic Park, for example, "spoke" with a clever compilation of lion, seal, dolphin, whale, and elephant—and probably throat of newt. So while the PAV's sound-effect reproduction wasn't always "natural"—how could it be?—it was nearly always perfectly convincing.

As to soundstaging, the same holds true—as a whole, it was topnotch. The logic steering inherent in Pro Logic was done inconspicuously. That held true for the surrounds as well, which were subtle much of the time, becoming obvious only when it suited the action. This performance, of course, is dependent on the system's being properly set up and calibrated to begin with. Depth was also often stunningly rendered with the PAV. Those who claim that soundtracks have no inherent depth have simply never heard the best of them properly reproduced.

How did the Proceed compare with the McIntosh C39, which I reviewed as part of the complete McIntosh THX system in May 1994 (Vol.17 No.5, p.91, with a Follow-Up in August)? Functionally, the PAV is much more flexible, with on-screen displays and that all-singing, all-dancing, "learning" remote. I found that the capability to individually adjust the levels of the center, surrounds, and subwoofer(s) with the PAV without interrupting the program was a real plus. The McIntosh gives you both overall-level and surround-level adjustments on the remote, but you have to walk over to it and enter the calibration mode—test tones and all—if you want to tweak the subwoofer or center-channel levels during a program. Less flexible than the PAV, the C39, in compensation, is somewhat more straightforward to set up and operate.

I compared the sounds of both processors primarily in their THX modes, playing laserdiscs. (I did use the Pro Logic mode with Glory, which sounded best without THX re-equalization.)

I should first note that when I initially substituted the PAV for the McIntosh, nothing screamed "major upgrade" at me. With the exception of some steering problems in early McIntosh samples, long since sorted out in production, both the PAV and the C39 performed superbly. This isn't entirely surprising, since each is built around an Analog Devices chip. There are some differences in execution—notably in the THX mode, where McIntosh uses frequency shifting and Proceed time shifting to decorrelate the rear channels; but this didn't seem to result in any dramatic sonic differences.