Recommended Components: 2017 Edition Surround-Sound Components

Music Surround-Sound Components (other than speakers and disc players)

A+

Merging Technologies NADAC Multichannel-8: $11,500
Among pro-audio companies that have set their sights on the domestic market, the Swiss manufacturer Merging Technologies is noted for its experience with high-resolution networked-audio interfaces. Their NADAC Multichannel-8 (its first name stands for Network Attached Digital to Analogue Converter) is intended for use with network-based file players, and is compatible with the audio-specific Ravenna protocol. Via Ethernet, the Multichannel-8 supports PCM up to 384kHz, plus DXD and DSD256; S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs are also supplied, and these are compatible with up to 192kHz, and DSD over PCM (DoP). In KR's system, physical hookup went smoothly, and although there was a hitch or two in setup, the effort was rewarded: "Even admitting to a positive expectation bias, I was impressed with the sound, not disappointed." KR observed that, while listening to a multichannel DSD256 file, "I had the disturbing but exhilarating feeling that music was actually being made in my room, not merely reproduced. The sound was no more 'multichannel' than it was 'stereo.'" Speaking of which, a stereo-only version of the Multichannel-8, the NADAC Stereo, is available for $10,500. (Vol.39 Nos.3 & 5 WWW)

A

ATi AT543nc 3-channel power amplifier: $3295
From ATI—a company founded by Morris Kessler, best known for also having founded SAE—comes the AT543NC: one of a line Hypex NCore–based, 500Wpc, class-D amplifiers that are modular inasmuch as the user can select from two-, three-, and four-channel amps. Inside the AT543 are an NCore module with two amplifiers and another with only one; both are powered by conventional linear supply boards, the former drawing from a 950kVA toroidal transformer and the latter drawing from a 650kVA toroid. With the AT543NC powering his Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 loudspeakers, KR reported a sound that was "immediately appealing in terms of both balance and clarity." His conclusion: "I am completely taken with ATI's AT543NC." (Vol.40 No.3 WWW)

Bryston 9B-SST2: $9095 ★
The 9B-SST2 power amplifier (called 9B-THX at the time of the review) boasts five channels, 120Wpc into 8 ohms, and is built like pro gear; ie, like a tank. Hand-soldered, double-sided glass-epoxy boards and elaborate grounding scheme front special-grade steel toroidal transformers. According to JA, "the excellent set of measurements indicates solid, reliable engineering." LG was impressed by this amp's speed, power, extension, its tightness and definition in the bass, and its "excellent" midrange. Fully the equal of more costly amps, with wide dynamic contrasts and "involving" vocals, and sonically similar to previous Bryston ST amps. THX conformance, a 20-year (!) warranty, and a reasonable price make this beefy, reliable amp an attractive package—a perfect choice, suggests LG, for home-theater and multichannel music systems. KR's long-term multi-channel reference. (Vol.23 No.9 WWW)

Classé Sigma AMP5 power amplifier: $5000
From Classé's Sigma series of Chinese-made and comparatively budget-priced components comes their new AMP5, descended from the Sigma AMP2 stereo amplifier. The five-channel AMP5 shares the proprietary class-D technology of its two-channel brother, and gives the user a choice of inputs: RCA jacks for all five, or XLRs for the two front channels and RCAs for the remainder. On installing the AMP5 in his system, KR "immediately" heard a performance distinction, and ultimately praised the amp's midrange and treble as "pure and smooth—something of a surprise for a class-D amp—and the bass was powerful, delineated, and extended." His verdict: "performance that easily competes with or outperforms comparable nonswitching designs." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Classé Sigma SSP preamplifier-processor: $5000
The Chinese-built Classé Sigma SSP offers a less expensive alternative to the company's flagship, the SSP-800 ($9500), without giving up too much in the bargain. The Sigma lacks an analog 7.1-channel input, and doesn't support composite or component video. Video inputs and outputs are limited to HDMI: eight of the former and only one of the latter. But the Sigma's parametric equalizer has more bandpass filters per channel—five instead of nine—and the less expensive component supports DLNA audio via Ethernet and AirPlay: "Ideas not yet born when the SSP-800 appeared," as KR puts it. Perhaps best of all, per KR, "the Classé Sigma SSP sounds more like a top-tier analog preamp than any pre-pro near its price." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Krell Foundation preamplifier/processor: $7500 (with 4K)
Despite some wrinkles with the EQ system, this is an excellent-sounding and proficient pre/pro for audiophile ears. DSD capability is now being added. (Vol.37 No.5 WWW)

Marantz AV8802A: $3999
KR, happy owner of a Marantz AV8801, intended to ignore its immediate successor, the new and somewhat more expensive AV8802: After all, the new model's improvements all seemed aimed more at the home-theater enthusiast than the music-only audiophile. But he relented on learning that, for the AV8802, Marantz has eliminated all op-amps from their signature Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Modules (HDAMs), thus promising even more of the analog refinement for which the AV8801 was known. The AV8802 offers 13.2 output channels vs the 11.2 of the AV8801, and seven HDMI inputs vs its predecessor's 6. The AV8802 supports Dolby Atmos and Auro Technologies' Auro-3D, and, with the advent of the AV8802A—to which any AV8802 can be upgraded—HDCP 2.2 copy-prevention technology. After driving its analog inputs with the analog outputs of various DACs, KR declared that, "in almost every way, the AV8802A was an improvement over the AV8801." His conclusion: "It's easy to recommend the AV8802A, despite the bump in cost: It offers cutting-edge features and outstanding sound." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

McIntosh MC303: $11,000 ★
The three-channel, 300Wpc MC303 amplifier measures 17.75" wide by 12.4" high by 22" deep and weighs 155 lbs. Its large front panel is home to three blue power-level meters, two gold-rimmed knobs for meter illumination and power, and two substantial handles. Driving KR's B&W 802D loudspeakers, the MC303 delivered "the relaxed spaciousness and transparency of master tapes." There was a smoothness that extended through the frequency spectrum and seemed to erase the 802Ds' crossover transitions. The Mac couldn't quite match the firm bass or natural treble of the Bel Canto Ref1000 Mk.II monoblocks, however. (Vol.32 No.5 WWW)

Meridian HD621 HDMI Audio Processor: $2000 ★
Meridian's HD621 HDMI Audio Processor smoothly integrates six HDMI inputs, HD audio processing, and SD upsampling with any Meridian processor that can handle a Smartlink/MHR, including the G61R, G68, C61R, and the 861. It extracts the PCM audio data from the HDMI input, FIFO-buffers the PCM, and up/downsamples it for output to the main processor. Upsampling is accomplished by "apodizing" filters identical to those used in the Meridian 808i.2 player-preamp. HDMI from the HD621 sounded "more detailed and open" than PCM data via the Oppo DV-980H's three S/PDIF connections, while "Red Book" CD sounded "superb" through the Meridian. "So rejoice—the HD621 brings HD audio to Meridian systems, and it sounds superb with non-HD sources as well," said KR. (Vol.32 No.9 WWW)

Meridian Reference 861: $20,000 ★
Multimedia controller with video, DSP-based decoding for matrixed and discrete multichannel audio sources. Functions as analog preamplifier-controller, digital and video controller, and A/D–D/A converter. Built-in, reprogrammable decoding of multichannel sources (Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, Ambisonic, etc.), plus THX and Trifield output from two-channel sources. All inputs digitally processed. Of Trifield's synthesized front-three-channels output, KR observed, "I came to regard the loss of air and the narrower soundstage as acceptable concomitants of the richer, tighter, better-defined central images. 'Audiophile air' began to seem an artifact rather than an enhancement." DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 music recordings "injected" ambiences whose acoustics superseded his room's. Multichannel is immersive, but our KR would rather not sit in the middle of a string quartet or orchestra. For two-channel, "equal to the best...beyond significant reproach." Multichannel, he declared, is the future, and Meridian is ready now. Logical but complicated setup and option procedures entered via PC; heavy dealer involvement is key to getting the best from this ultimate component. But when the 861 is programmed for precise time alignment and amplitude balance among the speakers, and the crossover and bass management adjusted independently for the main, center, and rear channels, "everything seemed just right, and it made for consistently satisfying listening," he decided. "The TriField DSP is a greatly advantageous feature that deserves more recognition. I felt confident that whatever little silver disc I put into the 800-861, it would sound superb." Meridian's new MConfig program replaces pages of configuration options with a drag-and-drop graphic user interface, and offers guided channel-level settings and room-correction setup routines. KR: "The upgraded 861 Reference's sound was delightfully and characteristically transparent_.Still Class A after all these years." The updates in Version 6 of the 861 preamplifier-processor include SpeakerLink connections for Meridian's DSP speakers, an "endpoint" card for optimal performance with Meridian's Sooloos music-server systems, a proprietary apodizing upsampling filter for all digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz DACs. The 861 v6 partnered a delicately pure and transparent midrange and treble with exquisite delineation of voices and instruments, said KR. "The 861 has always been and still is the best-sounding audio processor I have heard," he concluded. Of the V8 refinements, some—most notably the newly required use of Meridian's SpeakerLink digital cable, which ensures a digital path from source to each speaker's integral amp—impact only users of Meridian's DSP speakers; others include a digital-input card that has a USB input—which itself may open the door for 24/192 input—as well as a linear power supply for lower noise, and redesigned oscillators and clocking that, according to Meridian, reduce jitter by 40%. KR's verdict: "Overall, the Meridian Reference 861, especially in its V8 incarnation, is still my favorite audio preamplifier-processor to live with." Price varies with options chosen. HD621 outboard processor adds HDMI capability. (Vol.23 No.2, Vol.26 No.8, Vol.29 No.7, Vol.34 No.5, Vol.37 No.11 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M17: $5499
In KR's view, NAD's Masters Series of products has of late taken a turn from the conservative to the adventurous—evidence of which he sees in the Masters M17, which contains individual, updateable modules for digital video, analog video, digital audio, and analog audio. Although the current model lacks a USB port and audio-data Ethernet port, a fifth module, to support streaming and Bluesound, is said to be in the works. Although KR criticized the poor positioning off the front-panel Off/Standby switch, he declared that "the M17's remote control was an unalloyed delight: slim, and just hefty enough to feel good in the hand." According to KR, "The M17's sound, too, was delightful." He noted dynamics that were "precise and satisfying," and bass that was "delivered with authority"—and that "playing hi-rez and/or multichannel files from my server, connected to the M17 via HDMI, was simply glorious, especially as these signals were passed through a Dirac Live speaker-and-room–correction filter set at [24-bit/96kHz]." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

NAD Masters Series M27: $3999
"No mere afterthought to the Masters M17 pre-pro," according to KR, the Masters M27 is a seven-channel class-D power amp based on the recent Hypex NCore module. Single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs are provided for all channels, and the Masters M27 is rated at 250Wpc—or 180Wpc with all seven channels driven. A mildly wonky on/off switch was the only fly in this multichannel ointment: KR praised the M27's sound as "notably clean and punchy," adding that "[the amplifier's] midrange and treble were completely free of any grain or, significantly, the grayish character that is a consistent flaw in the sounds of many of the otherwise excellent class-D amps I've used." (Vol.38 No.1 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 31: $3295 $$$ ★
Based on circuitry developed by John Curl for the highly praised Halo JC 1, the three-channel A 31 power amplifier is rated to deliver 250Wpc into 8 ohms or 400Wpc into 4 ohms. Like other Halo models, the A 31 is solidly built and has a clean, attractive, brushed-aluminum faceplate. On the rear panel are three groups of connectors/controls, one per channel, including balanced and unbalanced inputs and gain controls. Though it lacked some upper-bass richness, the A 31 had a "clean, luminous" overall sound, with a sophisticated, detailed treble; rich, clean midrange; and firm, extended bass, said KR, adding that "the sound is full, balanced and detailed and packs a wallop." (Vol.35 No.9 WWW)

Parasound Halo P 7: $2295 $$$ ★
The Halo P 7 is a full-featured analog stereo preamp with six stereo inputs, balanced and unbalanced outputs, front-panel headphone and MP3 jacks, and an MM/MC phono preamp. It also provides two 7.1-channel unbalanced inputs that can be set for home-theater bypass, optional bass management for all sources, and RS-232/12V connections to integrate with modern A/V systems. With its "delightfully open, balanced sound" and outstanding versatility, the Halo P 7 is "the category killer of analog multichannel preamps or HT bypass," raved KR. (Vol.32 No.1 WWW)

Theta Digital Dreadnaught D: $6149.95 and up
The fourth model in Theta Digital's Dreadnaught series—hence the D, which also refers to the output stage's class of operation—the Dreadnaught D uses Hypex NCore modules, coupled not with a switch-mode power supply but with a distinctly robust supply of more traditional design and construction. Hence this class-D amp's atypical size and weight of 17.5" wide by 7.9" high by 19.6" deep and 98.6 lbs. A modular design, the Dreadnaught D can be had with up to eight channels of 225W each; Theta Digital sent us a 225Wx5 sample, which, according to KR, "not only sounded good, it sounded right." After writing his review, KR continued to live with the Dreadnaught D, using only three of its five channels, and his enthusiasm for it didn't wane: "I've been on a long search for a powerful, transparent three-channel amplifier that I can lift. The Dreadnaught D meets the first two criteria." (Vol.39 Nos. 3 & 5 WWW)

B

Emotiva XMC-1 preamplifier-processor: $2499 $$$
The US-made Emotiva XMC-1, a 7.2-channel preamplifier-processor in a substantial (21 lbs) enclosure, offers more controls than its more austere high-end brethren (the Classé Sigma comes to mind) while forgoing needless bells and whistles: a user interface that Goldilocks and KR would describe as "just right." KR was also impressed by the XMC-1's "exemplary" OLED screen, which displays three lines of information, and the "outstanding" range of controls afforded by its front panel and remote handset. Of perhaps greatest interest is the XMC-1's distinction as the first affordable pre-pro to include Dirac Live room-correction software—in Limited Edition (LE) form—and a calibrated USB microphone; Emotiva offers a $99 upgrade for users who wish to upgrade to the full version of Dirac Live. KR's verdict: "I found the XMC-1 to be a superb-sounding pre-pro for all media." (Vol.38 No.7 WWW)

miniDSP U-DAC8: $275 $$$
According to KR, miniDSP's new U-DAC8 is, "by an order of magnitude, the least expensive multichannel DAC on the market." The PCM-only U-DAC8 handles resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, is powered by a 5V wall wart, and is addressed by a front-mounted USB Type A jack. Although the U-DAC8's better-than-average detail resolution seemed accompanied by "a somewhat etched treble," KR was pleased with its performance, noting that "music sounded pretty clean across the audioband, with particularly good, tight bass." Referring to this newest miniDSP DAC as "a giant-killer," KR concluded that "the U-DAC8 is an excellent way to begin listening to multichannel files." (Vol.38 No.9 WWW)

NAD T 187: $2999
The versatile T 187 preamplifier-processor's modular construction enables various combinations of: 7.1-channel inputs and outputs, six pairs of stereo analog inputs and outputs, several video inputs, up to six HDMI inputs, three each coaxial and optical inputs, one each coaxial and optical output, an Ethernet jack, and a mini stereo jack for mobile players. Additionally, the NAD's unique application of Audyssey's MultEQ XT room-correction software includes a custom target curve developed by Paul Barton. Easy to set up and use, the T 187 offered a full-bodied sound with a smooth, detailed treble, said KR. Paul Barton's target curve added a touch of warmth, with stronger, tighter low bass. "Even if it doesn't do everything possible, the NAD T 187 does everything right," concluded KR. (Vol.36 No.1 WWW)

Rotel RMB-1585: $2999
A powerful and transparent 5-channel amplifier. (Vol.37 No.9 WWW)

C

Monoprice Monolith 3 3-channel power amplifier: $1099.90
Monoprice Monoliths are 200Wpc class-AB amplifiers offered in versions for two, three, five, and seven channels, all outwardly identical. According to KR, the Monolith 3 is well built and boasts great specs; its "bass extension and power were formidable, its midrange and treble seemed smoothly extended." But, on closer listen, the Monoprice lacked "air and space" and "crisp delineation of individual voices and instruments." Although it was powerful, inexpensive, and "really easy to listen to," KR felt that "the Monolith 3 is hard to recommend to critical music listeners." (Vol.40 No.3 WWW)

Yamaha Aventage MX-A5000: $2999.95 ★
Measuring 17" W by 8.25" H by 18" D and weighing 56 lbs, the MX-A5000 is a massive and versatile 11-channel amp rated to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms. Rear-panel Channel Select switches and front-panel Speaker Select buttons permit a wide range of configurations, including: five-channel biamping, five main channels with two independently amplified zones, a triamped center channel in a mono- or biamped five-channel system, and other, more specialized arrangements. A perfect sonic partner for Yamaha's Aventage CX-A5000 pre-pro, the MX-A5000 produced a clean, open overall sound, with a slightly soft treble, well-defined midrange, and solid bass, said Kal. "If you need 11 channels, regardless of how you choose to use them, I highly recommend Yamaha's MX-A5000," he concluded. (Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Deletions
exaSound e28 Mk.2 multichannel DAC replaced by new model; Bryston SP-3, Illusonic Immersive Audio Processor IAP 16, Marantz MM8077, NAD T 187, Rotel RSP-1572, all not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Richard D. George's picture

Thank you for your efforts. These are always informative and interesting.

Comparing this web page for Loudspeakers with my iPad subscription, I believe that there is a section header missing after YG Acoustics Carmel 2 and before Bowers & Wilkins 683 S2.

Richard D. George's picture

Thanks.

rom661's picture

I'm surprised at the age of some of these components; at least two are discontinued. What's up?

John Atkinson's picture
rom661 wrote:
I'm surprised at the age of some of these components; at least two are discontinued. What's up?

We checked with every manufacturer and distributor in January about the current price and availability of everything included in the listing. It is always possible that some products have been discontinued since January.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Leoi's picture

An interesting cartridge to review, in the wake of yout review of the ART-1000, is of the AT ART-7. I've heard it and for the money I think is among the best; it might get a place in the next list of components.

Zenonu's picture

Please hyperlink each component to the manufacturer's website. I should be able to click through on each component w/o having to do a Google Search first. Perhaps some components aren't represented on the web, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

gaddgadd's picture

Bob Katz compared in a blind listening the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum Bundle: $5295 (with Voltikus power supply) and the Yggdrasil. Results...50-50. On youtube you will find a video...What are the reasons for this poor rating?
Numerous raving reviews and only Stereophile will tell us we are all wrong. mmhm

TheNoose's picture

Some major names not present...CH Precision, Tidal, Mola Mola, Nagra to name a few. Is that cos' you haven't had them in for testing...?

John Atkinson's picture
TheNoose wrote:
Some major names not present...CH Precision, Tidal, Mola Mola, Nagra to name a few. Is that cos' you haven't had them in for testing...?

That's correct. We have reviewed Nagra components in the past and have published a review of a CH Precision phono preamplifier since this list was compiled.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

TheNoose's picture

Thanks John. Much appreciate your super quick reply, and the basic list done yearly, very helpful to compare major brands. I like it a lot.

z24069's picture

Logged this in 2016 for those lists and with no response. The lists have not changed in many ways so sending again...

There are some fine choices on the Transports, Digital Processors, Preamp and Amp listings. I am puzzled however at the total lack of mention of any Esoteric Audio product. They are current products well known for their performance and musicality. What criteria being utilized could yield a recommended components lists where at least one of their products (or more) would not make it into the results?

Ali's picture

Recently reviewd Mytek Manhatan 2 DAC recommended as class A by reviewer is not in your list here; Missed in print or is not just chosen at all?

John Atkinson's picture
Ali wrote:
Recently reviewed Mytek Manhattan 2 DAC recommended as class A by reviewer is not in your list here; Missed in print or is not just chosen at all?

I'm afraid our time machine is out of order. This listing was published in the April 2017 issue whereas the Mytek DAC was reviewed in the September 2017 issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

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