Recommended Components: 2018 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: $3595
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: $9995 ★
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)

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)

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)

Sound Performance Labs Volume 8: $699
Sound Performance Labs SMC 7.1: $1899

As Kal Rubinson noted in the January 2018 Stereophile, "It's no secret that there are very few analog control options . . . for multichannel." Into that void steps a German pro-audio company called Sound Performance Labs with their first domestic-audio products. The Volume 8 is a volume control in a box with an eight-channel balanced input and an eight-channel balanced output. The SMC 7.1 Surround Monitor Controller adds to the Volume 8 a second eight-channel balanced input, two pairs of XLR stereo inputs, one stereo XLR output, an XLR subwoofer output on which appears a full-range mono sum of the L/R stereo inputs, a headphone jack, two outputs for metering, an array of illuminated pushbuttons, and a GPS receiver. Both SPL products require the use of DB25 cables (not included). KR began with the Volume 8—"connecting it . . . was much easier than I'd expected"—but was at first disappointed by its "dim, claustrophobic sound." Yet in time, the sound improved to a point where "there was only a slight dimming above 10kHz." Now "the entire soundstage was more continuous than contiguous, and the sweet spot was much bigger." KR found the SMC 7.1's sound indistinguishable from the Volume 8's; although he appreciated the additional multichannel input of SPL's more expensive model and acknowledged that "the studio-style switching options are a bonus," he noted that he would rather have channel-level controls. Just kidding about the GPS receiver. (Vol.41 No.1 WWW)

Theta Digital Dreadnaught D: $6985 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: $255 $$$
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)

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)

Deletions

Meridian Reference 861, all not auditioned in too long a time.

COMMENTS
supamark's picture

You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

link to Ref 5 review measurements page:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/kef-reference-5-loudspeaker-measurem...

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

Judgment call on my part.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

waynel's picture

Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

John Atkinson's picture
waynel wrote:
Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

This amplifier didn't measure well but I defer to my reviewers' judgments on sound quality when deciding on the ratings.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

supamark's picture

fair enough.

Joe8423's picture

but I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste. I have no criticisms of how he does his job as editor of stereophile. I just can't get my head around his opinions of specific components/speakers.

John Atkinson's picture
Joe8423 wrote:
I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste.

I do have my hearing checked regularly, so it must be my taste :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrkaic's picture

...this is a lovely artful reply. Congrats, dude!

Indydan's picture

This is off topic. But, Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

John Atkinson's picture
Indydan wrote:
Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

Art Dudley and Robert Schryer will be attending the Montreal show for Stereophile.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Indydan's picture

Thanks for the information.

FredisDead's picture

I have learned over the years not to take the rankings seriously, but these are essentially the same speakers, one designed for larger rooms and one designed for smaller rooms. I can't help but believe that the magazine is unduly influenced by John Devore's description of the O/93 as being built down to a lower price point. I don't think JD was fair to his own babies. Since it was Art Dudley whom was the major proponent of the O/96 and since he now has a smaller listening room, it would be great if he were to audition the O/93's in his new room and let us know if he hears a qualitative difference.

ken mac's picture

John [DeVore] has no influence on how we write or review his speakers.
I owned and reviewed many of Johns' speakers (owned 8, Super 8, Nines; reviewed Super 8s, 3s, Nines, O/93) long before I joined Stereophile.
The 2 speakers are not really alike, and not designed for different sized rooms, I believe. I've heard both many times and prefer my O/93s. John makes extremely natural sounding loudspeakers that work well in many systems, hence their popularity.

tonykaz's picture

I'm not much of a Fan of Vinyl nowadays but still... shouldn't there be a phono cartridge in the Same Class as that A+ Turntable for $30,000 or the one for $104,000 ? and.. are there only two "A+" Turntables ?

I can understand, of course. I was a Big Time Phono Cartridge Shop, once upon a time. I know fully well the difficulties involved in proper set up of Phono Cartridges and their Arm and all things tracking, etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc..... phew.

Committing to review Phono Cartridges is an elaborate set of burdens to put upon any competent reviewer lacking an Assistant ( like ole HP at TAS had ).

We at Esoteric Audio reviewed ( and had "Active" ) every phono Cartridge we sold, it was an exhausting commitment. Koetsu was A+.

Proper playback of RedBook via one of the many A+ Rated Players is a God Send compared to the Mechanical Complexity of revolving mechanisms and those mechanical transducers having astonishingly low output.

My two great Audiophile Philosophers ( HR & Steve G ) still have vinyl "lives" and rather vast vinyl collection commitments that I'm happily well past, their commentaries have substantial merit because they both have that vast history of experiences giving them the heft of "Earned Confidence" so.....

Stereophile should give them both the A+ Recommended placement : HR for Writing and Steve G for Vlog.

Tony in Michigan

z24069's picture

The list once again contains (many of the same) names of some great offerings from many manufacturers.

It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components. The K-01X (now K-01Xs), Grandioso K1, etc...are among some of the finest digital playback gear (same to be said for the 2-box and 4-box options) in the world. Clearly they belong on this list and the lack of focus on evaluating and listing these products with their peers definitely needs to be cured once and for all.

Great issue over all; you are however missing several key entries from Esoteric and others.

Thank you,

John Atkinson's picture
z24069 wrote:
It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components.

I have explained this before. If we haven't reviewed a company's products in the past 3 years, they are not included in "Recommended Components." With the changes in Esoteric's US distribution, we have been waiting for things to settle down. However, we do have a review of the Esoteric N-01 scheduled for our August issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ola Harstrom's picture

Was interested to see how this would be rated.

Is HR's coverage (Gramophone Dreams #11 -->so it should perhaps have been in the Fall of 2017 edition...?) not considered a formal review?

Tx!

DavidNC's picture

We read these 'best of' or 'recommended component' reviews with an interest as to where our own products stand against the opposition.
So I looked for Vitus.....nowhere !! Not on any list !!
So I searched Vitus (on this site) and found no mention since 2011 !!
Surely Vitus deserve a 'review' even if it's not liked ??

jazzman1040's picture

This list is chock full of traditional designs, but has few representatives of fully active speakers. Even for the LS50 you selected the passive version when all reviews I've read suggest the active version is far superior. I count only the KIi's as fully active? In a world where technology is advancing incredibly fast, where ease of use is of primary importance for all except for a select few (maybe only readers of Stereophile?), shouldn't this list include more than a few active speaker selections? Or maybe they don't measure up? For value it would seem they win hands down. On performance, most critics I've read agree that actives are the way to go. So what gives?

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