Recommended Components: Fall 2020 Edition Surround-Sound Components

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

A+

exaSound e38 Mk. II (balanced): $4299
The e38 was introduced in 2017 as the third-generation version of exaSound's multichannel DAC, preceded by the e18 and the e28. In 2019, exaSound introduced the e38 MkII, which replaced the ESS ES9028PRO chip of the original e38 with ESS's new ES9038PRO DAC, said to have four times as many internal paralleled DAC channels. There are also redesigned reference voltage sources and master clock power circuits as well as redesigned mainboard and output stages. Reviewing a sample of the e38 MkII equipped with balanced mini-XLR outputs—an all-single-ended-output version can be had for $3999—KR found that the MkII "was somewhat more detailed and open compared to the original." Kal's conclusion: "By today's standards, this one is pretty much beyond criticism." (Vol.40 No.7, Vol.42 No.9 WWW)

Merging Technologies MERGING+NADAC Multichannel-8: $11,000 ★
Merging Technologies MERGING+NADAC Stereo: $10,000 ★

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: $3795 ★
From ATI—a company founded by Morris Kessler, best known for also having founded SAE—comes the AT543NC: one of a line Hypex NCorebased, 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)

exaSound Sigma Streamer: $750
To those who already own an exaSound DAC, the ExaSound Sigma Streamer offers an affordable and tidy alternative to the company's PlayPoint digital-source components. The simple Sigma, which streams via wired or wireless LAN, is a Roon-ready endpoint, can function as an HQPlayer network audio adapter, and is compatible with UPnP, OpenHome, and AirPlay protocols. It supports PCM to 32/384, DSD to DSD256, and MQA (full unfold). KR found the Sigma to be "easy to use and completely functional as a network link" for his own exaSound e38 and e38 MkII DACs. (Vol.42 No.9)

Marantz AV8805 preamplifier/processor: $4499
The AV8805 is the fourth Marantz pre-pro used by Kal Rubinson, who assures us that "the most widely promoted features new in the AV8805 concern home theater . . . and video." What really interested KR were the carryovers from the AV8805's predecessor, the AV8802a, such as Marantz's Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module (HDAM) buffer output stages for each channel, and the AV8805's support of Audyssey's brand-new MultEQ Editor app. If you already own an AV8802a, should you replace it with an AV8805? Quoth KR, "Maybe, but only if you're using it for more than just multichannel music playback." Nonetheless, Kal regards the Marantz AV8805 as "the standard bearer in home theater and multichannel audio." (Vol.41 No.11 WWW)

Merging Technologies MERGING+ANUBIS Monitor Controller Premium: $2099
Another category-defying product from Swiss manufacturer Merging Technologies, the Merging+Anubis Premium combines a 32-bit 384kHz DAC with the processing power required to accept an eight-channel stream via Ethernet and concomitantly control up to eight studio monitors. It is, in other words, a pro-audio studio controller that does double duty as a domestic multichannel D/A processor. Add to that the Anubis's two headphone outputs and two analog inputs—the latter could accept, say, a stereo phono preamp, FM tuner, or other source—and you have an unusually flexible, high-quality Swiss-made product at a distinctly reasonable price. KR described his delight with the Anubis's sound, noting in particular its "sense of natural balance and smoothness," and praised this most recent Merging Technologies product as "a superb multichannel DAC that has redefined my entire system." (Vol.42 No.11 WWW)

miniDSP U-DIO8 Multichannel Interface: $325
"There has been a serious impediment to the spread of multichannel playback among audiophiles." Thus did Kal Rubinson describe, in his September 2018 "Music in the Round" column, the scarcity of commercial multichannel D/A processors—at the moment, there appear to be only three—and its stultifying effect on hobbyists interested in surround sound. A solution has appeared in the form of the U-DIO8 multichannel interface from miniDSP. This takes the USB output of any computer running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux, and converts it to AES/EBU or S/PDIF, thus allowing that computer, acting as a server/player, to drive three or four two-channel DACs, which appear to be as common as worms after a rainstorm. While noting that the U-DIO8's output is limited to 24/192, KR tested it with several different two-channel processors and observed that "the sonic signature of each model of DAC remained audible," and concluded that miniDSP's new interface is "as indispensable to multichannel audio as a cream filling is to an Oreo." In his November 2018 column, Kal wrote of using the U-DIO8 to wrangle a trio of Benchmark DAC3 HGCs, with interesting and, at times, musically stunning results. (Vol.41 Nos. 9 & 11 WWW)

NAD M17 V2 preamp/processor (with Dirac): $6599 ★
In the January 2015 Stereophile, KR opined that NAD's Masters Series of products had taken a turn from the conservative to the adventurous—evidence of which he saw in the Masters M17 (then $5499), which contained individual, updatable modules for digital video, analog video, digital audio, and analog audio. KR criticized the poor positioning of the front-panel off/standby switch, yet declared, "the M17's remote control was an unalloyed delight: slim, and just hefty enough to feel good in the hand." According to him, "The M17's sound, too, was delightful." He noted dynamics that were "precise and satisfying," and bass that was "delivered with authority"—and KR observed 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-roomcorrection filter set at 24/96." Precisely four years later, in the January 2019 issue, Kal wrote of his experience with the M17 V2, noting that "either [the off/standby switch has] been improved or I've become more adept," and reporting his delight with the new version's included Dirac Live room-correction software, which replaces the original's Audyssey XT32 software: "NAD's Masters Series M17 V2 is a superb-sounding pre-pro and DAC right out of the box, but Dirac Live elevates it to something special." (Vol.38 No.1, Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 31: $3495 $$$ ★
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)

Sound Performance Labs Volume 8: $699
Sound Performance Labs SMC 7.1: $999

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 to $12,575 for 2 to 8 channel configurations ★
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 98.6lb. 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)

Trinnov Altitude 32/-816: $26,750 w/ 3D decoding package as reviewed
In recent years, KR has written about the Trinnov MC Optimizer, a processor that impressed him with its ability "to move, at will, the sounds of instruments around the soundstage." Now the Optimizer exists as a suite of DSP software inside the company's Altitude 32 preamplifier, which Kal reviewed as the Altitude 32-816. (The model number denotes this version's eight-channel capability and 16 outputs.) While bemoaning the product's weight (32lb), complexity, and most of all, its price, KR noted that the Trinnov's capabilities are such that "its limitations are inconsequential" and that, as a preamp alone, the Altitude 32 offers transparency and tonal precision competitive with those of any preamp, A/V or not. (Vol.42 No.7 WWW)

B

Hegel C53 3-Channel: $6000 (three channels)
The Hegel C53 ($6000) is a three-channel power amplifier specified to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms—but thanks to its modular design, the amp is also available as the four-channel C54 or the five-channel C55, each additional 150W channel adding an additional $1000 to the price. Each channel offers the user the choice of single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) inputs and gain that's switch-selectable between 23 and 29dB, as well as switch-selectable inversion of signal polarity. Driving KR's B&W 802 D3 speakers, the C53 sounded "precise but far from sterile," with good presence and tonal roundness on singing voices and "awesome" soundstage recreation. And on one particularly difficult, particularly loud passage, the Hegel surpassed KR's other amps, leading him to declare the C53 as "an outstanding amplifier that performs beyond its modest specs and not-so-modest price." (Vol.42 No.5 WWW)

KEF R8a Dolby Atmos surround loudspeaker: $1399.99/pair
KEF's R8a uses a Uni-Q coincident driver array—in this case, a 5.25" aluminum cone with a 1" aluminum dome at its center—in a roughly 10" by 7" sealed box with a sloping baffle. Provisions are made for wall-mounting; alternatively, the R8a can be perched atop another, larger loudspeaker and aimed at the ceiling, to make the most of the height information in immersive audio codecs such as dts-X, Auro-3D, and Dolby Atmos. KR Borrowed three pairs (!) of R8a's, and after experimenting with placement, found success placing them upright on shelves, just at ear height and aimed slightly but not directly at the ceiling. Kal found that, with most classical recordings made in a single, coherent ambience, "the soundstage was pleasingly wider. With pop or rock recordings . . . this effect was substantial." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

miniDSP UDAC-8: $255 $$$ ★
According to KR, miniDSP's 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 has a front-mounted USB Type A jack. Although the U-DAC8's better-than-average resolution of detail seemed accompanied by "a somewhat etched treble," KR was pleased with its sound: "music sounded pretty clean across the audioband, with particularly good, tight bass." Calling this newest miniDSP DAC "a giant-killer," KR concluded that "the U-DAC8 is an excellent way to begin listening to multichannel files." In a Follow-Up, Kal described the benefits of using the U-DAC8 with various add-ons, each of which costs more than the miniDSP DAC itself—which "would seem silly to consider were there not such a huge price gap between the U-DAC8 and the other [multichannel] DACs." He reported improvements in clarity and balance, and weightier and more impactful bass, when powering the U-DAC8 with his coyly named HDPLEX 400W ATX Linear Power Supply ($795) and connecting it to a USB port on his no less elegantly named SoTM tX USBhubIN USB repeater board ($350), the latter fortified with its own clock ($700). (Vol.38 No.9, Vol.41 No.7 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 52+: $2995
The Parasound Halo A 52+ five-channel power amp offers 180Wpc into 8 ohms or 255Wpc into 4 ohms. (When used as a two-channel amp, those power specs are respectively bumped up to 225 and 350Wpc.) This John Curldesigned amp operates in class-AB and offers both balanced and unbalanced inputs—although, as KR observed, it can't be used with both types of input cables connected simultaneously. That and the amp's 55lb weight were the only aspects of the Halo A 52+ that didn't fully delight KR, who noted sweet, pure tones from strings, freedom from blurring of individual voices or instruments in dense ensemble recordings, fine bottom-end extension, and "all [the] necessary juice no matter how loud I turned it up—and I turned it up loud." (Vol.41 No.5 WWW)

C

Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI v2.0 Multi-Channel DAC: $299
The Evolve II-4K is that rarity in high-end audio: a bargain-priced niche product. In this case, the niche is the one reserved for D/A processors capable of extracting and decoding the high-quality audio embedded in an HDMI video stream, while sending the video content direct to the user's display. KR put the little Evolve II-4K to work in a couple of settings and was "stunned that it sounded so good," adding that, although the Essence DAC didn't sound quite as good as his exaSound e38, "it was not shamed." (Vol.42 No.7 WWW)

Monoprice Monolith 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)

COMMENTS
partain's picture

I can't stand it !
Please review the new & improved KEF LS50s.
The things I've read are titillating , to say the least.

John Atkinson's picture
partain wrote:
Please review the new & improved KEF LS50s.

There is a pair of the new KEF LS50 Meta on its way to me.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Link's picture

Awesome, looking forward to the review. Wireless or passive? Just curious what to expect. Thanks.

John Atkinson's picture
Link wrote:
Awesome, looking forward to the review. Wireless or passive?

Passive.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

rk11's picture

Auditioned the KEF R3s, Polk Legend L200s and the KEF LS 50 Metas a few days ago with 5 tracks of my choosing and thus far my rank ordering of these speakers is as noted. Personally, I found the Metas a bit bright and their bass response was the most lacking - not surprising given the size of the speaker cabinet. Never been a fan of the Polk speakers till the Legend series. The 200s were every bit as good as the R3s EXCEPT in the vocals. I am sure that JA's review will be under a much better controlled environment.

Shangri-La's picture

In the written review, the Ares II was preferred over the Chord Qutest. Yet the Qutest is rated Class A and Ares II is Class B. Interesting...

LinearTracker's picture

BD gave the Duo an “A” rating and deservedly so, but I am listening to the new Duo with the linear power supply and believe it to be a game changer.
I hope to see an update soon.

Link's picture

I have been able to compare the BRXs to a true class A speaker in my system, and I do now agree with the class B rating. Thanks again for the great reviews.

Glotz's picture

with explanation...

Link's picture

Comparisons having been done, the BRXs are nothing to shake a 1M interconnect at. Although they are not quite up there in terms of transparency, detail, and air - they sure do get the timbre, neutrality, and imaging right.

thyname's picture

You butchered the name of T+A MP 3100 HV. Please fix it. There is no such thing as “ T+A MD 3001 HD SACD/CD player: $21,000”

Robin Landseadel's picture

The "A" rated Sennheiser HD 650 headphones have been reissued at a lower price [with a couple of changes that don't affect the sound] as the Drop HD 6XX. Drop is an online only operation, sells for $220 + shipping & tax. It's one of the cheapskate audio high points of the season along with Topping Headphone amps and DACS.

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