Recommended Components Fall 2021 Edition Music Surround Components

Music Surround Components

A

exaSound s88: $6500
See "Digital Processors."

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 WWW)

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: $2499
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: $375 ★
"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 V2i 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-room-correction 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." Latest version adds Apple's AirPlay 2. (Vol.38 No.1, Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

NAD M28: $4999
A seven-channel power amplifier that shares the same NAD Purifi-Eigentakt class-D output modules as the two-channel C 298—see "Two-Channel Power Amplifiers"—and offers 200Wpc. KR was impressed by the M28, commenting that, compared with his previous reference multichannel amplifier, a Bryston 9B-ST THX, "the treble seemed more delicately detailed while the upper low frequencies were a bit better defined. In multichannel, the M28 created a somewhat greater sense of envelopment with both 5.1 and Atmos content." (Vol.44 No.6 WWW)

Okto dac8 PRO: €1289 $$$
An 8-channel DAC with USB input and output, 8 channels of AES/EBU input, 8 channels of balanced (XLR) analog output, a headphone output, and a choice of seven reconstruction filters, the made-in-Prague dac8 Pro so impressed KR that he bought the review sample. JA's measurements indicated that, with just over 20 bits of effective resolution and vanishingly low linearity error and distortion, no compromises had been made to pack eight D/A channels into the Pro's slim chassis. (Vol.43 No.12, Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

Trinnov Altitude 32/-816: $28,450 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

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)

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" × 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)

Parasound Halo A 52+: $2999 ★
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 Curl-designed 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)

Deletions
Sound Performance Labs Volume 8 and SMC 7.1, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
MatthewT's picture

Not much for me here, being a vintage gear fan first. Please bring back the entry-level column, there is a lot of gear at that price-point worth getting reviewed.

Anton's picture

Budgetwise, I think I would be most like a "Double A" audiophile.

Same with me and wine.

I do admit to seeing some of the top end prices for either wine or Hi Fi and thinking that there are people who have checkbooks that are 'better' than their palates/ears.

Like JA1 described in the past...there are already parts of my own hobby that are beyond my budgetary event horizon.

_

If we did have audiophile classes, from minor leagues to major league, I wonder what the price points for each step would be.

MatthewT's picture

Lets me play every now and then in the Majors. Nothing depreciates faster than audio gear. I have to admit being somewhat happy at seeing a dartZeel break while listening to it, while my beloved Sansui keeps making music.

Anton's picture

I like showing gear in the reviews to my wife and asking her to guess the price.

When I saw the OMA turntable in the latest issue, I guessed 15,000 dollars. When she saw it, she guessed 12,000 dollars, and we've been playing this game for 25 years!

Next, I asked her if I were able to purchase it for 90% off retail, would she let me. She said, "Only I promised to flip it immediately."

Then, she threw me a bone and said, "You could buy it and keep it for the 12,000 dollars that I guessed."

I'd need a 97.5% discount to have a chance at it. And even that would be wildly extravagant. I'm happy with life, this is just for scale.

tonykaz's picture

Above the PS Audio level is the world of Status & Ego. !

Which has me wondering if Stereophile is a Status & Ego type publication ? Is this a Robb Report mag that belongs on the coffee tables of private Jet Airports ? ( I've never seen it there )

Does an Anodized Red $200,000 Amplifier belong on the Front Cover of a magazine like ours ? None of us will ever have any chance to experience Velvet Rope Gear so why are we bothering with it? It being better is probably one person's opinion ( and that person probably doesn't have to buy it or own it ).

Reviews of these $100,000 +++++ pieces are man-speaking to us how our gear is deficient and unworthy, we are reading Hubris & gas lighting.

There is a World of $1,000 bottles of Wine, $25,000 Rolex Watches, Super pricy First Class Seats on UAL Flights and Political Leaders that are wealthy from insider trading. We shouldn't be reading about those things here.

Ours is like the world of our modest Canadian, revealing a new form of music discovery and writing one of Stereophile's most insightful pieces of literature about it. ( nice writing Mr. Robert S.)( is that the door bell? )

Tony in Venice Florida

rschryer's picture

Thanks, Tony

tonykaz's picture

Annnnndddd :

Thank You to the Editor that gave you the Word Budget and turned you loose.

Stereophile keeps raising the Bar !!!

Tony in Venice Florida

Anton's picture

Where on Maslow's Pryamid is a half million dollar record player?

I'm curious to see....misguided 'esteem?'

I prefer to use Swanson's Pyramid....

https://external-preview.redd.it/5cDe4MZ9E0ZfvcS10kmAUd2ynTkp6b3wfU-fYsxyNfg.png?width=960&crop=smart&auto=webp&s=be478d54ccedc0bd3a8ea8428e368fe10ed78c60

(Second from bottom left.)

tonykaz's picture

A most expensive record player would service the Ego needs of someone needing to establish themselves as the very Top of Analog Audio's Caste System.

The widely recognised Top Level Analog Format has been Tape.

I grew up in a Performing Arts household, my mother was an Operatic Performer and one of my older brothers was a Horn Player for our local Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

So, from my point of view, no Analog Audio System has ever come close to performing like a Live Audio Performance from a listening distance position.

Super pricy Audio Gear is about Status & Ego !!! ( I hear that Bob Carver still laughs at this stuff )

Tony in Venice Florida

tonykaz's picture

Yes, Brilliant Observation! ,

of which, of-course, I completely agree .

Proving the old maxim: when two people agree on something - only one is doing the thinking.

Now that I'm living in the Deep South, Swansons Pyramid is where I'm slowly migrating to. Hmm.

Y'all have a Grate Day

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

The introduction to recommended loudspeakers states that "Candidates for inclusion in this class [i.e. Class A, limited LF extension] must still reach down to at least 40Hz, below the lowest notes of the four-string double-bass and bass guitar." The Falcon LS3/5a, for example, most certainly does not reach down to 40 Hz, unless you define "reach" to include a -10 or -15 or even lower dB point, which cannot be construed as useful bass etension. This is probably true for several other speakers listed in this category. So what is happening? What is the thinking behind this inconcistency?

smileday's picture

Perhaps about -7 dB at 40Hz in this room. Fig. 6, https://www.stereophile.com/content/bbc-ls35a-loudspeaker-harbeth-measurements

It might be -3 dB at 40Hz in a broadcast van, the intended usage at the design stage.

tonykaz's picture

...performance level for all Great Transducers?

It was the very loudspeaker that brought me and my English partner into the Audio Business. ( back in the early 1980s ) -- ( my business partner and I begged Raymond Cooke for this design to import to USA - he said NO! )

Isn't it still a "Reference" for comparison ? , doesn't any new design have to match or exceed it's super high levels of performance?

This little device and a well matched sub builds an outstanding Desert Island System.

But, it's still outstanding without the Sub.

It may not be Full Range but it well earned a Lifetime Class A+ transducer system rating. ( four Decades + )

Tony in Venice Florida

Ortofan's picture

... like antique furniture, but the KEF LS50 Meta is a much more highly evolved successor.

tonykaz's picture

I'm sure that I agree with you.

I seem to have a deeeeeeeep seated feeling that the LS3/5a is the grandfather of High End music Gear.

Even during the 1980s, my little shop : Esoteric Audio in Farmington Frills, Mi. stocked most of the small mini-monitors including the LS3/5a, Linn Kann, ProAc Tablette, Spica TC50, Quad ESL63 and the whole range of other hopefuls. Performance wise, the ProAc Tablettes were the musical leaders, the Quads were the Sales leaders, the Spica was the Reviewer Favourite . We had them all on permanant comparison using a VPI player, Koetsu Rosewood, Electrocompaniet Electronics and MIT Music Hose cable interfaces. It was an exciting adventure for any and all customers to take part in the ongoing comparisons. People bought scads of 'all' of those small speakers types.

With great or outstanding supporting gear, the LS3/5a can Scale up to amazing levels of music reproduction.

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

@ smileday: With due respect, the link you posted is not to the current Falcon "Gold Badge" reviewed in 2021, which I was talking about, and which is about 12 dB down at 40 Hz (ref. 1 KHz) in JA's listening room on the evidence of Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 (red trace). This, as I was saying, cannot and should not be construed as useful bass extension at 40 Hz, so listing this speaker as "Class A, limited LF extension" is misleading (to say the least) in light of Stereophile's own stated criteria for inclusion in this category. Perhaps Editor Mr. Austin would like to take the stand on this. Furthermore, most of us don't listen to music in a broadcast van. Mind you, I am not saying that these are not truly great speakers. Indeed, I used to own the Harbeth P3ESR, which I found as nearly flawless as I suspect is possible in a loudspeaker, except for bass extension and volume (SPL) capability -- admittedly an inevitable design constraint given the size of the midbass driver, the size of the cabinet, and the benign impedance. This is why I eventually replaced them with a pair of the Harbeth C7 (40th Anniversary), which turned out to be game-over speakers in my small, 12 sqm study. Perfectly solid bass to 40 Hz and possibly below.

TowerOfPower's picture

It's surprising to not see a single Soundsmith cartridge on this list. Would like to know why.

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