Snell Music & Cinema Home THX reference system Page 2

The left and right Towers flanked the screen, which for much of the review consisted of various rear-projection televisions under test for issue 2 of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (footnote 2). The layout of the room allowed these sets to be recessed flush into the wall behind the loudspeakers so that there was no large, bulky TV cabinet in the center to interfere with the imaging. The fronts of the left and right Towers were about 2' from the front wall, toed-in to face the center seat. The subwoofers, left and right, were located just to the outside of the main Towers. The LCR 2800 center-channel was positioned just below the screen, tilted up slightly to center its radiation pattern on the center seat. The surrounds were positioned directly to the sides of the main seating area, which placed them each about 10' from the center seat—roughly the same distance as the main loudspeakers.

When I first fired up the Snell M&C Reference system, I was a bit skeptical of the possible results. After all, I had listened to a number of fine surround-sound systems, many of them THX-certified, in my audio/video room over the previous year or so. The system I was using just prior to the Snell was the B&W THX array, which I reviewed in October 1994 (Vol.17 No.10). This provided a tremendous amount of satisfaction on well-recorded soundtracks. If it didn't quite reach the resolution levels of equivalently priced, two-channel audiophile loudspeakers, it nevertheless also performed very well with music. I was particularly taken with the B&W's bass—more akin to good audiophile-quality bass than the sort of ill-defined bombast that saddles much Home Theater. The Snell would have to clearly exceed the overall performance of the B&W and other similar systems to justify its existence. Did it?

Absolutely. While the law of diminishing returns was definitely in effect—the Snell was not orders of magnitude better than the B&W, or any other such ridiculous hyperbole—the Snell system exceeded the performance of the B&W in every respect but in the tightness and definition of its mid- and upper bass. It combined a big, open, deep, and wide soundstage with a sweet high end, uncolored midrange, and astonishing—no other word will do—deep-bass extension and power. I'll begin with its performance in a video context, since most potential buyers will probably choose the system with that application as primary.

It seems obvious that a system such as this should stand out on big, explosive (often literally), blockbuster soundtracks. There was no disappointment here. You want Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs stomping through your living room? You're there (lawyers, beware). The bass on this disc left me fearing for my house's structural integrity. It survived better than my nerves.

You want your rescue scenes? Try the final fire in Backdraft, with its sound effects—bass and otherwise—dialog, and music all overlapping and competing for attention. I doubt if Pro Logic is capable of sorting out all of this better than the Snell system does. You want your battle sequences? Try almost anything in Gettysburg, but particularly the final hour. You'll feel like one of the lucky survivors—or walking wounded—of Pickett's charge. In the real battle, there was one report that the cannon fire could be heard as far away as Philadelphia. Your neighbors won't need to be convinced.

Something more subtle, perhaps? Slip The Shadow into your laserdisc player and listen to the subtleties of the foley effects and other sounds in the many quiet scenes that bracket the big effects sequences. Or the final game in the climactic chess tournament in Searching for Bobby Fisher. The latter is a scene I consistently turn to if I'm demonstrating Home Theater to those who don't like the typically splashy and noisy "movie" movie, and who argue thereby that they have no need for an elaborate surround-sound system for the simple films they favor.

Bzzzz. Wrong. Not. Without the sense of ambience and space conveyed by the soundtrack, or the dramatic bass undertones punctuating the dramatic moments, this masterful conclusion would deflate into a boring sequence of moves, countermoves, and brief bits of dialog. In its own way, this scene is as near a masterpiece of composition, editing, and sound as is the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park. And the Snell system is equally effective at making the most of both.

I found myself at a loss to come up with a serious criticism of the sound of the Snell system. It tended to be slightly forgiving of bad program material—not an unwelcome quality when we're dealing with soundtracks—in a way that the B&W THX system is not. The B&W system is a little more punchy in the midrange and low treble, with a slightly more aggressive nature. The McIntosh THX system (see my review in May '94) is as sweet as the Snell through the midrange and low treble, but a bit more laid-back overall and slightly more pronounced in the top octave. The latter adds a bit of HF air to the sound, but makes the McIntoshes sound a little zingy on some material. The Snells had neither any added zip nor any aggressiveness—though they certainly registered all of the excitement of aggressive, in-your-face blockbuster films.

Midrange coloration was similarly very low, which doesn't mean that dialog on soundtracks was pristinely pure. It wasn't, but that's not the fault of the Snells. Dialog recording in films ranges all over the map, from the naturalness of that rare bit actually recorded on location to the claustrophobic quality of most so-called looping—dialog that's rerecorded in a studio. But the dialog here was certainly the equal of any other Home Theater sound system—or movie-theater sound system—I've heard, and was better than most.

As I remarked above, the Snell subwoofers were truly remarkable, particularly in the way they plumbed the bottom. I should also point out here that the bass in my setup was mono (though through two subwoofers). The bass output of the Proceed PAV, as with many surround-sound processors, is a single mono output. I did much of my listening with the subs positioned on their sides, initially without any form of spiking or isolation from the (carpeted) floor. The appropriate positioning, of course, will depend on the individual room.

In the sideways configuration, I could feel the bass in both my feet and body—the first from the floor vibrating, the latter from the couch shaking. And I have a cement slab floor with solid ground underneath! Fearing for the integrity of my slab floor, I raised the subs up on spikes, which cut down substantially on the Richter level. But the bass remained astonishing. It wasn't exceptionally tight, but good pitch definition was evident. I remain to be convinced that bass below 40Hz can be super tight. Keep in mind the things that actually do go below 40Hz: the bottom notes of a few instruments, the organ, and, on video, the occasional sound effect.

In any event, nothing I've had in my listening room, or expect to have, has equalled the pair of Snell SUB 1800s for sheer low-end reach and impact. Was it natural? Well, you can't judge such things on video material, which by its nature is pumped-up to enhance the excitement. Yes, on occasion I noted a bass note jump out unnaturally here or there. But was that the fault of the woofers? My audio/video room has an emphasis around 60–80Hz, which I have measured with a number of loudspeakers. What was remarkable with the Snell subwoofers in the M&C Reference System was how seldom it appeared as a problem with video material. On music? I'll get to that shortly. Patience.

To get the best out of the Snell subs, however, requires a good, and preferably powerful, amplifier. The NAD 208 that I used was fine. Of three multi-channel amps that I tried, using one channel of each to drive the two Snell subs in parallel, only the Parasound HCA-1206 could do justice to the Snells. It was even tighter in the bottom than the NAD, though with slightly less sense of ease than the more powerful NAD.

When I wrote my review of the McIntosh surround-sound system, I commented on my hierarchy of priorities in film sound. First comes the dialog, second music, and third sound effects. Dialog is first only because you have to know what's happening (footnote 3). But, as I put it then, "Nothing can put you in [the action] as effectively as a good, well-recorded and -reproduced musical score."

Nothing since then has changed my opinion—nor my opinion that appropriate music can "save" an otherwise only fair film, and immeasurably enhance a good or great one. While the typical moviegoer may be numb to the music (how often have you heard or read a film critic acknowledge it?), for the music-lover, film music need not always be an unnoticeable part of the scenery. If it's a great (and appropriate) score, and a great recording, then the film buff who also happens to be a music-lover can't help but notice the music in a film. My personal musical sensibilities have always had a strong cinematic streak, and film music has always been one of my favorite musical genres. I know I'm in the minority on this, but, well, there it is.

Some of today's finest composers are working in film, and the quality of film-music recording has improved immeasurably in recent years. Good examples abound: The Shadow, The Abyss, Geronimo, Gettysburg—to name just a few. There are more bad ones than good, of course, and even the best aren't quite up to audiophile standards—yet.

Nevertheless, the Snell system excelled on film music playback. Like Baby Bear, "just right" was my most common impression. The score in The Shadow, to give the best current example I know, has remarkable depth and spaciousness when played back with THX processing (it's otherwise too top-heavy). Even on massed strings it's rarely overbright, and never steely—common soundtrack failings.

Footnote 1: You can't. They're nailed in place and can only be removed at the factory. This is done not for secrecy but for cosmetics: the grillecloth only remained smooth and flat when a nonremovable frame was used.

Footnote 2: Available in September '95.

Footnote 3: More action-adventure–heavy films have been produced in Hollywood in recent years precisely because the dialog is only of minor importance in such films. This results in a large market overseas, where little is lost in the translation.

Snell Multimedia
Brand no longer in existence (2010)

338h10's picture

I assume that the Sub's response of "17Hz–80Hz ±2dB" is due to an internal crossover within the Sub? The external crossover does not seem to cover the sub(s), and I double the 18" driver has nature HF fade that matches exactly with the rest of the system. Thanks.