Snell Music & Cinema Home THX reference system Page 3

As with the B&W system, I found myself preferring THX playback on some soundtracks and straight Pro Logic on others over the Snells. More often than not I would make my decision based on how the soundtrack music sounded, which sometimes resulted in having to accept a less-than-optimum balance with dialog and effects—these things are mixed separately and not always with identical spectral content.

I observed once that, in my opinion, the best music recording for film can be near, if not quite at, the state of the art, while dialog and effects trail well behind. I still believe that. Nevertheless, the Snell M&C Reference system did full justice to all aspects of a well-recorded soundtrack.

Music Without Pictures
It's almost become an article of faith in high-end audio that, while home-THX loudspeakers may be fine for video, they're a washout on music. While I've always felt the point to be exaggerated, the critics have a point. The THX loudspeakers I've heard up to this point have definitely been optimized for movies. But they haven't exactly wimped-out on music. While you could certainly make a case that this or that specific music loudspeaker at a given price-point is superior to a given home-THX loudspeaker, the ultimate judgment, as with all loudspeakers, must rest with the individual listener.

The same will be true for the Snell M&C Reference System. But I will say that, in my time with the system, it left little to be desired in the reproduction of music. In my audio/video room—which is not as optimally designed or laid out for music as my main listening room is, but which is still a good space—the Snells were as satisfying as anything I've heard in that room, and competitive with the best heard in my listening room as well. Whether I listened in straight stereo or stereo surround (the music-surround mode on the Proceed PAV), the soundstage was precise and focused, the midrange unmarked by any coloration I could hear, and the top end sweet and detailed. The perspective struck me as slightly forward though not in the least aggressive, and the top just a little less airy and open than I prefer—though in no way dull or lacking in detail.

Toward the end of the review period, I moved the M&C left and right Towers into my main listening room to see how they would fare with other equipment in another environment (Denon DP-S1 transport, Mark Levinson No.36 D/A converter, Rowland Consummate preamp, and Proceed AMP 2 amplifier—the last borrowed from the A/V room for the occasion).

I first listened to the Snells without any subwoofer at all, and found the result less than fully satisfying. The existing bass was less than extended and less than well-defined, slightly diffusing the whole sonic impression. Snell's own subwoofers, in the A/V room at the far end of the house, couldn't be sensibly moved for this occasion (they would only have to go back to the A/V room again in a few days).

I was, however, able to bring in a pair of Titan subwoofers from Audio Concepts that I had on hand, using a pair of in-line high-pass filters from Audio Concepts to roll off the bass in the Towers. The sound was transformed.

Though the Titans in no way had the low-end extension and weight of the Snell subs, they still filled out the bottom end nicely. While I hesitate to call the result Class A sound—if only because I'm very conservative when it comes to that designation—it was most certainly high Class B. The overall balance (deep bass excepted) was similar to that heard in the A/V room—that is, slightly forward of neutral, with a sweet yet slightly soft extreme top end, nevertheless having plenty of unexaggerated detail. The sound was a shade more pristine, and the front soundstaging—depth, particularly—noticeably improved in the A/V setup (lack of surround excepted). The former was likely due to the slightly better front end and cabling (Cardas Hexlink interconnects, Monster M1.5 biwire loudspeaker cables), the latter to the better room and more optimum positioning (no compromises required to accommodate a video screen).

And—returning to the A/V room with the full system with Snell subs—what about the bass from those big Snell subwoofers on music? I was astonished at how well it integrated from my primary listening seat. From bass drum to organ, string bass to synthesizer, the bass was superb. The bass on the Holly Cole Trio's Don't Smoke in Bed (Manhattan CDP 81198 2), which can be problematic on many systems, was clear and punchy. I also trotted out that old audiophile warhorse, D;dafos (Reference RR-12CD), and it was new again. The drum kit was solid and deep, the synthesizer subterranean. And the bottom end on the soundtrack from The Abyss (VSD-5235) was, ah, stunningly deep.

Only occasionally did I note any hint of upper-bass emphasis—again, due primarily to my room—and it was never disturbing. Still, this was hardly minimonitor bass I was dealing with. I will say that even the best loudspeakers (or at least the best ones with any pretense to bass extension) heard at Stereophile's recent High-End Hi-Fi Show in Los Angeles in April were plagued by bass irregularities and room modes far worse than what I heard in my own room with the full Snell M&C Reference System. And none of them plumbed the bottom as well. (Even the same Snell subs in their Home Theater demo—in a much larger room—appeared to have less extension than I got with them).

When I attempted to blend one of the Snell subwoofers with a THX loudspeaker from another manufacturer (footnote 4), however, my efforts were less than successful. There was too much overlap, apparently, in the crossover region, resulting in an upper-bass hump that, while arguably acceptable for films, was irritating on music. The lesson here is that subwoofer-blending can be tricky; mix'n'match at your own peril.

Actually, most problems attributed to subwoofers are actually problems associated with the room or the crossover. I was fortunate in that the Snell M&C Reference System melded well in my room. With so much bass on tap, room excitation is always a risk. If you're not as lucky as I, there are steps you can take that could solve the problem, though a little creativity is involved. And the violation of at least one audiophile sacred cow: the stricture against any form of [he drops his voice to a whisper] equalization.

DSP & Equalization
The ultimate solution to problems in the bass may be equalization in the digital domain using DSP (digital signal processing), though few people have enough experience with it as yet to know what side-effects it may have. I was able at our 1995 Hi-Fi Show in Los Angeles to visit the Snell Technology Center (the Snell factory is located in Massachusetts, but their designer, Kevin Voecks, works out of L.A.) and hear the M&C Reference System with Snell's own six-channel, DSP processor. On familiar soundtrack material, no mid- or upper-bass irregularities were audible—even from two different listening seats. The system there sounded quite stunning, though ultimately no better than in my own room above 100Hz. And, surprisingly, the deepest bass is better in my room—something that could probably be fixed at the Snell Center with a little judicious fine-tuning of the response (footnote 5). Overall, the use of DSP was a definite plus.

Other options, short of the large expense (at least currently) of DSP, are also possible. These include the obvious one of subwoofer repositioning (if your room is large enough to give you some flexibility), conventional equalization, and crossover optimization. Experimenting with positioning is self-explanatory. While I wasn't able to investigate the latter two options, they might well cure a bass problem used singly or in combination—keeping in mind that no solution in a real room will result in improved response in every seat.

Equalization, particularly if it can be restricted to the subwoofer chain and thus not affect the midrange/high-frequency performance, is worth a try. The best form of equalizer to use here would be a parametric device having the option of a very narrow Q option—in other words, covering only a very narrow frequency band. This would allow the creation of one or more notch filters to minimize peaks (far more annoying than dips), which may only cover a few hertz in the bass. (Rane Corporation, which also manufactures a THX-certified equalizer, makes several such parametric equalizers at surprisingly low prices.)

And, last but not least, comes the option of using dissimilar high-pass and low-pass crossover frequencies between the subwoofer(s) and the main loudspeakers. This may, in some circumstances, result in a more linear in-room acoustical performance by creating an electrical frequency-response dip just where the room/loudspeaker combination exhibits a peak.

While this is not an option with the fixed 80Hz electrical crossover used in THX playback, no law says that you must use the crossover built-in to a THX processor. Space here does not permit me to go into this further. But with a system in this price range, you have a right to expect a dealer to install the system and use whatever tweaks are necessary to get the best response in your room. With a lesser system, such efforts might not be worth the trouble. With the Snell system, they are.

Squeezing the Turnip
While it's hard for many of us to think of a $20,000 price instead of a $30,000 one as representing a "bargain," it is possible to shave the price of a big Snell surround-sound system to that lower level. First, replace the SUR 2800 surrounds with the smaller MC SUR-500 surrounds. The only substantive difference between them, as far as I can determine, is in the larger unit's added 8" woofer and the larger, taller cabinet needed to accommodate it and get the whole shebang higher up off the floor.

Hang the MC SUR-500 from appropriate brackets (various models from a company called Omnimount would be ideal) and you accomplish the same thing. The smaller Snell surround uses the same drivers as the larger, except for that 8" woofer. Net saving: just over $5000. Net compromise: lack of full-range surrounds, the need for which is still a matter of some controversy—especially with the new AC-3 program material.

In my opinion, you'll be hard-pressed to hear the difference on most program material—though others, whose opinions I respect, disagree strongly on this point. While I didn't have a pair of MC SUR-500s on hand, I did try the Snell system with the B&W SCM-8 THX surrounds on Pro Logic material with no perceptible loss in sound quality or listening satisfaction.

You can also save almost another $4000 by using the LCR 2800 in place of the M&C Reference Towers for the left and right loudspeakers. They're designed for this alternate application—thus the designation LCR (left, center, right). I haven't yet heard this combination, but if I do, I'll report on it in a Follow-Up. You will need good stands for this, but you'll save not only money but space by not having to accommodate the outboard crossover networks of the M&C Reference Towers.

You can save another $2500 by using a single SUB 1800—along with another significant saving of space. If you have a relatively small room, you might also want to substitute two SUB 550s for two SUB 1800s. I would be inclined against this, since one of the glories of the MC Reference System is its strikingly powerful bottom end. But the SUB 550s might serve as interim investments until you can afford the SUB 1800s. (The 550s might then be used as subs to enhance the bass response of the MC SUR-500 surrounds, if you eventually desire full-range surround bass.)

The important point here is that the Snell M&C Reference System is extremely flexible. If you exercise some care in selection, you can get 95% of the system's performance at less than 70% of the full system's price—not a bad tradeoff for those of us with limited bank balances or unsympathetic lenders.

Most of us will never be able to afford or justify a system such as the Snell Music & Cinema Home THX Reference system. In truth, you can have a good Home Theater loudspeaker system for far less money; and if home THX is the way you want to go, you can get remarkably close to the performance described here for a quarter of the outlay. Snell themselves make terrific home-THX loudspeaker systems in that less-rarefied price bracket. The Law of Diminishing Returns is as much in effect in Home Theater as anywhere else.

The Snell Music & Cinema Reference System requires a considerable dedication in both funds and space, as well as a dealer dedicated to getting the most out of what is a substantial investment. And while it doesn't require the use of Snell's DSP room compensation, anyone spending this kind of money up front is certain to at least feel a strong desire to make this additional significant investment—now or later.

But with or without DSP, Snell's flagship is not a purchase you're likely to regret. If you set it up properly with quality associated components, I can guarantee you a ride that Disney World would envy. A Class A Home Theater experience.

Footnote 4: Since my assessment of that loudspeaker has just begun, it would be inappropriate for me to name it at this point. I'll have more to say in due time, so stay tuned.

Footnote 5: Studies have shown that a gentle bass rise below 100Hz—to about +5dB at 50Hz and +8dB at 30Hz—sounds more natural than a totally flat response. This is only the case, of course, if the subwoofers can handle the added boost without significant distortion. I attempted many years ago to equalize the bass in a loudspeaker to a flat response, using an octave analyzer to make the measurement. I had to actually cut the low-end response to do this, but then found that the loudspeaker sounded leaned-out and unpleasant.

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.