Music in the Round #39

It began when my oldest brother, 13 years my senior, returned from military service and told me about "hi-fi." Until then, all I'd known was our ancient tabletop radio-phonograph with its insatiable appetite for osmium styli. Back then, in the early 1950s, audio componentry was scrappy, still evolving from World War II military electronics and public-address systems. I began reading the electronics magazines and learned that, to get started, I needed a record player connected to an amplifier and a speaker. I toured the shops and stalls on old Cortlandt Street, before the building of the World Trade Center, and made my selections based on appearance, reputation, and specifications rather than on sound. Still, compared to what we were used to, the results sounded hair-raisingly good.

Hi-Fi Review and High Fidelity magazines offered little more about various components than specs and photos, while Audio provided more specs, as well as discussions of audio technology. J. Gordon Holt, who passed away in July, contributed to the first two magazines, but his early efforts at organizing listening panels to assess the relative sound of full stereo systems then seemed a strange and curious idea. However, when the first issue of Stereophile appeared in 1962 (I was a charter subscriber), I got the full dose.

While acknowledging the elemental significance of technology and engineering, Gordon's irregular sermons convinced me that the only true test of an audio component is how it sounds. Prior to this, I had had only holistic impressions of reproduced sound that were often unreliable, and totally dependent on randomly chosen program material. Gordon's more analytical approach dissected sound into the component parameters we are familiar with today. His descriptions of the sounds of the components he reviewed gave me the new vocabulary I needed to describe what I was hearing, and effectively changed how I listen and what I hear. (The elements of that vocabulary are compiled in Gordon's "Sounds Like? An Audio Glossary.")

Moreover, Gordon's early interest in surround sound, well in advance of the prospect of discrete multichannel recordings and systems, resonated with my closet fascination, and ultimate dissatisfaction, with DynaQuad. His arguments for multichannel reproduction as a technical and subjective improvement on two-channel stereo (see his "Space . . . the Final Frontier") drove me to the library and to seek out any demonstration of the upcoming technology. Thus, JGH, whose stature and expertise in two-channel sound was primary, provided validation of multichannel sound, along with the skills that allowed me to be receptive to this new listening paradigm. Without Gordon, I might still be a two-channel guy, and have missed out on all the wonderful experiences I've had listening to multichannel music.

JGH was also a fan of video and went so far as to suggest, per John Atkinson in an email, that Stereophile "abandon coverage of two-channel audio and recordings in favor of multichannel audio and home theater. In the spring of 1999," JA continued, "I suggested to Gordon that a way out . . . was for him to contribute a column on multichannel to Stereophile. However, he rejected this as being equivalent to marginalizing the subject. . . . The idea for the Stereophile column on multichannel resurfaced as 'Music in the Round.'" Until now, I had thought that this column was my original idea, but it seems to be another result of Gordon's ideas and influence. In view of what I've learned about listening from him, I'm happy to acknowledge that debt by championing multichannel reproduction to those with open ears and open minds. Thanks, Gordon.

Arcam AV888 preamplifier-processor
Made in England. That alone is enough to distinguish this preamplifier-processor from all others I have used. But the real motivation for my interest derives from Arcam's long line of distinguished products over the years. I first got to know them in 1998, when company founder John Dawson introduced me to Arcam's integrated-circuit adaptation of dCS's formidable Ring-DAC D/A converter, which was to be used in the company's CD players. I was impressed that this relatively small company could pull off such a sophisticated innovation. Ten years later, at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, I got an early-morning call from Dawson, who asked me to stop by to see the prototype of the new AVR600 A/V receiver, which, wink wink, would be very similar to the AV888 pre-pro, coming soon. The demo was a typical show-and-tell in a typically small CES room, and I left with a preliminary spec sheet that raised more questions than it answered.

When, early this summer, the AV888 ($6900) arrived, its front panel was indistinguishable from that of the AVR600. The appearance of both models is astringently clean, with a nice-sized fluorescent display above a row of 12 identical buttons. Across the bottom is a vent, above which an Aux input jack and a headphone jack are flanked by the obligatory array of logos of the various licensed technologies included. At the upper right is a three-color LED; at the lower right, the Power button. Otherwise, the vast faceplate is smooth and bare. This is aesthetically pleasing but a waste of space; the spacing and uniformity of the buttons, along with their tiny labels, forced me to rely at all times on the remote control. Two of the buttons are volume up/down, and two others are input select up/down. I defy you to tell which is which from more than a foot away, even in a fully lighted room.

Things are much more pleasing around back. Here are all the inputs and outputs anyone could wish for, logically and usefully arranged. Across the bottom are five HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs. The rest of the layout, with groups of connectors in a series of vertical columns, seems to imply modular internal construction. From left to right, these eight columns comprise:

1) IEC power inlet and voltage selector
2) 5 component video inputs, 1 component video output, Zone 3 R/L audio output
3) 5 composite/S-video inputs, 3 composite/S-video outputs, Zone 2 video/audio outputs
4) 4 optical, 3 coax digital audio inputs; optical and coax digital outputs
5) 7 R/L analog audio inputs, 3 R/L analog audio outputs
6) R/L phono input, 7.1 RCA analog inputs, 7.1 RCA analog outputs with 3 subwoofer jacks
7) Sub-D connectors for iPod and RS-232, IR, and trigger jacks; Ethernet and USB jacks
8) 7.1 fully balanced XLR analog outputs with 3 subwoofer jacks

Clearly, with its many connections, its ability to handle high-resolution audio formats including Dolby TruHD and dtsHD MA, its video processor with 1080p output in addition to the balanced output from the Analog Devices ADSP-21366 and ADSP-21367 DSP chips and Wolfson's high-end, 24-bit/192kHz, 8471 audio DAC chips, the AV888 is one potent machine whose myriad capabilities very few, not including me, will ever use all of.

Here's what I did use. To connect the AV888 to my system, I used the HDMI, coax digital audio, and multichannel analog inputs, and both the RCA and the XLR outputs. I also connected a flash drive with music files to the USB port and linked the AV888 to my PC and the Internet via the RJ45 Ethernet port. I accessed the setup menus, the auto setup/room EQ, and the firmware update facility. I didn't use the phono input, the headphone output, or the Zone 2 and 3, IR link, or trigger features. But I did use the universal learning remote control . . . a lot.

I connected my cable box, and my Denon DV-3800BDP and Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray players, to the HDMI inputs, and the Oppo to the multichannel analog inputs as well. The outputs went to the Bryston 9B-STT power amplifier via RCA or XLR cables, but I could discern no difference between the two cable types over the 1m length of the connection. HDMI output went to my Fujitsu plasma display.

Footnote 1: Arcam, Pembroke Avenue, Waterbeach, Cambridge CB25 9QR, England, UK. US distributor: American Audio & Video, 153 Willow Drive, Plattsburgh, NY 12903. Tel: (866) 916-4667. Web: