High-end AV processors - smoke and mirrors?

Discussion in 'AV Receivers' started by John_KM, Mar 19, 2004.

  1. John_KM

    John_KM Agent

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    Afternoon All

    As a relative newbie to the world of AV, coming from the land of 2 channel and with many years experience of it behind me, I'm finding the woods a bit confusing re AV, and am seeking some answers to many nagging thoughts, both general and specific.

    To start off, and hopefully promote some meaningful, and worthwhile discussion/debate, (but hopefully not a flame-fest) I'd like to be the devils advocate and offer the contention/proposition that in general, High-End AV Processors are not worth the asking price re what they bring to the OVERALL movie enjoyment/satisfaction rating, compared to lesser 'mainstream' components.

    As multi-channel surround sound continues it's march into territory once dominated by Hi-End 2 channel markets/manufacturers, those manufacturers seem to have scrambled to bring products to market, to enable them to share a piece of a burgeoning and lucrative AV pie. And who could blame them, after all, business is business.

    But with few exceptions, most do not appear to design their own software re surround sound processing, rather they just buy in OEM boards/chips from off the shelf makers, and marry it to their own circuits re the analogue outputs, power supply and implementation etc, dress it up in a tasty box, and sell it on at thrice and four times the cost, of 'lowlier' designs from 'mainstream' manufactures, using the same OEM decoding boards and chip-sets etc.

    Not that many years back, the Japanese HiFi manufacturers were accused of taking other peoples designs, copying and marketing them at undercutting prices.

    Nowadays, the Japanese HiFi manufacturers seem to be the ones that are truly innovating and at the cutting edge of technology; the smaller specialist manufacturer copies, tweaks and makes small improvements, and sells it on at a much higher cost, buoyed by the marketing machine of prestige, status, brand image, assumed extra benefit/quality through cost (it costs more, therefore it must be better) and well, smoke and mirrors at times IMHO.

    This approach seems to work very well in countries like the UK, which still appears IMHO to have a very entrenched class structure socially, but seemingly less well in societies that appear to have a much more pragmatic outlook re consumer goods in general, such as the US for example.

    In particular, having heard one or two high-end processors, I found their sound strengths to be typically that which apply and are important to 2 channel, i.e. resolution, dynamics, clarity etc, BUT and importantly for the movie watching experience, nothing extra re soundfield size, steering, localization etc, and most especially, in the context of viewing a movie, with a large screen, VERY LITTLE improvement at most to the overall (sound AND picture) involvement and satisfaction of a movie watching experience.

    So, ladies & gentleman, are Hi-End processors worth it? Just WHAT do they bring to the OVERALL movie watching experience that makes them 'better', if at all, over their mainstream competitors? Anything? - or is it just smoke, mirrors, and a good dose of old fashioned snake oil?

    Let the debate begin.

    Cheers

    John....






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  2. Brad E

    Brad E Second Unit

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    What are you refering to exactly when you say Hi-End processors. You said you listened to a couple. Which ones?
    Your Hi-end could be my low-end, or vise versa.

    Also it would be helpful to know which manufacturers you are grouping into the 'mainstream' category.

    We could sit here for hours and debate and not even be close to being on the same page. (Or the same planet for that matter[​IMG])
     
  3. John_KM

    John_KM Agent

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    Good point

    Should've been more specific perhaps.

    Re the 'HighEnd', Naim AV2, and a Tag McLaren (can't remember which model) Arcam AVR200 (albeit whilst this fits with my premise re using OEM chipsets/ boards and tweaking the layout, is a receiver and not really 'HighEnd" IMV.)

    As far as 'mainstream' Denon, Yamaha, Sony, Onkyo, Marantz Rotel.

    I heard the Naim in a carefully setup dealer dem.

    The Tag I heard at a dealer, but unknown setup re attention to detail/accuracy of the setup etc.

    Denon, Rotel, Arcam I heard carefully setup by same dealer as the Naim, and compared them all to the AV2.

    Onkyo I have heard at a different dealer, and also in an acquaintences home.

    Sony, Marantz & Yamaha I have heard at dealers, and at friends homes, and have compared Arcam with Sony. By compare, I mean a careful A/B setup.

    I appreciate that to be completely thorough, one should be using the exact same speakers, room etc, when making comparisons, and as much as it is possible, this is what I do, however, it is not always possible in the real world, as not everyone carries equipment one is interested in, so there will always be some variation there. I try to get around that by listening to gear that interests me at different venues, to see if there is commonality to the sound.

    I have a Naim 2 channel set up, so my angst/regaling at so called High end processors is more or less directed at the AV2 to the greatest degree, as I was singularly unimpressed with it in the non 2 channel areas I've mentioned re soundfield size steering etc. It did all the right things re dynamics, transparency, detail, smoothness etc, but IMHO lacked soundfield size, steering and location, and that sense of immersive involvement that I heard with much cheaper units such as the Yamaha and Sony's in particular, especially when used with their proprietary HT DSP modes.

    The Tag also had great detail and dynamics etc, but again the sense of immersive soundfield seemed no better than the 'mainstream'

    What really got me, was that the Naim, Tag, and even the Arcam are marketed as prestige high-end products, with prices to match, and yet in the presence of the picture, offered little re extra involvement overall re a total movie viewing experience compared with more so called pedestrian products such as the mainstream receivers I've mentioned.

    I can only guess that a lot has to do with the 'distraction' of the picture - one just doesn't listen as acutely to the sound as one does with 2 channel, or else the size of the soundfield, smoothness and immersive sense of sound all-around, is more important than traditional virtues such as the last word in transparency etc, which conversely are of prime importance for 2 channel.

    Hope this makes my thoughts a bit clearer

    Cheers

    John...[​IMG]
     
  4. Kevin C Brown

    Kevin C Brown Producer

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    You should give a listen to Lexicon and Meridian. They write their own software, and generally are considered to be 2 of the best pre/pro makers out there. There is also Bryston and Aragon. Both of these makers designed their multichannel home theater pre/pros *around* existing, very well regarded 2 channel analog preamp sections. Theta Digital is another one that would change your perception of things.
     
  5. Shane Martin

    Shane Martin Producer

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    While I could almost agree that they are probably not going to sound THAT much better, the higher end pre pros offer alot more than a typical receiver or a typical cheaper prepro(Like the Outlaw 950 which I'll use as a comparison).

    The 950 would be an ideal prepro for most folks to get them involved into seperates. The retail is cheap on it $799US and it offers most of the features we'd appreciate.

    As you move up the ladder to the next level which I would consider the Rotel 1068, you get more and more including the biggest thing(software upgradability) which is being supported pretty well by them and the next level up which I'd say is the Anthem AVM20 or the Rotel 1098.

    Moving up the ladder past that I'd throw out the Lexicon and it only skyrockets. Athe level of the Lexicon is where the bigger benefits hit as those companies write their own software and generally they are structured as a card swap out architecture. This is changing as some of the prepros in the $4k arena are offering this too.

    Overall its down to if you value upgradability or not. If you do then the Outlaw is probably not enough for you. At that point it is a matter of diminishing returns(though some will argue that Logic 7 and Tri-Field are worth the extra dough). Given the cost of them on the used/2nd hand market, that is the way I'd go if I was goign to spend ~$4,000 for a prepro. That way I can take advantage of someelse's loss.

    Just my 2 cents.
     
  6. Scott Oliver

    Scott Oliver Screenwriter

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    I think High End AV processors take on a greater value if you are going to use them for both movies and music.

    I have participated in a blind test of 4 AV processors several years ago with about 7 other listeners. Everyone heard differences between each of them, and all the votes as to the favorite happened to go to the two that cost the most - Theta Casblanca and a B&K Ref 30. The Outlaw 750 was pretty much the unanimous least favorite. Again this was random blind testing. There were differences to be sure, but when asked which ones people would actually buy, several still picked the Outlaw because they felt the differences couldn't match the increase in price. However when we switched to music listening, the Theta became an even greater favorite of the crowd, because it let the music through much better, and did all of those audiophile approved things.

    So again if I had a nice two channel set-up that I was planning to continue to use for music listening, I would probably save some bucks and not strive for those extra few more percentage points of performance in HT. But if I needed the processor to do it all, their would be no doubt that I would go for the higher end processor.
     
  7. Kevin C Brown

    Kevin C Brown Producer

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    One other aspects of higher end pre/pros, at least in my experience.

    Had a Sony TA-E9000ES. The first remote it shipped with wen through a set of batteries every 2 weeks. They had to essentially recall them and fix it. It took 2 years and 2 software upgrades before the software really performed up to the level of the hardware for the pre/pro itself.

    Had an Outlaw 950. First version had the hiss problem. 2nd one I got was very quiet, cool. But then they found the problem with the DTS-ES LFE missing. Did and Eeprom upgrade. OK after that. There's also some "quirks" concerning switching to the multichannel analog input from a digital stereo source, etc.

    The Rotel 1066 had the notorious problem with double bass on the 5.1 analog inputs that could not be fixed except by voiding the warranty and making board level wiring changes yourself.

    Currentl have an MC-8. Just about a year old. No problems whatsoever, and it's still software rev 1.0. Although I expect DPL IIx will come eventually.

    Each person for themselves has to answer the question of how much benefit there is to spending more money on a component.
     
  8. Scott Oliver

    Scott Oliver Screenwriter

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    Good point, Kevin.

    Reliability alone initially brought me to the point that I will never buy a mass market product again.

    H/K 2.0 signature proceesor - broke down on me 4 times with the same problem in a year

    Could list many more mass market goods that have failed on me, and it isn't it ironic how so many of these products fail just months after their warranties expire.

    Since purchasing top quality high end products not a single problem. Well one problem but it wasn't the fault of the product and the manufacturer fixed everything in a fast-as-possilbe manner at their expense.

    Obviosuly, for me peace of mind is worth the extra cost.
     
  9. DanaA

    DanaA Screenwriter

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    There were mixed messages on the do-it-yourself wire snipping fix. On one hand I heard that the warranty would remain in effect so long as you didn't mess things up. On the other hand, I heard the same story that the warranty might be voided. In any regard, one could send the unit to Rotel and they would perform the fix for free. I know I had this done on my old Rotel and the turn around time was relatively quick.

    As far as the topic at hand, I'm sure there are some differences in sonics and flexibility, but perhaps not as night and day as some might think. Recently, actually yesterday, I visited a dealer who was convinced that the NAD was better sonically than another line he carried that cost 2-3 times as much. He didn't have the other line set up in the same room so a side by side would have been an inconvenience, especially given that I was there to listen to his amazing home made speakers, which he sells for $5500/pair, but chose to run with the NAD pre-amp/processor and Parasound amps.
     
  10. Philip Hamm

    Philip Hamm Lead Actor

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    The preponderance of excellent soundfield technologies from companies like Dolby, DTS, Cirrus Logic, have greatly reduced the need for "proprietary" soundfields. The high end proprietary surround fields were required to accomodate a deficciency in established standards. That deficiency no longer exists.
     
  11. Greg_R

    Greg_R Screenwriter

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    For basic DD & DTS decoding, I feel that many units do an equally excellent job. However, when you start to look for more advanced features (video upconversion, lip sync delay removal, advanced bass management, SW upgradability, special surround modes, etc.) the more expensive pre/pros (and receivers) start to shine. Once you start talking about high end 2ch or SACD/DVD-A sources then other factors become more important (analog output stages, power supply quality, etc.).
     
  12. Simon Ngan

    Simon Ngan Stunt Coordinator

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    I think you should add Primare P31.7 to your audition list. I have one and I love it. It's excellent in 2-ch and this one is definitely designed around 2-ch.

    This one is very easy to set up and it doesn't come with all bells and whistles. However, it's doing its job and it's very well done.

    There is a newer pre/pro from Primare which I don't find much difference than the P31.7 so if you can get the 31.7 for a good price, give it a try.

    Simon
     
  13. Craig_Kg

    Craig_Kg Supporting Actor

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    Shh. Don't tell the Lexicon/Meridian fans [​IMG].

    I fully agree. A decent US$800 receiver makes a fine prepro (or semi prepro - ie powering center and surrounds) for those integrating HT into a good stereo setup.

    Hey John_KM, you're also an Aussie, right?
     
  14. Kevin C Brown

    Kevin C Brown Producer

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    I had an Outlaw 950 with the Cirrus Extra Surround modes. Liked them a lot. In fact, liked them so much that it pushed me to get an MC-8 with Logic 7. Now I won't tell you that that is the right migration path for everyone, but there *is* a lot more spatial definition in the back of room, and differentiation between left and right back there. For me and a lot of other people, there is still a tangible difference.
     

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