|How to Integrate Digital High-Resolution Multi-Channel Playback Into Your High-End Two-Channel Sound|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Saturday, 01 February 2003|
How to Integrate Digital High-Resolution Multi-Channel Playback Into Your High-End Two-Channel Sound System Without Compromise
With two new high-resolution formats causing all sorts of controversy, audiophiles and music enthusiasts alike are getting increasingly curious about how one or both of these formats will work into their lofty stereo systems. As many of us having tens (or in some cases hundreds) of thousands of dollars invested in stereo gear, the decision to make sweeping changes to a finely tuned high-performance stereo music playback system cannot be taken lightly.
This was very much the case with a reader who called me from Australia a few weeks back, seeking advice on how to upgrade and modernize a very high-end stereo system. His gear includes Mark Levinson CD playback (No. 31.5 and No. 30.6), along with a very expensive Gryphon stereo preamp and Gryphon's mono power amps, Transparent Reference XL cable and big THIEL speakers. He definitely loves his audiophile system, but he has become increasingly curious about the new audio formats out there, specifically DVD-Audio and SACD. He was reticent about tearing his relatively new audio system apart and introducing new components that could interrupt his aural ecstasy, yet he wanted to hear the sweet sounds of high-resolution stereo and surround sound music right in his living room.
The first concern I addressed with him were some confusing quotes made in a well-respected U.S. print publication made by famous A/V dealers in Manhattan. As I interpreted the quotes, the dealers were saying that DVD-Audio and SACD are okay today and have lots of potential, but there was nothing SACD and DVD-Audio could do to compete with the highest-performance (a.k.a. most esoteric) 16-bit CD players that these dealers sold. I confirmed to my Aussie reader that he was correct in his initial instincts, which pointed towards these dealers being either deaf or ignorant. High-resolution SACD and 24-bit DVD-Audio's sound literally decimates the sound of a 16-bit CD in almost all cases, no matter what CD player you own. Yes, the vast majority of DVD-Audio and SACD players are not ultra-high-end, jitter-free tweaky players, but the higher resolution and surround capabilities often make music just that much more engaging. The problem facing this reader and many others is how to get DVD-Audio and or SACD into a no-compromise stereo system without selling a kidney or completely upsetting the sonic nirvana that has taken so much hard work already to achieve.
SACD players often play stereo better than many CD players do today. The addition of an SACD player as an additional stereo source is often an easy and relatively cost-effective way to get a taste of high-resolution audio into a lofty high-end audiophile system. Currently, $3,000 buys you Sony's top of the line single-disc SACD transport (the XA-777ES), which could be used in this reader's system for stereo music playback via a stereo analog input in his Gryphon stereo preamp. If he ultimately upgrades to a more complex multi-channel preamp (Meridian, Mark Levinson, Proceed, Lexicon, Bel Canto), he will have multi-channel SACD outputs from this player to go into his multi-channel inputs on his new preamp. At present, there aren’t many surround SACDs to choose from, but there are an increasing number of great stereo titles available from Sony, Columbia, Universal Music Group and even more titles being released on the audiophile labels like Chesky.
Adding a DVD-Audio/SACD combo player offers enormous, high-resolution flexibility. There are some good DVD-Audio/SACD combo players on the market now. The Pioneer DV47 comes to mind first, currently priced around $1,200, complete with a Firewire output. Pioneer has another unit for half that price. For about half the price of one of this reader's audio interconnects, he could add a combo DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD player to his system for stereo playback with relative ease. SACD, as discussed earlier, does best in stereo, which is an advantage in his system. DVD-Audio discs can be mixed specifically for stereo, something many producers insist on, although many of the WEA (Warner, Elektra, Atlantic) titles use an Intel-based "fold down" method to take high-resolution surround and convert it down to a stereo mix. This is in no way as good as a dedicated stereo mix found on many DVD-Audio and nearly all SACD titles, but this one component would get this reader started with DVD-Audio and SACD without tearing his system apart. I also let him know that there are some DVD-Video titles mixed in stereo, including a John Lee Hooker title that I own, that sound incredible. These would play on his system with a mere addition of an everyday DVD player. The reader could also benefit from running the digital audio out into his high-quality Mark Levinson DAC.
Obtaining multi-channel sonic rapture without bastardizing your high-priced stereo rig can be achieved at a somewhat reasonable cost. In the quest to upgrade to a modern ultra-high performance music (and home theater) system, you have to decide if you are going to keep your stereo preamp or are you going to buck up for one of the absolute best A/V preamps now available. Cheaper or older A/V preamps are okay for movies but won't get the job done for the demanding music enthusiast in today's marketplace. No 5.1 analog inputs, no upconversion to 24-bit audio, lack of the latest matrix surround and less than cutting edge DACs lead the list of reasons as to why the outdated equipment can't compete. AudioRevolution.com editor Bryan Southard has taken a creative approach to the stereo preamp quandary. With currently well under 1,000 multi-channel music titles to choose from on SACD and DVD-Audio combined, Southard placed his sonic priority in his stereo playback system. To date, he is unwilling to trade out his reference Mark Levinson No 32 line stage preamplifier for only an A/V preamp in order to take advantage of multi-channel movies and music. Southard’s solution was to add a moderately priced high-performance A/V preamp into his system for multi-channel music and movies, independent of his pure two-channel stereo system. He did so by adding an Anthem AVM20 A/V preamp parallel to his stereo preamp. By connecting his multi-channel sources into the Anthem A/V processor, then through a three-channel amplifier, he then takes the front main outputs and runs them into a second input of his Mark Levinson No 32 stereo preamplifier. This way, when listening to 16-bit CDs, he has an unadulterated signal path for CD into his reference line stage preamp, which feeds into his two-channel amplifier and out to his speakers. With multi-channel music, he merely selects the second input on the No. 32 and, with its preset set to unity gain, he can then calibrate his Anthem AVM20 for his home theater system and alternate sources. These sources include PlayStation II, Xbox, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, VCR, HDTV (video, in this case, is fed straight to his Faroudja NRS video processor) and more. This way, Southard gets the best of both worlds. He can add in big booming subs for movies but not have them on for serious stereo music sessions. He can use the Anthem AVM20 to add in matrix surround for San Francisco Giants baseball games. He can listen to DVD-Audio in 5.1 and much more, yet he never sold out his main stereo system. In fact, the overall investment wasn't much when compared to the overall investment Southard has made in his music system.
A more expensive but cleaner and more effective way to rock the new music and movie formats is to purchase an ultimate A/V preamp/processor, which is what I did with my system. However, the process was far from painless. There was a time when I had two complete systems. One was in my living room, where I sported a geeked-out audiophile stereo system complete with Cello and Mark Levinson electronics, digital EQ and professional room tuning. The other was in my bedroom, where I had a complete home theater with Proceed electronics and Paradigm speakers. In reality, I used the theater many times more often than my music-only system, because the theater was used for watching TV and movies, but my heart was much more with my music system.
I loved both systems for what they did well, but when I moved (much like the Jeffersons) to a deluxe apartment in the sky that was only 800 square feet total, I was forced to consolidate my systems. I sold off my Mark Levinson CD transport, DAC and stereo preamp. I now use a Proceed DVD player and a Proceed AVP preamp for my front end. There were major sonic compromises to be made, but they were necessary in order to control a larger-scale home theater system three years ago. Bob Hodas' room tuning and some RPG treatments made a big improvement, yet I yearned for the higher-quality, higher-resolution sound of my old audio nerd gear, especially as DVD-Audio became a reality. I couldn’t really take complete advantage of the format at the time, because my Proceed AVP didn’t have 5.1 analog inputs and thus had no MLP lossless surround. I could play DVD-Audio discs on my PMDT in default surround mode (sometime DTS, more often Dolby Digital), while Southard's uncompromised system could rock with dedicated stereo and MLP DVD-Audio in his system. It was hard not to feel jealous, especially because of the investment I had made at that point. I made moves that made sense for a theater but I had reached the end of the line for some of my gear, while Southard had it all.
A/V technology moves quickly and my initial compromises have recently been turned into advantages with the installation of a Mark Levinson No. 40 Media Console. This is a product at the top of the A/V preamp food chain. Selling for an astonishing $33,000, the No. 40 has damn near everything an audiophile or home theater enthusiast could ever dream of, including analog inputs for DVD-Audio and SACD (the second input in an option), high bandwidth video switching suitable for HDTV, high-end preamp capabilities for eight channels, three powerful processors for upconversion, matrix surround, multi-room use and more. High-end DACs, for all channels, are all inside. While paying for it with weekly trips to the blood bank to sell my personal fluids, the No. 40 offers me the ability to neatly manage each and every component I could ever hope for in a modern music system or home theater. Moreover, I have created the ultimate no-compromise mega-system that will manage and play all my A/V needs.
Solutions That Don’t Require The Sale of a Kidney
Understandably, most sane people don't have, or aren't willing to invest, $33,000 on one A/V component, so what are they to do? Top A/V manufacturers continue to produce cutting-edge gear that seemingly does it all, for less money then the last generation of gear. For example, Meridian's new 598 and 568.2 are a DVD-Audio and A/V preamp combo, priced around $13,000 for the pair. This system does so much, including upconverting CDs to 24-bit over two, three, five or more channels. Unlike my Mark Levinson gear, the lower-priced Meridian gear comes with a proprietary digital connection for DVD-Audio, which avoids the need for the dreaded 5.1 analog inputs, unless you run SACD. In that case, they can provide 5.1 analog inputs as well. Looking to justify the cost of this system to yourself? Look up the going prices for your CD transport, DAC stereo preamp and/or A/V preamp on Audiogon.com or eBay, subtract the difference, and you might find yourself closer to cutting edge than you thought you were. Better yet, you can own DVD-Audio, SACD, high-res upconverted CDs and more. Even if you weren't ready to add all of the extra speakers or an HDTV system yet, you would have a clear system upgrade path -- not to mention card-based equipment than can be upgraded with software or firmware by your dealer as technology changes.
There are also impressive, inexpensive solutions from Japanese manufacturers like Pioneer and Denon who, like Meridian, have proprietary DVD-Audio and/or SACD digital connections between their top DVD-Audio (or combo) players and their top receivers. Those components can be integrated into even a very high-end stereo system, as Southard did with his Anthem AVM 20, to add in tons of features and new sources without selling out your stereo system. Is it high-end? Not really, but your stereo system is, so you get the best of both worlds without a big credit card bill.
Forget the format war. There are many ways you have your cake and eat it too with your system, depending on your level of commitment and investment right now. At a minimum, head out this weekend and pick up a hybrid SACD (which will play on a CD player) or a DVD-Audio disc (which will play in surround on a DVD-Video player) and give it a try. You may find yourself all fired up again about your system and buying new music. Take the discs to your best local dealer and have them show you what they can do on a dedicated, state of the art 7.1 system. There are exciting developments being made each month in the A/V industry and it doesn’t cost you more than $20 to get a taste of what is going on.