|Aragon Stage One AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Ed Masterson|
|Wednesday, 01 January 2003|
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Once I had the AV preamp and matching seven-channel amplifier connected and set up with the Klipsch Reference 7 theater speaker system, I was ready to go. Having purchased one of the first copies to hit the shelf, my kids were probably the first on the block to see "Monsters Inc." (Walt Disney Home Entertainment/Pixar) at home. The animation in this movie is incredible, but the sound is what really amazed me. The Stage One recreated the soundscape very naturally. It did not jump out at first, but I soon realized that I was sonically besieged in a child’s dream world. Gone were the sounds of my home and neighborhood. After playing with both, I definitely recommend a 7.1 system over a 5.1 system. The additional two rear channels increased the sense of sonic immersion significantly. It seemed that the surround effects became more full and real-sounding, while at the same time; the speakers became less sonically locatable. I would call this a two-fold improvement over a standard 5.1 system. The power of the soundtrack became incredibly obvious during the scene where the two main characters, Sully and Mike, had the little girl Boo in their apartment. When Boo started to cry, the power in the apartment started to react to her weeping. This sound had my whole family jumping out of our seats. The crisp crackling of the electricity and the classic transformer hum were quite believable. Simply put, the theater system created one of the best movie sound experiences that I have heard to date.
Next, my wife and I decided it was time to spin up James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theatre (CMV). If you are a James Taylor fan, this is a great performance. The sound quality in this recording is very good. Through the Stage One, all of the instruments were placed nicely on stage while the crowd surrounded me. I could distinctly locate each instrument and performer separately on stage. The highs were crisp and clean without noticeable grain. All of the cymbals in the drum kit remained separate with no smearing. The lows were deep and tight, although not quite as deep and defined as I have heard with some much more expensive processors.
Deciding that it was time to break out an artsy cult classic, I reached for "Pink Floyd’s The Wall" (CMV), one of my favorite music-themed movies on DVD. It can be emotionally heavy sometimes, but when I am in the mood, it can suspend disbelief like few other films do. With this recording, I found that the straight Dolby Digital mode sounded best, so I turned off the THX processing. The key with this movie is to set the mood first. I find it important to make the room as dark and as quiet as possible. The Stage One reproduced the music in the soundtrack with power and authority. I never found myself reaching for the remote to turn it down -- the louder, the better. The sound effects in the movie never disrupted the music set in the background. There are a few points in the movie that seem to be designed to nearly put you to sleep, but then quickly shift gears to wake you up and have you rocking in your seat again. The Stage One was able to recreate the sonic rollercoaster effect that I believe director Alan Parker was looking for.
"Gladiator" (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) was next in line. During the initial battle, the sound effects were as gruesome as the visuals. I could hear the sound of flesh being cut and blood squirting. This is an amazing scene, making you appreciate the smart weapons that we now have. Later in the movie, Maximus (Russell Crowe) is forced into an arena and has to fight for his life. This soundtrack really gives you the feeling that you are in the arena with him. I had to remind myself to stop gritting my teeth.
Oliver Stone’s '"Tthe Doors" (Artisan) is another great music movie, based on Jim Morrison’s life as a musician and poet. One of the reasons that I have always liked "The Doors" is because of the enveloping nature of the their music. With the Stage One processor, I was transported into Morrison’s life and mind. Again, the music was recreated with a sense of ease and naturalness that allowed me to forget about my surroundings without having to try and focus.
With the Stage One, I found myself looking for live-recorded music performances like Peter Frampton, Live in Detroit (Image Entertainment). I have never owned any of Frampton's albums, but I have always enjoyed his music. I would like to see him live, but have yet to have the opportunity. Thanks to the Stage One’s performance and a great recording, I feel I now have a better idea of what Peter Frampton sounds like live.
As a final test, I decided to put in Gaucho by Steely Dan (DTS Entertainment). I have heard this album many times before in two-channel stereo, but this was the first time I'd listened to it in DTS 5.1 surround sound. What I noticed immediately were the instruments around me and in front of me. This transported me back to the days of quadraphonic sound. This 5.1 CD is one of the best-sounding versions that I have heard in the genre. All of the instruments and voices in the music sound full and rich, with none of the typical electronic sheen that I am used to from a 16-bit stereo CD. All of the smearing between instruments that normally comes with two-channel 16-bit music reproduction was gone. An obvious advantage of the DTS 5.1 format is that it provides more channels. In “Hey Nineteen,” the harmony that is usually set in the background was instead set in the rear channels. In this case, the voices in the harmony were individually identifiable and nicely blended. With the two-channel stereo CD version, the voices in this harmony tended to run together and appear as one smeared image.
The Stage One offers no balanced connections, a feature that the Stage One’s closest competing products, both the Anthem AVM20 and Sunfire Theater Grand III provide. I prefer balanced connections in most applications for their noise reduction benefits. Generally, I have found that the systems that I have connected with balanced cables have very little trouble with noise.
The lack of onscreen display (OSD) became an issue for me. As stated earlier, the display is large and viewable from across a smaller room, but in my installation, the display was unreadable from my viewing position. It caused me to have to pull up a chair closer to the Stage One, and walk back to my viewing position to verify the results. Aragon omitted the OSD because they felt it degraded the video quality. Perhaps some opera glasses are the answer.
The Stage One allows you to experience music and movies at home with excellent sonic and video quality. The Stage One offers every feature under the sun, assuring compatibility with any music or movie format. The THX ULTRA2 certification means you will have the ability to optimize the system set-up with almost any speaker in any room. Set-up will be a breeze for any experienced installer and should be reasonable for any technically inclined person. Once configured, the operation should be simple for anyone. The lack of On Screen Display was an issue for me, but won't be for all. It was merely a simple annoyance. The Stage One performs outstandingly with music and movies and should be compared directly with the Sunfire Theater Grand II and Anthem AVM 20, despite its higher price. Its “direct” feature provides unyielding fidelity in both music and theater modes, a welcome feature for the purist seeking a minimalist system. The Stage One is a feature-packed music and theater processor that will likely take you into the next decade.