|B&K Components Reference 20 AV Preamplifier/Processor|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Brian Kahn|
|Wednesday, 01 March 2000|
The $2,500 B&K Reference 20 is the latest and greatest in B&K's line of Dolby Digital, DTS Surround Processors. Keeping with tradition, this unit is built with the future in mind and allows for easy upgrades due to its modular design. This means that if and when a new surround format is announced, you should be able to easily upgrade the Reference 20 to accommodate it.
The Reference 20 is designed to handle switching and surround sound processing for your entire system. In addition to acting as a preamp/processor, it also has a built-in tuner. Other features include two-zone capability, seven inputs, RS232 port, IR and 12-volt control capabilities, as well as a learning remote.
Setting everything up was fairly easy, thanks to a clear and complete owner's manual. I was even able to make custom labels for the various inputs, so instead of the display saying "V2," it reads "Laser" -- a very handy feature. The remote was preprogrammed with codes for most of the equipment I had, and could easily learn the rest.
Movies and Music
I placed the Reference 20 in my theater system with Vandersteen speakers, a Toshiba SD-2108 DVD player, Pioneer CLD-704 Laserdisc player and a Toshiba CN32E90 television. I used a variety of amplifiers from Adcom, B&K, Outlaw and Anthem.
Watching movies is where the Reference 20 really excels. It provided a satisfying experience from full blast action films to late-night listening with the nighttime compression on to avoid waking houseguests. Using the Reference 20 is a snap. Its plug and play design automatically detects the surround mode and engages the appropriate decoding.
While watching Desperado (DVD Columbia), I was impressed by the seamless panning and integration between channels during the bar fight scene. Even with so much activity, I never felt overloaded and was able to pick out detailed sounds from the various channels. Later on in the movie, the bookstore explosion scene gave my system's low end a workout. I have heard this track get sluggish on other AV systems outfitted with more pricey AV preamps however, the low end was deep and solid with the Reference 20.
Apollo 13 (DVD, Universal), with its well-mixed 5.1 soundtrack and great video transfer, is always a treat to watch. The rocket launch sequence, like the bookstore conflagration in Desperado, really pushes the low end of your system. Apollo 13's launch scene differs from Desperado's pyrotechnics in that the frequency response goes lower and distortions are more easily heard than on the big explosions. With the Reference 20 in place, I was able to enjoy the wide dynamic range as well as the minute details without a hint of noise-gating or other artifacts. The mission control room scenes contain some more subtle surround information, but on a great processor it adds much to the ambience and believability of the film, as it did here.
One of the reference scenes I use for theater systems is the now-infamous Diva scene from Fifth Element (DVD Columbia). This sequence gives system quite a test by providing a dynamic musical track along with explosive use of the surround channels in the fight. With all the commotion, it is easy for a lesser processor to smear the details and obviously intrude on the soundtrack. The B&K never drew attention to itself and remained transparent in decoding this complex and busy montage.
The tank chase scene in Goldeneye (Laserdisc MGM/UA) called attention to the B&K's biggest sonic weakness, a forward top end. The screeching of the metal during the chase was a bit on the harsh and bright side when compared to the majority of processors. The sound was not overly forward, but one should take care not to pair the B&K with bright speakers and amplifiers. With my smooth sounding Vandersteen speakers and all of the amplifiers I used, I found the sound to be quite good.
The video switching called some attention to itself with a problem that never went away. While watching letterboxed movies, the topmost portion of the upper black bar is noticeably lighter. I have noticed this on a variety of letterboxed films. The light area is always out of the picture frame area and isn't noticeable on full-frame material.
The remote controlled all of my sources but was not very intuitive when it came to the DVD player. Many DVDs require the use of cursor buttons to navigate the menu's system. The cursor buttons on this remote serve the functions of stop, pause, forward and reverse, making menu navigation a bit difficult.
With audio, I listened to both DTS and two-channel recordings. The DTS music, aside from the slight aforementioned brightness, sounded great. The Eagles' When Hell Freezes Over (DTS/Geffen) placed me right in the middle of the audience. The detail in the guitars and voices, along with the rear channel ambience information, made the illusion of being there very convincing. The voices sounded natural and the guitars were solid and full, without losing the details that let the listener hear the difference between steel and nylon strings.
I just received the new Diana Krall Love Scenes DTS CD (DTS), so I put that in as well. The information to the rear channels was minimal, adding ambience without being distracting. The mix as decoded by the Reference 20 across the front was stunning, while the imaging and soundstage were phenomenal. The entire CD is amazing, but I especially enjoyed Krall's rendition of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," as her voice and the delicate, detailed bass were quite enjoyable.
With two-channel music, the Reference 20 did not hold up so well when contrasted with other processors. I was able to compare the Reference 20 to the Classe SSP-50 ($6,500). While the Reference 20 generally performed decently with movies, evidencing only slight differentiating details, the differences were more obvious with two-channel music.
While listening to "For Duke" (Realtime records) through both processors, their differences were readily apparent. The Classe was smoother, more laid-back and full-bodied, with only the slightest sacrifice of detail. The B&K was much more forward and in your face, at times making the horns sound a bit hard and bright. While the differences were easily audible, when not compared directly to one another, both systems were entirely enjoyable to listen to. Once again, I wouldn't want to mate the B&K with bright speakers, just as I would not want to listen to the Classe through darker, more laid-back speakers.
The Reference 20, while upgradeable, is missing two features that are currently on other processors, 5.1 analog inputs and component video switching. I think the upgradable architecture will help alleviate the need for the 5.1 analog input. The lack of component switching will be missed only by those with component video displays. The only other downside items are fairly minor: the remote ergonomics in DVD mode and the slight lightening at the top of the screen.
I found the Reference 20 to be very easy to use and great-sounding with movies, and better than average on two-channel music. The versatility of programming and features will allow the Reference 20 to integrate well with and easily control most systems. If you are looking for an easy to use surround processor for movie use, you owe it to yourself to check out this strong high-end value.