Aragon Stage One AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ed Masterson   
Wednesday, 01 January 2003

Introduction
Aragon has a long and well-respected reputation for producing high-value, high-end two-channel music preamplifiers and, more specifically, power amplifiers. Today, under the ownership of Klipsch, they are expanding into the highly competitive market of multi-channel music reproduction and home theater. Aragon is not attempting to compete with the inexpensive mass-market products but instead going head-to-head with the best in the mid- to high-performance class, such as Sunfire and Anthem.

The Stage One is a full-featured theater/multi-channel music processor, AM/FM tuner, two-channel analog preamplifier and video switcher, built into a single chassis. The Stage One measures 17 inches wide, five-and-one-half inches tall and 15 inches deep and retails for $4,000. It has seven inputs for A/V sources, all of which accommodate composite video, s-video, analog audio, and digital audio. Component video inputs are available on three of the inputs. Three toslink digital inputs are available, as well as a toslink output for high-quality digital recording. The analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion is performed using 24 bit/192 kHz DACs. The Stage One provides an eight-channel analog input (normally analog inputs are only six channels, but Aragon is leaving room for future surround sound formats) for DVD-Audio or multi-channel SACD players. The unit also has stereo analog outputs for recording, a 12VDC output to trigger external devices, and a RS232 connection for software upgrades from PC and/or advanced control systems. Aragon smartly provides a pre-programmed Philips ProntoNeo programmable LCD touchscreen remote control with the Stage One.

Features
One of the standout features in this product is the THX ULTRA2 certification. This certification requires certain features that are intended to give the user everything needed to achieve proper set up in any room, with nearly any speaker configuration. It also assures compatibility with nearly any music or video format available. Aragon has also added some of its own features to help entice customers. First, they use an analog preamplifier stage, which gives you the ability to bypass all of the digital circuitry with a mode they refer to as direct. This provides the opportunity to use it as part of a system employing a minimalist approach to two-channel stereo reproduction. Better yet is the ability to do the same thing for up to eight channels. This allows you to run DVD-Audio discs and multi-channel SACDs in purist fashion, relying only on the digital processing in the source component.

The Stage One is a theater/music surround processor with 7.1-channel output capability to support all of the latest surround sound formats and decoding options. This includes Dolby Digital, DTS, THX Surround EX, DTS ES, DTS Neo: 6 and Dolby Pro Logic II. The Stage One will also digitally enhance stereo signals and create multi-channel music or movies in a few different modes. As is required in the THX ULTRA2 specification, it will automatically select the proper format based on the signal from the source. There is a complete sequence to cover speaker set-up alone. They have also provided the ability to set crossovers, speaker distances (from the listening position), and individual speaker levels. One new feature that is valuable to me is a boundary gain compensation function, which helps to control the bass in a listening position near a wall. If this all sounds far too complicated to remember, you’re not alone in this view. Today’s home theater systems have become extremely complicated. To give you an idea of exactly how complicated, the manual is 28 pages long and contains very useful and, in some cases, critical information required for set up and operation. Fortunately, set up is the biggest portion of the learning curve. Once connected, the Stage One is designed to be automatic. Ideally, you should just turn it on, select a source, set the volume control, and let the fun begin.

Set-Up
Upon unpacking the Stage One, the first thing I noticed was the swanky-looking machined aluminum enclosure on the component. The front panel is simple, with a few buttons and a volume knob. There is machined groove on the front face that lights up to look like the letter “M.” I assume this is for Mondial Designs Ltd., the original manufacturer of the Aragon product line, which now exists as the Mondial Designs Team. The Stage One is a well-built piece of hardware, just what you should expect when you lay down this kind of cash. When I looked at the back of the unit, I noticed a feature that makes connections a little easier. There are double labels for reading, one set for reading right side up and one set for reading while leaning over the top of the unit. The connector layout is exceptionally easy to follow. All of the connections are solid and give you a confident feeling when connecting some of the beefier high-end cables.

Before I knew it, all the connections were made and I was turning it on. That was perhaps the easiest theater processor set-up that I have ever done and I still had not cracked the manual.

As mentioned earlier, Aragon supplies a pre-programmed Philips ProntoNeo remote control with the Stage One. Although this highly respected remote worked perfectly for my needs, I am not personally a fan of the touch-screen LCD-style remotes. In a dark room, it is difficult to find the button I need without turning on the remote light. The Stage One does not provide an onscreen display (OSD) function. It does, however, provide a big bright display that is readable at up to an estimated 16 feet for people with average vision.

The Movies/Music
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 Downside
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.

Conclusion
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.
Manufacturer Aragon
Model Stage One AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Ed Masterson





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