Audio Design Associates Cinema Reference AV Preamplifier/Processor 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Kim Wilson   
Saturday, 01 May 1999

Introduction
A home theater’s central nervous system is the digital processor, serving as preamp, digital surround decoder, D-to-A converter (DAC) and switcher. Audio Design Associates (ADA), a company that specializes in custom installation, manufactures a line of high performance components and the Cinema Reference is their most comprehensive and versatile processor to date, incorporating both Dolby Digital and DTS decoders along with THX enhancements.

As manufacturers firmly entrench themselves in the DVD revolution, Laserdiscs are already virtually a footnote in A/V history. While the majority of processors require the purchase of additional outboard gear to play Dolby-encoded Laserdiscs, the Cinema Reference actually houses the often-elusive RF Demodulator. Functioning as a sophisticated preamp/switcher, this processor is loaded with a wide assortment of inputs and outputs, insuring future expandability as digital products continue to emerge.

High-quality components, superior sonic performance and advanced features tend to drive the price up on processors, and so it is with the Cinema Reference. At $8,000, this unit is clearly for the elite and discriminating user.

Installation
The Cinema Reference offers eight analog audio inputs and seven digital inputs (four coax & three Tos-Link) that can be used independently. If you prefer only digital coax or optical inputs, ADA makes a triple Digital-to-Optical Converter box and a triple optical-to-digital coax converter box. There’s a total of 14 usable video inputs (eight composite, four S-video and two component video), as each input has its own video follower. A set of component outputs is supplied to feed a monitor with component inputs. Of course, it’s furnished with the six audio outputs required for sending audio signals to amps and subwoofers.

The RF Demodulator’s configuration is highly unusual. In addition to the RF input connection (RF signal from a Laserdisc player), there is a separate AC-3 Digital Out connector. Using a small jumper cable, the AC-3 Digital Out is linked to digital input #4. My reference LD/DVD player, the Pioneer DVL-91, is set up on digital input #1, but when playing a Dolby-encoded Laserdisc, it switches over to input #4. Since there is no clear reference in the manual, it took me a few attempts to realize that the DC Mute switch (which protects the audio signal from RF interference). placed above the RF input, must be in the off position to play a Dolby Digital Laserdisc. Except for this omission, the manual actually provides wonderful step-by-step procedures for every type of adjustment you’d ever need to make.

Another cool thing about the AC-3 Demodulator is that it provides two inputs, allowing hook-up of two Laserdisc players. Why do that? Imagine loading the second disc to a movie in a different player. You’ll never (assuming they’re both flip sides) have to get up and change discs again.

All adjustments are made from the five front panel controls. Pressing a knob brings up a menu of setting options. When the knob is turned, the menu scrolls through its options. Pressing the knob again selects the desired setting. It’s possible to go through several levels following this procedure and everything is easily viewed on the front panel’s large display screen.

Configuring speaker levels is quite simple, due to the Cinema Reference’s built-in pink noise generator. Since it doesn’t automatically cycle through all six channels at the speed of two seconds per interval, as other noise generators do, there is plenty of time to make adjustments. Making adjustments to the speaker delay ensures that the sound from each speaker will reach the listener at the same time. The Solo Channel Test mode is ideal for listening to content from a specific speaker, muting all other channels. Speaker levels can be adjusted from this mode as well.

Evaluation
After all is said and done, regardless of the features and functions, what matters most is how the unit sounds. Incorporating the highest-grade Crystal 24-bit CS4390 DACs, the Cinema Reference is one of the best sounding processors I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.

It delivers a natural presence, especially on solo instruments like guitars and piano. Imaging is precise, exhibiting three-dimensional qualities. On the eclectic Afro Celt Sound System Volume 2: Release (Real World), the percussion was crisp and articulate with extreme depth and air. Whispered voices and some of the percussion at the top of track 1 were well outside the speaker’s boundaries, seeming to come from a rear speaker. Too bad they weren’t actually coming from the rear, because this material would be well suited for a discrete multi-channel mix.

The Cinema Reference comes with one of the largest selections of surround options you’ll ever find. There are a total of five AC-3 modes, offering varying dynamic range and THX settings. Four DTS modes, one of which adds THX enhancement, and a multitude of surround effects for Pro-Logic, stereo, 3-channel and Quad playback are also available.

The first time you play a piece of software, regardless of how it’s encoded, select your preferred mode and all similar encoded discs will automatically play at that setting when the input is assigned to the Auto Mode. When I inserted the Dolby Digital DVD of X-Files: Fight the Future (20th Century Fox) into my player it switched to AC-3. Using the Mode knob I dialed in the = AC-3 with THX enhancement setting. Subsequently, any time I put in a Dolby Digital DVD, the AC-3 THX setting is automatically selected.

This movie exhibits ultra clean and intelligible dialogue, even with soft voices or voices mixed with an abundance of ambient effects and music. During the scene in which helicopters chase Scully and Mulder through the cornfield, front-to-rear transitions are dynamic, yet smooth and coherent, particularly with the THX circuit inserted. Disengaging THX creates a tighter and narrower near-field monitoring effect.

I immediately noticed the increased impact and ultra-realistic surround effects when popping in the DTS-encoded DVD of Dances with Wolves (Orion). Providing a greater sense of cinema, you can practically feel the wind as it whips the American flag when Costner rides to the Indians’ home on the plains. The thunderous buffalo stampede reaches the decibel levels of an earthquake. As this is far more than what most small homes can handle acoustically, I had to turn down the LFE track considerably.

The beauty of this unit is how well it was designed for current and future digital surround formats. The standard input format for AC-3 decoding is "S/PDIF". It’s possible to change this format for use with AC-3 formats relating to off-air and satellite HDTV broadcasts.

The Downside
It was surprising to receive a unit of this caliber sans balanced outputs. When I discussed this omission with the folks at ADA, they said it came down to a matter of rear panel real estate; balanced outputs or the Demodulator. They opted for the RF Demodulator, determining that more home theater enthusiasts would appreciate its inclusion.

The Cinema Reference can be ordered with three different types of control. Normally having several ways to control a device wouldn’t be considered a downside, but it does complicate the situation, requiring serious considerations prior to purchase. Fortunately, none of the options cost extra dollars and are part of the package.

ADA’s proprietary remote controller, dubbed "The Thing", is quite bulky compared to other remotes, even though it only contains a single knob and five buttons representing the unit’s main controls. (There are also navigational buttons for an ADA digital source device.) What I liked about this controller was the nice tactile feel and intuitive operation due to its lack of a zillion buttons or multi-level screens. In a situation when it’s necessary to attenuate (or boost) a specific channel, as I had to do with the LFE track on Dances with Wolves, you simply press the button marked "Channel Mode," dial up the desired channel, press the knob and turn it up or down.

If you want something more conventional, order the SL-9000 Home Theater Master from Universal Remote that is preprogrammed by ADA.

The third option includes the IRT-232 infrared transmitter and the Windows-based software program called Bits. This allows you to use a computer to control the ADA processor. If you want to purchase this program in addition to one of the other remotes, it will run an extra $300.

Lastly, you may get the BC-232, which converts the ADA Bus™ to an RS-232 connector, so you can plug into the com port of LCD touchscreens from companies like AMX and Crestron.

If you want to teach the Cinema Reference’s IR codes to other remote devices such as the Philips Pronto or Lexicon’s 700t, you need to select either the SL-9000 or the IRT-232.

Conclusion
The Cinema Reference is so packed with features that we could never fully represent the magnitude of its functionality in a short review. As much as the Cinema Reference distinguishes itself as a high performance product, it’s not for everybody. Operating and setting up this unit is not particularly difficult, though given its price point, I suspect most Cinema Reference customers will be predisposed to an advanced touchscreen system and a professional installation. Still, for those financially willing and able to achieve the ultimate fulfillment of their A/V dreams, the ADA Cinema Processor is a superlative choice.
Manufacturer Audio Design Associates
Model Cinema Reference AV Preamplifier/Processor
Reviewer Kim Wilson





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