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B&K Reference 30 AV Preamplifier Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 February 2001
Image The B&K Reference 30 ($2,800) is the replacement to the Reference 20 reviewed on in 2000. The Reference 30 incorporates the features of the Reference 20 and expands upon them, this article will focus mainly on the differences between the two units.

Features new to the Reference 30 include THX and THX EX processing, 5.1 inputs, 7.1 outputs, 96k/24bit A/D and D/A converters and processing, selectable subwoofer crossover frequency and slope, room equalization and last but not least, a IEEE 1394 port.

The IEEE 1394 port will need a controller upgrade to become operational and I expect that soon after the IEEE 1394 standards are implemented B&K will provide the upgrade. The Asaho-Kasei 192 kHz 24 bit ADC’s and DAC’s share the same pin format with their 192 kHz 24 bit counterparts allowing for an easy upgrade path after the new 192 kHz 24 bit standards are implemented.

Setting up the Reference 30 was a bit more difficult than its predecessor, mainly due to the additional features, however, once set up was complete operation was simple and easy. The numerous surround modes, while providing great flexibility for various systems makes for a somewhat confusing setup. For example, if your system is 5.1 and not 7.1 the manual does not clearly state whether your rear speakers are rear or side surrounds. (They are considered side surrounds.) I highly recommend a trip to pick up a SPL (sound Pressure Level) meter to properly adjust speaker levels and the notch filter as it is next to impossible to do by ear. SPL meters are available at Radio Shack for around $30. Movies and Music
I set the Reference 30 in my theater system. The system currently consists of Athena Speakers, M&K subwoofer, Toshiba DVD player, Pioneer Laserdisc player, Monster Cable power conditioning and line level cables and Analysis Plus speaker cables.

As with the Reference 20, the Reference 30 excels on movie soundtracks, even surpassing the Reference 20. I started off by watching an old favorite, Top Gun (Columbia, Dolby Digital, THX, Laserdisc). I began watching the movie with the THX processing turned off, after the night club scene I started over with the THX processing engaged. The THX processing resulted in coherence across the entire soundstage. Without the THX processing the various vocals during Tom Cruise’s serenade didn’t come together nearly as well as they did with the THX circuit engaged.

Like the Reference 20 the Reference 30 provided excellent multi channel processing with smooth, seamless pans. While watching Gladiator (DVD, DTS ES, Dreamworks) I was impressed by the seamless pans, this was especially noticeable in the opening battle scene. As the roman soldiers set the catapults, the ratcheting of the gears should move smoothly from the right to left. The Reference 30 decoded the DTS soundtrack flawlessly. The Reference 30, like its predecessor, was capable of decoding complex scenes while maintaining excellent detail, separation and clarity.

The depth charge scene in U-571 (DVD, Universal) when played through the Reference 30 convincingly places the listener in an underwater world with the depth charges plunging around them. The depth charge explosions that follow soon after were powerfully deep and detailed.

After watching several movies I turned to one that highlighted a sonic weakness in the Reference 20. The tank chase scene in Goldeneye (Laserdisc MGM) called attention to the Reference 20’s biggest sonic weakness, a forward top end. The screeching of the metal during the chase was bright and harsh on the Reference 20, but sounded much better on the 30.

This brings me to the next shortcoming of the Reference 20. The video switching section was not transparent. While watching letterboxed movies the very upper portion of the top black bar is noticeably lighter. B&K improved the video switching section of the Reference 30. I did not notice any degradation with either composite or s-video sources, component video switching was not tested.

Unfortunately the Reference 30 remote does little to improve on the shortcomings of the Reference 20’s controller. Both units use the ubiquitous Theater Master SL-9000 remote with which I found DVD playback to be difficult to control. To B&K’s credit this remote does provide much flexibility in that it is preprogrammed to control many components, is learning capable and is well programmed to control the Reference 30.

With audio I listened to both DTS and two channel CD’s as well as DTS’ new DVD-Audio discs. The DTS music sounded great, the brightness present in the Reference 20 was absent in the 30. The Eagles, When Hell Freezes Over (DTS / Geffen) sounded phenomenal. The Reference 30 provided a great sense of realism with exceptional detail and accuracy. The drums were deep and clear, the guitars, both steel and nylon string, were vibrant and tonally right on.

Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (DTS) is another favorite 5.1 recording. This album is filled with tasteful use of reverb and lots of deep acoustic bass, the B&K did a great job with both. The B&K also did well with Lovett’s distinctive voice, capturing every inflection.

I played Toy Matinee’s self titled DTS, DVD-Audio disc. This DVD, in addition to its DVD-Audio track, has a DTS 5.1 track, this was the track I listened to during this review. The decadence of the first track "Last Plane Out" was almost overwhelming. The smooth, full vocals surrounded me and there was great detail in the bass and drums. "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge" immerses the listener in the middle of the instrumentals anchored by a well reproduced bass line.

The Reference 30 was noticeably better than its predecessor with two channel recordings. The Reference 30 is smoother and has a better tonal balance than the Reference 20. I found the direct audio bypass mode provided further significant improvement as well.

As I began typing this article I started up St. Germain’s Tourist (Blue Note) album. About halfway through the "So Flute" track I switched the Reference 30 into direct mode. When the Reference 30 is in direct mode all processing is bypassed, including bass management. Bypassing the ADC’s and DAC’s and processing results in a more lifelike and vibrant sound. I found the decay after the primary notes to be much more natural. Switching from a processed listening mode to direct provides slightly more detail, the overall tonality remains the same but there is definitely more detail which results in a more lifelike performance.

The Downside
The remote still doesn’t work very well with DVD players which means you will have to keep a second remote handy. The Reference 30 takes a while to set up and new users will most likely be confused in its operation. Once the unit is properly configured and the presets set, operation is quite simple. I would like to see some more guidance in the owner’s manual in setting the unit up and acquainting the new user to its operation.

The Reference 30 is extremely versatile and does an incredible job with surround processing. The B&K’s performance on music is also strong considering its price. Once the unit is completely setup it is easy to use and provides great performance. Those looking for a great sounding, full featured A/V Preamp may not need to look any further than the B&K Reference 30.

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