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Enlightened Audio Designs Theater Master Digital Processor Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 December 1998
Image Enlightened Audio Designs (EAD) has re-invented their popular Theater Master digital processor with three distinct versions (Encore, Ovation, Signature). Each incorporates Dolby Digital, DTS and MPEG decoders ensuring worldwide compatibility with any audio format. The Ovation ($4,449), like the one I was sent, is an upgrade from the basic Encore ($2,995). It includes an HDCD circuit and balanced outputs along with upgraded 20-bit DACs.

Packaged with the Theater Master is a programmable touch screen remote with layouts of essential components like Laserdisc, DSS, DVD, CD and VCR. Teaching the Theater Master commands from other remotes is quite simple. The unit fits comfortably in the palm of your hand and is far more intuitive than remotes with multi-function buttons.

The new slimmer chassis unveils a bold new diamond fly-cut faceted faceplate. The attractiveness of the unit is highlighted by the elimination of controls. Only a bright blue display panel and a power switch adorn the front panel.

This is the first processor I've come across with more digital audio inputs (6) than analog (3), which is as it should be in our emerging all-digital world. The integrated video switcher has three video inputs with both composite and S-Video connections. Any video input can be assigned to any audio input. Gold-plated RCA type connections are provided for the six-channel outputs (L/C/R/Surr/Sub). Balanced outputs are available for the main left and right channels. An RS-232 communication port is available for connection with external system controllers such as EAD's Switch Master or sophisticated system controllers from Crestron and AMX.
The Theater Master is hands-down the easiest digital processor to set-up, I've used. Using the supplied microphone, you sit at the main listening position and hold the mic, slightly upraised. Just select Auto Adjust on the remote and the Theater Master does all the work. A pink noise test tone is emitted from each speaker, automatically adjusting volumes. Then two pulse tones are emitted from each speaker to calculate the distance between speakers to ensure proper time alignment. If for some reason the Auto Setup doesn't work or is unsatisfactory, volumes and time alignment can be adjusted manually.

Reviewing this unit was sheer listening pleasure. The Theater Master exhibited such a smooth and natural response without a hint of harshness anywhere in the spectrum, I could play everything as loud as I pleased. It never was fatiguing. Sonic performance just doesn't get much better than this.

Let's talk about imaging. The sound field of the multi-layered guitars on "Natural Flow" from Strunz and Farah's latest release Wild Muse (Selva) seemed to extend into the room at least three feet from the speaker plane. A palpable sense of air surrounds each note allowing it to breathe. Articulation and definition of the guitars is so masterfully reproduced you'd swear you're in the recording studio with them.

Great sound doesn't happen by mistake, it is designed, and so it is with the Theater Master which employs the Digital Flywheel (Ovation & Signature only), a jitter reducer that smoothes out instantaneous time-base fluctuations resulting in exceptional resolution. The AccuLinear circuit is responsible for the complete lack of transient distortion, eliminating all harshness and glare without rolling off the top end.

You know this processor must sound spectacular to get me to listen to country music and enjoy it. The latest George Strait album, One Step At A Time (MCA Nashville), is DTS-encoded and the extended dynamic range of this 20-bit mastered disc creates a larger than life sound field that immerses the listener into the music. The Theater Master delivers these tracks with remarkable warmth and depth. The near field monitoring of Titanic (Laserdisc, Dolby Digital, Paramount) is amazingly transparent. Dialog is crystal clear, clean and perfectly focused even when the other speakers are reproducing the hyper-realistic creaking bulkheads and turbulent torrents of water. Even more sedate scenes such as in the dining room, reveal the ambient effects so distinctly and realistically you feel like a guest at the table.

The CINEQ circuit provides equalization for exceedingly bright soundtracks and recordings, though I never felt the need to leave it engaged. The comprehensive, bass management system makes it possible to either crossover or roll-off any speaker to get the best possible blend between speakers and subwoofer(s). A unique feature is the ability to store up to 10 different system settings. For example, you might like a different balance for DTS music only discs compared to Dolby Digital movies. Each could be a separate setting, accessible at the tap of a button.

If you want something better than this, you need to splurge for the Signature ($6,495), which features a Teflon analog circuit board and passive components with DACs that guarantees THD and noise level below -96dB. A 20-bit delta-sigma A-to-D converter is included for improved transparency of analog signals.

The Downside
Be advised that there are no manual controls, not even volume, on the Theater Master. While this is a minor point, it's an unusual design, and something to be aware of if you're prone to misplacing remotes. In the pursuit of sonic excellence, many manufacturers including EAD, choose to exclude the built-in RF demodulator that is required for playback of Dolby Digital Laserdiscs. If you're not into Laserdiscs, this point is of no consequence. If you need the demodulator it will run an additional $395.

Lastly, balanced outputs for more than the mains would have been nice, even if it meant making the unit slightly larger.

For optimum performance of digital surround, set-up is critical, amounting to half your set-up time. The Theater Master's Auto Setup is extremely effective and a welcome relief. EAD did their homework on this one. Novice and expert alike will be up and running with this unit faster than any other processor on the market.

When you consider that touch screen remotes with the flexibility of the one included with the Theater Master can run upwards of $1,500 separately, it considerably raises the overall value of this product. If a state-of-the-art processor is in your immediate future, the Theater Master belongs on your short, short list. Sonically, it's superb. Operationally, it's uncommonly simple. Cosmetically, it's beautiful, adding some class to a sea of black matte products. With three versions to choose from that fit various budgets plus a simple dealer installable software upgrade path to the next level, the Theater Master guarantees satisfaction for many years.

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