listening room, very much aware that we were still in our room, hemmed in on many sides by loudspeakers also located and localizable within our listening room, loudspeakers emitting hot spots of distracting garbage energy that was not encoded as part of the alternative recording venue in the recording. Thus, we can predict that there would be a poor sense of our listening room aurally disappearing, and of our being aurally transported into the space of the alternative venue. All these predicted consequences should occur as a result of the compromised clean purity of competing processor 2, if indeed clean purity were causally important to good spatial portrayal.
What did we find, when we then evaluated the spatial imaging of competing processor 2? Sure enough, we found that it in fact sounded strikingly multi-mono. Virtually all the direct instrumental and vocal sounds were pulled away from the areas between loudspeakers and toward the loudspeaker locations, and they were packed in tightly around the loudspeakers (indeed even localized within the loudspeaker boxes). There was very weak representation and poor imaging of any sounds that should be suspended (located) between each pair of loudspeakers (going around the surround circle), and of course very poor portrayal of any alternative venue space. All we could hear were the loudspeaker locations in our listening room, pushing sound at us only from the loudspeaker locations, and leaving us very much aware that we were still trapped in the acoustic of our listening room with these loudspeakers. Note that this severe spatial degradation occurred even when we used this competing processor 2 in its purest, direct bypass mode, bypassing all internal processing, and using it just as a straight analog volume control stage.
In contrast, when we inserted the Arcam AV8 processor instead, it was as night and day a transformation as we've ever heard. There were no hot spots of energy at the loudspeaker locations, and there were no distracting raspy noises at the loudspeaker locations. In fact, aurally, there were no loudspeaker locations at all. The loudspeakers totally disappeared. So we were no longer hemmed in by loudspeakers all around us, and we were no longer trapped with these loudspeakers within our listening room. Our listening room totally disappeared. Aurally, we were totally transported to the alternative venue of the recording. Sheer magic!
Note incidentally that we compared all three processors (the Arcam AV8 and the two competing processors) on the same footing, in their direct bypass analog throughput mode, utilizing only their volume control and line section output buffer, without any signal processing. In this way, we kept the experiment fair to all processors, and relevant to our specific goal here of testing our hypothesis that the Arcam AV8's audibly superior transparency, resolution, and clean purity on music signals is causally important to its far superior portrayal of space itself. We were not interested here in comparing the flexibility and power of the signal processing in the competing units, and if we had included signal processing in this experiment it would have clouded the central issue and would have introduced further unknown variables into the comparison.
Bear in mind that the two competing processors severely degraded the superb portrayal of surround space that was obviously coming out of the DV27A DVD player's analog signal outputs, and they degraded it severely just by putting this signal through their volume control and line section output buffer stage. Such signal degradation, such loss of spatial information, such destruction of spatial portrayal, once accomplished by the mere volume control and line stage of these competing processors, cannot be remedied or resurrected by any amount of added signal processing in those processors, since true information from the recording, once lost, cannot be regained, and putting the signal also through the complex signal processing stages of these competing processors could only compound the felony of information loss.
This comparison and research experiment thus corroborates our hypothesis that clean purity is causally important to mastering spatial portrayal, just as transparency and resolution were seen to be. This confirms that the Arcam AV8's demonstrable superiority in the classic sonic virtues of clean purity, as well as transparency and resolution (a superiority which is independently verifiable even on simple stereo or mono recordings), is indeed important to its huge superiority in portraying space itself, in mastering space, the final frontier.
When you think about it, you realize that the findings from this research experiment also have huge implications, far beyond the original goals of the experiment.
The Future of High End Home Theater
You'll hear many people say that equipment for home theater does not have to aspire to or meet the perfectionist high end standards set by the very best two channel equipment, particularly in classic sonic virtues such as transparency, resolution, clean purity, imaging, etc.
They are wrong.
Those people say that home theater audio equipment doesn't need to aspire to perfectionist high end standards because audiences are impressed by the Wow factor of having exciting sounds all around them, so they're not a critical of the classic sonic aspects, and they won't notice if there's a little more distortion, a little less transparency, etc. Those people say that it's OK to cut corners and economize with home theater audio equipment because it gets too expensive to maintain perfectionist high end standards when you multiply the number of channels by three. But these nay-sayers are wrong, and they actually have it backwards. In truth, the home theater and surround sound environment actually magnifies the importance of aspiring to the highest perfectionist audio standards, and pays even bigger dividends in the magic that you the listener experience. These nay-sayers don't know what they're missing, and you don't know what you're missing, if your home theater surround sound system has components (even from well respected high end brands) that, like competing processors 1 and 2, have been slightly compromised from perfectionist high end audio standards. All you need, and all these nay-sayers would need to change their tune, is a few seconds of the magic experience with a system like we set up with the Arcam units.
Our little research experiment above has proven these nay-sayers wrong. You see, competing processor 1 above, when routing the signal just through its simplest, purest, most transparent path, through just its volume control and analog output buffer stage, only imposed a slight amount of veiling (transparency loss) - no more perhaps than many high end stereo line section preamps might (i.e. those that are high end but not quite perfectionist high end preamps). Yet even this slight amount of transparency loss by the analog line stage of competing processor 1, compared to the more transparent throughput of the Arcam AV8's analog line stage, created a huge sonic difference in surround soundfield imaging, in the believable portrayal of space itself. Likewise, competing processor 2 above, when routing the signal just through its simplest, purest, most distortion free path, through just its volume control and analog output buffer stage, only imposed a slight amount of added distortion - no more perhaps than many high end stereo line section preamps might (i.e. those that are high end but not quite perfectionist high end preamps). Yet even this slight amount of added distortion by the analog line stage of competing processor 2, compared to the cleaner throughput of the Arcam AV8's analog line stage, created a huge sonic difference in surround soundfield imaging, in the believable portrayal of space itself.
Just a slight degradation in the classic sonic virtues, a slight shortfall from perfectionist high end standards, created a sonic difference in a whole new sonic dimension, spatial portrayal - and a huge difference at that. The AV8, with just slightly better true high end performance in the classic sonic virtues of transparency, resolution, and clean purity, was able to master space itself and open a whole new dimension of spatial portrayal, giving us a whole new kind of experience from surround sound.
This research finding has huge implications for the future of home theater, as an industry, as a hobby, as a passion, and even as mere relaxing recreation. Small, perfectionist improvements in the classic virtues of transparency, resolution, and clean purity pay huge dividends in a product's ability to portray a much more believable surround space, which is instantly obvious and stunningly convincing to every listener. Once any listener has experienced this totally believable, indeed undeniable, transport to another world, he wants it, and for all his music playback as well as for cinema. Clearly, then, it is still as important as ever to pursue to perfectionist levels the classic high end sonic virtues for all home theater equipment, from DVD players and processors, to amplifiers and cables and loudspeakers, all made with the best sounding parts and materials.
Indeed, it is now more important than ever to pursue perfectionist high end audio virtues in the classic sonic aspects, since these classic sonic virtues now produce not only better sounds but also much better space - literally a whole new dimension. A whole new dimension can be added to your experience if your home theater surround sound equipment meets true high end sonic standards. In truth, home theater surround sound pays even bigger dividends than stereo did, for your investment in perfectionist quality, as proven by our research findings here.
Remember also that the true re-creation of an alternative surround space is the only thing that can transport you, via your ear/brain, to another world, for both music playback and cinema. For cinema, your eye/brain knows well that the video image is only two-dimensionally in front of you, not all around you, so it knows that you are still here, not there. Only the sound is three-dimensionally all around you, so it is your powerful ear/brain that must assume full responsibility for transporting you. If your audio equipment is less than high end, then there may be direct music sounds around you, but the portrayal of space itself around you won't be convincingly believable, so you won't ever escape your listening room. On the other hand, if your audio equipment is truly perfectionist high end, and if it can therefore truly re-create space itself all around you, then your powerful ear/brain will be completely convinced, and it will transport you to another world.
Other high end brands (including the makers of the two competing processors compared above) should take note, and learn a lesson from the whole new spatial dimension achieved by these Arcam units. It is more important than ever for these high end manufacturers to pursue true perfectionism, since it can give their customers a whole new dimension, which these customers will instantly want after they experience it for the first time. If a manufacturer's purportedly high end surround sound product can't provide the experience of this whole new spatial dimension as the Arcam units can, then their customers will go elsewhere, to another high end manufacturer who can provide this added spatial dimension because he has pursued audio perfectionism.
Obviously, these Arcam units deserve the very best, perfectionist high end associated audio equipment in the rest of the playback system, to fully realize their superb performances. We found that these Arcam units were very revealing of differences among other high end links in the audio system chain, including power amplifiers, loudspeakers, and cabling. Because these Arcam units are so superb in the classic audio virtues like transparency, resolution, and clean purity, they easily reveal when other associated links do not meet the same high standards. And, because these Arcam units are so superb in mastering space itself, they easily reveal when other associated links degrade the spatial portrayal.
Since the sonic cues defining space itself are so delicate, subtle, and ephemeral, the other links in the system chain must be as superb as these Arcam units, in revealing and reproducing this subtle information. Also, if other links in the system chain fall short of perfectionist high end standards in the classic sonic virtues, they can severely degrade the spatial portrayal put out by these Arcam units. For example, if the power amplifier you insert in the chain has less than perfectionist transparency, then it would severely degrade the spatial portrayal just as surely as competing processor 1 did when it was inserted in the system as a simple analog line stage. Or, if the power amplifier you insert in the chain adds slight distortion, then it would severely degrade the spatial portrayal just as surely as competing processor 2 did when it was inserted in the system as a simple analog line stage.
For our system setup, we tried a number of different power amplifiers, including Arcam's own P7. The loudspeakers in our system setups included a complete surround array of full size Verity loudspeakers, which are very transparent and clean, and boast excellent imaging, though of course there are many excellent high end loudspeakers with similar virtues that you could choose from. For cabling we wound up relying on the best cables from Nordost (Valhalla loudspeaker cables, and Optix video interconnect cable) and Von Gaylord (formerly known as Legend Audio Design)(analog and digital interconnect cables). These cables are superb in revelatory transparency, wide bandwidth, and clean purity.
Thanks to the whole new higher plateau of spatial portrayal achieved by these Arcam units, we found for the first time that a back surround loudspeaker (or back pair of loudspeakers) was a crucial adjunct to the usual side surround loudspeakers -- not just for film soundtracks encoded in surround EX or ES format, but also for all film soundtracks, and even (surprisingly) for playing simple two channel stereo recordings. The back surround or surrounds, when critically fine tuned for placement, delay, and level, proved crucial to making the surround space itself completely believable. They were even crucial on two channel stereo recordings, helping the musical performers up front to pop and achieve solid, tactile, three dimensional believability.
Incidentally, we also found that it was important for these back surrounds to be full range loudspeakers, not just small satellites. We verified this finding by using full range loudspeakers as back surrounds, and simply switching a bass filter in and out at the standard THX frequency of 80 Hz. Even though a filter below 80 Hz should theoretically affect only the bass, in practice we found that it also markedly affected the warmth region (100-300 Hz). When the back surrounds were set to full range, the alternative spatial venue from the recording, so magically defined all around us, had a naturally rich warmth to its reverberant ambience, making it a completely believable experience of being transported to and immersed in that alternative space. On the other hand, when the 80 Hz filter was put in, the natural warmth of the alternative space was no longer all around us, and the experience of being truly immersed in that alternative space was much less convincing.
DV27A Video Performance
A couple of years ago, I gave very high praise to the video quality of Arcam's original DV27, their first DVD player in the FMJ series. In my personal judgment, the Arcam DV27 (and now DV27A) puts out one of the very finest pictures of any DVD player in the world at any price, and perhaps the finest, period.
The DV27A update to the DV27 adds DVD-A playback capability, and with it the ability to output multichannel analog from most disc formats, directly to a multichannel analog line stage. Arcam agrees with this reviewer that SACD is an inherently compromised format, so they have chosen not to build this capability into the DV27A. The DV27A is a progressive scan player, and outputs both progressive and interlaced versions of the signal. Video output formats include composite, RGB (4 pin only), and component.
What makes the video of the Arcam DV27A so superb? First, it excels at achieving the highly coveted look of real film. This film-like appearance is due to a combination of tack sharp resolution with an amazingly buttery smoothness. This smoothness in turn probably results from low noise, and very few artifacts from edge enhancement, de-interlacing, etc. The combination of sharpness, resolution, and this buttery smoothness create a picture that is amazingly informative, yet very relaxing to watch, because it looks so natural, so film-like, so real. Most other DVD players introduce noise, and artifacts from excessive sharpening, etc. that make the overall picture and all the objects therein look artificially drawn or manufactured, so that you as the viewer are constantly aware that you are watching a mechanical representation, and thus you cannot effectively suspend disbelief. The Arcam DV27A, in contrast, draws you into the picture space, so that it's easy and automatic to succumb to believing that you are there. This video believability of course works superbly with the convincingly believable surround space that you experience, thanks to the DV27A's ability to re-create space itself with its superb audio signal.
Secondly, the DV27A excels at reproducing what we call the midrange of video. It reveals and reproduces unbelievably subtle nuances of luminance, color hue, and color saturation gradations. And it handily surpasses other DVD players in reproducing these subtle gradations where they matter most, toward the middle of the ranges of these video parameters. Real human flesh tones and the real appearances of most objects have incredibly subtle variations, over every square micron of their surface, in luminance, and in the color values of hue and saturation. As discussed further below, these subtle variations are what makes a human face or an everyday object look real, instead of looking like a fake, canned reproduction. And most of these subtle variations occur in the middle of the luminance range, the color hue range, the color saturation range - in the middle of these dynamic ranges, not at their extremes. The Arcam DV27A seems to be far superior to most other DVD players in its resolution capabilities, its ability to resolve and portray these subtle variations. It's as if the Arcam DV27A were working with more bits of video resolution.
This superb handling of nuanced variations in video's midrange is hard to quantify or put into words. It does not lend itself to the simplistic specsmanship and horsepower races that predominate in our industry for other video parameters, such as black level, contrast, and extreme dynamic range. In these other simplistic parameters, specsmanship and horsepower races are simplistically easy to measure and brag about in advertising copy, since more is always better. On the other hand, nuanced resolution in video's midranges is a matter of subtler being better, not more horsepower being better.
Indeed, many competing DVD players with boosted contrast, boosted sharpness, and/or boosted saturation might brag about their dynamic extremes, and might thereby create pictures that have lots of pop to impress the na´ve viewer, but they wind up looking artificially cartoonish, precisely
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