Hello again. Welcome to another meeting of insatiable tweakers. While this column won't be published until Sept. 1, and this being a web-based magazine which is usually published within a week of receiving articles from the writers (meaning my articles are submitted about one day before our monthly deadline) I'm a little ahead of myself, completing it at the end of July, as the New Hampshire "three week summer" is calling. Also products for review have been piling up as I've tried to finish my discussion of the following. My Home Theater Computer (HTPC) project has been satisfactorily completed with the final step being its attachment through a recently completed laying of Ethernet, video and audio wiring throughout the house, allowing the HTPC to act as a server for music and video playback. Also, all of my digital and analog recordings have been safely loaded onto both primary and backup hard drives to preclude the risk of drive failure and loss of both the files and the time it took to transpose them.
Both the audio and video playback are exemplary, and for a total of about $1500 and many hours of work and some frustration, I can say that I now have an audio and video recording and playback unit that is significantly better than those out there selling for upwards of $8000 to 10,000 without the loaded music. Why? Because the majority of the music server companies have no interest in high end audio reproduction. Not only does it have the ability to play back all types of audio and video files other than SACD, (damn you Sony), it can upsample audio to 24-bit/192kHz using several different algorithms, do digital signal processing for equalization and room correction, capture ambiance information for 5.0 to 7.0 surround of two channel audio as well if not better than my Lexicon 12B processor, and hopefully in the near future be able to play back the Dolby and DTS high definition Blu-ray concert recordings that will be arriving in the near future.
With its video upsampling capabilities, playback of 480I DVD's and 1080P 24 Hz. Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs can be done at 72 to 120 Hz., completely removing judder and motion artifacts inherent in film and television playback. Using a new product from Hauppage discussed below, even 1080I off the air and Direct-TV high definition video can be upsampled by the computer for video recording and playback.
Now you may ask, and rightly so, how does the audio output from the HTPC compare to other playback units out there. Very well thank you. On CD playback, it is almost as good as my Esoteric DV-60 unit in two channel, losing a smidgen of the ambiance information, and has the advantage when I wish, of decoding two to four or more channels for ambiance recovery, and also comes very close to it with DVD-Audio stereo playback. As Sony doesn't allow computer playback of SACD, the Esoteric will remain in my system. I cannot go into the minutiae of sound differences at present as my system's main channels' mid-range amplifiers are out for repair and being replaced with a pair of old Distech MOSfet monoblocks, but once they return I'll report on this.
Power Director 7.0 Ultra
Over the years several improvements have been made with this product. First, the various manipulations that can be done to your glorious home movies to make them even better, have been brought closer to the levels obtainable with professional product for 1/4 to 1/10th the price, including menu production background music, picture-in-picture, slide shows inside video, correction of both audio and video anomalies or poor quality originals, and on and on.
Second, the program is very intuitive and straight-forward. This past weekend my daughter had her wedding reception (six months after her wedding, but who's counting.) Last night the high definition files were downloaded from my Canon video camera and digital still camera and processed using Power 7.0. Within two hours the program had allowed me to produce an opening page, several intermediate chapter menus, integrated the video of the rehearsal and wedding from December with the weekends festivities, with some appropriate music, combined the video with the still picture files and begun producing both NTSC and high definition discs of the events.
All in all, while I did do some swearing during the process, once the steps were learned, the program more than met my expectations. My one complaint is that for some reason the program made me delete my previous edition of Power Director which was loaded on the computer when received with Cyberlink's Power 2Go program, but wouldn't integrate with the Power 2Go software. While fairly expensive at $119 (about 50 percent more than Ulead's DVD Movie Factory 6 Plus), if one has a previous version it's price is considerably less, and easier to use.
Centech Sound Level Meter
Editor Steven's Note: Harbor Freight is a place where many automobile racing drivers buy inexpensive tools for weekend track days. Generally speaking, their tools are of good quality and their meters are quite impressive for the money. While their tools are not of the Snap-On quality, they are very usable and work well enough for basic conditions. You do get what you pay for, of course, and for the money their products are generally of good value for the money. Well worth checking out their website and getting their print catalog for a staggering diversity of products.
Onkyo Integra 9.8 Preamp-Processor
The 9.8 is the first processor without built-in amplifiers (receiver) available to use the level 1.3 HDMI input with the ability to process the two new standards in high end digital coding, DTS-MA ( Master Audio) and Dolby True HD, which may take over the position held by SACD and DVD-Audio as even Sony seems to have abandoned their support of SACD. The new codecs also have the advantage that not only can one get lossless 24-bit/96kHz audio but also 1080p video of concert performances. The unit's been out for about four months now, and the demand is such that Onkyo refused to give me one for review. Happily, there was a dealer available about 10 miles from my house that I had previously not known about called Audio Video Experience, which I could order it. Unhappily, as it wasn't a review unit so cash had to be paid. Since it was in high demand, waiting time extended out for almost two months. Finally, about two weeks ago, they called and let me know that it had arrived.
I was going to leave this unit's review for another month or two as there was other product first in the line-up (sorry you other companies), as it is not billed as a high-end unit, but more of a mid-fi product at $1600 list, but after two weeks of fiddling with it, its high quality reproduction of music for a low-fi price has amazed me. Unlike many units from high end companies which always seem to lack this or that type of input or decoding, the Integra is the Swiss Army Knife of processors. It has built-in FM, AM, Sirius and XM tuners, and in addition also will decode the new digital HD AM and FM radio transmissions. Inputs include 3 SPDIF RCA and two Toslink, eight RCA analog stereo, one balanced stereo input on XLR's, six composite and S-Video and three component video inputs, four 1.3 level HDMI, one 7.1 multi-channel inputs, and even a moving magnet phono input with RIAA decoding which I didn't evaluate as I don't have a step-up device for my moving coil cartridge.
Outputs include both single ended RCA and pseudo-balanced 7.1 XLR's, two component and 1.3 HDMI for the main room and analog and digital audio and video outputs for two additional rooms throughout the house if you want to use it as a whole-house unit. Its software can be updated through the internet with an Ethernet connection, and this connection can also be used for music server and other Internet duties. It even has an IEC AC inlet and a 2 prong AC outlet for powering another piece of equipment which may need to be intimately attached to it, such as a moving coil cartridge amplifier.
For audio, the unit has a built-in Audyssey room correction 7.1 processor with a microphone and a very simple self-running program for speaker setup, and the ability to have one of the Audyssey technicians do a professional room programming. It will decode every known digital signal, including everything up to Dolby True HD and DTS-MA lossless encoding, HD-DVD and even DSD soundstreams from SACD discs through its HDMI inputs if you have a disc spinner that will output the DSD stream. Unhappily, my Esoteric DV-60 won't do that, even though the $400 Sony Playstation 3 will. (I don't have one so I couldn't compare the Integra's DSD decoding compared to the Esoteric Audio unit). Through one button on the remote, one can disable all processing of all inputs, both analog and digital for direct pass-through of the audio signal with only analog volume control. One disadvantage of the unit is that it will not do A/D conversion for output to a digital unit such as a computer or other digital storage unit. Also, while it has a Zone 2 & 3 for other rooms in the house, these are also purely analog in nature.
On the video side, the unit uses a REON chip from Silicon Optics, one of the best out there for video adjustment and upsampling from NTSC standard 480 to either 720 or 1080 I or P (high definition). Through the setup menu, one can either use the REON chip to do the upsampling, or do a direct passthrough of the video signal for processing by an external video processor or your television, depending on which is better. As a plus compared to other units, it has two HDMI outputs, one main to your TV which controls the HDCP handshake and a second for a slave unit. Unhappily in my system there is a handshake problem between the Integra and my Electrohome projector. Thus, I've had to continue to use my Calibre Vantage HD processor containing the big brother of the REON chip, for my video processing.
So why did I push this review forward ahead of others? For two reasons;
1. The unit has been out for a while and may be replaced shortly by an updated one, which from the scuttlebutt on the web will cost somewhat more with very few if any improvements.
2. The damn, cheap by high end standards, processor possibly sounds better than my Lexicon 12B unit!
Straight out of the box, with only a few hours of warm-up, with the Audyssey processor bypassed, using both music and movie soundtracks with standard Dolby Digital and DTS DVD's, it sounded extremely close to my $14,000 Lexicon pre-pro. The soundfield was more coherent, and three dimensional with less of a feeling of gaps in it between the speakers. Voices were a tad more intelligible, but the bass was a little looser, and the highs were a tad less sweet. The unit comes with a very small indoor FM monopole antenna which picked up the local rock stations fairly well and just allowed me to pick up WCRB classical out of Boston mostly in mono. As I had previously taken down my mega-sized VHF-UHF-FM antenna and replaced it with two ganged super-mega sized UHF beasts to get the digital TV stations, a new FM top of the line antenna was ordered and after some danger and difficulty placed on my rooftop mast just to see how the unit functions with the new HD-FM standard.
Regular FM using classical stations out of Boston and Maine (NH Public Radio has gone strictly news (mostly leftist in nature) and they've lost my family's annual contributions) was very good, as good as I'd ever heard previously. The new digital HD-FM off of Boston's WCRB was downright wonderful, except for their live concerts from Tanglewood in both analog and HD digital which were compressed to less than 12dB difference between the loud and soft passages and actually had some pumping at times with the FF's actually softer than the PP preceding it. I thought it might be a problem with the unit but Clark Johnsen in Boston using an FM stereo radio heard the same. Using the supplied AM antenna, HD-AM actually sounded pretty good, coming close to standard FM. Since I subscribe to XM satellite radio in my car and receive it through my DirecTV service in the house, and it tends to sound inferior to FM in most situations, and they wanted $60 for the add-on for the receiver and another $7 a month, I didn't bother to check out that ability of the unit.
Plugging in the included microphone automatically started its Audyssey program for volume, distance and room correction for each speaker for up to eight room positions. The process takes about 15 minutes after which your speakers are supposed to have relatively flat frequency response over a large room area. The Integra then uses these results when doing all Dolby and DTS decoding unless one presses the "Direct" button, which shuts off the Audyssey decoding but also shuts off most of the other digital signal processing.
Unhappily, at least in my system, the Audyssey processing led to a distinct drop-off in high frequency information which was surprising at first since the program works primarily from the low mid range to the deep bass to level off room peak resonances. Then I remembered that the Audyssey company decided to decrease the upper frequencies as part of the program as they probably figured that the decrease of some of the low frequency peaks would make the average system sound too peaky. Also, the program only allows for one level of correction and no changes in what it decides is the best frequency response. On the other hand for an extra $150 and the services of an Audyssey approved technician using a computer, Audyssey supplied microphone kit and a program, the unit can be set up for several curves and responses and one can even see through the computer screen what is being done to the individual speaker responses. I've been told the average charge for the tech is $350 plus travel time. There have also been a couple of experimenters on the web who've bought their own kit from Audyssey and played by themselves but I haven't had any experience with this.
On the third hand there is another option. If you already have a program for speaker evaluation or very good ears, the 9.8 has built-in digital equalization for all channels, so one can do the Audyssey room correction and then correct its response using the equalizer. That will be my next project.
While there aren't many concert discs out there in the new high definition formats, there is one that is superb and proves their advantages: Euroarts, which has been producing superb DVD's of classical performances has produced an HD-DVD of Pierre Boulez with the Staatskapella Berlin doing the Mahler Symphony # 2 using Dolby True HD . Being a live performance, there are some slight gaffs in the performance, but all in all, its one of the best recordings of the Mahler that I've heard.
While it was probably multi-mic'ed, I could not perceive any staging defects or spotlighting of musicians which were upsetting. With the 9.8, the video was superb as was the audio, with the two working in tandem to draw one into the performance. At 30€ list it is expensive but considering what I used to pay for Laser discs of 16-bit/44kHz stereo PCM performances in NTSC video, it's dirt cheap and a good sign of what's obtainable from the new medium and this pre-pro. Unhappily, they used HD-DVD, a dead medium, rather than Blu-ray. Hopefully this won't discourage them from adding more high definition recordings.
In summary, the Integra 9.8 pre-pro is well-built, thought out and unbelievably inexpensive for what you get. It's going to be difficult for the high end companies to beat its level of sophistication for close to the price. We will see if any of them do it in the next few months.