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Hi-end AV Processors - smoke & mirrors ?

Discussion in 'AV Pre-Amp/Processors & Power Amps' started by HiFiFan, Mar 20, 2004.

  1. HiFiFan

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    Afternoon All

    As a relative newbie to the world of AV, coming from the land of 2 channel and with many years experience of it behind me, I'm finding the woods a bit confusing re AV, and am seeking some answers to many nagging thoughts, both general and specific.

    To start off, and hopefully promote some meaningful, and worthwhile discussion/debate, (but hopefully not a flame-fest) I'd like to be the devils advocate and offer the contention/proposition that in general, High-End AV Processors are not worth the asking price re what they bring to the OVERALL movie enjoyment/satisfaction rating, compared to lesser 'mainstream' components.

    As multi-channel surround sound continues it's march into territory once dominated by Hi-End 2 channel markets/manufacturers, those manufacturers seem to have scrambled to bring products to market, to enable them to share a piece of a burgeoning and lucrative AV pie. And who could blame them, after all, business is business.

    But with few exceptions, most do not appear to design their own software re surround sound processing, rather they just buy in OEM boards/chips from off the shelf makers, and marry it to their own circuits re the analogue outputs, power supply and implementation etc, dress it up in a tasty box, and sell it on at thrice and four times the cost, of 'lowlier' designs from 'mainstream' manufactures, using the same OEM decoding boards and chip-sets etc.

    Not that many years back, the Japanese HiFi manufacturers were accused of taking other peoples designs, copying and marketing them at undercutting prices.

    Nowadays, the Japanese HiFi manufacturers seem to be the ones that are truly innovating and at the cutting edge of technology; the smaller specialist manufacturer copies, tweaks and makes small improvements, and sells it on at a much higher cost, buoyed by the marketing machine of prestige, status, brand image, assumed extra benefit/quality through cost (it costs more, therefore it must be better) and well, smoke and mirrors at times IMHO.

    This approach seems to work very well in countries like the UK, which still appears IMHO to have a very entrenched class structure socially, but seemingly less well in societies that appear to have a much more pragmatic outlook re consumer goods in general, such as the US for example.

    In particular, having heard one or two high-end processors, I found their sound strengths to be typically that which apply and are important to 2 channel, i.e. resolution, dynamics, clarity etc, BUT and importantly for the movie watching experience, nothing extra re soundfield size, steering, localization etc, and most especially, in the context of viewing a movie, with a large screen, VERY LITTLE improvement at most to the overall (sound AND picture) involvement and satisfaction of a movie watching experience.

    So, ladies & gentleman, are Hi-End processors worth it? Just WHAT do they bring to the OVERALL movie watching experience that makes them 'better', if at all, over their mainstream competitors? Anything? - or is it just smoke, mirrors, and a good dose of old fashioned snake oil?

    Let the debate begin.

    Cheers

    John.... :cool:
     
  2. chrisgeary

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    I agree with your earliest statement, that they don't provide the same value v. performance that budget/mid-range products do. The old law of dimishing returns and all that. However, I have just got in to high-end AV because of secondhand values. Now these products do start to become worthwhile. I have a Meridian 561 Processor - about £2.5k - £3k if I were to buy it brand new. I cannot justify spending that sort of money. I picked it up for £1k secondhand which is only a few hundred pounds more than a Denon 3803 was new. The performance difference is huge, in all departments. Ok, its an unfair comparison as the Denon has amps built in (not very good ones, but nonetheless its extra cost to factor power amps in).
    Take a listen to the DTS mix of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells 2003. The 561 moves the surround mix in a fluid seamless way, presenting it as the artist intended. Whilst the 561 was away for a minor repair, I was back to my old Yam A3090 - the presentation was different, I could now hear all 5 of my speakers again rather than an enveloping soundfield.
    My point is this: I think high-end audio (not just processors) is worth it - but not at brand new prices. I perceive a marked improvement in steering, surround soundfield, detail and resolution with my 561 compared to my 3803 and Yam A3090 before it. For me, I have a system now where I am starting to really listen to music and not my system.
     
  3. Thunder

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    Hi HiFi Fan. I agree that a lot of British companies that used to be hifi manufacturers have gone the OEM route, but there is good reason for this. An AV processor costs millions to develop in contrast to the relatively simple task of building an analogue stereo preamp. AV processors are hundreds of times more complex than stereo equipment and therefore most of the small hifi companies just dont have the resources or funds to develop such products themselves. This is why they go the OEM route. On the other hand companies like TagMclaren, Meridian etc do develop their products from the ground up and the high price you end up paying is for the development costs not the materials. Large Japanese manufacturers can afford to absorb these development costs and so their products have a much lower retail price, but in order to absorb their costs their products have to appeal to a much wider customer base and are in general much less specialised. So you have two choices you can buy a mass market Japanese product with a very limited shelf life and less specialised features but at a cheaper price or you can buy a highly specialised and usually upgradeable British product but pay a lot more money for it. As for performance I still believe that my Tag nocks the socks off any Japanese competition in areas of transparency, effects steering and speed, dynamics and the ability to EQ your system highly accurately. I think this is very impressive in the fast moving world of AV considering that the AV32R was launched in 98 and is still (through upgrades) state of the art. Thats what I paid for.
     
  4. fraggle

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    I'm just trying out a high end processor that designs and builds their own DSP in house, no bought instuff, and found it lacking a lot.
     
  5. Miron

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    Primare maybe?

    This sounds to me like subject for NicolasB :)

    _____
    It is all matter of design and money anyway..
     
  6. buns

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    nope, meridian i believe.....

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  7. fraggle

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    Primare amps which seem to be fine, Meridan 565 processor.

    I'm now on the look out for an Audiolab 8000Q or late 8000S to use an an purely audio pre amp, which is what was in the good system I heard, so I can verify the rest is working ok, I'm not remembering it with very rose tinted glasses and to use as a benchmark.

    Worth spending £400 or so to avoid making a mistake with a £1000 to £3000 processor, especially as I can flog the 8000(Q/S) after :)
     
  8. buns

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    The Q is seriously different in nature to that of the meridian...... if you want something that sounds like it, tag is far and away the best bet for a processor. I dont know any of the other big names in the UK will have a sound remotely similar

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  9. General Skanky

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    The latest Primare processing is their own stuff.
     
  10. fraggle

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    Hi,

    Do you mean the TMcC audio pre-amps or their processors?

    If the processors you mean the AV32 (I see the dual proc are supposed to be a fair bit better?)

    Is the Tag McC site still alive? I can't seem to find it now, what I'd guess is their web site just times out.

    I want to have a look at the specs of the different AVs to work out the difference between the AV32 single, dual processors, AV192s, etc, etc.


    Thanks for the advice.
     
  11. buns

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    I mean specifically the processors, but of course the tag pre amps will also sound distincly like audiolab (seeing as they are inextricably linked).

    My feeling was that meridian was just so pleasant and enveloping, i just forgot al about it. In contrast, i just plain ignored tag having heard it briefly, it was so much more clinical and almost unrelenting. More accurate may be a term you could use, but ive heard that sort of thing before and i dont find it satisfying on the longer term. I also had tried the audiolab Q when i was chosing my stereo amps and ended up taking it back on being too dull and ended up with a valve amp in its place. So that should show you just how different the sounds are and how totally silly anyone would be in believing my words that meridian is much better than tag! :D Its all personal opinion

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  12. lovegroova

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    http://www.tagmclaren.com/great/sounds.asp is alive
     
  13. Nic Rhodes

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    but for how long :)
     
  14. Jeff

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    Sorry I don't understand your point? Which Japanese manufacturer makes products equivalent to say a Merdian G68 or an Arcam AV8 for a much lower cost?

    Please tell me, I'd love to buy one, I don't give a monkeys about brands or status.
     
  15. HiFiFan

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    Afternoon All

    Great to see some interesting thoughts, and not a flame fest.


    To some degree I guess it all depends on how you assess equivalent.

    As an example, say, lets look at the two processors you've mentioned, and the new Sony DA9000ES.

    The Sony is a receiver, however as it uses digital amplification, the concept of needing a pre-processor, and separate power amplifier is somewhat negated with regards to noise and interference etc, hence the integrated design.

    With respect to the quality of the materials used as regards the bits one can see and assess, such as chassis, covers, front fascia plates, knobs, join lines, screws, quality of the materials themselves and the finish applied, I'd place that ES Sony on a par with the Meridian, and both comfortably bettering the Arcam IMHO.

    As regards the quality or otherwise of the internal components/electronics, the quality testing applied re their selection and quality control, one can only guess unless one is an electronic expert, or, go by the advertising blurb which as usual is long on rhetoric and short on facts. I would have doubts as to whether there would be much, if any difference. They all state that they use 'audiophile grade' components etc.

    Naim years ago boasted that they used to individually spec test each and every component that went into one of their products, a policy I am unsure of as to whether it is still maintained, but one assumes so. Most other manufacturers merely batch test, usually one in several hundred or thousand etc.

    Either way, just as a car manufacturer doesn't tell you the tensile strength of the steel they use, the number of spot welds per inch in assembly, the torsional rigidity of the body etc of the products they make, neither is the HiFi industry going to be likely to reveal such things as the quality of the components etc for comparative purposes. Far easier to convince one by marketing and brand name association that they use 'the best'.

    With regards to the signal processing, I would think that with their expertise in two channel, Arcam and Meridian may have an edge over the Sony re the circuit layout, power supplies, and analogue output stages re fine tuning of the 'sound', especially with regards to music, whether the processor is being used in two channel mode, or multi-channel surround mode for music.

    I say may, because I'm not an electronics engineer, and again, one can only go by what one perceives re brand 'heritage' with respect to two channel, past experiences, and mostly the advertising claims of these 'established' 'high-end' players in the 2 channel arena, muscling in on the multi-channel surround sound scene.

    Given the scarcity of SACD/DVD-A players, whilst I've heard multi-channel SACD in a home, and in-store, I've not been able to do a careful AB between processors on this medium as yet, so it is very much conjecture as to which would provide a 'better' music surround experience.

    The other side of the performance equation for a 'high-end' AV processor, and the most useful one for me at the moment, is AV in the context of home cinema.

    Here, on specs at least, the gap between the Sony and the Meridian narrows even further. Both use proprietary in-house DSP to augment the surround sound movie experience.

    I am under the understanding with the AV8, unlike the AVR100, 200 receivers etc, which were actually made in China to Arcams specs, sharing many features with a NAD design, the AV8 has been developed more in-house, with regards it's DSP, as against just buying off the shelf components and software.

    The Sony uses a number of chips that are exclusive to, and made in-house by Sony themselves, along with their proprietary software.

    On specs, and regarding in-house development, i.e. that 'specialist high end touch' I can see little difference between all three.

    As regards listening, which is really the bottom line, I've not been able to hear the particular model Meridian you speak of, nor as yet the AV8 unfortunately.

    However, I have been able to do a direct listening comparo between a Naim AV2, (another high-end processor that uses OEM boards/chipsets, with careful attention paid to the design re in-house power supplies, circuit layout etc) and Denon, Rotel, and Arcam receivers.

    The Naim delivered somewhat as expected on music, easily outclassing the others, re detail, dynamics, rhythm, transparency, all the usual 2 channel strengths, BUT on movies, there was very little in it. The strengths so apparent for music, seemed to matter little for movies, where surround sound 'wrap' or immersive involvement perhaps, was no better than the much cheaper units. Consequently, it added little IMHO to the overall movie watching/involvement experience.

    Indeed, if the coherence, integration, and seamless panning of effects around a 360 degree sound-field is of primary performance in the sense of involvement and immersion re a movie experience, then no, I don't see the Arcam AV8 having an edge over the Meridian or the Sony I have mentioned. My thoughts would be that the Sony and Meridian, with their proprietary DSP would be more likely to be similar to each other re movies, and have the edge over the Arcam IMHO in movie sound.

    The fact that the Sony supports 9.1, has an RS232 port for upgrades, has proprietary chipsets and software for surround sound, is one of the few affordable mass produced digital amplifiers available, with high power, and little heat output - surely a technology that is cutting edge and likely to be developed by 'specialist' manufacturers in the future, and has a build quality to match (IMHO) the Meridian and exceeds that of the Arcam, and yet comes in at well under half the price makes it quite an outstanding product IMHO, and easily the equal of the others in most, if not all respects that I can see, with the possible exception perhaps of music reproduction.

    Of course, usually one does get what one pays for in many ways; the exclusivity of the TAGS, Meridians, AV8 & Naims etc of this world will always have that indefinable 'something' that the likes of Sony, Denon, Yamaha etc do not have.

    But then of course, speaking as a Naim owner, I'd be inclined to say that!

    However on performance grounds, I'm of the opinion (not a closed one I might point out) that the differences between the so called high-end processors developed by previously two channel specialist manufacturers, and more 'pedestrian' mainstream processors are more tied up with notions of prestige and assumed engineering excellence based upon past 2 channel experience/heritage.

    When the source is a movie soundtrack with dialogue, sound effects and some music, delivered by a lossy compression system, and where the 'mainstream' use similar if not identical chipsets to the specialist manufacturer, and in some cases such as Sony and Yamaha, use in-house proprietary DSP to augment the surround experience, as do specialists such as Meridian, Lexicon etc, the differences in movie performance are relatively small, whilst the price difference is huge.

    So my point then, is that by most reasonable methods one can use to compare so called 'high-end' processors v's something with say, a less prestigious name tag, the differences are very minor at best for movies, with the exception of the humble matter of price.

    Anyway, just some further rambling thoughts from me on a contentious subject.

    Cheers

    John...



    :cool:
     
  16. Jeff

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    You should concentrate too much on the components, many video processors the the same chip yet performance varies a lot. It's all in the implementation. I have not heared the new Sony so will reserve judgement, but historically Sony receivers havn't been that good. Bass management is one area were that have previusly failed badly, adding lots of distortion.
     
  17. buns

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    I have to say i think totally the opposite applies. High end amps from the likes of sony or whoever will more likely than not just be chucked together using the best components they have available. There will be little individualism applied to a unit because, relatively speaking, these machines will be a ver small part of their market. Compare that to arcam and the AV8 is a very big part of their business, it has had everything carefully chosen for the optimal performance for the money, they have no doubt designed and redesigned many times to tweak it that little bit further using their own expertise. This is what we pay for, the expertise.

    Fine you could buy the high end sony, but its always going to have that hint of being mass market. It will never have the individualism that the arcam for instance has, it will never have the product support , software updates, direct ceo interaction (hello John Dawson!) that arcam does. In reality, it is horses for courses...... if you wantto buy a super sporty citroen vts...... you'll have a car that can give you one hell of a ride, but it'll never ever be a lotus elise.

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  18. Jeff

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    I had a lood at the 9000ES spec and it doesn't look half bad, assumeing for a second that it's performance is up to scratch, one other area of concern is resale value. Sony have a real brand image problem, you would be much better off with the likes of Pioneer, Denon or maybe Yamaha.
     
  19. Peter Baker

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    Hi guys
    Having just spent serious money upgrading my Arcam Alpha 10/Dave/10P to a Proceed AVP/ AMP5, I have to say the difference is enormous. No surprise there.

    I would, however agree that the difference on music is far greater than that on HT. I too came from a background of 2 channel enthusiasm, and had compromised this with the Arcam as I only have room for one system.
    The Proceed brings back musicality to music, with great Naim like timing, and a really rich, detailed, warm sound.
    Many here will recollect that I tried Arcam, Naim, Meridian, TAG and Bryston setups before settling on the Proceed.
    It just sounded so much better on music.

    On HT the differences were more difficult to pinpoint. That said, all of these setups offered a lot more detail than the Arcam alpha 10. All also gave a more 3D presentation, with the possible exception of the NAim, which had little soundstage depth.

    One quite interesting point is that the Proceed is far from up to date, lacking PrologicII, and any 7Ch setups. Nevertheless, the vanilla Prologic sounded streets ahead of my Arcam.
    The reason for this is quite simple, and brings me back to the music. On most well produced TV series, the music soundtrack brings a great deal of atmosphere to the experience. With the Proceed, this soundtrack is far more immersive, as well as being far more accurate. Piano sounds like piano.
    In addition, the extra space around each sound makes following dialogue far easier, in the same way that good hi-fi enables one to hear every individual instrument, without losing sight of the combined musical experience. I don't get much from the rears, but I do great a wide coherent soundstage.

    On DD/DTS, it's more of the same, but with a full wraparound experience, and better isolation of individual sounds, particularly from the rear.

    Now, of course, it is difficult to separate the influence of the Pre/Pro and the amplifier, but in combination, I felt the improvement justified the cost.

    Anybody want an Arcam 10/Dave/10P?

    Peter
     
  20. buns

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    Actually, although these high end av processors do, as stated many time above, 2 channel much better, personally i think this is a slight waste. I have a £1500 stereo pre amp and it kicks the ass of any av processor I have ever owned, even the bryston whch most acknowledge to be one of the very best.

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  21. Anodyne

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    One assumption that is made when this issue comes up is that the listener only listens to music and soundtracks in their native formats. If one of the things you are looking for when buying a processor is its ability to convert stereo into multi-channel then you can start applying the same criteria you would in choosing a stereo pre-amp. The picture is no longer a 'distaction' and the differences between high-end processors and mass market brands becomes more apparent.

    Will
     
  22. Jeff

    Jeff
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    Even if you want to keep it in native stereo, Bass management might still be a requirement (it is for me).
     
  23. sticker

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    IMHO I think that the high end gives a much better "cinema" experience to that of the sub £1,000 market, certainly form my lisenting experience. The front soundstage is wider, deeper and teh srround steering is so much better and seemless. The 2 channel reporduction and indeed things like Dolby por-logic 2 is much better implemented on the higher end models. There is no way that something say like a Denon 3803 or Pioneer Ax5i could hold a candle to the tag, Meridian, Lexicon or AV8 IMO. Some of the Jap recievers are absolutely awful in 2 channel mode.
    Quite often althoug the individual components may be off the shelf, its the implementation of these that make sthe difference (the sum of the parts is less than the whole)
    Yes you could say that some of the higher end stuff is over priced, but add up what you get.

    Lets see what my current Arcam AV8 gives me
    1) Excellent build quality
    2) High quality video switching for 8 sources (up to 1080p), how much would a dedicated switching unit be £750
    3) Music playback in both 2 channel and multi channel to a pretty high standard, certainly much better than the Jap high end av amps IMO. Lets say its the equivalent of a £750 2 channel amp
    4) Multi channel DVD processing, how much for an equal at the lower end £750
    5) Rs232 to cater for software upgrades
    6) High level of software control to cater for other equipment and the home environment

    I could go on, but the Arcam is no different in that respect to the Tag, Meridain et al. Also IMO the likes of Tag, Meridian are at the cutting edge in certain respects, take Tag's TMReq or Meridan being a leading advocate of everything digital for a long while. Lets not forget that Arcam have had Pal prog in its DVD players long before it was ratified.

    I really don't think that the AV high end is smoke and mirror's if anything the 2 channel end has been guilty for many many years, how much Snake oil is there out there for this sector over the years. Look at the the fuss with speaker cable?

    Oh and by the way the AV8 is not made in China, John Dawson has said as much IIRC

    Regards
    John
     
  24. ancientgeek

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    It's smoke and mirrors, at least that's what I bought. Aside from speakers and room, the tasks performed by the rest of the system are objectively measurable, and these days, generally pretty good. If not, then there's a manufacturer out there with a huge amount to gain from double blind listening tests.

    Even though they'll get to work just the same, most people would prefer a "high end" car. But it can't be objectively justified.

    There is no doubt that the "high end" is being squeezed more and more from below. Every year you wait before buying makes the high end less worth while, and the low end less ghastly.
     

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