Saturday, May 3, 2008

B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver

B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver 
B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver 
B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver 
B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver 
B&W 600 Series Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

One of the home theater industry’s greatest sins is modesty. If excessively modest people hide their lights under a bushel, speaker and receiver manufacturers go them one better, hiding their achievements in boxes. Boxes with drivers on the front, boxes with buttons and knobs that sit in a rack—boxes. True, surround speaker packages that break away from the boxy norm are slowly making inroads into the conservative milieu of home theater, just as some clever surround receivers boast digital amps and slim form factors. This month’s Spotlight System does none of those things. To divine what’s special about it, you’ll have to look deeply into its soul.

Or at least check out what’s inside. Within the enclosures of the B&W 600 Series speakers, as well as the chassis of the Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V receiver, are some fairly hip things. The speakers boast technologies like B&W’s famous tapered-tube tweeter, which made its debut years ago in the bleeding-edge Nautilus Series and then trickled down into the high-end 800 Series. And the receiver is among the industry’s first to feature onboard decoding for the next-generation surround codecs via the HDMI 1.3a interface.

Pass It Down
B&W’s 14 speaker lines are too numerous to summarize quickly. Let’s just say that the 600 Series has been through several generations and has some impressive upscale siblings. One of them, the Nautilus, originated a distinctively B&W design idea that has since been passed hand to hand down the other lines, the way your brothers and sisters pass the dish of stuffing down the table at Thanksgiving (and you hope they’ll leave you some, because you love stuffing). I’m talking about the tube that holds the tweeter. Like most speaker drivers, a tweeter radiates sound on both the front and back sides, and controlling the backwave is a B&W design priority. So, although you don’t see the tube, it’s there doing its useful work.

For this latest iteration of the 600 Series, B&W has redesigned the tube tweeter to include a neodymium magnet. Smaller than the ceramic magnet it replaced, it allows for tweeter placement closer to (and to blend better with) what B&W calls the bass/ midrange driver. Various other changes to the voice coil and other parts improve efficiency and reliability, with high-frequency response doubled to 50 kilohertz. That’s well beyond human hearing, “putting any distortion well outside the audible range,” says B&W. The tweeter driver itself is a 1-inch aluminum dome with virtually no recess, providing it with excellent off-axis response.

This distinguished tweeter has three homes in the system under review (just as I’d have homes in New York, Amsterdam, and Venice if I could get away with it). In the front is a pair of the 685 monitor speakers, with a 6.5-inch bass/ midrange cone blended from Kevlar, paper pulp, and resin. Kevlar has been B&W’s signature woofer material since 1974. In the rear is a pair of the 686 monitors, with a slightly smaller 5-inch bass/midrange of the same material. Our man in the middle is the HTM62 center channel, with dual 5-inch bass/ midrange drivers flanking the tweeter. All drivers are mounted onto a 0.5-inch-thick baffle that has a soft charcoal-gray finish, pleasingly silky to the touch.

Because the 685 and crew have a fair amount of bass, they don’t need a huge subwoofer for bass reinforcement. Thus, the review system used the ASW608, a space-saving mini-sub with a single 8-inch driver. I hoisted it onto my desk (not something I do every day) for a closer look at the back panel. To my surprise, I saw three unusual things. There is a pair of volume controls, one for the stereo line inputs and one for the speaker inputs. A two-position EQ switch affects rolloff, with the A position for corner placement and the B position for other placement. B&W recommends that you place the sub somewhere between your front left and right speakers. That’s also my standard placement. Finally, an A/B/C bass-extension switch offers three tradeoffs between low-frequency extension and volume output. Because my room is relatively small and tends not to stress subs (sorry to disillusion you), I chose the A setting for maximum extension.

The Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver is one of four new THX-certified models and one of five to include HDMI 1.3a, which carries advanced audio and video. Power is rated at 130 watts per channel with seven amp channels, and you can redirect the rear surrounds to the front for biamping your left and right speakers. Audyssey MultEQ makes auto setup and room correction a breeze. For the exceptionally dedicated—and those who want even performance for every seat in the house—this version of Audyssey lets you take measurements with the supplied mike in eight locations, expanding the benefit of room equalization beyond the sweet spot. HDMI 1.3a brings video benefits, including Faroudja DCDi video processing with 1080p and 36-bit Deep Color. The receiver also supports either XM or Sirius satellite radio, in addition to standard AM/FM.

The TX-SR805 is among the first receivers from Onkyo—or anyone else—to include onboard decoding for the new surround codecs carried by the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. These include lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as lossy Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Lossless formats are higher quality because they don’t omit any data. However, even the new lossy formats are new and improved. They omit data in a much more artful manner than their predecessors, plain-vanilla Dolby Digital and DTS. Consequently, I went into this review with a song in my heart.

The review system included a new (to me) Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player. It does not pass the new surround codecs in bitstream form. Instead, it converts Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus to high-rez PCM. So, my first home encounter with receiver-decoded lossless surround will lie in the future. I also had to eliminate some promising DTS-HD material from the review because the Toshiba downconverts those two new codecs to a plain DTS signal (as does the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player also in my rack). In this respect, I’m in the same slow boat as any other early adopter.

None of this was the receiver’s fault. Had I been using Onkyo’s own DV-HD805 HD DVD player, which does fully support the new codecs with bitstream output, the system would have been perfectly up to date.

Still, I felt like I was heading into friendly territory, once I hoisted this heavier-than-average (for its price) 50-pound monster onto the rack. The remote happens to be an excellent design that Onkyo got right years ago, and they had the wisdom to change it as little as possible. You never need to grope for the Play or Volume buttons—they’re an inch long and logically placed just where your thumb would like them (assuming you’re a righty like me). There’s backlighting but no LCD or other fancy stuff; this remote is about as easy to use as anything ever packaged with a surround receiver.

My cables are Monster M1.4s (biwired) and M1.2s (non-biwired), plus Tributaries’ Silver Series HDMI cables and Silver Serpent analog and digital interconnects from In case you were wondering.

Home on the Dynamic Range
When I set up the system with test tones, I immediately noticed a difference in voicing between the speaker models. The front-ported 685 emphasized a lower part of the midrange than the rear-ported 686 surround and the HTM62 center. The latter two models also required higher volume settings in the setup menu. When I checked the sensitivity ratings, I saw why; the 685 is rated at 88 decibels, which is fairly routine for speaker packages, but the 686 is rated at 84 dB, decidedly below average, and the HTM62 is 85 dB. With a reasonably powerful receiver like the Onkyo, these are not unduly difficult loads to run. The duochromatic menu graphics were not as fancy as some of the full-color extravaganzas in competing brands, but they’re still more handsome and pleasing than old-style monochrome menu graphics.

Superman Returns on HD DVD was my first at-home experience with Dolby TrueHD. The receiver’s front panel indicated “Multich” to confirm the PCM-via-HDMI input. A humongous dynamic range was the first thing I noticed. I made no attempt to compress it, but I had to make on-the-fly volume resettings throughout the movie. Presumably, the mixer felt compelled to take full advantage of TrueHD’s vast dynamic range, and the Onkyo receiver kept pace. A little restraint might have been wiser; keeping the dialogue listenable made effects overwhelming. I knocked down the surround levels to give myself a break from the barrage.

TrueHD offered a sense of ease that made high-decibel listening less irritating than it might have been with the movie’s crude, aggressive effects. That, in turn, enabled higher overall volumes, despite the fiddling. I had a distinct feeling that the mix was optimized for harsher lower-rez formats. It wasn’t exactly airy, although it did firm up the resolution of the low-volume violins that accompany Superman’s slow fall to earth in a late scene.

Mission: Impossible III on HD DVD was my first at-home experience with Dolby Digital Plus. The dynamic range was less extreme, so I fiddled less with the volume. The orchestral soundtrack, relentlessly bland in Superman Returns, was actually a bit warmer and woodier in this Tom Cruise vehicle. Vocal intelligibility—due to a better mix—was also improved. Helicopters rampaging through a wind farm were full of zigzagging effects.

More Dolby Digital Plus came in the form of Serenity—in fact, it was Dolby Labs that first showed me some excerpts at a long-ago press event. At least until the thunderous finale, the use of the higher-rez surround mainly served the spaceship effects, like the shuddering of an ailing ship or the whoosh of one lunging back to front, or front to back.

OK, the impressions above say more about the codecs than about the Onkyo or the B&Ws. That’s because I took the receiver’s dynamic power and the speakers’ resolution as givens. When the signal was warm, I heard warmth. When it was abrasive, I heard abrasiveness. When it was smooth, I heard smoothness. The subwoofer was decently powerful at the right moments, especially for something so small, and the 80-hertz crossover worked quite well.

Dylanesque, Thompsonesque, Haydnesque
Bryan Ferry recording an entire album of Dylan covers—what could be better? Dylanesque alternates between swinging medium-tempo rock and balladry enhanced by echoey, heavily treated guitar and keyboards. Although the sub is actually shorter than the speakers, they integrated beautifully to produce an organically whole rhythm-section sound. And there was a strong contrast in depth between the lead vocal and the treated instruments floating around behind it. A tour de force in performance, production, and reproduction. This, I reminded myself, was why I got into this business.

Versatile Heart is Linda Thompson’s third solo studio album. I love her pure, edgy, violin-like soprano and the amazingly direct way it conveys emotion. The recording of both voice and acoustic-guitar-dominated arrangements was clean and full of space and (something even rarer) dynamic subtleties. The B&Ws refrained from unduly emphasizing the trebly voice yet allowed its tiniest nuances to register clearly and affectingly.

The two-disc set entitled Haydn: Piano Concertos, Piano Sonatas by Mikhail Pletnev is yet another budget gem from the estimable Virgin Classics label—although I wish I’d bought the four-disc version for the same price. Without sufficient weight, Pletnev’s light, bell-like tone might come out as a tinkle, and his pianissimo might get lost. But the B&W/Onkyo combo got the feeling right, keeping both sides of the keyboard in the right proportions and delivering enough low-level resolution to let me follow the score into its quieter moments.

On the whole, despite the slightly different voicing of the 685 front speaker, the system was a model of balance. It got the big things right, the speakers spanning the frequency spectrum like a master and the receiver covering every reasonable dynamic possibility. But it also nailed the nuances, discreetly spotlighting tiny morsels of texture and extracting whatever depth might be available in the recording. And it did all that with a relaxed feeling that, in particular, I haven’t previously associated with B&W products. This was an easy listen, one that never made me think “less of this, please” or “more of that, please.”

Both B&W and Onkyo (and many other manufacturers) offer higher-end products that presumably do all the same stuff and do it better. In a direct comparison, I’d probably notice the difference. But if I never got another set of review samples, I’d happily live with this system forever.

Highlights: B&W 600 Series Speaker System:
Boxy but great-sounding
That little sub can woof

Highlights: Onkyo TX-SR805 A/V Receiver:
Onkyo steps up to the plate with a monster budget receiver
HDMI 1.3a, lossless surround decoding
A $1,500 receiver for under $1,100

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