Saturday, May 3, 2008

Three Ways to Fill a Rack

HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker Yamaha Sony Harman Kardon Yamaha Sony Harman Kardon Yamaha Sony Harman Kardon Yamaha Sony Harman Kardon

At the heart of a typical home theater system is the surround receiver. True, the video display might be the emotional heart of your system—but only if you're willing to settle for tinny sound. You might also go bleeding-edge and ditch the surround receiver for high-end separates, namely a preamp/processor and multichannel amp. In that case, I salute you. But I aim today's homily at the average Joe or Jack or Jill who wants the best surround sound available from a one-box receiver.

Notwithstanding their pride of place on the system rack, surround receivers don't give up their secrets easily. You have some due diligence ahead of you if you want to figure out what you'll get if you spend a little, and a little more, and even a little more than that. A practiced eye can tell whether an HDTV is worth its price, just as a practiced ear can distinguish great speakers from so-so ones. The wise shopper will also listen to receiver demos if available—and no, they don't all sound alike.

But there's no quick bonding ritual, no shortcut, no easy way out when it comes to reading through Websites and spec sheets feature by feature. Don't assume that every desirable feature appears in every model. And don't assume you even know what you want until you've considered the whole grab bag of potential features.

To give you an idea of what your money will buy, I've put together three representative surround receivers from major manufacturers—all of whom are known for doing a good job in this category. Our subjects include the Harman Kardon AVR 147, the Sony STR-DA3300ES, and the Yamaha RX-V2700. Let me hasten to add that even an average surround receiver nowadays is pretty awesome, especially compared with the very first audio/video receiver, which had only two channels, no surround decoding, and composite video switching. Today's five- to seven-channel surround receiver is the Swiss army knife of home theater.

Note to Blu-ray and HD DVD adopters: Receiver lines are currently in a transitional stage to a new generation of surround codecs and audio connections via HDMI 1.3x (and potentially via older versions of HDMI in some cases). None of the models reviewed here has onboard decoding for the new codecs, which include Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD Master Audio, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. However, updated models are in the pipeline from most manufacturers. To somewhat futureproof yourself, upgrade from the models reviewed here to Sony's top-line sibling (STR-DA5300ES) or Yamaha's 2008 successor (RX-V3800), and make sure you select HDMI version 1.3x. The next time we run a receiver roundup, we expect more good news to report in this regard.

For my auditions, I used my Paradigm Reference Studio/20 (fourth generation) loudspeakers and an Integra DPS-10.5 universal disc player.

Budget Model: Harman Kardon AVR 147

It is a slight injustice to plug in this Harman Kardon model as our budget receiver choice. After all, the AVR 147 is second from the bottom of the line and, at $449, costs $100 more than the AVR 146. For the extra bucks, it delivers slightly more power—40 watts times five, versus 30 for the lower model. And it adds the newbie-comforting EzSet/EQ function that is trickling down in the lines of several receiver manufacturers and, therefore, becoming accessible to the budget-minded consumer. Harman Kardon receivers look so cool, with their distinctive two-tone color scheme, that it's hard to believe this is a budget model at all based on looks alone.

The EzSet part of EzSet/EQ refers to the automatic setup that glides through some of the most confusing aspects of configuring a receiver. Then there's the EQ part, which refers to an auto room-equalization program that compensates for problems in room acoustics. Just connect the supplied microphone to the front panel, activate the program, and it does the heavy lifting for you.

Like all AVR47 series models in the Harman Kardon line, the AVR 147 is SimplayHD-certified. That means Simplay Labs has tested it for compliance with SimplayHD-certified HDTVs via HDMI. The version of HDMI provided here is for passive video switching only. Harman Kardon has also paid attention to the analog component video connections, endowing them with wide-rage 100-megahertz circuitry to ensure they don't truncate the resolution of high-def signals.

If you want to connect your iPod, you'll need the Bridge. It's a $69 optional accessory—not bad, given that some other manufacturers charge $100. It handles iPod video, as well as audio. The receiver is also XM Satellite Radio ready with an optional antenna that will run you about $20.

Also worth mentioning is Logic 7, Harman's proprietary method of converting stereo signals to 5.1 channels. Dolby Pro Logic II (standard equipment in any receiver) does that too and is more faithful to the feel of the original stereo signals, in my opinion; but run the two modes head to head and reach your own conclusion.

You may raise your eyebrow when you learn that this receiver is rated at 40 watts per channel. Or possibly your other eyebrow. You probably have two. Which one to use is your choice. Anyway, the world is lousy with supposed 100-watt-per-channel models. Why would you settle for less? Because you'll get less when the inflated specs give way to the reality of running five speakers in a real-world system. In other words, many manufacturers engage in specification puffery. For the straight poop, read our measurements. That's the power you're really getting. Harman is more candid than most manufacturers in this regard.

In terms of sound, Harman Kardon receivers always get the midrange right, and this one is no exception. The highs could feel more extended and airy—and your bank account could be a couple of thousand dollars lighter if you sought that kind of high-end performance. But there's nothing vague or reticent about the way the AVR 147 handles speaking or singing voices. It should play reasonably loud in small to medium-sized rooms with speakers of average or better sensitivity (88 decibels and up; 90 dB would be about ideal, if the manufacturer isn't puffing up the numbers). If your home theater is a cavern, or your speakers are power pigs, you need to step up to a costlier model in Harman Kardon's (or someone else's) line.

Harman Kardon AVR 147 A/V Receiver:
• Automatic setup eases installation, noteworthy in budget receiver
• Modest reserve of good-sounding power
• Sleek un-stuffy styling

Moderately Priced: Sony STR-DA3300ES

ES is Sony's step-up line for receivers and other audio products. I've seen that acronym for decades without realizing that it stands for Elevated Standard. Although the STR-DA3300ES ($1,000) is the moderate selection in this story, with 100 watts times five, it's actually the junior model in a line that also includes the STR-DA4300ES and STR-DA5300ES ($1,300 and $1,700). Those two support all of the next-generation surround codecs through their HDMI 1.3 jacks. And the top-line model has six HDMI inputs, versus three on the model reviewed here. All three upconvert all signals to 1080p, including support for 60p and 24p frame rates, and they feature Faroudja DCDi video processing.

Sony made some gutsy connectivity choices. One thing that's conspicuous in its absence is S-video. There are no S-video inputs or outputs at all. However, there is a full complement of composite video jacks for your legacy analog sources. And there are inputs for both Sirius and XM satellite reception. Most manufacturers support only one or the other. The mysteriously labeled DMPORT turns out to stand for Digital Media Port, a triple-threat interface that accepts either Sony's TDM-NC1 wireless streamer ($200), the TDM-iP1 iPod dock ($100), or, if you're a true-blue Sony patriot, the TDM-NW1 adapter ($50) for the Network Walkman music player.

Making life easier seems to be a prime design directive. Like the other two receivers reviewed here, the STR-DA3300ES features auto setup and calibration, now standard equipment in most receiver brands at this price point.

Even more of a morale booster (especially for us tweaky types who spend a lot of time navigating receiver menus) is a truly first-rate, full-color graphic user interface. The Xross Media Bar interface bears more than a passing resemblance to a PlayStation Portable menu. Being Sony, indeed, has its advantages. The GUI is especially pleasing when you're fiddling with the speaker settings, showing a beautifully detailed room layout with speaker icons that literally get big or small when you select big or small. This is the only receiver setup menu I've ever seen with multiple settings for the side-surround speakers: side low, side high, behind low, and behind high.

Exterior aesthetics look about average. But even here, Sony shows ambition, festooning the front panel with no fewer than four knobs—two or three more than most competitors. These include volume and source select, of course, but also tone control and radio tuning. People love knobs. They make a product more fun to operate from the front panel. Some of us actually do that, you know.

Being Sony also means you can try stuff just because it's cool and Sonyesque. In this category is the Cinema Studio EX surround mode. I'll quote verbatim from the manual's descriptions. Cinema Studio EX A "reproduces the sound characteristics of the Sony Pictures Entertainment Cary Grant Theater cinema production studio. This is a standard mode, great for watching almost any type of movie." CSEX B mimics the Kim Novak Theater studio, making it "ideal for watching science-fiction or action movies with lots of sound effects." CSEX C emulates the studio's "scoring stage" and is optimized for orchestral soundtracks. Sonically, the Sony aced orchestral and acoustic-guitar music with a warm, but not vague, presentation that stood up to high-volume blasting. Dual-format satellite compatibility sure doesn't hurt. And the user interface is attractive.

Sony STR-DA3300ES A/V Receiver:
• HDMI video switching only
• DMPORT for iPod or wireless streamer
• Super-cool Xross user interface

High End: Yamaha RX-V2700

In market share, Yamaha is the number-one maker of surround receivers. The RX-V2700 ($1,700) ranks second from top in Yamaha's higher-end receiver line, yielding only to the RX-Z11 ($5,499). The baby of the family is the RX-V459 ($350). There is also a lower-end line of HTR receivers that includes 5.1-, 6.1-, and 7.1-channel models, ranging from the HTR-6090 ($1,100) to the HTR-5930 ($230).

As a general rule of thumb, receivers gain in weight and power as they increase in price. This one boasts an impressive 140 watts time seven into 8 ohms. While power specs are often works of fiction—and that's why we measure receivers—in practice, the RX-V2700 was powerful enough to run my seven Paradigm Reference Studio/20s full-range at high volume levels with musically acceptable bass response.

The RX-V2700 is the first Yamaha receiver to include 1080p signal processing, both input and output, using an Anchor Bay ABT1010 scaler. Implementation is fairly versatile. All video signal sources (HDMI, component, S-video, composite video) are routed to the HDMI output. And with the exception of HDMI input—routed solely to the HDMI output—all other signal sources are routed to all other outputs. For instance, if you plug an old VCR into the S-video input, it will output through the HDMI, component, S-video, and composite video jacks.

The implemented version of HDMI is Version 1.2a, which handles all the legacy surround codecs, such as Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES, and the high-rez audio formats, Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. To get HDMI 1.3a, hold out for the forthcoming RX-V3800.

This receiver is also the second Yamaha to support PC connectivity. Plug your router into the receiver's network connector, and you can access music stored on your PC's hard drive. You can also use the receiver to tune Internet radio stations through the router (without using the PC). This is a relatively rare feature. Onkyo Net-Tune receivers used to handle Internet radio until the feature was discontinued. A recent royalty hike is threatening Internet radio, so enjoy it while you can. You can also use the receiver as a client with Yamaha's MusicCAST wireless home audio server system.

The Yamaha also supports XM Satellite Radio without an outboard XM tuner—just plug an XM antenna into the back of the receiver. The company offers an optional iPod dock, the YDS-10 ($100), which plugs into a proprietary back-panel jack.

Yamaha's proprietary version of auto setup and room EQ is called YPAO: Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer. Its use of adjustable-band parametric equalization, in this case seven bands' worth, is superior to the fixed-frequency graphic EQs found in some cruder auto-setups. YPAO figures out which frequencies need the most work and massages them, not just with –20/+6-dB volume adjustments, but also the Q (or width) of the frequency band. Biff, bam, YPAO!

If you need to poke around the menus, you'll travel first class through some of the best-looking graphics ever seen in a surround receiver. They put to shame products that cost a lot more, only to confront the user with crude monochromatic graphics more suitable in a $200 receiver than in a $2,000 one.

A few other features that are distinctively Yamaha include ToP-ART circuit topography, "a design philosophy whose goal is to maximize digital quality while minimizing analog circuitry." The Silent Cinema feature provides a form of surround enhancement when used with headphones.

The RX-V2700 has Yamaha's signature sound, which is up front and detailed, although not excessively so. Yet the midrange had a slight outline that made dialogue more intelligible and allowed practically any kind of music to punch through, even at low volume levels. This particular Yamaha yielded enough power to deliver lean, but decent, bass as well.

Yamaha RX-V2700 A/V Receiver:
• Rated 140 watts per channel can run moderately sensitive full-range speakers
• PC and Internet radio connectivity
• Attractive graphic user interface

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