Back Issue Article

February 2004

Multichannel at CES 2004

Multichannel Pick of the Month

The Romantic Harp
Yolanda Kondonassis, harp.
Hybrid Multichannel SACD, Telarc SACD-60581

The harp has long been associated with romantic and uplifting music. I have enjoyed the talented Yolanda Kondonassis’ musicianship in those respects, and also as a means to escape stress and relax into peaceful exuberance. With a sound that is at once able to extract your worries and fill you with energy, this disc has been in heavy rotation for me as of late.

The sound of Kondonassis’ critically acclaimed harp is delicate and unforced, yet purposeful and exacting. She plays both classics such as Debussy’s "Valse Romantique" and standby highlights including Puccini’s "Musetta's Waltz" from La Boheme. She is clearly a virtuoso performer and her confidence and skill are ably presented. I’d recommend this disc as a fine example of an expert harpist captured with exacting production standards even without the multichannel aspect. It’s simply enjoyable music.

The resolution of this SACD in multichannel mode will test the purity of your system in all channels through an extended frequency range: The harp’s playing range is roughly 31Hz to 3325Hz. The instrument is so finely recorded and presented here that it will betray any noise or veiling present in your system. There’s no hyper-crisp detail, but delicate shadings and instrumental resonance that demand good reproduction and a realistically large soundstage.

The multichannel tracks are tastefully recorded so as to expand upon the tonal richness of the instrument, but not as a way to massively expand the recording space with contrived air. In other words, there’s realism, but not hyper-realism, which is a common mistake heard on some multichannel arrangements done by lesser recording engineers. This is one surround-sound recording that truly serves the artist and the music, not simply the production.

...Jeff Fritz

For surround-sound advocates, the 2004 CES was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the DVD-Audio and SACD formats were generally non-issues. It seems that in most cases the equipment manufacturers have simply tuned out the argument over which format will win and moved on. There are enough companies offering universal audio/video players to satisfy anyone wanting to try out the new formats, no matter what the individual’s price/performance requirements. You can find a $249 Pioneer DV-563A at the lower end of the spectrum or the $13,000 ultra-sleek Teac Esoteric UX-1 at the upper end of the high end -- and plenty filling in slots in between. With these choices available, why would a company -- or consumer -- choose one format over the other?

Formats aside, multichannel components did make appearances at the CES. I’d even say that although there wasn’t a landslide of new products, the ones that caught my eye seemed more relevant and smarter than what I’ve seen in the past. I came away genuinely excited by a few items that you’ll hopefully read about in detail in this column. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have more well-thought-out products than simply more products any day. So let’s get right to ‘em.

The Threshold Audio Dragon V was perhaps the most impressive product I saw at the 2004 CES -- in any equipment genre. The apparent price-to-value ratio of this component is nothing short of miraculous. Here’s what you get according to Threshold: five 100W channels of genuine Threshold power, a multichannel preamp section complete with several bass-management options enabling it to meld with a variety of systems, and a gorgeous chassis of steel, aluminum, and Corian (available in multiple colors, no less). And the kicker is that the whole package retails for only $1800. If this thing sounds as good as it looks, and if there’s any justice in the A/V world, this product will be backordered for months and be kicking the tar out of some pricey receivers on the market. Pair the Dragon V with a middle-of-the-line universal A/V player and some killer speakers like the Paradigm Studio 100 v.3s I wrote about in December, and you’ll have an audiophile-simplistic, flexible-and-affordable audio/video surround-sound system that’ll likely knock your socks off.

Back when I wrote about "Multichannel Music's Swiss Army Knife: The Multichannel Preamp," I raved about Sony’s then-current TA-P9000ES ($750 when available). I used one for a short time in my own system and loved it -- especially for the more-than-fair asking price. Lots of you folks bought one on my recommendation, and for months I received a few e-mails per week asking me where to buy one. As can happen in this business, when something seems too good to be true, a company will go and change it in some way. Sony went all out in this regard, discontinuing the TA-P9000ES, and to my knowledge Sony has offered no replacement to this day. That meant that those looking for an affordable multichannel preamp had to step up to the $2395 McCormack MAP-1. This is by all accounts a fine product, but at over three times the price of the Sony, it's hardly a viable alternative to it. I’ve been waiting and waiting for something else to come on the scene to take up the slack.

200402_margules_integrated.jpg (18090 bytes)Seems I’ve found it in the Margules Audio Daleth multichannel preamp ($1200). At only a $450 premium over the Sony, this unit sounds fantastic (based on initial listening at Margules Audio’s CES demonstration, which was so good it earned it a Standout Room nod from our coverage team). It appears to offer better build quality than the Sony, an analog processing mode for conversion of two-channel sources to multichannel, and some bass-management functionality to boot. With Sony dropping the ball, this could be the go-to component for those looking to add multichannel capability to their systems. And although it’s a somewhat intangible quality, this component has a high-end feel to it that the Sony lacked. I hope to be able to tell you more about this component in the near future. Hang tight.

And although not specifically designed for surround-sound applications, how could I not be excited about the new line Shunyata Research Hydras? Many surround systems employ multiple dedicated power lines for the myriad components that can be part of an A/V system. If you have multiple amplifiers, a video section, multiple digital and analog sources, you just about have to have multiple lines for best performance. If you employ heavy-duty solid-state amps that draw lots of current, this becomes even more important. If you had to buy multiple Hydra Model-8s, or some other brand of top-notch power conditioner, you’d be forced to use either a single AC line or extra conditioners for each line. That’s just not practical for most people when the prices of some of these conditioners are upwards of $2000, not to mention the space their multiple full-sized chassis would take up.

Caelin Gabriel of Shunyata Research to the rescue. His company now offers a two-outlet version of the Hydra Model-8 for only $395 (as well as four- and six-outlet versions for a bit more money). You could therefore buy three Hydra Model-2s for just over a grand and serve three dedicated lines. That’s good value in my book -- and an exciting addition to the multichannel arena.

These Threshold, Margules and Shunyata products were the ones that stood out from the pack at CES. There were a number of promising multichannel amplifiers, universal A/V players, multichannel preamps, and speakers that I’d like to write about in addition, but what made these three stand out were their value and functional advantages over their competitors. To achieve those two goals simultaneously takes ingenuity and the willingness to take some chances. These products deserve recognition and your attention for doing just that. You’ll read about them again, so don’t worry.

...Jeff Fritz


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright 2004 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved