Can two digital controllers with directly opposed strengths and weaknesses both qualify as being “music-minded”? That is, despite divergent philosophies and sonics, can both meet the challenge of doing justice not only to film soundtracks, which are the raison d’être of these components, but also to stereo and multichannel music? The answer is yes—but it all depends on your sources.
All controllers exhibit some degree of sound variation, depending upon the input in use. The standard hierarchy, from best to worst, is: multichannel analog inputs, which typically offer the most direct signal path and the fewest gainstages; the nearly-as-pristine stereo analog inputs; digital inputs, which necessitate one D/A format conversion before sending the signal through the analog stage; and lastly, stereo analog inputs not set to bypass mode, for they entail two format conversions plus DSP processing.
The new Arcam AV9 ($5749) and Halcro SSP100 ($9990) could not be more at odds over how closely they adhere to this hierarchy. The Arcam hews strictly to convention and, as if to punctuate its chosen pecking order, exhibits an unusually wide performance variance between inputs. In contrast, Halcro’s flagship is a renegade, turning the normal hierarchy on its head. The SSP100 delivers its best—and worst—performance in wholly unexpected places. Yet given the right source components connected to the right inputs, each of these controllers proves itself capable of making glorious music.
The AV9, like many freshly released controllers, owes its existence to the gush in popularity of HDMI, a digital interface that can carry both high-definition video and high-resolution multichannel audio over a single cable. After a year of sitting on the sidelines while HDMI proliferated in DVD players and HD displays, controllers are finally assuming their natural role as HDMI transport and switching points. To that end, the AV9 sports no fewer than five HDMI inputs and one output.
But this controller is more than an HDMI-equipped successor to Arcam’s celebrated AV8. Although the latter’s basic audio circuitry was untouched, the new model incorporates two proprietary materials dubbed “stealth mats” and “masks of silence.” Aside from proving that a geek contingent is alive and well within Arcam, these technologies demonstrate the degree to which analog signals benefit from reductions in electromagnetic and RF interference. The AV9 also permits greater set-up precision and flashes a more readable front-panel display than did the AV8.
To appreciate how music-minded (and analog-minded) the AV9 is, consider its approach to analog bypass. When this mode—available for each and every analog input—is invoked, the Arcam doesn’t just circumvent digital processing, as do most controllers. Instead, it actually shuts down its digital circuits to protect delicate analog signals from digital noise contamination. Only the thrice-as-expensive Theta Casablanca with Six Shooter goes further; it devotes a completely separate chassis to each domain. Arcam’s solution, while not as extravagant as Theta’s, is undeniably elegant and much more cost effective.
In the area of bass management, which invariably betrays a controller’s commitment to music, the AV9 likewise excels. There are provisions for up to three subwoofers (though they must all play the same thing—stereo subs aren’t supported), and the crossover point is settable to within 5Hz. This level of granularity enables a far better blend than the crude ten—or even twenty—hertz adjustments offered by competing controllers. But get this: The AV9 once again goes further by permitting users to independently set subwoofer levels for music and film sources—another highly music-minded consideration.
The AV9’s features clearly reveal its designers’ devotion to music—particularly analog music—and that orientation holds true for the unit’s sound. When set to bypass mode, the stereo analog inputs deliver a warm yet vibrant presentation. Rhythms, as evidenced by the lively “Stumptown” track from Nickel Creek’s When Will the Fire Die [Sugarhill], contribute strongly to the sound’s inviting appeal, as does imaging, which can be as focused or expansive as the music demands. In this mode, vocals betray a slightly “steely” quality, and the AV9 shaves high frequencies just enough to sacrifice some air and immediacy. But the experience is more than salvaged by the aforementioned virtues, along with engaging dynamics and crisp transients.
From this highly satisfying baseline, the sound can be made either better or worse by changing inputs or modes. To go the wrong direction, simply switch an analog input out of bypass mode, thereby calling in the digital armada. The highs take an unceremonious nose dive, and the sound becomes quite closedin. Sluggish rhythms, soft transients, and constricted dynamics also rear their unwelcome heads. The sonic toll of this mode is serious enough that I recommend using it only to synthesize surround channels, if you must, from stereo sources.