Analog lovers, prepare: A digital controller is very likely in your future. As you make the jump from stereo to multichannel, or from music to home theater, owning one of these multifunctional devices will be all but unavoidable.
What’s that? You intend to maintain a purely analog core in your system, even as it undergoes these transitions? Friend, I hear you. And I share your vision. But just how will you accomplish it? Multichannel analog linestages would serve, but there are few on the market. Furthermore, that approach presupposes the existence of a source—a DVD, universal, or some future HD player—as adept at format-decoding as controllers are. Regrettably, even great players can’t match the sheer processingpower and flexibility a good controller applies to this task. So those who opt for a multichannel analog nerve-center, yet shrink from compromising their digital sources, face the prospect of buying and cobbling together a multichannel linestage and a controller.
An alternative approach is to drive the front channels with a stereo preamp, with a supplemental controller handling digital-decoding, bass-management, and back-channel chores. That way, stereo analog signals never confront the digital demon. But the controller’s front-channel material must pass through both its own linestage and the stereo preamp, which can’t be good. And there is still the complexity of coordinating two control points, plus the requirement (again) of purchasing a controller.
Since there is bound to be a controller on the scene in any case, the most elegant approach is to find one that’s as fluent with music—be it stereo or multichannel, analog or digital—as it is with films. Such a “music-minded” controller would combine, in one operationally- and functionally- integrated package, the breed’s innate digital capabilities with analog performance comparable to standalone analog preamp. Indeed, given such a controller, the need for a costly separate analog linestage would evaporate.
Does such a device exist? After all, controllers have heretofore been pointedly focused on film formats like Dolby Digital, DTS, and their seemingly endless variations. As a result, few of the analog linestages that reside within them have benefited from the engineering skills regularly lavished upon standalone analog gear.
Thankfully, signs indicate the situation is changing. Our home-theater publication, The Perfect Vision, recently reviewed a smattering of controllers with surprisingly satisfying analogdomain performance. This trend is exemplified by the $2999 Rotel RSP- 1098, praised by Neil Gader in Issue 51. Companies with proven preamps have begun transplanting them into their controllers. For instance, the $5500 McIntosh MX-119 incorporates a clone of the firm’s well-regarded C46 preamp. Manufacturers whose reputations rest solely on analog achievements are also wading into the world of controllers. As an example, Halcro is shipping its $9990 SSP100. Theta Digital, a premier controller designer, has pioneered a unique approach whereby its universally hailed Casablanca III (approximately $17,500, depending upon configuration) can be complemented by the $2000 Six Shooter, a standalone yet operationally-integrated pure-analog multichannel linestage.
In order to assess just how musicminded controllers have become, I gathered the aforementioned units, placed them in analog-bypass mode (to circumvent the digital conversions and DSP manipulations anathema to analog lovers), and fed them high-quality LP, CD, and DVD-Audio material over the course of several months. Since they occupy vastly different price points, I compared them not to each other but to two excellent stereo preamps, the $4500 Aesthetix Calypso (see “Follow Up” sidebar) and $25,000 Goldmund Mimesis. Did I expect to find controllers every bit the equal of their standalone analog counterparts? I did not. But I was sure hoping to.
I nearly wrote off the RSP-1098—until I listened to its multichannel input. Naturally, I began by playing material through the stereo analog inputs. But those sound clamped-down in both frequency extension and dynamics. Regarding the latter, while the stereo inputs convey dynamic swings with gusto, subtler gestures are all but smothered. In addition, vocals and many instruments— especially violins—have a hard, grainy edge. The whole affair offers neither the involvement nor the relaxed quality of good analog.
However, the stereo inputs also do a lot right. This controller is wicked fast, so it easily captures transient details like the intricate guitar plucks on “The First Day of My Life” from Bright Eyes’ wonderful I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning CD [Saddle Creek]. Imaging is another strength. The 1098 creates a broad and deep space for musicians, giving each instrument room to breath. And the Rotel maintains a consistency of tone and top-to-bottom balance that are consonant with music.