Integrated Amp or High end Receiver in Home Theater Setup

default -- Fri, 10/23/2009 - 02:04

 Hi Robert:
 

I am redoing my home theater setup and have just purchased the Definitive Mythos ST towers and the Mythos Ten center channel speaker as part of the upgrade process.  Currently, I have an older Denon 3801 non-HDMI receiver and I want to update/ upgrade this area of my system as well.  Aside from getting some of the newer HD audio technology into my system, I also want to make sure that I take a step forward and ensure this next system is more musical than my last as the system would be used as a source for music and movie sound in equal measure.  Given that the Mythos ST base drivers are already powered, would I get any substantial benefit from buying a good integrated stereo amp (was looking at Simaudio i5.3) with a home theater bypass to power my front two ST front speakers (using a modest receiver for HT purposes only) or will a high end receiver from a "music-friendly" manufacturer do the trick for both purposes?  Obviously, I know there are cost differences in some of these approaches.  Some of the receiver/processor options I've looked at are: receivers like the Pioneer SC-07 (can get a good price on it) the Marantz AV8003 combo and most recently the Yamaha DSP-Z7 and the Arcam AVR600 (perhaps the less expensive AVR500 when it is released). I need to have one system as I live in a condo. I haven't heard the integrated amp setup so I don't have a reference point.

If you can provide any insights, it would be very much appreciated.
 
Many thanks,
Lorenzo
Vancouver, BC

Boomzilla -- Fri, 10/23/2009 - 05:35

Hi Lorenzo!
Since you live in a condo, you may want an AV receiver rather than a stereo integrated amp.  For surround sound, the integrated amp will probably need extra boxes (outboard DAC, processor, etc.) to handle the surround sound duties.
 
If an AVR receiver is, indeed, your choice, then companies for a good reputation for sound quality in their AVR lines (again, based on reading of reviews & store listening - I haven't owned all of these) include:  Arcam, Yamaha, and McIntosh.  Others will undoubtedly suggest more.  I've personally owned Yamaha AV receivers (RX-V620, RX-V2200), and each has been outstanding for stereo listening as well as for movies.
 
If, on the other hand, you're primarily interested in stereo music reproduction, and only occasionally want movies, then a stereo integrated amp is definitely an option.  From what I've been told & read, integrated amps with superior (to AV-equipment) sound might include the Simaudio, NAD, Bryston, Arcam, Naim NAIT, and various Chinese-made tube units.  Again - I'm sure that others will add more brands for your consideration.  
 
Integrated amps that I've personally owned over the years (all of these were particularly wretched, sonically) included Sansui, Marantz, Integra, and Yamaha.  Of course, the items were mostly 1970s and 1980s models, and are not representative of today's equipment.
 
Another option that you might consider would be a preamp-power amp combo.  This option (although more expensive and requiring more space) might allow even better sound quality.
 
Hopefully, Mr. Harley will chime in and correct my mistakes here - he has been generous with his knowledge on these boards previously.  One "Harleyesque" solution that I might also suggest is to  ask your dealer to recommend amplification that works particularly well with your speakers.  The dealer obviously has not only more experience with different equipment but also would probably allow you to audition in your own home.  That's really the only way to hear as many options as possible.  Otherwise, you end up buying equipment to try and then reselling it until you find  a good (and even then, not necessarily the best) combo.
 
Happy Shopping - Boomzilla

 A good sense of humor makes it ALL sound better!

Lorenzo (not verified) -- Fri, 10/23/2009 - 17:02

 Hi Boomzilla:
Thanks for your helpful feedback and suggestion on components.  Yes, I agree that auditioning is the best way to do it.  Doing A/B comparisons on my own with receivers is a bit tricky because of set up time but maybe just listening to their performance in 2 channel is enough to make a judgement call.  I've heard the Arcam briefly at the dealer and it sounded wonderful but it wasn't really a back to back comparison.  Some of the integrated amps like the (Simaudio i5.3) have the capability to work with av receivers through a home theater bypass which allows them to power the two channel component when it is used in isolation (for 2 channel listening) and then work with the receiver in a multichannel home theater setup while still powering the L/R speakers(receiver takes over volume control).  If there was a significant performance upside to this, this may be the way to go.  I've talked to some people in the industry that like this approach but others feel that it is a hassle (i.e. just get a great receiver with really good amplification like the Arcam for instance).  I've been a bit indecisive on this because I typically have held onto gear fairly long and not really switched components out that frequently, so I am probably thinking too much on this one.  Some of the options like the Arcam  would cost about as much as an integrated and a decent receiver; other options like the Yamaha would be quite a bit less expensive.  I guess it comes down to the incremental gains delivered by the more costly amplification options with speakers of this type. I have never had an integrated amp set up so I don't have a reference point.  
Cheers
Lorenzo
 

Steve Deutchman (not verified) -- Sun, 10/25/2009 - 11:34

Boomzilla offers some good advice, but I thought I'd add my comments as I've been down this road personally.  In my case the need for a reciever was driven by budget constraints, i.e. there's a dearth of medium-priced pre-pros available with all the latest movie codecs..  I'm an audiophile first and a videophile (close) second.  I'm running Martin Logan Vantages for L & R front, a single Martin Logan Script for center channel, a powered Sunfire subwoofer, and Wharfdales for my surrounds and rear channels (which evenually I'll upgrade to somthing more exotic, more on why in a moment).  I've got an ancient JVC QL-7 turntable with a Denon 103 MC cartridge, an Oppo BPD-83 Universal Disc Player (just buy one!), a Logitech Squeezebox Duet for access to my computer-stored CD collection and a Pioneer 400 disc DVD jukebox for my non-Blu Ray video sources.  The final video presentation is handled by a Panasonic PT-AE900U projector and a Stewart Flimscreen Firehawk 92" 16:9 screen.  I wanted HDMI capability, video up-scaling, the latest lossless codecs from Dolby and DTS (I've found the DTS marginally better) analog audio inputs, S/PIDF inputs, a phono input, a variety of 2-channel surround matrix options, Audessey EQ, and preamp out/amp in options so I can improve things incrementally.  I found what I wanted in an Onkyo TX-SR875, an AV Reciever that retailed in the $1,300 price range; an upgraded version with wi-fi capability and a few other bells and whistles has since come out.   A few comments on the overall performance:
1. While I'll concede this is a "mid-fi" solution, it does drive the system to a very acceptable SPL in my small 13' X 18' listening with no audible distortion save some compression as I get to the system limits.
2. An interesting phenomenon which I hope others will read and comment on is that when doing serious listening via my Oppo or turntable the audio gets "warmer" and more detailed if allowed to run for one hour after turning it on.  You can actually hear the improvement set in as you listen to demanding music (say Julia Fischer doing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D on Pentone SACD).  Mud in the mid-bass clears, top end extension improves and grain is substantially reduced.  Now, I'm not saying this makes this a true high-end system, but it does get surprisingly good.
3. When listening to unusual pieces such as the Blu Ray audio-only release of Divertimenti classical music, which actually places the listerner in a true "surround" setting as if you are sitting in the chamber orchestra itself, the tonal differences between the Martin Logans and the Wharfdales become apparent and the illusion of "being there" evaporates.  In all movie soundtrack or room ambience reproduction the combination works very well.  I try not to think about what it's going to cost me to go this next step in surround speakers.
I don't think you'll find a more cost-effective solution to your needs than an AV reciever that retails between $1,300 to $2,500.  The next available step from there seems to be the Marantz pre-pro/power amp combo that will cost at least twice that amount. 
Good hunting!

Boomzilla -- Sun, 10/25/2009 - 13:48

 Hi Steve -
 
I'll take a stab at why your audio sounds better an hour after turning it on.  The short answer is "warm up."  Until your electronics reach a stable operating temperature, the thermal expansion of the chips, resistors, capacitors, and solder joints keeps the electrical performance in flux.  All those components and joints operate most consistently when they are at a stable temperature.  This is why high-end audio stores keep their electronics on all the time.
 
Obviously, your equipment takes about an hour to warm up.  I suspect that even when you're watching movies, the sound changes audibly as the equipment heats up, but with the added stimulus of the video, you probably don't notice as much.  I also agree with you, by the way, that DTS has the capability of sounding better than the AC-3 Dolby Digital soundtracks.
 
Thanks for sharing - I learned from your post and will suggest the Onkyo equipment to my friends for audition based on your recommendation - Boomzilla

 A good sense of humor makes it ALL sound better!

Paul -- Sun, 10/25/2009 - 20:16

Hi Lorenzo,
If you are happy with the movie delivery of your Denon, and if it has pre-pro out connections, you should consider just purchasing a 2 channel amp (not integrated) to run your main speakers. One of the other fellows mentioned you don't need a new receiver to handle the new HD audio formats, and this true as long as you buy a Bluray player that handles the decoding. I have the Oppo BD player which handles the decoding. I have an older NAD T753 receiver that I was happy with in surround and movie playback, but wanted a little better 2 channel playback. I purchased a new NAD C275BEE amp only to run my front mains for 2 channel listening, and it has also brought my surround playback up to another level since most of the audio is still in the mains (with exception of movie dialog of course).
I'm not advertising the NAD unit, but offering a suggestion. I did not want to lose my NAD surround since it worked so well, so buying a good 2 channel amp has given me better sound quality (and for less cost) than I could have received from a new surround unit. I would say that generally speaking, a good 2 channel amp in the $1K - 2K price range should best the sound quality of most surround receivers that are below $3K, or higher. It is also a simple upgrade, since it only requires the space for the new 2 channel amp, and a single RCA connection from surround amp pre-out to the 2 channel pre-in. Plus of course run your front mains speaker cable to the 2 channel amp instead of the surround.
So another option for you.

Paul

Lorenzo (not verified) -- Mon, 10/26/2009 - 15:32

 Steve, Paul: 
Many thanks for the info.  Hearing the experiences of others helps with the decision making process.   Initially I was looking at an updated receiver solution mainly because I have read many times that the amplifier sections in the newer receivers (Denon in particular) have really improved.  In addition, while I don't care for a bunch of the new features like video processing (I would go direct to display or use a separate/better processor), some things like HDMI capability, the odd networking function, room correction etc. may come in handy. I was going to add that basic capability while trying to significantly improve sound performance (esp. for music).  It sounds like the options are:
i)Keep old receiver but add a 2 channel amp - hook up Blue Ray via analog inputs on old receiver - thanks Paul!   ii) Get a new high quality receiver with better amps and processing - thanks Steve! iii) Get a pre-pro combo like Marantz AV8003 with a separate power amp - thanks Boomzilla!  iv) integrated 2 channel amp with Home Theater by pass to either old or new receiver (this would be a  more modest receiver than in scenario ii)
I wasn't originally going to spend in the area of  what the Arcam AVR600 costs and still may not. I have read reviews, talked to some dealers and have briefly listened to it - some feel this receiver can take on many of the finest separates even in two channel. I may wait and see what price the AVR500 comes in at as it will have less features and a bit less power but the same quality sound.
What really started me thinking was the incredible improvement in sound I got from the ST's (even with my old receiver powering them) so I began to explore how much better this thing could get with the right front end. You get to thinking about "what could be" - sound familiar? I will see if I can listen to some of these options and then make a call.  It would be great if Mr. Harley weighed in here.
Cheers
Lorenzo

Chris Martens -- Thu, 10/29/2009 - 13:52

Hi Lorenzo,

I've been following this thread since you started it with your excellent initial question and have been planning to respond, in part because I've been able to try some of the options you are considering with the Mythos ST surround system that Playback uses as its long term reference.

Before I even get that far, though, I felt I should ask one key question: what set of source components do you plan to use for your system?

This question has bearing on whether to go with the multichannel front end coupled with a stereo integrated amp with HT bypass, or to take some other approach. Specifically, I'm interested to know if you plan on using a number of stereo-only sources and on listening to them in stereo (as opposed to using, say, Dolby PLII Music or other stereo-to-surround processing modes). I'm also interested to know if you plan to listen to vinyl. Please advise, and I'll try to offer cogent suggestions as best I'm able.

I also need to ask one very critical configuration question. Do you plan to use your Mythos ST speaker purely in full-range mode (i.e., fed by speaker-wire connections only), or do you plan to do as Definitive suggests and to use both speaker-wire connections and the separate LFE inputs?

This question becomes critically important if you also hope to use an automated room/speaker EQ system with the ST. Here's why.

Most EQ systems will send test signals to, and then plot EQ correction curves for, the main speakers first. Later, the EQ systems will send test signals to the subwoofer (in this case, to the ST's powered woofer section as driven by the LFE inputs)  and plot EQ curves for the sub. The problem that can and does arise with the ST, if you use both speaker-wire and LFE connections, is that automated EQ systems will typically apply an unwanted  "double-dose" of bass EQ correction--compensating for bass response anomalies once when measuring the speaker as a full-range device (the speaker-wire connections) and then again when measuring the speaker as a "subwoofer" (the LFE connections). The end result: inadvertent over-compensation for bass anomalies, typically resulting in thin, anemic-sounding bass.

Best,

Chris Martens 

 

Chris Martens
Editor, Avguide.com/Playback/The Perfect Vision 

Lorenzo (not verified) -- Fri, 10/30/2009 - 01:38

 Hi Chris:
Thank you very much for responding to this.  It is great that you know about these speakers so your help will be invaluable. You can't beat experience when it come to these things.
At this point, my thinking is my sources will be mostly optical - disk based  - CD, SACD, DVD, Blue Ray Disc players with a bit of iPod or computer-based music mixed in. I'm not sure but don't think I'll be running vinyl (in the near future anyway). To be honest, as I sort out what to do, right now I am only breaking the speakers in with my old Denon DVD-2800 DVD player and AVR-3801 receiver in stereo direct mode.  The 2800 is the only player I have now but I've really been waiting to get my new display before I buy a new Blue Ray player (or universal player) and perhaps a dedicated CD player (only if it makes sense).  I have been using my old Denon player for everything up to this point.
I've never really used any of the sound processing modes on that receiver for enhancement of stereo other than maybe the Matrix mode for music playback (a simulated 5.1 surround mode on that receiver) as I was using a sub/sat M&K 750THX system which seemed to sound fuller that way. That being said, if those modes help it is good to know for the future. Now that you've made me think about that point, when would Dolby PLII music and other modes that you mention be used over stereo - is it just a personal preference? Not knowing any better at this point, I would be fine with killer stereo for music - perhaps you can give me your thoughts on which way I should lean.
At the time I bought my old system , I was primarily thinking of a movie playback system.  After hearing what great audio gear sounds like, I sort of rediscovered music in a way that makes me want to have a dual system that also does justice to music in a big way as I feel that I have been missing out on quite a bit of the wow factor that great systems can bring to music (and not just to movies). 
Right now I have the ST's set up in full-range mode (just speaker wires into the terminals, no use of LFE connection). Do you recommend otherwise and is it better (performance-wise) to do it the other way?  Would you then run the speaker setup in a different way (i.e. "small/not full range with subwoofer)? I was aware of that option but I have my old system disassembled and up for sale it so I just have the ST's set up for stereo at this time.  I have read about this option in the manual and in reviews but I was never quite clear on which option was better and why so I appreciate your guidance here.  Obviously with my old system, there is no modern room-correction to speak of so I am running it in plain vanilla stereo direct mode (which already sounds much better than my old system - shows you what speakers can do!).  They sound great but I think there is so much more potential here (especially with the bass). Whatever drives them next is sure to bring some great improvements.  
I look forward to your advice as it will help me make a good decision here.
 
Many thanks, 
Lorenzo
Vancouver, BC

Chris Martens -- Fri, 10/30/2009 - 11:48

 Hi Lorenzo,

Regarding ways to configure the Mythos ST's, here has been my experience:

1. Mythos ST used full-range with speaker connections only: this arrangement give the most accurate and neutrally balanced bass from a purist audiophile perspective (assuming that you don't turn woofer levels up too high). In the past, and even now, audiophiles often worried that self-powered woofer sections would not integrate well with the main sections of loudspeakers, and in some cases their concerns were justified. But in my view, one of the great achievements of the Mythos ST is that, when woofer levels are set correctly, bass is powerful, deeply extended, fast, and richly textured, and it integrates beautifully with the top section of the speaker. 

2. Mythos ST used as full-range with speaker connections plus LFE-channel connections: this arrangement lets you run the Mythos ST as full-range (i.e., "Large") speaker, yet also treat its powered woofer section as a subwoofer to which LFE-channel information would be fed. Why would one do this? One reason might be to run slightly elevated LFE levels to create a sensation of "higher impact" bass when watching movies--especially action films. You may have noticed, for example, that a number of subwoofers offer multiple EQ curve choices--one for music, where bass response is dead neutral and woofers are critically damped, and another for cinema, where EQ is "fattened up" a bit and woofer damping is loosened up just a touch. With the ST's, woofer damping is always more-or-less spot on, but if you want higher-impact bass for movies you can use the ST's LFE input as way to dial in a bit more low bass output. Also, there is the argument that using the LFE input is a more straightforward way to ensure that LFE-channel information is properly reproduced (whether you choose to keep bass response neutrally balanced or to dial in a bit of low bass enhancement).

3. Would you ever run the ST as a "small" speaker? I would say "no." The ST should always be treated as a full-range/"large" speaker.

4. Multichannel front ends: If you have not already done so, a fascinating review that addresses this subject is Tom Martin's comparison of multichannel units from Parasound/Halo and Marantz vs. stereo-only preamps from Audio Research and MBL. See this link: http://www.avguide.com/review/playback-23-parasound-p7-multichannel-preamp-marantz-av8003-av-pre-tuner

You might also want to look at my earlier review of the Marantz AV8003 and its companion MM8003 power amplifier. See this link: http://playback.avguide.com/issue/20/45

5. Room EQ: I personally find that good room EQ systems can be very helpful, although some audio purists might disagree, arguing that they can impose a slight but discernible layer of "DSP haze" that can undercut the transparency of the sound. That's not what I hear, but your mileage may vary, as they say. Therefore, I would encourage you to go hear some room EQ systems (properly set up, of course) and then to compare results with and without the systems applied. See what you think and as always, let your ears be your guides.

An even bigger question might be, "which type of room EQ system would work best for you?" At this stage, I'm pretty familiar with the various flavors of Audyssey systems, the more recent forms of Yamaha's YPAO system, and Pioneer's recently updated Advanced MCACC system, and I can say that while each of these have merit, they are also audibly different in their effects (and in the technical approaches that they take). I will also have the opportunity to try Anthem's ARC-1 system in the near future. Watch for my upcoming review of the Anthem Statement D2V A/V controller in a future installment of Playback.

One point to bear in mind, though, is that the Mythos ST is very neutrally voiced to begin with, so that it does not "need" room/speaker EQ systems (or benefit from their use) in the way that somewhat less neutrally-voiced speaker systems do. Even so, most rooms do introduce at least some audible bass response anomalies, and a good room/speaker EQ system can really help tame those.

In a later reply, I'll offer some thoughts on source components, stereo vs. surround processing, etc.

Best,

Chris Martens
 

Chris Martens
Editor, Avguide.com/Playback/The Perfect Vision 

Lorenzo (not verified) -- Sat, 10/31/2009 - 01:31

 Hi Chris:
Thank you for the detailed and very informative response. I'm learning a ton here.  On the LFE topic, does option 2 (using the LFE) connection bring anything more than finer control of LFE effects for movies (and does it take anything away from or just add capability to option 1's accurate/neutrally balanced bass performance that you refer to)?  Would the best of both worlds be to run another subwoofer to add that "higher impact" bass performance for movies and keep the speaker connections as they are to perhaps keep the integrity of the musical performance more intact (assuming there is a difference in outright musical performance between the two options ).  In the current scenario (no LFE connections) I guess the receiver just blends that LFE info with all the other bass information - is that correct?  Speaking of LFE, does the level control at the back of the speaker have any effect when no separate LFE connection is present?  Sorry for all the questions - you've really made me think about how to get the most from these speakers which is great.  
 
On the AV8003 - yes I have read your review and I am going to go back and re-read it.  It seems like it should definitely be one of the solutions I should consider as it has been getting very favourable reviews. I found the Tom Martin review and comparison of those two front ends very interesting - it would appear that like the ST's, you can get amazing "close to if not state of the art" audiophile performance and some really good features on multichannel pre/pro's these days without spending a fortune - that helps me narrow down my choices and get good value for my money.
 
As my current equipment is a bit dated, I have never had a receiver or processor with room-correction but it is good to know that the ST's can hold their own without any. I suppose I could try to see if an EQ 'd setup made any difference if I bought a piece of equipment that is equipped with that capability.  I don't have a dedicated theater room but I have a really spacious and nice viewing area where I'll be putting the rest of the system together at some point (I have the Mythos 10 center channel and Gem XL surrounds still to install). I do have hardwood floors in this place (probably not ideal) with an area rug around the viewing area so maybe trying one of the room correction systems may help out. Right now those speakers are already sounding pretty good but you never know-the bass is good but might get better by tinkering a bit. I didn't realize that the room correction systems offered by the major receiver manufacturers deliver audibly different results - that is really good to know (especially your preference here).
I look forward to your review of the Anthem AV2 ( a friend of mine works at a dealer that sells both the Anthem AV2 and Arcam AVR600) and getting your final thoughts on source components that will really perform with my system.  Then I can buy them and sit back and enjoy.  I really like AV gear, read about the subject in magazines and online, and have a few friends that are specialty dealers but I have to say that the quality of feedback that you have provided to me is rare in my experience. It makes a big difference and provides for accelerated learning in this area. I want you to know that I really appreciate it.
Cheers
Lorenzo
Vancouver, BC

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