An Important Note for Playback Readers: As with many of my articles, this is an exploration of how sound systems work and how we perceive sound as much as it is a review of the components at hand.
I have for some time been interested in preamps, and specifically multichannel preamps. The reasons for this interest arise from some basic questions.
For about a decade I have assumed that the ideal music playback system would be multichannel. I figured that multichannel music would become a mainstream option. I also figured that a lot of us would want to use our music systems for movie playback (with a sizeable investment in multichannel audio for music I had no interest in spending more for a separate home theater rig). Because of the limited availability of multichannel music, this vision isn’t exactly happening, though of course some people still respond to the economic argument. And classical fans do have a good choice of MC SACDs. This review will tackle several key questions.
Question 1: If you take MC sources seriously, are there good MC preamps available as measured by traditional two channel audio standards?
The other element of my fascination with preamps comes from my sense that the preamp is a very simple device that shouldn’t make much difference. Or, said differently, it should be pretty easy to design a nearly perfect preamp and thus they should be readily available at affordable prices. Problem is, my experience is that preamps matter quite a bit and unfortunately the best examples are expensive. Hence, a second question.
Question 2: Do preamps really differ meaningfully from each other, and if so how?
To address both questions above, I decided to review and compare two very good but conceptually dissimilar multichannel “front end” components. I gathered up the Parasound Halo P7 multichannel preamplifier, because Parasound Halo-series components enjoy a great reputation for delivering good sound at reasonable prices ($1999 in this case). I also obtained a Marantz AV8003 multichannel A/V controller because I wanted to see whether a full-on digital processor could play in direct comparison with some serious high-end audio big boys. I chose the Marantz because it pays attention to audio matters yet doesn’t break the bank at $2599.
For comparison purposes I also brought along two very highly regarded, purist two-channel preamps that I own: the mbl 6010D ($23,800) and the Audio Research LS26 ($5999). I conducted most of my listening in two-channel mode because I wanted to understand where, if anywhere, the multichannel gear gave ground to premium two-channel gear.
Consider this multichannel preamplifier if: you want a multichannel version of a traditional stereo preamplifier (that is, a preamp with an all-analog signal path), and your musical priorities tilt toward delicacy and nuance.
Look elsewhere if: you need full home theater surround sound decoding features, onboard video switching/processing features, etc.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced analog multichannel preamps)
Consider this A/V Pre-Tuner if: you want a full-function A/V processor whose preamp section easily competes with traditional two-channel audio preamps at or above its price.
Look elsewhere if: the complexities of full-fledged home theater processors and remotes are an annoyance to you.