Two Superb Surround Sound Front Ends, Compared
September 2nd, 2009 -- by Tom Martin
Home Theater/Multichannel Audio
TV / Displays
Ratings (relative to comparably priced multichannel A/V controllers)
- Treble: 9.5
- Mids: 9.5
- Bass: 9
- Soundstaging: 9
- Dynamics: 9.5
- Resolution: 9.5
- Value: 10
FEATURES, Parasound Halo P7
- Subwoofer output with analog bass management
- Theater bypass mode to connect a digital surround receiver
- 2 sets of multichannel (7.1) inputs for surround sound movies & music
- 7 Stereo inputs; 1 balanced XLR input; 1 MM/MC phono input
- 7.1 channel balanced XLR outputs and unbalanced RCA outputs
- Custom input naming
- Source input level matching
- Defeatable tone controls
- Note: The Parasound Halo P7 is an analog audio-only preamplifier. As such, it does not provide onboard DACs, surround sound decoders, or video processors of any kind. Instead, it is targeted primarily toward purist multichannel audio enthusiasts.
FEATURES, Marantz AV8003
- 7.1-channel A/V pre-tuner with THX Ultra2 certification
- AV8003 can serve as an Ethernet-enabled, DLNA-compliant Digital Medial Player for audio, photo and video files (can access network attached devices, but cannot access the Internet directly).
- Sound processing modes: supports the latest HD audio codecs from Dolby (Dolby TrueHD), DTS (DTS-HD Master Audio), plus THX, Circle Surround, and Marantz’s proprietary M-DAX mode (intended to restore lost dynamics when playing MP3, or other compressed files).
- Two sets of 7.1-channel analog pre-amp outputs—one unbalanced (RCA), one balanced (XLR).
- Balanced (XLR) stereo analog input for use with high end CD or SACD player.
- Tuner: AM/FM/HD radio is standard, and AV8003 is both XM and Sirius satellite radio-ready.
- Ample analog and digital audio/video inputs and outputs (none on the front panel, however).
- HDMI 1.3A: four in, two out.
- Anchor Bay video scaling and processing: 10-bit video processing with upscaling to 1080p (but processing applies for SD sources only).
- Chassis is made of copper-plated heavy gauge steel to help minimize electrical noise and problems with physical vibrations.
- Multizone support, with component video output for remote zones.
- Comes with two remotes.
LISTENING EVALUATIONS, SONIC CHARACTER
Almost every test I’ve done offers up some surprises, and this one was no different. The first thing that confronted me was the similarity in sound between all four preamps. Since I’ve often had a strong preference for one preamp over another when doing testing, this similarity surprised me. Of course, each reviewer has a methodology, and I know I tend to look for tonal balance issues first. Maybe it isn’t too surprising that preamps, with their tendency to deliver superb measurements (flat frequency response, high channel separation, low noise, etc.), sound similar in this regard.
My next surprise, with more listening time, was how much the Parasound Halo P7 sounded like the superb conrad-johnson ART stereo preamp ($15,995 - discontinued) that I had on test last year. The P7 has a “golden” treble sound that I simply find beguiling. Treble sounds clear yet not etched or grainy. The decay of notes is well preserved, which is critical for soundstaging (space is recreated with very low level sounds). Bass is also very well produced, with impact and definition that rival any of the other preamps here. My listening notes refer to this as a “deserted island sound” meaning that it seems just the tiniest shade off of perfectly neutral, but in a way that lets the music shine through. You’d choose this kind of sound, I think, if you were living on a deserted island and had to choose your last preamp.