Let's try a test of your home theatre maturity. You see, most of us were first introduced to home theatre on a diet of action flicks, either by a friend showing off his setup, or by a typical store salesman trying to create in us the most eager-to-buy adrenaline rush in the shortest amount of time. But after we get our own home theatre, then, sooner or later, most of us graduate to other kinds of programs. We come to realize that action flicks constitute merely a small fraction of available films, and we want to enjoy the many other kinds of films that are in the vast majority. The constant adrenaline rush of always being at the edge of our seat loses its novelty and becomes tiring. Many times we want to sit back in our easy chair or couch and relax with a movie, especially after a hard day's work has already stressed and fatigued us. We also come to realize that most action flicks have little to offer in the way of well written script, character depth, engrossing human emotion, enriching story that expands our horizons, or even dialogue worth paying much attention to. All these wonderful things, with which countless films reward the mature movie fan, are largely missing from action flicks. So we gradually come to realize that there's more to movies than helicopters zooming overhead, machine guns firing from all quadrants, and explosions that suddenly shake the walls. And thus, we also come to realize that the audio for our home theatre should be able to do more than merely play zap and bang sound effects from action flicks. Our home theatre audio must also be able to reproduce, with natural sounding true high fidelity, the music and human voices that rule the soundtracks of the vast predominance of films. The question here is, have you already reached this stage of home theatre maturity?
If not, and your viewing is still confined to action flicks, then your audio needs are non-critical, and there are any number of solid state home theatre amplifiers that will fill your bill. After all, an amplifier doesn't need to be musically accurate in order to play sound effects like the roar of chopper blades or the zap and tizz of machine gun fire. You don't know what the actual helicopter and machine gun sounded like, especially as recorded on the film soundtrack, so you don't have any standard (nor any special requirement) for an amplifier with true high fidelity. Instead, if you compared amplifiers you'd probably pick the one that gave you the most impressive zap and tizz on sound effects like the machine gun fire. Ironically, the most impressive amplifier on these sound effects, the one with the hardest and brightest zap and tizz, would be one of the least accurate, and it would be one of the worst sounding amplifiers on human voice and on the legato mood music used as background in most non-action films.
Naive listeners are often mistakenly impressed by such pseudo "hi-fi" showoff sound. For example, one amplifier from Canada comes to mind that sounds as hard as nails, and likewise another from England that adds a bright, frazzled sizzle in the upper frequencies. Both these amplifiers are very well constructed, and are handsomely packaged, and both have won high praise from other reviewers who aren't as critical (or perhaps as forthright) as we. They would both be very impressive for action flick sound effects like helicopters and machine gun fire, giving you more zap and sizzle than other, more accurate amplifiers do. But both sound awful on music, and on human voice. They make massed strings (so often featured in background mood music) sound horribly, artificially bright, steely, edgy, and sizzly. They make human voice (both for dialogue and for singing) sound thin, hard, etched, and especially painful on vocal sibilants. In short, when it comes to program material that demands some accuracy, both these amplifiers not only sound inaccurate, they also sound ugly and highly fatiguing. If your home theatre viewing is still in the juvenile stage of action flicks, then these flaws won't concern you much, and such solid state amplifiers as these can give your sound effects all the zap and sizzle your ears can stand.
On the other hand, if your home theatre viewing has matured beyond action flicks, then the new Plinius Odeon home theatre power amplifier is tailor made for you. It comes from not Canada nor England, but rather from another part of the Commonwealth, New Zealand. But isn't New Zealand that wild and woolly uncivilized frontier with rugged landscapes (seen as background in The Lord Of The Rings films)? Actually, New Zealand is a pretty civilized and friendly place. One of my lab assistants recently spent five months touring New Zealand, armed with nothing more than his backpack and his trusty Lonely Planet Guide. And, for 23 years, New Zealand has been home to one of the most culturally sophisticated musical sounds made by any solid state electronics on the planet, the sounds of Plinius audio electronics.
The Odeon fits squarely into the tradition of the Plinius musical sound and proudly applies that tradition to home theatre, as best as possible within reasonable package size and cost. The Plinius sound is among the most musically natural (and is the most tubelike) of any major solid state brand. It is thoroughly enjoyable, relaxing, and musically enriching. It is supremely effective, among solid state amplifiers, at aurally transporting you to what the real live music would have sounded like from a typical concert hall seat. And thus it is supremely effective at helping you to suspend disbelief. That, for most listeners and music lovers, is the ultimate holy grail for an audio system: aurally transporting you to what you remember the live music sounding like, and suspending your disbelief, so that the confines of your room aurally disappear and you are transported to another venue. And that is also the ultimate holy grail for the audio part of a home theatre system: suspending your disbelief, making the confines of your room and its contents (the loudspeakers) disappear, and transporting you into the alternative venue of the film locale.
Indeed, the best investment you can make in your home theatre is to put most of your budget into the audio portion, not the video portion. We can explore this topic in greater depth another time, but for now two points are worth noting. First, the technology of video equipment and interconnecting standards is evolving very rapidly, so paying a premium price for cutting edge equipment today that tomorrow will be second tier and/or will be cheaper is a less wise investment than allocating most of your home theatre budget for premium audio equipment where the state-of-the-art is much more stable and enduring.
Second, unless you have a 360-degree projection setup, no home theatre video, no matter how large the screen, can put you in an alternative venue, where you feel and believe you have been transported to and are surrounded by that alternative venue. The screen showing the alternative venue is only in front of you, and thus the visual part of your brain is still telling you constantly that you are still confined in your small room, looking at a portrayed scene that, no matter how good its fidelity, is still merely in front of you, not all around you. Therefore you are still stuck here, and you have not been transported there. Your brain cannot suspend disbelief based on the visual field information it receives, no matter how much you invest in your video equipment.
On the other hand, the audio field from your home theatre does surround you. If you invest well and wisely in the audio equipment for your home theatre, you can achieve a believable illusion that convinces the aural part of your brain that you are no longer confined in your small room, but instead have indeed been transported to another venue, the venue that is visually portrayed only in front of you. Thus, while you sit enjoying the film, it is the aural part of your brain that is actually doing the most important work, constantly feeding you the unconscious information that subliminally convinces you that you are there, not here. You unconsciously believe, thanks to the aural part of your brain (not the visual), and that's when the magic happens.
Of course, to make this magic happen convincingly, you need a high quality audio system that convincingly portrays the surround soundfield, so that you are not aware of artifices in your room with you, artifices that aurally would remind your brain that you are still trapped in the confines of your small room with loudspeakers only a few feet away hemming you in from all sides. To achieve this high quality, the audio equipment must have excellent imaging (so that you cannot detect the loudspeaker locations), and it must sound natural, so that the voices, music, and atmospheric surround effects from the soundtrack sound as if they are coming from the real things in that alternative venue you want to feel transported to, rather than from an artificial sounding audio system in your small room. A typical solid state amplifier can (for example) make soundtrack music sound annoyingly screechy and dialogue sibilants strident. When your ear/brain hears these artificialitie the illusion is destroyed, since your brain is suddenly made aware that you are back in your small room, surrounded by an artificial sounding audio system. The magic of believing you are in the film venue is lost and gone. Thus, it's crucial to invest in audio equipment good enough to reproduce all these sounds naturally, rather than with artifice.
The Plinius electronics excel at portraying all these sounds naturally, without the solid state artifacts common to most other solid state electronics (typically glare, hardness, lean sterility, etc.). The Plinius sound particularly excels at music and at the human voice, which are two of the most critically demanding types of sounds to reproduce so that they seem natural, live, and real, instead of artificially reproduced. The circuitry of Plinius electronics has a proud heritage of excellence in achieving this naturalness for stereo systems, and now the new Odeon brings a version of this same circuitry to home theatre power amplifiers.
The Plinius Sound
Let's take a minute to analyze the components of the Plinius sound, to see why it is so effective at sounding natural. Starting at the bottom of the spectrum, bass is full and powerful. Woofer control is very good, aided by the amplifier's high current capability, but the bass sound is not dry, tight, and lean as with some other solid state power amplifiers. This bass fullness actually helps musical naturalness, because it provides a more consistent, full foundation for the rich warmth region immediately above. Remember too that those of you seeking ultimate bass quality for your system (either music or home theatre) will want dedicated subwoofers, and most of today's best subwoofers come with their own built-in power amplifiers, which makes the bass sound of your main amplifier irrelevant, regardless of whether that bass sound matches your tastes or not.
The rich warmth region is one of the stars of Plinius' musical naturalness. In our parents' day, they shopped for large radio consoles by listening for what they called "good tone," instead of a small, tinny sound. Well, they were not as naive as you might think. For what they really meant by good tone was rich warmth. A rich warmth region gives a full, natural body to the sound of many musical instruments and human voices, so you can clearly hear the large wooden sounding board of a grand piano, the fat body cavity of a double bass, the body chest cavity of a singer. In contrast, most solid state amplifiers sound too lean and sterile in the warmth region. Without enough warmth, most solid state amplifiers short-change the piano's wooden sounding board, so that the bright, steely clang of a piano's steel strings is overemphasized (and then is further overemphasized by being rendered too hard by a typical solid state amplifier's glare in the upper midrange). Without enough warmth, most solid state amplifiers short-change an acoustic guitar's large, rich sounding wooden body and cavity, literally making the guitar sound like a much smaller toy guitar. Without enough warmth, most solid state amplifiers short-change the body cavity chest sounds of a natural human voice (both singing and speaking dialogue), so that you only hear the sound of the person's vocal cords, and thus that person doesn't have a real bodily presence, so you don't really believe they're there in front of you. The rich warmth of the Plinius sound gives a palpable believability to all music and all voices. It's even effective in heightening the drama of films. When James Earl Jones gets angry or plays a villain, his palpable bodily presence from the Plinius' rich warmth subliminally sets your psyche quaking in its boots.
In the upper midrange, most solid state amplifiers sound too bright--and also are at their worst in glazing over the sound by adding an artificial hard glare that sounds ugly, and is fatiguing, and actually obscures true musical information. The Plinius sound is very different. At its best, the Plinius sound refuses to add artificial glare so typical of solid state and it is slightly polite or recessed in the upper midrange. This upper midrange politeness puts music at a slightly greater distance, and this actually helps musical naturalness and believability.
Why? Most music and most voices are typically recorded with too close miking by recording engineers. This too close miking emphasizes the upper midrange, and you would hear this upper midrange emphasis if, when you hear live music, you could sit as close to the musicians as these recording microphones were placed. But the sound of live music that you, in fact, hear from the much greater distance of a typical audience seat at a concert hall sounds very different, especially in terms of having much less upper midrange energy. So the sound that you remember hearing from real live music and singers has less upper midrange energy than the sound put on recordings and film soundtracks by the typical too close miking of recording engineers. Of course, what you want, for reproduced music to sound convincingly believable, so you can suspend disbelief and be aurally transported to the concert hall or to the film venue, is a sound that accurately reproduces what you remember hearing live from your distant concert hall seat, not the different and artificial seeming brighter sound that the too close recording microphones picked up. Thus, by being slightly polite in the upper midrange, the Plinius sound transforms the artificial, unrecognizable sound of typically too closely miked recordings into an accurate reproduction of the natural and believable sound of real live music that you know and remember from your concert going experiences.
The Plinius sound has obviously been carefully engineered into the Plinius circuitry by musically sensitive people who know the natural sound of live music, and who know how to achieve this sound by deliberate circuit design. Note that the Plinius sound, by deviating from academically literal accuracy in the reproduction of the input signal from the too close recording microphone, winds up being more accurate--more pragmatically accurate to your knowledge and memory of the sound of live music as you heard it from your more distant concert hall seat. And that's what counts in the end for most of you, because that's what makes reproduction convincing and believable, allowing you to suspend disbelief and be transported out of the confines of your small room and into an alternative venue.
In the trebles, the Plinius sound consistently continues this same theme. Its trebles are noticeably gentle, delicate, sweet, soft, and slightly defocused, with a gradual Gaussian rolloff of progressively higher treble frequencies (the highest treble frequencies are still there, and sound properly fast and extended, but they are more subdued in quantity and more gentle in nature).
Again, this is actually consistent with what you would hear from real live music when sitting at a distant concert hall seat. That's because, at a live music concert, the trebles directly radiated by the instruments are altered and attenuated by several factors, by the time they reach your distant listening position. First, air itself is an imperfect sound transmission medium, and a long passage through a great distance of air naturally attenuates and softens the sound of music's highest frequencies (see further discussion below). Second, at any seat more distant than say row D most of the sonic energy you hear does not come directly from the musical instruments, but instead has been reflected off the hall's many surfaces, which tend to absorb the treble frequencies the most (especially soft surfaces like drapes, seats, and everyone's clothing). Thus, this factor alters the tonal balance of live music by progressively attenuating or rolling off progressively higher frequencies. Third, since most of the energy your hear is reverberant rather than direct, it has lost the phase coherence that the direct live sound had in the near field (close up), the phase coherence that makes transient attacks sound naturally hard when heard or miked close up. Thus, the transient attacks and trebles as you hear them beyond row D predominantly have mixed phase, which makes the live music sound softer and less sharply focused. In sum, these three factors have a pronounced effect on the sound of real live music. The harder, sharper, brighter, more focused sound that live music has in the near field (close up), which you would hear if you were to sit where the close up microphones are usually placed (and where the musicians themselves hear the music), is naturally changed by these three factors to the sound of real live music that you do in fact hear, and know and remember, from your far more distant typical audience seat. This changed sound of live music that you know so well is more silvery sweet, softer, less sharply focused and delineated, and gently rolled off in the highest frequencies.
The Plinius sound in the trebles actually mimics very well these three natural phenomena, which change live music's trebles by the time they reach your typical concert hall seat. Thus, the Plinius sound again gives you an accurate reproduction of the sound you know and remember hearing as the natural sound of live music. Note that this makes the Plinius sound's trebles musically consistent with its upper midrange, since both work consistently together to accurately reproduce what live music sounds like at a distance, by mimicking what happens to live music heard from a typical listening seat distance.
The rich warmth, polite upper midrange, and gentle trebles all work together, to make the Plinius sound a consistent and convincing portrayal of the natural sound of music and voice, heard at natural and typical listening distances. It's a minor miracle that an electronic circuit can so well emulate and mimic the acoustic phenomena in a concert hall that alter and deliver the sound of live music you know so well. It's a major miracle when that electronic circuit is a solid state circuit without tubes.
Indeed, the Plinius sound is very tubelike, more tubelike than probably any other solid state amplifier. It even brings a nice touch of liquidity to music, as good tube amplifiers do. But, of course, the Plinius also gives you all the practical advantages of solid state: no tubes to wear down or replace, higher current output, higher power output in a given space, better bass control, etc. And the Plinius' high frequencies, gentle though they be, are still faster, more extended, cleaner, and more articulate than many tube amplifiers out there (especially designs transplanted from rock concert PA to home theatre), some of which have trebles that are too rounded, slow, dull, and even smudged, grundgy and/or distorted.
The differences are easy to hear on musical attack transients, for example a guitar pluck with a
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