Arcam AV8 Preamp Processor, DV27A DVD Player
They say that the ultimate goal of a home theater surround sound system is realized when you have achieved the Wow! factor.
They are wrong.
Thanks to the Arcam AV8 preamp processor and DV27A DVD player, we have discovered and explored a whole new higher plateau in surround sound. This higher plateau goes way beyond Wow! You don't say Wow. You don't say anything. You can't say anything.
You don't move. You can't move. You sit there, immersed, enthralled, captivated, transfixed.
Part of you eagerly wants to put on another piece of reference program material from your library, to see what that sounds like at this new higher plateau. But you can't even do that. Because you want, even more, to hear what the next few seconds, the next minutes, the next hour will bring from this incredible experience you're having right now.
Your wife calls you to dinner, but you can't move, and you can't even answer her. Because you're not here in this world, where your wife and dinner await. At this higher plateau, you're not in this world any more, this world where you might say Wow, cognizant that you're experiencing a great surround sound system. You're in the other world, the world you've been transported to by the program and by the surround sound system guided by the AV8 and DV27A.
As professional reviewers, we've experienced countless home theater and surround sound systems, most set up by industry professionals who really know how to show off their own products. Our listening experiences with such systems has run the gamut from execrable, to ho hum, to Wow! The few best systems we've ever heard in the past did indeed give us the Wow experience. But the system sound we have been able to achieve with these Arcam units has now given us an experience on a whole higher plateau, way beyond Wow! Yours truly, the seasoned professional who has heard so many, many systems, simply sits there stupefied, silent, awestruck, reverent, and totally enthralled. Other people, whom we have invited to listen to this system, display a similar reaction. They seem transfixed, almost as if they were in a coma.
There's an instantly recognizable sonic difference between this system with these Arcam units and every other surround system we've heard. It's a dramatic difference, so even ordinary non-audiophile listeners instantly hear it. And it's a powerful difference, which powerfully affects all listeners and lures them into that transfixed state where they have left this world and succumbed to the alternative world, so that they seem almost in a coma to those of us left behind in this world.
What is it about this system with these Arcam units that is so different from even the best other systems we have heard? Exactly what is it that puts this system experience on a new, higher plateau? There are a number of contributing factors, which we'll discuss below. But we can sum them all up into just one word. Space.
The Final Frontier
They say that space is the final frontier.
They are right.
The very best audio components and systems have largely conquered other frontiers of reproduced sound. Our best audio systems can cover the span of the entire audible spectrum, can play loudly and cleanly, can be transparently revealing, and can radiate sound at us from every point of the compass. But there still has remained a final frontier, a final challenge: true reproduction of an alternative space.
Surround sound systems promise to surround you with sound (as their name implies). The good surround sound systems can indeed surround you with sound. But they can't surround you with space. They are unable to deliver an accurate facsimile of the alternative space, the alternative sonic world, captured on a good recording (or artistically created for cinema by a talented tonmeister). They are unable to recreate in your listening room a believable alternative sonic spatial experience, an experience that is aurally convincing enough to take you out of the confines of your listening room and out of this world, into another space and another world.
Today's typical surround sound systems (even expensive ones) still localize far too much information within the loudspeaker boxes or at the loudspeaker locations. They might be able to surround you with the direct sounds of musical instruments, voices, and sound effects coming at you from all directions, but they cannot surround you with the indirect sounds of an enveloping alternative space. Even though direct sounds are firing at you from all sides, your brain is still very much aware that you are still confined in your small listening room, hemmed in by discretely separate boxes at various specifically localizable places within your room. There's only a small hint once in a while (due to recorded echo or ambience) that some alternative acoustic space was encoded on the recording. But that alternative acoustic space information is still trapped within your several loudspeaker boxes, along with most of the rest of the sound. This trapped alternative acoustic space information can't get beyond the loudspeaker locations within your room, so it can't expand, breathe freely, and establish itself as an acoustic space alternative to your small room. It doesn't stand a chance of becoming a spatial alternative you could believe in.
Indeed, such systems are scarcely better than multi-mono, which was the bane of the early stereo era (it was known as ping-pong stereo), and which nowadays is exacerbated by close miking techniques used for surround sound recordings (thanks to recording engineers who are eager to prove to na´ve listeners that different sounds can come from each and every one of the loudspeakers arrayed around you). Multi-mono is not true surround sound, since the sound comes only or principally from the loudspeaker locations, not from surrounding areas in between loudspeakers. And multi-mono can't even begin to create a surrounding alternative space you can believe in.
Only a few of today's best surround systems are able to at least get the loudspeaker locations to disappear, and create an even energy spread of sound all around the room, with no hot and cold spots. At least these few systems are able to sonically liberate you from the sonic feeling that discrete loudspeaker locations are firing at you from within your listening room, and are thereby trapping you within the confines of your small room. But even these few best surround sound systems have not yet been able to recreate a truly believable alternative space. As we've heard them, they can at best recreate a phantom image of sounds and of space between loudspeaker locations. The portrayed space between speaker locations does not yet have a flesh and blood reality or believability, and even the direct sounds themselves (of musical instruments, voices, etc.) don't quite have a three dimensional tactile reality (they seem more like flat cardboard cutouts).
We are so grateful, that such systems are able to at least make the loudspeaker locations disappear, that we enthusiastically embrace and try to believe in whatever phantom image these few best systems can give us, and we call that good surround soundfield imaging. As with Samuel Johnson's dog, we are so amazed that it can even walk on its hind legs at all that we do not critically and truly assess how well it can walk. You might think, when you hear today's few best systems recreating a phantom surround image, that this is as good as it can get, and so you consciously work to suspend disbelief and enjoy this surround experience. You might never know that it could possibly get any better. We didn't know either, until in our laboratory we were able to achieve better, using the Arcam units as a system front end.
One never knows that better is possible until one hears it for the first time. And then there's no going back. Suddenly one is painfully aware that the surround soundfield imaging of today's best systems consists merely of phantoms and flat cardboard cutouts. Suddenly, the awkwardness of the dog walking on hind legs is painfully apparent.
In this case, the surround soundfield imaging we were able to achieve, with a system using the Arcam units as a front end, was dramatically better than we had ever heard before. So much better that it wasn't merely a matter of degree. It was a whole new kind of experience, a whole new higher plateau of surround soundfield imaging. With even the best prior systems we've heard, we had to make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief, to not be too critical, and to make allowances for the imperfections and less than truly convincing spatial portrayal, pretending to be persuaded, since this was the best we thought we could hope for. But, with this new Arcam-based system and setup, the opposite was true. We didn't have to make an effort to be convinced. It was easy to be convinced. Indeed, on good program material, we couldn't help being convinced and succumbing to the alternative sonic world of the surround soundfield. The surround soundfield portrayal of space was so real that it would have taken a heroic conscious effort to believe that we were aurally still in our listening room.
The portrayal of surrounding space by this system is so real that space itself takes on a whole new sonic role. Space is no longer merely the passive framework suggesting the locale in which the original recording took place. Instead, space itself becomes an active agent, bringing you its own identity from all around you. Space itself becomes a character in the plot of the music, the song, the soundtrack, as surely as the musical instruments, voices, and other sounds are characters. Space becomes a protagonist, with a vibrant, tactile, tangibly concrete three dimensional presence all around you.
When the alternative space all around you is so well reproduced and thereby acquires such tangible reality, your listening room and this real world completely disappear aurally. Even with conscious effort you cannot hear your listening room any longer. This world has disappeared, and aurally you have been completely transported to the alternative world of the recording venue. Small wonder that our experience, and the experience of others who have heard our Arcam-based system, renders us comatose to this world.
With this conquering of space, we have finally crossed the threshold of the final frontier. Further improvements in spatial reproduction, as well as further improvements in the other aspects of audio reproduction, will inevitably come in the future. But, with space itself finally conquered and so convincingly real, we at long last finally have all the tools in our toolkit.
Without realistic reproduction of space itself, all the other aspects of audio, however perfect, still created at best a phantom and ersatz experience. With this new realism of space itself as a tangible and truly believable entity, the portrayal and the experience are finally complete. We are finally playing in the right ballpark. And it's a whole different ballpark, a whole different experience, a whole different world.
The realistic portrayal of space itself naturally defines very well the hall or other venue in which the original recording took place, and transports you there. You can clearly hear where the walls are and how far away they are.
But we also discovered further important benefits. The space itself within the recording hall acquires a tactile, tangible reality that you can reach out and touch. For example, if a musical instrument on stage is 20 feet away from the stage's back wall, you can literally hear that 20 feet of space vibrantly singing along with the musical instrument. Every instrument, voice, and sound within the overall space is surrounded by its own well defined smaller volume of space, whose air molecules actually vibrate in sympathy (that's how sound is carried through the medium of air). You can hear the air of these spaces vibrating, and thereby helping to define these spaces. Thus, these smaller surrounding spaces are distinctly heard as tangibly real elements of the performance, as much proactive protagonists as the instruments and voices themselves are, and these spaces sound just like you would hear them if you were personally in attendance at the original live event.
These well defined halos of space, around each instrument, voice, and sound, in turn further help the realism of the localization of each instrument, voice, and sound within the larger acoustic space, since you can literally hear (for example) the 20 feet of air behind an instrument. This in turn also helps the intelligibility of all sounds, so (for example) you can hear much more clearly into the complex orchestration of a musical score.
Finally, the most important and surprising sonic benefit of these halos of space we discovered was the three dimensional concreteness that they bestowed upon each of the instruments, voices, and sounds. In even the best previous surround sound systems, each musical instrument, voice, etc. has at best a phantom presence between loudspeakers, and sounds like a flat cardboard cutout. But in our new Arcam-based system, each musical instrument, voice, etc. has a vivid three dimensional tangible concreteness that is simply there.
Moreover, this tangible presence is no longer confined to the flatness of the line or curtain between loudspeaker locations. Instead, each musical instrument, voice, etc. has a solidity and presence with respect to the large acoustic space that is being so convincingly reproduced, not merely with respect to the geometries between your loudspeakers within your listening room.
When we fine tune the system's many adjustments so that the spatial portrayal of the overall surrounding hall space (or other alternative venue) is just right and most convincing, then the small space itself behind each of the performers also becomes well defined and convincing. And then each performer literally pops out as a tactile, solid, three dimensional entity that you could reach out and touch, with the well defined space, around each performer, itself being clearly audible as an active sonic contributor, as it sympathetically vibrates in a hallelujah of harmony around each performer.
Mere words can't convey the startling nature of this sonic improvement, nor the stunningly more believable experience it provides. So let's try a visual analogy. Imagine that in your small room you have photographs of Rodin statues on the several walls around you. These photographs are obviously merely a phantom suggestions of the original statues. And they are merely two dimensional phantoms. And they are confined to the flat planes of your wall.
That's like the soundfield imaging we hear from even the best other systems. The images of various instruments, voices, etc. between loudspeaker locations seem like mere phantoms, and like flat two dimensional phantoms, and they are mostly confined to the flat planes between each adjacent pair of speakers.
Now imagine instead that you visit the great hall of a museum and see real Rodin statues sprinkled about the gallery. You can instantly tell that you are in the space of a large hall, not in your small room at home. The visual input of being in that large space (where you really are) is so strong, so persuasively convincing, that even if you were to try you could not make yourself believe that you were back in your small room at home (you can't cheat by closing your eyes). The real statues of course look much more real than the photographs back home, and you can see this instantly. And you can see that these real statues have literally a three dimensional, solid, concrete, tangible presence that you could reach out and touch (which you can't do with a phantom). And you can instantly tell that each of these real, solid, three dimensional statues has a back side. And you can tell that these statues have a palpable presence at various locations out in the real space of the great hall. And you can clearly see that each statue is a well defined distance away from the wall behind it.
That's like the soundfield imaging we hear from our carefully set up Arcam-based system. You can literally hear the alternative space itself, as presented by the recording, and you hear it as an active protagonist, a giant musical instrument radiating its own characteristics at you from all angles (note that these characteristics differ for different incoming angles, just as they would if you were actually in that alternative space). The alternative large space from the recording is so persuasively convincing to your ear/brain that you are aurally transported to that space. Indeed, even if you were to try, you could not make yourself believe that you are actually still in your small room at home (using your ears alone, i.e. keeping your eyes closed this time, or sitting in a darkened room). The images of various instruments, voices, etc. between speaker locations each have a three dimensional, solid, concrete, tangible presence you could reach out and touch. They have a palpable presence at various three dimensional locations out in the alternative large space that's so convincingly presented (just as the actual statues were arrayed at various locations out in the space of the museum hall). You can hear the distance from each instrument, voice, etc. to the wall in back of it. You can almost hear the back side of each solid, three dimensional instrument or singer or speaker, since you can hear the space and air behind each such source singing and reverberating along with the acoustic radiation it has been fed from the back side of each such source.
Hopefully you'd agree that this is a huge contrast, not merely of degree, but of kind. The statues in the museum constitute a whole different, higher level of reality than the photographs of the statues on the walls in your small room. And this higher reality is different in many aspects, all of which contribute to the overall experience that the statues are real, but the photographs aren't. One experience is on a whole higher plane than the other.
That's the kind of contrast we experienced from the Arcam-based system we were able to set up, compared to the previous best surround sound systems we've heard. That's the kind of transformed experience you too can have. And it is all made possible because this new system was finally able to conquer the final frontier, space itself.
Which reminds me. I forgot to mention one little detail All this surround sound magic (this conquering of space, this believability of an alternative surrounding venue, this total disappearance of the listening room, this total aural transport to another world, this new solid reality for portrayed instruments, voices, and sounds) was achieved by this new Arcam-based system - even for ordinary two channel stereo sources! With good multichannel surround sources, the sonic results can be even more convincing and spectacular.
In other words, this new Arcam-based system is so skillful at conquering space that it can extract and portray surround space from mere two channel sources, so convincingly that you would swear you were listening to recent surround sound recordings. Just imagine what your huge library of vinyl and CDs (not to mention two channel radio and TV broadcasts) would sound like if they had been
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