Originally Posted by Zissou
After having used 26 processors in the last 15 months I feel "somewhat" qualified to list these as the best sounding. My priority is music first but all do wonders for movies as well.
NuForce AVP 16 Surround Sound Processor (Used under $690)
Very musical and refined especially for the price. Everyone using any receiver as a pre/pro should audition this to see exactly what effect the receiver is having on your SQ. The difference is not small. This is a very musical and honest sounding piece. Hard to beat at anywhere near it's price.
Audio Refinement PRE-2DSP (Used price under $600)
A minimalist design that performs well above it's price point. Fantastic for music and very enveloping for movies. The analogue bypass is amongst the best available and only a slight high end sharpness and a small truncation in soundstage depth prevents it from scaling even greater heights. Is much better sounding than the Anthem AVM20. Very non intuitive setup.
Cary Cinema 6 (Used price under $1500)
Starting to get into diminishing returns in terms of ultimate sound quality. For music this performs extremely closely to a very good 2 channel only preamp. Music is dynamic, detailed and very neutral with a large and accurate soundstage. Movies sound superb with low level detail and voices being particularly well done. Has all the basics for a well rounded home theater and one would have to spend big money to top it. Errs slightly on the warm side.
Parasound C2 (Used price $2000)
I am not of one mind on this piece. On the one hand it is good looking with nice connectivity, tweakability and good sound but it lacks that hard to define quality that elevates it from a good unit to a great one. Music lacks that organic and fleshed out quality that helps one suspend disbelief. I find my mind wandering more than it should whilst listening to the C2. Music was slightly on the sterile side and soundstage depth while fairly deep lacked the ability to hear into the last row of players, you knew something was going on back there but couldn't quite make out exactly what it was. Cannot be considered a high end piece.
I hope I haven't come down too hard on the C2 as it is a good sounding pre and with it's auto setup it may be perfect for people who don't like to be hands on or who are upgrading from a receiver.
Krell Showcase (Used price low $2000s)
Testing continues but comfortable enough to give a provisional recommendation. Has flaws but does most things well. Rather the opposite of the Cary. Sound quality errs slightly on the side of brightness but doesn't cross the line where sibilance is increased. Is well fleshed out and sounds of one piece. It puts out the typical big and forward Krell house sound.
It sounds very similar to the HTS, the DACs and DSP are the same, but the HTS has a certain refinement, especially in the analogue inputs, that is slightly lacking in the Showcase.
If you prefer a bold and detailed sound with good soundstaging it may be perfect for you and is a good buy on the used market.
Proceed AVP2 (Used price under $2500)
Absolutely superb and well built piece with much trickle down technology from the $30,000 Levinson N0. 40. DACs and the 4 DSPs are essentially the same. This piece is a GREAT analogue preamp and close to the very best available, when you know how to set it for passthrough. As a "DAC" with it's differential L/R DACs and FIFO jitter reduction, it is as good as I have ever heard. The detail is amazing, yet it retains it's musicality, mids are free of any discernable colouration and the imaging and soundstage are beyond reproach. For movies, very secondary to me, it's extremely detailed and very enveloping. This is great kit and untouchable for the money or many times it's cost. The best choice for movies and music. Nothing as of March 2009 can come close.
NAD M15 Master Series (Used about $1500)
I got off on the wrong foot with this unit as the first one I had was clearly not performing as it should have. It was dark, lacking detail and uninvolving. It managed to stick in my head as every once in a while I'd wonder how a piece with such good components and sensible circuit design could have sounded so badly. I therefore in the last month picked up 2 more examples and I am happy to report that this is excellent kit and ever, EVER so close to being state of the art and in some areas it is the best I have heard.
As a DAC music is exceptionally neutral with excellent detail, a properly sized soundstage with excellent depth and the ability to hear as far back into the recording as the source and media allow. Bass is well controlled and very extended, the mids, voices in particular, allow subtle inflections through that lesser DACs simply miss which allows a much more emotional connection to be made to the music. Highs are exceptional with proper fundamentals and decay. If the recording allows you will hear the side and rear walls of the venue or studio.
Movies sound fine as near as I can tell with excellent envelopment and no decoding quirks. Again movies are very secondary to me but if it reproduces music properly it will get the most out of movies.
As an analogue preamp it performs well above it's price point. With the truly amazing TADAC, digital sounds about at as good as digital can sound.
I am glad I revisited this piece as in terms of bang for the buck it gets no better than this unit. There's no automatic setup, no room correction just a very simple circuit using absolutely top notch parts everywhere it counts and the sound quality is reflective of this. If you're on a slightly lower budget you really give up nothing to the more expensive pieces with the M15. How they can sell it for $2995 is beyond me. If it had a "higher" end name on the front with the same build quality and parts used it would be triple the retail price.
Classe SSP-600 (Used Price about $4000)
The Classe is a gorgeous looking piece and an example to all other companies for making a nearly perfect unit in terms of ergonomics. Now good looks are a bonus but we are more concerned about sound and fortunately the Classe does not let us down.
It is marvelously detailed and yet very refined in the high end, decay on cymbals is just about perfect, depending on the recording of course. The mids are uncoloured mostly but with a possible SLIGHT nod towards warmth which adds an organic and believable quality to vocals. Bass is taut and well controlled but it doesn't quite plumb the depths like a very few others do. The soundstage is accurate and of the correct size. We can clearly hear into the last row and all wall reverb cues are present, just as we like it. A very low noise floor contributes to all of the above and allows subtle detail to pass through.
If looking in this price range an audition is definitely in order.
Krell HTS 7.1 Pre/Pro (Used price under $3500)
A great sounding pre/pro for those who need onboard processing. Is not up to the same level as the AVP2 or the Bel Canto but still a step up from most units although the Showcase comes very close.
Meridian 861 (Used price $4000- $10000)
Provisional recommendation as testing continues. If you are into endless processing options and can get by the A/D conversion you may have found nirvana with this piece but I suspect for most reading this thread it is not quite what you're looking for.
Arcam AV9 (Used Price $3000-$4000)
An excellent unit that does everything well. Music tends slightly to warmth which is what many people prefer but does slightly deviate from neutrality. Reliability and build quality is superb and there are regular firmware updates. An easy recommendation for people who want a set it and forget it experience with above average sound quality.
If music is a priority avoid all Anthem processors. They are bright, flat sounding and the antithesis of proper reproduction. Bryston are also not a particularly good choice the 1.7 and 2 are not good sounding processors. The analogue sections are flat and grainy sounding and as a DAC they are very much lacking.
Price wise my opinion is the Proceed is by far the best buy as it can be found for under $2500 and sound and build quality are beyond reproach. My feelings right now are leaning me towards lowering the Krell's rating but I am waiting for another unit to come in to be sure.
Other than lack of analogue passthrough the Meridian is rather a wonderful piece. I do not like units that do A/D processing but it's by far the best I have heard in this particular area.
Had a chance over the weekend to re-audition the AR and it simply is a great sounding piece for the money. It's quirky and really hands on but it gets the fundamentals right in a way no other cheap unit does.
Please note that music is the priority for me, if it does music well then movies will be that much more detailed and enveloping. We watch 6 or 7 movies a week but I tend to focus on the movie rather than the sound as I find at times that rather than involving me more in the movie SS can sometimes take me OUT of the film as the sound becomes almost too obvious. We are not fans of action movies at all and I don't think I've seen a movie that could be classified as such in 20 years. Music taste tends to run from master tapes that I've recorded, mainly small classical ensembles recorded in churches or halls to folk, classical and light rock. I am very partial to female vocals such as Kate, Joni and Sally Oldfield. Favourite artists include Al Stewart, Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon. Luckily the vast majority of the aforementioned tend to have very well recorded catalogues. All pre/pros are extensively auditioned in both our two channel system, which can be considered state of the art, and our surround system which while not quite climbing the lofty heights of the stereo only rig is within percentage points of as good as it gets. Basically if it's well recorded, has a great melody and acoustic guitar I am there.
Initial testing can be done very quickly after a piece has been run in using recordings I have become intimately familiar with over the last 30 years but these initial impressions are just that and can change as a piece lives with us. Funnily enough though initial impressions do tend to be right. I will not comment on a piece unless I've had it in the systems for at least 100 hours as it takes that time or longer to become familiar with the nuances of the gear. There are exceptions such as a Pioneer 84 (bunch of letters) that a friend brought over for my impression. It lasted all of 15 minutes as it was perhaps the ugliest, flattest, most uninvolving piece I had heard in years. If a cello sounds like a cat scratching a pole then we can surmise that it's "probably" not overly good for music.
I love vinyl and much as I thought back in 1982 I think Redbook is inherently flawed but I am amazed at how it's evolved over the years to the point where once in a while it sounds damned good. I never would have believed it could get this far when I first heard it. I still believe that once it's digitized the damage is done but the "damage" can be minimal these days. My master tapes are all extremely high quality analogue but using various noise shaping techniques I can get down to 16/44.1 if I need to with very minimal loss, however I do try to keep digital at 24/96. My take on cabling is that the markup keeps many high end stores in business, NOT a bad thing, but if you are hearing a large difference between good 12 or 14 gauge cable and boutique cables then one of them is acting as a tone control and altering the sound. Minimizing vibration, room treatments and proper speaker setup will give you a vastly improved sound compared to that $3000 speaker cable you had your eye on.
This has been a 6 year mission to see if I could get one rig that does two channel as well as surround to a high enough degree that I would be happy. You may have noticed however that I still have a 2 channel rig as well as the surround setup. The SS rig is very, very VERY close to the stereo setup but you know it's still not quite there so the quest will continue.
In the end only the music matters. Those rare occasions when Janis Ian is "Breaking Silence" in my room, when a shaded dog instantly transfers me back to a concert hall in the 50s, When Paul, with just an acoustic guitar, is moved from Abbey Road Studios into my listening room or when my wife says she just got shivers and damn things sound good. That's the magic we all aspire to and when it happens it's almost a mystical experience.
Happy listening everyone.