Every once in awhile in the audio world a piece of equipment comes along that is so incredible that it deserves special mention among a plethora of mediocre components, and the new THX EX equipped Tag McLaren AV32R is one such piece. Never since I first got my Dynaudio speakers has any single component made such a huge improvement in the overall sound quality of my system, a fact that I never would have believed just a few short years ago. I was one of those people that used to think that electronics were all basically the same and that bits were just bits, but after just over a week of owning my new Tag pre/pro, my opinions have been changed forever.
First off, let me thank Buzz Goddard, president of Tag McLaren Audio, for all his help in making it possible to own such a fine piece. I met with Buzz in person in his Norwood office and was a little apprehensive about meeting one of the most respected people in the audio world, but his casual, friendly demeanor relaxed me within a few minutes, opening me up to a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience. Buzz is one of those few people who truly is the epitome of knowledgeable people, as opposed to people who think
they are knowledgeable....no airs, no attitude, no stuffiness....just a warm, down to earth, truly intelligent and educated person who shares the same passion as the rest of us here - the perfection of audio.
For those of you who don't know Buzz's history, he joined Lexicon (I think it was in the mid 80's, but don't quote me on this) and was responsible for putting together the consumer line of high end audio pre/pros, beginning with the CP-1, right through the DC-1, DC-2, and MC-1, and even the yet to be announced new model from Lexicon. Basically he headed the entire development team for all of those products and was the single most important factor in bringing these great products to the public. Anyone who has dealt with the Lexicon pre/pros is fully aware of the vast knowledge that Buzz brought with him when he teamed up with Tag McLaren, but as Buzz himself stated, the level of workmanship, attention to detail, and manufacturing sophistication that this company already had attained required little "fixing up" at all.
Already aware of the abilities of the AV32R, I mapped out my equipment connections on paper before I installed it into my rack. Although the Tag uses generic labels such as "md" and "dab" for the 2 optical digital connectors, and "cd", "ld", and "dvd" for the coaxial digital connects, the software made it a simple task to relabel them any way I wanted, so I chose to use the actual manufacturer and model names to describe my inputs. Also, the software allows the user to link any video input (both s-video and/or composite) to any audio input (both analog and /or digital), giving total
flexibility in setting up the Tag. The software wizard walked me through the entire setup procedure for both the essential and convenience portions in less than an hour from start to finish, with a minimum of hassle or confusion...very, very smart design!
The software is loaded with features and conveniences, all of which contribute to the ease of use of this great unit. There are too many features to list here, so I'll just touch on a couple of my personal favorites. The first one is the ability to to engage or disengage the use of bass management on any input and/or processing mode. For example, my Dynaudio speakers are all the "bass limited" bookshelf type that require the use of a subwoofer for optimum bass response, so no matter what mode or input I am using, I want my bass management facilities to be available. Other people who own floor standing, full range mains might want to use only
the mains when playing 2 channel music, bypassing the bass management, while I specifically need
my subwoofer present in this mode, and this simple but necessary feature was unavailable in my old flagship receiver, the Yamaha RX-V1 (specifically when processing 24/96 material).
Another feature that made life a lot more pleasant for me was the built in subwoofer limiting, a feature that can be switched in or out at the user's discretion and adjusted to the exact level, in db's, that is required. Since I use a 550 WPC amp to power my 2 subs, in my old setup I had 2 choices, either set my LFE level so that the peaks would not bottom out my subs at high listening levels, resulting in poor bass performance at low levels, or set the LFE level so that the system was balanced at low levels, resulting in severe bottoming at higher levels. Either way I went was a compromise, but with the Tag I can have the best of both worlds. My LFE level is set at +3db to the rest of my system (my setting of preference), but the limiting feature clamps the power at the high SPL's, saving my sub from damage in the few spots where it is necessary. This results in a LFE level that is perfect 99.9% of the time, with only
peaks clamped in output, saving my precious subs in the process.
These are just 2 of the many features present this fine software supports. Speaker time alignment, level matching and orientation, subwoofer usage and bass management, default processing modes, input sensitivity matching, THX processing defaults, DTS low frequency shift, center and subwoofer level offsets, front panel dimming and level controls, and control links to other Tag McLaren equipment are just some examples of the extensive set of control options available. This unit is the easiest to set up and use, yet most powerful piece of gear I have ever had the pleasure of owning.Now it's time for the good stuff!
So you are probably thinking to yourself "Bob, this all somewhat interesting, but a lot of high end equipment has tons of features and flexibility. What makes this pre/pro so special?" Well let me tell you, the sound of this unit is to die for! This is what I meant when I said it has "The Right Stuff!"
I have been playing music on this new beast of mine for countless hours on end, and the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it.
What does it do that is so impressive? First of all, the sound is rock solid. This is a quality that I find very hard to describe, but the best analogy I can give is that if you label a lot of high end pre/pros as being as solid as "wood", then this unit is "cast iron". There are no holes in the sound, no muddying of the individual instruments, but rather it produces a solidified, inpenetrable wall of sound that is perfect from top to bottom, yet it handles "airy" material with a decidedly delicate touch, sort of like I would describe as a ballet dancing pro football offensive end - a graceful "brute" of a person.
As impressive as it is on first listen, it is the continued listening that blows me away. It's not what the Tag does to music, it's what it doesn't
do. It doesn't color the sound, it doesn't emphasize this or that, it doesn't do anything wrong
! With every piece of gear I have ever listened to, I eventually found something that I didn't like about the way that it handled sound. Some units were muddy in the mid bass, some just made it difficult to place the instruments within the sound stage, some just didn't produce the sibilance of a triangle just right, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The Tag McLaren reproduces every sound perfectly! I have listened to a large part of my music collection and have virtually heard things I have never heard before, but were there all along. I am a classically trained trombonist (of about 30 years), so I have a pretty good idea of what musical instruments are supposed
to sound like. The AV32R is the first pre/pro I have owned that accurately reproduces every
instrument I have heard on it....period!
Along with its musical accuracy, the Tag's ability to distinctly represent every sound is another earmark of this wonderful unit. Even my old RX-V1, with its superior preamp stage, is no match for the Tag in clarity and separation. What formerly sounded like a blend of instruments has now transformed itself to reveal the individual voicings and melody lines played by each individual instrument As a musician I tend to spend a considerable amount of time analyzing melody lines and chordal structure, and now my ears are able to identify exactly what is going on in a musical piece, where before I would struggle to identify the individual notes and chords.
The AV32R has few DSP modes available, but every one of them is tasteful and useful. The Dolby Digital and DTS modes can be used in 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 configurations, and the decoding is absolutely impeccable, second to none. The user has a choice of forcing the 6.1 or 7.1 matrixed configurations, or staying with the 5.1 versions on most material and just engaging the 6.1 or 7.1 THX EX modes when it is flagged by the content. Also, for music, there are the TMS (Tag McLaren Surround?) 5 and 7 channel modes, which are very tastefully implemented, just adding ambience to the center and surround channels while leaving the mains intact, staying with the philosophy of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!". DTS discrete ES and Dolbly Pro Logic II are announced software upgrades that I plan on purchasing as soon as they are available.
I would be less than honest with you to say that the Tag couldn't stand a couple of improvements, be they minor ones, but I feel I should at least express my concerns. Right now I have a standing compatibility issue with the sound card in my HTPC, the DC pro 24/96, but Digital Connection and Tag McLaren are both working with me to resolve this problem as quickly and decisively as possible. I will post more information about this issue as it progresses. The AV32R has never had any problems with any consumer level hardware, so this is most likely an isolated case and should not be of any concern for the vast majority of users.
I have 2 other suggestions that I would like to express to Tag McLaren (don't we all have something
else we would like?). First, there is a muting relay which is used to silence the output in the event that no signal is present, which produces a small "clicking" sound, and I would like to see the relay eliminated and a silent
switch used in its place. Second, I would like a second set of analog audio outputs available to me. The Tag has just one pair, which I am using for my S-Video VCR, and I could use another pair to connect to my cassette deck (No, I don't listen to cassettes in my home system, but I do like to make tapes to listen to in my car).
Enough of my complaints http://www.avsforum.com/ubb/smile.gif
I can't and won't compare this unit to other high end units, as I don't feel the need to judge other products, but I can certainly tell you for sure that this is one of the best, if not the
best pre/pro available today. Out of all the gear I have bought in my life, this is my very favorite, and will not be replaced in the foreseeable future. I will answer as many questions about this unit as I can, and I have informed Buzz about these threads (I have posted in 4 forums just because I am so excited about this unit), so he has been invited to field any technical questions that may arise. Thanks for reading this and I hope you get a chance to hear one of these wonderful units for yourself. I promise, you won't be disappointed!