Bryston SP3 Update January 20, 2012-01-16
I have now had the opportunity to put the SP3 through its paces and right off the top I will say that it has exceeded my expectations.
A little background might be in order to help put into perspective what I was looking for when I decided to replace my SP1.7. The key criteria for me in selecting a replacement were:
1. A reference quality analogue preamp that supported 2 channel and 7.1 channel analogue inputs with the ability to bypass any digital processing.
2. HDMI inputs to accept bit stream data from multiple HDMI based sources and a DSP that can handle the new DTS HD7.1 and Dolby True HD signals.
3. A pre/pro that acts as an HDMI switcher without doing anything to the video signal.
4. A USB input to connect to my iMac based music server.
5. An Ethernet connection to facilitate easy firmware updates as they become available.
What I did NOT want were:
1. Auto room correction with a system like Audyssey. I have a Pioneer Elite based system in another room that has all the latest digital processing and auto room correction and I do appreciate the benefits of it given the right circumstances. My dedicated media room has been optimized with the help of Echo Busters etc. in such a way that I do not feel it would benefit from the additional processing. It does measure relatively flat at multiple seating positions.
2. I do not want video scaling or processing in my pre pro. In my set up I have 1 primary source for video which is my Marantz UD9004. I send a 1080P/24 signal to my JVC DLA RS25 projector so I don't need anything else to process the video signal. My other 2 video sources are a PS3 (for Netflix) and my satellite receiver. They both send a 1080P or I signal to the projector.
With those criteria in mind my choices were somewhat limited because most pre/pros do not have pure analogue pass through and have auto room correction. Although I did not have these in my specific room I did listen to the Anthem, Classee SSP800, and the Parasound P7 which is a pure analogue 7.1 channel pre amp, with no digital input. I waited for the SP3 to be released before I made my decision.
One thing I liked about the SP3 is the menu system. It is very similar to the SP1.7 and very simple and intuitive. You have two choices once you get into the menu. First you set global parameters for the SP3 like speaker configuration, which digital inputs are assigned to which source buttons etc. Make sure you activate Autosave. When Autosave is on, and you make any change in any menu, as soon as you go back out of that menu option it Autosaves what you just did. The second overall menu option is to set parameters for each source input. For example you set what you would like that source button to default to when you activate it. The one thing I liked is that you can set speaker levels for each source input. So for my DVD (Blu Ray) and 7.1 inputs I have the levels balanced at the exact same level using the Radio Shack SPL meter I have. For my Cable/Satellite input I have the Center and Surrounds about 2 DB higher because I like that when watching sporting events.
One area I felt that could be improved is the user manual. There are menu options on the SP3 that are not even mentioned in the user manual. Even though they are somewhat obvious it is always nice to be able to make reference to the manual to validate your assumptions.
When I did my evaluations I used the Marantz UD9004 for CD, SACD (stereo and mc) and Blu Ray. I used the VPI Scoutmaster through an EAR 834P for vinyl listening.
My evaluation consisted of:
1. Compare the picture quality of an HDMI video signal through the SP3 and direct to the projector.
2. Compare the analogue portion of the preamp to the previous SP1.7 I had and its predecessor a Proceed AVP. Compare the analogue section to other analogue pre amps I have heard.
3. Compare the performance of the DAC (s) in the SP3 to the DAC (s) in the SP1.7 and the DAC (s) in the Marantz.
4. Compare the DSP performance in the SP3 with the DSP in the Marantz.
Before I go into the results that I heard and saw I thought I would provide a little background on the Marantz UD9004 to put into perspective what I was expecting. The UD9004 is a multi format disc player that is considered by many people as a reference quality Blu Ray/DVD player for its image quality. It is also a reference quality CD player as well as SACD and DVD Audio. This is a $6000.00 multi disc player that compares to multi thousand dollar stand alone CD and SACD players.
My expectations in comparing the DAC in the UD9004 and the SP3 were that they would be very close. This is also the case in comparing the DSP in the 9004 with the SP3. In my room I have not heard a better sounding CD or SACD player or seen a better picture out of my projector.
The Marantz UD9004 has:
6 AK4399 32/192 DAC's
DSP is a SHARC 32 bit Analogue Devices
The SP3 has
Crystal Devices 4398 DAC's
DSP is a TI DA710
The SP3 is a multi channel Pre Pro. The preamp section is based on the award winning $3000.00 BP26. The DAC is based on the award winning $3,000.00 DBA-1. Those facts alone should imply that the SP3 will outperform the SP1.7 for analogue and DAC quality.
1. HDMI video quality. This was quite simple. I used 4 Blu Rays that have very good video quality. Water For Elephants (chapter 5 and 10), Super 8 (chapter 2 and 5), BBC Life chapter 1 and Casino Royale (Chapter 2 and 4).
I watched each scene with the HDMI connected directly to the RS25 and through the SP3. I could not see any difference in picture quality. I know this is not possible but in my notes I wrote that the picture through the SP3 seemed a little better. This could be my subconscious justifying my acquisition.
2. Compare the quality of the analogue portion for both multi channel and stereo. This was where I spent a lot of time because I have never heard my room sound better. I went through multiple CD's SACD's and albums and could not believe how much better the SP3 sounded compared to anything else I have heard. I have heard people comment that the BP26 is comparable to pre amps costing well over $10,000. Based on what I heard I would concur. The sound was more open, more dynamic, better imaging. My Usher speakers disappeared and the width of my soundstage extended beyond the width of my room. I'll give one example. I was playing the SACD Chesky, Symphony Orchestra of Northland Opera in stereo. On track #2 I asked my wife to come and listen. The image was so wide she thought the sound of the bells was coming from the surround speakers. The instruments, other than the piano which was well centered, seemed to occupy a space well outside the boundaries of my room. As an analogue pre amp the SP3 exceeded my expectations and encouraged me to pull out albums and CD's that I have not heard in years.
I have a little demo I like to do when we have visitors and they say you still have a record player? I have the Jennifer Warrens album Famous Blue Raincoat in vinyl, CD and I have also ripped Rock me Gently as a 64K, 128K and 256K MP3 version. Going from the various compressed versions and comparing to CD demonstrates to everyone what happens when you compress a digital file. Comparing the CD to the album is where most people are amazed. Everybody would agree that the album sounds better than the CD. The difference is not subtle but you do have to listen. What I found is that with the SP3 versus the SP1.7 that difference is far more obvious. I don't know why but I would say that the SP3 is even more true to the source than the SP1.7
3. Compare the DAC performance of the SP3 with the UD9004. The UD9004 has over 1000 hours on it so it is well burned in. The SP3 has less than 100 hours so I would assume will only get better over time. I went back and forth between the digital input and 2 channel bypass on the SP3. I listed to CD's that I am familiar with. Everything from Jennifer Warren's famous Blue Raincoat, to Keith Jarrett/Charlie Hayden Jasmine.
When I did this with the SP1.7 the Marantz DAC's sounded better IMHO than the DAC's in the 1.7. Prior to getting the Marantz I had a number of CD players and DVD/Blu Ray players. This included the Pioneer Elite DV59i. In every comparison I did, I felt the SP1.7 sounded better than the CD players DAC's. When listening to CD's using the 1.7, I always used the digital input. The Marantz was the first CD, SACD player that sounded more open and dynamic than the SP1.7. Not by a large margin but definitely more appealing to my ears. Listening to Patricia Barber, Ode to Billy Joe, Stacey Kent, Chris Issak etc. switching back and forth I could not say one was better than the other. The SP3 is definitely better than the 1.7 and I think as it gets a few more hours on it could sound better than the Marantz.
4. Switching to movies was where I spent most of my time. I wanted to hear the sound of the DSP in the SP3 and compare it to the sound of the DSP in the Marantz. There are some incredible examples of what can be achieved with the new DTS HDMA 7.1 and Dolby True HD. I spent time with huge dynamic movies and intimate music concerts and was very happy with the performance of the SP3. On a couple of nights I realized it was after 2:00 AM as I fed more and more discs into the Marantz. The only annoying aspect of the SP3 has nothing to do with the SP3 but with HDMI and the handshaking that has to happen. Many times when I switched from 7.1 channel to HDMI the data would hiccup. This required me to stop everything, power off the SP3 and the Marantz and start over again. I got used to the fact that going from HDMI to 7.1 bypass was never an issue. It was going back to HDMI that caused the hiccup. This is not unique to the SP3. As I mentioned I have another system that is all Pioneer Elite and it has the same problem. HDMI is a nice concept but was not intended for the audiophile IMHO.
One lesson learned the first night is to double check and then triple check all settings in the SP3 and the Marantz to make sure that when I switch back and forth I am truly comparing the DSP in the SP3 with the DSP in the Marantz. The later has a very confusing menu structure which if you are not familiar with is counter intuitive. Case in point the first night I felt something was wrong with the SP3 because through HDMI it did not sound good. Through the 7.1 analogue inputs I was truly amazed at how incredible the sound was in my media room. It was only the next day I realized that the Marantz was set to send an LPCM with BM signal to the SP3 instead of Bitstream. This meant the Maratnz was processing the signal including BM and sending it to the SP3 to do its own BM, resulting in a very congested and boomy sound. Once that issue was resolved I went back and played:
Casino Royale - Chapter 7 and 9
Super 8 - Scene 3, 12 1nd 15
Water for Elephants - Chapter 2,8 and 19
Avatar - Chapter 8, and 4
Peter Gabriel New Blood - Red Rain, Salisbury Hill
Return to Forever Montreux 2008 #10 Stanley's Solo and #8 Chick's Solo
Based on all the listening I did over a total of about 20 hours for movies and concerts alone, this is the best pre amp I have heard and the best processor I have heard in my room. I have a lot of notes for all my listening but a couple of key observations. First, my home theater is bigger than it has ever been. The ability for me to get surrounded by delicate or dynamic sound is more than I was expecting. I have a lot of concerts on Blu Ray. If you have not heard the Peter Gabriel New Blood concert you owe it to yourself to hear how good your room and your system are. That concert and the Return to Forever concert are IMO the best examples of what this new medium is all about.
I did switch back and forth between having the SP3 process the data and the Marantz process the data and do give the nod to the SP3. I found, especially when the sound was more intimate, like a lot of the dialogue in Water for Elephants, the SP3 just sounded more natural.
I could go into more specifics and do have the notes if anyone is interested.
To summarize: I waited 2 years to replace my SP1.7 and was very close to moving to something else. If I had done that I would be very disappointed knowing now what the SP3 can deliver. Everything I wanted in new pre pro and more. This time patience did pay off.
Well done Bryston.