Back Issue Article
Music and Movies on a Budget
It is relatively simple to assemble a good-sounding, sensibly priced two-channel stereo system around a modest integrated amplifier and high-value bookshelf speakers or a decent multichannel home theater with a budget surround receiver and purpose-built home-theater speaker system. However, it is much more difficult to assemble a system that is adept at both types of program material, especially while under the constraints of a budget.
When assembling a home-theater system with at least five channels of sound, compromises invariably have to be made to stay within a budget and achieve the necessary additional channels of amplification and speakers. While home-theater receivers and speakers have come a long way in terms of sound quality in recent years, many listeners still find their performance underwhelming by audiophile standards.
Arcam auditions for the show
While a few high-value manufacturers, such as NAD and Rotel, have been producing some good-sounding digital surround receivers for several years, it was only very recently that Arcam released its first digital surround receiver. I reviewed this product (the DiVA AVR100 receiver) for Home Theater & Sound and enjoyed it so much that I purchased the review unit to use as a budget reference surround receiver. Not only is the AVR100 one of the best-sounding surround-sound receivers at its price point ($1199), but it also does a credible job as a two-channel integrated amplifier. I would not hesitate using it with any high-quality pair of floorstanding loudspeakers costing $1000 or even more, providing that they are a reasonable load and do not have a particularly low impedance (the bane of most receivers).
The trade-off to getting this excellent performance at such a reasonable price is that the AVR100 has a relatively small feature set. Other than being an excellent-sounding receiver, it also makes a decent pre/pro when used with a quality power amplifier. The analog inputs also sound very good as they bypass any internal digital signal processing, but utilizing the digital output of a DVD or CD player and the internal DACs of the AVR100 will also yield good results. It was able to decode my 24/96 DVDs, such as Livingston Taylors Ink [Chesky CHDVD179], which added even more sound quality to this already high-value system. Too bad that 24/96 DVDs have all but disappeared now that SACD and DVD-A are gaining popularity. But this is a topic for another time.
Even though I know absolutely NOTHING about tuners, I experimented with listening to FM stations through the AVR100, especially a local classical station. Instruments such as piano were placed solidly in the soundstage, and there was even some layering of the various sections of the orchestra going on. Although I did have some difficulty pulling in certain stations, I enjoyed listening to a wide variety of music through the FM tuner of the AVR100.
Paradigm joins the cast
The speakers I am currently using with the AVR100 are from the Paradigm Cinema home-theater speaker system. This system will be featured in an upcoming review in Home Theater & Sound, but I can say at this point that they are an excellent speaker system at a very reasonable price. I have listened to a number of "micro" systems recently, and the Paradigm is not only the least expensive, but it's also one of the best-sounding. At a total price of only $716, which includes four Cinemas, one Cinema CC, and the PDR-8 subwoofer, there are definitely sonic compromises that have been made to keep the cost of this system so low. However, to my ears, Paradigm has made all the right trade-offs. While other systems might image more precisely, have more detail or a richer, more "musical" sound, the Paradigm system seems to have just the right balance of these and other sonic characteristics with no real shortcomings.
Umm...a little help?
One area where the Paradigm speaker system does lack slightly, though, is in the bass. This is not surprising, considering that the PDR-8 is one of Paradigm's smallest and least expensive subwoofers ($299). Although Paradigm does offer many models of better and more expensive subs (I own the $799 PW-2200), I achieved good results mating the Cinema speaker system with American Acoustic Developments E-8 subwoofer. The E-8 is relatively small and inexpensive ($569), but it can still fill a room with plenty of surprisingly tight bass considering its size. Although the E-8 does not quite reach down to the lowest octave, its performance is significantly better than many subs in this price range.
Add a source, any source
Although I am using the mid-priced Pioneer DVD-626D (discontinued), just about any budget DVD player from Panasonic, Sony, Pioneer, etc. that lists for approximately $300 could be substituted to provide both excellent picture quality and sound (through the internal DACs of the AVR100). Most of these DVD players will actually have lower street prices and be available for around $200.
The sum of the parts
For a total price of less than $2400, I have assembled a high-quality receiver-based system with micro-sized speakers that can handle music just as well as movies. Whenever I spin a well-recorded CD, the Paradigm speakers throw a large, coherent, believable soundstage, and the Arcam receiver provides a smooth sound that is decidedly un-receiver like. Sure, the bass is not as tight as what the audiophile in me is used to, and it did not integrate perfectly with the satellites; however, what I am talking about here is a home-theater speaker system for well under $1000 that will crush most of the competitions similarly priced home-theater-in-a-box systems.
Simple recordings such as Eva Cassidys Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street G2-10046] were nicely reproduced with much of the pitch and intonation of her voice intact. There was also plenty of twang and body to Ani DiFrancos excellent guitar work on "Garden of Simple" from her new album Revelling: Reckoning [Righteous Babe Records RBR024-D], and her scathing vocals maintained their edge without sounding harsh or becoming compressed. More complex recordings such as Dadawas Sister Drum [WEA CD 99592] suffered a little with a loss of some low-level detail and slight congestion, but the sound was always coherent, and I could find nothing overtly objectionable to the sound no matter what I played.
To put things in perspective, when I switched from my big rig, which currently consists of a Krell KAV-300i integrated amp ($2500), upgraded MSB Link DAC III ($1198), and a review pair of Focus Audio MT1 loudspeakers ($3695), there were no sudden withdrawal symptoms when I listened to the much less expensive receiver-based system. The Arcam/Paradigm/AAD combo was not in the same class as the reference rig to be sure, but it did much of what the larger system was capable of and at less than one-third the price.
But wait, theres more
I have spent a lot of time describing the sound of this system for stereo recordings, but let us not forget that it is also capable of playing back multichannel Dolby Digital and DTS movie soundtracks. It sounded exceptional with soundtracks that feature well-recorded music, such as The Mummy: Ultimate Edition, but it could also do justice to the many explosions and raucous sound effects of this and other DVDs. Saving Private Ryan, for example, may have lacked some soundstage depth and the deepest bass, but it was otherwise as gut-wrenching and jarring an auditory experience as ever. While the last octave of bass was again missing, the droning sound of approaching tanks in the final battle scene still adequately filled the room. As with two-channel recordings, this system could handle any movie soundtrack that I threw at it, and it never lost its composure when played back at sane levels.
I could go on and on about the attributes of this system, but I will conclude by just saying how much I enjoyed listening to it. Sure the Arcam AVR100 does not have all the features of many other $1000 receivers, but its accurate and refined sound impressed me, and I never grew tired of listening to it. The Paradigm Cinema speaker system was also not the best that I have heard by a long shot, but it is vastly superior to most of the mass-market micro-speaker systems out there and also better than many similar systems from other specialty manufacturers. The fact that it is also one of the least expensive systems of this type is an added bonus. Substituting a subwoofer better than the PDR-8 provided with the Cinema system either with one from Paradigm or with something like the AAD E-8 will seriously up the ante and make this an even more balanced-sounding and better-integrated speaker system.
At $2400, this is still not what many would consider to be a cheap system. However, I would submit that it would be difficult to find a system that is as accomplished at both music and movies as this and that $2400 is the minimum price of admission for this type of performance. No, this is not the perfect system, but it is more than adequate for the needs of most people, and when compared to some much more expensive gear, the Arcam/Paradigm/AAD combo was never embarrassed and could even hold its own in many regards.
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