As I explored the capabilities of the Parasound Halo and Marantz, I decided to use some of the same difficult test material I had found helpful (and revealing) in my CD player reviews. Often this is material with repeated or high-level treble transients (female voice, cymbals, other metallic percussion).
With these CDs the Parasound occasionally emphasized the leading edge of treble sounds. You might say the P7 sounded a little brighter than neutral, but really the overall treble level didn’t rise. Instead, only the first part of “S” sounds and the initial “ping” of cymbals being struck was emphasized. In contrast, the mbl, Audio Research, and the Marantz all tended to sound as detailed as the P7, yet somewhat smoother, when reproducing these same sounds.
Are these slightly accentuated transient edges right or wrong? That’s harder to say. First we should note that these emphasized transients aren’t what you hear with live acoustic music. So, in some sense, this behavior isn’t what we want. But, it may not be the fault of the equipment under test. It could, for example, be on the recordings. Or, these transient anomalies could be caused by the D/A converter that I used (primarily an EMM Labs CDSA). And so on.
Returning to the Marantz on the same test material, I got basically the same result with it as I did with the mbl, which is remarkable considering the price disparity between the products. Again, the differences were essentially inaudible, to me at least. My colleagues at Playback and The Absolute Sound have sometimes heard things that I didn’t notice immediately (and vice versa), so I wouldn’t take it to the bank that this $2600 A/V controller is basically the equal of a more or less handmade $24,000 preamp from Germany. But I would say for many of us that it is so darn close on the kind of material I used that the differences are meaningless (the paragraphs above should issue a further cautionary note about the importance of specific test material). And almost no one would view the value issue as debatable.
Now I need to bring up the troubling tale of the Audio Research LS26. The trouble is that it doesn’t sound like the mbl or the Marantz. The LS26 is troubling because it isn’t obviously flawed or superior; it just sounds different. The tonal balance is similar, the transient handling is similar, and the soundstaging is similar. But I can’t imagine that two groups of experienced listeners would be indifferent if offered their choice of the mbl/Marantz or the Audio Research. Some would pick the former and some the latter.
So, what’s the deal?