HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



November
2001

Reviewed by
John Potis
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2001



B&K
Reference 30
A/V System Controller

Features SnapShot!

Description

Price: $2798 USD
Dimensions: 17" W x 10"D x 3.5" H
Weight: 15 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • Motorola DigitalDNA
  • Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic, THX
  • Digitally-synthesized AM/FM stereo tuner with 40 presets
  • Video inputs: composite (7), S-video (7), component (2)
  • Video outputs: composite (5), S-video (5), component (1)

Features (cont'd)
  • Audio inputs: stereo (7)
  • Digital inputs: coaxial (6), optical (5)
  • Six-channel analog input
  • Eight-channel surround output
  • On-screen menus
  • Adjustable subwoofer crossover (frequency and slope)
  • Gold-plated connectors
  • Four 12VDC triggers
  • RS-232 control
  • 96kHz/24-bit A/D and D/A conversion
  • Room equalization
  • Fully controllable via front panel or remote control
  • Two-zone operation

The B&K Reference 30 is a surround processor/preamplifier/tuner combo in the tradition of some of my favorites out there, which is to say that it eschews bells and whistles (and surround modes) that, once the initial fascination wears off, will seldom see use. B&K has decided to put its effort towards creating a piece with a carefully-thought-out feature set that offers what people in the real world will value for years to come.

Useful features galore

There were even a few very useful features, which I did not require but which nevertheless deserve mention. The first is a digital notch filter intended for smoothing bass response in problematic situations. What a wonderful use of digital technology! Once you identify the offending frequencies (via the internal sine-wave generator and your SPL meter) in your room, you can set the width and breadth of the filter to remove the source of your bass frustration.

Then there's digital room equalization. While many receivers (and a few processors) include both bass and treble controls, the B&K goes one better by having them operate in the digital domain and then by giving you control over both the affected frequencies and the amplitude of the correction -- all from the remote control. (Note: corrections are not available in THX mode.)

A third neat feature is what B&K calls the "peak limiter," which is an adjustable dynamic limiter that puts a ceiling on how loudly your system can be driven. This could be a boon to the apartment dweller who needs to set neighbor-friendly volumes or to the audiophile who worries about damaging his speakers. And the limiter means business too. When I received the unit, the dynamic ceiling was set too low (probably not a factory preset -- one never knows who last used a review sample before it is received). Once I reached my preset limit, I tried to change the relative front-to-back balance. Trying to raise the surround volume via the remote actually had the Reference 30 turning down the front speaker volume! The unit would not budge on ultimate SPLs, but it knew how to go about effecting a change of balance. Pretty smart.

Help wanted...

I suspect that most (although not all) customers -- particularly for those with complex systems -- will need a retailer’s help setting up the Reference 30. But it's worth it -- the difficulties in setting up the Reference 30 are directly related to its high degree of flexibility. Once the connections are made, operation gets considerably more user-friendly.

I can’t imagine anybody with system needs that the Reference 30 can’t handle with its extensive list of assignable inputs and other necessary features. But B&K has thankfully not gone overboard with user adjustments that require endless hours of tweaking and experimentation. B&K has provided the Reference 30 with what it takes to make great sound, no more and no less. Well, maybe with one thing more, something that makes the B&K Reference 30 truly special: the remote.

Veterans of home theater know one very dirty little secret about our movies: they are not all created equal. Concert videos (my main interest in multichannel listening) are even worse. DVD-to-DVD variations in bass mixing as well as surround-speaker levels can be very frustrating. Some movies have you lunging for the subwoofer to inject it with a little extra (or a little less) bass volume; others have you wondering why, all of the sudden, the surround channels seem so improperly balanced. For the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out why every company out there does not provide an easy-to-use front-to-back balance control and/or subwoofer volume control. One of the very first digital surround products I ever bought (the Yamaha DSP-1) included just such a balance control, but even Yamaha doesn’t do that any more.

Well, thankfully, B&K does. They even thought to include a control over the relative volume of the center-channel speaker, all from easily locatable (even in the dark!) buttons on the remote control. No fumbling through on-screen menus, no pausing the movie to cycle through the test signals, just easy-to-achieve balance perfection on the fly. In addition to the high-tech goodies and unflappable performance offered by the Reference 30, this is one of the things that makes the B&K so recommendable: the ability to adjust, on the fly, for the best day-to-day performance and enjoyment. And what’s more, all these adjustments are temporary; everything will revert to the preset levels once the unit is powered down or returned to sleep mode. I hope others take a lesson here.

Another on-the-fly feature that I think is really cool is the ability to select which speakers see action. Once again, no flipping through on-screen menus or other such nonsense; just select which listening mode you desire and follow it up immediately with a press of one of the keys on the numerical keypad on the remote. Hit "THX" and "5" and you are in THX mode with five speakers playing. Want to turn off the center? Hit "THX" and "4" and your center-channel speaker is turned off. Not happy with the way the surround channels are mixed on your favorite concert video? Hit "Surr" (DPL) and "3" and the surround channels are silenced. When you choose five speakers (as opposed to six or seven) you even get to decide whether you want the side- or rear-mounted surrounds.

You can even juice up straight two-channel stereo. If, for example, you are working at your desk, which is significantly out of the sweet-spot, you can hit "Stereo" and "3" to activate the center-channel speaker, and your favorite CD now has some soundstaging that two speakers couldn’t hope to offer. Furthermore, although B&K doesn’t call it such, hitting "Mono" and the appropriate number will distribute music all over your room to create a "Party" mode. The point here is that the Reference 30 is extremely flexible in ways that people will use every day, and that flexibility is achieved in a simple fashion.

Of course, such flexibility would be wasted in a piece that didn’t offer good solid sound performance. Not to worry.

Sound off...

When the Reference 30 first arrived, I was eager to hear its basic sound qualities. I slipped it into my reference stereo system as a basic preamplifier. I was both impressed and encouraged. I’m not going to tell you that it’s the equal of the best two-channel preamps, but it offered very good performance. It was good enough that I’m now curious to hear what one of B&K’s dedicated two-channel preamps can do. The sound was uncommonly solid, smooth and refined with very good soundstaging qualities.

Then I moved it into my home-theater system and discovered that the DSP processing was what really made the Reference 30 special. Saving Private Ryan was spectacular through the B&K. For much of the time I was auditioning the Reference 30, I was without a subwoofer and was using either the Silverline Sonata IIs or Soliloquy 6.5s as the right and left front speakers. Particularly over the Soliloquy 6.5s, the validity of the bass performance was impressive: deep, powerful, rock-solid and fast.

During the final battle scene, where Captain Miller temporarily loses his hearing and most of the sound is muted, the room around me continued to shake and vibrate with the deepest and almost inaudible bass effects. Surround processing seemed every bit as capable; the system was agile in the extreme and did a phenomenal job of enveloping me in the action. Even with 5.1 playback, mortars, grenades and ricochet effects bombarded me, just as intended, and even in the midst of combat, dialogue remained intelligible and focused. This was first-rate performance.

Music-video performance was no less stellar. The same qualities that made for a great movie-sound presentation contributed to success on film scores as well. Utter transparency, solid and musical bass performance and an uncolored presentation were what I got from the B&K. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a superbly recorded musical soundtrack featuring the cello of Yo Yo Ma. Subtly mixed, it operates on the senses at an almost subliminal level. Well, that’s the way the B&K delivered it to me -- smooth and warm and so artifact-free that seldom did it draw direct attention to itself.

Not being happy with the way a lot of concert videos are mastered on DVD (will someone please deliver us from engineers who think we need to be surrounded by the band?), I often revert to the analog track and listen using Dolby Pro Logic. Most receivers and lesser processors tend to deliver a significantly less musical, more highly colored, and less transparent performance. Not so with the B&K. Its DPL processing was truly excellent -- on a par with the very best I’ve ever heard. Switching between DPL and Dolby Digital on music demonstrated only a very small, almost insignificant, sonic cost in vibrancy and immediacy that was more than a fair trade-off for getting the performers back on the stage where they belong.

Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature DVD is an incisive recording with sharp transients, deep and solid bass, and an up-close and intimate sound. It can, at times, also be a touch on the bright side, making those transients a little sharp-edged. The Reference 30 allowed me to hear it all in just that way. Alas, even the B&K couldn’t rescue the decidedly poorly recorded soundtrack of what would otherwise be one of the best concert videos ever to be released. Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live sounds neither incisive nor vibrant, and the B&K’s neutral and honest character presented exactly what was on the disc, whether I liked it or not.

Conclusion

The B&K Reference 30 is the equal of the best overall processor that I’ve reviewed for Home Theater & Sound: the Parasound AVC-2500u. Both have smooth and refined yet meaty presentations as compared to units like my own Yamaha DSP-A1, which sounds more ethereal by comparison. What really sets the B&K and Parasound apart are their respective ergonomic strengths. The Parasound is one of the easiest processors to set up, due in large part to its automated system of speaker balance and time-delay setting. On the other hand, once it's set up, the B&K is just fabulous to use in day-to-day operation due to the aforementioned remote control over system balance. Combine this in both cases with excellent sound and you have two all-around top-tier processors.

Given its first-class build quality, very fair price, unsurpassed sonics and one of the most user-friendly operating systems I’ve ever encountered, the Reference 30 gets an unqualified rave and my highest recommendation.

Review System
Speakers - Soliloquy 6.5 (for two-channel use), Silverline Sonata II (mains), Silverline Sonatina II (surrounds), and Silverline Center Stage (center)
Amplifer - Adcom GFA 7000
Source - Pioneer DV-525 DVD player
Cables - DH Labs BL-1 interconnects, D-75 digital interconnect, Monster Cable speaker cables.
Monitor - Proscan PS36700 direct-view monitor
 

Manufacturer contact information:

B&K Components, Ltd.
2100 Old Union Road
Buffalo, New York 14227
Phone: 1-800-543-5252
Fax: (716) 656-0026

E-mail: info@bkcomp.com
Website: www.bkcomp.com

 


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