A/V System Controller
Description Price: $2798 USD
Dimensions: 17" W x 10"D x 3.5" H
Weight: 15 pounds
Warranty: Five years parts and labor
- Motorola DigitalDNA
- Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS, Dolby Pro
- 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)
- 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.
I suspect that most (although
not all) customers -- particularly for those with complex systems -- will need a
retailers 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 cant imagine anybody with system needs that the
Reference 30 cant 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, Ive 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 doesnt 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 whats 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 couldnt hope to offer.
Furthermore, although B&K doesnt 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
didnt offer good solid sound performance. Not to worry.
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. Im not going to tell you that
its the equal of the best two-channel preamps, but it offered very good
performance. It was good enough that Im now curious to hear what one of
B&Ks 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, thats 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 Ive 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 Dans 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 couldnt rescue the decidedly poorly recorded soundtrack
of what would otherwise be one of the best concert videos ever to be released. Peter
Gabriels Secret World Live sounds neither incisive nor vibrant, and the
B&Ks neutral and honest character presented exactly what was on the disc,
whether I liked it or not.
The B&K Reference 30 is the equal of the best overall
processor that Ive 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 Ive
ever encountered, the Reference 30 gets an unqualified rave and my highest recommendation.
|Speakers - Soliloquy 6.5
(for two-channel use), Silverline Sonata II (mains), Silverline Sonatina II (surrounds),
and Silverline Center Stage (center)
- Adcom GFA 7000
|Source - Pioneer DV-525 DVD
- DH Labs BL-1 interconnects, D-75 digital interconnect, Monster Cable speaker cables.
|Monitor - Proscan PS36700