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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Home Cinema Review!
AudioControl Maestro M3
Home Cinema 7.1 Preamp/Processor




Brevis...
Price: $6,000
Likes: Superb 7.1 decoding, balanced outputs;
Dislikes: Software quirks, headphone jack location


by John Gatski

Since the 1970s, AudioControl has been making all sorts of audio gear: test sets, audio processors, amps, preamps, receivers, high-end car audio products — for home, professional or mobile audio enthusiasts. For the most part, the USA-made gizmos are a cut above the competition and never obsolete. In fact, I still use the SA-3050 real time audio analyzer, which has been around since the 1990s, to measure room acoustics in my home theater room and audiophile room.
Several years ago, I had a chance to review the original AudioControl Maestro and the Pantages multichannel amp. The Maestro was a transparent multichannel analog preamp, but it did not offer decoding of home theater formats (Dolby digital, DTS). And it predated the lossless Dolby Tru HD, DTS Master HD and linear PCM delivery of Blu-Ray.
Fast forward to today, and AudioControl has expanded its line of audio products by combining design/production resources with UK electronic manufacturer Arcam to manufacture a line of high-end AV products. This collaborative result includes AudioControl’s high-end installer, Maestro M3 preamp/processor reviewed here and Concert AVR-1 receiver. According to AudioControl President Tom Walker, the Maestro and AVR-1 are assembled in their plant outside of Seattle with a number of USA-made parts.
Audiophile-priced at $6,000, the Maestro M3 is a splendid-sounding, full-featured pre/pro that is about as good as I have ever heard from home cinema sound preamps. Its internal decoding of the lossless formats is so good that it matches the output of expensive BD player analog outputs.

Features
Designed for the professional home installer, the Maestro M3 is a well-featured, preamp/processor that includes a multitude of audio inputs and outputs. Its array of connectors include: balanced/unbalanced outputs for 7.1 channels, plus two extra sub channels (L, R, C, SW1-3, SL, SR, SBL, SBR, ten unbalanced inputs for 7.1 analog multichannel setups plus two extra sub channels, three zones, seven sets of stereo analog unbalanced jacks, phono preamp input, seven digital inputs (four optical, three coaxial). It also has a headphone jack, but it is more for the Ipod generation with its rear-panel mounted, 1/8th-inch jack.
The Maestro does not skimp on the video I/Os — with six HDMI inputs, six sets of component inputs, active-balanced component output, seven composite video inputs and 10 S-video inputs. The M3 is equipped with two HDMI outputs (one is active balanced for HD video runs over CAT 5, a transmission scheme AudioControl has used with great success for high-end installations). The Maestro M3 also includes Networking via Ethernet or USB RS 232. Software updates can be done via the network with a PC.

The onboard decoding or analog path net a multichannel sound that really is a cut above the main stream A/V preamps. The Audio-Control Maestro M3 is indeed an “audiophile” quality AV multichannel preamp/processor and worthy of the Everything Audio Stellar Sound Award.

Up front, the quite-attractive Maestro has just the right amount of buttons for such a deep-featured pre/pro. The right-hand located volume control is large and has a solid feel. The top mounted, deep-blue display text and numbers can be read easily from 12-15 feet away, and the function buttons give redundancy to the remote. You can actually set up and run the Maestro by just using the front panel buttons. The buttons include Menu, Input, Info, Mode, Select, Mute, Display, Direct Mode, and Zone 1-3 Selection.
The Maestro M3 is a 1.3b HDMI compatible preamp (it will support some 3D), and it features decoding for all major audio formats including DTS Master HD, Dolby Tru-HD, as well as the lossy formats: Dolby Digital and DTS. Also, it can process two-channel audio to multichannel via Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo. (I found these codecs very effective for old PCM-output laserdiscs and TV stereo audio.)
The M3 also decodes FLAC, MPS, .Wav, and Windows lossless audio files that are transmitted via a network connection or USB. The unit features some of the latest audio processing features, such as Dolby Volume, to keep all your component input levels at a consistent level.
The key to AudioControl’s great sound is its well-isolated audio section — with 24-bit/192 digital converters, 32-bit decoding, an audiophile-grade power supply with extra regulation and filtering, and careful analog parts selection throughout the signal path.
Although I usually seek out the audio performance potential of home cinema pre/pros, the Maestro is much more — with its plethora of network connections and extra zones. Installers should love its easy integration potential to wire up a theater room, and make extra audio or video feeds to additional rooms. The HD video over CAT 5 is a great feature for long distance high-definition video runs, enabling longer than HDMI distance, without loss of video quality. The Maestro also contains a quality video scaler and offers video modes from 480i to 1080P.

The setup
First, I installed the Maestro M3 in my home cinema room, and then for two-channel audiophile auditions in my high-end listening room. For the cinema set up, I mated the M3 with my reference Carver A750X (3-channel) and A500X (2-channel) amplifiers or the original AudioControl Pantages five-channel amplifier. MIT speaker cables connected the Westlake LC8.1 x 2 (L-R), Westlake LC2.65 (Center) and the two NHT Source One (surrounds). For the .1 bass, I chose the Paradigm Pro-15 subwoofer, a worthy replacement for the old Paradigm Servo 15. All line-level cabling was courtesy of Alpha Core (solid-silver Goertz); I routed all AC lines to an Essential Sound Products Essence Reference Power Strip.
Home theater sources included a Pioneer BDP-09FD BD player, Oppo BDP-83SE universal/BD player and Sony BDP-550 — a nice-performing low-cost 2009 BD player with good analog output. I also connected a component video and TOSlink digital audio feed from the Verizon FiOS digital TV receiver.
The M3 is equipped with the AudioControl’s proprietary setup software and measurement mic to provide automatic setup for speaker-level matching, delay, EQ, etc. It is easy to operate with the M3, but I also did a manual setup, using the SA-3050 as a level/spectrum analyzer. The M3‘s automated setup and adjustment does a pretty good job in getting the basic parameters tailored to the room. But, as with other preamps and receivers that offer auto setup programs for speakers, the auto setup software added a few dBs too many to the midbass EQ adjustment; the vocals and other midband bass audio sounded too plump for my taste. I like the bass tighter in the bass frequencies, which usually means no EQ in my room.

On numerous BDs, I found the M3’s internal decoding of uncompressed PCM, Dolby Tru-HD and DTS Master HD as good as the best standalone BD players — including my reference Pioneer BDP-09FD.

Besides some high frequency reflections that I have cured through acoustic treatment, my room is virtually free of midbass resonance and typical bass peaks and valleys that would require extensive EQ. With flat speakers and a good subwoofer, such as my Westlake mains and Paradigm Pro 15, my room does not require bass EQ. Thus, I chose the manual mode and no EQ. Just my preference.
Sonically, the Maestro is amazing (we’ll get to that), but functionally my test M3 revealed a few setup function and operation aberrations. For instance, the remote control selection of setup parameters, such as speaker distance, delay, and speaker size did not always respond to commands. Sometimes, I would select a sub menu and the mode would revert back to the prior one. Luckily, most setup functions can be managed from the front panel buttons, which I ended up using quite a bit.
The other functional anomaly I noticed was that the unit did not always respond to basic remote-control commands, such as volume, source switching — and even on/off. When this lack of remote control command endured, I resorted to adjusting the appropriate controls on the unit. Eventually, I had some success by pointing the remote away from the M3.
Even after I sent the unit back for a software upgrade in late summer for both remote and unit, I still had occasional bouts of the menus reverting back to the previous one without me touching the remote. According to Audio-Control, those problems have now been fixed with the November 2010 software upgrade, but I did not get that update in time to test it.
During the test period, I also found that the speaker distance/delay setting in the manual mode was a tad slow in its adjustment. On most preamps, this function will quickly cycle through feet and inches to get to the desired distance for each speaker setting. In the manual mode, however, the Maestro manually cycles through distance — one inch at a time. This slow process means that a 5.1 or a 7.1 setup takes more time as each channel adjustment moves up the distance scale — about an inch a second. It did not matter whether I held the button on the remote or the unit, or flicked it as fast as I could, it still moved at one speed. The distance adjustment, alone, took me 12 minutes to complete in the manual mode.
On the plus side of its functionality, I loved the Maestro’s easy-to-read set-up menus and the large typeface of the words for setting up the different options for each input (audio input, renaming the input, input video resolution, etc.). Other than the quirky speaker distance and the buggy remote function, the various setup and menus were quite logical and easy to adjust.

The audition
After everything was dialed in, I selected the HDMI digital input from the Pioneer BDP-09FD Player and popped in my surround tour de force Blu-ray disc, the animated feature, Bolt. As soon as the first segment starting playing, I knew that its sonic performance is the reason to buy this pre/pro; it relays audio that is much more transparent and open than typical A/V receivers and processors on the market. For those folks who say all $2,000+ pre/pros sound the same, I say listen to the M3.
On Bolt, the music soundtrack was smoother, more dynamic and relayed a wider sense of space in width and depth than I was used to hearing it with the Onkyo Professional Pre/Pro, which is quite good. On numerous BDs, I found the M3’s internal decoding of uncompressed PCM, Dolby Tru-HD and DTS Master HD as good as the best standalone BD players — including my reference Pioneer BDP-09FD. Here was the Maestro, matching, if not exceeding, the playback of the Pioneer. No small feat.
The onboard decoding is so good that the Maestro can deliver the same high-quality audio from any player, regardless of price. For instance, my $350 Sony BDP-550 has very good video quality, but the onboard audio decoding is merely good, compared to the Pioneer. But with the Maestro decoding the Sony’s bitstream output, it sounds like a million bucks. (well, okay, $6,000 bucks).
On BD after BD, the Maestro’s audio was exemplary. All the Toy Story (1-3) BDs sounded superb — excellent panning effects with a wide soundstage. From the all-digital Iron Man, Transformers and Incredible Hulk BDs to the analog-sourced surround of the 1970s-classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the smooth, yet dynamic, multichannel soundfield always impressed. Such width and depth to the spatial cues. This is what you want from home cinema sound.

The M3’s analog line stage is pretty darn good as well. Listening to DVD-V and DVD-A 24/96 high-resolution acoustic music, through the Pioneer and the Oppo analog outputs, revealed a clean and open character — with excellent dynamic range.

Now I have not evaluated all the high-end pre/pros (separate Anthem AVM-50V, Classe CP-700, and Denon AVP-A1HDCI reviews will be completed in the near future), but I have auditioned a number of them; the M3 is certainly in the top tier — in terms of its sonics.
On music BDs (The Who Live at Isle of Wight, Woodstock) and music DVD-As played on the Oppo BDP-83SE, I found the M3 to be just as sonically satisfying as the movie playback. It truly is an audiophile-caliber multichannel amp — either decoding internally or transmitting the analog feed.
The M3’s analog line stage is pretty darn good as well. Listening to DVD-V and DVD-A 24/96 high-resolution acoustic music, through the Pioneer and the Oppo analog outputs, revealed a clean and open character — with excellent dynamic range. My home-brew, 24 bit/96-sample rate guitar recordings are recorded without a limiter or compression, and that “liveness” really shines through the M3.
One last audio digression; I connected the preamp to my stereo audiophile rig, which included an Esoteric DV-50 universal player, Bryston 14BSST and Pass X-350.5 amplifiers, and Legacy Focus 20/20 speakers. With the Esoteric feeding the M3 through its discrete analog outputs, the net sonic result was neutral reproduction with a tight bass and taut treble — but without harsh transients. Pre-recorded pop and jazz SACDs, and DVD-As were presented with a clean, detailed sheen. The overall sound lacked that bit of the euphonic coloration I often hear in esoteric, high-dollar preamps, but that is okay by me. I am a neutral audio kind a guy.
Video wise, the scaler in the Maestro is clean detailed and accurate, especially on 1080P. Video from the Pioneer always looked stunning from BD or upscaled DVDs. The 1080P quality was as good as connecting directly from the Pioneer BD player to the LCD. On occasion, I did experience a video hiccup when watching BDs from any one of the HDMI-connected players. If I started a movie, but then switched to another source (check the CNN news, etc.) and then came back to BD movie, the LCD screen would go through a cycle of video lock/unlocks (blank screen for five seconds, then 20 seconds of video — and the cycle would repeat again).


It only happened when I switched to another source and then came back to the original active source. And It happened with every player I connected. I changed cables, swapped cables, etc., but nothing would fix the problem once it started — except turning off the M3 and turning it back on with the desired source activated.
To avoid this nuisance, I learned quickly not to switch sources when viewing movies. I assume the video unlock is a HDMI communications problem with my Sony XBR4 LCD, but I never experienced it with any other HDMI-equipped receiver or preamp/processor that I have auditioned. And it may be that the problem has been fixed by the time you read this review. With the latest software update, AudioControl said its M3 customers are not reporting similar video problems.

The verdict
Even with its quirks, I loved the Maestro M3. Once I dialed it in, its high-quality audio and video performance make it a multichannel preamp for those of us who want ultimate audio and video quality. The bells and whistles (extra zones, network capability) are nice for the installation clientele. But for me, the main selling point of this pre/pro is its reference sound quality. The onboard decoding or analog path net a multichannel sound that really is a cut above the main stream A/V preamps. The Audio-Control Maestro M3 is indeed an “audiophile” quality AV multichannel preamp/processor and worthy of our Stellar Sound Award.

John Gatski is founder, publisher/editor of the Everything Audio Network. He has been reviewing audio gear since 1994.

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