Bryston SP3 Surround Processor and 9B SST² Amplifier
Price: $17,595 At A Glance: No-compromise musicality in a home theater • Clean and powerful • No-frills design
If you’ve ever spent an afternoon at a big-box store courting eye strain and knee pain comparing the lineup of AVRs, then you’ve doubtless discovered that, superficially at least, the offerings have more in common than not. Sure, the more you spend, the more buzzwords are silk-screened across the front panel, the more HDMI connections you find around back, and, when it comes to power, the more exaggeration you get. One thing about Bryston and power—it’s not within theirs to lie. My first audiophile speakers, Magnepan MG-IIIa speakers, didn’t turn amazing until they met a Bryston 4B amp. If current is what your speakers crave, a Bryston amp could be their best friend.
The 9B SST² is a nothing-held-back five-channel amplifier with both balanced and single-ended connections. Using a blade-like arrangement, each 120-watt channel card (200 watts into 4 ohms) has its own substantial toroidal transformer and heat sinks seemingly large enough to cool off a Google server. No Class D power tricks here, just pure old-school class A/B amplification.
Between the XLR and RCA connector of each channel of the 9B SST² are switches to select which style input to use, that channel’s polarity, and a three-position gain setting with selections for 17, 23, or 29 decibels. The latter is recommended for single-ended connections, while 23 dB is recommended if you’re using balanced connections. I used balanced XLR outputs from the SP3 processor but heard no ill effects even at the 29-dB setting, so that’s where I kept it for most of the review.
Bryston is the only amp manufacturer that gives you a 20-year transferrable warranty on its analog components like the 9B SST². That’s confidence that speaks of quality. But even Bryston’s flagship SP3 digital surround processor comes with a 5-year warranty. At $9,500, the SP3 is one of the more expensive processors you can buy, so come expecting a lot, at least sonically. But, as with other high-end processors from the likes of Classé and Cary, and perhaps some others, don’t expect a plethora of bells and whistles. The old adage of a straight-wire-with-gain is still the corporate mentality at this Canadian bastion of audiophilia. So other than video switching for eight HDMI source inputs and two HDMI display outputs, the SP3 forgoes legacy component video, S-video, and composite video inputs and outputs and all the video scaling, deinterlacing, and cross-conversion circuitry that brings along. There are workarounds, of course, for legacy (non-HDMI) video equipment, like wiring video directly to your display. But seriously, if you have to ask, you can’t afford the Bryston SP3 anyway. The worst of it, for me anyway, was not being able to see the volume setting or surround modes displayed on the TV.
Let’s talk about the heavy square metal brick of a remote. Even though it doesn’t look like it, motion-detection backlighting can be programmed in within seconds. I recommend that you do this, as it greatly improves the readability of the small white font/black background controls. The layout, with rows of identical buttons, is far from ergonomic. But, again, if you’re investing this much money, you’ll probably program (or have your dealer program) a fancier remote to control your whole room from sound to lights. When that breaks, you’ll use this.
The SP3 has a 7.1-channel analog audio input (single-ended) for an SACD or DVD player if needed. There are six two-channel single-ended (RCA) inputs, assigned to the six sources (CD, Tuner, Cable/Sat, DVD, DVR/Tape, and Tape) and two two-channel balanced (XLR) inputs assigned to two other sources. Each of those eight sources is then also assigned one of the eight HDMI inputs. Using either the HDMI button on the front panel or the remote, you can switch the source you’ve currently selected to use either the analog or HDMI input associated with it. The SP3 remembers the last setting for each of the sources selected, so in practice, it’s set it and forget it. I connected three HDMI-equipped devices (a Blu-ray player, an HD DVD player I sometimes use as a DVD player/CD transport, and an HD DirecTV receiver) to the first three sources on the SP3, my turntable/phono stage to the analog input for the fourth source, and I still had plenty of HDMI, digital, and analog inputs left. Both HDMI video outputs are simultaneously active, so choosing between my Pioneer plasma or JVC projector simply meant turning one off and the other on.
Back to the minimalism—Bryston does not offer room equalization software in the SP3, either. The company isn’t a big believer in room EQ, citing in a white paper by Bryston’s James Tanner, in which he says it essentially boils down to attempting to undo what your speaker designer undoubtedly spent many a sleepless night perfecting. In this view, electronic room EQ is no substitute for proper speaker positioning and some modest room treatment. While the AVRs I’ve reviewed in the past few years have attempted to provide flat frequency response in up to eight different listening seats—and have frequently done a decent job of it—when all is said and done, I’ve usually ended up turning off the EQ.
You should plug the SP3 into your home network to facilitate firmware updates. This is a high-end processor, but the HDMI standard it supports is a hornet’s nest that small manufacturers like Bryston find challenging to keep up with—but not for lack of trying. From delivery through the short review period, Bryston released not one, but two firmware updates. I ran into a problem with a new Blu-ray player in which a fast-forward/rewind/pause over a few seconds caused the SP3 to lose the bitstream signal, and it defaulted to PCM processing when I hit play. Not a pretty sound, I can assure you! But Bryston was ahead of me, and its latest firmware update corrected the vagaries with my player. And the process was stupid simple, even for a neophyte, which I sometimes wish I was.
Vinyl vs. Digital
Not many reviewers still keep vinyl in their stable, and I’ll confess that I go through long stretches where I’m perfectly satisfied with low-bit Pandora. But when you get something as sweet as the Bryston combo to review, you’d be a fool not to use your best audio sources. Even with my aging Grado cartridge in play, there’s still that sense of body that is sorely lacking in even the best digital delivery.