Preamp/Processor Shopping Tips
When it comes to the nerve center of a home theater, most consumers opt for an A/V receiver, which combines a preamp/processor (pre/pro) and multichannel power amp in one chassis. However, some enthusiasts choose to buy a separate pre/pro and power amp, believing that this results in superior sound quality, though it's generally a more expensive way to go. If you want the best possible soundand you have the budgetyou're probably shopping for separates.
Once you decide that you want separates rather an A/V receiver, you've crossed over into the world of high-end home-theater electronics, and you probably won't find these products at your local big-box chain. Specialty retailers provide the best selection, overall knowledge, and customer service for this type of product.
You're unlikely to find a dealer that can provide comparative listening demos of multiple pre/pros. Most A/V shops offer no more than a few different models, and connecting even two to the same power amp and speakers in a way that allows timely switching between them is no simple task. But if you're a loyal customer, they might let you take one home for a trial evaluation in your system. (Hey, it's worth asking!)
Short of this, your best source of information about how a pre/pro sounds is a reliable product reviewsuch as those found here on HomeTheater.com! These reviews will also let you know how easy (or difficult) it is to set up and operate the device. Pre/pros are relatively complex, but no more so than a good A/V receiver. Be sure to check out our pre/pro Top Picks, which include the best ones we've reviewed in three different price ranges.
Cary Audio Cinema 12
Don't get too hung up on specifications. You will find almost identical technical specs among various brands, making it virtually impossible to choose based on this alonenot that you'd ever want to choose an A/V product based solely on specs. Performance and engineering have reached a level of sophistication that specs such as frequency response, noise, and distortion are all more than acceptable in virtually every case.
Even when there are slight variations in the technical measurements, most folks would be hard pressed to detect any difference in a subjective listening test. There simply aren't huge discrepancies in sound quality from one manufacturer to another. However, there are subtle differences in the sonic signature of various pre/pros that is affected by the speakers and amps used, which is why it's important to use the same components when comparing pre/pros.
Having said all that, some specsfor example, the number and type of inputs and outputswill help you to narrow your choices. For instance, how many source devices do you have? Do you expect to add more in the near future? Select a pre/pro with enough HDMI and other inputs to accommodate your current system and future plans. If you have an analog turntable, make sure the pre/pro has a phono input suitable for the type of cartridge you use (moving magnet or moving coil) unless you use an outboard phono preamp. Also, be sure the HDMI connections are version 1.4, which allows the use of 3D components, Audio Return Channel, and other features.
The rear panel of the Integra DHC-80.3 includes balanced XLR outputs along the bottom.
Some pre/pros offer balanced analog-audio outputs. Balanced connections minimize noise pickup in long cables, but in most systems, the cables connecting the pre/pro to the power amp will be very short, so this is not of critical concern. If it is to you, make sure the power amp you plan to use has balanced inputs.
Since pre/pros fall squarely in the high-end category, virtually all current models will meet your basic needs with certain features, such as the ability to decode all modern surround formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, automatic room calibration, video upconversion for analog video sources, and onscreen display via HDMI. (If a pre/pro lacks any of these features, look elsewhere.) Many manufacturers implement the auto-calibration system from Audyssey or Trinnov to provide setup assistance and room equalization (if desired), but others use their own proprietary system.
A key feature is the video processor. Among the most common processors are Silicon Image DVDO, Sigma Designs/Gennum VXP, Marvell Qdeo, and Faroudja DCDi, though the Faroudja is getting fairly long in the tooth at this point and many pre/pros are starting to use other, newer processors such as Qdeo. Another excellent processor used in some pre/pros is called HQV, originally developed by Silicon Optix and later acquired by IDT, which recently sold the technology to Qualcomm, so it's unclear if HQV will continue to be used as much in future products.
The HQV Benchmark 2.0 test disc lets you test the video-processing capabilities of any pre/pro.
To evaluate the performance of a pre/pro's video processor, take a test disc to the retailer; Spears and Munsil's High-Definition Benchmark Blu-ray includes some good tests of the processor's deinterlacing capabilities, but my favorite processor test discs are the HQV Benchmark 2.0 Blu-ray and standard-def DVD, which can be ordered here. Familiarize yourself with the tests before you go to the store, then be sure the disc player is set to output 1080i (for Blu-ray) or 480i (for DVD) and run the tests to see how well the pre/pro's processor handles them.
Most pre/pros are sure to meet your needs; the key differences for most buyers will be the features. For instance, Marantz and Denon have adopted Apple's AirPlay, allowing you to play music wirelessly from any Apple iDevice through your sound system, while Integra offers 4K video upscaling. Ultimately, you will make your final decision based on the feature set that appeals to you the mostand, of course, the sonic character you find most pleasing with your system.
In fact, you might want to consider getting a pre/pro and matching power amp from the same manufacturer. Not only will they be sonically matched and optimized for each other, they will present a unified visual appearance, if that's important to you.