Music in the Round #88: SPL Volume 8 and SMC 7.1 Page 2

I began with the Volume 8 and found that connecting it with the DB25 cables was much easier than I'd expected. If you attach the DB25s to the back of the component before inserting it in the rack, the multiple XLRs are now at the end of flexible links which are easier to access than the traditional connections at the rear of a chassis in an equipment rack. One DB25 was connected to my line-level XLR output cables and the other to the outputs of the exaSound e38 DAC via Hosa RCA-to-XLR adapters. When I connected the SMC 7.1, it was even easier—all I had to do was transfer to it the two DB25s from the Volume 8. It all went smoothly, and when I powered up, I heard no background noise.

Before telling you what the two SPL boxes sounded like, I'll tell you that they sounded identical to each other. That wasn't surprising, once I'd examined their circuitry and SPL's circuit diagrams. Apparently, in addition to the common discrete attenuator, both use the same eight independent input buffers and eight output buffers, each with local power-filter capacitors adjacent to each buffer board. The SMC 7.1 simply adds switching for the headphone output, more inputs and outputs, and the ability to listen independently to any channel or combination of channels.

After some careful listening with the Audio Research MP1, to refresh my ears as to the pre-SPL sound of my system, I installed the Volume 8. I was disappointed: My initial impression was of a dim, claustrophobic sound. It was a bit disturbing to hear that a "professional" device like so many with which our beloved recordings are monitored and/or processed was of a lesser sound quality than audiophiles expect. There was no air, no space, no sparkle. I listened for the rest of the day and gradually grew less bothered, but I put that up to adaptation.

After a weekend away, I returned and listened again. Now my system sounded really great. Definitely not as it had long sounded, it now had a refreshing new degree of balance. Gone was the occasional high-frequency glint, though that absence was not accompanied by any disappointment over the loss of treble detail; rather, I was pleased with the enhancement of midrange information and its extension into the upper bass. As a result, there were now fewer clues to the physical presence of each of my Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 front and 804 D3 surround speakers. The entire soundstage was more continuous than contiguous, and the sweet spot was much bigger.

I sat a friend in that sweet spot and played him the highly immersive surround version of Willie Nelson's Night and Day (DVD-Audio, Surrounded-By Entertainment SBE-1001-9). He was impressed, as I'd expected him to be. But sitting on another sofa, against the room's right sidewall, I was stunned to perceive a positive image of the piano directly across the room, against the opposite sidewall, halfway between the left front B&W 802 D3 and the left rear B&W 804 D3. When I described the piano's position to my friend, he replied, "Yes, I hear it there, too!" I find it almost incredible that two listeners, sitting 7' from each other and facing in directions 90° apart, could hear the same soundstage from a system that had been balanced and optimized for only one of those seats.

This was an almost freaky re-creation of the continuousness I'd heard from Tom Caulfield's system, but with a bit more breathing room, and enough space to share with friends. In fact, when I played Caulfield's tantalizing preview of an upcoming Channel Classics release—the final song of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, again with Fischer/Budapest—I felt completely immersed in the venue and the aura: orchestra and singer were in front of me, about 12' beyond my front speakers and extending into the distance. What struck me about what I heard was the lack of what in audiophile circles can masquerade as "air"—a subtle emphasis of higher-frequency noise from the recording venue that forces awareness of its acoustics. Based on logic and my attendance at several recording sessions, these sites are generally very quiet. It is at the lower frequencies, where random events energize modal activity, that one "feels" the space. That's what I heard between the notes here.

I couldn't choose between the Volume 8 and the SMC 7.1 based on sound, because to me they sounded identical. I'd opt for the SMC 7.1, if only because it has an additional input for a second multichannel source (eg, an Oppo disc player), a pair of stereo sources, and a volume-controlled headphone output. The studio-style switching options are a bonus, though I'd rather have channel-level controls.

Are the SPL boxes completely transparent? Almost—there was a very slight dimming above 10kHz, in comparison to running the DAC output directly to the power amps. (See sidebar, "Did I Really Prefer SPL's Pro Devices to My Audiophile Preamps?") On the other hand, that seemed ideal with my B&W speaker array. Of course, Dr. Floyd Toole tells us that, trapped in a "circle of confusion," we can't trace a useful reference that will allow us to compare what we hear at home to the original sound of the performance. What I can say is that with the SPL boxes, my system sounds more like Tom Caulfield's—but with better seating.

JRiver Media Center goes 64-bit
JRiver Media Center is updated almost continually. The current edition, version 23, was released in mid-June 2017, and patches and enhancements are slipped into it every few days. Now, in mid-October, I'm using build 70! Of course, if your setup is working to your satisfaction, there's no need for you to download every new build; but you can choose to have any new builds (Stable, Latest, or Beta) automatically installed, or you can disable Automatic Updates. I let JRiver automatically install Stable updates, but as a member of JRiver's Beta panel, I do monitor the latest changes because I like to put in my 2õ.

Until September, all Windows, Mac, and Linux versions of JRMC were 32-bit, and 32-bit programs run less efficiently than do 64-bit programs and cannot access as much RAM, even on the 64-bit platforms that are ubiquitous today. I've always been impressed by JMRC's speed of operation, but clearly, running it as a 64-bit program should make it better, faster, stronger.

I'm happy to say that the 64-bit Windows version of JRiver Media Center 23 is all of that. Since the 32-bit versions are still being kept current, build numbers for them and for the 64-bit version are the same—you can compare them, if you choose. I didn't bother doing that except to run Benchmark Test, a server system performance test built into JRMC. With the 32-bit version, my benchmark result was a bit over 5000; the same test with the 64-bit version yielded a result of just over 6000—both numbers representing an index that takes into account PCU performance, RAM, disc access, and other pertinent factors. (Test runs vary by ±100.) If you're interested in horsepower, that's an improvement in performance of a healthy 20%.

Of course, the only performance that counts is what it sounds like. Not everyone is torturing their music players by downsampling DSD256 multichannel to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and applying room correction. Even I don't do that all the time. Nonetheless, the hardware (and the software it runs) should be able to accept and process current formats without indigestion, even when the diet is rich. With 32-bit JRMC, files of 8GB or more in multichannel DXD seemed to be more of a challenge than DSD256 files, and could result in interruptions for rebuffering—the maximum amount of data that can be loaded into memory for playback is 2GB. Heck, I have 511 tracks that exceed 2GB, and I'll bet many readers of this column have as many. But the cap for 64-bit JRMC is 16GB, and none of my files exceeds that.

Since installing the 64-bit version of JRiver Media Center 23, I have heard not a single burp. And it's free—licensees of the 32-bit version can download the 64-bit version and transfer their license. That's a good deal.

Glotz's picture

I really wish Audio Research would produce an updated MP1 in the future. I thought that component was the most revolutionary product of that era. The way it brought instruments to the fore and still produced excellent depth of soundstage was a real ear-opener. The only way I could do surround, but obviously this product above would do much the same, only with less noise.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Agreed. For many reasons, I would much rather have an updated and quieter MP1 but that is not a real option.

retro's picture

Hello Kal!

Always enjoy your column..just wish they come more often..:)

You have compared more or less all the analog multichannel preamps. How does the tubed Fosgate stand up to the others, I know you reviewed one way back..?
Yes, I own one..:)


Kal Rubinson's picture

I was impressed with the Fosgate back then but it is just a memory for me now. At the time, I wanted to keep it but thought it beyond my budget. Today, frankly, I would not consider any tubed preamp in my system as I do not want any added flavor, sweet or not.

retro's picture

Aha, Mr. Rubinson don't like tubes..;)

Thanks for your reply!

Kal Rubinson's picture

Sorta but sorta irrelevant. There are no modern multichannel vacuum tube preamps to consider.

Mike-48's picture

Kal, Interesting reviews as always. Do you think the SPL Volume 8 sounded better over time because of warm up? Or the contrast to your system without it? And if the HF glint was gone, does that suggest the Volume 8 might be slightly rolled off? Or that its output drivers are smoother than those used before?