Music in the Round #98: Trinnov Altitude 32 & Essence Evolve II-4K Page 2

I began with my longtime reference, Willie Nelson's Night and Day (DVD-A, Surrounded By Entertainment SBE1001-9, DVD-A). After all this time, I thought I had the measure of this recording. I was wrong. Compared with the sound of this disc without the Trinnov Altitude 32, the placement of each instrument shifted subtly: The rear-channel sources were no longer elevated as they had been before. And each instrument now had a discrete image, one that was not associated with the physical position of any of the speakers. The performers and the ambience of the conjured space were solidly correlated to each other, not to my room.

Here's another ear-opener. Craig Morris's 2019 Grammy-nominated album Three Pieces in the Shape of a Square (24/96 FLAC, Bridge/Highresaudio.com) (footnote 3) contains a work by Philip Glass titled Piece in the Shape of a Square, for which Morris and his recording team devised a creative approach. Imagine 30 music stands arranged in a circle in a large recording space: One trumpet player walks in a clockwise circle inside the perimeter of stands, playing a short phrase at each stop, while another player walks in a counterclockwise circle outside the perimeter, playing other, similar phrases. (By means of overdubbing, Morris played both parts.5) The combination of this remarkably pure-sounding recording and the Altitude 32, using either JRiver or Roon, presented both incarnations of Morris with precision as he stepped from spot to spot around the listener. It was easy to appreciate the constantly shifting antiphony.

This remarkable combination of transparency and precision characterized the Altitude 32's performance, regardless of the source. Disc playback revealed new glories and subtle felicities, even from the familiar. The glowing adagio of Bruckner's Symphony No.7 in E (Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Channel Classics, CCSSA33714, SACD) has always been one of my not-so-guilty pleasures. While this recording does not displace all of its predecessors, the combination of virtuoso playing and virtuoso sound recording allowed me an indulgent bath in Romantic richness through the Altitude 32: Never before have I been so totally and warmly immersed with just five channels.

Going way beyond five channels, I popped Bern Bern Bern by Bernie Dresel and the BBB (BD, Dig-It Recordings, no catalog number) into the Oppo to hear what 5.2.4 could do. Listening through the same speakers, in the same difficult, square room, the transformation wrought by the Altitude 32 was striking. Again, the sound seemed to be entirely unconstrained and dissociated from the speakers and the room. The illusion of being transported was convincing.

The subtler pleasures of the Hoff Ensemble's Polarity (SACD and BD, 2L Records, 2L-145-SABD) were even more revealing. The 5.1 SACD sound was lovely, with the piano and bass up front and the percussion behind. The percussion, though, had always seemed unnatural, recalling how multichannel naysayers carp about arbitrary instrument placement; with the Auro-3D rendition, I sensed the great space of the Sofienberg Church behind and above me—I could almost smell it—and, yes, the percussionist seemed appropriate in that location.

Multichannel inputs and formats
Can the Altitude 32 do absolutely everything? No, but its limitations are few and acceptable. First, as noted before, it can decode almost every known codec except DSD—but since most servers and disc players can convert DSD to PCM on the fly, that becomes less of an issue. Second, the Altitude 32's PCM processing is limited to 24/192—but that's enough: Higher sample/bit rates are hardly distinguishable—and rarely available—outside the audiophile world. I leave it to the reader to decide if these are real sticking points.

On the other hand, the Altitude 32 can take it—with respect to its high-resolution multichannel inputs, that is. HDMI is a given, of course, so it can connect with multichannel disc players and music players like other pre-pros. In that way, I was able to play directly from the Qobuz app—but, due to a limitation in the app, only in stereo. However, I was able to play multichannel files using HDMI directly from JRiver or Roon, which can play multichannel content from Qobuz.

The Altitude 32 can also accept a 7.1 channel analog input and—get this—multichannel via ethernet/LAN. (There's no USB audio input, but the HDMI and ethernet/LAN inputs make USB irrelevant.) I loved the Altitude 32's ability to stream via LAN. JRiver, working via DLNA, should be set to convert DSD to PCM and to downsample output to a maximum of 24/192. The Altitude's Network menu input is already set for this. Roon was even quicker to set up, since the Altitude 32 is recognized as a Roon-ready endpoint with full compatibility with the Roon Advanced Audio Transport audio-distribution technology; consequently, Roon already "knows" what to do. You need only specify that you want multichannel (5.1 or 7.1) rather than stereo, then click play; the Altitude 32 will detect this and display Roon on its front panel. Wow: Shouldn't all AVRs and pre-pros be able to do this today?

Arriving at our destination
The Trinnov Optimizer's ability to do a 2D or 3D remapping melds a disparate aggregation of speakers within the constraints of a real-world room into a seamless soundfield of perfectly placed virtual sources, whether in two channels or many. Considering what it can do, and how well it does everything, its limitations are inconsequential. The Altitude 32 has transparency and tonal precision that are elusive in HT processors, and is competitive with any high-end preamplifier, A/V or not.

Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI DAC
Until multichannel replaces stereo and becomes the standard for audio—I am not holding my breath—I am compelled to find products that will let the curious dip their toes into the pool. One new candidate is the Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI D/A processor ($299), a utilitarian little box that apparently was designed for HT fans who own 4K video displays, but whose AVR is long in the tooth. It strips out and decodes the high-quality audio embedded in a high-quality HDMI v2.0a video stream, while the video is sent directly to the display.

719mitr.essence

I see the real-world utility in that, but to someone who's interested only in audio, this is just a DAC with an HDMI input—and that makes it rather unusual. If you look at the universal disc players on the market today, analog outputs are almost extinct—and if there are any left, they're stereo only. Multichannel? Sorry.

So I couldn't resist asking for a review sample—and, like the good boy I was supposed to be, I hooked it up as intended. I connected the analog outputs to the analog inputs of the Marantz AV-8805 (and, later, to the Trinnov Altitude 32). HDMI came from either an Oppo UDP-205 or my Mac mini-based server that runs both Roon and JRiver. The HDMI video output goes to the pre-pro.

I powered up the Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI DAC with its only control set to LPCM 7.1 CH and confirmed that the video was passing through to the pre-pro via HDMI. To hear the output of this little DAC, all I had to do was switch the pre-pro to the analog 7.1 input. Even more amazing is that Qobuz, Roon, and JRiver all recognized its presence as Extractor, capable of exclusive mode (WASAPI) audio in multichannel at up to 24/192!

719mitr.essencebac

I was skeptical enough to be surprised that the Extractor worked so well—but I was stunned that it sounded so good. How good? I liked it better than sending the audio via HDMI through the Marantz and its DACs. It seemed just noticeably cleaner and more open. Perhaps a little bright, but not to any great detriment. Compared to HDMI or network input to the Altitude 32, though, it didn't quite make the grade.

You say you want more for your money? (Cue the carnival barkers!) Well, step right up: You don't even need a fancy 4K display, or any display at all, to use the Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI DAC . . . er, Extractor. I took it back to my New York apartment and hooked it up to the second HDMI port on my Baetis Prodigy-X server. Since the main HDMI out is connected to the 27" system monitor, I didn't want to mess with it, even though that meant the Extractor would not have anything connected to its HDMI output. Now, in the weird and wonderful world of HDMI, there is handshaking between devices that allows them to function compatibly. This handshaking is an EDID (Extended Display Identification Data) code informing the source of the target device's capabilities. This smart little processor actually has the ability to generate an EDID6 that tells the source that a hi-rez display with multichannel audio is connected. To fool the source, just keep the switch to the far right.

The Essence DAC wasn't nearly as detailed in the midrange or bass, nor as delicate in the trebles, as the resident exaSound e38 DAC, but, in direct comparisons, it was not shamed. It was more than okay, and a bit more pleasant than its only competition in the price range: the miniDSP U-DAC8, which is a USB DAC. So, horses for courses.

That's it. The Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI DAC is an inexpensive product that fills a niche in the market and offers more than respectable sound. It doesn't make any audiophile claims, but it could—how refreshing!


Footnote 3: I first heard this impressive surround demo at an AES seminar on multichannel audio, as part of a presentation by John Newton, who was one of the recording engineers. It was produced by legendary tuba performer/founding member of the internationally renowned Empire Brass Quintet, Sam Pilafian, who passed away at age 69 on April 5. See more information at here. At the moment, this wonderful recording is only available in CD or pristine 24/96 PCM.

Footnote 4: The Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI DAC can generate up to three different EDIDs, and the other two are actually programmable for those with suitable needs and skills.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

If I had the wherewithal, that review would be enough to make me simply buy and enjoy! Then I read about the set up effort. When I think of the infrastructure involved and what you as an expert had to go through to make it work, it strikes me dead where I stand.

Color me lazy, but interested! The review was exceedingly insightful and made me want to hear this thing!

I am holding out hope that this will all someday be wireless, I can buy something like this, toss a few dozen powered speakers around the room in 'convenient' locations, and let the device set my room up while I go for a margarita.

The only cords will be for AC power and otherwise all wireless.

This is my dream.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

That dream could become a reality sooner than we think ........ Think multi-room set-ups like Sonos, Blue-OS, Denon HEOS, B&W Formation Suite etc. ..... Same type of set-ups could be used for multi-channel audio also, in the very near future :-) ........

Apple and Google could also get into the mix :-) ...........

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yeah but none of those, afaik, can do what the Trinnov does. (Of course, you can also assert the inverse.)

stevebruzonsky's picture

The beta firmware with the easy setup has been available for some months now. I bought my Alt32 - 16 channels and had it sitting for months as I was intimidated. But last Feb I got in the beta program and got the easy setup. First, I read the manual again over and over. Then I did the setup the hard way. then I went to the easy setup feature, and guess what - it was easy, led me through all the basic steps I had already done! My understanding is the non-beta firmware with this should be out soon!

This damn SSP sounds so good that I sold my Theta Casablanca SSP of many years (since 1997) and I do not look back or miss it one bit! And I had the Casablanca IV-A SSP's best D3 DACs and also had their Generation VIII Series 3 DACs as well for a time!

What's really nifty is no more entering speaker distances/delays or measuring speaker levels - its all automatic and perfect as far as I can tell! ANd as you have stated you can quickly calculate and enter different seating positions, I use a front row for video, a back row for music (ROON).

With my prior SSP, I used an expensive Sonore Signature Rendu SE Optical USB out into a Berkeley Audio Alpha USB to digital converter for two channel ROON music; and a custom built Computer Audiophile computer HDMI out for multi-channel ROON music (I used JRiver and changed to ROON going on 4 years ago). Multi-channel music via HDMI was nice but didn't sound nearly as good as two channel. NOW with the Altitude 32, using ROON Ready ethernet, two and multi-channel music sound as good as it gets, better than ever, and equally sonically. I sold the Sonore and Berkeley pieces because I found ROON Ready to sound just as good!

Do not forget the Altitude 32's Auro-3D mode particularly for music via ROON! With my prior SSP I never care for Dolby and DTS expansion modes for 2 channel, listening in strict 2 channel almost always. With the Altitude 32, I don't care for expension in Dolby and DTS, but I love using Auro-3D for both 2 channel and multi-channel. The front soundstage, instruments, vocals lose nothing and I only gain re dynamics, ambience, etc using Auro-3D. Its amazing! I have five Aerial Acoustics 7ts, floorstanding, currently, with four in ceiling KEF speakers. The Altitude 32 has a processor display via VNC that shows you the channels input and output, too! Using Auro-3D for two channel music via ROON, I can see that the front left and right share with my front center pretty equally, with other channels used for ambience and effects, and again musically its wonderful.

I find the volume control on the Altitude 32 to be so very transparent. As I turn it up or down I just don't hear harshness at all, even better than my prior SSP. Its simply a question of what level do I want to listen at. I go to a lot of live concerts, especially jazz, at excellent local acoustic venues and its amazing how Auro-3D adds to the illusion of being there.

Note Auro-3D by design only "expands" up to 96-24 stereo. If the track is higher resolution, say 176-24 or 192-24, it will just play in stereo. I find the sonic difference between 192/176 and 96/88 to be very minimal compared to the benefits of Auro-3D at 96/88,so I have ROON set to downsample to 96/88 (88 for DXD and DSD), and play up to 96/88 at native rate.

For a lot less money you can get the Altitude 16, limited to 96-24 resolution and "only" 16 channels, and ROON Ready, too! Sonically should sound the same! Glad I got the Altitude 32, because this allowed me to upgrade to 24 channels, and my dedicated home theatre is about to undergo a major remodel, from 5.2.4 to 9.4.13 (3 Aerial Acoustics 7t floorstanders, 6 Aerial Acoustics 7LCR on wall, 2 JL Audio f212 subwoofers, 2 Paradigm Persona subwoofers, 13 Triad inceiling Silver Rotatable/Sat 9 speakers) (in current system already have the 7ts and JL Audio subwoofers). So I must warn you, save money and buy the Altitude 16 and limit yourself to 16 channels - buy the Altitude 32 even the 16 channel version and you will be more easily hit with the upgrade virus/bug and add channels and add amps and speakers. Its costly!

Distinctive's picture

Kal, given your review of the Trinnov - is the Bryston SP4 in queue for a review?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Kal, given your review of the Trinnov - is the Bryston SP4 in queue for a review?

Not at this time.

JMR's picture

Hi Kal
Great review, many thanks for the interesting insights. I had the Altitude 32 set up in my room for a day but the unit was faulty and I was unable to really assess it. I had also had a StormAudio I.ISP 3D.16 set up in my room for a few days about a month previously. I was impressed with the StormAudio and Dirac sound but was not able to make a direct comparison.
I have been a long term user of a Tact Audio system and use a TCS3 and a combination of Tact 2150 amps and Boz 216/2200 amps. I am very happy with my Tact system sound and feel that it still compares favourably with the two systems I mention above although I was not able to do them justice in terms of tweaking etc due to the short time I had them in the room.
My interest in the Trinnov and StormAudio is due to my concern with the longevity of the Tact system as the company no longer exists. The Trinnov is very flexible and appears to be more comprehensive wrt crossovers etc than the Dirac system but I have no experience with Dirac V2. Trinnov is closer to what I am used to with the Tact system albeit it much more advanced features and modern components which is understandable.
As a keen follower of you column I am aware that you have used Dirac previously and am interested to know your view on the final multichannel audio capabilities of the Trinnov system vs Dirac. To your ears are they comparable or is there a clear winner?
regards
Jose

Kal Rubinson's picture

As a keen follower of you column I am aware that you have used Dirac previously and am interested to know your view on the final multichannel audio capabilities of the Trinnov system vs Dirac. To your ears are they comparable or is there a clear winner?

It is hard to declare a winner because it is hard to make a fair comparison. Trinnov is always linked to specific hardware implementations, none of which are configured as I would find ideal. DiracLive, otoh, can be employed using a number of embedded hardware implementations (none ideal, imho) or as an application/plug-in in a computer-based player.

The other difference is that DiracLive seems to be quite user friendly but somewhat inflexible compared to Trinnov which is flexible (almost to a fault) and is only now approaching user-friendliness with the new Set-Up Wizard.

I have no experience with the yet-to-be released DL 2.0 but I can say, speaking out of both sides of my mouth, that I have obtained greater satisfaction with the audible results of Trinnov but prefer to use DL for practical reasons. I'd love to see a purely software release of Trinnov and compare it with DL 2.0.

Gort's picture

Curious...have you done a comparison with the Datasat RS20I with the new software?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Nope.

retro's picture

" I'd love to see a purely software release of Trinnov "

Do you think that will ever happen..maybe you have some inside information..;)..?

swolpert98's picture

Given the cost of the Trinnov, it'd sure be nice to know how it sounds when playing a simple stereo source. I understand the Trinnov's design goals and purpose, and that playing simple stereo music is not that primary design goal. Assuming Im like most listeners and that surround sound constitutes a small part of my listening, who is going to dole out $26,000 for this if the Trinnov is weak compared to a non-surround high end $26,000 preamplifier? Would I be better off with a DiracLive professor of say, $4,000, and a standard stereo preamp of $22,000?

Theodor's picture

Hi Kal,
Could you please possibly comment on the following: considering that Essence Evolve II-4K cost nearly 10-times less then OPPO UDP-205 on E-Bay these days how does Essence sound in comparison with UDP-205 multi-channel audio output?
Thank you!

X