The Preamp/Processor: B&K Reference 50
If the power amplifier is the brawn of the system, the preamplifier is the brains. For my new system, I chose B&K's matching preamp, the $2,200 Reference 50 S2. Connection to the Reference 200.7 amplifier was quick and simple (using those expensive balanced XLR cables), and the operation of the two components is seamless.
Let's talk a little about features and functions. The Reference 50 has seven audio inputs, using either line audio, optical digital, or optical coax connections. There are a matching number of video inputs that use either composite video or S-Video connections, plus three component video connections. One nice thing about the Reference 50 is that it lets you assign any video input to any audio input, so it's easy to mix and match components.
Configuration is via a rather simple onscreen display. The initial setup process involved assigning and naming all the inputs in use; selecting the number and placement of speakers; choosing speaker size (for each speaker); entering the distance from the main listening position to each speaker; and then adjusting the volume level for each speaker. I didn't bother using a sound pressure meter, instead doing my adjustments by ear, using the built-in pink noise generator. Once I figured out how to do all the input assigning (which was not intuitive), the rest of the setup took about 15 minutes.
One fun and useful piece of the configuration process was selecting the number and position of speakers. You can configure the Reference 50 as a standard 5.l-channel system, as a 6.1-channel system with a single rear speaker, and as a 7.1-channel system with two rear speakers. Smart circuitry automatically reconfigures 5.1-channel soundtracks to properly use the one or two rear speakers.
Now, about the surround sound. The Reference 50 includes all the expected surround sound decoders, including Dolby Digital; Dolby Digital EX, DTS, DTS ES; Dolby Pro Logic IIx; and DTS:Neo 6. Unfortunately, the configuration and use of these surround sound modes is a trifle nonintuitive. On the plus side, you can select a default surround mode for each different input. (You can also choose for a particular input to default to stereo, mono, or a "stereo through all the surround speakers" mode.) On the minus side, the instruction manual is a tad obtuse when it comes to showing how to make these adjustments. I eventually figured them out, however, and once everything is set up, you don't have to worry about it again.
I set up my system to run the video for the cable box and DVD player directly to the TV (using HDMI connections). The only video I fed through the preamp was the connection from my Media Center PC, which uses component video. This way I can use the Media Center PC input/output for the preamp onscreen display, when necessary. It goes without saying that I used optical digital connections for all the audio inputs and outputs. The speaker connectors are a combination binding post/banana jack; I used bare speaker ends to the binding posts.
The Reference 50 also has dual-zone operation. Zone A, of course, is the primary home theater room and is what the preamp operates by default. I originally had Zone B fed into the separate AudioSource amplifier, although this operation was less than smooth. That's because one of the little quirks in the preamp is the inability to feed digital audio to the second zone. In fact, if you try to select an input with digital audio (like virtually all of my components!) to Zone B, you freeze up the preamp. (Actually, you get an intermittent stutter, as if a cable were loose.) This requires a hard reboot of the preamp to set things straight. It's an incredible annoyance, especially for a component at this price level. My solution was to feed line-level audio directly from my Media Center PC (which is my primary audio source) directly into the AudioSource amplifier. That bypasses the Reference 50 completely for second-zone use.
Other than that little glitch, operation of the Reference 50 is relatively painless. There is a slight "pop" in the audio when switching between inputs (or when switching between a digital and an analog program), but believe it or not it's the kind of lovable quirk that you come to accept with this type of hand-built equipment. This is not a mass-produced component, after all; this is a unit built by audiophiles for audiophiles, and it looks and feels like it. It's a very sturdy, very solidly constructed unit. Everything about the Reference 50 screams class and quality, from the brushed metal front plate to the cool blue front panel display to the solid feel of the back panel connections. It's hard to describe what quality feels like, but the Reference 50 feels like it.
The Reference 50 is operated by a custom version of the Home Theater Master MX-700 remote control. This is a fine fit for this unit, and makes the Reference 50 a better value than it might appear at first blush. I'll talk more about the remote in the third article of this series.