Cabasse Artis Baltic Evolution Speaker System and Pioneer Elite VSX-94TXH A/V Receiver Page 3

There wasn’t much surround goodness in the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of A Mighty Heart, a dramatization of the terrorist murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. Vocals were recorded in a flat, claustrophobic void that eerily complemented the tragic story. Occasional musical elements sweetened the mix—a little warm acoustic guitar here, a pulsing bass line there—and the speakers and sub made the most of them.

Fresh Fruit Is Good for You
Eat a Peach is one of the artifacts of my youth—sort of. I never bought the double-LP set by the Allman Brothers Band because songs like “Melissa” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” were all over the freeform FM radio stations of 1972. Yet the SACD surround mix is like an old friend, aside from the underuse of the center channel. Pretty much any playback system would convey the essential warmth of tubed guitar amps, Hammond organ, and Georgia-inflected voices. What the Baltics and Pioneer did especially well was sharpen the leading edge of Duane Allman’s and Dicky Betts’ electric guitar lines and focus the soundfield without letting go of the warm, tubey vibe.

PentaTone’s SACD release of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf includes a second work, Wolf Tracks, and narration by an all-star cast including Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Loren’s honeyed voice had a touch of nasality or spurious warmth—this was as close as the system ever came to an objectionable coloration. Still, the string sound of the Russian National Orchestra was plangent and woody. The reeds, too, were full of resonant character, most noticeably those representing the cat (clarinet) and the grandfather (bassoon). Overall, the presentation was detailed and focused without seeming forced or unnatural.

Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, again on SACD, displayed the bandleader’s piano in an entirely natural way. Charlie Rouse’s tenor sax emerged warm, but not ponderous, and the weight of the rhythm section was right.

Natty Dread by Bob Marley & the Wailers (on a mere CD) put the system to the reggae rhythm-section test. Would the midbass aggressiveness of Meet the Robinsons be repeated? No, the bass was a deep, true tone. The thump of the kick drum was fat and solid but not bloated or sloppy. The Altura Largo sub is musically trustworthy.

Home Media Gallery
Not all receiver makers are hip to what can be accomplished with a connection to a broadband router. Pioneer moves up a notch in my estimation with the Home Media Gallery. Setup couldn’t have been easier. I ran my trusty super-long Cat-5 cable from my router and selected HMG as an input source without further ado—except for an upgrade from Windows Media Player 10 to version 11, required for the PC link.

Starting with Internet radio, I navigated by location (the other options were genre, podcasts by location, podcasts by genre, new stations, and most popular stations). I selected Africa, then Mali. The next set of choices were: all stations, news/talk, and variety. I picked all stations and got a choice of three stations. In no time at all, I was enjoying sprightly West African pop music.

Pioneer’s front-panel USB connection proved to be an inspired plus. First, I bumped a few MP3 album folders to a thumb drive. The USB drive appeared in the Gallery menu, and I was able to select and play tracks. But I wondered, if a thumb drive is good, wouldn’t it be even better to plug in one of the external hard drives on which my entire music library is backed up? Yup.

Either way, when it came to displaying titles, there was a character limit, 21 in the folder menu and 24 on the playback screen. Another limitation on the access of a large music library—either from my PC’s main hard drive or the external one connected directly to the Pioneer—was navigation speed. It took about a second per line to step down through the album folders. When the list was lengthy, those seconds added up. Breaking a giant run-on folder list into smaller subfolders would help. The receiver can also register up to 20 playing or highlighted items in a favorites menu, but the function works only with the PC drive or Internet radio, not with the USB drive.

Cabasse, where have you been all my life? The Artis Baltic Evolution delivered a whole range of authentic musical experiences. It also supported movies in the most critical areas—dialogue intelligibility, soundfield precision, and bounteous low-frequency effects.

And finally, it sidestepped the whole question of “How do you make speakers disappear?” If they’re attractive enough, there’s no need to make them disappear. And although I didn’t have a chance to try them in a far off-axis listening environment, the triaxial driver array just might ameliorate some of the acoustic problems of such a setting. Bravo, Cabasse.

Pioneer, meanwhile, upholds the high standards of their Elite line with the VSX-94TXH. It had no problem providing the speakers with the reserves of power necessary to make them sing and produce a commanding soundfield. Time and again, it combined with the speakers to produce a rainbow of midrange and other tone colors, revealing good and bad recordings for what they were. THX certification, auto-setup refinements, and the Home Media Gallery all contribute value points to an impressive package, especially the USB connection. This essentially means you can bump your entire music library to a cheap external hard drive and make it another component in your home theater system. Bravo, Pioneer.