Taking My System to the Next Level

We AV writers and reviewers rarely talk about our own systems here at Sound & Vision. This is partly due to the nature of review gear coming and going into our systems, as the gear we live with is almost always changing. Another reason is we frequently aren’t in a position to own and enjoy the top-shelf stuff in our own homes. (Insert comment about the cobbler’s kids here.) But I’ve been talking about next generation, immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X quite a bit lately, and I thought I’d share what I’m doing with my own personal system to make sure it stays up to date, relevant and reference.

A few years ago I wrote a feature titled My DIY Home Theater Makeover where I talked about the extensive system redo I did at my own house. Since then I’ve steadily made updates and improvements to my personal kit to make sure that I keep up with the changes in technology. I’d like to think that I have a system that can reveal a high-quality source component, so when I write that something sounds terrific, I have the audio infrastructure in place to support that statement.

I recently replaced my tower speakers with Definitive Technology’s new flagship Mythos ST-L’s. These towers feature a greatly improved bass section for lower and louder output as well as a fully redesigned midrange and tweeter design for more detail and clarity.

While my system was never lacking for any bass output—between my Definitive ST-L towers and my Trinity Signature Reference subwoofer—I added a second sub a few months ago to take advantage of smoother bass response and to utilize the dual sub calibration capabilities of Audyssey. The second sub is Definitive’s Super Cube 8000 which is close in driver size and configuration to a single version of my beloved Trinity, which is no longer being manufactured. Since adding the second sub I notice a lot more impact and bass presence especially at low volumes and never feel like bass sounds are localizable. And when things blow up, it feels like things are blowing up. The other night we were watching San Andreas and the onscreen quakes actually created impact tremors in my martini! If that isn’t some serious subbage, I don’t know what is. (My Atmos review of that movie can be found here.)

The pre-pro in my original makeover has long since been replaced. The processor (or receiver) in a system handles so many crucial tasks, that it is the first thing to become dated in a modern system. Between needing more HDMI, more streaming options, better DACs, and new surround codecs, the processor often feels the cruel effects of time the quickest. I went from a Marantz AV-8003, to a Marantz AV-7005, to a Marantz AV-8801. I loved the 8801, and thought it was one of the best sounding audio components to have ever graced my rack. The build quality was as terrific as the sound quality, and even though it had no sonic shortcomings whatsoever, unfortunately it pre-dated Dolby Atmos. And HDMI 2.0. And HDCP 2.2.

Within the past week I replaced the 8801 with Marantz’s brand new flagship AV-8802A. In addition to being able to handle a full 7.1.4 Atmos speaker array, the 8802a is fully HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 and can even be upgraded to support Auro-3D if I decide to go that route. (Though with the angled pitch of my roof, placing the “Voice of God” channel overhead would be all but impossible in my home.) Sonically the 8802a is just another step towards audio nirvana. It just has more air, space and detail around the signal and sounds effortless and musical.

The AV8802A also features the ability to be Audyssey Pro Calibrated. I happen to have the Audyssey Pro Cal kit and feel it does an amazing job of taking the system to the next level. There are two significant differences about a Pro Calibration: measurement positions and mic quality. With the Pro kit you can take up to 32 measurements versus 6 or 8 in other Audyssey versions. By taking multiple measurements you build a much clearer picture of the audio landscape of your room and give the processor more information to work with and correct. Perhaps even more crucial is the calibrated microphone that comes with the kit. Instead of a mass-produced, simple little plastic affair, this is a real mic that has been measured in a lab and comes with a precise EQ curve that is married to my kit’s serial number so it takes far more precise readings. After running Audyssey it sounds like all the screws have been tightened down on the signal; everything is clearer, more focused, and sharper.

To complete my journey to Atmos-land, I needed the additional speakers and amplification. For that I just placed an order for four Definitive Technology DI8R speakers. These will go in the ceiling (hopefully) centered between can lights and roughly in line with my main front left/right towers. Having watched nearly every Atmos Blu-ray released so far, I’ve found that there is a pretty significant amount of information placed into the overhead speakers, and the 8-inch drivers will deliver a fuller audio experience with voice matching close to that of the rest of my system. To power these four new speakers, I’ve ordered a second Marantz MM-8077 multi-channel amp. I currently have one driving my main 7-channel system, and the second amp will be a perfect match, plus give me a few extra amp channels left over for the next round of upgrades.

I haven’t made as many changes on the video side of my rig. I did upgrade the anamorphic lens on my projector to the new Panamorph DC1 and I have to say this is a stunning piece of glass. The 2.35 images from this on our 115-inch Draper screen are stunning and certainly never make me want for the commercial theater. I notice that the DC1 provides a brighter, sharper image as compared to the older lens, and it was definitely a worthwhile upgrade. To get ready for 4K, however, I am looking to retire my old Pioneer Elite 9G Kuro. (And by “retire” I mean “move it into our bedroom where it will continue being awesome!”) I have plans to review the new DISH 4K Joey set top box as well as the Kaleidescape Strato 4K movie player, both of which will require a suitable Ultra High Definition display.

true audio's picture

When I first pulled up the picture, I thought I was looking at my stuff! (Mythos ST-L, Kuro 141,salamander.I picked up a stewart studio Tek 130,an Epson 6030ub and unfortunately for the moment retired the Kuro ! Sorry buddy. I have a pioneer BDP-09,VSX-94 all conditioned by a Furman PFI-20.My center channel is the def-tec CLR-3000, the BPVX-Bi polar for surrounds and pro 1000 for rear surrounds. The ST-L's, CLR 3000 are bi-wired with audioquest rocket 88, (LFE)to the subs and all other inconnects, power cables ect, all audioquest. No other subs at the moment. I have to say, it sounds incredible ! I was just looking at that exact pre-amp & power amp yesterday knowing the day would come soon.I didn't have $8,000.00 for the DC-1, so thought I would try the new Phoenix (cinevista lens).The people there are very cool.Told me to try it,and return if I didn't like. What lens did you upgrade from ? And what projector are you using ? Thanks for your great articles.

John Sciacca's picture
Thanks for reading and the nice words! You too have an excellent sounding system! I currently have 6 Mythos Gem XLs (side, rear and front height) but will be ditching the front height to go with 4 in-ceiling Atmos. (No current "consumer" processors will do more than 7.1.4....you are getting into Datasat-type territory for that and at around $20,000 is too rich for my blood.) I have the Mythos 10 center. I can't remember the model of the original Panamorph lens, but it was like $5k. It always looked soft to me and noticeably less light output. I have a Marantz VP11S2 projector. It was their flagship, Dark Chip 4 DLP. It has a terrific primary lens (hand selected glass) that is really sharp. I'm thinking about a JVC or Sony 4K for a replacement, but, honestly, I love that Marantz and don't feel the need to upgrade right now. I can't say enough good stuff about the Marantz 8802A/8077 combo. They just sound amazing! Best of luck with your system! John
etrochez's picture

Very nice set up! I heard an industry expert, can't remember who, say that 9.1.2 is a better set up for Atmos than 7.1.4. His reason: There's way more information in the horizontal plane than there is in the vertical one, therefore more speakers in the horizontal plane make more sense. 9 channels will make for a fuller, smoother, bigger sound stage. How do you feel about this?

John Sciacca's picture
Well, there are two ways you could do 9.1.2.... 1) Front Height speakers 2) Front Width speakers I've heard that Front Width are preferable between the two options (this is especially the feeling of Audyssey), however in my experience these speakers are very difficult to locate in most rooms. In my room, for example, the front left width would be sitting on a pool table and the front right width would be on my front door. So it is a moot point for me. I've had the front height speakers (you can just see a glimpse of the FRH in the image I posted with the piece) installed for some time now and I feel that they do a really terrific job of expanding the soundstage of the front wall. I watch almost everything using DTS: Neo X which will expand anything from 2.1-7.1 up to 11.1. I feel that Neo X does a really terrific job of naturally expanding the front soundstage, and for me -- with high ceilings -- the front height speakers made a really nice impact on the presentation. I shared drawings and pics of my room with Dolby and they felt that it would be better to ditch the front height (9.1.2) in favor of 7.1.4 for better hemispherical audio. Of course, I'd love to do 9.1.4, but that isn't really affordable right now. The few processors that I know of that can do it--Datasat, JBL Synthesis, Steinway Lyngdorf, Trinnov--are all pushing the $20,000 range. Hope that answers your question! John
etrochez's picture

Yeah, he was referring to Front Width. You raise a good point, placement could be a challenge for people with media rooms. 9.1.2 is more of a dedicated home theater set up, I guess. Thanks for the feedback!