Aragon Stage One 8-Channel Home Theater Preamp/Processor
Sugg. Retail: $6825 (CAN), $4000 US
Aragon 3005 5-Channel Home Theater Power Amplifier
Sugg. Retail: $5975 (CAN), $3500 US
(Reprinted from the Almanac 03 Audio Ideas Guide)
These days, when one sees the name Aragon, visions of The Lord of the Rings come to mind. But, then, that’s Aragorn. Still, looking at the blue streams of light that seem to shine from deep inside the front panel of these handsome home theater components, one does get a sense of the mystical and the magical. I was captivated by this look the first time I saw the Aragon gear at the Festival du Son last March.
The Stage One is an 8-channel unit in both analog (via a DB-25 input like that on the Sunfire Theater Grand) and digital, with Crystal Semiconductor 24-bit D/A converters for each channel. There’s also a stereo Direct mode which does not convert analog inputs into digital form.
Additional inputs are provided for TV, DVD, Video, VCR, CD, Tape, Aux, all selected by front panel buttons (or on the remote), the selection of the internal tuner also available on either. There are plenty of digital inputs: 3 Toslink and seven coaxial RCAs. All video inputs have both composite and S connectors, with TV, DVD and VCR inputs also having RCA component input trios. There’s a single RCA component out set.
Analog outputs are all RCAs, a little odd in that the matching 3005 amplifier also offers balanced XLR inputs. There are also digital and analog record outs on the Stage One. In addition, there are RS-232 jacks (by which software upgrades can be loaded), IR-in, and 12V DC out facilities, along with an “Expansion Port” with a screwed on cover.
The 3000 power amplifier series is THX Ultra certified, which means it passes “a rigorous series of quality and performance tests”, covering “operatioon, output power levels, gain, frequency response and numerous other parameters.” According to the Aragon web site, the 3005 “will deliver 300 watts into 8 ohms and 500 watts into 4 ohms.” “The 3005 is a 5-channel amplifier that achieves it high output using the fewest active components possible for a more dynamic, powerful and more detailed performance. The minimalist approach of our design results not only in better sound, but in amplifiers that consistently rate among the most reliable available at any price.”
“The 3000 Series amplifiers feature a single power supply design that we call SmartPower(TM). In this configuration, a channel could provide substantially more than its rated power for short periods of time by getting more energy from the power supply while the other channels aren’t demanding as much. SmartPower enables the amplifier to perform at optimal levels in high-end two-channel environments as well as in the most demanding home theater applications.”
If you want to use the Stage One’s extra channels, the addition of the 3002 stereo amplifier is an option, as is the more recent 2007 (200 wpc) 7-channel amp. Channel assignments can include the centre rear for Dolby and DTS ES or THX EX, or be used for additional surrounds; line outs are provided for both Surround and Surround Back. Which surround channels are the discrete Dolby Digital and DTS surrounds is finally made clear on page 17 of the Stage One manual, with a diagram showing the basic surrounds at either side of the listening position, and the extra Surround Back pair behind.
This allows full use of the plethora of modes, features, and soundfields. This processor has them all (though I’m sure more have been dreamed up since by Dolby, DTS, and THX), starting with the basic Dolby Digital and DTS. To these it adds THX Surround EX, DTS Discrete and Matrix ES, DTS Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic II. According to the manual, “No matter what the source, the Stage One can select and apply the best decoding method automatically. And with its THX Ultra2 post processing algorithms, the Stage One makes sure that the final sound is exactly what the director intended. In addition it can apply its DSP power to multi-channel enhancement of ordinary stereo programs via its Party, Club, and 5-channel Stereo modes. It even does mono!”
Whoop-di-doo!! A processor that intuits the director’s intentions! Even Hal couldn’t do that! “A penny for your thoughts, Dave…Dave?”
A processor this intelligent needs a pretty powerful remote control, and Aragorn has sought the wisdom of Gandalf (Sorry), that is, Aragon has sought the science of Philips, specifically, their ProntoNEO touchscreen remote control. And it has its own manual, and (get this!), a CD- ROM that contains software for even more sophisticated programming of the remote.
In other words, once you master the ProntoNEO completely, you get a PhD in Applied Technology from the PITS, that is, the Philips Institute of Technological Science. Using the NEOedit software, you can “define the types and brands of your devices; generate the Device Overview; design the page layout and the appearance of buttons; configure the behaviour of the hard buttons and soft buttons;” and, finally, “download the new configurations to your ProntoNEO by means of the included serial cable.”
Of course, you do realize I lied about the PhD part, but if you really want one, I know where you can go on the internet to become smarter than anyone without any of that annoying studying. Hell, I just got mine in Astrophysics last weekend. And what’s this about a “serial cable”? I don’t want to go there. Actually, this is one of the friendlier smart-ass remotes I’ve encountered. Unlike the Sony one from the last issue, it actually works, and that’s a good start. There are hard buttons for Volume, Channel, and Mute, and 4 more that can be configured, these all below the touchscreen, as well as cursors and Enter/OK. You can select inputs, DSP, and surround modes quickly, and if you can’t make the appropriate decisions, the Stage One will do it for you. And it won’t try to blow you out the airlock when you’re not looking (Hal did have a rather nasty, paranoid side to him/it).
The Stage One reminds me somewhat of my reference Theatre Grand II in its intuitive operation. Audio and video can be selected separately, but normally this is done through signal sensing, and surround formats are also automatically selected in the same way, though the new extra processing modes may require manual operation. Volume adjustments may be made for each input and saved, and a very nice feature is the On-The-Fly mode, which allows temporary setting of volume, balance, and surround levels, as well as subwoofer level, to suit a specific program. There is also a Stereo Direct mode for music, which passes the analog stereo signal through, bypassing digital conversion, another nice feature for systems that are both audiophile and videophile combined.
The Stage One is so complex and complete that I really can’t cover all of its features adequately without writing a PhD thesis, and maybe I’d need Aragorn’s help. But there are a few nifty bits I’d like to talk about before offering listening impressions.
And by the time you finish poring over all the manuals and feature descriptions, you will definitely have improved your reading skills. The Stage One manual spends roughly 4 pages simply describing the various surround modes. For example, Pro Logic II provides Movie Mode, Music Mode, Panorama Mode, Matrix Mode, and Pro Logic Mode (which “emulates the original Dolby Pro Logic decoding algorithm.” Then, of course, you can also adjust Centre Width and Dimension.
But if Dolby does something, so do DTS and THX, so we’ve got DTS Neo:6, which “provides up to seven full band channels of matrix decoding from stereo matrix material”, and then there’s THX MusicMode, in which “THX ASA processing is applied to the surround channels of 5.1 encoded music sources such as DTS, Dolby Digital and DVD-Audio to produce a wide, stable rear soundstage.” My advice to any serious music listener is to turn off all this crap, and listen to what the composer and musicians intended, not what some propeller-head engineer at Dolby, DTS, and THX dreamed up in new kinds of distortion.
All this said (Whew!), the Aragon pair turn out to be very user friendly and good sounding. The FM tuner brought in 40 stations and was quite selective with those close together on the dial well received without interference, but its stereo quieting was not the equal of most good separate tuners. Serious classical music listeners will want to keep their Fanfare or Magnum-Dynalab tuners.
I liked the automatic switching of inputs and recognition of digital audio formats. Of course, you usually have to make a menu selection at the source for Dolby Digital or DTS soundtracks. Sonically, the Aragon system is very transparent, with oodles of power and dynamics. Its bass was especially good, this evidenced by the extraordinary soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, with its menacing undercurrent of Mordor, and socko surround effects.
Of course, I avoided all the extraneous and gratuitous processing offered by the evil (audio) axis, but if that’s your thing, feel free to heap DTS Neo:6 on your Dolby whatever, and polish it off with some THX distortion. I guess my only real complaint about the Stage One is that it might be a lot cheaper without all this stuff, and the accompanying licence fees that Aragon has to pay to include it.
With music the system sounded great, very transparent and clean, and I felt it sonically surpassed any recently reviewed receivers in this regard, matching our reference Sunfire system in outright fidelity, if not in outright power and dynamics (405 wpc is hard to beat, but the 3005’s 300 wpc comes close).
The excellent Philips remote control is an added bonus, and makes the operation of the Stage One much more intuitive, once you get the hang of its touchscreen system; it also helps justify the higher cost of this system relative to such processor/amplifier systems as those from Anthem or Bryston. And I will miss that comforting blue glow when the Aragon components go back to Middle Earth, which I hear is somewhere near Hope, Arkansas.