Bryston SP 1 A/V Processor / Preamp

      Date posted: April 17, 2001

Bryston SP1 Surround Decoder/Preamp
Sugg. Retail: $5500 (CAN)
Manufacturer: Bryston Ltd.
P.O. Box 2170, 677 Neal Drive,
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, K9J 7Y4
(800) 632-8217 FAX (705) 742-0882

(Reprinted from the Spring 01
Audio Ideas Guide)

     These days movies get made in 6 months, often in 6 weeks, and the phrase, “years in the making” hardly applies any more. However, it can refer to the design and manufacture of today’s digital home theatre processors, or, at least, the high end ones. For the past 3 years my first question to at least three Canadian electronics manufacturers has been, “How’s your A/V piece coming along, eh?”

      I’ve been getting lots of different answers, for example, “Well, the Dolby Digital and DTS bass management specs require completely opposite approaches”, or, “The chips we started with have been replaced, and so we have to redesign the board”, or, “We’re upgrading the DSP to accomodate the newest [whatever]”. The stories never end, but the product has to get to market at some point. You can’t just keep waiting for the HT Godot or the newest Motorola chip to show up.

      So I never expected to really get my hands on an SP 1, Bryston being back-ordered by the hundreds at year’s end. However, early in February on a dreary Saturday morning genial James Tanner turned up at my door with not only an SP 1 to plug into the home theatre room, but also a 14B ST power amplifier to liven up the listening room with its 500+wpc. “You say it’s your birthday…” well, it was two days ahead of mine, and at this particular coming of age, I definitely needed cheering up. “Happy birthday to ya…”

      Now, I’ve done my due diligence with a great many home theatre processors and receivers with too goddam many buttons, knobs, levers, flip-down panels, inputs, outputs, GUI menus, and other useless features and outright annoyances. DSP me, Daddy, 8 to the bar, or more accurately, to the rear panel totally covered in RCAs, Toslinks, and binding posts. The SP 1 is a refreshing exception. First of all, it doesn’t handle video, and Bryston offers several separate video switchers from other manufacturers that can be linked to work with the SP 1. It also includes a separate analog audio path that is claimed to be at least as good sonically as the BP-25 preamplifier.

      There are 4 coaxial digital inputs coupled with the 4 analog A/V-source ones, LD, CD, DVD, and TV/SAT, plus 2 assignable Toslinks. And there are actually 4 tape loops, 2 for VCR, and 2 for audio Tape. Thus the SP 1 accommodates a system very much like my pure video one, with a pair of VCRs (Super Beta and Super VHS) in addition to DVD/LD player, satellite dish, and off-air video. However, in my system we have two dishes (Bell ExpressVu and Star Choice), as well as 8mm VCR on top of the other formats, so additional audio and video switching is required.

      I suspect this situation will prevail in many A/V systems the SP 1 finds itself in, the solution an upstream preamp or switcher. This will be especially true in systems where audio and video are combined, the solution being to keep your existing audio preamp and perhaps designate one of the tape ins for it.

      As far as video switching is concerned, here is what Bryston had to say in a white paper on the SP 1: “…like amplifiers, video switchers have different quality levels, and I think allowing the quality of the video switcher to match the rest of the system is better served with an outboard video switcher. The video switcher we currently recommend is the EXTRON YCS SW6 MX. It has the same number of inputs as the SP1 and the SP1 has the software protocol already installed to allow simultaneous selection of source with video through the R232 port. The other option available is to switch video at the TV or projector as most TV’s [sic] and projectors now have plenty of video connections provided internally. There are also no Digital Power Supplies [in the SP1, (but rather] (2 toroides [sic] - 1 for analog circuit and 1 for digital circuit) as the Digital switching supplies are also RF generators.” In sum, the Bryston design team did not feel that they could provide a clean, quiet analog circuit path with both digital and video frequencies inhabiting the same box.

      One of the sore points of many A/V processors and receivers is the remote control. Whether it’s rows of identical black buttons on a black background, no back-lighting, 5 button presses to make anything happen (GUI Menus), on-screen displays for picture settings that block out the whole screen, whatever….some manufacturers must have special departments who think up these things. “Uh, Charlie, let’s give this one to the User-Unfriendly- Technology Office.”

      Not Bryston, however. Their remote is small, though quite heavy at just over half-a-pound (typical; the preamp and B-60 ones are similar in size and weight), machined from a solid block of aluminum. It has only 15 buttons, and these are all back lit, in fact, automatically so when programmed; this is the first remote I’ve seen to incorporate both a light sensor and a motion sensor, so all you have to do is lurch at it in the dark and it lights up. Way cool!

      I used to get frustrated at my Rotel and Sunfire touch-light remotes because half the time when I wanted Mute I’d turn things off completely because the Mute and On/Off buttons were so close together. Eventually I solved the problem by finding a spot in the opposite corner of the touchpad that didn’t do anything else but turn on the backlight before I tried to find Mute. The motion-sensing backlight on the Bryston is the best idea since the Clapper.

      But back to the buttons, all 15 of them. On the left side are input selectors, in the centre row Level Up/Down, Mute, Light/Hold for Test (to activate cycling level signals from the listening position), and Tape, while at right we find Digital, Pro Logic, Stereo, THX, and at bottom right corner, Power. Simple, elegant, and easy to use.

      Setup is done using the front panel buttons and LCD display, and is a pretty simple process. The speakers have to be programmed large or small, centre channel on/off, and delays have to be set. In the latter process, the SP 1 prompts you to set the distance for all speakers, and references all set delays to those distances. That helps make the delays accurate when the rear speakers are closer than the front, a frequent situation.

      Digital signals are sensed automatically at any coax input, and at either Toslink, once these latter are assigned to particular inputs. That makes playing Dolby Digital or DTS sources very simple, and, if necessary, the digital format can be manually selected on the front panel or remote. A THX button allows adding THX processing, which includes Re-equalization to tame bright soundtracks mixed for speakers firing through theatre screens, Timbre Matching for all speakers,and Adaptive Decorrelation to make the Dolby rear channels’ mono signal less centred. Also, Bass Peak Level Manager and Loudspeaker Position Time Synchronization (see above) are THX features provided in initial setup. The former allows you to set a threshold so that your subwoofer cannot get any nasty surprises, that is, it cannot be overdriven under any circumstances. “Honey, I blew up the sub!”

      The SP 1 also has digital music modes, which they do not refer to as DSP. These are Party (Dude), Natural, Stadium, Club, and DTS Music. The Party mode puts the front channels into the four corner speakers, while the others approximate the spaces described. I’ll say more about these in the listening notes below, but I do wonder about the Natural setting. Is the implication here that any other setting is un-natural? Must ask James about that.

      Another interesting surround feature is the ability to use Dolby Pro Logic with analog, and, especially, analog music sources. Why does this matter? Well, anyone like me with dozens of older laserdiscs with analog-only Dolby Surround are out of luck with the ubiquitous Pro Logic that operates only in the digital domain. With analog Pro Logic, I can still enjoy older discs like Top Gun and Star Wars with full surround. I can also use it for music to provide a natural surround ambience.

      As I discovered when I turned to listening to the various surround options, the music modes are also available with analog sources, unlike the DSP in most receivers and processors. However, only Pro Logic can be switched on or off from the remote; since it would be easy to make either the Pro Logic or Stereo button on the remote scroll through the music modes (as can be done on the front panel), I highly recommend this upgrade to the Bryston engineers. It would, if nothing else, make it easier to compare them sonically without having to leave the listening seat.

      I did have a serious listen to all of them, and was struck by a number of things. First, they operate only on the rear channels, the front ones left unaltered. Therefore, their effects can be altered simply by raising or lowering rear level (which should be easier to do, and may well be in a future upgrade; currently the menu must be accessed, involving several button pushes, though this can be done while viewing or listening; it’s a little too GUI). Even Stadium was listenable with a normal rear balance, and happily, Natural was pure out-of-phase at rear, for those with long memories, a simple L-R DynaQuad-style circuit. It sounded best with classical music and will please those with lots of vinyl. Only Club seemed a little intrusive, the sound from the rear too loud.

      One anomaly I found curious was the lack of subwoofer operation in any music mode or with analog Pro Logic. However, I’m assured by genial James that this has been addressed in current production with a software update called Extra Bass, ours being a relatively early sample.

      Another departure from other surround processors found in the SP 1 is the front panel 3-position toggle switch for dynamic range, the positions marked Loud, Really Loud, and THX Torture. Just kidding…they’re really labeled Max, Norm, and Late. Usually, you have just 2 choices, and, in a way you do here, too, because Late is, like, reeeeally compressed. My advice is leave it on Max (even if Max complains).

      Continuing on the subject of dynamics and sound quality, there’s no question that the SP 1 is a great analog preamplifier in the Bryston tradition, and this pretty much justifies at least half the cost for audiophiles who have to have a single A/V system. It is open, transparent, and very nicely passes the 96/24 sound from my music DVDs, which leads me to another surprise finding in light of other recently reviewed A/V processors and receivers. The SP 1 does not decode (or even downsample) 96/24 discs, but simply mutes, but since most DVD players these days do have the requisite DACs built in, it’s no big deal. It does do DTS, and very well, its transparency making the format almost tolerable for music. However, I still find DTS CDs lacking in resolution, orchestral textures in particular losing their inner detail. This is not something one worries about as much when viewing a picture while listening, a psychoacoustic phenomenon that deserves more research.

      I watched all of the IMAX DVDs I’ve been reviewing while listening through the SP 1, and was consistently impressed by the creative and effective use of surround sound by the mixing engineers, as well as the very high quality of location surround effects. I also watched quite a bit of college and Raptors basketball and golf off air, using Pro Logic and Natural mostly to create a realistic surround ambience, and I have to comment that off-air matrix surround has gotten better and better over the past couple of years, and sounds exceptional through this Bryston processor. That can also be said for film soundtracks from DVDs and laserdiscs, the Pro Logic performance pretty much the best I’ve heard from a processor.

      Dolby Digital and DTS have a liveliness and clarity that is also heard only from the best surround units. In listening I found more than ever the virtue of having lots of power (somewhat to the distress of my wife), cranking the Sunfire Cinema Grand’s 405 watts per channel to a greater degree than before. I guess it’s the old saying, if it’s cleaner play it louder.

      And that pretty well sums up the Bryston SP 1. It is, to a greater extent than I’ve heard before, the true audiophile’s surround processor. First the remote lights up, and then your face. Bravo Bryston!

Andrew Marshall

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