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January 15,  2004

 


AV32R DP


DVD32R PSM192

TAG McLaren Audio AV32R DP 7.1 Processor and DVD32R PSM192 DVD Player

I've never had a home-theater system that even comes close to the TMA/Magnepan MG3.6/R, MGCC2, MGC1/Musical Fidelity M250 system that I auditioned for this review, but it does raise an interesting question: Just how good does a home-theater system need to be?

The TMA combo is for the folks who will only accept "as good as it gets" as the answer. The TMA products probably aren't unique in that regard -- even at the highest levels of performance, there's no shortage of worthy A/V components.

However, as impressive as I have found the TAG McLaren preamp/processor and DVD player, I've been even more impressed by the way the company treats its customers. During my time with the Dual Processor, it has undergone at least three software upgrades, adding or refining features -- all of them accessible through the company's website. That has proven a tad frustrating for me as a reviewer, but if I were a consumer I'd be ecstatic. I might or might not choose to buy the upgrades, but the knowledge that the unit I already owned was still being supported so thoroughly by the manufacturer would have meant a lot. (Anthem also deserves props for this attitude.)

TMA's website is another manifestation of its concern for its customers. Not only does it alert the customers to all of the upgrades and changes the company has developed, it allows the company to listen to its customers -- and, even better, its Forums section lets TMA customers talk to one another.

Why doesn't every company do this? It's not just a sales tool, it creates a wonderful sense of community and lets the real experts -- the folks who own the products -- trade tips and beefs. Maybe you think that's a minor thing, but I found it comforting, fascinating, and, ultimately, convincing.

When you're spending $18,000 ($7999 for the DP; $10,194 for the DVD32R with the PSM192 progressive-scan output, $7999 without it) on a video front end, that's the least you should expect -- in addition to performance, which the DP and DVD32R definitely deliver.

It is to be all made of faith and service

I've already lived with an earlier version of the AV32R, the AV32RBP192, but the Dual Processor has six times the processing capacity of that model, plus a host of new features -- and when used in conjunction with a TAG McLaren DVD player, such as the DVD32R, its list of goodies just grows longer.

In my original review of the AV32RBP192, I discussed the physical layout of the unit and gave a rundown of its features and connections. None of that has changed. To upgrade an AV32RBP192, you'll need to schedule a hardware upgrade to convert it to Dual Processor status, since the DP has (d'oh!) two processors -- two Super SHARC 21161N DSPs, to be precise, giving it 1200 MFLOPs (mega floating-point operations per second) of processing power, six times more than the AV32RBP192.

All that processing power required a redesign of the AV32R's power supply and lots of extra storage capacitance, which utilized many lessons learnt in the design of TMA's flagship processor, the AV192R.

What does all that give you? A whole laundry list of nifty new abilities, such as DTS 96/24, Height Channel, THX Ultra2, and, perhaps most importantly, TMREQ, TMA's own digital equalization system (TMA Room EQ, get it?).

DTS 96/24 isn't a small addition -- it requires two separate clocks. THX Ultra2 likewise adds wide-bandwidth video switching, an area where the basic AV32R already shone. Height Channel is a feature you may not have focused on yet (and hearing about a need for additional channels may fill you with despair), but it does add even a greater sense of bigness to surround. There aren't many films that incorporate height info yet, but TMA claims that many DVDs processed in THX Surround EX (Dolby EX) or DTS-ES 6.1 will prove compatible.

But the biggie is TMREQ, which allows you to tune the interface between your speakers and your room using a PC with a good soundcard, a line-output SPL meter, and ETF 5 room-analysis software available from www.etfacoustic.com. (You can download a trial version of the software, which will allow you to examine your current room response.)

You can just do a quick'n'dirty TMREQ setup by ear, but if you're anal-retentive like me, you'll want to have empirical proof that you've "improved" matters. No problem! If you want a blow-by-blow account of using TMREQ, I refer you to www.tagmclarenaudio.com/products/av192r/tmreqcasestudy1.asp, where TMA takes you through the process in detail.

Basically, first you correct the bass/room response, then you smooth out the speaker/room interaction. It is not complicated, but it does involve a lot of steps. And wouldn't you know that TMA released a newer version of the TMREQ software after I had employed it! Naturally, it made the process easier (and addressed some bass-management issues).

Does TMREQ make a huge difference? Sh'yeah! You very well may not need that new subwoofer you've been lusting after -- the low-end improvement is staggering. Impact, extension, and level all seem substantially increased. Everything else got even clearer and more detailed, with less smearing and vagueness. In other words, the different soundscapes created by the surround field grew more distinct from one another and from that of the room.

Although you can do the TMREQ setup yourself, that's precisely the sort of service you should expect from the kind of dealer who sells a product like the Dual Processor. Let your dealer take you through the initial setup -- you can always tweak the parameters later.

. . . Service is perfect freedom

The DVD32R DVD player matches the DP's sleek cosmetics, but doesn't resemble any DVD players you're likely to have seen. It's a top-loading unit that uses a powered sliding lid and a magnetic damping clamp. Activate the lid and it slides to one side, revealing a DVD well illuminated by a long, narrow strip of blue LEDs, making DVD changes in a darkened room much easier.

That sliding drawer is pretty slick. It's die-cast aluminum and travels on a polished steel bar with a Teflon glider, via an electric winch and steel cable. The motor's torque is "progressively adapted" by the control software -- which sounds like overkill, except that it really does work more smoothly and reliably than any drawer I've ever used.

But why a top-loading mechanism? Not simply because it looks so cool, but because that allows TMA to affix its drive motor and servo electronics to a heavy, mass-loaded (lead bonded to an aluminum substrate) sub-chassis, which, the firm claims, results in additional stability and reliability. The assembly is mechanically decoupled from the chassis and enclosed in an electrically screened sub-enclosure.

Servo control and a data-recovery PCB are mounted as close as possible to the laser assembly, sending the serialized data to the MPEG decoder on the main PCB. The master oscillator is a low-phase-noise single-frequency model, which TMA says ensures that all the DVD32R's video and audio clocks are linked synchronously to avoid what the firm calls "beating." All of the required clock frequencies are then derived from the master clock using a phase-locked-loop (PLL) and a pair of voltage-controlled oscillators. The clock signals are independently buffered and travel along "precisely terminated clock traces" to each of the circuits. In TMA's words, "This prevents decision threshold uncertainty," i.e., jitter.

TMA went to Mediamatics for the DVD32R's MPEG decoder, the Pantera-DVD IC, a single chip which integrates a 32-bit RISC processor, MPEG-specific hardware, 10-bit video DACs, and both NTSC and PAL encoders.

The DVD32R's video circuitry is billed as "broadcast quality." Its video outputs are individually buffered by high-speed, current-feedback op-amps. It boasts two composite, two S-video, and two sets of component-video outputs (one BNC, one RCA). When outfitted with the PSM192 progressive-scan output card, the 32R has, umm, progressive scan.

There are other construction high points to the 32R: multiplayer PCBs, discrete digital drivers, massive toroidal power transformer with eight secondary windings, and surface-mount components -- all precisely the level of accoutrement you'd expect from a pricey high-end component.

There's one thing you don't get: a digital-to-analog converter. You have to connect the 32R to an external digital processor. Something, say, like the AV32R DP. Even then, you don't get DVD-Audio or SACD, although TAG has promised a DVD-A upgrade in the near future. (In fact, I wince every time the phone rings, since I'm convinced this review will be rendered obsolete by a TMA upgrade at least one more time before I manage to complete it.)

Hacked hewn with constant service

When it comes to a luxe A/V system, however, hardware is only half the story. It's the user interface that makes or breaks a product. In the early days of DVD, I scrubbed a review of a processor because I never could get it to work properly. It wasn't just me, nobody could -- it was designed by a genius and all of us non-geniuses just didn't get it.

The beauty of the TMA AV32R DP/DVD32R system lies in its ease of use -- especially as a system. When you use more than one TMA component, you can connect them with the TAGtronic Communication Bus (via Cat 5 cable), which connects the operating systems and makes the units act like a single entity. Of course, inexpensive receiver-based systems have offered this level of convenience for years; it's just the high-priced spread that's been slow to adopt it.

But it's not just ease of use, TMA devices can also be linked with the TAGtronic Synch Link (a.k.a., T2L), which allows the DVD32R to synchronize its clocks to those of the AV32R, which -- all together now -- reduces jitter.

Then there's the software itself, which is simple and intuitive. There's a setup wizard, which takes you through the entire setup procedure the first time you power up the components (and whenever you want to make changes after that). Yes, I know that most A/V gear offers interactive setup procedures, but the TMA programs load the first time you use the gear, which means that even the least-experienced user will be likely to use it. In addition, it even makes suggestions -- not that you'd need them, I hasten to add. (I did find them helpful on a few occasions, I must confess).

The DVD32R even comes with an assortment of video test patterns (brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness, convergence, and geometry), since the quality of the DVD player is moot if your display device isn't properly tweaked. Again, I found these extremely useful -- especially the convergence and geometry patterns, since I moved my SIM2 HT200 projector to a new room during the audition. Half an hour's work had me convinced that my system could not be better set up.

It did me yeoman’s service

Did I mention that the DVD32R makes a pretty nifty CD player for all of your Red Book music CDs? No, I didn't, but I should have shouted it from the rooftops. That's not at all common among DVD players and it shocked the dickens out of me.

I was unpacking boxes from our recent move one day and spotted Pierre-Laurent Aimard's set of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe [Teldec Classics 73342-2]. What the hey? I thought and put disc one in the 32R, just to keep me company. Not much unpacking got done -- I was drawn deep into the sweep and drama of these performances and stood there with a pile of books in my hand until I had the presence of mind to put them back in the box and sit down, where I stayed for almost an hour, enthralled.

They sure aren't your father's Beethoven -- which makes sense, given that Aimard is best known for his interpretations of Boulez, Messiaen, and Ligeti, while Harnoncourt is lionized for his early music performances, but in an unsuspected chocolate/peanut-butter fashion, the combination strikes creative sparks. And it sounds fabulously present and lifelike -- even through a "DVD player." Well, through the TMA combo, at least.

Given a truly spectacular DVD soundtrack, such as the EX layer on Finding Nemo, the DVD video sound quality is every bit as impressive. More in some ways, since this animated film has license to create a truly -- and literally -- fantastic sonic world, complete with some of the most impressive bass you'll ever hear. Summersive and submersive, this may be the single best soundtrack I've heard all year -- and the margin grows even greater with the TMA combo.

The picture quality is equal to the sound, too. I was critical of the earliest Pixar work because I felt the studio's programming geniuses didn't nail shadings and "lighting angles" skillfully. If that criticism was ever valid (I now think I was a little too harsh in that regard), it certainly isn’t now. Finding Nemo is a gorgeous movie, full of visual jokes, significant details, and spectacular colors. It's absolute eye candy -- and again the 32R shines with it, especially with DLP projectors.

Movies shot with a camera look amazing, too. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came off better in my home theater than it did in the Manhattan theater where I caught it in wide release. Part of that was owing to the eye-popping clarity and focus of the telecine transfer, but a tremendous amount of its impact was also due to its superb use of surround sound, which the DP delivered with an intimacy not possible in a huge theater.

That sounds like heresy, doesn't it? After all, isn't the whole idea of home theater supposed to be the re-creation of the theater experience? Maybe it is. Maybe we need to examine our conception of what that theatrical experience is.

Early on, the biggest impediment to rivaling the movie-theater experience was display size and clarity. Well, contemporary video delivery systems -- from plasma display devices to projectors -- have solved that problem. High-resolution loudspeakers and modern surround decoders are now capable of delivering sonic details with precision and accuracy that commercial theatrical PA systems simply can't rival. I won't deny that there's still something special about seeing a big-scale movie in an Academy theater, but when I did see Pirates in Manhattan, I found myself thinking, Boy, I can't wait to see this at home!

And I wasn't disappointed. At home, watching and listening through the TMA combo, I was completely immersed in the Disney fantasy, down to the tiniest creaks and groans of the ships, the sighs of the wind among the palms, the cries of the gulls in the sky. Of course, the big stuff was pretty impressive, too, but it was those teensy little details that most completely transported me -- details not always audible in real theaters. Or, I hasten to add, through less-revealing HT systems.

Perhaps I should say, on those less competently set up -- not that I'm taking a lot of credit for that. TMA's setup wizard deserves the lion's share, and I give the company tremendous credit for understanding how important proper setup is and for making it so easy.

Or perhaps the major credit is due to the TMREQ. The degree of improvement attainable from TMA's room equalization depends on several factors, ranging from the room itself (natch), the speakers, and your patience. If you're persistent enough, you might even achieve ruler-flat room response, although I doubt it will sound as good as you might imagine. In my experience, once you've taken care of the big stuff, good sound is more dependent on fine-tuning by ear than by conforming to a graph.

One thing's for certain, the combination of setup and TMREQ gave me a sonic HT experience beyond anything I've ever encountered in my own home.

Any complaints? Well, a niggling one, sort of. The DP is so sleek and slim that I found it difficult to read the graphics on its front panel. It's a good thing the backlit remote control is so well laid-out and simple.

Small service is true service while it lasts

The system I had been using prior to the TMA audition united two of my favorite HT products: the Anthem AVM 20 v2.0 ($3399) and the Arcam DV88 Plus ($1599), a system that costs less than one-third of the TMA combo. It's hard to deny the value represented by this combination -- like the TMA system, it sounds great on music, delivers a degree of room-tuning flexibility most systems can't match, and delivers a high-quality video image that is drool-worthy.

Also, the Anthem, like the TMA, employs a software-driven architecture that allows it to be easily upgraded in your home.

Is the Anthem/Arcam system as good as the TMA?

Not quite. I love a good David versus Goliath story, as much as the next guy, but all things being equal, I'd choose the TMA components in a heartbeat.

The video image is clearer and more film-like through the TMA combo -- this is most noticeable in pans and motion shots, such as, say, almost all of Chicago. The AV32R DVD's MPEG processing handled lighting contrasts and edge-transitions more sharply than the Arcam -- not a huge amount, but more than noticeably. The better your display device, the greater the difference, so if you're currently enjoying a high-def display, you'd really enjoy it with the 32R.

Chicago was also a superb test for the differences between the Anthem and DP. In my original review of the Anthem, I pointed out that its bass management and boundary control allowed it to fine-tune the speaker/room interface to its advantage. That advantage is now TAG McLaren's, thanks to the greater flexibility of TMREQ. More control equals more detail -- and, as I said earlier, greater personal involvement in the soundtrack's fictive universe.

In other words, there's more there here.

’Tis the curse of service

Of course, I did say all things being equal, which they are not. That $18,000 price tag is a heap of inequality -- you could buy the Anthem/Arcam system plus a 60" plasma display for that kind of money. Not that I could afford that either.

But the question is not whether I can afford the TAG McLaren AV32R DP 7.1 and DVD32R PSM192 DVD player, but whether they deliver an unrivaled home-theater experience. That they do -- you'll have to pull out your own wallet and determine if the price tag works for you.

If it does, there are some other aspects of the TMA HT experience that just might be as important as the pure performance issues. I was extremely impressed with TMA's corporate attitude towards its customers -- I found its relentless drive to improve the products its consumers already own staggering. I also loved the system's functional simplicity and flexibility.

Given its price tag, anyone would expect state-of-the-art performance from the AV32R DP 7.1 and DVD32R PSM192, and they deliver. What might be surprising is just how much that little name badge reading TAG McLaren might really be worth.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhometheater.com

AV32R DP 7.1 Processor
Price: $7999 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

DVD32R PSM192 DVD Player
Price: $10,194 USD ($7999 without progressive-scan card).
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

TAG McLaren Audio
The Summit
Latham Road
Huntingdon, Cambs
PE29 6ZU
United Kingdom
Phone: +44 (0) 1480 415600

E-mail: helpdesk@tagmclaren.com
Website: www.tagmclaren.com 

North American distributor:
Ball Marketing Group
P.O. Box 486
MT. Baldy, CA 91759
Phone: (909) 581-3777 or (888) 293-9929 (toll free)
Fax: (909) 752-5445

E-mail: info@ball-marketing-group.com


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