Test Report: Bryston SP-3 Preamplifier/Processor and 9BSST2 5-Channel Amplifier Page 2

Performance

Bluntly put, this Bryston duo’s high-endedness is not about its user interface, video manipulations (the SP-3 performs no video processing at all), or even — athough all Brystons are exceedingly well made, from top-shelf materials — look’n’feel. It’s about the sound, and on that score I propose that it would be diffi cult or impossible to do better.

First, consider the power Q: The Bryston 9BSST2 may specify “only” 140/200 watts per channel (all channels driven at 8/4 ohms), but it weighs three times as much as many an A/V receiver making similar on-paper claims. What’s different is the amount of copper deployed in power-supply inductance (for current storage) and silicon in output-device current capacity (“safe-operating area”) — differences that I’d expect to hear.

And I did. I know of few all-channel acid tests better than the battle sequences of Master and Commander on Blu-ray, and the Bryston system had no problem matching my expectations, formed from many auditions via numerous amps, including my everyday, 6 x 150-watts component, a unit of similar heft (but only 40% the cost). In fact, the 9BSST2 may actually have exceeded my expectations. The snap/boom of cannon shots I’ve heard scores of times caused me to nonetheless jump again in my chair as the pressure wave struck my chest.

Dense, high-level scenes like the many action sequences from the charming E.T. alternate-version Super 8 reproduced with an effortless dynamism and clarity of detail I associate with an amplifier operating with absolutely zero clipping, limiting, or exhaustion of current reserves. The many crashes and grindings were bright and spotlight-detailed but never harsh — bright enough, in fact, to make me wish for a THXtype equalization setting to roll off the top octaves just a decibel or two on the front channels. (Of course, the fault here lies with the audio mix for home video, not the playback hardware — which THX originator Tom Holman would say is exactly the point of home THX’s Re-EQ feature.)

This was the kind of pristine, “through an open doorway” listening that simply begged for the challenge of high-quality multichannel music playback. I obliged with numerous examples, including Chesky Records’ meticulously recorded multichannel jazz-trio SACD Personal Favorites from New York pianist Fred Hersch. On a good system, this disc is as close to a transporter beam as you’ll fi nd, and indeed via the Bryston gear it relocated me to the large studio space in which it was captured.

Personal Favorites is a recording that shades on the bright side of neutral, yet the system never sounded anything but open, easy, and crystal-clear. Ride-cymbal washes, bass articulations, and lush piano chords were all suitably gorgeous, but it was mostly the remarkable array of Steinway tonalities that captured my ear. Hersch’s playing features a lot of spare, single-note lines, lovingly articulated and given plenty of “air.” With the Brystons in control, my system’s ability to convey the subtle yet stunning variety of tone colors Hersch teases out of the concert grand on ballads like “For All We Know” and the arresting purity of long, exposed, sustained decays, was as good as — and possibly better than — any my system has presented to me.

Dynamic ability was a non-issue: Even at front-table levels, the Hersch trio’s occasional, surprising accents and brief fortissimos were utterly unrestricted, and the same held true for full-orchestra recordings such as a Telarc SACD of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. No question — the Bryston SP-3’s high-purity digital audio abilities and the 9BSST2’s faultless amplification combine to deliver audio performance of the very highest order.

Ergonomics

Next, however, I’m going to say a bunch of negative-sounding things, so let me preface them with this: Anyone buying nearly 20 G’s worth of A/V electronics will certainly be planning to integrate them into a media or whole-house system commanded by a dedicated third-party user interface — touchscreen, tabletop, iPad, or some other solution, to which the Bryston gear offers serial as well as IP (via wired Ethernet) connectivity for control. So the complaints you’re about to hear would, in real-world use, likely be mitigated to a substantial extent.

Still, the SP-3’s lack of onscreen displays limits its everyday usability in ways that certainly are not critical, but to which I’ve become thoroughly habituated. For example, there’s simply no way to make temporary adjustments of channel level for a movie or program, so if dialogue is too loud or too soft, you cannot easily just offset center-channel level a decibel or two. (Doing so requires a trip to the setup screen, and that means getting up and walking over to peer at the front-panel display.) Selecting surround modes is tricky, too. You of course assign, at setup time, a default mode to be active whenever you load each input, and this will cover most daily eventualities, but otherwise your only option is to step through the available Dolby Digital/PLIIx and DTS/ Neo:6 modes in sequence — and the lack of visual feedback makes identifying what mode you’ve actually settled upon a bit iffy without bright lighting and a pair of low-power binoculars.

Bryston’s SP-3 remote control is a work of metal-crafting art: a solid, heavy, billet-aluminum block with tiny black buttons and tinier white lettering. Lovely, but no ergonomic paragon — though, as I’ve already noted, few if any SP-3 owners will likely handle it in their day-to-day operations. Ergonomically, that’s no great loss, but the handset does boast the coolest key-/motion-activated backlighting ever.

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