THX ULTRA: Episode 2

Our first look at Ultra 2 and the first certified system from Snell and Pioneer.

It may be time to start asking the question that's asked of all pastimes with hobbyist roots when their popularity surges: Is home theater a permanent cultural phenomenon or just another fad destined to burn out before its time? Recent evidence certainly shades the former. DVD-Video has been the catalyst for an unprecedented boom in the popularity of home theater and should probably be credited with completing home theater's undeniable transition from novelty act to mainstream entertainment that began with Dolby Surround and the first inexpensive multichannel speaker system. But is home theater a cultural phenomenon the way that the computer is a cultural phenomenon? Do a majority of Americans actively seek to make it a part of their lives day in and day out? Not yet—but home theater's high-water mark is still to come.

Phenomenon or not, home theater has hit the mainstream. In doing so, it has taken on new responsibilities, new philosophies, and (in some ways) a new focus. At a time when cocooning and the home environment have taken on a far-more-significant role, home theater systems have quickly expanded the role of the television and stereo and become the social and entertainment centers of our homes.

Naturally, THX is well aware of this trend. It is with the expanding role of home theater in mind that they have developed THX Ultra 2: a new set of processing formats, equipment specifications, and general philosophies that addresses the changing focus of home theater on a variety of fronts. More details are available in the THX sidebar that accompanies this article, but an exploration of the first Ultra 2 system calls for an understanding of some of the basic ideas behind Ultra 2. First among them is THX's belief that home theater has transitioned from a private event to a social event and that modern systems must adapt accordingly. This includes expanding the soundstage with an extra pair of speakers: The Ultra 2 speaker array is a 7.1-channel configuration with two fronts, a center, a sub, two dipolar side surrounds, and two back surrounds, whose role has grown beyond the rear-center-channel effect of Surround EX. This array provides a more-uniform soundstage—one that strives to provide sweet-spot-like sound to every listening position in the theater. This is among the reasons why THX revisited some of their processing techniques and philosophies behind vertical directivity, ultimately easing the requirement put forth by earlier THX specs.

Ultra 2 also addresses the melting pot of formats that is the modern home theater—not only for movies but for music. Ultra 2 is compatible with most audio formats, but it focuses on the 5.1-channel-and-up varieties. THX Ultra 2 Cinema and THX MusicMode apply proprietary processing to multichannel movie and music formats and transition them to the 7.1-channel world. High-resolution, multichannel audio, namely SACD and DVD-Audio, fall within Ultra 2's radar, as well. Although THX is pushing for digital output from the player to fully expand Ultra 2's potential with these formats, it will address them in their current guise, albeit naturally, with the necessity of additional conversion steps. One of Ultra 2's goals is to reconcile the reality of a single speaker layout that must deliver movie and music programming in all of their forms with the listener's desire for as little compromise as possible in any given area.

On the equipment side, Ultra 2 has some new specifications, such as those for subs and amplifiers. This includes new testing methods. The new video specs for pre/pros and receivers address the needs of HDTV and progressive scanning. Ultra 2 also gives THX a chance to further emphasize their goal of making home theater systems more compatible and easier to operate. Ultimately, THX wants people to understand that Ultra 2 isn't just a new processing technique; it's a new and complete approach to the concept of home theater.

The Gear
With this in mind, I set out to put Ultra 2 through its paces with the first Ultra 2-certified products to hit the shelves: the VSX-49TX A/V receiver from Pioneer's Elite line and a 7.1-channel speaker array from Snell. The VSX-49TX is a serious receiver with a price tag to match: $4,200. For that price, you get just about every home theater trick you can imagine in one box, including the full Dolby and DTS contingents. All of the THX modes and features are in place, as well (of course). Power comes by way of quality MOSFET output devices that supply 130 watts to seven channels.

The VSX-49TX has a comprehensive amount of inputs and outputs. Highlights include four optical and four coaxial digital ins (including an RF demodulator), 7.1-channel analog inputs (with 24/96 analog-to-digital converters on all channels), a phono input, three HD-compatible component video inputs, analog audio and composite video output for zone B, and an RS-232 connection.

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