Aragon Stage One & 3005 preamplifier processor & 5 channel amplifier

The Stage One is Aragon's second-generation surround processor, replacing and retiring the original Stage. The Stage One combines a strikingly machined front panel with the latest thinking in surround processing, including no processing at all for us vinyl buffs. And in a concession to those who think there might still be something on the public airwaves worth listening to in this ClearChannel world, the Stage One also throws in an AM/FM tuner. Visually, the robust 5-channel Aragon 3005 and 2-channel 3002 amps share the Mondial-inspired "M" design with the Stage One.

Back in January 2002, the Aragon Stage One was one of the first two processors to receive Ultra2 designation from THX, the other being the Arcam FMJ AV8 (reviewed by Michael Fremer in the December 2003 Guide). With Ultra2, THX hopes to set the standard for 7.1-channel playback; otherwise, there is no standard. The maximum number of discrete audio channels available from a DVD-Video disc is seven (6.1), via DTS ES Discrete, which adds a rear center channel.

With music, specifically as recorded on the SACD and DVD-Audio formats, the number of channels drops to six (5.1). To these formats, THX now applies proprietary processing logic to create a blend of direct and ambient sounds to the two side-mounted dipole speakers already mandated by the original 5.1 THX specification, and the two new rear-mounted, direct-radiating speakers called for in THX Ultra2.

Neither my room nor equipment permitted any sort of reasonable test of the 7.1-channel features, so I mostly ignored them. One feature I could have taken advantage of but didn't was THX re-equalization. That process, which tames overly bright soundtracks, has thankfully been required less and less of late, as sound engineers seem to be learning how to effectively migrate from big theater to small.

Aragon Stage One: Design and Setup
The $4000 Stage One's clean lines and simplified faceplate stop well short of the barrenness of most minimalist designs. The layered look of the deeply carved aluminum faceplate adds a classical turn and aesthetic appeal. What looks like a big volume control or radio tuner way over to the right is that and much more. If you lose the remote, or your patience with it (hint: don't give up too soon), the big knob can do it all for you, including initial setup. Besides spinning around, the large knob can be pushed in, like clicking on a mouse, to register selections.

The Stage One's setup parameters are extensive, and they're divided into Standard and Advanced function groups, of which the former is usually all you'll need, at least for the initial setup. But neither group is even slightly complicated, and the owner's manual is sufficiently detailed to help you understand, in a few sentences, what the shorthand on the LED display might not make clear. The process is intuitive; I performed my entire setup using only the knob and the large LED display to its left. It wasn't until a month later that I realized that the Stage One doesn't even have onscreen display capability.

During basic setup, you follow the normal procedure of selecting whether speakers are Large (full-range), Small (not so full-range), or None (I mean, at all!), for each of the primary position groups (front mains, center, sides, rears); the sub can be specified as present or not. The crossover point for the non–full-range speakers can be set anywhere from 25Hz to 120Hz, in 5Hz increments, though that single setting will then apply to all the non–full-range speakers being crossed over to the sub. As a result, your least bass-capable speaker, which might be your center-channel, will require you to set the crossover higher than you might want to for the larger, but still not full-range, mains or surrounds. I recommend starting by working your way through the basic settings menu and leaving exploration of the advanced menu options for later—not because they're complicated, but because their default settings are usually fine for most systems in the first place.

Level calibration with my sound-pressure meter and the Aragon's built-in test tones was quick and painless, but you'll want to fine-tune the bass to taste. I found I preferred different subwoofer settings with different speakers. The slightly over-the-top 10dB bass boost [slightly?—Ed.] that made movies a blast with the very dynamic Dynaudio Contour S5.4/S1.4/SC system had to be cut back so as not to compete with the palpable smoothness of the Magnepan 3.6R/1.6/CC3 system's bass. These changes can be made right from your sub, or from the Stage One's menu, which provides a large degree of cut and boost for each speaker, including the sub.

In order to get all the info to your ears at the right moment—depending on what your chosen listening mode considers to be the right moment—you need to specify your distance from each speaker. The Stage One allows you to enter your measurements to the nearest inch. Of course, anyone seated elsewhere will be subject to a different interpretation, but better than a broken clock that's right twice a day, you'll be in the sweet spot all the time!

A look at the rear of the Stage One indicates why this preamp-processor is so easy to set up and configure. First and most noticeable is its clean, uncluttered appearance, in stark contrast to most high-powered home-theater receivers available today. The logical design is an exercise in simplicity and falls perfectly to intuition.

There are seven conventional inputs, pre-labeled on the front and back for DVD, TV, etc.; each has a plot of rear-panel real estate for a stereo analog input, a coaxial digital input, and composite and S-video inputs. In addition, the TV, Video, and CD/LD inputs have optical connections grouped in a separate bank. Likewise, the TV, DVD, and VCR (presumably for a D-VHS VCR such as the JVC) have component-video inputs in another bank. A single multichannel (7.1) input on the rear breaks with the convention of using a bank of six or eight RCA inputs. Aragon has saved space by using a single DB-25 to serve as the input. I didn't have such a specialty cable on hand, and I suspect most won't; thanks to Monster Cable, I was able to get one to use for the review.

As with the Classé SSP-60, each of the Stage One's inputs is physically and logically predefined and requires no further configuration via software once everything is all plugged in. Many pre-pros—my Theta Casablanca and the Krell HTS series, for example—offer banks of numbered but unassociated coaxial and optical digital audio and video inputs, which then must be associated with a name, such as TV or DVD. The Aragon is more akin to the minimalist stereo systems of our youths, making the process of hooking up new gear an easy affair. No more taking notes behind the rack while on bended knee, recording what went where so you can complete your programming assignment on the other side. Simplicity rules the day.

Other features of note include two sets of analog stereo outputs for recording or feeding a second room's system, and a single optical (TosLink) digital output, albeit without any switching facilities for enabling an indepen-dent second zone. For video monitoring, there are two banks of S-video and composite outputs, along with a single component-video output. Like most modern processors, the Stage One also supplies a 12V trigger output for controlling power to your amplifier or other system components. A 9-pin RS-232 connection is available for interfacing with an external control like a Crestron, and for installing software upgrades.

Aragon provides a Philips Pronto Neo learning remote with the Stage One. Those familiar with Prontos will have no trouble getting on board with the Neo, a simplified, somewhat slimmed-down version of the regular Pronto. A total of 15 custom screens is available to control the Stage One, and if that sounds daunting, it isn't.

However, I'd be lying if I said I absolutely loved the Neo. To paraphrase Steve Miller, I'm a hunter, I'm a pecker, I'm a remote wrecker, I change my inputs feelin' round. It's inconvenient to have to take my eyes off the screen, press a button to light up the remote screen in a dark room, and then find the "button" I want to press on the flat membrane.

On the other hand, it's all logically laid out, for the most part. Select an input, and a choice of surround modes appears as well. Do nothing, and the processor uses the last selected surround mode. I put my vinyl rig on the Auxiliary input, set the mode to Direct, and from then on it remained in analog direct mode every time I pressed Aux.

The Aragon Stage One has a host of useful modes. Besides the obvious Dolby Digital (with THX Surround EX) and DTS (with ES Matrix and Discrete), the Stage One contains my new favorite surround mode, Dolby Pro Logic II. DPL II is to the original DPL what bacon is to lard. I mean, there's fat and there's phat. DTS Neo:6 is also available. Either mode will take your 2-channel listening and older movie viewing to new heights.

Aragon 3005: Design and Setup
Aragon's new 3000 series of amps, the 2-channel 3002 and the 5-channel 3005 reviewed here, are high-powered outgrowths of their 2000 series. One upgrade from the 2000 series is the addition of balanced inputs. However, the Stage One doesn't offer balanced outputs, so I couldn't try the amp's new inputs. I used both my standard Straight Wire cables and, toward the end of the review, the quite amazing AudioQuest Jaguar single-ended interconnects and Mont Blanc speaker cables. As usual, given a quiet system, which mine normally is, balanced interconnects are not always necessarily an improvement.