Fix It In The Mix

Sometimes there's more to be said about a reviewed product—information we've gleaned after the review is posted. It doesn't happen often; our schedule does not allow for leisurely, post-review ruminations. We have to move on to other gear. But sometimes we do learn new things. Or we need to follow up on something left hanging, perhaps after we've received a belated second sample. Often such updates are simply added to the existing review. But sometimes, particularly if the original review has scrolled off the home page and an important addition to it might be easily overlooked, the information will receive more attention elsewhere—such as in a blog.

In addition, for reasons beyond our control a review is sometimes not completed. This is very rare, but if spent enough time with the product to learn things about it that might be useful, we will share that information with you—both positive and negative.

What follows here are juicy tidbits of information about four such products: the Denon AVR-4306 AV receiver (not reviewed), the Arcam AVR350 AV receiver (reviewed), the Optoma HD81 1080p projector (reviewed) and the Vizio VM60P 60-inch plasma flat panel display (not reviewed).

Denon AVR-4306 Our first sample of this $2000 Denon 7.1-channel AV receiver was damaged in shipment. A corner of the front panel was dinged, suggesting that it had been dropped. It did not work. The evidence indicated that it had not come directly to us from Denon but rather from some careless troll who had repackaged it in the shattered remnants of its original Styrofoam padding.

The second sample was fine, with one exception. The surround channel amps were inoperative. Re-initializing the unit did not help. This was clearly a sample defect, but in the meantime Fred Manteghian was lined up to do a review of Denon's even more upmarket AVR-4806CI receiver. The AVR-4306 review was put on the back burner.

But I did use it in conjunction with several speaker reviews, including my recent review of an Aperion 633-T speaker system and a review of the Mirage OMD-28 speaker system (scheduled to be posted to this site this weekend). In both reviews I bypassed the inoperative surround amps by driving the surround channels from an external amp (the Denon's line-level preamp outputs worked just fine).

This is, based on my experiences, a superb AV receiver with a raft of great features, including excellent HDMI switching, upconversion of other video inputs to HDMI, and multichannel PCM capability from the HDMI inputs. It also has the same superb remote that FM praised in his AVR-4806CI review. Its only real weakness is its inherent complexity, a characteristic all too common in today's AV receivers. This isn't helped here by the AVR-4306's turgid owner's manual, a problem also widespread in this product category.

I suspect that Denon will soon announce a new line of receivers with HDMI 1.3 capability. This is merely an educated guess, based on what is happening in the marketplace, not on any word from Denon—though that company typically announces its new product line just before CEDIA in September. File it away under "things to consider before buying a new receiver this summer." On the other hand, if you think you can live without HDMI 1.3, there just might be some attractive closeout prices very soon…

Arcam AVR350 Note: This addendum will be added to the review itself, but since the review will soon scroll off the home page and into the archives, I include it here to bring it to your attention.

As I noted in the recent review, the Arcam's volume control, with its specified 1dB change per step, operated without problems in the settings I normally use for music (in 2-channel stereo). But it turned nonlinear in the somewhat higher settings I use to play back film soundtracks—and nonlinear in a way that sometimes made it difficult to zero in on the precise playback level desired.

To clarify the problem briefly, as I increased the level beyond 75 or so there would often be several steps in a row at which the levels did not change at all as the settings were progressively increased. This was followed, at some subsequent point, by a single-step jump of nearly 4dB.

In an effort to clear up this issue, Arcam sent us a second, later sample of the AVR350. Unfortunately, that sample's volume control measured worse than the review sample, with single step level jumps as high as 6dB.

After I returned both samples Arcam checked them out. They did find a problem that they had been unaware of. The above problem will occur if all of the individual channel calibration settings are at their +10dB maximums. I am unaware that I ever had them all set that high, but I one or two of them might have been, and perhaps that was enough to trigger the problem. According to Arcam, keeping those level controls below +10dB will avoid this. I can't go back to confirm it, however, as both samples were returned for Arcam's analysis.

According to Arcam, a firmware fix is being developed for this and will be installable by Arcam dealers. It should be ready in a few weeks.

I also criticized the Arcam for its video-only HDMI switching. The receiver cannot make use of the audio that rides on the HDMI connection, including both uncompressed multichannel PCM and multichannel PCM transcoded from new high resolution audio formats like Dolby TrueHD. According to Arcam, the lack of HDMI audio capabilities was a deliberate decision based on their opinion that HDMI audio, at present, is sonically compromised. There is, they argue, too much jitter because the frame-based clock used by the video signal also controls the timing of the digital audio data stream.

A discussion of the pros and cons of HDMI audio is an important topic that has been too little discussed, but it's too complex for inclusion here. From Arcam's point of view, however, its decision not to offer HDMI audio was based on performance considerations and not made for cost-cutting or commercial reasons.

The AVR350 is certainly one of the best-sounding AV receivers on the market. Listening to it one more time for this retest confirmed all of my positive impressions. No, better than that: driven by the Arcam, my vintage Energy Veritas v2.8 loudspeakers have never sounded better in my current room, with or without the subwoofer. In many respects, in fact, they have never sounded better, period, in the four rooms I have used them in since way back in 1994.

I eagerly await that volume control fix. We will be requesting another sample at that time to check it out, and will report our findings.

Optoma HD81 Oh, this takes me back. I promised an update on this model when we reviewed it late last year. But then CES happened, the prices in the projector market took a tumble while new, less expensive but even better performing models entered the picture, and, well, you know how it is…

I had a few minor beefs with the Optoma, chief among them its useless auto iris (noisy and abrupt in operation) and a habit of reverting to computer rather than video mode with its HDMI connections.

We requested and received a second sample. It had the same issues. But I gave up and tweaked the projector to use the computer mode (which affects the black and white levels). The inaccuracy of the video mode for peak white and black levels bothered the video geek in me, but in fact it did not seriously compromise the Optoma's picture. I also learned to chill and ignore the auto iris in favor of the Optoma's very effective, multi-step manual iris. A little voice in the back of my head whispered that if a manufacturer goes to the trouble of providing an auto iris, it ought to work well. But in fact I was perfectly happy with the image the manual iris offered, when properly tweaked.

The HD81 remains a very good projector, though the competition has become far more intense since it was introduced. Optoma's prices can be a bit hard to pin down since the company often talks in terms of street prices rather than the MSRP that other manufacturers typically quote. But the HD 81 is widely available on line for under $4500, which is an excellent price for this two-piece unit with its superb, separate video processor and switcher.

Optoma is very aware of the increased competition, however, and is about to introduce two new models that we hope to review soon.

Vizio VM60P Plasma It's no secret we've had good results from Vizio's flat panel displays in the past. The company's new 60-inch, 1366 x 768 plasma, selling for around $2500 in the warehouse discount stores that are Vizio's main retail outlets, looks like a no-brainer. This is a remarkable price for a big-screen plasma.

And the Vizio VM60P does produce a big, bright, punchy image. Yes, it's softer-looking than the best sets we've seen with HD ambitions. While it's clearly missing a lot of that "looking out the window" quality, that's no surprise at the price.

But two characteristics of this set troubled me. First, there was more video noise than I'm used to seeing. And second, its gray scale tracking was poor.

Out of the box, the Warm and Neutral settings were dramatically off the mark. The Warm reading measured approximately 4200K at 30IRE, rising to 6000K at 100IRE. Neutral was about 4800K at 30IRE and 7000K at 100IRE. Dark scenes looked far too red in either of these settings. Cool was the only acceptable choice, but even that measured about 6800K at 30IRE, rising to 10,000K at 100IRE.

A good grayscale calibration didn't help much, and would, in my judgment, be a waste of money on this set. Vizio does not provide separate red, green, and blue control of both the high and low end of the brightness range, but only overall R, G, and B adjustments. These are accessible in the user menus, and the settings are saved in the User color temperature option.

But overall color temperature adjustments can't compensate for the type of deviations we saw in the Vizio. This limited degree of control is acceptable if the grayscale is relatively flat to begin with and you only need to correct it uniformly across the full brightness range. But if the grayscale is wildly different at different points, as this one is, controls that offer only overall adjustment won't be able to level it and bring both ends into line. According to Vizio, there are no additional gray scale controls in a hidden service menu that could potentially correct this problem.

When informed of these concerns, Vizio elected not to provide a replacement sample. Or perhaps supply was tight and it was unable to do so. While we cannot be certain that the performance of our sample is typical of the model, we also cannot let the lack of a replacement kill a report. We must report our findings. To the critical videophile the sort of problems we experienced with our sample would be obvious.

But that would likely not be true of the average consumer. Despite these issues, the picture from the set will likely delight less critical buyers who will never realize they just might get a better, if smaller, image on a good, less expensive 50-inch plasma. And that category might very well include one of Vizio's new 50-inch models (which we have not yet tested).