As Good As Gold Page 2

This preamp is nothing if not businesslike. Its silver faceplate (black is also available) is inset with an arched display window, nine pushbuttons, a headphone jack, a power switch, and a multifunction knob. The supplied remote control isn't fancy, but a small LCD screen, fully illuminated keys, and full preprogrammed/learning capabilities make it a more powerful system controller than first impressions might suggest.

B&K makes available all the usual setup options, including the ability to assign the six discrete multichannel analog input jacks on its rear panel, intended for a DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD player, to any input position. (It doesn't do bass management for these outputs, however.) There are also some options you'd be hard pressed to find on an A/V receiver. For example, while I expect fully flexible bass management for digital inputs at this level, the Reference 30 goes further with an "Ultra" subwoofer mode that sends front left/right channel bass (below the user-specified crossover point) to the subwoofer while leaving the left/right front signals unfiltered. This allows the front pair to roll off acoustically, as some audiophiles prefer for speakers with good, if not unlimited, bass response.

The Reference 30 also lets you set the subwoofer crossover, common to all channels, to any frequency between 20 and 200 Hz in 5-Hz increments. Even more unusually, the B&K preamp's tone-control "turnover" frequencies are adjustable, from 20 to 300 Hz for bass and from 2 to 16 kHz for treble. There's even a single-band room equalizer - a notch filter you can set to any frequency from 20 to 300 Hz, to any bandwidth ("Q") between 10 and 100 Hz, and to any degree of attenuation. It's no substitute for careful setup, good speakers, and good room acoustics, but this feature can be a useful weapon in the battle against acoustical gremlins.

B&K's philosophy is to deliver stereo and surround recordings as their producers created them - period. Consequently, you get a choice of stereo, mono, or Pro Logic/THX surround playback for two-channel sources and Dolby Digital or DTS (depending on the source) for 5.1-channel sources, both with or without THX processing or quasi-6.1-channel EX/ES enhancements - and that's it.

But you can specify how many speakers will play regardless of mode, a simple but effective way of getting more utility out of a multispeaker setup without additional processing modes. With a stereo CD, you can order up four-channel stereo (left/right front and surround pairs), three-channel surround (Pro Logic steering with three front speakers only), seven-speaker mono (all speakers playing the identical mono mix - handy for background music at parties), or any other combination. For a music DVD, you might punch up Surround-4, which uses both surround speakers but omits the center speaker. When you select Surround-6/7 or THX-6/7 (the numbers denote how many speakers are used), the B&K performs THX Surround EX matrix decoding for 6.1-channel Dolby Digital Surround EX or DTS-ES soundtracks and derives a back surround channel from nonencoded recordings.

I actually don't have much to say about the Reference 30's sound. Its Dolby Digital and DTS performance was top-shelf, yielding all the detail, dynamics, and spaciousness the best recordings I auditioned had to offer. The playback quality with surround-encoded and unencoded two-channel programs decoded with Dolby Pro Logic was fine - well above the average for digital-domain Pro Logic implementations - but not in the same league as other surround solutions for stereo music, like Meridian's Trifield mode or Lexicon's Music Logic mode (discussed below). I don't imagine B&K would dream of suggesting otherwise - the Reference 30 is an unabashedly film-centric component, conceived first and foremost for home theater movie watching and digital 5.1-channel sources. However, B&K plans to incorporate Dolby's impressive Pro Logic II, which can provide convincing simulated 5.1-channel playback from two-channel sources, in separate Music and Movie modes, into the Reference 30 sometime next year. Owners of the current version will be able to update it via software.

Remembering that this B&K preamp/processor also includes a tuner, I made a quick check of its AM/FM section. FM reception from strong stations was fine, but hardly equal to that from the dwindling tribe of separate-component tuners still available. Weak-signal quality was no better than from a midprice receiver - which is to say, poor - but the Reference 30 is more than adequate for typical FM listening. Its AM tuner is marginal: you might be able to tune in the ballgame - or you might not.