As Good As Gold

Why would anyone want to spend $2,500 or more on a surround preamplifier/processor when he could get a flagship receiver for the same money? The three we've rounded up here - the B&K Reference 30 ($2,798), Lexicon's MC-1 ($5,995), and the Meridian 561 ($5,000) - all duplicate the preamp and surround-processing functions of an A/V receiver, but forgo the power-amp section and, with two of the models, the tuner. All three provide decoding for 5.1- and 6.1-channel soundtracks from DVDs or digital-TV broadcasts, processing for simulated multichannel sound from two-channel music and A/V sources, and a full complement of system-control functions.

So why do they cost so much more than a receiver? Mostly because these are high-end products - and proud of it. Manufacturers tend to save their best, most advanced (and most expensive) technologies for separate components like these, while sparing no expense on their internal componentry to ensure the highest audio and video quality. Also, these preamps allow for degrees of tweakability that go well beyond what most receivers offer. They're for people who insist on having their movies and music sound absolutely right, with no compromises. If you're that hard-core about your sound - or would like a glimpse of how the hard-core live - read on.

Features and Specs In The Lab

B&K Reference 30 - $2,798 B&K Components, 2100 Old Union Rd., Buffalo, NY 14227 - 800-543-5252

Located in upstate New York, just a stone's throw from Niagara Falls, B&K Components is known for its no-nonsense preamps, power amps, and receivers. For nearly a decade it has offered a steadily evolving line of A/V preamp/processors that boast fine performance from comparatively stripped-down designs. And what is even rarer in today's A/V world, all B&K products are designed and manufactured in the U.S.

The latest of these, the Reference 30 ($2,798), is a just-the-facts-ma'am component that delivers THX-enhanced Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic decoding, a simple but powerful set of "master component" control options, and a convenient onboard AM/FM tuner in a relatively high-value package. In fact, the Reference 30 is essentially B&K's AVR307 receiver with the amps and speaker terminals removed.