Integra Research RDC-7.1 Preamp/Processor Page 2

Fine Print
Integra Research, a division of Onkyo, has taken great care in preparing the RDC-7.1's user manual and it shows. Included is a great deal of information showing how to set up rooms for THX surround versus setting them up for multi-channel audio, There are even instructions on how to bi-amp your speakers! All 154 pages are chock full of small text and helpful diagrams and graphics. While not exactly simple to follow in all cases, the manual is what I would expect as appropriate for such a complete, if not complex, product.

The remote could be considered a lethal weapon in the right hands. Not terribly heavy, large enough for a man and mostly well designed, its sharp edges had me cringing every time it slipped off the arm rest of my chair or couch to land between my leg and my leather. I kept envisioning the expensive hides succumbing to the perfectly applied pressure of a wayward buttock in the production of non-repairable rips. It never happened, but if I owned the processor, I'd file down the edges on the remote, cosmetics be damned!

Like most modern remotes, this one can be programmed to know, or learn, the codes of other remotes. Central to the remote is a wheel that can also be pushed in to "select " between controlling the RDC-7.1 and controlling the currently selected source. A small LCD window in the remote tells you which you're controlling at the moment. My first pass at programming was simply punching in the code for a Fujitsu plasma TV. Apparently, the provided code didn't work with the Fujitsu plasma. Heck, I only push a few buttons on that remote anyway. Switching to the DirecTV/TiVo set-top box's remote (or as I think of it, my third hand), I tried to teach it the secret command for the 30-second "commercial skip " feature I learned on the Internet. This time the remote learned and accepted several of the more important TiVo codes.

You have to press the Custom button on the remote to get into programming mode and to get out of programming mode. Head-to-head programming (teaching mode) is very easy due to its software design. Once you're in the groove, you press (but don't hold) a key on the Integra remote, then point it at the other remote and press (but don't hold) the button on that remote. After a few seconds, the RDC's remote mini-LCD panel will say "ok " followed by "key " to let you continue programming your next key. Couldn't be easier and I hate programming remotes!

Besides the nasty sharp corners, I didn't care for the reflectivity of the buttons. Text printed on the remote buttons is very difficult to read. You have to sort of pan the remote around in your hands, shifting the visible glare points until, letter by letter, the secret word is revealed, Cap'n Crunch. On the plus side, the remote is backlit via a side-mounted button, however, the lighting is very faint, so backlighting is really only effective in a very dark room. Overall, nit-picking aside, I did love the feel and layout of the controls and the overall ease of use of the remote. Plus, based on the number of times I dropped it, it's built like a brick chip house.

Setup can be performed from either the front panel or the remote and on-screen display (OSD). Many receivers only paste the OSD over their s-video or composite outputs, but the RDC-7.1 passes it to component and HDMI outputs as well, which is most practical. Unlike the nearly twice as expensive Meridian G68 processor, which provides a microphone and software for use during loudspeaker setup and culminates in hyper accurate speaker distances and room-equalized bass frequencies, the Integra Research is decidedly more old school, but still flexible. Each speaker set (front pairs, side pairs, etc.) can be assigned different crossover characteristics, from full range (i.e., no crossover), to a specific frequency from 40Hz to 150Hz, in 10Hz increments. I made the front-channel MartinLogan pair full range, but set the rear-channel ReQuests to crossover at 40Hz, and the Theater center channel at a THX-approved 80Hz. Distances can be specified within 1/10th of a foot (or meter), but again, without a microphone and proper test signals, these measurements must be manually taken and entered.

Be Fruitful and Multiply Channels
While War of the Worlds (DVD, Paramount, 94392) will probably be best remembered for its bombastic bass, the sonic subtleties of the opening credits—everything except Morgan Freeman's way too in-your-face narration – was beautifully reproduced by the RDC-7.1 The opening gambit of the first alien tripod we witness, a series of electrical rays that individually vaporize the fleeing residents of a New Jersey town certainly felt like they were in the room. But the eerie basement scenes with Tim Robbins were also quite detailed, especially the complex whir of the alien probe. The Integra Research processor was exemplary in drawing out little details, including the fact that the slimy aliens didn't make any scraping sounds walking on stone walls. Whoops.

Likewise, Windtalkers, that box office non-event of 2002 starring Nicolas Cage, came through with plenty of verve on the HDNet Movies (Mark Cuban's HD movie channel, available on DirecTV and cable). Rear channel information was discrete and distinctive. In fact, the RDC-7.1 seemed to be gifted with exceptionally high levels of channel separation. Shows like Prison Break on Fox and Lost on ABC sounded amazing with the Integra, and even TiVo'd shows with non-discrete soundtracks were satisfyingly enveloping when run through Dolby Pro Logic II Movie processing.

Meridian's G68 pre/pro and G98 player used a triple coaxial "i.LINK-like " arrangement, but the Integra Research is the first processor I've used that actually follows the standard. More unusually, there are actually two i.LINK inputs, meaning the RDC-7.1 is far more future ready in its audio offerings than the dozens of hi-def plasma sets out there are in their video offerings. My Fujitsu plasma, for example, offers only a paltry DVI input. I like the fact that Integra Research thinks big. Two i.LINKs, two HDMI inputs. Think Big. I think Trump said that, right before he said, "you're fired. "

I've only a handful of DVD-Audio discs, but they were the ones I turned to first when preparing for this review. Both Fragile by Yes (Electra/Rhino) and the Who's Tommy (Geffen) –are two of my desert island recordings, provided the island has room for a couple hundred recordings. Sourced from the RDV-1.1's i.LINK connection, the mixes on Fragile are somewhat inconsistent, a few of the cuts were stand out and fully justified their mangling into a multi-channel presentation. The first track "Roundabout, " a song we've all heard more times than we care to remember, sounded completely fresh and updated. The acoustic guitar introduction seemed to come out of a huge space, lacking any semblance of artificiality in the studio production reverb. The finger doodles of Rick Wakeman coming from the rear channels didn't seem out of place either, as the main organ parts were still committed to the front channels. The soundstage was enveloping and holistic on this cut. There was serenity to the silence surrounding the near solo acoustic guitar that was more like what one experiences during "late night " listening, after the power grid has calmed out.

The RDC-7.1 did not color recordings in any way that I noticed. For instance, some of the other Yes tracks are not nearly as successful and they don't get a free pass. But the RDC-7.1 nicely steps out of the way and lets you hear the recording, good, bad or indifferent. Integra Research also seems to have reached a new low in background noise level with this product, and I'm not referring to simply an absence of hiss. The pianos building in the rear channels of "Long Distance Runaround, " for instance, are crafted from real instruments and the RDC-7.1 reveals the most subtle of nuances that accurately project the timbre of an acoustic instrument in spite of the fact the engineers overproduced and very nearly robbed the recording of all traces of the original event. The RDC-7.1 is exemplary (and as a player, the RDV-1.1 certainly deserves a share of the credit) for letting the music in the recording actually sneak out of the production. Highly emotional, but uncolored music – is that what you want? The RDC-7.1 dishes it out in spades.

Going live with Pink Floyd's double CD, Delicate Sound of Thunder (Columbia) gave me a chance to experiment with some of the surround simulation modes. Both Dolby Pro Logic II's Music mode and DTS's NEO:6 Music mode worked wonders with this two-channel recording. PL II's presentation was more center-channeled, which I suppose is a plus or minus depending on the quality of your center channel, but was certainly effective in my MartinLogan setup. The DTS version had a more dispersed perspective, with stronger surround channels, while the Dolby was more upfront, but still dishing up good surrounds. More so than with a studio album, dropping back into two-channel mode with this live recording was an uninspiring event.

Going to a more subdued live album, the late Eva Cassidy's Live at the Blues Alley (Blix Street Records), recorded shortly before her death in 1996, DTS Neo:6 was immediately more preferable. Compared to Dolby PL II decoding, it was noticeably more intimate and appropriate for the venue. The differences weren't subtle. While I've had both DTS and Dolby Digital latest surround matrixes on other processors, the Integra Research appears to be the first one that, at least to my ears, makes the differences so easy to hear and appreciate. And, to reiterate, neither format is consistently superior. Each has its pluses and minuses, and from CD to CD (heck, even track to track), you can easily find what you like best. Pressing the "Surround " button on the remote while playing a two-channel recording will round-robin the processor through the PL II Movie, PL II Music, PL II Game, DTS Neo:6 Cinema and DTS Neo:6 Music modes. Nothing could be easier.

The Old Hate and Switch
Having an HDMI switcher is a great feature- if it works as expected. I experienced various problems and am forced to conclude at this point that the HDMI switcher in the Integra Research pre/pro went flaky on me. While it worked fine for about a month, letting me switch between the RDV-1.1 universal player in one input and the output of my Gefen HDTV switcher in the other, nirvana didn't last.

Trying to watch Rome on HBO one Sunday night, the hi-def picture from my Samsung HD DirecTV receiver started cutting in and out every five to ten seconds. Weeks later, I discovered that turning off the RDV-1.1 player while trying to watch the Samsung eliminated the problem. Later, however, the HDMI switcher in the Integra started having problems with the RDV-1.1 player itself. Ironically, the Samsung receiver worked glitch free at that point! In fact, the glitches with the RDV-1.1 were even worse than with the Samsung receiver, as the picture would now actually freeze and then cut to white.

These problems were apparent over time with three display devices, with or without the Gefen HDMI switcher being in the signal path. Running any of my sources directly to a display device, again with or without the external Gefen switcher, on the other hand, produced a problem free picture every time. Obviously, the HDMI switch in my unit done malfunctioned. As every manufacturer knows, that's par for the course where a reviewer is involved.

Record Time
Necessary for good vinyl playback in a home theater system is the inclusion of a "direct mode " which allows an analog signal from your record player to pass through the processor without being converted to the digital domain. The Meridian G68 was the first processor I'd reviewed that lacked that feature, but it was so well designed, I didn't miss it. But if you're given a choice, life in the analog lane is the way to go.

The Integra Research's phono stage turned out to be a real treat. Gain seemed a bit low, relative to the default "zero " setting, but cranking the input setting to the max of +12db worked well enough. That's something you can do with any input, by the way, so if the analog outputs from your VCR are too loud compared to some of your other sources, you can trim them through the setup quite easily. Musically, I'd have to say the moving magnet phono stage of the RDC-7.1 is warmer and more musical than the Rotel phono stage to which I'm accustomed. That warmth came through without any sacrifice in detail either. In fact, I'd say the Integra's resolution was more natural than that of the inexpensive Rotel. It would certainly satisfy me if I were to stay with a high output moving magnet cartridge. All in all, a phono stage is a welcome addition, even in 2005.

It's hard for me to find much to criticize in the RDC-7.1. It's not inexpensive- mine totaled out to $5,500. It's heavy, deep and tall, so forget about putting it on one of those stackable Pier 1 tables. It's upgradable. I know. You're thinking about your wife. Don't worry, she'll love it too.

Like I said, I'm not good with the metaphors, but I do know my pre/pros. And guys, this one's hot!

Highs and Lows

• Superb sound in all modes
• Full-featured, customizable, and upgradeable
Digital i.LINK for SACD and DVD-Audio

• Sharp-edged remote
• HDMI switching problems (see review)