Bryston SP3 Processor/Preamp
Bryston SP3 Multi-channel Pre-amplifier / Processor
By David McCallum
My interest in Bryston’s new SP3 pre-amp/processor took root more than a decade ago, when Bryston first announced its predecessor, the SP1.7. I’ve known James Tanner (V.P. of Sales & Marketing at Bryston) for almost twenty years. Tanner is aware of my background in film and television sound, and we’ve shared many conversations about the state of digital audio and multi-channel surround sound. Before I look closely at the new SP3, then, I think it’s worth considering the timeline of new product development at Bryston that’s occurred over the last decade. I feel that one could see the SP3 as the fruit of a broader history of evolution at Bryston.
A Bit of History
During the first decade of the 21st century, Bryston went through a fairly serious transition. For the first thirty years of the company’s existence, Bryston had been known for their incredibly robust amplifiers. The company made a name in both studio and home electronics circles as one of the most reliable amplifier manufacturers. The inclusion of their now famous 20-year warranty with each amplifier helped solidify that image. However, as the 20th century came to a close, Bryston realized that they couldn’t live on the sales of their amplifiers forever, and that an innovative and dynamic change was needed.
And so Bryston began a slow, calculated transition into digital audio. First, the BCD-1 CD player was released to rave reviews. Next came the BDA-1 D/A converter, and finally the shockingly good BDP-1 digital player. With these three products, Bryston’s identity shifted. They still have a stranglehold on the pro-audio industry, but Bryston is now also viewed as a consumer electronics manufacturer who produces some of the best, and certainly most affordable, digital gear around. The R&D required to produce these products was immense, and the knowledge gained through those years of development meant they were now ready to offer substantial improvements with their new surround sound processor.
When the SP3 first went into development there were still major obstacles to overcome. The first was the implementation of the HDMI video transmission signal. The SP 1.7 (released in 2001) hit the consumer market prior to the launch of the HDMI format. However, with Bryston’s subsequent SP2 (released in 2004), Bryston was reluctant to embrace HDMI. According to Tanner, they were not only skeptical about the transmission format’s technical performance, but also worried about their own ability to keep pace with the fickle, ever changing video standards that the consumer electronics industry was introducing. Video transmission, after all, was the primary focus of the HDMI format, and even though the SP2 was a well-regarded product, pressure started to mount for Bryston to involve video and HDMI in its surround sound products.
By 2010 Bryston started to get close. At that point they had figured out how to finally incorporate HDMI without getting stuck in a video format war they could never win – a war that had the potential to orphan any new high-end product, a fate that had befallen many of Bryston’s competitors.
Bryston’s solution was simple: video pass-through. The SP3 would not include a video-processing chip, but would simply allow the video signal from the HDMI transmission to pass through the SP3 and on to the video monitor. Such an idea may seem incredibly simple, but when their competitors were universally touting the newest video processor as a key selling feature, the decision to ignore video processing entirely was not obvious.
A solution for HDMI integration wasn’t sufficient change though. The development team at Bryston knew that simply releasing an updated SP2 with HDMI would both disappoint their customers and fail to justify the years of R&D the company had put into their flagship digital product. Ironically, the major differences between the SP3 and each of its predecessors were not in the digital field. The major improvements were to come in the area of good, old-fashioned analogue audio.
Bryston’s SP3 is a 7.1 multi-channel surround sound pre-amplifier processor that Bryston describes, first and foremost, as an audio product. It possesses seven fully discrete analogue channels, and allows for 2, 5.1 or 7.1 channels (or any combination in between) of pure analogue audio. The analogue by-pass feature completely avoids any interaction with the digital circuitry within the SP3. Such sophisticated engineering allows the unit to function as a pure-analogue multi-channel pre-amplifier. Based on my experience with Bryston’s BDA D/A converter and now with the SP3, I believe that the improved design circuitry within the analogue pre-amplifier really sets the SP3 apart from both its predecessors (the SP1.7 & SP2) and its present competition.
On the digital side of the processor there is a built in 24bit/192khz D/A converter that detects the digital input signal, routes it through the DSP module and adjusts it to the user selected playback mode. Digital decoding options include Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital and DTS, and listening modes such as Pro-Logic II Music, Pro Logic II Movie, Pro Logic II Natural, Neo6, Club, etc.
Connection options are listed below, however it’s worth pointing out that the SP3 can be connected via fully balanced XLR and single ended RCA simultaneously, giving the user an increased array of connection options. Digital connections allow for XLR AES-EBU, RCA SPDIF, optical and HDMI digital signals.
As you can see, the SP3 can do everything a major multi-channel audio component should do, with one exception: room correction equalization. Bryston left it out. The lack of what seems like a key feature may surprise some, but when Tanner first mentioned that they would not be including room correction on the SP3 my reaction was ‘of course you aren’t.’ If there is one topic Tanner and I have discussed more frequently than HDMI, it’s the merits (or demerits) of room correction EQ.
Tanner has always maintained that protecting the purity of the audio signal is a key objective for Bryston — to produce a clean signal with a minimal signal path. And when the final plans of the SP3 were underway, the improvements in Bryston’s analogue pre-amplifier circuitry design that originated during the development of the BCD1 CD player and the BDA1 D/A converter brought about the major performance advancements the design team at Bryston were looking for. With the implementation of the new analogue circuits the overall performance and measurements of the SP3 rose to a whole new level. The result was (and is) an exceptionally pure analogue signal path.
So when Bryston went to look at additional features that might be of interest to their customers, a room correction module actually presented as much of a problem as it might solve. Coincidentally, prior to writing this review I had asked Tanner to explain Bryston’s thoughts on room correction, and he forwarded a press release that addressed the topic head on.
Bryston believes that electronics and speaker designers spend years attempting to produce flat, accurate audio signals. When those audio signals leave the speaker the original signal begins to interact with all of the reflected sound in the room, and that’s what you hear. When there is an altering of the original signal via EQ, the relationship between the direct and reflected sound is also altered. This process can never be perfect because no two places in the room in which you are listening will have the same measured response. When a decision is made to engage with room correction EQ, that correction can either be for a single listening position or for a broad, room averaged response. Neither of these scenarios is ideal, and both perform the unwanted effect of disrupting the purity of the original signal path.
My experience in studio work and design supports this notion. When choosing an environment for sound work, the first objective is the physical space – you want an acoustically transparent room that isn’t too controlled (for fear of creating a ‘dead’ sound), that has some life, but that reflects, deflects, absorbs and manages the sound, creating an accurate, lifelike and honest sonic presentation. There are many physical tools to do this kind of acoustic control work, and I would strongly encourage any audio enthusiasts to look at their listening room when considering a new upgrade or performance improvement option. In studio, the very last thing an engineer or technician does is the original audio signal through equalization to correct for room acoustics flaws.
I would certainly understand if someone completely disagreed with Bryston’s decision to exclude room correction EQ. I would also understand if that same person disagreed with my support of their decision. After all, in all three of the sound mixing rooms at my studio as well as in my personal editing suite, we use modest room correction in conjunction with elaborate, acoustic room treatment. However, in my own home environment – which is not an acoustically transparent space – I use a Pioneer SC37 Receiver as my main home theater unit. The SC37 has good EQ and bass management utilities. However, I run the system with the room correction features off. I have set the system up with the EQ many times, and for me it sounds better with it disengaged.
My listening sessions with the SP3 involved analysis in four key areas: 5.1 & 7.1 film and television content; multi-channel digital music; stereo digital audio in both high-resolution and standard resolution formats; and finally, pure analogue vinyl. I made the decision to begin the analysis with some intimately familiar material, so I started with some film and television programs for which either I performed the sound work, or the work was completed at my studio in Toronto.
For this testing session, I listened closely to films including; Blindness, The Bang Bang Club, Splice, Mr. Nobody (a truly brilliant film that very few people know of), Away From Her and Silent Hill. Television programming included The Borgias, Camelot, The Tudors and a little known Canadian show called Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, a real gem.
During this first session, a positive impression of the overall performance level from the SP3 began to take shape. There were audible nuances in dialogue reverb, surround detail and spatial movement often lost in a home theater or even a good movie theater. The balance of information between the three front speakers was also quite strong. Often I choose to run film and TV programming without a center speaker as I’ve found that in a mid-to-small room like mine the sound from the front wall often collapses into the center, causing the presentation to lose width and overall impact. However with the SP3, I was very happy with the performance of the center channel, and felt it was easily the best front-three speaker performance I’ve heard at home.
I then moved through a list of current movies, classic films and multi-channel music Blu-Ray discs. The list of material included Moneyball (a great sounding film), A Dangerous Method, Contact, Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company and John Mayer’s Where The Light Is (there were others too, but these selections stood out). With this collection of surround sound movies and music, I honestly felt that I heard no flaws. Each program revealed the same key attributes from the SP3 – it produced a rich, full and accurate sound that greatly enhanced the home movie experience.
While I did come away from the multi-channel audio analysis very impressed, foremost in my mind was the level of performance that could be achieved with stereo audio.
In stereo mode the SP3 performed beautifully. Feeding high-resolution audio from a Bryston BDP1 digital player into the SP3 via a XLR AES/EBU digital connection produced exceptional sounding audio. As in multi-channel mode, the sound was rich and full, with nuance and texture. I was thrilled with Beck’s “The Golden Age” from the album Sea Change, and on each subsequent pop/rock tune I played, the performance level remained consistent. Highlights included “Thirteen” from Big Star’s #1 Record (standard resolution), “Harder Now That It’s Over” from Ryan Adam’s album Gold and one of my current favorite tracks, the epic “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” from Wilco’s album The Whole Love.
Switching genres, I moved onto a jazz/blues session and was equally impressed. Some new high-res re-mastered albums that I sourced from HDTracks.com sounded absolutely mesmerizing – “Corcovado” from the album Getz/Gilberto has a completely different feel compared to the original CD release, and heard through the SP3 the improvements were outstanding. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue provided top-notch performance, while Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions [Stax Re-masters] was a whole lot of fun.
With some classical music, however, results proved less successful. While many of the pieces I chose to play sounded lovely (Jacqueline Du Pre’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, for example) I found that a new level of dynamic range ended up pushing the ancillary equipment outside of its comfort zone on both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s version of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, From The New World and Andre Cluytens performing Ravel’s Bolero (with the Orchestre De La Societe Des Concerts Du Conservatoire). Both of these recordings are newly re-mastered in high-resolution 24bit/96khz (also available at 192khz) and the dynamic range available was extraordinary, perhaps over-whelming my small listening room. I can’t criticize the SP3 for producing a higher dynamic range than I’m used too, however the observation was something worth noting for the review. When I listen to these pieces (or others like them) I’ll have to make a note to turn the system down.
Finally, at the very end of my time with the SP3 I ran some vinyl records. By then my mind was pretty much made up, and with the vinyl I simply sat back and enjoyed the music. If I could offer any words on a critical analysis from this time I would, however, it really was just a last bit of pure listening pleasure.
In the world of no-holds-barred multi-channel audio, the Bryston SP3 is the pre-amp/processor to beat. In essence, the SP3 is three great products in one. It offers the best multi-channel audio I’ve ever heard outside of a top sound mixing studio; it includes 7 outstanding D/A converter channels for multi-channel or stereo digital audio; and it provides exceptional 2-channel stereo performance, essential to any truly great sound product.
As the culmination of the progression Bryston has undergone as a company, the SP3 tops their list of exemplary consumer electronics products. Unlike the amplifiers Bryston produces, it’s not likely the SP3 will find its way into very many sound studios (some, but not as many). Given the performance level attained, the SP3 is capable of bringing the highest of studio caliber sound into your home. It happens to be the best home theatre product I’ve had the pleasure of listening too.
~ David Mccallum
Bryston SP3 Processor / Preamp
*An earlier version of this article appeared on the website <innerearmag.com>
Connecting the SP3
The SP3 comes with numerous options for set-up and connection, and for my listening tests I utilized as many as I could. For connections into the SP3 I used both singled-ended RCA and balanced XLR analogue connections, while digital input connections were made via AES/EBU XLR and HDMI.
For the output to the power amplifiers, I ran three separate configurations: all RCA; a mixture of RCA and XLR; and in fully balanced XLR 7.1. Digital output to the television was via HDMI.
Overall, physically setting up the system with the SP3 at the core took about 30 minutes before I was listening to audio. However once the connections are made and the unit powers up, there are still a few adjustments to be made before you are fully ready to go.
Programming the SP3
There are two basic configuration options that are accessed via front panel buttons and alphanumeric display. The manual is simple and clear in explaining what and how these adjustments are made.
On the first page there are two options: System setup & Source setup. Toggling through these options is easy and obvious. Before the setup I’d advise that you properly measure all speaker distances and choose whether you want the speakers to be engaged as LARGE or SMALL. Once you’ve set the main parameters, a TEST function on the remote control allows for the running of PINK NOISE tests for final level adjustment.
Analog Inputs: 2x XLR Balanced Pairs, 4x RCA Single Ended Pairs, RCA Single Ended (7.1 Surround), 4x RCA Single Ended Pairs
Digital Inputs: 8x HDMI, 2x AES/EBU (XLR), 3x Optical (TOSLINK), 4x SPDIF (RCA), USB 2.0
Analog Outputs: XLR Balanced (7.1 Surround), RCA Single Ended (7.1 Surround, Zone 2), ¼” Headphone Jack
Digital Outputs: 2x HDMI, Optical (TOSLINK)?Control Inputs: RS-232 (DB9), Ethernet (RJ-45), AUX IR
SP3 Main Internal Set up
System setupincludes the following adjustment parameters:
Source setup includes the following adjustment parameters: