Since the introduction of HDMI a few years back, there have been precious few AV Processors supporting onboard HD Audio decoding released. Those that have made it to market, more often than not well after their anticipated release dates, have either been plagued with bugs or so crammed full of (unnecessary?) features, I am left wondering how much of my hard earned would actually end up improving on the sound quality of a High End AV Receiver or legacy (non-HDMI) Processor.
When Audio Design Associates announced their new ‘Suite 7.1 HD’ it really piqued my interest. I had the pleasure of hearing the predecessor, the similarly named ‘Suite 7.1’, a few years back at a High End Home Cinema Demonstration put on by Genesis Technologies at JVC headquarters in London and was very impressed.
Of particular interest to me given my personal feelings about the apparent preference for the major AV manufacturers to chase ever lengthening spec lists over outright sound quality, was the relatively modest feature list of the ADA Processors, in particular a lack of on-board Video processing and Automated Room EQ. Whilst I don’t for a moment ignore the benefits of such features in an AV system, I do question whether the best place for them is within the same chassis as the Audio Processor itself and I do like to choose the features I am spending my money on. ADA’s philosophy of keeping things separate means you can do just that and lets face it, if you are in the position to spend £5K on an Audio Processor, you are probably not as concerned as some about spending a bit more for an equally high end Standalone EQ device or Video Processor of your choice.
If you have read the ‘History of ADA’ in the link above you will know ADA products are primarily aimed at custom installers who have been trained to setup all aspects of the system for their clients. The Suite 7.1 HD is not a plug and play device and anyone considering purchasing one without having it professionally installed or calibrated should bear that in mind.
As there has been quite some discussion about the Suite 7.1 HD over the last few months on the forums, I decided to stick my neck out and see just how easy (or difficult) it would be to do everything without a trained installer.
Suite 7.1 HD Overview
The Suite 7.1 HD is an HDMI Audio Processor with HDMI Video Switching and pass-through. It decodes all the latest Audio formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA as well as accepting LCPM over HDMI and all the legacy codecs you would expect via HDMI, Optical and Coaxial SPDIF.
Being a diminutive 1U in height it does not have room for 8 channel analogue inputs (check out the Rhapsody Mach IV) but it does have 4 pairs of stereo analogue inputs, 6 Coaxial SPDIF and 2 Optical SPDIF inputs and the obligatory 7.1 channel outputs.
As the Processor is focused on digital sources it is pleasing to see they haven’t scrimped on the HDMI connectivity, with 8 inputs and 2 selectable outputs.
There are no legacy Video inputs or outputs and therefore no up-scaling or indeed any Video processing whatsoever. This is a refreshing approach when so many manufacturers cram as much in as possible onto ever more imposing chassis.
Audio processing includes several THX Modes as well as Dolby Volume and some interesting proprietary ADA processing modes.
Other connectivity includes an RJ45 LAN connector for direct access from a PC or Network Switch, a single 12v Trigger and the proprietary (sort of) ADA Bus (more on these features later).
This all seems pretty standard stuff and at a glance you could be forgiven for thinking the ADA has quite a limited specification but where ADA stands out from almost all other manufacturers I have come across, is in the customisation that is available which I shall touch on later in the review.
The first thing of note upon the arrival of the Suite 7.1 HD is just how light the shipping carton was is in relation to it’s size. I was expecting the ADA Processor to be lighter than most of the full size chassis Processors and Receivers I have become accustomed to but this was still quite a surprise.
Opening the carton revealed what appeared to be plastic covered vacuum formed polystyrene mouldings (I am sure there is a technical description for this but for now it escapes me), anyway suffice to say the contents are very well protected from intrusion by foreign objects and also hold the contents very securely.
To anyone familiar with the plethora of manuals, stickers, calibration mics, remotes and other accessories that come with most modern Processors and Receivers, the contents of the ADA carton are austere to say the least. The Processor itself is wrapped in a large thick plastic bag and beneath it coiled in place is a power cable… and that is it. No manual no warranty certificate, nothing. Now this was not totally unexpected having followed the product since its announcement but for those unfamiliar with the Suite 7.1 HD, it may come as a bit of a shock.
The unit itself comprises of a faceplate with rack-mounting ears for a typical 19” rack (but is also available in a non-rack mount version shown in some of the images within this review). The chassis is built entirely from aluminium contributing (or not) to the unexpected weight of the unit, as well as being an excellent conductor and radiator of heat generated by the Processor. The front panel is austere with a small illuminated display panel lit in a yellow/green colour and only 3 black aluminium knobs grace the front panel and are the primary controls for the unit. The only other features are the power switch and the ‘Display’ toggle which to the best of my knowledge changes the brightness by about 20% and as such is somewhat superfluous. Perhaps a greater level of contrast or turning the display completely off might have been more useful. You can however set the display to turn off automatically after a set time as seen on page 41 of the manual.
The quality of the finish is good but there is little in the design to reflect the Price tag (a positive in some cases, making it all the easier to smuggle past SWMBO) and anyone expecting the sort of finish and design touches that some manufacturers at this price point imbue (I am thinking of Arcam, Parasound Etc.) may be a little disappointed. Certainly some may expect more attention to detail at this price point but as a product aimed at custom install, destined to be hidden away in a rack or cupboard, I get the feeling the designers had other priorities.
Some points of note with the finish include what appear to be superfluous screw holes in the top which highlight the use of the same chassis components over several of the (many) products manufactured by ADA. As a graduate in Manufacturing Systems Engineering, I doff my cap to any company with the forethought to minimise manufacturing costs by sharing components across a range of products. It is little details like this that hint at ADA’s priority on delivering on Audio performance and value rather than aesthetic niceties. Whilst having both would be pleasant, I know where my own priorities lie and personally I have always been a fan of the understated. Given the option of paying another 20% or so for something that looks nicer for no performance benefit isn’t really on my agenda but this is of course just my opinion.
The knobs and switchgear on the front panel all have a firm, quality feel about them and rotating the solid aluminium dials, or pushing them in to make a selection in the menu, gives a reassuringly solid feedback. However I can’t help wishing that ADA had considered moving to a more conventional 4-way jog-dial type interface, rather than the knobs which are not ‘standard’ interface design elements and therefore ask something additional from the user in terms of getting to know the product. However I am particularly conscious of User Interfaces as I design them for a living, so perhaps I am overly critical here, though even the Installation Manual suggests ‘…using the PC program when ever possible as it is more intuitive’ and I completely agree. I am also aware of what it costs to develop interfaces and can see why ADA have chosen to stick with a legacy method that works, especially when it is unlikely to be used very often thanks to the excellent software provided.
Build quality wise the only thing that concerns me are the 12v Trigger and ADA Bus connectors which seem a bit delicate and are quite wobbly. However unless you expect to be constantly using these then I think you would be hard pressed to do any damage. I have been using them quite a bit as I have been experimenting with different setups, control devices and cables etc. and despite the fragile feel, they haven’t displayed any sign of breaking.
Like any impatient child with a new toy, I couldn’t resist a quick play after minimal setup and the initial impression put a big smile on my face but I’ll leave a fuller discussion, sobered by a couple of months of living with the Suite 7.1 HD, until later in the review.
Due to a miscommunication, I was initially sent a Rack Mounted version of the Suite 7.1 HD which posed some slight difficulties in reviewing the unit as it would not fit in my rack. I did manage to get round this temporarily and one of the first things I noticed when switching the unit on was the fan noise.
I would probably compare it to an early Thomson Sky box in one of its noisier moments. It wasn’t the end of the world but definitely something a potential purchaser would need to consider. Anyone viewing a film with a projector somewhere overhead would be unlikely to find it an issue though. Let us of course remember that the Suite 7.1 HD is primarily designed to sit within a rack of unknown ventilation/cooling characteristics, so having a fan is a necessity really. However having one in a rack located in the listening room may have disappointed music fans especially during quieter moments.