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Product Review
 

Aragon Stage One Surround Sound Processor

May, 2003

Kris Deering

 

Specifications:

● Eight-Channel THX Ultra2 Preamplifier/Processor
● MFR: 10 Hz - 100 kHz - 3 dB
● S/N: 100 dB
● THD: < 0.02%
● Inputs: Seven Analog, Seven Coax Digital, Three Toslink, Seven Composite, Seven S-Video, Three Component Video
● Outputs: Eight RCA Analog Coax, One Toslink, Two S-Video, One Component Video
● Size: 5.8" H x 17" W x 15.25" D
● Weight: 27 Pounds
● MSRP: $4,000 USA

Aragon:

www.klipsch.com

Introduction

For those not familiar with Aragon, the company is anything but new blood. They are a branch of Mondial Designs who have had a foothold in the industry for roughly sixteen years now. In 2001, they were acquired by Klipsch as an elite line of A/V products. This is a move similar to what Anthem has done recently with Paradigm. It allows bigger financial backing as well as broader word of mouth.

Despite the fact that you can find Klipsch equipment in many electronic retailers, you may not find Aragon products. Aragon has committed to being very selective about its distribution to separate itself from the misconception of their equipment being common fare.

If Looks Could Kill

Without a doubt this is one of the most striking products available. Aragon has put touches on its processor that sets it apart from other components and just breathes high end in form and function. Some say that looks are not important, but note there are probably more people who buy products based on their name or appearance than anything else. Not to say that this piece isnít as good from a technical standpoint as it is from a beauty standpoint.

The front faceplate is a delight to the eyes, from the subtle blue LED display to the adjustable blue lighting that cascades down the right hand portion of the panel. The piece oozes elegance and proves that just a little bit of style can make a huge difference. When I recently attended the CEDIA trade show I wandered over to Aragonís display and was greeted by many oohs and ahhhs from the gallery as they looked at the pieces. Shown below are the Stage One sitting on top of a matching multi-channel power amplifier (Aragon 2007).

The front panel controls are minimal and straightforward in operation. Too may times I have a piece of equipment that is flooded with knobs and buttons which intimidate potential users. Not the case here. Underneath the LED display are simple buttons to select the desired input. Just to the right is a Mute button and an "Enter" switch for the setup. All that is left is the volume control which also serves as a selection device for the setup menus. Aragon has opted to not include an onscreen display for reasons Iíll discuss later in the review.

If the front plate is a work of beauty, then the back panel is a work of simplicity. On the left side of the panel are the main inputs in a layout reminiscent of a modular card based unit. There are seven main inputs, each labeled individually and pre-programmed. For each input there is an S-Video and composite video connection. For audio there is a coaxial digital connection and a two-channel analog input.

When connected the processor automatically senses which input is being used, so there is no programming or assigning for basic inputs. There are three component video inputs that are pre-assigned to certain sources, and the processor will automatically sense the video source and use it. The same applies for the three Toslink digital inputs that are pre-assigned to certain inputs. I was happy to see Aragon include so many coaxial digital inputs, as these seem to be lacking on other processors.

Last up is the seven-channel analog input. This is a straight pass through connection that is only affected by the volume control and op amps before being passed to the amplifier.

Those looking for DSP processing or bass management wonít have any luck here. Aragon is a company that bases its decision on having the best audio processing and wanted the purity of the analog signal intact. For connection to a SACD/DVD-A multi-channel analog out, there is a DB-25 jack instead of the typical RCA jacks. This requires the purchase of a special cable that I was only able to find from Monster Cable to use a DVD-A or SACD player. This was done because of space issues on the back panel.

Although the current Stage One does not have balanced inputs or outputs, Aragon has mentioned that they may offer a balanced version of the Stage One at a later time similar to what Lexicon did with the MC-12. This will be a slightly larger chassis with the connections on the bottom.

Itís whatís on the inside that counts.

To really get a sense of how Aragon went about creating this product, you have to go to the heart of the processor. This involves taking a few screws out and looking at the inside of course, a move not recommended to the owners. So, since you probably won't, I will. The Stage One has a very robust power section with one isolated transformer serving as the power supply. Some purists will scoff at the fact that Aragon has used one power supply for both the digital and analog section of this piece, but I didnít notice any performance hits as a result. The transformer is isolated in the chassis away from the main boards and I donít see interference likely. In fact, most of the boards are separated quite well. On the connection side, all of the different types of connectors have their own boards which are separated from the rest. This alleviates any crosstalk that may happen in the audio and video paths.

At the bottom of the chassis is the main board which links the output stages to the digital audio engine. Letís start with the audio engine itself. The centerpiece is the new Motorola 56367 ďSymphonyĒ DSP chip. This new chip is capable of processing 150 million instructions per second and is the heart of the digital sound decoding for the processing. It is coupled with three outboard ROMs that contain some of the DSP information. This is very similar to the Anthem AVM-20 we reviewed last year. Although this is a very powerful DSP, it still has its limitations. It can decode all of the latest Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound formats with the exception of DTS 96/24. It also handles the new THX Ultra2 processing.

You find the digital to analog converters (DACs) on the main audio engine board. There are four Crystal Semi-Conductor (CS) 43122 stereo DACs to handle the eight channels of output. These are 24 bit 192 kHz DACs. They offer top of the line performance with 122 db dynamic range.

All of the volume control for the Stage One is kept in the analog realm, but is digitally controlled. Utilizing four CS 3310 stereo digital volume control chips, the signal from the front panel knob is processed on all eight channels. This solution enables volume steps of 0.5db and zero crosstalk between channels. It also allows the user enough flexibility to pre-assign volume levels for each input as well as an overall maximum level so the kids canít walk up and blow your speakers to kingdom come.

The Stage One employs outstanding operational amps, Texas Instruments (formerly Burr Brown) 2134s. There are four included, one for each stereo pair. These op-amps are renowned for their sonic character and are found on some other very well regarded processors, including our pick for SSP of the year for 2002, the Anthem AVM-20.

Tweakerís Delight

It truly seems that simplicity in design and function is the key to this product. Users will find that there is nothing at all intimidating about the Stage One. If you have even a little bit of savvy when it comes to setup, I doubt you will ever need to consult the userís manual.

I mentioned earlier that the Stage One offers no onscreen display for setup. I was skeptical of this at first, since onscreen menus are so easy to use and can make a big difference for novice users. Aragon informed me that they didnít want to do onscreen menus since they figured most of the users would be using a high definition display and they could not facilitate progressive scan menus. This makes sense in most cases, but I still would have like to have seen some sort of OSD. But that doesnít mean that the setup provided is hard. In fact this is one of the easiest setups Iíve seen yet.

By either accessing the menus on the remote or front panel, the user can use the front display to dial in any settings needed. You start out in the main setup menu, which includes speaker configurations, level settings, speaker distances, THX setup, and crossover settings.

For speaker configuration you can choose either full range or small (THX). By selecting "Small" you have the option of picking a crossover point from the crossover settings menu. The processor offers a crossover of 25 Hz to 125 Hz in 5 Hz increments, and the setting applies universally to any speaker set to small.

For speaker distances you can adjust the distance to any speaker, with the exception of the subwoofer, in one inch increments up to 21í3Ē. Having the ability to dial in a speaker in one inch measurements is an outstanding feature that I have rarely seen. I really wish more companies would offer this much flexibility. I am not sure why Aragon has foregone delay settings for the sub channel. Although wavelengths for low bass can be extremely long thus omni-directional, we at Secrets believe that all channels benefit from proper delay settings.

For THX setup, there are a few different options. Since this is an Ultra2 product, there are options for the advanced stereo array (ASA) modes. First, you must tell the processor the distance between the two rear speakers if you opt to use two. Next, you must tell it whether you want to use the music or movie mode for post processing. Last up is the ability to turn Re-eq on or off when THX processing is engaged.

After this setup is complete, you can then enter the advanced setup menu. There are a few extra options available here. For example, you can pre-set speaker sizes to different surround modes. That way, if you want to run your speakers in full range for stereo playback and in small for surround modes, you can. You can also set your speaker levels separately for each DSP or surround mode. I found this feature convenient on the Denon 5803, and I was grateful to see it here as well. The controls for the front panel light and reset controls are also found here. One thing of note though: Although the processor allows you to turn off the cascading front panel light, it doesnít allow you to dim or turn off the front display. I use a front projection viewing system, and light control in my room is extremely important. This is a feature I would have liked to have seen included, since by the omission of an OSD you have to have the processor visible for setup and the light emitted from the display can be annoying during movie playback.

Overall I found the controls for setup very easy and geared toward the novice, but with enough flexibility to satisfy the hardcore enthusiast.

For processing, the Stage One offers just about everything there is to offer. This includes the full Dolby compliment from Pro Logic II music and movie modes, to Dolby Digital EX processing. They also have their DTS bases covered with movie and music modes as well as ES discrete and matrix processing. The DTS music mode does have the 10d b compensation for DTS music CDs and DVDs as it should, as well as the 4 db offset for DTS movie tracks.

For THX post processing, there is standard THX, THX Ultra2 music and movie modes, as well as THX Surround EX. Aragon has also included a direct stereo mode that acts as a bypass of the signal foregoing bass management and all other digital processing. The Stage One is upgradeable using a RS-232 connection on the back or through hardware upgrades from Aragon.


Another item missing that I would have liked to have seen is an overall audio delay for those using digital projectors. This enables the viewer to adjust for minor delays caused by outboard video processors in front projection systems. While this may be a trivial feature for some, it is sorely missed by others.


One of the best features of this processor has to be its remote control. Too many times have I seen companies try to come up with their own design only to fail miserably compared to the offerings of universal remote companies. Aragon didnít make this mistake and opted to use the very nice Pronto NEO remote. It comes pre-programmed for the Stage One and can easily be incorporated for the rest of your equipment just as any Pronto before it. The NEO uses a LCD touch screen for most of its interfacing but does have some nice tactile buttons for volume, mute, and menus. The remote control often becomes a huge issue with time, and if the user interface isnít easy and convenient, than it begins to wear on you.

Sounds About Right

Aragon was an excellent product for me to make my first leap into the world of separates, as it showed me exactly how good that leap can be. Aragon remains true to its heritage and provides a compelling performance that just canít be duplicated by a receiver. I used Aragonís 2007 THX Ultra2 seven-channel amplifier for power and that is exactly what I got. Immediately I noticed how much more open my soundstage became. The front part of the room was drastically widened and the imaging was much more transparent. The depth and detail from all areas were drastically increased and affirmed that I will never go back to a receiver again. It didnít matter what format I used, be it DVD playback or two-channel listening, the Aragon performed brilliantly. The midrange was full and robust, and the low end had more detail and a fuller tighter presence than I ever had from a receiver. I did think the high end sounded a tad bright and revealing which some people prefer.

The preamp section of this processor is definitely the highlight. I have yet to hear a digital processor that doesnít do nicely with movie soundtracks, but there are a lot of them lacking in the preamp section. For two-channel listening, I utilized the Krell DVD Standard as my transport and D to A conversion. Although the DACs in the Stage One are excellent, I have yet to hear anything that matches the Krell. But consider that the DVD Standard costs twice the price of this processor. The Aragon was an extremely transparent piece and didnít clutter the sound at all. This was very apparent in cymbals. Too many times have I heard what I know to be a very detailed transport get masked by a so called pass through.

While watching films, I noticed that my speakers really seemed to disappear in the room, and the presence of the soundtrack was amazing. Using dynamic soundtracks such as SW-Episode 1 was like hearing the track again for the first time. There just seemed to be more layers to the sound that I wasnít hearing before from the other equipment I was using.

DVD audio also sounded great. Using Denonís DVD 9000 to take advantage of its digital bass management, I listen to recordings from AIX and Chesky as well as the current Warner titles. The AIX releases are amazing recordings that really show off how good DVD-A can be. Even if I donít like the genre of music playing, I am always blown away by the quality of the recording and the precision used in the surround mixing. The Aragon equipment did a delightful job with everything I threw at it. It revealed every sonic nuance and had a rich natural tone that was a delight to the ears.

Conclusions

The Aragon Stage One is a very capable surround sound processor. Its performance was very commendable and I didnít feel it slouched in any area. I would have liked to have seen an OSD despite the fact that the front panel interface is very easy to use. I would have also liked to have seen a set of RCA inputs for the eight-channel input. These are small gripes that will have to be weighed by the consumer of course. It does have some stiff competition from companies like B&K and Anthem who are really pushing the envelope as far as features go in this price range. I didnít have the chance to compare the Aragon sonically to these products but I would have enjoyed the opportunity to do so. All in all I think the Stage One is a compelling piece sonically and keeps with the tradition of outstanding musicality Mondial has been known for.



- Kris Deering -

 

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