For home theater audio the sweet spot
is undoubtedly the receiver. The receiver integrates the surround sound processor
functions with amplification, hopefully using lessons learned by the
manufacturer in the development of their separates.
I personally see two camps in home theater sound: detailed and smooth. While "smooth" is not bad as a goal, if you get there by simply removing legitimate detail or rolling off the top end, you have simply pulled a trick on the unsuspecting consumer in the hopes that he'll walk out of the store with your product rather than the nearly identical product from your competitor. Too often, smooth is actually muddy, just trowelled over.
"Detailed", on the other hand, can also be a parlor trick. Detailed sound can be achieved with accentuated high frequencies, especially through digital processing. This may grab the ear of that unsuspecting consumer by cutting through all the racket in a big box retail store, but when he is at home, trying to watch a movie or actually listen to music, that kind of 'detail' will drive that consumer batty. They won't enjoy movies or music, and they probably won't know why.
What Arcam does is give you the detail without the fatigue. In the case of the AV8, the sound from digital sources still had a digital sound. The AV8 makes this an entirely pleasing sound nonetheless, coming though as chunky and crisp but not fatiguing. The AV9 on the other hand disappears to a much greater degree. The sound is crisp, with all the detail but its harder to characterize as either detailed or smooth. It's both. I'd call it a lower noise floor. You can hear into the soundtrack, the voices, in the manner similar to analog playback. I don't want to say it sounds like an LP played back on similar priced gear because it doesn't go that far, but its definitely headed in that direction.
This is the point in the review where I should tell you that when I listened
to soundtrack or movie X I heard detail Y (that I never heard before), or the
saxophones were especially smooth/extended/distinct. If you switch from some
other processor to the Arcam you may indeed have an experience like that, but
the differences between the 8 and the 9 were differences in quality rather
additional sounds. Through both the 8 and the 9 I've recently enjoyed
"Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" (oh the 80's hits!), "Rush: R30" (oh the
80 yr old rockers! Kidding! I'm kidding! But they are old, seriously), and
"The Soft Bulletin" by The Flaming Lips (DVD side of Dual Disc). The latter
was sent through the AV9's 5.1 inputs, so the processing was done in the
So, what about the video half of the AV9? Video switching may or may not be important to you, depending on the devices involved and how you feel about multiple remotes.
Here is my situation: I have an old TiVo and a DVD player. I want to use the component out from my DVD player, and the highest quality output from the TiVo is S-Video. The AV9 does not offer video transcoding (conversion of S-Video to Component Video or both of those to HDMI), so there is no conversion between the TiVo's S-Video and component video. S-Video in, S-Video out. This means that two connections to the monitor are required: a component video connection for the component video from the DVD player and an S-Video connection for the S-Video from the TiVo.
I can use the Arcam's video switching, but I am still left with a two-remote sequence, first switching the AV9. This puts me on the correct video and audio source, but now the monitor is looking at the wrong input. I have to grab the remote for my TV and switch it to the proper input. This isn't horrible, but for exactly the same number of buttons pressed, I could bypass the Arcam's video switching altogether.
video amount of video switching, no matter how well executed, is worse than
no switching at all, because there is always at least a bit of signal
degradation. With the AV9, it was hard to see any degradation. With
the AV8 I think I can see some video degradation but I'd really have to spend
some more time going back and forth to be sure. All of this should tell you
that if your monitor works differently than mine (perhaps sensing which
input is active automatically), you should look forward to using the video
switching capability of the AV9 without fear.
However, you can always use
digital video processor to alleviate all of these issues.
I can't argue too much with
that except to point out my video switching dilemma. Of course, all new
TiVo units have HDMI out, but it all may be
resolved for the better with such products as DirecTV's new Tuner/DVR with
150 channels of HD programming. Tuning and DVRing are all in one box. I'll miss
my outboard TiVo though. Great user interface and great remote.
On occasion, I was able to confuse the AV9 (and 8) by fiddling excessively (and I mean excessively) with the volume control. I don't know why I do this, but sometimes I switch up and down on the volume, and sometimes this made the Arcam switch to another video input source. Of course, switching back to the original input is easy, but it's annoying. In my current setup I am at a bit of angle to the face of the AV9, and that may have had something to do with it.
Oh, the remote is programmable of course,
so that feature could be used to address my video switching dilemma at least
to some degree.
I think all cable manufactures have adapted to this situation. I switched to an Ultraviolet 5 from Wireworld and all was fine.
Here is the more serious beef: The AV8 and
9 don't have enough optical digital inputs. There are two. There are five
coaxial S/PDIF (RCA connector) digital inputs. The
two optical connections would almost be enough for me given that they can be
re-assigned. That is, the two optical inputs, currently assigned to the
Satellite and VCR should be able to be reprogrammed to different inputs.
I tried reprogramming the VCR input to correspond to the DVD button, but the
menu page that allows for this reprogramming does not allow 'DVD' as an
option. I have circumvented this problem either by using the coaxial
digital connection from my DVD player if it has one or using a separate
coaxial to optical converter if it doesn't. Better if the AV9 just had an
optical connection for DVD audio or allowed reprogramming of the spare it
does have. Of course, I could just plug my DVD player into the VCR input,
and remember that VCR really means DVD, but, again, it's annoying.