Involve Audio Surround Master Review
Involve Audio Surround Master
- Power Input: 9VDC
- Power Consumption: 500ma
- Inputs / Outputs: Analogue
- DC Plug Pack Input: 100-240VAC 50/60hz
- DC Plug Pack Output: 9VDC output 1.66a
- Signal to Noise Ratio: >90dB (conservative)
- Weight (packaged): Less than 1kg / 2 Lbs
- Input Level: 3.5 V peak
- Output Level: 3.5 V peak
- Input Impedance: 10 KOhms
- TSS Output: Better than 1%
- 4/5.1 Channel Output: Better than 1%
- Frequency Response (stereo bypass mode: DC 100kHZ
- Frequency Response (All surround modes): 20 Hz – 20KHz 1db
- Stereo Analog Input Level: 3.5 V peak
- Slew Rate: 9V per microsecond
- Dimensions: 9.5” x 6.15” x 3.35” (49.53cm x 15.62 x 8.51)
- Weight: 9.17 oz (0.26 kgs)
- Shipping Weight: 1 lb 14 oz (0.85 kgs)
- Warranty: 3 Year Limited Warranty
This review is going to be polarizing. It just is. This is the Surround Master by Involve Audio. It's a new type of surround decoder that, well, makes a lot of claims. For starters, the most polarizing claim is that it provides "The Most Accurate Sound Reproduction Available. Period." We'd take issue with that statement as our definition of audio perfection is adhering to the original. You can make something "different" than the original, even more pleasing—but that doesn't make it more accurate—because the original is how the re-recording mixer or audio mastering engineer wanted it to sound.
Still, this review isn't going to hover on philosophy too long. We just need to explain the product lest you misunderstand how we perceive it and its position in the marketplace. I guess I should begin with what it is. The Surround Master is a stereo in, multi-channel out device that operates at line level. That means you feed it analogue stereo in and it spits out either stereo, 4-channel or 5.1. Now, our understanding is that this product, and its designers are pointing the Surround Master squarely at the rather involved and confusing discrete surround marketplace. It's their contention that we've overcomplicated surround sound to the point of making it inaccessible and rather incompatible with many devices in its various forms.
In that sense, they're right. Decode stereo into Dolby Pro Logic II and you get a little bit of surround information, but even Pro Logic has mono surrounds and the digital age brought along AC3, DTS and Dolby Digital—and now the high-definition versions of the same into a place where discrete surround is no longer encoded on stereo tracks. That means the tracks you listen to on your iPad aren't the same tracks you listen to on your home theater. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial for these guys—they're really trying to get back to stereo-encoded surround. That's cool.
The trouble, of course is channel separation. Enthusiasts claim that 12dB of channel separation is enough to psychoacoustically fool your ears. Maybe, but with digital surround you can achieve true channel separation. I'm just not sure we can roll back the clock in the way that Involve Audio seems to want.
Involve Audio Surround Master
My system consisted of a pair of Emotiva XPA-1 monoblock amplifiers and a UPA-200 stereo amplifier connected to a pair of Salk Songtowers for the mains and a pair of Definitive Technologies StudioMonitor 65s for the surrounds. Ghosting the center channel I was able to compare the SurroundMaster to both Dolby Pro Logic II Movie and Music models using a Sherbourn PT-7030 surround processor. I wired up the Surround Master to the unbalanced multichannel inputs and set it to 5.1. Then I started my listening tests, alternating between running the Surround Master in 4-channel mode with the PT-7030 set to Direct, and engaging Dolby Pro Logic II Movie or Music mode with the Surround Master set to 'Off' (which is its bypass mode). The source for all of this was my Oppo BDP-95 player's analogue stereo outputs.
I watched several movies that are familiar to me, including The Matrix and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. In The Matrix, the Lobby scene has some pretty amazing discrete surround, which I felt was much richer and fuller with the Surround Master. It certainly put more emphasis in the surrounds and everything in between. Flying debris had rear-oriented impacts and falling shells and ricochets abounded throughout the sound field. In Return of the Jedi, the last space battle sequence had a lot of laser fire and explosions that filled the surrounds, not always where you'd expect them, but still in a way that made the experience rich. Of course, if you have access to a surround process, I would always recommend using the discrete surround mix that was mastered with the movie. The Surround Master was no match for properly calibrated audio playback of the original surround mix.
Which brings me to music. Music and the Surround Master are a match made in heaven. It almost always made my music sound more rich and full. I would not, however, classify it as "better" or :"more accurate". To the contrary, it simply presents a different take on tracks that are not really mastered for surround sound in the first place. Listening to Steely Dan's "Do It Again" from their Definitive Collection album, I was pleasantly surprised by the spread of instrumentation throughout the room. Percussion, in particular, was send to the surrounds in a way that really opened up the tracks. The doubled vocals also were panned super wide and filled towards the back of the room. This was a great track to test this system with.
Over and over I really enjoyed the surround distribution afforded by the Surround Master. In comparison to Dolby Pro Logic II Music mode, the Dolby mode seemed anemic in comparison. Other great tracks included "Roundabout" by Yes, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who, and even 80's classics like "Head Over Heels" by Tear for Fears.
Involve Audio Surround Master connections
So, do you need a product like this? Probably not. Especially at $395. It's completely superfluous if you're already equipped to listen to discrete surround audio in your home theater and you listen to multi-channel surround music. But, if you're an old-school Quadrophonic Stereo guy, or you would like to open up your stereo music to a whole new type of experience, then this is a device that will do that in a way that I really haven't heard before. It blows away the Dolby Pro Logic II Music mode, and it's got a fair amount of practical channel separation. It also uses the surrounds in a way that came across as more even and full than I'm used to with most other stereo-to-surround processing modes.
In short, it sounds good. I just can't see many of our readers wanting to spend the money on a product like this, particularly since it doesn't—in my opinion—create audio that's more accurate or better than the original...just different. They also probably won't want to spend $495 for the SQ version that contains the SQ version of Involve, alongside the regular Involve decode.
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Unless otherwise indicated, this is a preview article for the featured product. A formal review may or may not follow in the future.