In the realm of home automation, Crestron is well established as the leader in the space, with a brand name that well-heeled consumers associate with Sub-zero, Wolf, Miele and the like. In the past few years, Crestron has been making progress in expanding its business beyond the world of touchscreens, control systems, shades and lighting control and into products like media servers and now home theater components. The subject of this review is Crestron's PSPHD processor, which retails for $11,000 and is part of the PROCISE product line. Along with the processor, Crestron sent the PROAMP 7x250 amplifier ($7,000 - review pending); the two products are designed to work in concert with one another via an Ethernet connection, which is a unique detail in the world of AV preamps and multi-channel amps.
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I've had the opportunity to play around with a fully integrated whole-home Crestron solution at a friend's house in Orange County, California, and I can safely say that it is pretty awe-inspiring. Having that much control from a single touch-panel (or iPad) is astonishing. Beyond the stereotypical shades-up/shades-down, lighting control and multi-room audio control, today's home automation systems can control HVAC and pool temperatures, manage wine collections and do pretty much anything else that you can dream about. There are certainly haters in the world of home automation, and most of them either object to the price and or have encountered a less-than-excellent programmer. Let's be really clear about the success of any home automation system: it's as good as the person programming it. With that said, the reason why consumers and custom installers alike love Crestron is not just the system's functionality but, more importantly, its reliability. Crestron products are rock solid, and that counts for a lot when you are making a five- to six-figure investment in home automation or, in this case, shopping for a top-performing high-end AV preamp.
While Crestron is fairly new to the home theater processor game, the company has clearly done its homework and produced a high-end gem that, at least in terms of control, trumps just about anything on the market. The PSPHD is a 7.3-channel processor that allows for three independently controlled subwoofer outputs. This is a welcome feature, as multi-subwoofer home theaters are becoming increasingly popular with enthusiasts who want the deepest, most even bass. There's no denying that multiple subs can make movies and music more visceral, but (arguably) more important is the fact is that they even out the bass in a listening room, especially in a larger space. The Crestron PSPHD measures 5.75 inches high by 17.28 inches wide by 14.75 inches deep and weighs a manageable 12 pounds. In terms of features, it includes decoding of all lossless audio codecs, Audyssey MultiEQ XT room correction (along with Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ), XLR inputs/outputs, three floating-point DSPs and six HDMI inputs, all of which I used. It has no shortage of inputs across the board, with a whopping 30 total, leaving none of your components, legacy or no, sitting in the dark.
Those are the hardware highlights, but I'd be remiss in not mentioning the software side of things, which is where you truly get a sense of what went into the research and development of the processor. Crestron's PROCISE Tools software (PC only) allows for more control of your system than I've ever experienced with a processor - by far. If you're into tailoring your system to the nth degree, then you are barking up the right tree with this product. Not only does the Crestron software allow for endless audio tweaking, but it also provides you with a wealth of real-time information, such as signal type, decoding mode, sample rate, etc. Through PROCISE Tools you can control gain, delay, crossover frequency, etc., and it's infinitely simpler and more intuitive than trying to do it through a processor's onscreen display or, worse, the tiny front-panel display. The software also allows you to monitor the audio level of each speaker, adjust the EQs, control input compensation level and much more. It's truly astonishing what you can monitor and control through PROCISE Tools.
To drive the PSPHD processor, Crestron sent me the company's PROAMP seven-channel amplifier, which uses Class D amplification to supply a generous 250 watts per channel. One of the amp's more notable features is the fact that you connect it to the PSPHD processor with one Ethernet cable. Why is this notable? Mainly because this pairing gives the end user and/or Crestron tech the ability to monitor the amp's power and temperature, receive fault alerts and more. All of this control can be handled through a Crestron control panel, smart phone or computer. Very cutting-edge indeed and not something you're going to find with most other processor/amp combinations outside of, say, Classé's CT-M600 monoblock amps and SSP-800 AV preamp.
I can't really speak to the products' packaging, as they showed up sans boxes in the back of the Crestron tech's Mini Cooper, but I can attest to the excellent design of the processor, which has an edgy prosumer look. I mean this in the best way, as the processor would blend seamlessly in both a professional sound room and a high-end home theater. In terms of getting everything connected, things are more complex, as you might expect from a Crestron product. My listening room is in a converted garage, which is not attached to my house. This was problematic, because these pieces demand a dedicated Ethernet connection to your router; there's no WiFi option. After the tech and I spent a few minutes working the problem out, we came up with two possible solutions: the low-tech solution involved running roughly 100 feet of Ethernet cabling from my garage to the router in my wife's office; the high-tech approach involved me driving to Best Buy to pick up a $60 wireless bridge. John the programmer drove to Crestron to get Ethernet cabling, and I went to Best Buy. Luckily, the wireless bridge did the trick, so we did not have to run the Ethernet cable.
We were now off and running ... sort of. You see, Crestron programs in .NET and, as such, the PROCISE gear is not Mac-friendly. This required dusting off my severely underpowered Dell Mini 9. It's worth noting that Mac users do have the option to run parallel operating systems, a decent solution if they twitch and sweat at the thought of using a PC. While John connected the XLR cables, Ethernet cabling, etc., I took care of the speaker connections to my 7.1 system, which consists of Focal 836Ws for the front left/right channels, Episode 700 Series in-walls for the center and surrounds, and the beastly SVS SB13-Ultra subwoofer. This took a bit of time, as the Crestron PROAMP uses "Phoenix"-style speaker connects, which didn't accommodate my banana clips. We then finished the connections to my reference system, which consists of an Optoma HD33 projector, an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, a Cambridge Audio DacMagic, a MacBook Pro and a Music Fidelity V-Link USB to S/PDIF converter. Then John installed the PROCISE Tools software on my PC and downloaded the dedicated Crestron app to my iPad, thereby negating the need for a dedicated Crestron control panel (a good way to save some cash). Lastly, he went through the Audyssey MultiEQ XT room-correction process, gave me a quick tutorial and left me to my own devices.
Needless to say, it was a fairly involved install, but I think it's also safe to say that the average Crestron consumer would be unaware of these issues, which would mostly be handled by the installers. That's the beauty of Crestron: you're surrounded by professionals during and after the installation, which allows you to simply enjoy the system. After a good 24 hours of break-in, I let the critical listening begin.
Read about the performance of the PROCISE PSPHD preamp on Page 2.
One of the first things I noticed was the responsiveness of the Crestron iPad app, which was exemplary. While the $99 app is a bit Spartan (don't be fooled into thinking that a $99 app is all you need to have true Crestron-style control), it does allow you to control all critical functionality. Still, I missed a dedicated remote on the occasions when I didn't have my iPad with me. The first test of the PROCISE system came with Real Steel (Buena Vista) in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Once I was able to get past Hugh Jackman's awful attempt at burying his Australian accent, I began to enjoy a truly visceral viewing experience. The dialogue was highly intelligible and focused, even during intense action sequences.
The bass was equally compelling as Jackman's bot Ambush shook the floor of my listening room with each step. The bass was a consistent area of strength for the processor throughout all of my listening sessions. I can only imagine the performance when adding another sub or two. The surround sound action during fight sequences was well fleshed-out and placed you squarely in the ring with the bots.
Sticking with movies, I cued Horton Hears a Who (20th Century Fox) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. While a kiddie movie might seem an odd choice to test the chops of an $11,000 AV preamp, it's actually a well-recorded audio test for a home theater system, making good use of the entire frequency spectrum, especially the low frequencies. The Crestron processor showed remarkable coherence, but it was the bass from Horton the Elephant stomping around the jungle that was the star of this show. It was taut, compelling and room-shaking without ever exhibiting any bloat. I pushed the volume pretty hard and was rewarded in spades, as this type of processor is designed to entertain. During the film, I did a bit of A/B testing with the Audyssey room-correction engaged and disengaged, and I noticed that, without room correction, the dialogue became a bit hollow and distant. The effect was exactly the opposite while listening to music, although engaging Audyssey on some multi-channel audio tracks did broaden the soundstage perceptibly.
For my final viewing experience, I watched the AFC Championship game in which the Baltimore Ravens upset the New England Patriots. While the CBS broadcast was lossy (Dolby Digital 5.1), it was compelling enough to make me take a few listening notes. Obviously, this wasn't a critical-listening session, but rather a real-world scenario. (Speaking of which, I long for the day when TV shows and sporting events are broadcast with lossless audio.) During the game, I played around with one of the processor's cool features, the choice between three different display types on the front panel: VU Meter, Spectrum (which looks like the old spectrum analyzers that were prevalent back in the day) and Source (which simply tells you which input is currently in use, the signal type and whether or not you have any DSP engaged). I must mention once again that the bass really stood out, making every hit feel jarring and visceral and giving you a sense of the power and speed on the field. Crowd noise was also notable in the surround channels, especially whenever a fan seated near a mic would clap or scream. The whole experience was immersive and really changed the dynamic of watching a game by making it much more lifelike.
Moving on to music, I played the DTS 5.1 mix of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" from one of my reference DVD-Audio discs (DTS Entertainment). Simply put, I was floored, as it was the best I've heard this track sound. The depth and transparency delivered by the PROCISE processor was enthralling. I listened to the entire cut several times, just basically soaking it in after I had taken some notes. This is part of the true beauty of high-end gear - it can make an exceedingly familiar piece of music new again. It's part of the reason why audiophiles seek source components, cabling, etc., that is transparent yet engaging.
Next up was some lossless audio in the form of Minus the Bear's "Listing," in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, from this year's DTS demo disc distributed at the Consumer Electronics Show. While I had enjoyed listening to Queen and watching movies with the Crestron system, it was with this track that I had my first truly transformative experience. The midrange was rich and well resolved, and the imaging was something to hear, as all of the instruments were basically floating in space. The vocals were textured and transparent, giving me a sense of sitting in with the band. The epiphany I had while listening to lossless music was not that the PROCISE processor thrives on it, but rather demands it due to its revealing nature. It was the first time I've used this song for a demo, and I have a feeling it will be awhile before I hear it like this again.
For my final listening session, I fired up some high-resolution two-channel music in the form of Paul Simon's Graceland 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy) in 96/24. The track "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (original version) was one of the standouts, with tremendous depth and texture in both Simon's and Ladysmith Black Mambazo's backing vocals. The instruments were all easily identifiable, which is critical, considering this track is an instrumental smorgasbord, featuring guitar, bass, tenor and alto sax, trumpet and multiple percussionists. The processor conveyed all of the track's soul, richness and depth with stunning realism and resolution. It's worth mentioning that there was a bit of etch in Simon's voice that grated on me, although that could have been the recording, as I'm fairly new to the high-res version of this album. That said, my experience with this track was similar to my other listening sessions, which is to say brilliant.
WiFi capability has become ubiquitous in home theater gear, and while its absence here is not a deal-breaker, it would have made this install much simpler. For most Crestron installers, having a multi-Ethernet switcher in the equipment rack is standard, whereas more consumer installations depend on a less reliable wireless connection. If you are going Crestron, know that you are going with a more professional, reliable solution that might cost you a little more money overall in the installation/setup department.
My next issue has to do with Macintosh compatibility with the PROCISE Tools software. This can be solved, but it's a hassle if you're not already running parallel operating systems. Given the fact that Macs are becoming more and more prevalent as a playback source amongst audiophiles, it would be a good idea for Crestron to accommodate them, which would likely require a pretty major reworking of their software.
In terms of compatibility, I was unable to get 3D to work, despite the fact that the PSPHD processor is reportedly 3D-compatible. After much trial and error on my part, Crestron sent out a tech who, despite spending the entire day at my house, was sadly unable to solve the issue. Ultimately, it was determined that it was an HDMI handshake/compatibility issue with my projector, the Optoma HD33. Is this a deal-breaker? Not really, unless you're in the market for an Optoma HD33 and you're into 3D. If you have Crestron money, then you're likely looking at Sony, JVC, Runco, Digital Projections and other high-end projectors.
Another concern is the lack of a second HDMI output, which is helpful if your setup consists of a projector and a secondary television. It's not uncommon to see a 65-inch Panasonic plasma installed for casual use in a high-end home theater, with a drop-down 2.35:1 screen for the more serious large-scale movie screenings. Two HDMI outputs would help make this type of installation work much more cleanly.
Comparison and Competition
It's difficult to find exact-match comparisons to what Crestron offers, as I can't think of another manufacturer that allows you to control the functionality of your processor and amp to this extent. In terms of other high-end home theater processors, I can tell you that Anthem makes some great-sounding and semi-affordable gear, specifically the AVM 50v 3D, which gives you a whopping eight HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs, and retails for $6,500.
If the price point of the Anthem is out of your budget, then a more affordable option would be the Cary Cinema 12 processor, which I own and recommend highly. The Cary will set you back 5K; if you spent another 5K on an amp, you're still looking at $1,000 less than the Crestron processor alone. The beauty of processors such as those made by Cary, Anthem, Integra, etc., is that you can mate them with any amp you choose or possibly already have on hand. With Crestron, you're pretty much limited to pairing its processor with its amp.
Classé's SSP-800 at $9,500 and Krell's pending Foundation Preamp at $6,500 offer more HDMI inputs and no tie to a specific amp. Krell's Evo 707 is another big-ticket AV preamp worthy of a look at these price points. In terms of flexibility, the Meridian 861 v6 is likely the closest thing to the Crestron PSPHD, with its own very flexible software options.
The true beauty of the Crestron processor, beyond the exceptional performance, is the fact that you basically hand the entire installation/integration process over to a professional. Then you sit back and sip a glass of 1996 Sassacia while the installer mounts control panels throughout your home and/or program your iPad and smart phone to control everything. If something breaks, you make a phone call, as Crestron is known for its exemplary customer service. If you decide to expand your home control down the road to include, say, home security, you make a phone call. Conversely, if you're more of a DIY person who prefers to install, configure and troubleshoot your own home theater gear, then Crestron may not be the ideal match. Having experienced Crestron in the home, I know the value and convenience of having your home fully automated and under the control of a single system; it's quite simply a revelation. If you dance in this realm and want to have a professional set it so you can forget it, then you owe it to yourself to audition the Crestron PSPHD processor, as its performance and control capabilities are beyond compare.