Roxsan Capsian AV Preamp Reviewed

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Once upon a time, manufacturers could bank on a masochistic streak in audiophiles which allowed the proliferation of much minimalist nonsense. It travelled under the guise of purism, a notion that 'less is more', which - while it was true up to a point regarding the cleanliness of the signal path - was allowed to run rampant. While the cynics suspected that the more dastardly manufacturers used minimalism as a way to increase profits (leave out loads of stuff but charge absurdly high prices), many consumers actually believed the guff.

Additional Resources
• Read more high end AV Preamp reviews from the likes of Anthem, Arcam, Sunfire, Meridian, Krell, Mark Levinson, Lexicon and many others.
• Read a review of the Roxsan Hotcakes Loudspeakers here.

And so, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we found a generation of self-abnegating music lovers willing to hand over bags of cash for...nothing. In return for high-end outlay, they were denied balance and tone controls, remote control, extra inputs, filters and anything else beyond source select and volume which might make life easier, hi-fi more pleasurable to use. Hell, some people were so gullible that they even denied themselves the 'luxury' of more than one speed on a turntable.

It was during this bleak era of wholesale deception - truly audio's Dark Ages - that Roksan was born: yet another turntable manufacturer out to topple Linn, another hero out to defeat the Minotaur. Roksan always marched to a different beat (tweeters suspended on springs...), and for that we admire them. So it was at first with a sense of exculpation that I approached Roksan's Caspian DSP, a five-channel A/V surround sound processor from a manufacturer with its roots in analogue lunacy. But because reviewers have no right whatsoever to wear ooze forgiveness if they're not to be regarded as 'soft', I did not want to feel like an indulgent parent or Pollyanna. As much as I can't bring myself to give Roksan the slapping it sorely needs, I'm furious with them because there is no excuse for proffering a component so out of touch with consumers' requirements.

But it's not a 'slapping' of punishment. Rather, Roksan deserves a solid thwack upside its collective head to force some sense into it. It appears to me that the Caspian DSP must have been designed by an analogue-born Rip Van Winkle, who woke up one day to find himself working in a sub-genre of home entertainment where (1) stereo is the secondary format, (2) analogue the secondary technology, and (3) video a key part of the formula. Only he didn't have a clue, but went ahead anyway.

Note that I was granted the review of the Caspian DSP because I adored the five-channel amplifier to which it should be mated. Hell, I've been a Caspian fan since Day 1, and have used the integrated amp and CD player as mid-price references. So, to criticise the series' latest entry with such seeming vitriol is not easy. I want the world to have need for a UK-made, �1295 processor. I want this chamfered-cornered, built-like-a-vault, alive-against-all-odds outsider to vie with the Denons and Onkyos and Yamahas and TAGs, if only to disprove the industry adage which argues that A/V hardware is so complex - video being an entirely different discipline - that it will sort out the men from the boys. In other words, we the A/V equivalent of, say, TVR: a stubbornly British car manufacturer of miniscule market surviving amidst the Porsches and BMWs.

At first examination, the Caspian DSP seems to have hit the mark. Its sheer heft and rather large dimensions (435x420x70mm - WDH) inspire confidence: no empty box here containing little more than a mother board and power supply. This is clearly 'serious' equipment. And the Roksan wins the biggest battle in the war by - above all else - sounding like an audiophile product. Once I got it working, which wasn't easy, I was rewarded with the sort of silky sound quality which bridges the gap between the artifice of home theatre and the naturalness of purist audio. The sound is not impressive, which may or may not be a demerit depending on how you like your , and . Instead, it suggests a freedom from the sort of fatigue-inducing artefacts which mar entry-level home-theatre components. For those of you entering the A/V waters with but a touch of the toe, this unit can serve as an audio-only (read: stereo) pre-amp without fear of upsetting the purists.

Curiously, though, the Roksan doesn't sound 'big' - the downside of its refusal to impress in motion picture terms. I can liken it only to going to experiencing a small two-way monitor after a lifetime with big panels. Unfortunately, I was listening to it through panels for the entire session (Martin-Logans). To my ears, this system was voiced by a team which never visited a movie house - impossible, I know, but the unit had no sympathy for the cinematic. Sure, the 5.1 processing worked as it should, but that's as far as it goes. You got your surround sound, but almost grudgingly.

Read much more on Page Two

HTR Product Rating for Roxsan Capsian AV Preamp

Criteria Rating

Performance

3.5

Value

4

Overall

4

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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To my dismay, it sounded just like what it was: a purist audiophile's interpretation of a home theatre product. It's as if the unit was designed in a vacuum, despite boasting Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS decoding, the sort of set-up facilities which allow you to fine-tune 5.1 channels (including speaker delay), DAC level trim to match inputs, dynamic range compression for late night listening, and a few other unique-to-home-theatre elements. But that's it. Take them away, and you're in a Flat Earth hell-hole, circa 1979.

Let's start with the remote. While I'm certain Roksan thought they were being trendy, surely the frostly-blue iMac look is already past its sell-by date. The remote control is finished in that tedious see-through blue plastic in a feeble attempt at appealing to Mac owners. But, unlike clear-blue-coloured computer peripherals such as printers and scanners, which at least relate to computeresque, this is out of place next to a solid-metal piece of sculpture like a Caspian component. And it's as minimalist as the unit itself, with only two buttons each for input and volume (up-and-down), test tone and level trim select with plus-and-minus control, DAC and delay select, select and set-up buttons for the various surround modes and stereo, a mute and power-on. Spoiled as I am by the Lexicon, I'd prefer at the very least a button for direct access to each input, instead of having to scroll through them.

Then, the front panel. While it's easy to applaud Roksan's attempt at breaking away from the button-filled overkill of most Japanese A/V receivers, some with 50 buttons or more, the Caspian's dearth of controls borders on the sadistic. No volume control, for ****'s sake! Flanking the display, which tells you which source, what processing type, what level has been set, and if you've hit overload, are three buttons to the left and three to the right. On the left are on/off from standby (the main AC on/off is at the back), and two buttons for scrolling up and down the inputs; on the right are buttons to choose stereo (2ch downmix), Pro Logic or 5.1. That's it. Er...doh. I could just about live with that array, but no volume control? I use the Lexicon's rotary all the time, and not because I've misplaced the remote or the batteries have gone dead. It's a natural extension of using the system, full stop. Maybe I'm the only schmuck on the planet who does so, but it wouldn't have killed Roksan to allow users the option. No volume control...gimme a break.

But the real demonstration of detachment from the real world is around the back. What you get are four sets of analogue inputs, a cluster of phonos for surround, centre and sub inputs from, say, DVD players with analogue multi-channel outputs, analogue tape out and the requisite six outputs for the 5.1 channels. On the digital side, you get one coaxial-only output and one optical and three coaxial digital inputs, one for AC-3/RF, the others for two-channel sources. Then, as a throwback to the very worst days of computing, a cheap and nasty DIP switch array for selecting subwoofer on/off, centre speaker on/off and surrounds on/off. Quite clearly, Roksan is so locked in a two-channel mindset that it treats 5.1 channel like a necessary evil. On a user-friendly, A/V processor, the DIP switches' functions would appear on a drop-down menu, accessible via remote. But that presupposes an on-screen display...

So now, we get to what's missing. On the back is a nine-pin computer socket marked 'video switch port'. Yup, video switching is an optional extra (not supplied for review), and with a price pegged at 'maybe 200 or 300', which puts this perilously close - at upwards of 1500- 1600 - to a truckload of rivals with comprehensive video switching as standard. If my maths (see above) are correct, there's only the one 5.1 digital input, compounded by no S-video inputs, no balanced inputs, no coaxial video, no SCART - nothing, nada, nyet. So I called Touraj and had to cut the conversation short before I lost my rag: He had the chutzpah to tell me that Roksan fitted so few inputs on the back because consumers didn't want all of the leads going to one place, and that DVD player wasn't in the same place as his processor. Which makes the only schmuck on the planet...

And there I was, thinking that the beauty of those massive Japanese A/V receivers, if you can deny your high-end tendency, was the concentration of everything in one place. One AC cable, one cluster of video inputs, another for audio inputs, a remote that operates your entire system including TV and most sources AND the controller, all in one tidy array.

Silly me.

I don't want to go on any further with this, because it's starting to look like I'm kicking a man when he's down. So, to sum up, Roksan missed a great opportunity here; I'm sure that I'm not the only one who awaited an ideal mate for the company's superb multi-channel amplifier. And, sonically, the Caspian DSP is a real alternative for those who just can't abide the thin, overly-processed interpretation of surround sound according to the mass-market manufacturers.

But this product should never have left the factory in such a stripped-down, feature-less form. Unless, that is, Roksan was misled by market research which involved canvassing people who have never operated an A/V set-up, or who plan to use their A/V system only for listening to 2-channel CDs, and who gave them a resounding, 'Yes! Give us an A/V processor with no video switching, a shortage of inputs, a masochist's remote! And then charge us the same as Yamaha or Denon or Nakamichi would while throwing in all the extras AND five channels' worth of amplification!'

Wake up, guys: this is 2000 and you've tossed your hat into the home cinema arena. If you want to pretend otherwise, then stick with stereo audio, which you do so very well. Otherwise, you should know that the 'V' in 'A/V' does not stand for 'vinyl'.

Additional Resources
• Read more high end AV Preamp reviews from the likes of Anthem, Arcam, Sunfire, Meridian, Krell, Mark Levinson, Lexicon and many others.
• Read a review of the Roxsan Hotcakes Loudspeakers here.


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