Trinnov Altitude16 Home Theater Preamp/Optimizer Reviewed

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Trinnov Altitude16 Home Theater Preamp/Optimizer Reviewed

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I was about two hours into setting up and calibrating Trinnov's Altitude16 Home Theater Preamp/Optimizer ($17,000) when I had a bit of a freak-out. I was in over my head. I was lost. And this, after assuring Trinnov that I was pretty much a Room Correction Expert™, thankyouverymuch, and no, I wouldn't be needing the assistance of an on-site Trinnov installer to get the unit configured for my room.

The thing is, you look at all of the tools packed into the Atltitude16, all of its calibration and optimization settings, and you think, "Hey, I know how all of those things work. I got this." What you don't consider ahead of time is how overwhelming it can be, having all of those tools at your disposal in one processor. And so, as I said, about two hours into the initial setup process--a process that ended up taking me the better part of a day--I sat in my media room floor, wrapped my arms around my assistant (an 80-pound American Staffordshire Terrier named Bruno), and proclaimed my need for an adult.

He mooed at me, which I interpreted as, "Just read the manual." And he was right. The answers were all there. I found my path, groaned at my own non-manual-reading hubris, and powered through what has proven to be the most intensive, most overwhelming, most rewarding home theater preamp installation of my career. Bar none.

Trinnov_Audio_Altitude_16_back_io.jpgIf you're not familiar with the Altitude16, it's worth pausing for a moment to explore what it is, exactly. As its name implies, it's a true 16-channel AV preamp with Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro3D processing. It features seven HDMI inputs (all HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 compliant) two HDMI outputs (one HDMI 1.4a, one HDMI 2.0), balanced and single-ended stereo analog ins (one each), two coax and two optical inputs, one coax and one optical output, one trigger input, and four trigger outs, three of which are configurable. There's an RS-232 port, one Ethernet port for network connectivity and control, and two Ethernet ports for future network audio upgrades. It's also a Roon Ready endpoint and a UPnP renderer.

All of that, though, barely scratches the surface. What makes the Altitude16 stand out--well, the first of many things, actually--is its near infinite customizability. It can be configured as a 9.1.6-channel setup, or 7.3.6, or 9.3.4, or 7.2.4 with bi-amped screen channels, or even 7.2 with every channel bi-amped and actively crossed over... hell, you could even go completely bananas and do a 7.9-channel system with nine independently measured, EQ'd, and crossed-over subwoofers, if that's your bag. Basically, as long as the numbers accompanying those dots don't add up to more than 16 (making sure you count bi-amped channels twice), you can set up the Altitude16 for pretty much any speaker configuration you can imagine.

Trinnov_Audio_Altitude_16.jpg

Arguably a bigger draw is the fact that all of those channels--no matter how you configure them--are measured, equalized, filtered, tweaked, massaged, sculpted, and even virtually repositioned by way of Trinnov's one-of-a-kind room optimization platform. To call it simply "room correction" would be doing Trinnov's system a disservice. Because it is that, but it's so much more.

To understand why, though, we need to dig into the setup menus, but before we get there...

The Hookup
The first thing you notice about the Trinnov Altitude16 when you encounter its backside is that it kind of evokes a modern version of those super-swanky Media Center PCs that were popular a decade or so ago. That's largely because there's a standard PC motherboard I/O port at the bottom left corner, complete with a unified PS/2 port, DVI-D port, the standard array of USB ports, and so forth. 

Trinnov_Altitude16_Back_Panel.jpg

There are two reasons for this, or perhaps I should say one reason and one very specific consideration for setup. The reason is that the Trinnov16 doesn't work all of its signal processing and room optimization magic by way of a DSP chip, the way most AV processors do. Instead, its secret sauce is a software suite that runs on an Intel i7 processor, backed up by two gigs of RAM and solid-state storage. In other words, this beast actually is a PC of sorts, though a highly customized one.

That fact comes into play not only in the signal processing, but also in the way you interact with the Trinnov16 when setting it up and digging into advanced control functions. That's because the Trinnov doesn't have onscreen setup menus the way most surround sound preamps do. (Its HDMI ports are pass-through only.) To configure it, you either connect a mouse and monitor to the PC I/O section on the back of the unit, or dial into it via a VNC client for your tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. I used Mocha VNC for the iPad, for the record, which ended up being six bucks well spent.

As I said up top, though, the first time you dial into that VNC (or connect via monitor and mouse), it's hard not to get overwhelmed--not through any fault of the UI's design or layout, but simply because there's just so many options for configuring and tweaking and dialing in the Altitude16.

Trinnov_Altitude16_Main_Screen.jpg

You'll forgive me for glossing over a lot of those options, because even a cursory overview with no explanations would turn this into a ten-page review. The Altitude16's manual is, after all, a solid 164 pages, and maybe three of them could be considered fluff or boilerplate. And even at that, it's more what I would consider a primer or overview rather than a deep dive.

But let's take a brief look at a few of the setup functions that shine a light on the uniqueness of this preamp. Firstly, there's the room and speaker setup. As you might expect, setting up your room layout isn't as simple as choosing from a short list of configurations. There are twenty preconfigured initial layouts to choose from, ranging from 2.0 to 5.1 to "Trinnov 9.1.6," but unless you're maxing out the processor by opting for the latter, chances are good that you'll have to tweak whatever layout you choose. And you tweak said layouts by starting with something that's close to your in-room configuration and either removing speakers or adding them by borrowing from other preset configurations. If you're running more than one sub and want to independently measure, EQ, and cross them over, you'll have to take that route.

Trinnov_Altitude16_Speaker_Layout.jpg

You'll also probably want to feed your room dimensions into the layout screen. As you do, a rough approximation of your room and speaker layout is rendered in a three-dimensional diagram that can be rotated and zoomed as you see fit.

From there, if you like, you can run an incredibly intuitive guided Speaker/Room Optimizer wizard that walks you through the process of measuring the system by way of a microphone that looks like something out of an art deco science-fiction film. The 3D mic features one central element raised above three others that surround it in a triangular formation. This array of mic capsules allows the Altitude16 to triangulate the locations of your speakers, so it's of the utmost importance that you orient the mic directly toward the middle of your screen.

As the mic and optimizer system measure each speaker in your system, you'll see that 3D room layout mentioned above start to morph a little, as the system determines exactly where your speakers are positioned in the room. That's crucial, because one of the many benefits of the Trinnov system is its ability to virtually remap your speakers in three dimensions to compensate for less-than-perfect speaker placement.

There isn't a strict limit on the position and number of measurements: you can take one, or three, or five, or eight or nine or however many floats your pickle (although Trinnov recommends stopping at ten just to keep from overloading the hardware's memory), then you can assign a weight to each--in other words, you can prioritize your different measurement positions, or even exclude measurements altogether if one looks like an egregious outlier.

I keep using the word "you," here, but by that I really mean your installer or acoustician, because there's just no way most end users have the expertise nor the patience to fully calibrate the Altitude16 even to this point. And from here, it only wades deeper and deeper into the weeds. You'll need to set a target curve for the processor once you're done with all of the above, and here the training wheels just come right off completely. Unlike many room correction systems, which give you a few target curves to start from, Trinnov throws you right into the deep end to figure it out for yourself. Your starting target curve is ruler flat.

In the numerous speaker configurations I played around with, I tried out target curves ranging from the ever-popular Brüel & Kjær curve, to one suggested by Jon Herron of Trinnov, finally settling on something pretty close to the Harman target curve, tweaked to my tastes and the particulars of my room under the guidance of insights gleaned from Floyd Toole's excellent AES paper, The Measurement and Calibration of Sound Reproducing Systems (PDF warning). Via the Trinnov's target curve editor, you can copy a target curve to all of the main speakers in your system, match curves for your subs, or if you really want to go completely kooky, you can establish unique curves for every speaker in your system, though a much more sensible arrangement would be to have one curve for your bed channels, one for your height speakers, and another for your subs.

Speaking of "every speaker in your system," you have just as much flexibility in the crossover settings. You can establish a global speaker/sub crossover, which most people probably will. Or you can go nuts with unique crossover configurations. Let's envision a system in which you have small overhead rear speakers and full range surrounds or rear surrounds. Instead of simply sending everything below 80Hz from the overhead speakers to your subs, you re-route low frequencies to your surrounds and/or rear surrounds. Or you can cross your center over with your main left and right speakers.

And again, not to belabor the point, but that's just the smallest taste of the sorts of advanced configuration settings you can tinker with. You can, for example, choose between finite impulse response and infinite impulse response filters for acoustics correction, or a combination thereof. You can employ early reflection correction on the fronts or the surrounds or both. You can set a high-pass filter frequency on acoustics correction. You can adjust FIR filter length and the number of IIR filters, along with their minimal and maximal frequencies. You can set a maximum boost level for nulls and a maximum attenuation level for spikes in magnitude response. Or you can create a limiter curve if you want your maximum attenuation and boost levels to be frequency dependent.

Trinnov_Altitude16_Optimizer_Settings.jpg

And you may be thinking to yourself, OK, but how much of a difference can such tweaky little tweaks make on the resulting sound? Good question. And it really isn't hard to hear it for yourself thanks to another of the Altitude16's many advantageous features. You can save different systems configurations to different Presets and compare them, nearly instantly. Presets cover everything from speaker configuration to target curves to all of the little adjustments mentioned above, and you can store up to 29 and assign them globally or on an input-by-input basis.  So, if you want the input assigned to your satellite receiver to use only your bed speakers and one subwoofer, with one measuring position at your main seat, and your UHD Blu-ray player to play to a 9.2.4-channel object-based setup with six measuring positions weighted to a different main seat and a slightly beefier target room curve, that's a thing you can do. Or you can map individual speakers to specific audio formats and let all of this happen automatically depending on your source and viewing/listening material.

Again, I hope by now you've gotten the point that I don't have room here to even hint at most of the Altitude16's capabilities. I spent a solid twelve hours setting it up and dialing it in on my first day with the unit, and to be frank I only quit tinkering because I wanted to start listening. In the weeks since, I've probably spent another thirty hours at least massaging settings and A/Bing them.

I've been through so many different speaker setups I lost count of them, and although I never quite maxed out the Altitude16's output capabilities, the system configuration I ended up spending the most time with was a simple 5.2-channel setup using GoldenEar Triton One towers up front, a SuperCenter XXL, Triton Sevens for surrounds, and the aforementioned pair of PB-4000s.

I can hear the squawking in the comments section already: Why bother reviewing a sixteen-channel preamp and only use seven channels for the most part? My reasons were twofold: firstly, so I could take this thing to the limit in terms of tuning and still get the review done before Christmas; and secondly, so I could better gauge sonic performance without the distraction of height speakers. Yes, I did plenty of Atmos and DTS:X demos. Yes, they sounded spectacular. But I've found that, for me, extending my surround sound system into the third dimension can mask flaws, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible listening for imaging and soundstage idiosyncrasies, tonal and phase weirdness, and so forth.

It's worth noting here that the Altitude16's analog audio outputs are all balanced XLR, so make sure your amps are so-equipped. And you'll also likely need XLR-to-RCA adapters for your subs.

For control of the system, I relied primarily on Trinnov's Control4 IP driver. It's worth noting that this did require a bit of reconfiguration in the Altitude16 itself to reorder the sources, since the preamp relies on what it calls "Profiles" instead of direct sources, and they start with Profile 0 instead of Profile 1, as you might expect. But this was an easy fix, and any control systems programmer should be able to figure it out quickly

For what it's worth, the IR remote included with the Altitude16 is well-built, if somewhat sparse, confusingly laid out, and not incredibly ergonomic. It doesn't even have a power or standby button. No matter, though. It gets the job of input switching volume control, and preset selection done, and the odds that you're going to use this preamp in a system without an advanced control and automation system (or at least control it via your iPad or laptop) are slim-to-whatever.

Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...


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HTR Product Rating for Trinnov Altitude16 Home Theater Preamp/Optimizer

Criteria Rating

Performance

5

Value

4.5

Overall

5

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


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