In recent years, Primare has focused on renewing its stereo offering. With the launch of the SPA25 AV receiver, the brand is once again focusing on home cinema. In the meantime, however, a lot has changed in terms of surround experience. Will the Swedes manage to make a successful return?
The latest AV receiver that Primare launched was the SPA23, already eight years ago. That was a long time ago for the home theater world. The big names in this segment – Denon/Marantz and Yamaha – traditionally renew their range of new AV receivers every year. Although, partly due to the shortages of parts, this has now become once every two years. But still: Primare is clearly a brand that does not release an AV receiver every once in a while. The appearance of the SPA25 is therefore special. And challenging, because since 2014 a lot has changed in terms of expectations among home cinema enthusiasts. Dolby Atmos, 4K video, HDR, streaming music services, advanced room calibration software… The list of novelties is quite long. So Primare already has an advantage: their new AV receiver offers an insane amount of upgrades compared to their previous model.
The Primare SPA25 is a 9.1 AV receiver that you can configure to drive different surround setups. Its price tag of 5,499 euros and feature list makes this receiver a challenger for the highest models of the major brands. But also for more specialized names such as Arcam and Anthem. In terms of streaming, the SPA25 unpacks with Primare’s own Prisma platform, in terms of room calibration, the company didn’t have to drive far – from its own Malmö to Uppsala – to bring in Dirac.
Familiar and elegant
The appearance of the SPA25 is minimalist in good Primare custom. You immediately recognize that you are dealing with a device from the Swedes, whether you go for the titanium gray or black version. The rounded front panel that apparently ‘floats’ in front of the housing can be seen in almost all Primare’s, from the compact I15 amplifier to the large A35.8 output stage. So the SPA25 is certainly not a break in style, and that’s fine. It does give this device a distinctive look compared to average AV receivers. Yamaha, Denon and Marantz also take a more minimalistic approach to things these days, but this is next-level in terms of tranquility and modesty.
That thicker front panel also gives this SPA25 a slightly more luxurious appearance. That is what you also expect from a manufacturer that is more in the hi-fi sphere. HT devices often have a more functional face. If you put the Primare away in a cupboard, it won’t matter. However, you can park this SPA25 without hesitation on a TV cabinet without your living room suddenly being dominated by technology.
|What||9.1 AV Receiver|
|Assets||9 x 90 watts|
|Inputs||4 x HDMI 2.0b, 2 x optical, coaxial, USB class B, 5 x cinch|
|Outputs||HDMI-eARC, HDMI, pre-out (LRC), 2 x sub-out|
|streaming||Prisma app, AirPlay 2, Chromecast, DLNA|
|Extras||Dirac, smart home integration|
|Dimensions||47 x 14.8 x 37.5 cm|
There is no such thing as minimalism when it comes to functionality. On the contrary, Primare opted for a ‘maximalistic’ approach where as a user you set the receiver completely as you want. For example, there is no mention of inputs, but up to seventeen ‘presets’. Such a preset is not, for example, ‘HDMI 1’, but a collection of settings and inputs that you determine. For example, you can link preset 1 to HDMI 1 as the video input, with the secondary HDMI-out as the output, with an optical input as the audio input, and with the sound played through the receiver. Much more is possible, such as a fixed DSP mode, a certain Dirac filter and more.
You can also choose from one of five speaker presets. Because that flexibility is also there: you can control five speaker setups, each with its own Dirac correction. Can be useful if you really want a stereo option that is fully optimized for music with a dedicated surround setup. Positive is the presence of autosense, a function that Primare also provides on its stereo preamplifiers (such as the PRE35). If you set this with a preset linked to one of the analog inputs, the receiver will immediately switch to the record player (with phono preamp) or CD player connected to this input. You can even combine multiple presets with the same inputs,
OSD with much simplicity and tranquility
You can build different speaker configurations with this 9.1 receiver. It offers nine amplified channels, good for surround via 5.1.4 or 7.1.2. So height channels are supported, both in the form of speakers on the ceiling or as reflective Dolby models. In terms of pre-outs, the range is limited, but you can send the stereo channels to a separate stereo amplifier to achieve 7.1.4. An interesting option, because it opens the door to using a high-end stereo amplifier for music within a home theater.
You can manually set up a setup in terms of distances, levels and even delays in the interface of the SPA25. You will find quite a lot of options, although the presentation and the range are a bit more sober than the AV receivers that go for a maximum of functions. The presentation gap with, say, Yamaha is immense in this area.
There are some small things here and there that we would have liked to see, such as the ability to place the on-screen display at the top of the screen with volume changes. This is useful if you watch with subtitles. It is clear that the software of the SPA25 is still being tweaked; during the test period, our device received three updates, among other things to improve Dirac performance and to make the interface react a little more calmly when changing inputs and resolutions. So it is certainly possible that the range of functions will expand on a limited scale. However, the brand’s lagom principles mean you should never expect to get such a Yamaha-esque menu of sound modes and simulations. Simplicity, there is also something to be said for that.
The choice for Dirac means that you can completely adjust the SPA25 to your space via this software. As is often the case, the SPA25 comes with a license for corrections up to 500 Hz. This will solve many room problems, such as most roommodes. If you still want to make adjustments over the full frequency range, you must upgrade to a full Dirac license yourself. Worth considering – if you know what you’re doing. Dirac may be the best room calibration software in the world, but it is not software that offers a ready-made result at the touch of a button. It takes some time and knowledge to make the most of it. You should also invest in a measurement microphone, such as the UMIK-1 which costs around 100 euros. Some dealers offer to set up a device at your home. If you don’t have much experience in the field of Dirac, then that is highly recommended.
The HDMI challenge
Primare does make a brave choice when it comes to the HDMI part. Because home theater builders who demand all stickers on the box will immediately reject the SPA25 because it does not have HDMI 2.1 on board. Anno 2023 a special choice? The Swedish brand admits to finding suitable HDMI 2.1 signs wasn’t easy. When it then got into discussions with also Malmö-based game developer Massive about which hardware most gamers use, it turned out that the one scenario that actually required HDMI 2.1 – 8K at 60fps, 4K at 120fps – was very rare. The conclusion was to work with a reliable HDMI 2.0 board that can handle 4K/60 and most HDR standards. In realistic terms, that is sufficient for film viewing for the near and perhaps more distant future. There are very few plans to make movie content in 8K, for example, and streaming services don’t seem to be planning to do that yet either. But there’s no getting around it: if you’re a gamer who plays in those very highest resolutions and frame rates on your Xbox Series X or PS5, then the SPA25 is less suitable for you. Don’t aim for 4K120 and 4K60 will suffice, then you can of course get started with a next-gen console. Our PlayStation 5 worked so well with the Primare.
The SPA25 is not extremely lavish in terms of video inputs: four HDMI inputs, two separately controllable outputs. For audio sources there are five cinch pairs, two optical inputs, a coaxial and – you don’t often see that on an AV receiver – a USB class B port to connect a computer. This allows you to deliver hi-res material in the best quality, although this is also done via the Prisma app. A typical Primare thing: there are two Ethernet ports, so you can share an Ethernet connection with another device, such as an Apple TV 4K. Smart home integration is possible via IP, there is also an RS232 port and the necessary triggers. You can also send it in combination with a certain preset.
Primare built its own streaming platform years ago that is built into most products: Prisma. It is effective and relies on Chromecast and DLNA to give you many ways to play music through Prisma app. You can easily play your own music files over the network in this app, and if you want to use a streaming service, switch to the app of that service. The SPA25 also has AirPlay 2 on board and is about to become Roon Ready (it appears as non-certified in Roon for now). So there are many ways to play music.
However, Primare recently decided to enrich the Prisma app with embedded streaming services and internet radio. Apparently, the brand received a lot of feedback that users prefer to search and play their music within one app, instead of via the app of their streaming service. In short, in time the SPA25 will enable both paradigms. We expect to hear more about this around the HEM fair in May.
Under the hood
After the release of the A35.8 power stage with its Hypex Ncore modules, we wondered whether Primare would use its own UFPD technology in the SPA25 or Hypex. It has become the last, but from the UCD series, not Ncore, more precisely the UCD250LP. This results in a receiver that can put a lot of watts into the scale: 90 watts per channel, even if each channel is controlled (4 or 8 ohms). That is important to note. When comparing with another brand, you have to look carefully at how other manufacturers specify their figures. Often they will quote a higher number, but then controlled with two channels. Then the SPA25 reaches 145 watts per channel (with 8 ohm speakers).
It is striking that Primare never loses sight of stereo enthusiasts with its multi-channel products. The A35.8, for example, is as good an 8-channel power amp as it is a very powerful stereo amplifier (via bridging and bi-wiring). Same with the SPA25. It is an AV receiver, but the Swedes state that it can also be set up as a powerful integrated stereo amplifier. If you go for stereo and can bi–amp speakers , there’s 290 watts available per channel.
That stereo scenario is theoretically also possible with many other AV receivers. With the SPA25, however, the DAC section has also been modified to better present the stereo channels when you listen to music in stereo. The designers did this by assigning four channels to the left and right channels of the two ESS9026PRE chips used (each is an 8-channel DAC). This would make music reproduction significantly better.
As powerful as it is hi-fi-esque
For this review, we do not hang the Primare receiver from our usual DALI Rubicon setup, but connect it to a 5.x setup with Bowers & Wilkins 700 S3 speakers. Specifically, the 703 S3 floorstanders, the 705 S3 bookshelf speakers and the HTM71 S3 center speaker – all with the signature tweeter-on-top. To bring the whole thing to 5.1.4, we also connect the four DALI Alteco height speakers in the room and use the ELAC 2050 Sub as an LFE reproducer. The sources on duty are as usual an Oppo UDP-203, an Apple TV 4K and an Xbox One X.
Game adaptations are usually not very good, but the first episodes of ‘The Last of Us’ suggest that this HBO series will break that curse. Even during the intense build-up to the collapse of society, the Primare knows how to transfer the minimal yet atmospheric soundtrack to the Bowers & Wilkins 700 S3 surround setup that we temporarily set up in the test room. The height channels will continue to be provided by the DALI Altecos on the wall. Although initially not much exciting happens in terms of audio effects, there are soon outliers that attract attention. The police cars passing by outside or the fighter jets flying over the viewer high in the air – subtlety is successfully married here to good positioning. And then we haven’t called in Dirac yet.
We know from previous experience that correct Dirac adjustment can yield spectacular results. Although we weren’t quite done fine-tuning yet, we were able to realize a very noticeable improvement. Both in The Last of Us and in an exciting scene from the Amazon Video series ‘The Rig’, when the torch on an oil rig has to be lit with a flare gun. In this sequence you almost continuously hear the waves crashing into the structure, and that is very present in this outdoor scene. There is a good immersion in the oppressive atmosphere of this series.
The complex Oscar-winning soundscapes of ‘Dune’ (UHD Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos) are of course a bit more difficult to put down properly. The marriage of the strange sound effects and the special music of Hans Zimmer produces something very unusual, distant yet intriguing. The challenge here is to create those soundscapes in a layered and defined way, because otherwise it sounds like a mush. The SPA25 succeeds in that, and we also notice that the receiver has the reserves to make those abrupt transitions from near-silence in some scenes to scenes with very intense audio. It becomes very impressive when Paul Atreides flies into a gigantic sandstorm; we hear the grains of sand rattling along the cabin, just like the mechanical parts that give up the ghost. As the ornitopter soars above the storm, there is a very clever Atmos moment where the sound effect moves diagonally upwards. The ensuing crash is also a showcase for the Primare receiver’s ability to discreetly bring out that fine micro detail.
In ‘Jurrasic World: Dominion’ there are enough dynamic peaks to register. Like the roar of dinosaurs of all kinds, for example when Chris Pratt and Bryce Dalles Howard are chased in Malta by a herd of raptors. It is striking that effects in the rear channels also come across as very mature, with effects that also move quickly and with good definition through the room. It’s an exciting performance, on the level of a receiver at this price point. What the SPA25 brings is a good nose for detail and relatively little coloring.
After a later update, we connected the SPA25 again, this time with the existing DALI Rubicon setup and still with the ELAC subwoofer. The Primare also performed excellently with these Danish speakers, including during a gaming session on the PS5 and ‘Ace Combat 7’. This game can be seen as a Top Gun clone with a quasi-incomprehensible story, where you fight with jets. So fast action, with many moving sound effects during air battles. The intensity is conveyed very well, with enemy planes skimming past our cockpit. Refinement remains the key word.
We notice the hi-fi roots of the Swedes when listening to music. Via the Apple TV 4K and Apple Music we can enjoy Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the virtuoso cello player, in a Dolby Atmos mix. Fortunately, it is still done quite subtly, making it sound like played in a concert hall. The three-dimensionality is very convincing, what the Primare does excellently here is to put down the strings very naturally and authentically. We also have that with the fine guitar playing on ‘The Longing’ by Tamino, over which the voice of the Belgian-Moroccan singer hangs over with a lot of texture. Ask a die-hard stereo fan if he would like an AV receiver as a music player, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But put the Primare SPA25 in a blind test, and it could well be ‘yes’.
The SPA25 is not your average AV receiver where a long list of features seems more important than the actual performance. Not that it’s missing business. Thanks to Dirac, the Primare has an excellent way to tailor the reproduction to your speakers and room. There is also a lot of flexibility in how you can configure the device, without making the interface very complex. The lack of HDMI 2.1 support is a deal breaker for discerning gamers, but movie buffs shouldn’t worry too much about it. We also appreciate that this receiver not only focuses on a sophisticated surround reproduction, but also really high-end music in stereo.
- Dirac chamber calibration
- Sober yet comprehensive interface
- Prisma streaming options
- Marries power with refinement
- High-end stereo performance
- No HDMI 2.1
- Waiting for Roon Ready status
- Two subs, but not separately adjustable