Music in the Round #29 Page 2

The DV-60's sound was the cleanest and least characterful I've yet had here for DVD, SACD, and DVD-Audio, but with a little effort, even it can be made to sound a bit bland. One of the salient features of the player is its ability to choose among upconverting filter configurations or to convert PCM to DSD. It is the latter that, in my opinion, goes a bit too far. Playing PCM-sourced discs using the default FIR filter, in either the Wide or Narrow setting, the DV-60 was as smooth, clean, and transparent as my reference universal player, the Bel Canto PL-1A, but with a marginally reserved midrange that I found more noticeable through the Revel Ultima Studio2s than through the B&W 802Ds. When I pushed the RDOT+FIR upconvert button, even that minor foible disappeared, leaving the DV-60 completely neutral in balance with either speaker, and at all levels from neighborly to rude.

Indeed, when I compared the few recordings that I own on both DVD-A and SACD, the RDOT+FIR setting produced the least difference between them. I thus found it strange that the final PCM option, that of converting it to DSD, tended to homogenize the sound of DVD-As, leaving them a bit soft and gauzy in comparison to the SACDs. The SACD options are simply Direct or Normal, the latter permitting the insertion of bass management and channel level. If you don't want those facilities—or if you do—the choice is obvious. I chose Direct, eschewed bass management, and used the Bel Canto Pre6 preamplifier to adjust the levels.

It's hard to write a bottom line for this player. All the better components are most notable for what they don't do rather than for any more easily discernible characteristics. That's what I find so disappointing about components that make their point by sounding "dynamic" or "forward" or even "tubey." The sound should be about the music, not making an impression.

In that regard, the Esoteric DV-60 is outstanding by not standing out. Its bass extension is sufficiently linear to reveal the differences between the Revel Ultima Studio2s and the B&W 802Ds, both of which are big boxes with dual 8" woofers. Same for soundstaging and imaging. In one box, the DV-60 combines the best performance features, both audio and video, of the Simaudio Moon Orbiter and the Bel Canto PL-1A, and at $5600 it's cheaper than either. Sure, the times are changing, and the DV-60 doesn't offer SACD or full DVD-A output via HDMI, nor can it play HD DVD or Blu-ray—but I can't imagine anything on the horizon that will be a better player of music available on mainstream CD, DD, DTS, SACD, or DVD-A.

Unfinished Business
When I discussed the Integra DTC-9.8 7.1-channel preamplifier-processor in January, most of my focus was on its playback of SACD and DVD-Audio sources as fed to it via HDMI from the Oppo Digital DV-980H universal DVD player. As for audio from high-definition DVDs, I had to await the arrival of suitable players. After a bit of arm-twisting at the CEDIA Expo last fall, they finally began to arrive.

What I got reflects the ongoing confusion of audio codecs in HD DVD and Blu-ray. Toshiba sent me an A3 HD DVD player, Sony sent a BDP-S500 Blu-ray player, and Pioneer an Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray machine. All three were capable of handling Dolby TrueHD, but only the Pioneer can output DTS-HD Master Audio, and none can decode it. Nonetheless, these players did expose me to the exciting potential of the new hi-def media.

Playing Dolby's The Sound of High Definition demo discs, one for each hi-def format, the Toshiba and Sony did a dandy job with TrueHD. Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli's cover of "Obsession," from Showcase: Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis (Blu-ray), was as lovely as ever. The demo registered as 96kHz sampling on this track, though the original, and probably the source material, seems to be 48kHz. No matter. What really impressed me, on both formats, was the all-too-brief snippet from the chamber version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, by members of the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas. In terms of musical satisfaction, this is the classical equivalent of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' Live at Radio City Music Hall (Blu-ray). Every instrument sounded as right and as telling as via any other medium. Beyond that, there was a sense of ensemble and recording venue that I had not experienced before. Each time I play that track, I'm first enthralled, then disappointed when it ends so quickly. More, please, sir.

I'd been looking forward to the arrival of Toshiba's A3 so that I could finally see and hear some of Opus Arte's HD DVDs. Unfortunately, the A3 can't decode full-bandwidth DTS-HD MA signals, nor can it output them to the Integra DTC-9.8 for decoding. So I passed up Opus Arte's Swan Lake, because while it is DTS-HD, with more information than DTS, it is still not lossless. But I was deeply impressed with the picture and sound of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the BBC Concert Orchestra led by Cynthia Fleming (Opus Arte HD5003D); and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, with Colin Davis conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus (Opus Arte HD5002D) and their TrueHD sound. I've not been a fan of concerts and operas on DVD because of compromises in the audio and video presentations, but this is different. While the sound was not of the caliber of the best SACDs in terms of timbre and detail, it was still excellent, with a well-balanced mix and a great presentation of the venue's acoustics, despite the singers' movements on- and off-mike in the Mozart. During the short time we had the Toshiba A3, we took great pleasure in both of these performances—several times.

While the Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD was the only player of the three that could output lossless DTS HD-MA, I was handicapped by a paucity of software. A demo disc with both TrueHD and DTS HD-MA options came with the player, but all the cuts were brief, abrupt, noisy movie trailers. Not only is it hard to assess sound quality with such quick cutting, but I don't find film soundtracks to be critical tests of the things most important to me: accurate timbres of voices and instruments, carefully balanced ensemble sound, and believable venue acoustics. So much for that.

What I was left with were the Blu-ray editions of Pat Metheny's The Way Up—Live (Eagle Vision EVBRD 33301-9) and the DTS-HD Master Audio Presentation Disc, which I've been using for more than a year. Was the latter better with MA? Sure, but I'm getting tired of the content, which, impressive as it is, I've heard too often. The Metheny disc doesn't say that it's HD-MA, either on the jacket or in the setup menus, but the first track appears on the DTS MA sampler, so I gave it a shot. Lo and behold, if you select DTS 5.1, you get MA at 48kHz. The density of the music makes it seem less transparent and less impressive than some other recordings on Blu-ray, but, it's the clarity of the recording that permits that density to sound rich, not simply opaque.

I remain optimistic about the technical potential of HD DVD and Blu-ray as new media for music, but pessimistic that it will ever happen. Music has become a portable commodity for the mass market; it's hard to imagine that the producers, who need to make a profit on such high-cost productions as HD music, will see enough of a market for it. I sure hope I'm wrong.

Next Time in the Round
At the time of writing, I had no idea of what was going to show up at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. However, I do have a room-treatment device like none I've seen before. I also expect to look at what Audyssey Pro room-correction can do for systems that now have MultEQxt.

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