Technics DVD-A10 DVD-Audio player Kalman Rubinson's Followup
When Jonathan Scull offered to send the review sample of the Technics DVD-A10 on to me, I was so anxious to try a multichannel DVD-Audio player in my system that I didn't notice the attached strings: I had to write a Follow-Up to J-10's November 2000 review in the context of the multichannel home-theater system in my country place. A quickie audition in my familiar and comfortable main system would not do.
During these listening sessions, my ever-changing multichannel system comprised a California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD player, a Bryston 9B-ST-THX power amplifier, and Paradigm Reference loudspeakers: Studio/60 (front L/R), Studio/20 (rear L/R), Studio/CC (center), and Servo-15/X-30 subwoofer. The Studio/20s were mounted on Standesign BB75AH stands adjusted to place them above ear level. The speaker cables were 12' Goertz MI-2 copper (L/C/R) and 35' Monster SuperFlat Mini (rear L/R). Interconnects were all Goertz MicroPurl copper except for the subwoofer, which was hooked up with the AudioStream A-400, which is supplied with the Servo-15.
I still use my trusty Klyne 6LE3.3/P preamp-controller for two-channel stereo; for multichannel, I make do with a Technics SH-AC500D DTS/Dolby Digital Decoder, which, despite its non-audiophile status, sounds surprisingly decent. Unfortunately, the SH-AC500D merely passes its analog inputs to its analog outputs without any volume control, and the Technics DVD-A10 provides discrete six-channel signals only via its analog outputs!
Thanks to Luke Manley, a prototype VTL 2.5.1 preamp was rushed in from its unveiling at CES. This device is a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, it's mostly the excellent VTL 2.5 two-channel preamp; on the other hand, it has two sets of six-channel analog inputs (DVD and processor), and the six-channel outputs are controllable from the front panel or the handy remote control. Level and balance for each of the six channels is provided via screwdriver-adjustable pots. All in all, the VTL 2.5.1 is the perfect device for bridging the gap between two-channel stereo and multichannel surround.
Not wishing to be prejudiced by J-10's opinions, I put off reading his review, plugged the Technics DVD-A10 and the CAL CL-20 into the VTL's stereo inputs, and began with some plain vanilla CDs. The 'A10 sounded okay, and certainly better than my ancient Pioneer PD-7100, but A/B comparisons with the CL-20 were not in the Technics' favor. The 'A10 consistently offered flat perspectives and an aggressive character in the highs.
The DVD-A10 did much better when I advanced from "Red Book" CDs to 24-bit/96kHz DADs from Classic and Chesky. Both the 'A10 and the CL-20 made the blandishments of the high-bit-rate discs apparent, and the distinctions between the two narrowed, the 'A10 providing a slightly less rich and detailed canvas than the CL-20. This inspired me to try defeating the Technics' default Re-Master option, which operates with 16/44.1 discs. Doing so softened the 'A10's aggressive HF with 16/44.1 CDs; it seems that the upsampling and/or whatever else Re-Master is doing (the explanations offered are pretty uninformative) is responsible for most of the unpleasantness. I can only think that Technics felt this option would help it on paper (upsampling is still a hot subject) and, perhaps, in some showrooms.
With Re-Master defeated, the 'A10 was very tasty and nearly competitive with the CL-20. Using Re-Master, k.d. lang's voice on "The Joker" (Drag, Warner Bros. 46623-2) had an edge I hadn't heard before. When I defeated Re-Master, lang's sound was more rounded, the overall balance warmer. Detail did not seem to suffer. Compared to the CL-20, the 'A10 had a bit more bass and somewhat less depth of soundstage, but at least it was not outclassed.
But here's the thing: The DVD-A10 is a multipurpose player that, in addition to doing everything that the CL-20 can do, can also play DVD-Audio discs encoded at high bit rates (up to 24/192) and in six discrete channels. The true test of the 'A10 would be of whether it sounded good playing the recordings it was designed for. There, the answer is in the affirmative.
It would have been ideal to listen to the same recording in two channels and in discrete multichannel, but that proved difficult. I know that one must assume some differences in the mastering for each release, but until someone offers a test set for this purpose, such comparisons are all I can do. I scrounged though Manhattan CD shops but found little that suited both the quest and my musical taste. In fact, only one selection made the grade: Buena Vista Social Club in plain old stereo on "Red Book" CD (Nonesuch 79478-2), in Dolby Digital on the DVD-Video of the Wim Wenders film (Artisan 10176), and in Dolby Digital and six-channel discrete on DVD-Audio (World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-9).
Because many of the performances, as well as the mixes, on the Buena Vista DVD-Video are so different from those on the CD, a direct comparison was fascinating, however irrelevant to the task. Listening to and watching Wenders' documentary was engrossing, and poles apart from the purely auditory experience of the CD or DVD-A. Comparing the CD to the six-channel DVD-A, however, was revealing. Not only was the acoustic vista enlarged with both the Dolby Digital and discrete multichannel media, but the audible resolution was greatly enhanced on the DVD-A. Details of voice and string that I strained to discern on the CD were natural and apparent on the DVD-A. In the bass, where the DVD-A10 was richly endowed, I could hear more of the inner workings of the polyrhythmic pulse. There was also an increased appreciation of depth, the greatest weakness of the 'A10 on two-channel CDs. In Dolby Digital or discrete, the DVD-A was generally smoother, with a more relaxed tonal balance, than the CD with Re-Master defeated.
Overall, I thought my home-theater-system-in-progress just blossomed with the Technics DVD-A10. This is a phenomenon that I have come to anticipate since dabbling in multichannel. The acoustics of a decent multichannel source and system are intended to dominate a listening room's acoustic in a way that a two-channel source cannot. The walls should melt away, and the ambience should become that encoded on the disc by the engineers. This goes a very long way toward enhancing the experience with lesser hardware and sub-optimum listening rooms. (It also means that badly engineered multichannel can be an experience egregiously worse than bad stereo.)
I had several Dolby Digital and DTS discs and two DVD-Audio samplers. (About the samplers, the less said, the better: most of the music and mastering were mediocre.) Finally, thanks to John Atkinson, I had a set of the Beethoven Symphonies with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle on Teldec DVD-Audio discs, with which the DVD-A10 was eminently satisfying. The symphonies were recorded in a large studio, and sounded that way. With all five discrete channels (no LFE) at 24/96, I felt I was listening in a large space but not in a concert hall; the reverb was simply not that long, nor did I have any sense of a great vertical extent to the stage. Higher strings and winds were well localized but not pinpointed. The bass instruments had bigger and bigger personalities as they encumbered more of the ambience, just as they do in a real space.
I had time to sample only a few of the symphonies (the "Pastoral," Teldec 8573-83061-9, and the "Choral," Teldec 8573-83063-9, impressed me) but look forward to enjoying them all, again and again, so delightful did I find the music and its presentation. In fact, I was stunned by the entry of the bass soloist, RenéPape, in the last movement of the Ninth. Sure, I had expected him—but while the orchestra was spread across the virtual room and back from the speaker plane, Pape popped up right there, just to the inside of the left front speaker, no more than 10' from me. Eerie and exciting.
The DVD-A10 incorporates Dolby Digital and DTS decoders as well as passing those signals from its digital output. These functioned flawlessly and were slightly more authoritative in character (read: had more bass) than the Technics SH-AC500D decoder. However, unlike the decoder, the 'A10's setup requires a video monitor, even if you want to use it only as an audio player. The necessary menus for speaker balance and delay with the analog output and the formatting of the digital output are simply not usable without a monitor.
Moreover, playing a DVD without a monitor is not as simple as you might expect. Pop in one of the Teldec Beethovens and, without the monitor on, you'll have to press Play several times before the music will start, and you can't access the additional music excerpts on the disc (Mahler, Strauss, and Orff) at all! Even worse is that some of the DVD samplers, DTS or discrete, open with a room-shaking sonic blast that accompanies the corporate logos. These are not Technics' fault but those of DVD authoring. Obviously, DVD producers assume that every user will have a monitor hooked up. (It's outside my bailiwick, but the DVD-A10 video performance was excellent.)
While I delayed reading J-10's review until after my auditions, I now posit that consulting him on the Technics DVD-A10 is like consulting Mario Battali on The Olive Garden. J-10 compared the $1200 (footnote 1) 'A10, in two-channel mode only, to the much more expensive Sony, Marantz, and Accuphase SACD players, as well as to state-of-the-art CD players. The result should not surprise: The 'A10 couldn't go head-to-head with these devices, nor should you expect it to. Even for the same money, you can do a bit better than the 'A10 with a standard CD player.
But the Technics DVD-A10 is not a standard CD player, or even a standard DVD player. The 'A10 slices and dices: it's a CD player, a DVD-Video player, and a DVD-Audio player with multichannel capability. The better the media I fed it, the better it sounded. I think that makes it a pretty good deal for the money.—Kalman Rubinson
Footnote 1: The DVD-A10 was initially priced at $1199.95. By the time the April 2001 issue went to press, it was being offered for $400 or less by some big consumer electronics stores.—John Atkinson