Toshiba SD-9200 DVD-Audio/Video player The Toshiba in Surround
Kalman Rubinson wrote about the Toshiba SD-9200 in July 2001 (Vol.24 No.7)
Recently, an e-mailer told me that reviewing for Stereophile was more of a gift than a job. At the time, I didn't disagree. Now, I do.
The $2000 Toshiba SD-9200 DVD-Audio player is the third in a series of players on whose multichannel performance I am writing Follow-Ups. This is becoming more of a job than evaluating such standard stereo gear as CD players, DACs, amps, and speakers. The user interfaces (read: controls and menus) of multichannel components are complex and, um, idiosyncratic. I beat up on the Philips SACD1000 for this in the June 2001 issue, but the others are as guilty.
When I unpacked the SD-9200, I was impressed by its sleek lines and substantial heft. I connected the system via the Myryad MDP-500 preamplifier-processor that I reviewed in June in the same way I had the other players: six lines of analog output to the Myryad's analog bypass inputs, coaxial or TosLink digital audio, and coaxial video. This part is getting familiar, but the dreaded setup procedure always demands multiple menus on the video screen.
As misfortune would have it, the Toshiba's front-panel display was broken when it reached me—I needed the video screen even to find tracks on a CD! This wasn't Toshiba's fault: The shipping carton showed clear evidence of having been used as a projectile. On the other hand, opening the disc drawer requires the display panel to drop below the bottom edge of the chassis. The owner's manual warns that an obstruction in this area might compromise the display mechanism. Be careful.
Having cut my teeth on the Technics DVD-A10 (April) and Philips SACD1000 (June), I figured that the Toshiba would be a piece of cake. It's true that each of these brands uses different terms for the various setup parameters and distributes them on different menu panels. Still, I figured I had the basic concepts down and could plunge ahead.
No such luck—I hadn't counted on an interaction between the remote-control codes of the Toshiba and the Myryad MDP-500 pre-pro. Almost every time I tried to navigate the Toshiba's menus, the display disappeared because the Myryad switched inputs, usually to the DVD-A10! Because I needed access to the Toshiba menus while confirming the results with the Myryad display, I ended up rigging a cardboard panel between the two so I could restrict the action of each remote to its intended target. The Toshiba never responded to the Myryad remote, so I suspect it's really Myryad's problem.
Most of the setup was familiar: I went through the choices for number and size of speakers, subwoofer cutoff, and levels for the analog outputs. The defaults seemed to be okay for video. However, while the DVD-A10 and SACD1000 required me to choose only between PCM or Bitstream for the digital output, depending on the Dolby Digital and DTS capabilities of the external decoder, the DVD-9200 offered four options: Bitstream (DTS, MPEG2, Dolby Digital, and PCM up to 24 bits/96kHz, downsampled to 16/48); Analog 6ch (DTS and PCM up to 16/48 only); Analog 2ch (DTS, MPEG2, Dolby Digital, and PCM up to 24/48, downsampled to 16/48); and PCM (DTS; PCM up to 24/96, downsampled to 16/48, but with MPEG2 and Dolby Digital as 16/48 PCM signals). Note that PCM digital output is never more than 16/48; higher resolutions up to 24/96 are downsampled, and still higher ones are blocked. CD and HDCD signals are passed through all outputs at all settings.
The biggest fly in this pot of ointment is that you can't get six-channel analog along with high-bit-rate digital or Dolby Digital at any setting. The more capable digital output settings, Bitstream and PCM, divert the analog outputs to the two-channel jacks without mirroring them on the L/R outputs of the six-channel jacks. Thus, if you want to switch between the digital connection and the six-channel analog connection, you must switch the pre-pro and the SD-9200. Sure, Toshiba offers the facility of switching modes on the fly, but remember: In my setup, the remote codes conflict.
You can imagine the worst. I was never able to smoothly switch between and compare internal and external decoders with Dolby Digital sources. There is probably some logical engineering reason the two- and six-channel and high-bit-rate digital outputs can't be active simultaneously, but whatever it is, I don't like it.
The result: When I finally sat down to listen, I was annoyed and not too kindly disposed toward the DVD-9200. However, I was quickly won over to wishing that the operational difficulties would go away, because the Toshiba was the most enjoyable multichannel machine I've auditioned. With the right output configuration, it did an dandy job with Dolby Digital and DTS discs, both for music and movies. The internal AC-3 decoder was excellent, even though, for operational reasons, I preferred to use the decoder in the Myryad. Two-channel performance via the analog outputs was excellent with standard CDs, 24/96 DADs, and HDCDs, as Chip Stern made clear in his review in the June 2001 issue.
The SD-9200 was superb with multichannel DVD-Audio discs. I trotted out Zubin Mehta's recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 (Teldec 4509-94545-9), which on first hearing I'd liked more than I'd expected to, but which sounds more lax and limp as I get to know it better. But while the performance is becoming a stress test for me, the sound is so wide-ranging in harmonics and dynamics that it's a stress test for the equipment. Played on the SD-9200, its few rear-channel anomalies were less disturbing than they had been on the Technics DVD-A player, and there was an increased sense of hush when appropriate. The contrast between the offstage band and the main orchestra was fascinating, the sibilants of the choir just right. I had noticed a bit of compression in the very loudest portions with the Technics DVD-A10 and with my computer system, but this was more apparent with the SD-9200 because the illusion of the performing space was otherwise so much more complete.
Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-9), which I had relished on the DVD-A10 as my first decent and musically satisfying multichannel disc, was better through the SD-9200 because the Toshiba has a much smoother, less "hi-fi" sound via its analog outputs. Listening to the DVD-A's stereo track on the Toshiba was as satisfying as was the original CD on the CAL-20, but when I switched over to the Surround track (not a simple task, under the circumstances), I wanted never to go back. The bass lines opened up and lost the excessive bloom and clumping of the stereo versions. The vocals, too, had more presence, but seemed to sound less loud at the same measured levels.
The pièce de résistance, however, was Willie Nelson's Night and Day (Surrounded By Entertainment SBE 1001-9). This is a purely instrumental disc, and I was surprised that I missed Nelson's vocals not at all. I'll spare you the stereo/surround comparison; it's not a fair competition, despite Nelson's avowed fondness for this 16/44.1 stereo mix. Right from the first notes, the multichannel version sounds incredibly live, in much the way that the Fischer/Budapest demo SACD supplied with Philips' SACD1000 does: I sense the ambience instantly, and every sound is realistic and credible. Well, almost every sound. There's an occasional percussion accent too far to the rear, and, on the last two tracks, the piano seems to be sliding back as well—or is it that I've changed my seat? Nonetheless, Nelson's combo is a cross between Django Reinhardt's gypsy jazz and a Texas roadhouse dance band, and their renditions of swing classics are irresistible.
As portrayed by the SD-9200, Nelson's gut-stringed electric Martin and Mickey Raphael's harmonica were up front, piano to the left and violin wide right. The other instruments filled in the space between the front speakers and way back behind them. What made this wonderful was that the surround mix was so nearly transparent that I could savor the almost tactile characteristics of each individual instrument and never lose sight of the ensemble. We've been two-stepping to it over and over.
Perhaps because its analog outputs, two-channel or six-channel, were significantly smoother, I preferred the Toshiba SD-9200 to the Technics DVD-A10. Perhaps because I have more multichannel music discs on DVD-A than on SACD, I tended to play it in that mode more often than the Philips SACD1000. That it also did such nice jobs with movies, CDs, HDCDs, and everything else made the Toshiba SD-9200 an all-round winner. I just wish the display worked for me.—Kalman Rubinson