Oppo DV-970HD universal player
"The DV-970 has created quite a buzz on the Internet as a budget competitor for expensive high-end music players, even though it's obviously aimed at the A/V market. I'm interested in discovering what an experienced listener thinks of it." That's JA all over—he was buttering me up, hoping I wouldn't notice the danger of reviewing a true budget product: At $149, there's probably not one Stereophile reader who couldn't afford to snap up an Oppo just to see if it was really as good or as bad as I say it is. And that's when the game of Pin the Tail on the Reviewer would begin. JA will have a fat "Letters" section for months, as advocates and naysayers manage to agree on one thing: that I was horrendously wrong. I knew that JA knew that I knew. I took the assignment anyway. It's my job.
Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises
Oppo Digital is probably a new name for most audiophiles. The company was founded in 2004.The first product sold under the Oppo brand was the DV-971H upconverting DVD player ($199), which became an instant hit with folks with hi-rez video displays. It was affordable, it was stylish, and it wowed videophiles with its superb video performance with both analog and digital displays.
The DV-970HD doesn't have the DV-971H's Faroudja DCDi deinterlacing chip, but it does play SACDs, which is probably more important than its video performance to Stereophile readers looking for a two-channel universal player. That means the DV-970HD can play "Red Book" CD, HDCD, DVD-V, DVD-A, DivX, Kodak Picture CD, WMA, and, to quote Oppo's press release, "other digital audio and video formats." It does not, of course, play Blu-ray or HD DVD. For the record, it supports both the PAL and NTSC television systems.
The DV-970HD seems solidly constructed. It's sleek (16.5" W by 10" D by 1.7" H) and strikingly designed. The front panel has only four buttons (Power, Eject, Play/Pause, Stop), but it does include a universal flash-memory card reader (MS/SD/MMC/SM) and a USB input. The LED display supplies only the most basic information, which necessitates the use of a video display for setup—all setup options are displayed through the onscreen display (OSD) trees. The DV-970HD's disc drawer is very slender and is overhung by the faceplate, which means the only way to extract a disc is by hooking your finger through its spindle hole and tilting the disc up toward you—no more awkward than with some $16,000 players I've encountered.
The DV-970HD's rear panel is packed with connectors. This, combined with its thin chassis, means that you must use skinny RCA connectors—the only cables I had that worked were Kimber KCAGs. Analog connections: eight RCAs (six for 5.1-channel output, with a "mixdown" pair for two-channel use). Digital connections: HDMI, TosLink, and coaxial S/PDIF. Video: component, composite, and S-video. The DV-970HD doesn't have an IEC AC socket (wouldn't fit on the chassis), so you won't get a chance to employ a power cable costing many times the player's price.
The DV-970HD outputs high-resolution multichannel digital audio through its HDMI connection, as well as 96kHz PCM through its S/PDIF. It converts DSD to 24-bit/88.2kHz PCM before outputting it through the HDMI jack, so, assuming you aren't bothered by the thought of that conversion, you can enjoy SACDs through your HDMI DAC of choice. (Should this bother you? I can't say, since I can't do an A/B and tell you, but many DV-970HD owners seem quite happy with the benefits of converted digital. Just as many folks think it's a crime against nature.) (JA notes that no high-end DACs have HDMI inputs, and only a handful of A/V receivers, because of the HDMI standard's requirement for anticopying handshaking.)
While Oppo does sell to select stores and installers, its products are primarily sold direct. I should note that the DV-970HD comes packaged securely in a double box, with sufficient foam padding and even a plush velour wrapper. Also included are a multi-function remote, the usual gimme audio cables, and a 6' HDMI cable.
Problems are only opportunities with thorns on them
As noted earlier, the Oppo's display is basically incapable of saying much more than "NO DISC" and "PLAYING"—a video display is required for setup. If you want to make changes on the fly or really exploit different output options, you'll need to keep a monitor in your listening room. Neither of my listening rooms has such a critter, so I sneakernetted the DV-970HD into my home theater for setup.
Setup was fairly straightforward, except for one thing: If you want to take advantage of the hi-rez multichannel digital output over HDMI, you need to set the player to 720p or 1080i. What does video output have to do with audio signals? In the HDMI protocol, the data pipe has a bandwidth of only 27MHz at the lower video settings—not nearly enough bandwidth for six or eight channels of hi-rez digital.
Another setup issue: The DV-970HD is a firmware-based product, and Oppo Digital does frequent firmware updates. Fortunately, this is simple and painless. All you do is go to Oppo's website and navigate to the Support section. Download the update to your computer, burn it to a CD-R, insert the CD-R in your Oppo player. It will read the disc, then open the drawer. Remove the disc. When the player has finished updating itself, it will close the drawer and reboot.
Oppo gets high marks for its customer service, which has inspired a devoted following among its customers. The company responds to e-mail and phone inquiries quickly, and seems genuinely concerned about customer feedback, which tends to prompt what the company addresses in its firmware updates. My DV-970HD arrived without manuals, but minutes after discovering that, I had downloaded them from Oppo's website (once I'd thought of looking for them under "Support" rather than the nonexistent "Manuals").
Opportunity is a bird that never perches
Once I'd set up the DV-970HD with my home theater's display, I installed it in my small listening room, and let it break in and settle down with David Russell's Art of the Guitar (CD, Telarc CD-80672). Krell's Evolution 202 preamplifier and Evolution 600 monoblocks drove a pair of stand-mounted Dynaudio Confidence C1 loudspeakers.