The 5th Element #26 Page 2

The disc-loading system is conventional, but table-of-contents loadup and track-access times are a bit on the slow side. One peculiarity is that you don't seem to be able to use the front-panel "next track" button to page through a CD's tracks unless Play has already been pushed. Apart from these minor quibbles, the DVD-2900 performed its tasks without fuss or complaint.

Playing high-quality CDs and SACDs through the DVD-2900 revealed it to be a poised and articulate sonic performer. It projected a very good sense of musical momentum, especially in such dramatically scaled works as Gordon Getty's electrifying cantata about Joan of Arc's last days, Joan and the Bells, paired with Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite 2, conducted by Alexander Vedernikov with the Russian National Orchestra (PentaTone Classics SACD 5186 017). Getty's style is propulsively cinematic, yet has great economy of gesture. Joan and the Bells packs a wallop far out of proportion to its 20-minute length. Definitely worth investigating!

The overall sonic impressions I garnered over weeks of listening were that the DVD-2900 is articulate without being "analytical," that in terms of timbre it falls on the side of accuracy rather than romanticism, and that its bass performance was energetic but well controlled. If one were listening noncritically and at lower volumes, one would not immediately be able to tell that one was not hearing a player costing many times the DVD-2900's price. However, compared in critical listening head to head with the top-rung Esoteric D70-P70 combination, it did become apparent that the $1000 Denon, as good as it is, fell short of the state of the art in terms of retrieval of ambiance and low-level detail, palpability of soundstage, and continuousness of musical flow. But so would just about everything.

I asked for a review sample of the DVD-2900 because its audio capabilities, at least on paper, seemed promising at the price. I also wanted to compare it with my previous experience with Marantz's SA-8260 CD/SACD-only player, which at the time I considered to have exceptional sound at roughly the same price. (I wrote about the Marantz SA-8260 in the November 2002 "The Fifth Element.") The short answer is that both are excellent; which one you pick will depend largely on your circumstances.

Without question, judged by all-around functionality and performance, the Denon DVD-2900 is a bargain. Its audio performance, both "Red Book" and SACD, is very, very good, and it offers the added benefits of not only superb video picture quality from DVDs, but also the flexibility that comes from being able to navigate layers of setup menus using your video display. Although both the Marantz SA-8260 and the Denon DVD-2900 play back multichannel SACDs, the Denon's edge in matters such as bass management should make it especially attractive if you listen to a lot of surround music; that it also plays DVD-A will make it a forgone purchase decision for most.

However, if you do not plan to use the DVD-2900 to watch movies or music videos, and if DVD-A's offerings have not yet tempted you—in other words, if you're going to use a player just to play SACDs and CDs in a two-channel music system—then it's entirely possible that the Marantz's slight edge in tonal lushness, and/or the fact that it has a headphone jack and the Denon does not, will win you over. My only quibbles about the SA-8260 remain that its stablemate the SA-14, at nearly three times the price, sounds perhaps half again as good, and that the SA-8260's default SACD playback choice of "Surround" cannot be reprogrammed.

I should think that Denon's DVD-2900 would be a wonderful, cost-justified upgrade for someone whose CD player is getting on, by which I mean older than five to ten years (on a sliding scale, depending on how good the player was when first purchased), and who wants to be future-proof as far as audio format choices go—at least for the foreseeable future.

Magnepan MMG loudspeaker
Magnepan's entry-level panel speaker, the MMG, is closely related to the Minnesota company's wall-mounted MGMC1 panel and its center-channel cousin, the CC3. Kal Rubinson enthusiastically wrote up this surround-sound system in his December 2003 "Music in the Round" column, so I obtained review samples of the two-channel MMG. Available only factory-direct, a two-channel pair of MMGs goes for $550, with a 60-day money-back guarantee. If that's not attractive enough: If, within a year, you trade up at a Magneplanar dealer, you get some or all of what you paid for the MMGs off the price of the new ones.

The cleverness of Magneplanar's "guerilla marketing" aside, there is much to like about the MMG. It is the most cost-effective way to get many of the benefits of Magneplanar's more expensive panel speakers. The MMG goes surprisingly deep—the manufacturer claims that it has the surface area of nine 8" drivers. While there is an aspect of apples and oranges in that one, there is also a kernel of truth. It can also play quite loudly.

The most attractive aspect, however, is the coherence with which two MMGs render musical timbres and instrumental images. If I had to sum up their pros and cons in one sentence, it would be that the MMG is more tonally coherent than anything else I am aware of at its price; but it is also somewhat veiled, compared either to similarly priced, higher-resolution box speakers or to its more expensive stablemates in the Magneplanar line. There being no free lunch, the same-price-tier box speakers that outpoint the MMG in resolution probably will not be as coherent.

Anyway, a little veiling is sometimes good for one's blood pressure. Listening to Norah Jones' Come Away With Me SACD through the MMGs, it sounded really quite pleasant in a nondemanding, cocktail-hour kind of way. However, switching over to the high-resolution (and 24 times more expensive) Wilson Benesch ACTs, the unnatural coloration of Jones' vocal mike (which John Atkinson had warned me about) hit me right between the eyes.

My only caveat to potential MMG buyers is that the speaker's vertical dispersion is sharply limited, so the quality of its treble changes noticeably when you stand up. The MMG is a sweet-spot speaker, although more in the vertical sense. If you do a lot of listening from another room, or while going back and forth, the MMG might not suit you. Related to this, I liked it better in the more nearly vertical of the two positions its "kickstand" provides, and liked it best when held straight up. Were I to buy a pair, I'd probably build simple box-like stands to raise them about a foot off the floor, and hold them plumb upright.

The MMG is a clever and completely thought-out product that represents real value for money. The owner's manual, by the way, is exemplary, especially concerning setup. Bravo.

Harman/Kardon HK 3480 stereo receiver
Driving the $550/pair Magneplanar MMGs with Jeff Rowland's $14,800 Model 302 amplifier was an exercise in absurdity, but a pleasant one. Back here on earth, I paired the MMGs with Harman/Kardon's HK 3480 stereo receiver ($449). The remote-controlled 3480 has a phono stage, and is one of the few two-channel receivers still available out there; most other mass-market manufacturers now make only home-theater receivers.

From southern Rhode Island, the HK 3480 brought in Boston FM stations using only a wire-dipole antenna. The 3480's 120Wpc output makes it a good pairing with the MMGs' 86dB efficiency and 4 ohm load. It drove the MMGs to room-filling volumes with respectable bass on organ pedals, always performing fusslessly. Add an entry-level CD player and you have a dorm-room/vacation-home system that punches way above its weight class, costing less than $1000. By the way, it was Dr. Sidney Harman who invented the (monophonic) receiver, a little more than 50 years ago.

News flash: I have just begun listening to the new Esoteric X-01 one-box SACD/CD player ($13,000). Take all the things I said about the Red-Book CD playback of the Esoteric D70/P70 combination (July 2003), and intensify them a bit. Effortless and lustrous musical communication with an abundance of detail, but no peakiness or fatigue. Either I will cover it in depth later on, or I will prevail upon JA to assign it for a full review. In the meantime, do try to hear it!

Questions or comments.