Music in the Round #28 Page 2

With all the connection options, installing the DTC-9.8 can be complex, though it need not be. To get started, I simply connected the six XLR jacks to my Bryston 9B-SST power amp, the HDMI output to my plasma display, and my Denon DV-3910 universal player, Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player, Oppo DV-980H universal player, and cable-TV box into HDMI inputs 1–4. That was it: 11 wires. My heap of discarded analog and S/PDIF cables was more than ankle deep.

I then went through the now-familiar setup procedures of associating the physical inputs with the logical names that appear on the front panel and remote control. But here's the thing: My four-source, six-channel system was up and running less than 20 minutes after I'd removed the DTC-9.8 from its box. I did cheat a little by simply transferring the speaker distance and level settings I'd been using rather than running Audyssey's MultEQ XT Automatic Speaker Setup. I just couldn't wait.

Since then I've run the Audyssey setup and EQ more than once, connected some of the sources with S/PDIF and analog cables for comparison, routed the Integra's output via the Audyssey Sound Equalizer, and gotten my turntable out of mothballs. Considering the variety of possible connections and functions, the fact that everything works is alone highly commendable. I particularly liked that the Audyssey setup routine is initiated by simply plugging in the provided microphone, and that said mike has a ¼"-20 thread for proper mounting on a standard tripod.

I needed to test the fundamental sound quality of the DTC-9.8 with the analog inputs because the analog output stage is the "final common pathway" for all signals, analog or digital. With the Denon DV-3910 used as the source for SACD and DVD-A, the sound was clean and balanced. Where the DTC-9.8 differed from other, more expensive preamp-controllers I've used was in the extreme high frequencies (>10kHz), where it seemed ever so slightly silvery and more prominent; and in the upper bass (approximately 100–200Hz), where it was less weighty. So without room EQ, I found the DTC-9.8 decidedly less rich-sounding than the better all-analog preamps, or indeed the analog pass-through of the better pre-pros. It was more than listenable, as it was through the phono input, but I wouldn't call the DTC-9.8 an analog overachiever. Dynamics were excellent and soundstaging pretty good, both in stereo and in multichannel. Digitizing the analog inputs didn't change my assessment, but it did let me enjoy the benefits of bass management and Audyssey room EQ, which, together, substantially improved the tonal balance.

When I tried digital sources—S/PDIF from stereo CD or bitstream DVDs with DD/DTS soundtracks—things got even better. The Audyssey-assisted DTC-9.8 was competitive with more expensive devices in its presentation of tonal balance, dynamic contrasts, and specificity and continuity of soundstage. Using it with the HDMI 1.1 output of the older Denon DV-3910, I was limited to stereo PCM, DD, and DTS, all of which the DTC-9.8 did handily. Overall, and if this were all the DTC-9.8 could do, I would regard it as a good-sounding, high-value pre-pro.

But the hot thing about the DTC-9.8 is that its implementation of the HDMI v1.3 input lets it accept multichannel PCM and DSD as well as Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD MA. The problem is finding such sources.

I interrupt this story to tell you about a happy coincidence.

Oppo DV-980H DVD player
Wes Phillips reviewed the Oppo DV-970HD player in the May 2007 issue. That player upsampled video and output the audio signals of DVD, CD, SACD, and DVD-A discs via its analog, S/PDIF, and HDMI outputs. However, the DSD signal from SACDs is transcoded to PCM stereo at 96kHz for S/PDIF, and to PCM multichannel at 88.2kHz for HDMI. Wes didn't mess with the multichannel or HDMI, but was impressed with the DV-970HD's hi-rez performance with a quality external DAC.

Oppo says that their new DV-980H ($169) has more advanced video processing (about which I will say no more, but see Oppo's website) than the DV-970HD, and better audio processing and devices. Most important to me is that the DV-980H can output multichannel SACD via HDMI not only by converting it to PCM, but directly as DSD. SACD has always needed direct DSD output via a convenient single-wire interconnect, although it seems sad that that capability comes so late in the game. In addition, every other audio format is similarly available in its native bitstream via the Oppo's HDMI cable—all one needs is a capably receptive device on the other end, and the Integra DTC-9.8 qualifies.

The Oppo comes impeccably packaged, with all the cables necessary to get started. With its light weight, small size, and minimal controls, it's a bit slight compared with high-end components. I unpacked it, plugged in the provided HDMI cable after attaching the other end to the Integra, turned it on, put in a disc, and it played—in stereo only. Oppo evidently assumes that if you don't use a video monitor for setup, odds are you ain't doin' multichannel. A quick trip through the OSD menus got me into 5.1-channel play and DSD via HDMI as the default output for SACD. Now we were crankin'.

The DV-980H not only plays everything, but, judged as a disc transport, it plays everything very well. Compared with the Denon DV-3910 and the Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 via HDMI or S/PDIF, playing the formats all three have in common (CD, DD, DTS), the Oppo was as satisfying as either. Unfortunately, neither the Denon nor the Pioneer can give us multichannel HDMI output from SACD or DVD-A; the only other comparison I could make was with those players' analog outputs. On that basis, the Oppo could not quite keep up with the Denon: it lacked a bit of image stability and was consistently a little forward in its presentation. Still, that's pretty decent performance that, in this context, is nothing to be ashamed of.

In the weeks the Oppo DV-980H has been in my system, it has become the default transport for everything but HD DVD and Blu-ray. I continue to marvel at its performance. It's a superb value when used as a simple DVD player via its analog outputs, but I wouldn't recommend it for critical music listening if you can afford a high-end player with more sophisticated analog stages. What the Oppo DV-980H offers, for only $169, is excellent video performance (oops! forget I said that), versatile audio capability (including music-file playback and image display via its USB 2 port), and a welcome ability to output hi-rez multichannel sound via HDMI. And for more on that, we return now to the Integra review, already in progress...

A marriage of great convenience
SACD and DVD-A via HDMI from the Oppo DV-980H to the Integra DTC-9.8 worked well. But when I switched the Oppo from DSD to PCM (converted from DSD) output, I immediately noticed a marked change in midbass weight and the occasional appearance of really-low-frequency stuff. The overall loudness also increased. These differences weren't subtle, even though it seemed that all speakers were working properly. Although my subwoofer would play bass-managed lows in the normal Multichannel mode, there was no LFE channel output when I set the Integra to Direct. On the other hand, with the Oppo outputting PCM from SACD, all channels were in full swing. It turns out that, due to a glitch somewhere, the Integra would not recognize the Oppo's LFE flag; both Oppo's and Integra's tech-support guys pointed fingers. A simple firmware upgrade of the Oppo (included in players now shipping) did the trick.