Music in the Round #28 Page 3

The 6dB difference in level between the Oppo's PCM and DSD outputs remains (Oppo and Integra are still pointing fingers at each other), but the volume control fixes that. Also, with PCM from SACD, the Integra displays the sample frequency as 88.2kHz, but with DSD the display reads "44.1kHz." Oppo explains this by quoting the HDMI 1.2 spec: "For Super Audio CD, the SF bits are typically set to 0, 1, 0, to indicate a Sample Frequency of 2.8224MSamples/s (ie, 64x44.1kHz)."

Nonetheless, I was a bit unnerved by all this. It may contribute to my preferring SACDs transcoded to PCM by the Oppo for processing and decoding in the Integra, rather than by having the Integra start with the original DSD. By comparison, DSD into the Integra seemed just a little "hot," with slightly emphasized extreme highs, a marginally shallower front soundstage depth, and less output from the surrounds. This may be due to differences in how the Integra and Oppo transcode DSD to PCM. According to Oppo, "when sending out a DSD signal, the receiver is doing all the audio decoding. Depending on the design of the receiver, the audio headroom can be lower than that of a PCM signal." Hmm. More finger pointing? Nonetheless, I made the comparison many times, each time compensating for the volume levels, and always preferred the PCM to the DSD rendition.

As I wrote earlier, I first set up the Integra DTC-9.8 with the external Audyssey Sound Equalizer, and transferred the distance, level, and crossover values I'd used with the Atoll and Cary preamps—and, of course, I retained the EQ settings in the Sound Equalizer. After enjoying this for a few weeks, I bypassed the external equalizer and ran the Audyssey setup in the Integra. The first run, using five different microphone positions, resulted in reasonable values for speaker distance and level, but the sound was quite different from that with the external equalizer and not an improvement over no EQ at all. A second run was aborted due to excessive background noise, but the third run was a success. The distance and level values were spot-on identical to those the external Audyssey had selected, and the subjective performance seemed equal. So out went the Audyssey, the DTC-9.8 stood on its own. The results were excellent and, with SACD or DVD-A, superior to what I got from the other preamps. I attribute this to the elimination of the A/D and D/A conversions with which the external equalizer is encumbered .

With the best multichannel sources, the soundstage produced by the Integra was open and seamless, with no muddying from obvious room modes. When the recording venue was large, as with the glorious Penderecki Credo (Polskie Radio PR SACD 1) or Norrington's brilliant recording of the Berlioz Requiem (Hänssler Classic SACD 93.131), one feels surrounded by a great space even in the quieter portions, yet individual voices and details emerged with crystalline clarity. Smaller venues were represented as they were; I was in the club when Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live (DVD-A, Chesky CHDVD222) was recorded, and I could hear that it is a large rectangular box with people rustling around at the sides and rear. Combine this with the Integra's clarity and tonal accuracy in the music and tight but potent bass and it was, indeed, impressive.

And these felicities extended to stereo SACD and CD sources. Chris Jones' "No Sanctuary Here," from Closer to the Music (SACD, Stockfisch SFR 357.4003.2), is an audio-show demo favorite for its incredibly rich and warm backing vocals—but I'd never heard it quite so palpably vibrant with the combination of the Oppo and the Integra. Similarly, it was the midbass attack from Chris Spedding and the Jordanaires on It's Now or Never, with Robert Gordon doing a credible Elvis impersonation (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10915), that made my Paradigm Studio 60 speakers sound as if they're on Viagra. With both discs, the lead singers had outstanding focus and presence.

In fact, for multichannel SACD and DVD-A playback, I would take the Integra-Oppo combo over anything else I've had in this system. I'd been waiting years to experience SACD and DVD-A with decent room EQ and competent bass and channel management without redundant A/D/A conversions, and the experience came up to my expectations. Indeed, the only competition I can recall would be the Meridian Reference 800/861 DVD-A setup I had in this room about four years ago. (I've heard the Accuphase, EMMlabs, and dCS gear only at shows; they, like the Meridian, use proprietary interconnections.)

Is the Integra DTC-9.8 a new standard for multichannel processors? Well, no and yes. Leaving aside all things video, when used as a pure analog multichannel preamp, the Integra is not as transparent and balanced as the Bel Canto Pre6, the Audio Research MP1, or the Cary Cinema 11. If you're going to use analog outputs from your player and want to stay in the analog domain, those products remain better choices. Similarly, if you object in principle to using DSP-based room EQ, both the Cary and the NHT Controller have smoother and equally transparent sounds. On the other hand, invoking the DTC-9.8's Audyssey goes a long way toward leveling that playing field. But keep in mind that all of these alternatives are significantly more expensive than the Integra, and none of them can match its feature set. For a modern multichannel preamp-processor, the Integra DTC-9.8 sets the bar with its unique combination of talent, performance, and value.

Next Time in the Round
Because I'm waiting for suitable HD DVD and Blu-ray players, I have omitted from this discussion anything about the Integra DTC-9.8's performance with Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Those hi-def players are expected to arrive in time for the next installment. Also in the hopper is the Esoteric DV-60 universal player and, for the first time in a long time, a new speaker setup.