Music in the Round #41 Page 2

"But ah," you say, "just look at the players' front panels!" I was able to finesse that—I have duplicates of many discs, and always inserted identical copies into both players, regardless of which input I selected. Given that a single Oppo remote control operated both players in relative synchrony, both machines always displayed identical disc information, regardless of which input I selected on the Parasound. Even switching between the stereo and multichannel tracks of hybrid SACDs could be effected on both machines with a single button push. And, of course, I'd first matched the players' output levels with test discs and the Parasound's input trims.

With two-channel sources, PCM or DSD, Input 5 always sounded fuller and more balanced than Input 4 in revealing instruments and voices within an ensemble. For example, with the performances on pipe organ of Dunstable's "Agincourt Hymn" (performed by Patrick Aiken) and Duruflé's Toccata for Organ on "Veni Creator" (Stephen Martorella), both on Pipes Rhode Island (CD, Riago CD 101), the reed pipes seemed to emanate from a different space than the pedal tones through Input 4, and the midrange ranks were somewhat recessed. On the other hand, through Input 5 there was a greater sense of presence and integration of the midrange with the extremes, such that no individual voice stood apart. Yet there was no loss of detail or power.

Using the two-channel DSD tracks of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, as performed by Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music (SACD/CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62), I found that Input 5 let me enjoy them at a wide range of volume levels, while Input 4 sounded strident in the high frequencies at high volumes. Consistently, I always preferred the more relaxed, natural, yet transparent sound of Input 5, regardless of recording, length of listening session, or order of selection.

Doing similar comparisons with multichannel recordings, again relying on SACDs (I have few duplicate Blu-rays or DVD-As), there quickly arose the complication of using the Oppos to balance channels, set speaker distances, and manage the bass, or of not doing these at all. I tried it both ways, but it's unsatisfying to listen in multichannel without having set the proper levels and delays, and the Oppos aren't very flexible in this regard. They have only one subwoofer crossover frequency (80Hz), and treat speakers only as pairs: L/R mains and L/R surrounds. Even more significant, the listener can't set any speaker's delay/distance to be farther away than the main L/R speaker. Finally, using these settings forces the Oppo to convert the signals from DSD to PCM before they're sent to the hotshot Sabre DACs.

For these comparisons, I used the recent recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 by Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony (SACD/CD, CSO Resound CSOR 901 916), and the excellent recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé by James Levine and the Boston Symphony (SACD/CD, BSO Classics 0801). I've listened to both for a few weeks now, and greatly appreciate their spacious imaging and delicate detail, with proper bass and channel measurement via the Meridian 861 pre-pro or the Integra DTC-9.8.

The verdict was again lopsided. With or without processing/conversion, I preferred Input 10 to Input 9. The differences were similar to those described above, but somewhat less extreme. Though what I heard from the Oppos' analog outputs was never as convincing holistically, the brass choirs in the Mahler had an impressive brilliance through Input 10, and I could hear intimate inner details in the choirs on both the Mahler and the Ravel. Similarly, subtle woodwind accents were remarkably lucid via Input 10. With Input 9, nothing seemed amiss unless I did a quick A/B comparison with Input 10—only then did I appreciate the latter's greater resolution.

It should be no surprise to you (although it was a great relief to me) to know that the BDP-83SE was connected to inputs 5 and 10, while the BDP-83 was connected to inputs 4 and 9. After that revelation, I tried many other discs and heard no reason to modify my conclusions.

The two-channel performance of the Oppo BDP-83SE, playing either PCM or DSD recordings, was a significant improvement on the BDP-83. This puts the new Oppo in direct competition with the Sony XA-5400ES SACD player; the two define an inflection point in the cost/benefit curve for high-resolution players. It's hard to imagine the digital processing of any low-to-mid-priced A/V receiver or pre-pro surpassing their direct analog performance in clarity and spaciousness—after all, even with a high-end processor, a direct analog signal path is called for. In fact, the BDP-83SE has convinced me to leave the analog preamp in my systems.

The multichannel situation is more complex. Even disregarding the blandishments of room EQ, which I have come to believe is almost always necessary, I'm hesitant to say that the BDP-83SE's sound via its multichannel analog outputs is preferable to going HDMI, unless the Oppo's limited bass/channel management is sufficient for your needs. It isn't for my needs with either of my systems. However, if you're already using a multichannel analog preamp, and/or the "direct" path on your processor, the BDP-83SE is a remarkably effective and satisfying improvement over the BDP-83. A no-brainer.

Lexicon BD-30 universal Blu-ray player
Here's a nice new universal player—as far as I know, the first high-end model whose maker admits to having based it on the Oppo BDP-83. When I first saw it at a press meeting, I was told that "the look of the BD-30 is not comparable to the Oppo; we put our own chassis and front panel on the unit, making it consistent with the look/feel of the entire Lexicon product line." However, in addition to the machined and distinctive Lexicon faceplate, the BD-30 differs significantly from the stock BDP-83: it's heavier (16 vs 11 lbs) and taller (3.5" vs 3"). The latter is of some importance to me: I often rest a hand on the top of a player, and the Lexicon lets me do this without impeding the movements of the disc drawer—unlike the Oppo, whose disc-drawer cover is also part of the player's top surface. The striking blue display, the screen-saver, and the THX certification, are all Lexicon.

The remote control, manual, and setup menus, however, were so familiar to me from my time with the Oppo that I asked some more questions. I was told, "We had our electrical and electronic engineering teams go through the audio and video circuitry in meticulous detail to make some performance improvements to both the analog audio and video circuitry. This, more than anything else, is where we made our biggest improvements to the end product. .†.†. The BD-30 is also customized with its own firmware, making it notably different than the Oppo in terms of upgrades. The BD-30 goes through final assembly at the Harman offices in Elkhart, Indiana." The BD-30 costs $3499.

I figured I'd give the Lexicon the same "single-blind" treatment as described above for the Oppo players. This time, however, I also made the comparison with HDMI by having my wife plug the Lexicon and the Oppo BDP-83 into her choice of inputs on the Meridian HD621 HDMI converter that I wrote about last September.