Music in the Round #50 Page 2

The new BDP-95 Universal Audiophile 3D Blu-ray Disc Player ($999) is physically and electronically distinct from the BDP-93 and, true to its name, is Oppo's first true audiophile player. It does as much as or more than any other player I have encountered but, significantly, it is designed to sound better while doing so. The chassis, larger and heavier than those of the '83 series or the new '93, accommodates in its muscular power supply a substantial toroidal transformer built for Oppo by Rotel. The big advance is the use of two Sabre32 Reference ES9018 DAC chips: one for the 7.1-channel analog output, the other dedicated to the stereo output, for which each channel is driven by four stacked DAC channels. In addition to improving the signal/noise ratio, this allows the BDP-95 to run fully balanced to its XLR outputs.

The front panel has, from left to right, an On/Standby button and LED, a rectangular display, the disc tray and Open/Close button, a compass rose of navigation buttons, and a USB port. The display is taller and narrower than in other Oppo models, but is easily readable. Though the BDP-95's chassis is heftier, its disc tray is similar to those of earlier Oppo players, which, despite seeming somewhat flimsy, have never failed me. The remote control is unchanged from the '83 series, and that's just fine.

The rear panel seems less cluttered and more coherent than before, due to an improved layout and to the larger surface resulting from the larger case. The analog outputs are in a single line across the top: from left to right, stereo balanced (XLR), stereo single-ended (RCA), and 7.1-channel single-ended (RCA). Below these are, from left to right: an Ethernet LAN port, HDMI 2 output, four component/composite-video RCAs, an IR port, a USB port, an e-SATA port, the HDMI 1 output, optical (TosLink) and coaxial (RCA) jacks for digital audio output, and an RS-232 connector for remote control. The power cable attaches at the far right; above its IEC inlet is a switch for selecting the AC voltage (115V or 230V).

Because the BDP-95 does so many things, I've focused on its audio performance when used with: 1) HDMI output, 2) multichannel analog output, and 3) its dedicated stereo outputs (RCA and XLR). Before I began these tasks, which entailed comparisons with the BDP-83SE and the Sony SCD-XA5400ES, I spent a week or two casually using the BDP-95 as my only player. Regardless of the audio output used or the type of disc played, nothing went amiss. Although I'm not qualified or sanctioned to comment on the BDP-95's video quality, it did seem an advance on those of the Yamaha Aventage BD-A1000 and Oppo BDP-83SE. The sound, too, was excellent in two or many channels, but nothing about it jumped out at me. It seemed that, to get the best handle on the BDP-95's sound quality, those side-by-side comparisons would be necessary.

HDMI was easy. I could connect all the players to the Integra DHC-80.2 or Meridian 861/621 and switch among them. The outcome was decidedly boring: All sounded excellent, my preference varying only with the music.

I compared the two-channel outputs of the BDP-95 and Sony SCD-XA5400ES in my Manhattan apartment, where I connected both, via AudioQuest XLR, to the balanced inputs of a Parasound Halo JC 2 BP preamplifier, and listened to them through a McIntosh Labs MC303 three-channel power amplifier and the just-arrived Aerial 7T speakers. The Oppo had a 6dB higher output level, which I reduced to match the Sony's 2V output. I used my standard reference discs—the Pipes Rhode Island compilation of pipe-organ recordings (CD, Riago CD 101); J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, with Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music (SACD/CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU807461.62); and Sara K.'s Hell or High Water (SACD/CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.4039.2)—and added Mahler's Symphony 9, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (BD, Accentus ACC10214).

Again, the sound was superb, but differences quickly became apparent. The Sony had its characteristic clean and immediate sound, and sometimes switching to the Oppo seemed to put solo voices, such as Andrew Manze's violin, a bit back. However, the BDP-95 was consistently more open and spacious, with better articulation of all the instruments. This was most apparent with Sara K.'s "Set You Free": voice and guitar were clearly those of the same performer. Through the Sony, her voice took center stage and all else dimmed. Once I'd heard that difference, I heard parallel differences with the other discs, which led me to prefer the Oppo for its overall delineation and presentation of space.

I compared the Oppo BDP-95's and BDP-83SE's analog multichannel capabilities at my place in Connecticut, using the Integra DHC-80.2—which, unfortunately, has but one multichannel analog input. So to compare the BDP-95 with its logical predecessor, the BDP-83SE, I reinstalled my reliable Zektor MAS-7.1, a 3x1 switch that can handle HDMI, 5.1-channel analog, TosLink, and coaxial S/PDIF inputs and outputs, and its handy-dandy remote control lets me switch between players without leaving my seat. Matched sets of Belkin Silver RCA cables connected the players to the Zektor, and a set of Kubala-Sosna Anticipation RCAs ran from there to the Integra's multichannel inputs. To level the playing field, I set up each player with identical speaker levels, channel delays, and bass management. I also ran HDMI cables through the Zektor so that I could see each player's onscreen display.

I loaded the two players with pairs of identical discs—BD, SACD/CD, DVD-A—but I couldn't just hit Play on the Oppos' shared remote control: the BDP-83SE loaded BDs and SACDs somewhat faster than the BDP-95, and though the difference was but a few seconds, I wanted to sync the players' outputs as closely as possible. I hit Close on the remote control and then, when both players were loaded and ready, hit Play. I could then switch between them, but I found that the HDMI handshaking inserted an unpredictable and disconcerting delay during each switch—so I disabled HDMI switching for the display and just did the audio.

As expected, the differences were subtle but consistent. The BDP-95 seemed to have less bass, but that bass was tighter and deeper; its treble was subjectively softer than the BDP-83SE's but equally detailed; and its better imaging across the soundstage was particularly noticeable, again, with Sara K.'s voice. The players' surround integrations and overall balances were similar. And when I switched the Integra to HDMI, I was unable to hear any differences between the players, except in the bass.