Oppo DV-970HD universal player Page 2

Any misgivings I had about pairing a $149 disc player with a $50,000 system were quickly laid to rest. Albéniz's Malagueña, Op.3, was full-bodied and smooth. The harmonic overtones of the strings were extended and decayed slowly—top-end extension was detailed, but not etched. Russell's melodic momentum was forceful, delivered with rhythmic ebb and flow that was convincingly dynamic.

Ida Haendel's recital DVD-V Bach, Beethoven, Chausson (VAI 4395) was an ear-opener. Haendel plays both a Stradivari and a Guarneri; I don't know which she played on this recording, but in her hands it sounds like a cannon. Between her emphatic downstrokes and assertive double-stopping, the Ciaccona of Bach's Partita 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004) sounded huge. Once she'd essayed the first fugue, however, Haendel's tone was rich, warm, and round. I didn't need to know which fiddle she was playing; the Oppo let me hear that it was one in a million—and played by one of the great ones.

Hearing Haendel play Bach is to be reminded that, for all of the formal purity of his work, Bach pére was a man of flesh and blood—and a passionate one at that. In the Ciaccona, Haendel invests Bach with the Beethovenian "shattering resignation of a man to his unavoidable tragic destiny," as she has described it. That observation isn't a gratuitous aside, but rather my way of noting how much drama and emotion the $149 Oppo was capable of delivering.

Similarly, on Chesky's fabulous Swing Live (DVD-A, CHDVD222), which features Bucky Pizzarelli, Peter Appleyard, Bernard Purdie, Allen Vache, and Michael Moore in 2-, 4-, and 6-channel 24-bit/96kHz, the Oppo's analog outputs delivered seriously swinging sound with depth, spread, and vigor. This live, minimally edited performance had more room acoustic than the Russell CD or the Haendel DVD, but the spatial detail didn't come at the price of the tonal information or the rhythmic drive. Pizzarelli's relaxed riffing on "Lime House Blues" proves that high-energy guitar playing is not the sole domain of the young and hormonally overloaded—the man can just flat-out play, and if you can't make the trip to hear him while you still can, you need to get this disc. If I had any real complaint, it was that Michael Moore's acoustic bass sounded somewhat puddingy, which I initially thought might have been because of the room itself. (Chesky doesn't "fix it in the mix," because that wouldn't be a true re-creation of the event.)

My current favorite SACD, Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony's disc of works by Britten and Elgar (Telarc SACD-80660), also got its workout in the Oppo. Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes had weight and breadth, with a great amount of low-level detail. However, once again, I wasn't completely happy with the low-end sound, which was somewhat soft and overripe in the midbass. I'd also noticed this with Swing Live, so it's unlikely that it was caused by the conversion of DSD to PCM.

Change is a challenge and an opportunity
John Atkinson had kindly lent me his Pioneer DV-578A DVD player, which he'd bought for $160, as a "real-world" comparison. Did the Oppo better the Pioneer? Well, yes—but if you're only going to be using the players' analog outputs, it probably makes little sense to trade one for the other.

The Oppo was less smeared in the high end, which meant that Haendel's tone was more polished and Peter Appleyard's vibes had more clangy overtones. Both players were disappointing in the low end. No, that's too harsh—compared to the universal players to which I've been listening, the Ayre C-5xe and Krell Evolution 505, neither the Oppo nor the Pioneer was completely satisfying, especially in the bottom end. Yet both players were revelations to me: I'd had no idea how good sub-$200 digital had become, much less sub-$200 universal digital players.

Good as the Oppo is, when I switched into the system the Ayre C-5xe—the universal player I actually own—the differences weren't hard to hear. The room acoustic of Swing Live was bigger, deeper, more solid. Moore's bass sound was larger, louder, and far more tightly coupled to a discrete instrument, as opposed to just floating in the performance space.

Haendel's performance, which was far from small or lacking in nuance through the Oppo, became bolder and even more incisive through the C-5xe. The woody warmth of her instrument became richer and smokier; the subtle differences in string attack were more pronounced. And although you might think it a strange thing to mention, the elegance of her musical logic became more compelling.

As for the Britten, well, wow. It never ceases to amaze me how good SACD sounds when played back properly. I don't know whether the tremendous difference I heard between the Oppo and the Ayre had anything to do with the DSD-to-PCM conversion, or if the Ayre's DSD-to-analog conversion is simply better designed, or if the Ayre's analog circuitry is just better, but on SACD the differences between the players were simply mind-boggling.

It wasn't simply the aching purity of the strings' harmonics or the solidity and extension of the deep bass, but also the Ayre's presentation of soundstaging detail and perspective. The Oppo hung an image between the speakers and extending to my front wall, an accurate, although scaled-down, re-creation of Cincinnati's Music Hall. With the Ayre, especially in my Room Tunes–treated small listening room, the soundstage boundaries were not constrained by my room's dimensions. Was the soundstage big as life? Heck no, but it was huuuuuge. And tastefully so.

Ability is of little account without opportunity
When I re-read the long commentary strands about the DV-970HD on various audio bulletin boards, I noticed that its most vocal advocates were using it to drive DACs, primarily in systems using the HDMI connection. That particular digital pipe is more common in A/V systems than in music-only surround or stereo rigs, and besides, I didn't have any DACs or digital preamps that employed it. What I did have to hand, however, was the Slim Devices Transporter, which offers 24-bit resolution at 44.1kHz, 48kHz, or 96kHz—making it perfect for use with the Oppo's hi-rez digital output. It was time to take the DV-970HD upstairs to the big rig.

From this point on, comparisons were made in my larger listening room, using the Ayre C-5xe universal player, Ayre K-1xe preamplifier, and Ayre MX-R monoblock amplifiers driving Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 8s. The DV-970HD was connected to the Slim Devices Transporter with Stereovox XV2 75-ohm coaxial cable.

I started with Swing Live and immediately hit a snag—actually, I'd hit the same snag in my small listening room, but there it didn't annoy me as much. The Chesky DVD-A offers you a choice of several audio mixes (2-, 4-, and 6-channel 24-bit/96kHz), but to choose a particular mix, you need a monitor. With DVD-Vs that first dump you into a menu screen, you can work around this by using the "direct play" hack: Insert the DVD, and as soon as it will let you, press Stop. Then press Menu, and the DV-970HD will skip the warning and the promos and just start the feature. Because the DV-970HD is marketed as a universal player, it seems petty to complain that it requires a monitor for its OSD menu trees, but it's a pain in the keister for ardent audiophiles who don't want a screen in the listening room. This is one area where the Ayre just shines; its interface lets you navigate discs without an external monitor.

Yowzah! Using the Transporter to convert the Oppo's 96kHz digital output made me understand what all the fuss is about. Forget "good for the money"—now we're talking world-class. What's that you say? Using a $2000 DAC makes no sense with a $150 front end? Au contraire, mon ami, which is French for in a pig's eye. Many audiophiles, prosumers, and folks with music servers already have hi-rez DACs in our systems—the DV-970HD gives us an affordable means of feeding them high-octane digital.

Bloated bass and congested highs—all gone. The soundstage became bigger, and Pizzarelli swung even harder—if such a thing is possible. The combo of Oppo and Slim Devices now offered the C-5xe far more serious competition. In fact, the DV-970HD with Transporter had more incisive focus, which I somewhat preferred to the airier, er, Ayre. That is to say, sometimes I did, taking it to be greater detail; at other times I thought the Ayre's slightly more atmospheric sound was less hyped, and therefore more relaxing, than the Oppo–Slim Devices. They were close, though; close enough that the differences fell pretty far into personal-preference territory.

The specificity and verismo of the DV-970HD–Transporter duo definitely impressed me with the Ida Haendel disc, where I was reminded of the difference between video and film. Video always looks realer, whereas film always looks better. Haendel's Bach is so strong and aggressive that the Oppo–Slim Devices' slightly greater acerbity seemed better suited to it than the Ayre's softer, more film-like focus. Again, your mileage may vary; that was my take.

All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen
So how good can a $149 player be? The Oppo DV-970HD is very good. Using its internal D/A converters, the Oppo produces listenable, detailed, extremely satisfying sound from pretty much every optical-disc format currently available. However, as a standalone universal player, it won't cause Krell's Dan D'Agostino or Ayre's Charlie Hansen any sleepless nights.

On the other hand, the DV-970HD is aimed at A/V enthusiasts, who generally use their players' digital outputs and perform the D/A conversion offboard. If you have a hi-rez DAC that can utilize 96kHz signals, you can benefit from that increased bandwidth, as I did. If you have HDMI-compatible gear, you can benefit from 24-bit word length as well, although I did not audition the DV-970HD that way, since none of my A/V gear supports that standard (I'm hi-fi proud, but HT poor).

I was impressed by the Oppo DV-970HD. It looks good, it feels solid and reassuringly well-built, and I was impressed by the company's service ethic. I see why it has become a favorite among consumers. Its performance as a standalone player wasn't where I felt its true potential lies, but when connected to a good DAC it punched way outside its class.

Here's the part that may truly mark me as an ass: After I'd done everything I've written about here, I finally installed the DV-970HD in my home theater, where I discovered that it's also an extremely impressive DVD player. If you like that sort of thing.

Oppo Digital
453 Ravendale Drive, Suite D
Mountain View, CA 94043
(650) 961-1118