Music in the Round #31

Recently, I got an e-mail from a colleague at another audio magazine complaining about the paucity of new SACD hardware. We've been hearing about the slowing pace of new SACD releases, and about Sony's neglect of a format they themselves developed, but I now realize that, apart from the High End (footnote 1), machines that can play SACDs have been fast disappearing from the middle of the market. When the battle of SACD vs DVD-Audio was raging, universal players that could play both formats were available from almost every major manufacturer. Even John Atkinson jumped on the bandwagon, acquiring a Pioneer DV-578A universal player for $150 to use as a reference. The exceptions were the very companies that had developed the new formats: Sony offered only SACD players, and Panasonic, at least at first, only DVD-A players. No matter—you could buy a universal player at any national electronics chain store, even if that store didn't stock recordings in either format and their staff had never heard of DVD-As or SACDs. Some things never change.

Now, the big manufacturers have turned their attention to high-definition video. While most Blu-ray machines can also play CDs and standard-definition DVDs, none include SACD among the "legacy" formats supported. (One HD DVD player did support DVD-A, but HD DVD has since been abandoned.) Technical issues aside, this is no more surprising than noting that they don't support 12" vinyl discs either. I doubt that this will change, although Denon has dropped more than on hint about a truly universal Blu-ray player that will support the original high-resolution audio media. One can hope, but the facts on the ground suggest that SACD fans should act now to protect their ability to play their discs.

I recall buying my "last" turntable at least twice; but today, one can still choose among a wide range of phono equipment. Still, the analogy isn't fair. Turntables, tonearms, and cartridges, all purely mechanical devices, require relatively traditional manufacturing technologies, however sophisticated and subtle. Small producers can thus respond to market demand independent of the electronics-industry giants. Not so for digital disc players, which are almost universally based on OEM transports and control chips supplied by these companies, which seem able to think only in units of 10,000. I don't envision some intrepid engineer-machinist of the near future producing these in his shop at prices the average audiophile could afford.

So until I can easily rip my multichannel SACDs to some other storage format, I can't think of any alternative to stockpiling players. After all, my 2000 or so SACDs are worth more than half a dozen Oppo DV-980H universal players. I mention the Oppo not only because it's inexpensive ($169) and because I have one, but also because it provides enough outputs to maximize its future connectivity. It has 7.1-channel analog outputs for those without digital processing. Its coaxial and TosLink outputs are no help with SACD, but it also has an HDMI output—and, like it or not, that's the key to its future, as far as I can see.

But it's not alone.

Pioneer Elite DV-58AV universal player
Before I'd ever heard of Oppo Digital, I knew that Pioneer was making universal players with HDMI output. But those first models had early versions of HDMI that, for reasons of technology and licensing, would not transmit an SACD signal. Now, however, they make a few models, at a range of prices, that will output any audio format in stereo or multichannel via HDMI v1.2a. Pioneer's DV-48AV ($299) has an appropriate audio feature set, but seemed as tiny and lightweight (less than 6 lbs) as the Oppo DV-980H. Wanting to see if there was anything to gain with more robust construction, I asked for something in the middle of the range: the DV-58AV ($499).

The Pioneer DV-58AV's chassis is indeed more substantial chassis and, at about 12 lbs, more than doubles the Oppo's 5.1 lbs. The DV-58AV's sleek styling appealed to me, but I can understand someone appreciating the Oppo's simpler, more utilitarian appearance. The same comparison might be made of the setup menus. Pioneer's was very familiar to me, from my experience with other Pioneer-based universal players (eg, McCormack UDP-1, Simaudio Moon Orbiter, Bel Canto PL-1A), but it seemed less explicit than Oppo's. For example, one Pioneer menu screen, seen only at initial power-up, affects the choice of audio output channel (analog vs HDMI), which results in certain other menu options being grayed-out. I found it a little inconvenient that I couldn't access the channel level and distance controls unless I activated the multichannel analog outputs, but I suppose this avoids implying that those trims can be applied to the HDMI outputs. It wasn't clear to me that I could change my settings without powering down the Pioneer, then turning it on again. (It turned out that I could.)

Although the DV-58AV is glossy black with blue indicators, its controls and connections are standard issue for a modern universal player. Front-panel touch buttons manage Standby/On, disc control, and menu/navigation (this last is better managed with the remote control). There are also two special buttons, each with a tiny LED indicator: One, the SACD setup control, sets priority among CD, two-channel SACD, and multichannel SACD. The other, labeled Pure Audio, turns off all digital and video outputs to optimize the analog output's performance. On the rear panel are the outputs: for audio, analog 5.1- and two-channel, digital coaxial, and TosLink; for video, composite, component, and S-video; and for both, HDMI. The DV-58AV worked faultlessly with all 5" discs

Connected to the Integra DTC-9.8 multichannel preamplifier/surround processor via HDMI cable, the DV-58AV played SACDs at a level about 3dB lower than the Oppo DV-983H universal player. It would have been nice to use the Oppo's trim control to match levels, but as this operates in the digital domain and is likely to be accompanied with some loss of resolution, for comparisons, I had to use the Integra's calibrated volume control to match the player's outputs. And, of course, this was also a comparison of the Pioneer's DSD output to the Oppo DV-983H's PCM-converted output.

The HDMI-based comparison of the DV-58AV and the DV-983H was a near standoff, the Pioneer pulling slightly ahead in bass definition and high-frequency sweetness. Recall from my May report that I preferred the Oppo DV-980H's PCM-converted output to its direct DSD output, but the Pioneer's DSD output was superior to the DV-980H in either mode. However, it took some quick A/B switching to hear any of these differences; extended listening to all three players was quite satisfying.

It was through its multichannel analog outputs that the Pioneer distanced itself from the Oppo DV-980H and, to a degree, from the DV-983H as well. The clarity and detail of the Pioneer's analog stages, as well as their bass slam, were outstanding. The DV-58AV was able to reveal layer on layer of musical meaning from such complex music as Tarik O'Regan's choral suite Scattered Rhymes, in the recording by Paul Hilliard and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (SACD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807469), while the Oppos' analog outputs were clean but obscured details. In that regard, the Pioneer was almost competitive with the Bel Canto PL-1A. It was very satisfying to find this level of pure audio enjoyment in such reasonably priced hardware. And there was still more to be gleaned from SACDs, DVD-As, and even CDs by staying with the Pioneer's HDMI connection to the Integra DTC-9.8, or by using a modified 3xS/PDIF connection to the Meridian 861 surround controller, as I've done with the Oppo DV-980H.

Footnote 1: See, for example, my review of the Esoteric DV-60 in this column in the March 2008 issue.—Kalman Rubinson