Music in the Round #34

Sometimes, I think life would be easier if I were an audio customer. If I didn't have to wait on the priorities of the electronics companies, I might have gone out and bought a Blu-ray player months ago. Had I done so, I would have been shocked to find that almost all BD players are released with fewer than the advertised number of features, and sometimes require firmware updates—sometimes even a return to the manufacturer—to have them installed.

The issue is important—some preamplifier-processors and A/V receivers can decode all of the high-definition audio formats, but many can't, and require PCM input. This parallels a philosophical divide in the industry between those who insist that decoding belongs in the player, which then enables additional movie features and places fewer demands on the pre-pro's digital signal processing (DSP); and those who prefer it in the pre-pro or receiver, which can then handle all DSP and, optimistically, do it better. Looking around last September at the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association's Expo 2008, it seemed to me that more and more high-end players and pre-pros are including decoding, not only for bragging rights but to indemnify their customers, as much as is possible, from choosing an unfortunate combination of player and processor. Meanwhile, back home, there I sat with a growing stack of Dolby TruHD, dtsHD Master Audio, and/or hi-rez PCM audio discs, trying to anticipate the time when it would be possible to play them all with a single machine.

Denon DVD-3800BDCI Blu-ray player
That time has come. These days, the Denon DVD-3800BDCI Blu-ray player ($1999) is the king of the hill, sporting an onboard Realta sxT2 HQV processor and HDMI 1.3a output. More significant for our purposes, it also offers bitstream as well as PCM-converted audio output via HDMI. It plays DVD-Vs and CDs, but not SACDs or DVD-As. (Full information about its many features can be found here.)

I first used the DVD-3800BDCI, very briefly, as a DVD/CD player with its analog outputs connected to the Parasound Halo P 7 preamplifier (reviewed below). Its sound was very satisfying, and easily the equal of Denon's previous universal player, the DVD-3910. Both had smooth highs, transparent mids, and taut, extended bass, and both were superior to the Oppo DV-980H's analog output, which sounded a bit recessed and less dynamic in comparison, though still quite listenable. Compared to the Sony SCD-XA9000ES, the Denon DVD-3800BDCI was a mite soft in the upper ranges, but its transparency was comparable, as was its bass performance. This is pretty remarkable for a player primarily designed for the A/V market, and speaks well of the attention paid to the analog output stages.

I then whisked the DVD-3800BDCI off to my country system, in which I used it only via HDMI, connected to the Integra DTC-9.8 receiver or the Anthem D-2 pre-pro. Audio setup was a breeze, requiring only a few menu entries. BD Audio Mode was set to HD Audio Output, to enable output of all high-definition audio formats. Source Direct was set to Off to bypass all speaker settings, as the pre-pro would handle that. For the Anthem, HDMI Audio Out was set to HDMI Multi (LPCM) to enable internal decoding, and PCM output for all formats. Because the Integra can handle LPCM or do the decoding itself, HDMI Audio Out could also be set to HDMI Multi (Normal) to enable Bitstream output.

I could hear no difference between PCM and bitstream via the Integra. That the Integra and Anthem sounded different with PCM could have been due to the very different architecture, construction, and room equalization of the two pre-pros. In all cases, that the Denon 3800 brought out the best in each was exemplified by Divertimenti, a collection of works for strings by the Trondheimsolistene released in a two-for-one set that includes an SACD and a BD (2L50SABD). (I popped in the Blu-ray.)

Finally, I got to hear both the dtsHD MA and Dolby TruHD tracks in all their glory. It was great to see "192kHz" glowing on the Integra's display, but I was even more impressed when Britten's Simple Symphony poured from my speakers (footnote 1). Admittedly, the Trondheim Soloists are a small ensemble, but they've been miked fairly closely, and the dynamic range is wider than you might expect. The musicians were arranged and recorded to surround the listener—I stood up, walked around, and felt as if I were in the middle of a live performance. I could pinpoint individual instruments and, as I focused on each, felt that it, in specific, was being clearly recorded. The overall effect was the sum of all those individual voices.

I kept thinking I heard subtle differences between TrueHD and dtsMA, but those differences were mere wisps in my mind, and too insubstantial to describe. Even those wisps disappeared when I switched to LPCM output. Strangely, Divertimenti's 24-bit/192kHz LPCM track was unplayable via HDMI, but the other high-definition tracks, converted to 24/192 LPCM, played just fine on the Integra. Because the Anthem's input is limited to 24/96, I had to have the Denon 3800 downsample its output to 48kHz, but the difference was surprisingly small, and Anthem has already announced a new version (D-2 v2, Master Luke!) that will increase input capability to 24/192 and add HD decoding, among other enhancements.

Also awaiting the arrival of the 3800 was a stack of operas on Blu-ray. I popped in the new recording of Massenet's Manon with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon 073 4477). I had originally auditioned this on an "old" Pioneer HD-1 player that recognized only the PCM tracks and a compressed dts core track. With the Denon, I was able to play the dtsHD HR (but not MA) track, which seemed the equal of the 5.1 PCM. The audio perspective was from an audience seat and was consistently clear and balanced. The video view, glorious as it was, ranged from close-up to full-stage, and I found the shifting discrepancy between what I was hearing and what I was seeing to be occasionally disturbing. Unfortunately, the only cures are to fix the camera in one place (boring) or to shift the audio perspective in sync with the video (a hair-raising technical prospect and very likely more jarring than the current situation). So, occasionally, I simply closed my eyes—something I do at the opera anyway—and enjoyed an "almost there" experience.

Even more interesting is the recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi HMD 9809013). I'm a big fan of the original SACD release, and this Blu-ray is all that and more—more because the staging is elemental and doesn't get in the way of the characters or music, and because Leporello (Marcus Fink) steps into the role of the drama's guiding spirit and commentator. The sound is more open than on the SACD, and matches the staging well. An outstanding first Blu-ray effort for Harmonia Mundi.

I seem to have been swept away by the music and said little about the DVD-3800BDCI itself. Maybe that should tell you something about how good it is. It simply made every disc sound superb. Yes, I did do a firmware update, and no, the Denon will not convert dtsHR to PCM (although it will convert dts core, and will output bitstream dtsHR). Perfection may always be just beyond our grasp, but the sound of the Denon DVD-3800BDCI is pretty close to the state of the art.