Music in the Round #41

It was only a few months ago that I greeted Oppo Digital's BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player as a breakthrough consumer component, and it became a Runner-Up for Stereophile's Budget Product of 2009. It now appears that Oppo is using the design as a base on which to develop similar and more advanced products, both for themselves and for a good many other manufacturers. Some may take exception to my use of the word manufacturers—if it's an Oppo under the skin, what, precisely, are these other "manufacturers" contributing? Well, that's hardly a new question.

I've reviewed a number of what were then called "universal" disc players—machines, from such respected companies as Theta Digital, McCormack Audio, and Simaudio, that could play the CD, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, and SACD formats. All were based on a Pioneer mechanism and motherboard, but each had unique features that reflected its designer's view of what would make a more useful and higher-performing product, and each of these Pioneer-based machines achieved distinction in a different way.

This trend toward outsourcing is also reflected in the fact that the digital-signal-processing (DSP) engines that are the backbones of A/V preamplifier-processors are made by only a handful of companies. Those firms have vetted and embedded the routines for common functions such as the decoding of lossy and lossless codecs, menu structures, bass management, and room equalization. Nonetheless, even with their DSPs sharing so much familial DNA, it's remarkable that the end products have such disparate personalities. Of course, the quality of implementation of the D/A-conversion and analog stages are epigenetic differentiators.

So here come the universal players, some of which will share a kinship with the Oppo BDP-83, or at least its unknown OEM ancestor. Unsurprisingly, Oppo is the first, and they've upgraded their original model by replacing the portions that specifically affect the performance of the analog outputs. In the pipeline are offerings from Cambridge Audio, Theta Digital, Lexicon, and Ayre Acoustics. How each company impose its own design philosophies on the common substrate will be interesting to see.

Oppo Digital BDP-83SE universal Blu-ray player
When I reviewed Oppo's original BDP-83 in my July 2009 column, I found that its performance via its analog outputs was not as impressive as via HDMI. However, that depended on what was on the other end of those respective cables; in this case, the partner was the Integra DTC-9.8 preamplifier-processor, which doesn't have the world's greatest analog input stage. Still, many audiophiles prefer or require multichannel analog signals because their processors lack HDMI inputs, or because they're using multichannel analog preamps. I used to be one of them.

In designing this Special Edition (SE) of the BDP-83, Oppo didn't merely substitute a few boutique capacitors, or beef up the power supply, or replace the RCA jacks with machined, gold-plated ones. They replaced everything from the D/A converters to the jacks, and used some of the most cutting-edge chips on the market: the Sabre32 family of DACs from ESS Technology. Oppo uses an eight-channel Premier ES9006 chip for the 7.1-channel outputs, but they parallel four of the DACs of an eight-channel Ultra ES9016 DAC chip for each stereo channel. For a while, I had a stereo DAC evaluation board based on ESS Sabre DACs, and found it remarkably clear, tight, and balanced. The pricey McIntosh MCD500 SACD player, reviewed by Sam Tellig in June 2009. used an earlier version of the Sabre; as far as I know, until now, the only commercial product to have used the 32-bit DACs was DIY.

So the BDP-83SE is a big deal for a reasonably low-priced product ($899). It was also necessary to redesign the power supply, to provide for the different power requirements of the new chips; the analog output stage, too, was reworked. Multiple dual op-amps convert the DAC chips' current outputs to the voltage equivalents conversion, and the differential outputs were converted to single-ended RCA jacks. Surely, other designers will see many opportunities for other improvements here. Note, however, that all of these enhancements are for the analog outputs; they will have no effect, positive or negative, on the player's HDMI output. For HDMI users, even Oppo recommends the plain-vanilla BDP-83.

All this aside, the only external distinction between the original and SE versions of the BDP-83 are the subtle gray-on-black labels on the top, front, and rear of the chassis. This played right into my hands—unable to compare devices with double-blind rigor, I tried to keep myself ignorant of which device I'm listening to. Into the output jacks of each Oppo I plugged six Belkin PureAV Silver interconnects for multichannel audio, and two Kubala-Sosna Anticipation interconnects for two-channel. I stacked the players on one side of my equipment rack, and routed the 16 interconnects over to the other side to connect them to the appropriate inputs of the Parasound P7 preamp, which has two sets of 7.1-channel inputs, in addition to its many two-channel inputs. In doing so, I intentionally took no note of which Oppo I was connecting to multichannel inputs 9 or 10 or to two-channel inputs 4 or 5. That way, I couldn't be sure which player I was hearing.