Sugg. Retail: $175.13CA $149.00US
A better mousetrap catches more mice, and the designers at OPPO seem to have started with that premise in this product’s development. The DV-970HD catches more design goals in its brief than most of its competitors, ranging from high quality multichannel audio to upsampled video from DVDs, with a surprising number of added features in between, both audio and video.
And all this comes at a price that strikes fear into the big names in electronics. Is OPPO for real-O? That’s just one of the many questions to be answered in this review, but first a look at what is promised, then at what is delivered in this slim, elegant package.
The main video features and capabilities are DVD-Audio, SACD, DiVX, Xvid, Audio CD, HDCD, Kodak Picture CD, and “other audio and video/media formats”, according to the web site. Also, “The DV-970HD does not play Blu-Ray nor HD-DVD discs.”
My main interest in this component was the audio, SACD multichannel in particular. DVD-Audio has quite properly marginalized itself in much the same way that quadraphonic sound did, with silly access requirements (video monitor), poor adherence to even overly flexible standards within the format (especially with respect to levels, channel allocation, sampling rates, and overall recording quality), and a very poor approach to marketing its already indefinable (and therefore unmarketable) concept.
SACD has quietly flourished in the background, embraced first by smaller labels, and now by virtually all the majors. Meridian’s brilliant Bob Stuart has concluded that it was MP3 that won the race between DVD-A and SACD, but I am not so pessimistic. And after hearing SACD’s multichannel marvels with recordings I know and love, I am completely converted. That has been chronicled earlier, but no particular player has suited my needs until now.
I won’t get into criticizing those already reviewed, except to say that I expected to find one that did not require me to replace numerous other components in my already more than satisfactory multichannel audio system. This meant a relatively simple replacement of only those parts necessary to accommodate discrete surround sources. I intended to do this with a “bypass” approach that would not affect the already excellent matrix system built around the Canadian-designed-and-built Cantares SSP-1 Ambisonic, SQ, et al decoder, with its 6-channel capability.
The first implication of that, given that a matrix surround system is driven by a stereo gain stage before matrix decoding, was to have the 5-channel gain employed in such a way that it could be level matched for easy switching between the two systems, and that means in all channels. The ideal approach would be to have it in the player, remote controlled, which would add another level of convenience to help offset the necessary increased complexity. Up until OPPO, most player designers seemed to overlook this factor, the assumption being that it would be plugged into a multichannel preamplifier or receiver, either via 5-channel analog or HDMI digital cables. Well, I didn’t have that option, but OPPO had the answer: full remote control of levels, with additional on-the-fly balancing of individual channel gain. By adding a small switchbox at the inputs of my surround amplifier (a Bryston 2B LP), and using an integrated amp (a very nice little Luxman L-03), I was able to establish these discrete paths, selected at the press of a button in each case, and in the latter it allowed me to utilize the Overhead speaker option of the Cantares, which works with other surround modes in addition to Ambisonic, and with a little wiring digeridoo, with discrete sources as well. As far as bass management was concerned, I copped out, and set the 970HD to Large for all outputs, since my crossover is an outboard Energy EAC, anyway.
OPPO is a little coy about audio specifications, but the decoders are claimed to be “20Hz - 20kHz (+/-1dB)”, with a “Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 100dB:, with a Total Harmonic Distortion: %”. This is obviously accomplished by very LS (Large Scale) ICs (Integrated Circuits) in this small box, and the listening proves that it is very well accomplished indeed.
I started with what has been my benchmark recording since its release in 1959, Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue (which I have in just about every medium except 8-track and open reel (odd, I think, with my tape obsession. But, then I don’t have the 45 rpm LPs either). There are two SACD versions, which are so hard to tell apart, I had to use marking pen to distinguish the multichannel.
I’ll be brief, since I’ve written about his disc before more than once. The simple use of the original 3-channel master tapes, with some derived ambience in the rear just opens this recording up in an astonishing way: with discrete soundfields between centre and left, and centre and right channels, with whatever amount of 30th Street Studio you want around you, provides an utter revelation, a virtual listening experience as intimate as being a part of one of the great hours of jazz ever created and heard. I guess it’s about as close as I can ever feel to what Stephen Hawking did when he perceived what the Universe was all about. There it is.
And I’ve quite recently said what I thought about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon in discrete high resolution surround, and banned substances aside (ie., no longer needed), it’s a similar immersion process of a less cerebral and more sensual nature. Need I say more?
I’ve listened to many discrete SACDs, and will be listening to many, many more, and reporting these experiences here in future, because the future in high resolution audio is 5-channel SACD! And for this reason alone, the OPPO 970HD is a keeper in my audio system, feeding its 8-channel maw with marvellous immersive music (for more on the extra channels, see Vol. 23 #1’s SuperSounds, available in our AIG Store while quantities last).
Well, I did manage to finally tear the player out of the audio system, this occasioned by my decision to refurbish my venerable Bryston 11B preamplifier. Though (as I discovered from the QC check list on the power transformer inside), it’s still under warranty, made in 1989, all it needed was some TLC (Ins/Outs cleaning with Stabilant 22, fixing of headphone jack), a new power cord because its outer rubber was peeling off, and some matte black spray paint on the badly scratched top panel (I’ve always had something on top of it over the years).
But I digress (as usual). I took the opportunity to install the 970HD in my video room, in order to assess its video quality through its component outputs (we don’t currently run HDMI into our ancient Pioneer Elite PRO 710HD 64″ set, which still smokes any plasma I’ve seen for picture naturalness and colour purity. My favourite auto writer/broadcaster, Jeremy Clarkson (TOP GEAR, BBC, Britain) aptly described (albeit early) plasma sets as having “Haight-Ashbury, tie-dye colour”, with which I’m inclined to agree, though perhaps not so extremely now. Recent plasma pictures are utterly perfect, but are they right? Well, just let me say that you’ll never really see Film Noir on one!
But back to the subject at hand…I hauled out my Video Essentials disc, and went to the video tests, and was quite amazed at the performance of this budget player, which claims video upsampling to 480p, 720p, or 1080i, the latter the native resolution of my set. For comparison, I had my classic Pioneer Elite DV-AX10 universal DVD player, which outputs a 540p picture to the 710HD. Grey Scale performance was outstanding, with everything from blacker than black to light greys easily distinguishable in their gradations. The Snell & Wilcox and broadcast resolution charts were also very cleanly and precisely shown in their static versions, but the S & W bouncing ball showed quite a bit of pixel-jumping or moving jaggies, however one describes it, indicating quite a lot of motion processing going on in the player, something not seen on the AX-10.
Colours were as pure as the driven pixel, with only a bit of chroma noise seen on the green pattern, but a slightly blotchy edge quality seen on the colour bar patterns.
Though overall moving picture quality was excellent, astonishing for a player in this price range, the slightly pasty colour, and occasional motion artifacts persisted in the demo material, and in subsequent watching of my favourite demo DVDs. These distinguished it from the now long-in-the-tooth Elite player, but then, it was $8000 in its youth and still beats the pixels off anything I’ve seen, including all the Faroudja enabled and compensated gear I’ve reviewed at any price.
Perhaps that gives us a perspective with which to conclude. Let me first say that I have not itemized the many features of this player, which, I discovered, include an audio RTA screen display (among the many others) when you press the right button. The OPPO web site noted above will tell you all you want to know about that, including the flip-down covered access ports that reveal readers for Memory Stick, Secure Digital, Multi-Media Card and so on. It also plays, as I discovered to my delight (unlike any other DVD deck in my experience) computer MPEG discs like the one Aaron gave me in his early days as a professional film editor called What Editors Do, which I had previously only been able to watch on my computer. And it played this BBC off-air recording of a PAL broadcast in beautiful video and audio fidelity. This OPPO will also play most computer CDs and DVDs’ audio/visual content, offering another area of versatility, even virtuosity.
And that leads me into my conclusion, which is that the OPPO DV-970HD is best described with those two words: versatility and virtuosity. In the audio room I even use the composite video output, fed into a portable DVD player, to see SACD playlists and DVD-A info in the audio system, which also provides audio level and timings as well, great for audio production in my studio. There it is…an audio/video device which has more thought, engineering, and ergonomics in it than anything DVD I’ve seen in years. Bravo OPPO!
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