May 2007Oppo Digital DV-981HD Universal Audio/Video Player
by John Crossett
We audiophiles can be a parsimonious bunch, always looking to squeeze as much performance from each dollar spent as possible. We're constantly on the lookout for products that perform far above their cost -- "giant killers," as they are called. Thus, when I was offered the opportunity to review the new Oppo DV-981HD universal audio/video player, I was more than merely intrigued. I was enthused. Oppo has been garnering quite a bit of positive attention of late, and I was eager to hear what the company's top-of-the-line unit could do. After all, theres nothing I like more than being able to recommend both a low-priced and a good-sounding piece of gear all rolled into one. The DV-981HD looked to be just such a combination.
What your dollar buys
The DV-981HD is crammed full of options that make it both attractive at its affordable price and daunting to use. Why daunting? Because all those features need to be understood fully so that setting the player up correctly goes smoothly. A small player (16 1/2"W x 1 5/8"H 10 5/8"D and a touch over 5 pounds), the DV-981HD will nonetheless play back everything short of Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. DVD-V, DVD-A, SACD, CD, HDCD, DivX, Kodak Picture CD, CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD+R DL are all covered through the DV-981HD's transport and Cirrus Logic CS4360 DAC chipset. Oppo chose not to use a brickwall digital filter. Instead the company relies on the analog filter built into the Cirrus DAC. For SACD playback, the DV-981HD does convert DSD to PCM before sending the signal to the analog outputs.
The front panel contains only the power button, the disc drawer, the open/close button, the display window (which is quite small and hard to read from across the room), the play/pause button, and the stop button -- so dont lose that remote! For a player so thin and small, the remote is a bit on the chunky side. All the possible functions you need are on it, but because it does not illuminate in the dark, youll need to memorize the buttons to find them quickly.
Around back are an HDMI output, stereo and multichannel audio outputs, a composite video output, an S-video output, a coaxial digital output, a TosLink digital output, and the receptacle for the detachable power cord. Curiously, there are no component video jacks like those that other Oppo players offer. I guess there are only so many options possible at the price point Oppo targeted the DV-981HD to meet: $229 USD.
Regarding audio setup, you first have to decide whether you want stereo or multichannel playback. To configure the DV-981HD for stereo playback, you connect to the mixed L and R audio outputs, not the front multichannel L and R outputs. But thats only the beginning of the process; you'll need a video monitor to complete things. First, go to the Setup menu and then the Speaker Setup Page. Choose Downmix, which youll then set to Stereo. Now go to the Audio Setup Page, arrow down to digital output and choose between RAW and PCM. Unless youre sending your digital signal into your receiver or outboard DAC that will do the conversion, pick PCM. Next arrow down to LPCM Rate and choose among 48k, 96k, and 192k depending on which your receiver/DAC will support, if thats the way you are sending the signal. If youre going to be listening to the analog outputs, then this choice is for which upsampling rate you want the DV-981HD to use. The only other option on this screen you need to consider is the HDMI Audio setting. Make sure this is set to Off position for best sound.
Despite rumors to the contrary, I was never able to find any settings that took the DV-981HD's internal digital volume control out of circulation. The good news is that you can connect the DV-981HD directly to your power amp and control the volume level with the player itself. Usually this results in a small but noticeable improvement in sonic quality. However, via the DV-981HD, I found that direct connection didnt translate into any audible improvement, likely because the unit's built-in volume control isn't that sonically transparent to begin with.
Id recommend not skimping on the interconnects you use with the DV-981HD. The better they are, the better sound you'll hear from the DV-981HD. The inexpensive interconnects that come packaged with the DV-981HD will not allow it to come close to strutting its sonic stuff. Dont be surprised if the interconnects you end up using cost more than the player itself. Once youve heard the improvement that top-quality interconnects can bring, you wont regret spending the money. I promise.
If multichannel reproduction is your main priority, youll want to be sure to read the DV-981HD's owner's manual, as it explains how to go about making the proper settings. As this is not this review's area of concern, Ill just say that multichannel playback is possible and isnt difficult to configure provided that you read the instructions. I know, I know -- reading the owner's manual flies in the face of all we he-man audiophiles stand for. But doing so will be time well spent.
I connected the DV-981HD to an Audio Research LS17 line-stage preamp via Analysis Plus Solo Crystal interconnects. I also used a Monster Cable TosLink optical cable to the DAC section of a Stello CDA320 CD player. Besides the Stello, I also used a Marantz SA8260 CD/SACD player and a Panasonic DVD-F65 CD/DVD-A player for comparison purposes. All of these were connected to the LS17 with Analysis Plus Solo Crystal interconnects as well, but in the Stellos case, I used balanced interconnects. The power amp was a Bryston 4B SST connected to the LS17 with, again, balanced Analysis Plus Solo Crystal interconnects. Speakers were Magnepan MG1.6es biwired with Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 speaker cables. All electronics were on Symposium anti-vibration products that sat on the shelves of a Salamander rack. I connect all electronics to a Monster Cable HTS1000 power strip/surge protector with either Harmonic Technology Pro AC-11 or Analysis Plus Oval 10 power cords. Analog didnt figure into this review (drat).
What you get for your money
The first thing youll notice about the DV-981HD's sound is that it is rather laid-back. It draws you in, as opposed to thrusting the music at you. Youll also note that it does a wonderful job separating instrumental lines. Just these two aspects alone make the DV-981HD a player to be reckoned with.
The DV-981HD has a fairly wide soundstage that's not particularly deep. This isnt really much of a surprise from a player of the DV-981HDs cost, but its the DV-981HDs way of placing musicians within that soundstage that will definitely make up for the lack of depth. I just received a copy of Dexter Gordons Our Man In Paris [Blue Note 7243 5 80914 2 7]. The DV-981HD precisely located where Gordons tenor sax, Bud Powells piano, Kenny Clarkes drum set, and Pierre Michelots bass were relative to each other with no drifting or blurring. There are CD players that cost many times more than the Oppo DV-981HD that dont perform this feat anywhere near as well.
Another sonic aspect of the inexpensive DV-981HD that will quickly catch your attention is its overall resolution. I am fortunate to own the two-disc set of Mark Knopflers Sailing To Philadelphia [Warner Brothers 48119-2]. I began listening to the high-rez DVD-A, and the DV-981HD made this a pleasure. It portrayed the musicians cleanly and clearly. Following that with the HDCD-encoded CD (yes, Virginia, the DV-981HD handles HDCD-encoded discs too) I could readily hear the differences between the two formats. No surprise that the DVD-A had more weight, or that it also placed more flesh on the bones. There was an added sense of flow and space as well. Though no slouch, the HDCD sounded thinner. Listening to the title cut of the DVD-A, I could more easily hear the differences between Knopflers voice and that of James Taylor. I was impressed that a player of the DV-981HDs low cost could show off the differences between formats to such an extent.
However, I didnt hear much of a difference between SACD and DVD-A, which were both very nicely reproduced. This may come down to the DV-981HDs conversion of DSD to PCM before sending the signal to the analog outputs, though this doesnt seem to affect the overall higher resolution of these high-rez formats. Both SACD and DVD-A offered fuller, more realistic portrayals in comparison to any CD I played. No matter which SACD I picked, whether jazz, classical or rock, it was reproduced with a sense of tactile realness that belied the DV-981HDs low cost.
Tonality was another strong point of the DV-981HD, which was able to reproduce instrumental and vocal tones in a very accurate manner. When I was in Las Vegas for this past year's CES, I found the time to scour Zia Record Exchange, a great used-CD store, and picked up a used copy of The Best of the Baltimore Consort [Dorian DOR-90023]. This group uses a multitude of odd acoustic instruments along with vocals. All were reproduced faithfully, creating the illusion of listening to the real things. Along with tonality goes frequency balance. Now no one would expect the DV-981HD to be a bass demon or a treble angel. It just doesnt have the cahones to reach the qualitative outer regions of either frequency extreme. But what Oppo has done is cannily balance the DV-981HD's sound to mask any shortcomings. Oppo deserves credit for making the DV-981HD so musically attractive at such an affordable price.
Not all is wine and roses, however. A wide dynamic range is not a strong suit of the DV-981HD, which compresses large-scale swings in volume to some degree. I first noticed this while listening to the newly remastered CD of Neville Marriners Mozart Meets Marriner - Serenades [Philips B0007075-02]. The tail end of the opening movement to "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" was somewhat muted when the orchestra moves from slow and stately to forceful. The DV-981HD just couldnt keep up. Still, it did manage to convey Mozarts intentions well enough. However if you are a fan of, say, Beethoven or Mahler symphonies, you'll want to take a careful listen to ensure that the DV-981HD can meet your musical needs.
In addition, while the DV-981HD offers plenty of musical detail, it lacks the complete sense of space that more expensive players can display as a matter of course. With the DV-981HD, I had a harder time getting a handle on the recording venues of discs I knew had such information. The DV-981HD also doesnt place quite as much flesh on the bones of vocalists either. Neither of these weaknesses should come as a shock. The DV-981HD is the perfect example of "you pay more, you get more" in the world of high-end audio.
Just for the sake of completeness, I used the DV-981HD in my bedroom multichannel/home-theater system in place of my Yamaha DVD-S657 universal player -- both are priced about the same -- to see what I could see, and hear what I could hear. First off, the DV-981HD does not have component video output and my Sony Wega CRT TV doesnt do HDMI, so I was unable to see if there was any benefit to using HDMI. On the other hand, the Yamaha has component output but no HDMI. Since the only way to connect the video portion of the DV-981HDs signal was via an S-video cable (composite doesn't cut it any longer -- dont even bother with it) thats what I did. Picture quality suffered some, but not to the extent I expected. Maybe the HDMI output would have shown a marked improvement.
Sonically, the DV-981HD was fully the equal of -- if not a bit superior to -- my Yamaha player. Both convert DSD to PCM before sending the signal to the analog outputs. Still, the DV-981HD had a more fully fleshed-out sound that made multichannel music, movies and music videos more of a treat. If you purchase the DV-981HD for an audio/video system, make sure you have a TV that will accept the DV-981HDs HDMI output for the best picture quality. In terms of sound, I doubt youll feel cheated with the DV-981HD's stereo or multichannel performance.
Is it really a giant killer?
On its own, the DV-981HD offers much to like. Despite the DSD-to-PCM conversion, I could easily hear the differences among the high-rez formats and Red Book CDs. DVD-As played back through the DV-981HD sounded very good. I listened to the new Donald Fagan Morph The Cat DVD-A [Reprise 49976-2] and seemingly heard all that the recording had to offer. But when I ran the digital signal (likely at 24 bits and 96kHz) to the DAC section of the Stello CDA320 ($1995) -- which is what I do with the signal out of my Panasonic DVD-A player -- I could hear a big difference. The sound was more fleshed out, and the frequency extremes, especially the bass, were better handled. The music also had a more realistic sense of pace to it.
The DV-981HD doesnt have the bass punch of the Stello CD player/DAC or the Marantz SA8260 CD/SACD player ($1295) either. But its not just the bass that causes the Oppo player to lose out to my more expensive gear. The Stello and the Marantz both give a better sense of the recording venue. I could better discern the unique space -- either studio or concert hall -- where the disc was recorded. Notes would waft more deeply into the recording's acoustic via the Stello and Marantz player than with the Oppo. They also fleshed out instruments and vocalists in a more realistic manner. In truth, there was simply no area where the Oppo reigned supreme except in its exceptional image placement.
However, keep in mind that the Stello CDA320 is almost ten times the price of the DV-981HD, while the Marantz player is about five times more expensive, so both should sound better. In addition, both the Stello and the Marantz players were designed for audio only, not video. The extra cost buys better parts and better audio execution.
Despite all the things the DV-981HD does well, I didnt find it to be the giant killer. If youre an audiophile of long standing, you probably have a system you've spent years putting together, so it's chock-full of gear as good as you can afford. While neither my Stello or Marantz players are in any danger of being replaced by the DV-981HD, I still respect what Oppo has accomplished in terms of sonics with this inexpensive universal player.
But is it worth it?
Thats the $229 question, isnt it? Is the Oppo DV-981HD a worthy contender for use in an audiophile's system? There is more than one correct answer. For the seasoned audiophile who has spent many years (and a lot of money) putting together a top-quality audio system, the DV-981HD likely won't cut it as strictly a musical reproducer. It does some things well, but it is bettered by more accomplished -- and costly -- dedicated audio players.
However, for the audiophile on a budget, the audiophile with serious space considerations, the audiophile looking to put together a good second system or starter system or two-channel A/V system, the Oppo DV-981HD represents a truly solid option. Under such circumstance, the DV-981HD is a source that you should definitely consider before laying down your hard-earned cash on something else. At its price, and for the sonic quality you get for that modest cost, the DV-981HD is a winner. There are few universal players at or near the DV-981HD's price that I would recommend for comparison. Add in DV-981HD's home-theater features and that may tip the scales completely in Oppos favor.
In its price range, I dont see that the Oppo DV-981HD has much, if any, competition. While its not an audio giant killer, it is a giant among the multi-format A/V players that share its tiny cost.
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