FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 11
DPS-8.3 Universal CD player and Related Audio Musings: a Review
as reviewed by Max Dudious
"Bang for the Buck" and Universal Players
If you havent read the hard-copy audio magazines lately (read that as youre behind-the-times), youve probably havent noticed that theyre a bit schizophrenic about which stance to take on the "bang for the buck" ratio they used to ignore. For example, the title the absolute sound to my mind used to imply "price be damned," and Harry seemed to delight in assembling his "cost no object" systems at the shows. If memory serves, a few years ago the ticket for one such system flirted with the quarter of a million dollar ceiling. The implication was, in the immortal words of J.P. Morgan vis-à-vis yachts, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you cant afford it." Since very few, even the record companies, can budget such lordly sums casually, I assumed the principal reason for having them on display was snob appeal, which dovetailed neatly into the social-status anxieties reflected in the tradition of that publication. Tucking their collective tail between their legs, the editors are now (Feb-March, 2004) giving their "2003 Product Of The Year" award to Rotels RCD-1072 CD-only Player at $699 MSRP (p. 64), in an issue that also gushes over a new Atma-Sphere MA-1 Monoblock power amplifier (p. 79) whose price is $9,950 each, and you need two to tango.
Meanwhile, over at Stereophile, a similar schism is visible though unacknowledged. One writer (Feb. 2004, p. 37) asks and answers his own question in the best rhetorical tradition of that publication, "Are there any early CD players that are classics? No." The reason cited is constant development in CD technology, first in the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) "jitter reduction" for but one example, and later in DSD (Direct Stream Digital), or SACD with its increased bandwidth and ability to handle multiple uncompressed channels, and its anti-copy protection-code scheme. Over the score of years since the introduction of consumer CD players, technological improvement (with its handmaiden, reduced cost) has made very high quality performance available at continuously lower prices. Last year Stereophile gave the Marantz SACD SA8260 multi-channel audio-only CD player its A rating. At $1200 it was the least expensive item in that category. And this is ongoing. I believe the performance of the finest and most expensive SACD players of today will be surpassed by more modestly priced versions in a few years. As any CD player can actually be seen as a dedicated music-reproducing computer, one might say CD technology reflects computer technology. One might further say, as I say, computer technology drives CD playback technologybut not (in that sense) amplifier, speaker, or turntable technologies.
The Universal CD Player, itself another specialized computer (albeit one with additional video and audio processors) benefiting from greater circuit density and specialized parts, has short-circuited the alleged "Format War" between SACD and DVD-A. At last count there were nearly two dozen universal players on the market ranging in price and features, where just a few years ago there were none. Zero. Zilch. Nada. They allow music collectors to play back Super Audio CDs (stereo or surround) or DVD-Audio CDs (stereo or surround), DVD-video, DVD-R, DVD-RW, CD-R, CD-RW, MP3, Dolby, Dolby II, (and a cast of thousands), as well as standard Redbook CDs on the same machines with which they watch their favorite movies. Even a purist with deep pockets who can afford separate machines for each format might be tempted by the current generation of universal players, of which Integras DPS-8.3 is a terrific example.
Why are these Universal CD players the coming thing? One reason is circuit density that allows all "universal" machines to host a printed circuit card (or chip-set equivalent) to process each format, which increases convenience and user friendliness. Another is the number of variations in playback options (Stereo Only, Four Channel Surround Sound, 5.1, or 7.1 Surround Sound, or the European 2 x 2 x 2) for backward compatibility to older CDs. Another is the rate of technological improvement, introducing such features as "progressive scan" that makes video reproduction better and better. Such improvements exist in audio as well; what were expensive innovations five years ago (or less) have become re-designed and incorporated into chip-sets that have improved the "bang for the buck" ratio. David Kawakami of Sony has said, (Quoted in Feb. 2004 Stereophile, p.39), "We have 10 [SACD] players in our line right now, with semiconductors produced just for those machines."
Sony SACD machines used to require two distinct laser heads, one for Redbook CDs, and one of another focal length to read the smaller pits of the SACD recordings. Now theyve developed a focal-length self-adjusting laser head to read both, and a host of dedicated parts produced in great numbers, so they can pass production savings on to the consumer. Sony is also a significant producer of CDs, in the position of making a one-time CD player purchaser (like a razor buyer) into a long-term repeat CD customer (like a razor blade buyer), so it is in their interest to make mid-priced machines sound as good as possible. I think it is safe to say that all mid-priced units are no longer necessarily mid-fi. And the audio magazines, by giving "A-Ratings" or "Product of the Year" awards to more modestly priced units, seem to back this up.
Segue To Integra
Mind you, Im old enough to remember some Onkyo products, like an all triode tubed receiver that a friends older brother brought back from a PX in Japan sometime in the dim and distant past. It was a heavy mother, and I thought an obvious copy of the McIntosh piece of the day. The model was called something like "The Dreadnaught," and it could surprise folks with how good the sound was. Over the years some Onkyo pieces have wandered through my lab (an 80s receiver, a 90s tuner, and a 90s power amp), and for what they were they represented good "bang for the buck."
Integra is the upscale brand of the Onkyo Corporation. The name Onkyo, Im told, translates from the Japanese as follows: the syllable "on" = sound, and "kyo" = harmony. So Onkyo = "Sound of Harmony," or "Harmonious Sound." And Onkyo makes it plain they do not manufacture anything but audio products: no computers, toasters, hair dryers, microwave ovens, or karaoke machines from Onkyo so far. Integra is its own company with its own administration, products, distribution, advertising and sales organization. The "Integra" brand is aimed above the rest of their mass market audio products, at the aftermarket custom installers who often serve the audio community. Integra represents the best engineering effort from an audio-only corporation, so it ought to be pretty damn good. Watch for the coming Integra Research division that will be marketing hi-end products with the audiophile in mind.
The piece reviewed here is the Integra DPS-8.3, a "Universal" CD player that with its "progressive scan" feature can handle DVD movies with surround sound, DVD-A multi-channel, SACD stereo or multi-channel, and regular red-book CDs (mono or stereo), plus its cast of thousands. The manufacturers suggested retail price (MSRP) is $1200, and that puts it in the same features class as many of the well-thought-of Universal Players, such as the Yamaha DVD-S2300 Mk II ($999), and the much heralded Marantz DV8400 ($1700). In the latest compilation (Sound & Vision; Feb-Mar 2004, p.102), of the twenty "universal" players listed, 30% cost $1,000 or less; 20% cost $1,000 - $2,000; and the remaining 50% cost from $2,000 to $11,000, with a partial retraction: "Although many of the players listed above carry hefty price tags, several manufacturers plan to introduce more lower-cost models later this year." The Integra 8.3 falls in the most highly competitive price bracket. (Although the company has announced its plans to release the DPS-10.5 in the second quarter of this year, that player is a step-up universal player priced substantially higher, at $2500 MSRP, than the DPS-8.3, so it will most likely have no effect on the price of this player. Alas.)
When I received the Integra DPS-8.3, I was not too hopeful about it, thinking it just another entry in the Universal Derby Sweepstakes. It is a given these days that most "Universal" players do a "very good" to "excellent" job on reproducing video, much better than VCRs, and good enough to support hi-rez TV monitors. I wont go into the video quality except to say it makes the cleanest picture Ive had. Regarding audio, there seems to be wider variability in the quality of audio reproduction among universal players, with prices ranging from the Pioneer $249 MSRP (DV-563A) to the Linn $10,995 MSRP (Unidisk 1.1). So when I dutifully plugged the Integra DPS-8.3 universal player into my surround rig, I was delighted to find it did not disappoint in direct comparison with my Marantz SA8260 (audio only) Multi-Channel SACD player that earned a top rating only a year ago, and which I assume has virtually the same audio circuits as their universal CD player. The Marantz plays only SACD multi-ch, SACD stereo, and Redbook CDs, and is a specialty item, aimed at audiophiles.
In A/B listening, the Integra DPS-8.3 was right there along side the Marantz in terms of audio quality; bass, midrange, highs, dynamics, imaging, soundstaging, and freedom from distortion on loud and complex passages, like those found in the Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet (Telarc Surround SACD -60597), or the delicacy and subtle shadings of Bachs Violin Concertos (DG Surround 474 639-2) played by Hilary Hahn, or the emotionally touching Opera Arias sung by Anna Netrebko (DG Surround 474 640-2). Oh, there may have been a hint of more or less presence, or a tad of more or less bass between them, but, I thought, nothing more than what the hand of various design engineers had wrought via parts selection like output capacitors, and nothing that judicious selection of auxiliary after-market interconnect cables and AC cords couldnt rectify. To my ears, the two players were on a parthough Id be the first to admit that what to my ears is a minor difference is to more sensitive souls enough to rule one out in favor of another.
Contrariwise, there are some small performance quirks that drive me bonkers. For example, there are those who say the stock version Sony SCD-1 (top of the line just a few years ago) is still ahead of the current pack in terms of robust sound. I owned a Sony SCD-777ES (nearly the same as the SCD-1, except for a pair of balanced line outputs) for three years and the "slamtronic" dynamic character of the sound was something I found fault with. In my rig, which has dynamics a-plenty, I felt that whenever the music got loud, it went directly to VERY LOUD. I felt I was missing those fine gradients between single f, double ff, and triple fff (and in these days, ffff for rock). And, when it got VERY LOUD, the soundstage seemed to compress subtly front-to-back more than a just barely noticeable notch. These are the kind of reasons Ive heard people use for justifying expensive after-market modifications now offered for those two Sony players. For some reason unknown to me (capacitor selection Id guess), I think the Integra DPS-8.3 captures the fine gradients of dynamic range very well, and the instruments hold their positions when playing very loudly. I decided Id rather ride the wave of the future than retro-fit my stereo-only Sony SCD-777ES (now a five year old designan eon in computer generations). I found a home for my Sony and I havent been disappointed by the newer CD players that come wandering by. You pays your money and you takes your pick.
Back to the Integra DPS-8.3 and its performance. I played it in my surround rig, and it did everything I could have expected of it, offering the holographic qualities one hopes for in surround sound that get you closer to the you-are-there illusion on your favorite CDs, like the mind boggling SACD Surround version of Puccinis La Bohème, exquisitely played and sung by the forces at La Scala (Decca, 470 624-2). I also played the Integra in my stereo-only big-rig, where I could control more of the auxiliary cables (one pair at a time instead of three). In that setting it sounded a tad brighter than the Marantz in an A/B test. I could get the two to sound much the same if I used a slightly more forgiving AC cord, the Twisted Pair Designs offering, rather than the more crystalline and less forgiving Harmonic Technologies Fantasy AC 10 cord with the Integra DPS-8.3. If I coupled this with a pair of Twisted Pair Reference Quest interconnects from the CD player to my pre-amp, it compensated for a Harmonic Technologies Truth-Link Silver interconnect. The overall effect made the Integra 8.3 sound a tad softer on transients. The Marantz, which I felt was a tad too forgiving in my system, benefited from the Harmonic Technologies Fantasy AC-10 cord and Truth-Link Silver interconnects by bringing up some details that I felt were otherwise too far down in the mix, on my system, to my ears. This is all a matter of taste, room acoustics, and the over-all balance of your system. Cables can "voice" a hi-rez system until one gets the most desired life-like balance. Your mileage may vary. And, as Jonathan Scull preaches, it is the reviewers job to get the equipment to sound its best; so I schlepped the Integra upstairs and back downstairs on my creaky knees, and I swapped cables and AC cords in and out and back again, until I might report back to you, gentle reader, what worked best.
The high-mid-low balance now where I liked it, I listened to many of my favorite CDs. I found the Integra DPS-8.3 could deliver the spaciousness I liked on the Rutter Requiem: The Turtle Creek Chorale and The Womens Chorus of Dallas, Timothy Seelig, cond. (Reference Recordings: RR-57CD), as well as the thunderfoot organ pedal tones. On my favorite Vivaldi: The Four Seasons; Sonatori De La Gioiosa Marca, Giuliano Carmignola, violin (First Impressions Music, FIMSACD 052), I found the lead violin tone both woody on the lower strings and brilliant on the upper ones, as solo violin sounds in live performance. On REGGAE in High-Fi; Various Artists (Audio Fidelity, SACD, AFZ 014) I had to be careful not to pop my woofers on the clean (nice job, Steve Hoffman) prodigious bass. I enjoyed them with renewed gusto. Similarly voices, like those of La Scalas husband and wife team, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu (in the already mentioned recording of La Bohème), were just gloriouseverything Id hoped for since CDs were released twenty odd years ago. If there ever was a recording that delivered on the vague promise put forth back then, this is one. And if there is a "universal player" out there that can get more goosebumps out of this particular recording, I will sing its praises when I hear it. Right now, at this level of technology, at this time, winter 2003-4, it is hard to imagine better. Thats how good the Integra DPS-8.3 sounds to me.
There are a few things that the Integra DPS-8.3 "universal player" doesnt do. It cant walk on water. Nor does it provide Bass Management, but most sub-woofers above the most entry-level subs will do that for you: provide an adjustable "knee" below which you can cut or boost the gain, or reverse phase, etc. Nor will the 8.3 give you speaker distance compensation (in SACD), or time delays, if all your speakers, like mine, arent equi-distant from the listening chair. But most better receivers above the entry-level will do that with the help of a Radio Shack sound pressure meter (about $40). The most costly universal players, whose designers anticipate separate hi-end multi-channel pre-amps and multi-channel power amps, build these features into the universal players so they wont get left out. In a more cost effective system, with a full-function AV-Receiver, like my Marantz Surround Receiver SR9200, youll have a separate bass-only channel for the Sub, and a white noise generator with which to compensate for individual speaker distances. Connected to my Marantz AV-Receiver, I found the Integra DPS-8.3 at least adequate to those set up tasks. It helps to have a video monitor to work with the Integras menu, but you can do it without a monitor if you have a full feature AV-Receiver.
The Proverbial "Bottom Line"
In sum, I found the Integra DPS-8.3 Universal Player a terrific performer at its price point, up to date on nearly all features, with audio just a tad brighter (but easily compensated for) than the default system I carry around inside my head. It plays excellently in either DVD-A, SACD, or redbook CD mode. With its upsampling setup, it plays standard old CDs about as well as Ive heard. It does an excellent job in either stereo or multi-channel. It does sound a tad less warm and less forgivingly sweet than my Marantz, but in my dotage I like a tad more revealing and dynamic sound. I found the video side as good as Ive seen up to the very best pro quality set ups. In all fairness, I must admit my "monitor" is a five year old Zenith 27" regular home TV, Model Sentry 2, with SEQ stereo. [I am obligated to announce that I dont own the latest and greatest TV set. Its only just. I do get many latest and greatest toys to play with before I send them back.] But from what Ive read, and when I go into boutique video stores, they tell me any machine with Progressive Scan will do fine.
The system in which I did the bulk of my listening to the Integra DPS-8.3 Universal Player consists of a Marantz Surround Sound Receiver SR 9200, a Monster HTS-5100 Home Theater Power Center current conditioner, five Morel Acoustic USAs Renaissance Duet loudspeakers, a Renaissance Phantom sub-woofer, all connected by Monster (pretty neutral to my ear) Mseries M550i analog interconnects (3pr. at 0.5 meter each), and Mseries M1.2s speaker cables (front, surround, and center). In this system, in my room ("the black hole"), the Integra DPS-8.3 was outstanding.
If you move fast you might find discounts available on this model. It is for tips such as this one that keep you pinging up Positive Feedback Online, right? Damn Straight! So, if youre in the market for a universal player, tell your old lady to put on her high-heeled sneakers and boogie on down to your local Integra dealer, and tell em Max Dudious sent you. Get down!!
Integra DPS-8.3 universal CD player
Integra, division of Onkyo USA Corporation