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In search of inexpensive, but quality DVD - the
The first law of high fidelity is you that never know what you are missing. If I didn't have several digital players on hand, I could probably live with any of them, but I do, so I have preferences. I am surprised and delighted at the trickle-down in digital these days, which yields great sound for less and less money. There will always be someone on the block who will charge more than everyone else to get that last 1% of performance, but the general direction of digital audio is a good one. Disc players are becoming more and more like phono cartridges—cheap ones may provide amazing qualities. You want lush, buy Grado; fast and detailed, buy a Sumiko; razor sharpness and low coloration, buy Helikon, etc.
The Denon DVD-2200, the least expensive of the three universal players Denon makes, is very, very good, and a bargain at $600 (discounted for around $450). Here's the scorecard—the 2200 is 75% as detailed as the Marantz DV 8400 universal player ($1800) playing every format. The Marantz is 75% as detailed as the fabled Sony SCD-1 ($5000) on SACD, and about 80% as good as my Theta Gen 5A/Jade combo ($8000) on CD. These generalizations are NOT the whole story, but you get the picture. If you are chasing the holy grail of the musical event and cost is no object, the Denon may not be for you, but stay tuned for more, please.
The Denon is very musical. It is more even-sounding than the Marantz, which has a small, and annoying, top-end rise. The Denon is relaxed, sweet, textured, and very listenable with all media, at any volume level. Everyone who heard the 2200 was startled at its winning sound. It was enjoyable from A to Z. Even CDs, the Achilles heel of omni players, sounded first rate. No, it was not the equal of the $12,000 Gryphon Mikado I recently reviewed, but it was about 65% as good and cost less than the sales tax on the more expensive player! Plus, the Mikado only plays CDs, while the Denon plays everything.
The Denon is quiet, with extremely black backgrounds. Maybe it's the new Burr Brown chips (the Marantz and the Sony use older chips), but the Denon is quieter than the Marantz and maybe a bit more quiet than the Sony. This makes the Denon pop, but it's not so much dynamic range as verisimilitude of musical tone and style. I love the way the Denon makes music, and I think you will, too.
Negatives? Sure. The DVD-2200 is somewhat polite. You get good dynamics, but no swagger. The Marantz has swagger, the Sony swagger and slam. While the Denon is very detailed, the Marantz is more detailed, with enhanced 3-D qualities, and the Sony and the Theta combo are even better. Do you miss this definition? Once you hear it, you realize the Denon's shortcomings, but it's easier to go back to the Denon than you'd think, even after hearing it bested by one of the big boys. The Denon is that musical!
Like the Marantz, the Denon is a pain on DVD-A if you want two channels and maximum resolution. You have to drill down through layers of menus with a monitor to get to the right one. Once you set it up, you don't have to touch it again, which is good. You also may switch off the video and the fluorescent display, and that's very good, as it enhances the sound. I had two of Classic Records' new HDADs on hand, which are 24/192. Listening to Songs of the Auvergne (HDAD 2002) with the Denon at highest resolution was killer. I was able to enjoy every note at the loudest volume and bask in the wonderful detail. The Marantz had significantly more textural definition, though it was slightly more edgy due to its top-end rise. It also emphasized tape hiss. I preferred the Denon in my system on DVD-As, and consider it a winner in this format.
I tried many SACDs, and the Denon took third place every time to the Marantz and the Sony in this format. Nevertheless, its sins were always subtractive, and this is the first time I've heard this kind of listenability for under $2000. It almost sounds like the Denon has a tube output stage. It has a lack of digital edge in ALL formats. Those new Burr Brown chips again? Who knows, and who cares? I like the way it honors the music. Coming in third placed it in great company.
CDs (those low-resolution discs you own a ton of) sounded just fine on the Denon. Though the Marantz and Sony had more texture, detail, and dynamic slam, they did not make CDs sound more musically correct. They were often more hi-fi sounding, and fatiguing on the ear. The Theta combo was substantially better on CDs than the Denon, and even more musical, as it should be for $8000, but the Theta gear is six years old (48 dog years) and no longer in production. The Denon was delightful and non-fatiguing over long listening sessions, even with older CDs. Violins and piano were always right—not the most defined, but defined enough, and damned musical. Want to hear a great new jazz CD? Get your hands on The Carl Saunders Sextet Live in San Francisco, on the BluePort label (BPJ011). On the Denon, the instrumental timbres were just right, and the air and ambience were outstanding, and fun. The Denon had sort of row-M sound, as did the Theta combo. The Marantz took me up to the front rows, which was fine, but almost annoying. I preferred the perspective of the Denon and the Theta.
You may want to try one of the more expensive Denons, but they appear to use the same audio chips in all models. A better power supply might yield better sound, but that's only a guess. ModWright is modifying the top Denon, and their mods sound winning on the various Sony units I've heard. One suggestion—do put the 2200 on cones or Vibrapods. They are essential for top performance.
The Denon DVD-2200 is a lot of player for little cost. It plays all 5-inch media well, and keeps up with players costing $2000 in sheer listenability. It smooths over the rough edges in CD playback in a musical manner, and stuns the listener with the rightness of high-resolution disc formats. It may not be the last word in detail or dynamics, but it is way good enough for many to jump into the superb new SACD/DVD-A discs. Its performance is beautifully even, with nary a lump or bump at any frequency, and the video looks top notch as well. The Denon DVD-2200 is not a giant killer, but it is a giant value. Robert H. Levi