GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published May 15, 2007

 

GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY



Oppo Digital DV-970HD CD, SACD, DVD-A/V Player

If you’ve read the reviews I’ve read, you’ll understand why I’ve been thinking a lot about Rega’s Apollo CD player. Sometimes it’s the first thing I think about in the morning, sometimes the last thing I think of at night. I’ve had at least one dream about it. From what I gather, it offers superlative CD playback and insanely detailed retrieval of information, especially for something that sells for under $1000 USD.

My heart says, "Buy it!" My brain says, "The Oppo DV-970HD costs less than a sixth of the Rega’s price." And my ears tell me that the Oppo sounds wonderful. If the Apollo played DVDs, it might threaten to occupy my every waking moment -- but neither my living room nor my lifestyle can accommodate multiple single-format players.

Oppo’s DV-970HD is the exact opposite: It supports just about every digital disc format you can think of (other than HD DVD and Blu-ray), and it costs $149.

Description

Oppo Digital is a young company based in California that manufactures and sells its products directly. They offer three DVD players, all priced under $230, and the DV-970HD is the least expensive. But big-box retailers routinely sell DVD players for less than half of even the Oppo’s negligible price of $149, and pawn shops are littered with players made obsolete by rapidly evolving technology. The Oppo had better distinguish itself with features, versatility, and quality.

The DV-970HD is available only in silver, and is typically sleek, unassuming, and unobtrusive. It stands only 2" high and 10" deep, but its 16.5"-wide face accommodates a power button, a disc drawer, buttons for Eject, Play/Pause, and Stop, a modest display, a remote sensor, and a door that opens to reveal memory-card and USB inputs. The orange display indicates track (or chapter) number, and the real-time counter counts up and down per track or for the whole CD. The counter options are controlled by the elaborate, full-function, comfortable remote (following exposure to light, its keys glow in the dark). And while a CD-only player would be likely to offer more information on its display, the Oppo sends all but the bare basics to your display.

On the rear panel is a smorgasbord of output jacks: progressive scan, composite video, and S-video; optical and coaxial audio; 5.1-channel audio; plain old analog audio; and an HDMI interface (which accounts for the "HD" in the DV-970HD’s model number). The Oppo features video upconversion to 1080i (but not 1080p).

For the past few years my primary listening source has been a Pioneer DV-353 DVD player ($179 when new). I’ve grown accustomed to the way it goes about its business, which differs slightly from the Oppo’s. The Pioneer is an "energy saver" unit, and would power down automatically. The Oppo will stay on unless you turn it off. Once its drawer is open, the Oppo’s thin, translucent CD tray is like a diving board: rigid and sturdy, with a little spring. Snapping it off isn’t as much of a concern as it might be with typical plastic. It also doesn’t quite extend the full diameter of a disc, which takes a little getting used to. Rather than drop a disc onto it, you have to slip the disc’s far edge under the lip of the faceplate. A little tricky, but it seems to encourage the user to lay discs flat.

At its heart, for ill and for good, the DV-970HD is a DVD player. Unfortunately, it automatically plays any disc inserted in it. It takes just long enough to read a disc that you can get back to your seat and skip past the previews on a DVD, but for music you need to hit Stop fast, or have the remote in hand to skip to the track you want. On the positive side, if you stop an audio disc, the Oppo will replay it from that exact point -- just like restarting a DVD.

Part of the DV-970HD’s appeal is what it might be able to do, as video migrates more and more to the home computer, and high-resolution flat-screen TVs replace CRTs. My audition of the Oppo’s video capabilities was woefully limited: via the player’s standard output via a Monster Cable Interlink to my circa-1999 Sony Wega CRT display. For video and audio, the Oppo DV-970HD replaced my Pioneer DV-353, and was connected to my NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier from its analog audio outputs by Monster Cable Interlink 200 interconnects. The NAD drove Axiom M22 loudspeakers, each connected by 9’ of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable.

Listening

So many formats to choose from, but I began modestly with a CD, Hell Hath No Fury, by Clipse [Re-Up Gang/Zomba 52119]. The music is spare and skeletal, and the Neptunes’ production style is as spartan as the raps by Pusha T and Malice are blunt and deadpan. The Oppo DV-970HD retrieved every discrete element with temporal precision, and conveyed the tonal complexities that coalesced into the tracks’ sparse images. "Ain’t Cha" exploded from the speakers, each beat snapping sharply and leaning outward to meet the insistent organ riffs head on. "Trill" emphasized the Oppo’s ability to focus among the buzzing swarm of electronics, while "Mr. Me Too" bumped and decayed with a laconic offhandedness echoed by the vocal. After the shock of the realistic fireworks sound effects and slam of "Chinese New Year," the harmonies and clarity of the singing on "Nightmares" was sweeter than I expect from a format with a reputation for coldness. On this and other CDs, both factory-pressed and burned on my PC, the Oppo was silky smooth, virtually flawless, and easy to love.

SACD has always interested me, and a few hybrid discs have passed through my hands over the last few years, but I’ve never had a player in my listening room that was able to handle them. Shortly after the DV-970HD arrived, I had reason to track down a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet [ABKCO 8823012], a record I know quite well on vinyl and CD. As re-created by the DV-970HD, the guitar strummed its way out of the Axioms and into the room on "Street Fighting Man," and the solo on "Sympathy for the Devil" carved the air as if it had suddenly thickened into palpability. Mick Jagger’s voice was rich, full, and clear on "Prodigal Son," spurred on by full-bodied foot stomps and Keith Richards calling out in response. The strings on "Salt of the Earth" rang softly and deeply, filling the room with a shimmering ambience. The music, previously so familiar, was a revelation, reinvented by the Oppo as it expanded the spatial boundaries that had defined these songs.

As if SACD weren’t enough to separate the DV-970HD from the run-of-the-mill players I’ve used as source components, it gave me the incentive to spin the music DVD of Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor [Classic DAD-1010], an audiophile version of a recording well known for having been exceptionally rendered in its original version: just Whitley in a barn with his National steel guitar. Between the declarative "Scrapyard Lullaby" and the wistful "Loco Girl," and within the dynamic range of "Indian Summer," the tone of Whitley’s close and carefully miked vocals had slightly more organic shadings than on the CD. The Oppo traced the decay of Whitley’s notes as they resonated out of his National, defining the edges with specificity while stopping well short of etchiness. The Oppo conveyed not only the top layer of digitized information that anyone would expect it to retrieve; it also went beneath to capture the emotion at the heart of Whitley’s performance.

Comparison

I was impressed with the Oppo DV-970HD’s excellent sound, but I needed it to play DVDs as well. There’s nothing worse than getting the next disc in your rental queue in the mail and seeing that it’s so scratched as to be unplayable. In this case it was disc 2 of Season One of Deadwood. Not surprisingly, it got hung up in the Pioneer DV-353. It wasn’t the player’s fault: there was too much damage on the surface of that disc for it to play on the DV-353. In the Oppo, however, the disc played without fault. So I tried another disc I have, of home movies recorded with high compression. On the Pioneer, after the third hour or so, the video starts to break up and freeze. The Oppo played much deeper into the disc -- not perfectly, but it broke up less, with fewer pixelated sections.

Overall, the Oppo’s picture was impeccable. Contrasts on the Deadwood DVD were clear, and details were sharp far into the backgrounds. Deadwood’s tonal palette is predominately blacks, whites, and shades of brown; the DV-970HD kept each color distinct, without bleeding or washed-out distractions. Forward, reverse, and freeze, all controlled from the remote, were quick and responsive.

Sonically, the Oppo was more refined than my trusty DVD-353, offering a greater degree of clarity and inner detail, particularly in its Audio Only mode, which bypasses the video circuits via a key on the remote, much like an amplifier’s Tone Defeat button does. But even with the video fully engaged, the sound of Deadwood offered nothing to complain about, with Swearengen’s and Bullock’s hissing whispers perfectly audible, and the theme, background, and closing music lively and arresting.

I like my Pioneer DVD-353 very much. It was a good purchase at a good price, and it’s done everything I’ve asked of it. But the Oppo DV-970HD has made me aware of the compromises the Pioneer has been subjecting me to.

Conclusion

Taken on its own terms, the Oppo DV-970HD is remarkably versatile, handling all manner of discs -- CDs, DVDs, SACDs, DVD-As, DivX, Kodak Picture CDs -- as well as upconversion to 1080i via its HDMI output. Oppo even throws in a decent HDMI cable. It plays music-only recordings with transparency and linearity, and with a solid helping of information retrieval. It’s not the ultimate in bass grip or treble extension, but it holds its own with other, better-known midpriced players -- none of which can handle multiple formats. Granted, some of my review sample’s operations were quirky. SACD playback was counterintuitive: I had to press Play before I could Skip tracks. Oppo claims that this has been corrected in a firmware update. It’s this sort of proactive response that marks Oppo as a company with its eyes turned toward the future.

When reviewers write of components that deliver performance above and beyond their price classes, they call them "giant killers." The Oppo DV-970HD would be a bargain at twice its price of $149. It doesn’t just outperform other players in its price range -- among near-universal models, there are no other players in its price range. Those giants must be very, very nervous.

...Jeff Stockton

Price of equipment reviewed


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