Oppo Digital DV-970HD CD, SACD,
If youve read the reviews Ive read, youll
understand why Ive been thinking a lot about Regas Apollo CD player. Sometimes
its the first thing I think about in the morning, sometimes the last thing I think
of at night. Ive 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 Regas 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.
Oppos 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.
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 Oppos 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
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-970HDs 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). Ive grown accustomed to the way it goes
about its business, which differs slightly from the Oppos. 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 Oppos thin, translucent CD tray
is like a diving board: rigid and sturdy, with a little spring. Snapping it off isnt
as much of a concern as it might be with typical plastic. It also doesnt 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 discs 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-970HDs 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 Oppos video capabilities was
woefully limited: via the players 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 Cables Double Run speaker cable.
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. "Aint Cha" exploded from the speakers, each
beat snapping sharply and leaning outward to meet the insistent organ riffs head on.
"Trill" emphasized the Oppos 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 Ive 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 Jaggers 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
As if SACD werent enough to separate the DV-970HD
from the run-of-the-mill players Ive used as source components, it gave me the
incentive to spin the music DVD of Chris Whitleys 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
Whitleys close and carefully miked vocals had slightly more organic shadings than on
the CD. The Oppo traced the decay of Whitleys 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 Whitleys
I was impressed with the Oppo DV-970HDs excellent
sound, but I needed it to play DVDs as well. Theres nothing worse than getting the
next disc in your rental queue in the mail and seeing that its 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 wasnt the players 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 Oppos picture was impeccable. Contrasts
on the Deadwood DVD were clear, and details were sharp far into the backgrounds. Deadwoods
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
amplifiers Tone Defeat button does. But even with the video fully engaged, the sound
of Deadwood offered nothing to complain about, with Swearengens and
Bullocks 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 its done everything Ive asked of it. But the Oppo
DV-970HD has made me aware of the compromises the Pioneer has been subjecting me to.
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. Its 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 samples 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. Its 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 doesnt 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.
Price of equipment reviewed