Quick -- how many DVD-As are currently available? About 60, with 240 SACDs also for sale. It's easy to see that neither format has taken anything close to a foothold in over two years of trying. Why then are we audiophiles so interested in them?
Because we're audiophiles! And we want to at least know about what's better, even if we aren't supporting any of it with our dollars. But while there is a paucity of music in DVD-A and SACD formats, there are dozens of players for each from various companies, and they are of more than passing interest for us two-channel types because of their technological pedigrees and flexibility. Discovering a DVD-A/DVD-V player that also cuts the mustard with CDs would give us audiophiles a sense of accomplishment, even if there is little DVD-A software to play.
The many faces of Onkyo
Japanese electronics giant Onkyo is well known in the US for its home-theater receivers, which often have feature sets that are so rich they make similarly priced products from other makers seem under developed. But did you know that Onkyo also manufactures under the Integra and Integra Research names? The latter of these two is more upscale, offering products that are designed in part by high-end manufacturer BAT. Integra products include special features that make them more suitable for custom installation, like RS-232 and A-BUS ports. Also, in terms of parts quailty, power supplies and connections, Integra products are reportedly a bit more refined. The subject of this review, the $1800 USD Onkyo DV-S939, has an equivalent player in terms of features, specs and price in the Integra line, the DPS-9.1. I happen to like the look of the Onkyo player more, but others may not.
The DV-S939 is rife with features for sound-conscious buyers, including 24-bit/192kHz DACs, separate transformers for its analog and digital sections, and a mechanism that's heavily shielded from electrical and magnetic interference. There's also a Video Circuit Off mode that disables all video processing, reportedly improving sound. There are two coaxial and TosLink digital outputs (none of which pass 24/96 data), a detachable power cord with IEC connector, and even high-quality A/V cables included. On the front are a row of LEDs that indicate the sampling frequency of the disc (or program) being played: 44.1/48kHz, 88.2/96kHz and 176.4/192kHz. I found these invaluable for determining exactly which program on a DVD-A was being played.
The DV-S939 is sturdy given its 17 3/16"W x 4 3/4"H x 14 3/4"D dimensions, weighing in at 24 pounds. In addition to being a progressive-scan DVD-V and multichannel DVD-A player, the DV-S939 accommodates all kinds of CDs, including CD-Rs and CD-RWs. It also handled every dual-layer SACD I threw at it, a feat other DVD players haven't been able to duplicate. Around back are an abundance of RCA jacks for multichannel and home-theater use as well as jacks for video output. The DV-S939's remote is a learning model, and it was easy to use even with all its buttons. And none of this begins to address all of the video features and THX Ultra certification. In short, the DV-S939 is one loaded digital component.
I used the Onkyo DV-S939 in my reference system: Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 speakers driven by Lamm ML2 amplifiers, Lamm L2 Reference preamp, Mark Levinson No.39 CD player used by itself and connected to a Bel Canto DAC1.1. I also used Audio Research VTM200 mono amps and a Reference Two Mk II preamp. Cables for most of the review period were from Nordost (Quattro-Fil interconnects and SPM Reference speaker cables) or Acoustic Zen (Silver Reference interconnects and Hologram speaker cables). Power cords used throughout were from Shunyata Research, and at the tail end of the review period consisted exclusively of the new Python, including one that provided juice to a Shunyata Hydra power-line goodie-box.
I also used the DV-S939 to play movies on my 36" Mitsubishi direct-view TV, and its performance was a cut above that of any DVD player I've used. The picture was crisp without being artificially so, and the colors were rich. I couldn't make use of the DV-S939's progressive-scan capability, but I'm sure it would only improve the video image even more.
But this is an audio review .
Sound without vision
Before you can use the DV-S939 to play any kind of disc, you have to do the initial setup of the player, which means that it has to be connected to a TV. OK, that's the least we can do for our music, right? But needing to have the player connected to a TV for setup doesn't end the inconvenience -- a good amount of the DVD-A software available requires you to maneuver through on-screen menus and choose the correct program for your configuration. This is especially true of the Telarc DVD-A discs I have here, and it's darned annoying if all you want to do is listen to music -- which is what I did, opting to play CDs as well as Classic Records 24/96 DVDs before wrestling with DVD-As.
The DV-S939 did very well with CDs. Its easy-going disposition made it worthy of long listening periods. The DV-S939 is not forward or incisive playing CDs, sounding friendly in the upper-midrange/lower-treble CD trouble region. I for one like this. It reminds me of the sound of the Bel Canto DAC1.1 because of the way the music just flows. The DV-S939 is yet another digital product for those music lovers who don't like digital sound.
Its soundstaging, especially the depth it portrayed, puts the DV-S939 firmly in the high-end realm. Spinning the DCC remaster of Bill Evans' Interplay [DCC GZS-1102], the DV-S939 casts a deep and layered sonic landscape. On "You and the Night and the Music," Freddie Hubbard's trumpet is right of center, slightly behind Percy Heath on drums, who's hard left. Everything is clear and inviting, no spotlighting or undue emphasis. My notes say none too elegantly, "A beautiful portrayal, a joy to enjoy."
The DV-S939's bass is good by any standard, but not the equal of a very fine CD player like the Mark Levinson No.39. It offers notable weight, but it's a little sloggy -- slow and soggy -- in comparison. The prominent low end of CDs like Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 31454] and Spain's The Blue Moods of Spain [Restless 72910] is not as well defined as with the No.39. This is nit-picking to be sure, but it also helps to frame the overall quality of the DV-S939's CD playback, which is nothing short of very good but not the equal of the very best you can find. Keep in mind, however, that the No.39 costs over three times as much as the DV-S939 and only plays CDs.
But with 24/96 DVDs, the tables turned, as the DV-S939 produced sound equal to the best I've heard from my system, which, to be fair, has yet to entertain an SACD player. I made direct comparisons with recordings I have on CD and 24/96 DVD, and the DVDs were far superior in every way, further illuminating the DV-S939's inherent strengths -- a musical nature, great soundstage depth -- and improving on its slight deficiencies -- the bass quality and lack of incisiveness. Terry Evans' Blues for Thought [Classic Records DAD 1014] and Sam Phillips' Cruel Inventions [Classic Records DAD 1013] were driving and spacious, and the bass line on the title cut showed tautness that the CD couldn't. But when I put on Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else [Classic Records DAD 1022], I was glued to the sweet spot as the sound absolutely took over my listening room -- and me. "Here is an example of why we care about what's better than CD," I wrote on my notepad. "Tremendous detail, ease, naturalness, drive, involvement." I seriously doubt any listener would fault the sound of Somethin' Else played on the Onkyo DV-S939, and if he did, I would wonder what he's hearing.
With CDs and DVDs down, only DVD-As remained, and here too the DV-S939's sound was outstanding. However, as I mentioned in my review of the Kenwood DV-4070-B DVD-V/DVD-A/CD player, the software I have, which has grown by a few titles, does not take full advantage of DVD-A's possible 192kHz sampling frequency in two-channel mode, probably because all of the discs are multichannel mixes first and foremost, and this limits them to 96kHz. Telarc's Celebrating the Music of Weather Report [DVDA-73473] touts "up to 192kHz playback" in its insert, but in no way could I get the 192kHz LED on the DV-S939 to illuminate. Either I don't know the secret code or no such program material exists on the disc. In either case, such jumping through hoops is frustrating for someone who only wants to listen to two-channel music and underscores that fact that DVD-A is meant to be a multichannel format -- and presumably that a TV will be part of the system.
But once I was able to hear DVD-A sound in two channels, I found the results impressive. Based on my experience with two DVD-A players, there seems to be a sound intrinsic to DVD-A that's more lively and immediate than CD or 24/96 DVD. I plowed through the handful of DVD-As I have here, enjoying Telarc's new recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture [DVDA-70541] as well as the aforementioned Celebrating the Music of Weather Report. I have the CDs of both for comparison, but there was really none to make, the DVD-A material sounding more detailed, powerful and musically satisfying at the same time. Of particular note were the synth tones on the Weather Report disc, which sounded more edgy and computerized than I've heard. So what? Well, high-end audio is about reality, and at least in this case, DVD-A delivers it more readily than CD.
During the DV-S939's stay, I also had the Kenwood DV-4070-B around, a five-disc carousel that costs $800 less. I could go into specifics in comparing the sound of these two players, but I would be saying the same thing over and over again: the Onkyo DV-S939 is superior. I found the Kenwood player to sound "warm" but opaque with CDs, and dynamically restricted with CDs and 24/96 DVDs. This was not the case with the DV-S939, which, once again, was easy to listen to for long stretches, especially with 24/96 material. I enjoyed the DV-S939 more with CDs too -- among the differences is the DV-S939's less recognizable sonic personality -- although it was fun to load discs of different formats into the Kenwood player and switch among them.
With DVD-As, the gulf was not as great, but the DV-S939 still sounded more musically satisfying, although no more detailed or dynamic. Instead, its inherent ease still came through, and I found, for instance, that Aaron Neville's Devotion [Silverline 81028-9] and the DVD-A sampler from Kenwood (Kenwood 5.1 Collection [Silverline 72434]) sounded less recognizable as DVD-A discs, which is to say that the energetic DVD-A signature was less obvious.
When it comes to strict CD playback, the Mark Levinson No.39 offers better low-end definition and slam, more extended and airy treble, and a certain neutrality that lets the CDs you play sound more differentiated from each other. Connecting the Bel Canto DAC1.1 to the DV-S939's coaxial digital output made it sound more extended in the treble, but the difference was slight, pointing out to me that the No.39 is a better CD transport than the DV-S939. But I honestly wouldn't sweat it. I found the DV-S939 very easy to enjoy no matter how it was used or what kind of disc it was playing.
Given the lack of DVD-A software available, a product like the DV-S939 has to deliver with CDs and 24/96 DVDs for it to be worth your two-channel dollars. And this it does, offering sound that's easy on the ears with CDs and of the highest quality I've encountered with 24/96 DVDs. Add to this DVD-A performance that will make you nothing but happy and a plethora of video and multichannel options and you have the most flexible source component I've yet encountered. Just make sure you have a TV around for initial setup as well as mining two-channel material from some of the DVD-As available.
The Onkyo DV-S939 can truly lay claim to being a high-end CD, DVD-V and DVD-A music machine, and it would be my first choice for a multi-format player here and now.
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