The BD Player Test Part 3: Analog Audio

Finally we get to the meat of the subject. In this installment I'll give my impressions of the sound quality of the players under test, as heard from their analog outputs with 2-channel CDs.

The System The amplifier was the Parasound Halo A51. It's a still-current multichannel design, but only two channels were used for this installment. Beyond that the rest of the system is decidedly vintage, but still first-rate. The cables have been used for many of my reviews since the early 1990s and are a mixture of Tara Labs RSC Reference, (players to preamp, single-ended, with two pair available when needed for A/B testing), Cardas Hexlink (preamp to amp, balanced), and Monster M1.5s (amp to speaker, single-wired). The preamp was a Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate and the speakers were Energy Veritas v2.8s. I reviewed both of these products for Stereophile in the early to mid 1990s and subsequently purchased them.

The Consummate, apart from its superb sound, has features that make it uniquely suited for a test that will include extensive head-to-head comparisons.

Not only does it offer repeatable level-settings in increments of 0.2dB or less, it also has a memory mode that lets you save different level settings for each input. When you switch between these differently adjusted inputs, the levels can be set to switch simultaneously as well. Since the level controls use resistive ladder networks and high quality relays, the switching is nearly instantaneous, with no break between A and B. There is no digital processing involved, either direct or indirect.

These level-matching capabilities, combined with the preamp's remote control, provide for a simple, direct A/B comparison between sources. While some of the players under test here have identical output levels, others differ by as much as a full dB. Without the features this preamp provides, direct A/B tests would be impossible without adding additional switching and level-matching gear to the test setup. The latter always raise a red flag with audiophiles who suspect that the test setup itself may affect the results. There was nothing the playback chain for these tests apart from what would normally be there: source, preamp, amp, speakers, and the required cables.

The Energy Veritas v2.8s have been my reference speakers since mid-1994—an eternity in audiophile years, though these days I use them mainly when I have a need for speakers with which I'm intimately familiar for a 2-channel test. The reason that they aren't used more often has nothing to do with their performance, which remains superb, but everything to do with the fact that Energy never made a center channel speaker to go with them (the center speakers for the later Veritas models are not a good match). $6000/pair when I reviewed them in 1994, the v2.8s can still compete favorably, in my judgment, with most modern $10,000/pair designs, and not a few selling for a lot more than that.

The listening was not blind, but several times during the many hours it took to do these tests I somehow lost track of which remote button selected which player. When I finally found out which was which, the results were generally the same as when I knew for certain which player I was listening to all along.

For these tests I created several duplicate pairs of full-resolution CD-Rs. These included a wide variety of program material chosen to test important playback characteristics such as bass and treble clarity, midrange naturalness and detail, and soundstage imaging and depth.

A Word on Loading Times We expect relatively slow loading times for video playback on a Blu-ray player, but they're slow in loading CDs as well. The fastest player here was the Marantz BD7004, at just over 14 seconds from drawer open to music start. The Oppo was nearly as good, at just over 14.5 seconds. The Marantz UD8004 was dead last at a blistering 34 seconds on the first try, 28 seconds on a second. The Pioneer BDP-09FD was a close runner-up for the pokiest, at 26 seconds.

But there's another time factor here as well, one that affects playback on all types of discs: the boot time from power up to when the player indicates it is ready to accept a disc. On a CD player this time is, effectively, instantaneous. The Oppo was fastest here at 12 seconds. The UD8004 scampered home at a leisurely 39 seconds, with the BDP-09FD at 29 seconds. That's right: The most expensive players here took the longest to fire-up and play. 30+ seconds or so seems like an eternity when you're standing there waiting to pop in a disc. You'll want to keep these two players warmed up at all times to avoid, at least, the boot-up delay. Testing First up, Pioneer's $2200 Elite BDP-09FD. While it doesn't offer the audio features that some of the other players sport (there's no SACD or DVD-Audio playback), it made up for this with a combination of openness and detail, without brightness, that some of the others could not quite match. At the other end of the spectrum the bass, from the extreme bottom to the upper bass, was tight and potent.

There was nothing lacking in the BDP-09FD's imaging and depth, either. In fact, in all respects the overall performance of this player was on a par with what you would expect from similarly priced, dedicated CD players.

The big surprise came when I compared the Elite BDP-09FD with Pioneer's $600 Elite BDP-23FD. My first impression was that the two were very similar in sound. Yes, the top end of the -09 was very slightly smoother sounding—but no more detailed—and the bottom perhaps a bit tighter. But considering all the extra resources that apparently went into the design of the -09's audio circuits, the -23 (which is slightly newer design and could perhaps draw on the design work done for the -09) was a real surprise. Were I choosing between the players myself, based purely in their 2-channel analog audio performance, I'd probably go for the -09 if the bucks were there, but would be happy with the -23 if they were not. The BDP-23FD is a very tempting proposition, particularly with the imminent churning of the Blu-ray applecart by the 3D players expected later this year. The -23's main drawback is its lack of a coaxial digital output. There's only a Toslink optical digital out (apart from HDMI—we'll be testing the non-HDMI digital outputs in future installments.)

The above comparison suggests that the audio differences between these players will, in general, be far subtler than any of us might assume. And that proved to be the case, though not quite as true, brand-to-brand, as between same-brand siblings. So I next turned my attention to the Marantz UD8004 ($2300). It was brighter sounding than the Pioneers, though not in a negative way. Whether or not this was a plus depended significantly on the speakers. While most of my listening was done on the Energys, I also briefly brought a far less expensive, more current speaker into play: the new PSB Image T6. I'm currently reviewing it (along with models to flesh-out a full surround system) for an upcoming issue of Home Theater, and will just say here that it is an excellent value at $1200/pair. With the PSBs, the UD8004 sounded a more sharply defined and lively than the Pioneer, particularly on hard transients. If you like the result, as I did, you might describe it as hard-hitting and punchy. If you don't, you might find it a little too up-front.

And it was on the PSBs that I actually preferred the Marantz UD8004 by a hair over the Pioneer BDP-09FD. But the reverse was the case on the Energys, which are inherently more open, detailed, and, yes, brighter on top than the PSBs. Still, my listening notes describe the UD8004 / BDP-09FD comparison over the Energy's as so close it was scary. The Pioneer was a bit tamer in the way it handled such things as percussion, while the Marantz sounded more hard-hitting and "faster." This characteristic added an extra shade of definition to the Marantz in the bass as well (the impression of bass tightness can be heavily influenced by the higher frequency overtones of bass transients). The bottom line here: On brighter-sounding systems I marginally preferred the Pioneer, but on systems with less inherent brightness, the Marantz carried the day. The margin was very small, but worth keeping in mind, since the subjective top-end balance was the most obvious difference between these two players.

Next I hooked up the $800 Marantz BD7004. It proved virtually indistinguishable from the 8004 in its mids, highs, and soundstage—both depth and imaging. The only significant difference I heard was in the bass, where the UD8004 was marginally tighter on drums and other abrupt bass transients.

I next compared the Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD to the Marantz BD7004. The differences were not all that different than the comparisons between their big brothers, the BDP-09FD and UD8004, with the Marantz BD7004 a bit punchier and more vivid-sounding and the Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD a bit "slower" and more polite. In the bass it was nearly a tie, with the Marantz just slightly tighter. While the Pioneer could again be the better option on brighter systems, if your system needs a little waking-up, without going over-the-top, the Marantz BD7004 might well be the ticket.

And in case you're wondering if the differences I heard were due to frequency response variations between the players, think again. When I measured the BDP-23FD against the BD7004, the two players were within 0.1dB of each other from 1kHz to 6kHz, but diverged slightly above that point, with the Marantz's response down by 0.3dB at 10kHz and by 0.5kHz at 20kHz (the latter frequency is no longer part of my auditory repertoire)!

The last player candidate in this current go-round was the Oppo BDP-83. It was an interesting case. After acclimating to the sound of the other players, the Oppo sounded a lacking in top-end air, though the detail was all there. The bass also lacked the snap of the others, though not by much.

But these differences were most apparent in a a direct comparison. Listened to on its own the Oppo was sweet, smooth, and perfectly listenable. In fact, for listeners who seek a more rounded, warmer sound than either the Pioneer pair or the Marantz duo, the Oppo could well be the favored choice.

But in a direct face-off with the Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD, these differences remained more obvious than the earlier comparisons: Pioneer-to-Pioneer, Marantz-to-Marantz, and Pioneer-to-Marantz. But I would not say that the differences fell outside the limits that define good performance. It should also be noted that the Oppo's analog output voltage was slightly higher than, for example, the Pioneers (by roughly 1dB), making balanced levels all the more important in listening tests of this player.

And for those like throwing sand into the gears, I made some additional comparisons of the above players with the well-regarded Cambridge Audio Azur 840C, a $1600, dedicated CD player. Its overall balance had more in common with the sound of the Oppo than with either Pioneer or either Marantz. More on that in future installments.

More to Come There are more analog-output results to come from a duo of late-arriving players: the Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition (with upgraded analog audio circuitry) and the Pioneer BDP-320. At $400, the latter is (externally at least) a dead ringer for the more expensive BDP-23FD, apart from some silk-screened gold trim on the latter's front panel.

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