Test Report: Integra DHC-9.9 A/V controller

The Short Form
$2,000 / INTEGRAHOMETHEATER.COM
Snapshot
Integra's pre/pro offers some unique features for serious audio/videophiles, along with superb performance and value
Plus
• Top-tier audio and video performance • Accurate auto setup, calibration, and room correction • Useful Audyssey and THX low-volume listening compensations • ISF-certified video-calibration controls
Minus
• Onscreen interface a bit slow and blanks both video and audio • Somewhat dated remote control • No streaming input for audio or video
Key Features
• THX Ultra2 Plus certified • Four HDMI v1.3a inputs, two outputs • Transcodes component, composite, and S-video to HDMI • Upconverts lower-rez video to 1080p • 7.1-channel line-level out (balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA), 2-channel XLR input • Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and DSD (SACD) decoding • Audyssey MultEQ auto setup/equalization DSP with supplied microphone • Audyssey Dynamic EQ and THX Loudness Plus level-correction DSP, 15-band user equalization • Audyssey Dynamic Volume source/ program DSP • ISF-certified calibration controls by individual video input • HD Radio AM/FM tuner with 40 presets • Assignable Zone 2 and 3 video outputs and stereo-plus-subwoofer audio • Two IR inputs and outputs, three 12v triggers, RS-232 serial port, Ethernet (TCP/IP control) port • 17 1?8 x 7 5?8 x 17 1?2 in, 29 1?4 lb
The preamplifier/processor is something of a forgotten man in the world of mainstream home theater gear, where ever bigger screens and ever more powerful and complex A/V receivers get most of the attention. Yet there are good reasons to consider having a separate amplifier and "pre/pro" instead of a one-piece receiver. For example, going with separate components lets you upgrade the pre/pro without having to also replace your system's amplification, which you must do if you have a receiver.

Whatever your circumstances, Integra's DHC-9.9 A/V pre/pro can roll with them. Its HDMI 1.3 connections are ready to handle forthcoming video features like Deep Color and xvYCC color space. It has 7.1-channel preamp line outputs for connection to whatever amplification you provide. And it has up-to-date audio decoding, including the high-rez Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats. It also has a full suite of audio DSP (digital signal processing) alchemy from Audyssey and THX, including Audyssey's MultEQ auto-setup/room-correction calibration and equalization, Dynamic EQ/loudness correction, and Dynamic Volume source-to-source (or TV channel-to-channel) leveling. THX Ultra2 Plus contributes the usual array of music/cinema/game surround enhancements plus the new THX Loudness Plus, which does much the same thing as Audyssey Dynamic EQ. (The two modes are lockout linked so that both can't be active at the same time.)

Another feature making its debut with the DHC-9.9 is ISFccc Video Calibration. The Imaging Science Foundation "custom calibration controls" in the DHC's Custom video-adjustment mode extend beyond the usual brightness, contrast, and color/tint settings to encompass parameters for edge enhancement, mosquito- and block-noise reduction, gamma, and RGB brightness and contrast, all of which can be individually adjusted by input. That's a lot of tweakability - and a lot of potential for screwing up the picture, especially if you manhandle the RGB adjustments without proper TV-measurement gear. Probably wisely, the DHC-9.9 also supplies preset ISF Day and Night modes, best-guess settings that, unlike Custom, can only be modified by an ISF-certified technician.

SETUP

Setting up the DHC-9.9 was a simple matter of plugging in cables and running the auto-setup routines. The Integra provides pro-style balanced XLR outputs in addition to conventional RCA outs for each channel. Since my power amp includes balanced inputs, I dutifully used them on my front channels. (I'm not convinced that, given reasonable-length cable runs, balanced connections make any difference - unless you have unusual induced-noise problems, like a spouse who likes to arc weld while you listen to plainchant.)

Audyssey MultEQ is by now an old friend. I plugged in the supplied mike and ran the procedure for the maximum eight mike placements, reaping the rewards of a certain spatial "opening," low-treble focusing, and mid-bass toning that I've heard from previous trials.

MUSIC & MOVIE PERFORMANCE

There's really not much to say under this heading beyond that the DHC-9.9 produced impeccable audio and video from virtually every source I plugged into it. Integra uses HQV Reon-VX video processing, and it delivered the same top-shelf deinterlacing and format upconversion I've learned to expect from that bit of silicon. Standard-def DVDs boosted to 1080p rez by the Integra were perfectly watchable even on my 102-inch-diagonal front-projection screen, and high-caliber HDTV programs like Lost looked outstanding. (By "high caliber," I mean visually. I make no reference to the total psychotic breakdown of the show's writers during the 2009 season.) In comparison, standard-def TV looked grotesque on my big screen, though it must be said that the DHC-9.9's Reon-VX-powered noise-reduction palette was able to help - kind of like slathering makeup on a cheap . . . well, you get the picture.

The Integra's Advanced ISF video controls for the Custom setting proved a wonderland, allowing me to tweak my Blu-ray Disc player's picture for a clear improvement on my projector. Of course, attempting such tuning without test equipment (and training) was a bit like throwing darts in a dark basement, with a climb up the stairs (the trip back to the DHC-9.9's menu) after every throw to view the results. But with a little foreknowledge and considerable patience, I got excellent proof of concept when watching Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna on Blu-ray. While this flick proves that Spike the cineaste is not infallible, it's smashingly photographed (and very much a visual homage to Fellini). Exploiting the Integra's video tweakbility, I was able to maximize shadow detail in the many dim stone-farmhouse interiors while simultaneously counterbalancing my projector's tendency to push red in dark scenes.

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