Toshiba SD-4960 Universal Disc Player
If you sift through the Home Theater archives over the last few years, I think you'll find that I've been as optimistic as anyone about the future of universal disc players. That's saying something, too, because optimism isn't exactly my natural state. Still, even as sure as I was that universal players had a bright future, I wouldn't have dared predict that, a couple of years after the debut of the first model, there would be so many others to swell the ranks. It's not just the proliferation of players over that time period that's noteworthy, but also that they exist in healthy numbers at all price points, from the four-figured high-end realm through the around-$1,000 middle range and right down to the priced-so-that-almost-anyone-can-afford-them territory that we're exploring here.
This hardly means that we've reached the salad days for DVD-Audio and SACD, though. Neither of these formats is more than a blip on the radar, outside the audiophile ranks, yet. What it does mean is that the equipment manufacturers have held up their end of the bargain, and it's time for the record companies, in particular, but also the retailers and consumers to hold up theirs. Full-featured universal players like the SD-4960 that ring in at $199—not much more than an equivalent-quality DVD-Video-only player—might be the catalyst that high-resolution, multichannel music formats need to start gaining popular acceptance.
Unlike some early universal players, there's no bait-and-switch with the SD-4960. It offers multichannel playback for both DVD-Audio and SACD (some early players, high-enders included, only offered two-channel SACD), plus real bass management for both formats. Naturally, it also plays DVD-Video, CD, and WMA/MP3; depending on the recording parameters of each disc, it will endeavor to play DVD-R and CD-R/-RW whenever possible. Its audio digital-to-analog converters are capable of 24-bit/192-kilohertz functionality, which is impressive for a player at this price. Toshiba's ColorStream Pro progressive video output with 3:2 pulldown is aboard for the component video output (which can output interlaced signals, as well). The video DAC is specified at 10-bit/54-megahertz operation.
Setup is straightforward and quick, as it should be on a player at this price. Toshiba has done a nice job of giving the user worthwhile audio and video settings without complicating things. The remote is solid (although not backlit), and the manual will walk anyone who needs it through the process. I set up the SD-4960 with Pioneer's impressive-for-the-dollars VSX-D912 receiver and a Phase Technology 5.1-channel speaker system.
For a $199 player, the SD-4960's audio performance is impressive through both the digital and analog outputs; the latter is obviously the key for DVD-Audio and SACD. Naturally, it isn't going to fool you into thinking you're listening to a four-figure player, but it showed me enough to make me believe that it would hold its own with most of the players I've heard in the $400-to-$500 range. It also showed me that its internal components are of good-enough quality that your final sound is going to depend a lot more on the quality of the receiver and speakers than it is on the SD-4960.
Quality high-resolution, multichannel discs like Swing Live (Chesky, DVD-Audio and SACD) survived the transition to analog relatively intact, with an impressive amount of bandwidth and resolution still in tow. I liked the soundstage presence that the SD-4960 delivered with Respighi's Pines of Rome (AIX, DVD-Audio), and the forceful impact it preserved for the piece's dynamic climax. Put the right equipment around it, and you may be pleasantly surprised at how much difference extra resolution can make even from an inexpensive player, provided it's a quality inexpensive player.
Video performance is also solid. Progressive scanning has spoiled me to the point that I'm starting to prefer any progressive player even over more-expensive interlaced players. The SD-4960 makes good use of it by offering a noticeable improvement in progressive output over interlaced output, although the latter isn't bad, either. The former, however, was clearly smoother and more stable, with less in the way of motion anomalies or border tearing. Even with the choppy motion and washed-out look of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the Toshiba maintained its composure nicely.
Color reproduction and black-level stability and detail were all well up to par. There's nothing spectacular here, just as you'd expect from a $199 player, but there's also no major problems, which you might expect from a $199 player. You aren't going to see the deep, unshakable blacks and shadow detail of a high-end player, but you're also not going to see the erratic instability and shadow mush that some inexpensive players offer. Same with colors—they're not going to leap off the screen at you, but they're also not going to draw any negative attention to themselves with orangish reds, blooming blues, and other cheap-player trappings.
At this price, I'll take a player that does everything solidly over one that does a few things really well and everything else poorly, every time. Now I'm not only impressed by the number of inexpensive players, but also by the quality and features you can find on a player like the SD-4960 at a price like $199.
Quality, inexpensive players alone won't be enough to flip the high-resolution/multichannel switch for the masses—the record companies must step up to make that happen—but they're certainly a start. And a start is sometimes all it takes to get a bandwagon moving full speed.
• Legitimate DVD-Audio and SACD performance in a $199 player
• Progressive component video output