Blu-ray Players Part V

Break out the fireworks. Fire up the grille. Happy 4th of July. A new chapter in the Neverending Story of this Blu-ray player saga has arrived.

Since this survey was planned, 3D has become an ever-growing player in the market. I'll begin here by emphasizing that none of the players in the survey are yet 3D capable. For this report, at least, it's 2D only.

This time around—the next to the last entry, actually—I finish up with listening to the audio playback of the candidates from their analog outputs. Much of that was done in an earlier segment, so I won't revisit the same ground here. Here I'll cover the audio playback of the Oppo BDP-83 vs. the Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition, and add some commentary on the Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD, which offers some of the same features as the Oppo. That's not surprising, as the Cambridge uses technology similar to that found in Oppo's less expensive BDP-80, including the same processing chips. At $700, and considering that audio quality is Cambridge Audio's stock in trade, the buyer might well expect something special.

The subject players in this round were compared directly to the Pioneer BDP-09FD. The system was the same as before, with the single exception here being an occasional change of speakers. This time I alternated between the Energy Veritas v2.8s used earlier and the Focal Electra 1038Be, the latter currently under review for a future issue of Home Theater magazine. The differences between these two speakers also drove home an eternal truth in audio: When you're testing one part of a system, the rest of it can influence the result, particularly at the margins.

First up, the Oppo BDP-83 SE vs. the Pioneer BDP-09FD, with the Oppo auditioned from its dedicated left and right outputs. The SE's added benefits are said to be limited to those 2-channel-only connections.

Pioneer has put a lot of effort into the sound of the 09FD, and it shows. Up to this point, and in further listening done since the last report, it has proven to have, for me, the most balanced performance from its 2-channel analog output of all the players here. I'd like to be able to conclude that the Oppo BDP-83 SE matched it, or at least gave it a close run, but it did not. The Pioneer had more air on top, with sparkling but not overly bright highs. But it also had more bite, which will certainly lead some listeners to prefer the sweeter- and smoother-sounding Oppo. And on some material I did appreciate the Oppo's more subtle treble (and neither of the two speakers used in the listening are at all reticent on top). Most of the time, however, the Pioneer was hard to resist with its more lively balance, top-end airiness, and superior separation of individual threads in the musical fabric. The Oppo was sweeter- and smoother-sounding, and always listenable, but its overall sound was just a bit more homogenized. Its bottom end was also fuller, but less well controlled than the Pioneer's.

To make certain that what I was hearing was not simply a difference in frequency response, I measured both players from 20Hz-20kHz. The result was consistent with the listening tests, with the Oppo SE virtually the same as the Pioneer up to 5kHz, down 0.3dB at 10kHz, and minus 0.4dB at 20kHz. But would this difference, which is insignificant by any objective standard, account for what I heard? It's possible, but unlikely.

How did the Oppo SE's analog-out audio compare to that of the basic Oppo? At first the differences were unnoticeable, but after an hour or so of listening I began to hear them, though they were never pronounced. The SE was a little more open in the treble and fuller on the bottom—the latter could be a mixed bag in some systems and rooms.

The frequency response measurements of the basic Oppo vs. the SE, however, were puzzling. The basic SE was flatter on top, with no more than a 0.1dB drop-off at 20kHz (it was flatter than the Pioneer 09 at that frequency as well, by 0.6dB). Such small differences in the high frequency response appeared to be basically irrelevant to the relative sound of the three players.

But while the Oppo SE was not a giant killer from its analog audio outputs, it was in other ways. The Pioneer doesn't do SACD or DVD-Audio, while both the standard and SE Oppo will play back these high resolution audio discs either via its multichannel analog outputs or through HDMI. In the latter case it will send them to the AV receiver or pre-pro either as multichannel PCM (which most AV receivers and pre-pros will accept) or, for SACD, in DSD (the native digital coding for SACD, which most AVRs and pre-pros will not accept). The Oppo is also fast, while the Pioneer is, in comparison, slow to load and play a disc, even a CD. On one occasion the Pioneer's chapter skip control also refused to work properly, jumping ahead or back as it pleased whenever I gave it a skip command. It continued to accepted direct chapter inputs, however, and later in the testing the chapter skip control mysteriously returned to normal as well (in the interim the player had been powered down and back up several times for other reasons, which likely cleared the problem). And not to forget that the Pioneer will cost you 2.5x as much as the Oppo SE. But audiophiles pay a lot more than this for the level of CD playback that the Pioneer offers, not to mention the 09FD's stunning video and DVD/Blu-ray sound.

Next I hooked up the Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD. This player has not been a part of this was face-off from the get-go, but since it was passing through our doors for a Home Theater review it was an irresistible candidate for a brief comparison. Next to the Pioneer BDP-09FD the Cambridge sounded a bit dry—leaner, cooler, and less liquid, and also lacking some of the fast attack and snap of the Pioneer. Against the Oppo SE, however, the slightly leaner and crisper sound of the Cambridge made its own mark. It sounded less laid-back and more open than the rather polite Oppo. The Azur's tighter midbass will also be welcomed in overly warm-sounding rooms and systems, though perhaps less so with setups that are already a little lean. The Cambridge also offers some of the other benefits of the Oppo, including playback of SACD and DVD-Audio, together with faster operation than any of the Pioneers or Marantz' in this gaggle of players.

But what happens when we use one of the less expensive players as a transport for 2-channel CD playback, together with a good but not overly expensive outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC)? PS Audio was kind enough to send us its Digital Link III for this test, which at $700 offers coaxial, optical, and USB inputs. The latter was not tested here (it offers playback of digital music files from your computer, including higher resolution files). I used the coaxial digital input. The Digital Link III does not do a direct pass-through of CD's native 44.1kHz sampling rate, but instead upconverts all CD material to a user-selectable 96kHz or 192kHz. I chose the 96kHz option.

The standard Oppo connected to the PS Audio DAC offered a significant upgrade over the sound of either Oppo by itself (there should be no benefit to using the Oppo SE over the standard Oppo in this configuration, as the upgrades to the Oppo SE are all located in that player's 2-channel analog pipeline). Gone was the overly polite sound. The combo was open and punchy, with bass a degree or two tighter than any of the other players in this test. Drums, organ, and other material with demanding bass lines, were, in audiophile vernacular, strikingly fast, as were transients centered higher up the scale, particularly percussion. On the Focal Electra 1038 Be speakers with their exceptionally revealing beryllium tweeters, however, I still preferred the Pioneer's slightly sweeter, but still very open, top end. But when I switched to the slightly less laser-quick (but still hardly dull) Energy Verita v2.8s, with their aluminum alloy mid and high frequency drivers, the differences on top, while still audible with careful listening to the right program material, were much less clear-cut. The Pioneer sounded a shade warmer and more relaxed, though with none of the cotton-candy mushiness that this might imply. But the greater clarity that the Oppo/PS Audio offered through the bass was definitely a plus on the more full-bodied and somewhat room- and system-fussy Energys.

The bass from the Energy speakers with the Pioneer doing source duty was not overblown in my system, but was nevertheless better controlled with the Oppo/PS Audio setup. The bottom line here is that the differences between these two sources were relatively subtle in ways that will appeal to different listeners. The Pioneer was just a trace warmer, the Oppo/PS Audio cooler with more punch and drive. I did marginally prefer the Pioneer overall, but it was a very close-run thing, and the Oppo/PS Audio setup can definitely co-star on the same team. The $1200 combination of the standard Oppo and the PS Audio Digital Link III will also set you back $1000 less than the Pioneer. Since the latter appears to be nearing the end of its production life, you can likely reduce that spread with some careful shopping, but the BDP-09FD will always be the more expensive proposition. And the Oppo, with or without the PS Audio, is far superior in operating speed and features.

Which almost wraps things up. The only thing left is to compare the players connected to a good but not overly expensive pre-pro via their coaxial digital outputs, if present, and on a limited basis their HDMI outputs. Coming soon. Honest.