Blu-ray Players Part VI: Finis

At long last, we come to the final chapter of the ongoing Blu-ray player saga. It has been a journey too-often interrupted by the need to adjust to new system components coming in and out for their own reviews. Nothing is more disruptive than having to adjust to the sound of new speakers.

But enough with that. First, a brief summary of what this entire effort has been about. It was not intended as a full review of any of the players. If you want a complete rundown of the features, there are innumerable places you can find them on the Internet, not least of which is the manufacturers' own sites. The same goes for reviews that cover a player's video processing. But in many such postings you'll find exhaustive descriptions of each player's features together with maddening assumptions about a player's audio and video performance. This report was intended to fill that gap. We discovered that they were more alike than similar—alike enough that only direct AB comparisons could show that they were not identical.

These players were received a few months short of the latest 3D Blu-ray machines. They also seem to come from another era, where the manufacturers still see profit in producing players with at least a semblance of rugged build-quality. You can now buy 3D players that will do most of the things that these do, plus a lot of bells and whistles that these will not, but they feel like you could tuck two of them under each arm and still run the 100- yard dash in less than 10 seconds. Maybe it's just the audiophile in me, but I would not be tempted to use any of those lightweights as my primary CD playback deck.

For this final chapter I listened to four of the players from their coaxial digital outputs. Those players were the standard Oppo BDP-83 (there would be no benefit in the Special Edition Oppo in this application; it's claim to fame revolves around its beefed-up D/A converters and analog outputs), the Marantz BD7004, the Marantz UD8004, and the Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD. The players were each connected to separate coaxial digital inputs of an Integra DTC-9.8 surround processor with Kimber KCAG cables. The five-channel amplifier was a Parasound Halo A51. All listening, however, was done exclusively in 2-channel stereo, this time through Focal Electra 1028 Be floor-standing speakers. No subwoofer was used for most of the listening, but on occasion a Focal Electra SW1000 BE sub was switched in to confirm or dismiss an observation.

The Focal speakers, with their pure beryllium foil tweeters, were exceptionally revealing, particularly of subtle differences in high frequency performance. And that describes most of the differences I heard—high frequency and subtle. But first a word to those who are skeptical that there should be any differences at all from the digital outputs of different players. I won’t attempt to explain why—doing so would require a long-winded attempt to convince you that arcane mechanisms such as jitter make a difference. Audiophiles have long observed differences in the sound of different CD transports—the latter describing either a CD player without analog stages to begin with or a player used only from its digital out. It has also been noted before that optical digital outputs are inferior to coaxial, though they do offer the marginal advantage of eliminating a ground link between a player and the component following it. The superiority of coaxial connections is the main reason that this last test omits any discussion of the Pioneer Elite BDP-23FD or the Pioneer BDP-320. Both offer optical digital out only.

I've also omitted audio tests from the players' HDMI outputs. My experience suggests that for movie playback, any differences between players from these outputs are inconsequential. But for 2-chanel music playback, I always recommend either a player's coaxial or analog outs. They may not prove superior in some systems, but are always worth trying.

Only two of these players offer SACD or DVD-Audio playback: the Oppo and the Marantz UD8004. And the latter plays SACD from its HDMI outputs at only 44.1kHz/16-bits. This limits all SACD playback, 2-channel or multichannel, to CD quality. The Oppo does not have this limitation. For that reason I have omitted a comparison of the Oppo and Marantz players in SACD or DVD-Audio. A fair comparison would have to involve the Oppo from its HDMI outputs against the Marantz from its multichannel analog outs—not exactly an apples-to-apples match-up, and one virtually impossible to do at matched levels. Since the analog inputs of the Integra processor are equal to the quality of its digital inputs, I did not test the Marantz in SACD or DVD-Audio. But the Oppo sounded excellent in both, though it was clearly more sweet and rich than quick and airy. If these formats are of interest to you, this is a worthwhile feature from an already feature-rich player.

So as before, all of the source material in the following tests was from CD. Matched level comparisons were also critical here, and far easier to achieve than in the more tedious analog tests. The digital outputs of disc players adhere to standard levels, and as long as I played back each music selection at the same level through each player (which I was careful to do, writing down the optimum level for each selection) there was an exact match.

Oppo vs. the World?
We'd all like to see the Oppo as a giant killer. And certainly it’s hard to beat in a home theater environment. It's a fast loader, taking just over 11 seconds from pushing Play to hearing music. The other players here are molasses-slow in comparison. (Perceptive readers will notice that in an earlier report the Oppo was a hair slower. A different disc, perhaps?) It plays just about everything. It's video performance with Blu-ray discs is also only the thinnest-hair short of the very best, and by a difference so small that any two videophiles could argue about it.

The Oppo's audio performance from its digital outputs, however, closely follows what we found from the analog tests. Never offensive and always listenable, it's certainly nothing to sneeze at. But it's also just a little too rich and sweet, even slightly closed-in, and lacks that last bit of attack and air that makes the difference between good and compelling.

To go deeper into this description would grossly exaggerate the effect I'm trying to describe, and most listeners will be perfectly happy with the Oppo's sound under any circumstances. And as seen last time, it did liven-up rewardingly when auditioned through a PS Audio DAC into a different preamp (the 2-channel Jeff Rowland Consummate), not to mention the brighter Energy speakers. System matching does make a difference, and with the right combination I can see the Oppo being a one-size-fits-all machine. But for me it was not, though I'll continue to use it often for everything except 2-channel music playback.

It's a little unfair, perhaps, to pit the Oppo against the Pioneer Elite BDP-09FD, with the latter over four times the price. But while price and sound don't always follow in lock step, here they did. Yes, the Pioneer took much longer to load a disc. Nevertheless, it offered an airier soundstage, just enough warmth to sound real but not overbearing, voices with more presence without being too forward, and more immediate and lively (but not Technicolored) transients. I was never troubled by anything in the sound of the Oppo, and some listeners may actually prefer its warmer presentation. But for me the Pioneer encouraged prolonged listening in a way that the less expensive player did not.

The same was true of the Marantz UD8004. Slightly less hefty than the Pioneer but more full-featured (the Pioneer lacks SACD and DVD-Audio), it appeared at first to be a virtual audio clone of the Elite. But further listening opened up a very narrow gap. The Marantz offered even more air and speed than the Pioneer. The UD8004 was less forgiving of bad recordings, but not to a fault. Fine details were superbly reproduced, and there was a clean, transparent quality that matched my system to a T and really showed off the stunning top end of the Focals' beryllium dome tweeters. The Pioneer did show its heels to the Marantz in the way it rendered the deepest growl from a single organ passage (from a Dorian recording of Pictures at an Exhibition transcribed to organ), but in all other low frequency tests I threw at the two players they were virtually identical. The same went for their smooth, uncolored midrange, though push comes to shove the Marantz lacked a tiny bit of warmth on male vocals. But that difference would be easily swamped by system variations. And by any fair accounting the differences between these two players, overall, was extremely subtle. On this system I did prefer the Marantz, but wouldn't argue if someone else chose the Pioneer. On the downside the Marantz is the slowest player of the group by far, taking approximately 28 seconds from Play to music.

But there was more to come. The last entry on the docket was the Marantz BD7004. Built in the same style as the UD8004 but smaller, lighter, and less fully featured (no SACD or DVD-Audio), it was also much faster on its feet (about half as long to load and play a CD, at roughly 14 seconds).

And, surprisingly, it sounded every bit as good as the UD8004 from its coaxial digital out. Compared directly against both the latter machine and the Pioneer BDP-09FD, I heard exactly the same things from the BD7004, with detailing identical to that from the UD8004, including that player's fast as a whip top end.

Interestingly, these results from each of the players' digital outputs matched quite closely, in relative strengths and weaknesses, what I heard from the analog outputs of each player—and all that on a differently configured system. This makes for an interesting conclusion. The BD7004, at $800, may not be the bargain of the bunch (that trophy goes to the Oppo by default). But it's a fall-down easy recommendation for its video performance and CD sound quality, both from its analog and digital coaxial outputs.