Denon DBP-A100 Universal Audio/Video Player Page 2

Stock remotes have rarely impressed me over the years, but I had high expectations for this one considering the price of this Blu-ray player. Sadly, there’s not much difference between this remote and the ones that come with sub-$200 players. While it features a hefty build quality and fit nicely in my hand, its glow key buttons are illegible in a dark room. It should definitely have been backlit.

Video Performance
The DBP-A100’s performance on our Video Test Bench showed similar results to other players with the same Anchor Bay chipset. It passed the majority of our tests without breaking a sweat, but it didn’t fare so well with 2:2 cadences on both high- and standard-definition tests. While it barely passed the SD test—it did take a split second to lock onto the race car sequence on every pass—the HD test fared much worse, with aliasing in the stands. This isn’t the only player I’ve tested that hasn’t fared well with 2:2, and it will only affect a small amount of DVD and Blu-ray material (mostly concert videos).

Blu-ray movies looked absolutely fantastic over HDMI, and the Denon is as transparent as the very best players I’ve used. Paramount’s Rango is simply the finest-looking Blu-ray I’ve ever seen about a hapless chameleon who finds himself stranded in the desert. Live-action films were just as impressive and were very revealing. The Lincoln Lawyer is one of the better thrillers I’ve seen recently, and its video encode has razor-sharp detail, striking contrast, and inviting shadows on the DBP-A100.

One video feature the player includes is the ability to play back DVDs with a 1080p/24 output, something I haven’t been a fan of in the past. Star Wars: Episode IV generally trips up this feature, but on the DBP-A100, the camera pan at the beginning of the film was as smooth as butter. Still, when the star destroyer comes into the scene pursuing the fleeing rebel ship, there’s some slight shimmering on the sharp angles of the ship that aren’t there with a 1080p/60 output, so I would suggest using that setting instead.

The Denon loaded every disc I sent its way, but twice the player became unresponsive when I tried to eject a disc. It would show “Loading” on the display screen and wouldn’t respond to any remote commands or any commands from the buttons on the front panel. On those occasions, I unplugged the player and restarted it in order to eject the disc.

Time Machine
My biggest complaint with the Denon’s video playback was its poisonously slow startup and loading of Blu-ray Discs. Fortunately, the player offers a Quick Startup mode. This uses more energy while in standby, but it’s more than worth the few extra cents it will cost you in electricity every month. Without the Quick Startup, it takes 41 seconds for the disc tray to open versus 5 seconds with it engaged. My reference Oppo BDP-93 takes about 12 seconds to start, and a PlayStation 3 clocks in at 10 seconds. Quick Startup couldn’t help the disc load times, however. Troublesome BD-Live titles such as Disney’s Ratatouille take a minimum of 85 seconds to get to the top menu versus less than 40 on the Oppo and PS3. While 45 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time in the greater scheme of things, it’s an eternity when you’re sitting on your couch waiting for a film to start. I stopped doing time trials on Blu-ray players over two years ago because the players have gotten so speedy, but the glacial Denon forced me to dust off my stopwatch.

Audio Bliss
Denon obviously built this player with the audiophile in mind, and that’s where it performs best. Analog audio setup is a time-consuming experience due to the plethora of cables it requires. You also must venture into the setup menu to specify your speaker size (small or large), distance, and then calibrate the channel levels. This is a time-consuming process and one reason why I upgraded to an HDMI-capable surround processor at my first opportunity. Comparing the 5.1 analog audio versus the HDMI output (using both bitstream and decoded PCM) showed off the Denon’s prowess. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track on Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night is one of my favorites. While the HDMI audio sounded great, the analog output showed some improvement with a slightly richer sound and broader midrange. On movie soundtracks, the differences were harder to quantify.

Moving on to two-channel tracks really separated the wheat from the chaff. Whether it was the redbook CD of the original Broadway cast recording of Jersey Boys or Katy Perry’s California Gurls, the analog output improved the experience over digital. SACD and DVD-Audio discs take things one step further. Via its analog outputs, the Denon offered greater ambience with more headroom and improved dynamics. Multichannel recordings via analog bested the HDMI output as well.

But this begs the question, is the upgrade in the analog stage worth the extra trouble of all those cables? In my opinion, for Blu-ray playback, the difference wasn’t great enough to justify the extra expense and setup time (of both the player and the cables). But for two-channel-loving audiophiles or those with a vast collection of DVDAudio and SACD discs, Denon separates itself from the sub$500 Blu-ray players by leaps and bounds.

How it fares against other, less costly audiophile-grade players is another matter. While I had the Denon in my system, I got the acclaimed Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray 3D player in for review and was able to do some direct comparisons. As a Blu-ray player, the Oppo is a much better value at $999 because of its more modern feature set: speedy disc loading, 3D support, network capabilities, and streaming services (Netflix, Vudu, etc.).

As an audio player, I found them to be about a wash. Since my surround processor only has one 7.1 analog input, I did my comparisons with analog 2.0 sources in order to switch between inputs on the fly. My wife was kind enough to switch between inputs for me while I listened carefully, and I couldn’t distinguish between the Denon and the Oppo—both sounded great. (See “DAC Attack,” page 24.)

The Denon DBP-A100’s build quality and aesthetics, and the sound quality of its analog audio section, are second to none. But as someone who watches four to five movies a week, the glacial loading of discs and non-backlit remote eventually became a source of consternation. Along with the lack of 3D and streaming capabilities now found in most entry-level players, it only served to remind me how far we’ve come since the early days of Blu-ray. The DBP-A100 turns in an impressive audio/video performance and might appeal to deep-pocketed enthusiasts who appreciate fine components. But the sum of its parts fails to add up to good value.

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