Integra DHC-9.9 Surround Preamp/Processor

In the world of surround preamp/processors, Integra is a serious player. In my review of last year's DTC-9.8 for Home Theater, I was amazed at how much it offered for only $1600.

Of course, technology marches on, and Integra marches right along with it. This year, the company has introduced the successor to the DTC-9.8, dubbing it the DHC-9.9. At $2000, it's a bit more expensive than its predecessor, but that price tag still well south of most high-end pre/pros, and it has enough features and performance to give any of them a serious run for even much more money.

What You See
The DHC-9.9 is nearly identical to the DTC-9.8 in appearance. The buttons and displays are the same, as is the industrial design.

All input selections and menus are available from the front panel via easy-to-use cursor keys. There's also an A/V input that includes a digital TosLink input and S-video and composite video connections for sources you may not use all the time. However, I do wish there was an HDMI input on the front as well.

The controls never felt cheap during operation. However, I was disappointed that you can't completely turn off the front-panel display. It can be dimmed, but I prefer to have it off unless I'm interacting with it. This is important for light control in a bat-cave home theater like mine.

The back panel is also nearly identical to its predecessor's. You'll find a great assortment of connections, including four HDMI 1.3 inputs with two outputs, three component video inputs and two outputs, and support for legacy S-video and composite video. Digital-audio inputs are a bit limited, with only three coaxial and two TosLink optical inputs (plus that optical input on the front panel).

Integra supports all the latest radio options, including built-in HD Radio and accessory tuners for XM and Sirius satellite radio. It also has an input for an optional iPod docking unit. Ethernet and RS-232 connections allow custom integration with third-party remote-control systems, which gives installers leeway in set up and operation. There are also three 12-volt trigger outputs for triggering other sources like amplifiers and powered screens.

I was disappointed to learn that the Ethernet connection doesn't provide firmware updates or media-server functionality. Firmware updates are becoming the norm in this industry, and an update for this unit became available during my review. The ability to access firmware updates via Ethernet makes installation far more convenient. It also eliminates the need to bring the processor into a dealer or have a service technician visit your home to do a simple install.

In addition, I was hoping to access a media server via my home network. More and more processors and A/V receivers offer full access to media saved on a networked server, which gives you convenient access to your photos and music.

The DHC-9.9 features single-ended and balanced outputs for connection to an outboard amplifier. It isn't a dual-differential design, but the XLR outputs help eliminate unwanted interference between the processor and the amplifier. Also provided is a 7.1-channel single-ended analog input for your DVD-Audio, SACD, and HD sources that may need it.

Like the DTC-9.8 before it, the DHC-9.9 lets you biamp the main channels. This feature is available with the single-ended RCA and XLR outputs. You just need to turn the feature on in the setup menu to take advantage of it. However, this eliminates the ability to do a 7.1-channel setup, as it uses the back-surround outputs for the biamping feature.

State-of-the-Art Video
More and more cutting-edge features are finding their way into AVRs and surround processors lately. What was once a simple audio/video switcher has now become the heart and soul of your system, with features that used to reside in standalone boxes that cost much more than what these new hubs go for. A few years ago, I never expected to see the level of audio and video processing that today’s designs offer.

Integra has teamed up with the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) to deliver some new video tweaks to the DHC-9.9 that I’ve never before seen in a processor like this. For years, ISF has been synonymous with video calibration and demanding accuracy from your video display. The DHC-9.9 incorporates several ISF modes, which let calibrators tweak a display’s gray scale and gamma and set default viewing modes for different viewing environments. The video setup menus also have the typical picture adjustments, such as brightness, contrast, and color.

Someone with the right test tools can dial in the gray scale and color balance using the high and low controls for each color (labeled Brightness and Contrast here). But you can only make these kinds of adjustments accurately if you use professional test equipment, which is expen-sive. You also need the knowledge to use the equipment properly. If you don’t have the right tools and knowledge, I’d highly recommend that you leave these picture controls alone. You could do more harm than good to your picture.

The DHC-9.9 offers state-of-the-art video processing and incorporates the HQV Reon-VX processor for deinterlacing and scaling. This is a very high-end video-processing chip that does an outstanding job of process-ing both standard- and high-definition video sources. The DHC-9.9 also offers full cross-conversion of analog sources, which gives you the ability to convert legacy composite and S-video inputs to component video or even HDMI. You can also scale any input resolution to any output resolution up to 1080p via HDMI. See our Video Test Bench results below for more details.

The DHC-9.9 gives you a lot of flexibility in how it processes incoming video signals. The Main Video Output setup can force an output resolution for all input signals, or you can simply bypass the video processing altogether. You also have the option to apply universal image settings like Brightness and Contrast to all inputs. Unlike most processors, the DHC-9.9 gives you the ability to set the processor to apply independent video settings to each input source. This lets you apply video processing to only the inputs you want and have a passthrough for the ones you don’t. This is a great option if you’re looking to keep the best signal quality with high-definition signals like Blu-ray that may not require any processing, but you still want to take advantage of the HQV processing for satellite and DVD sources. The DHC-9.9 also provides customized output resolutions for each source input. This could be handy if you’re using more than one video display and taking advantage of the dual HDMI outputs. For example, if one display was 1080p and one was 720p, you could set different output resolutions for sources that you only use on one of your displays and a different resolution for your main display.

I’ve yearned for this kind of flexibility from processors that cost several times more than this one. It’s great to see Integra offer this type of flexibility and performance at this price point.

Bells and Whistles Never Sounded So Good
The DHC-9.9 is an audio workhorse that’s loaded with the very latest in surround decoding and digital signal processing. Take a look at the front panel, and you’ll see logos from THX, Audyssey, Dolby, and DTS. This processor supports all of their latest features with aplomb.

Like the DTC-9.8, the DHC-9.9 is one of the few processors on the market today that offers the full complement of decoding for the Blu-ray format’s new high-definition sound formats. This includes Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, and DTS-HD Master Audio, up to 7.1 channels. On top of that, you can add almost any flavor of post-processing you want to any input signal. This includes various options from Dolby, THX, and DTS that will revamp two-channel sources all the way up to 7.1 or turn 5.1 signals into 7.1. They all work differently, but I’ve found that I prefer Dolby’s Pro Logic IIx solution. It does a great job with spatial integrity if you’re trying to get a 7.1 soundfield from a 5.1 mix. Back surround channels don’t exhibit any gimmicky hard panning, and the surround soundfield offers a more convincing experience with most material.

Integra includes Audyssey’s MultEQ XT room correction system with the DTC-9.9. I’ve been really impressed by Audyssey’s ability to smooth out bass response across multiple seating positions and open up the main soundstage. Previous microphones that were included with Audyssey-capable products looked like a small puck and reportedly had some limitations in their response. But Audyssey designed the new microphone from the ground up. It eliminates most of the shortfalls that the original microphone presented for calibration. I noticed the difference immediately. One of the issues I had with previous Audyssey calibrations was bass response. Bass levels always calibrated a little low, which weakened the system’s bass punch. You could overcome this with some fine-tuning, but it was still frustrating. Integra’s new design eliminated the need for fine-tuning in my room and provided outstanding bass performance.