Marantz DV9600 DVD Player

At $2,099, the DV9600 is Marantz' flagship "universal" DVD player. You can read about this player's many features in the Specifications section of this review, or on Marantz' own website. Some of the more significant ones are:

• Two i.LINK (IEEE1394) ports. These provide a direct digital audio connection for the audio from DVD-Video discs, SACD, and DVD-Audio, if the AV receiver or pre-pro at the other end is similarly equipped (some are, including some Marantz AV receivers, but most are not). Marantz has also equipped this link with their Jitter Free Transfer System (JTFS), which the company claims removes jitter in the bitstream when the player's i.LINK port is connected to another JTFS component.

• The player's v1.1 HDMI connection will also carry multichannel digital audio for both DVD-Video and DVD-Audio (but not SACD) to a compatible audio component.

• As an upconverting player, the Marantz will play DVD-Video discs from its HDCP compatible HDMI output in your choice of 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. The component output offers 480i and 480p.

• The player offers a wide range of audio and video setup options and controls, including four types of noise reduction, three Sharpness and Detail controls, Chroma Delay, and up to 200 msec of AV Sync delay.

• The player also provides two settings for its HDMI output: RGB-Normal and RGB-Expand. The former is the one you want. It provides a brightness range of 16 (black) to 235 (white). In this setting the player will display both below black and above white.

• On a confusing note, the manual (pg.6) makes a reference to a DVI output, and one of the menus provides a grayed-out option for such a connection. The player does not have a DVI output.

• The DV9600 includes chroma error compensation for those still bugged by this artifact.

• The DTS decoder is compatible with DTS discs of up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution.

• The analog multichannel outputs provide channel level settings, distance settings, and bass management for Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD-Audio and SACD. You get these adjustments for SACD only if you if you choose PCM for Super Audio CD Play in the Audio Setup menu. This converts SACD's native DSD coding to PCM (no digital signal processing can be performed in the DSD mode). I evaluated the player's SACD performance in the PCM setting.

• The headphone jack is equipped with Dolby Headphone, which operates with all sound formats except SACD)

• The remote is a good one. But it's not backlit, and I'd rather some of the functions of its smaller buttons (chapter skip) had been assigned to larger ones, such as the less frequently used Video On/Off and Dimmer buttons.

• You can change video output resolutions and other setup options without manually stopping the player. When you select setup, the player stops automatically, you make your change, push setup again, and it closes the menu and restarts the disc. Nice.

• Everything about the build-quality of the player, from its heft to its lack of plastic-looking trim, affirms its high-end status.

There's a lot more, but it takes Marantz 66 pages (!) in the English section of the four-language, Rosetta Stone of a manual to explain it all in detail.

Looking
Most of my viewing of the Marantz was from its HDMI output, though I did sample its component output long enough to determine that it will more than get the job done for those who might need it. But I hope that need is temporary; if you spend this much for a high-end DVD player, you really should be using the HDMI output.

Whatever your video display, you will likely be able to use the Marantz at more than one resolution setting. Don't assume that it will always work best at the native resolution of your display. That may be true, but it depends on the quality of the display's scaler. For this report the best options, for me, just happened to be 480p into the 720p BenQ 8720 DLP projector (review in process) and 1080i into the 1080p Marantz VP-11S1 DLP projector. Your mileage may vary. (As we've stated before, DVD upconversion may provide a better picture on a given display for any number of reasons, but the resolution you get on the screen can never be greater than in the original source.)

After living with HD DVD for a few months, it's hard to come up with convincing superlatives for the performance of standard DVDs from any player. Nevertheless, the best DVDs can still provide a very satisfying video experience. The Marantz does them full justice, providing a naturally crisp, detailed image with no consistent artifacts, great blacks, and an often striking sense of image depth (particularly on Marantz' own VP-11S1 projector).

But it's a fact that there's not a lot of difference between the video images produced by today's best DVD players, even those widely separated in price. The only way to get a feel for how they compare is to A/B them directly. Accordingly, I set up a comparison between the DV9600 and Toshiba's $500 HD-A1 HD DVD player—the latter chosen for obvious reasons. The display was the Marantz VP-11S1 1080p projector.

The result? The two players were surprisingly close. The Marantz did look subtly better in a way that's hard to put into words and will probably be lost on most displays. But stated as clearly as possible, the Marantz was distinguished by a combination of absolutely pristine detail without a trace of artificial sharpening on the best DVDs, combined with superb performance in every other area that matters with real program material.

The DV9600 also performed exceptionally well on all my scaling/deinterlacing tests. The Auto 2 setting in the Video Adjustment menu worked best. For tech-heads in the gallery, this setting responds to the cadence first, the (3/2 pulldown) flags on the disc second (these flags are not always correct). The player did have a few problems with some of the odd field cadences on the challenging HQV Benchmark test disc from Silicon Optix (many of these odd cadences on this test DVD are designed to show off the performance of the scalers from Silicon Optix, the maker of the disc). But it performed flawlessly on the two cadences found in most consumer program material: 3/2 (film) and 2/2 (video).

Listening
For my listening tests I used either a coaxial digital connection for the audio from DVD-Video and CD, and the player's 5.1-channel analog outputs for DVD-Audio and SACD—the latter set to PCM to engage the player's bass management capability.

If my experience is typical of all DV9600s, to get the correct calibration test tones out of the player (needed only for its analog outputs) you should perform the audio calibration with no disc in the player. And the last disc you played before accessing the calibration tests should not be an SACD. Follow these guidelines and you should have no problem. Ignore them and you might hear some very odd test tones—including white noise in some or all channels or a subwoofer test tone for the center channel—or no test tones at all! (To get out of the latter fix, put in any non SACD disc, push play, then after the disc starts, eject it before re-entering the calibration menu.)

It was no surprise that the player performed superbly with Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks from its digital output. From the most thunderous bass to the highest treble, the best DVDs sounded like the best DVDs should sound. Short of the new audio formats available on HD DVD (such as Dolby Digital Plus) and Blu-ray (uncompressed PCM from some discs) movie soundtracks don't get much better than this.

My initial reaction to CDs was also positive. The Marantz, from its digital output, produced a clean, sweet sound that was hard to criticize. Remember, we're talking about using it essentially as a transport here, with the D/A converters and output stages of the preamp-processor doing most of the heavy lifting. But digital transports can sound different, though it's not always easy to hear these differences without comparing one player directly to another. In this case, I pulled out the Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi (review here which, when used as a CD transport, is the best-sounding DVD player I've yet had in my system.

Some listeners may prefer the Marantz' slightly warmer sound, but I found that the extra air and detail from the Pioneer simply made it more fun to listen to. It was by no means bright, but in comparison the Marantz sounded a little soft, though hardly dull. The obvious caveat here is that in a different system my preference- or yours- may be different. The differences were far from earthshaking. But equally significant is the fact that the Pioneer lists for less than half the price.

Finally, on to SACD and DVD-Audio. Neither of these high-resolution audio formats is exactly setting records in the market—at least not positive ones. On the contrary, they're fading fast as viable products. That's a shame, because they can sound simply wonderful. And there are still plenty of existing recordings available in both high-resolution flavors, though not a flood of relevant new ones.

The test tones in the DV9600's speaker setup mode for the 5.1-channel output resulted in a subwoofer level that was about 10dB too low, which resulted in a rather anemic sound. But once I compensated for that, the Marantz performed well enough on both formats.

But for me, the SACD and DVD-Audio sound from the Marantz lacked that last, important drop of natural warmth, depth, top end spaciousness, and air that make me want to continue listening to the music long after I've made the last entry to my review notes. The above mentioned Pioneer, on the other hand, hit the bulls-eye dead-on in all those characteristics.

Conclusions
If DVD-Audio and SACD are high on your priority list, the Marantz DV9600 performs more than competently. But it's far more expensive than the best-sounding "universal" DVD-Audio / SACD player I've had in my system (we haven't evaluated the super-expensive high-end heavyweights in this class, but considering the status of these audio formats, we're unlikely to do so).

But if you're looking for a DVD-Video player that will get the best out of your DVD collection now and well into the HD DVD / Blu-ray future, you're unlikely to do better than this one. It provides superlative performance on this still dominant AV disc format.

It may well be that with the DV9600 we've reached the knee of the DVD cost/performance curve. You can spend a lot more; in fact, a quick look at the 2006 Home Theater Buyer's Guide turned up 50 DVD players with prices higher than this one. But I doubt if there's much more to be squeezed from the DVD-Video format than the DV9600 can provide.

Highs and Lows

Highs
Stunning picture and sound on DVD-Video
Bass management on analog outputs for DVD-Audio and SACD (plus DD and DTS)
Upconverts DVDs to a maximum of 1080p

Lows
Near-Tiffany pricing, though not the most expensive DVD player around
SACD and DVD-Audio performance is a little underwhelming
Bass calibration tone results in a low subwoofer level