Pioneer DV-578A Universal Disc Player

High-resolution, multichannel music is now within reach of the masses.

Time was, you had to choose between SACD and DVD-Audio if you wanted to hear high-resolution, multichannel music. And the players weren't cheap. Those days are gone, and a format war has been averted, thanks to universal players that don't care what kind of optical disc you feed them. Some of these players are even cheap—only in price, at least in the case of the Pioneer DV-578A, which gives you a lot of bang for $199.

The slimline chassis doesn't have much front-panel real estate, but the controls are well chosen, including transport and full menu access. The remote is a simple, well-designed little number that's not illuminated but easy enough to memorize. The rear panel is similarly straightforward, with one of just about every kind of common output. Don't expect a FireWire connection at this price point, though.

Where's That Control?
The DV-578A offers a comprehensive set of controls for its price. The menu system is not too bad overall, but it does have a few quirks. For example, most of the audio functions are in the Initial Settings menu instead of the Audio Settings, which is a bit confusing at first. Among these misplaced controls is the speaker-size setting, which determines whether or not the bass-management circuitry redirects low frequencies from the main channels to the subwoofer. The speakers all default to large with the sub on, but I think most people will use this inexpensive player with less-than-full-range main speakers, so it should default to small speakers with the sub on. A speaker-distance control is also available.

Another misplaced group of audio controls are the digital output settings—things like converting Dolby Digital, DTS, and MPEG bitstreams to PCM. Also in this menu are the ambiguously named options settings, which include a control that tells the player to read the multichannel or two-channel area of a hybrid SACD. It defaults to two-channel, which gave me a moment's grief as I tried to figure out why a multichannel SACD was only playing from the front right and left speakers. Finally, the audio output mode (which is strangely in the speaker-settings submenu) determines whether the player sends audio to the two-channel or multichannel analog outputs. This control also defaults to two-channel, which, again, is wrong in my book; most people are going to buy this device to play multichannel audio discs, so it should default to multichannel.

Video adjustments include a full range of user controls (brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness), as well as several preset gamma curves and a block-noise reduction switch. As with audio, there are other video controls in the Initial Settings menu, including screen aspect ratio and interlaced or progressive output. Also in this menu is the DVD playback mode, which determines whether or not the player will recognize DVD-Audio discs or just DVD-Video. Why you'd want such a switch is beyond me. Despite these anomalies, I'm glad most of the controls are there; I'd rather have them than not.

I started my evaluation with DVD-Video in progressive mode; after all, what good is a universal player that doesn't do DVD well? The Video Essentials test patterns looked uniformly excellent. Frequency response ran out to 5.5 megahertz, and it picked up the 3:2 sequence quickly and reliably. On the Faroudja/Sage test disc, almost everything looked as good as Faroudja's own DCDi technology. Moving to normal program material, The Fifth Element (the Superbit version) looked great, including the pan across the diagonal ramp in the opening scene, as did the rooftops in the flyover in chapter 12 of Gladiator.

Next, I listened to some DVD-Audio discs from AIX Records, which produces some of the best multichannel recordings out there. Among my favorites are Voices Unbound by Zephyr, a 12-member a cappella vocal ensemble singing renaissance music; Gathered Around by the Steve Huffsteter Big Band; and, appropriate at this time of year, Surrounded by Christmas with the AIX All Stars, including Laurence Juber on guitar and Leland Sklar on bass.

The sound quality was generally fine, with good detail and imaging, but it was somewhat lacking in bass and lower in level than I expected. To see if I was imagining things, I played the same cuts on the much-more-expensive DV-47Ai, Pioneer's previous-generation flagship universal player. Sure enough, the bass was hotter and more balanced, the level was higher, and the overall tonality was clearer and richer. This was especially true with the big-band recording; there was much less difference between the two players with the vocal ensemble, which leads me to suspect that this is at least somewhat program-dependent.

The same differences were evident, although subtle, with SACDs. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon sounded great from the DV-578A, with all of those whirling surround effects, clean and clear bells and gongs, and ever-changing synth textures. However, the bass was still a bit weak, especially compared with the DV-47Ai.

You might think that comparing a $200 player to one that costs six times as much is unfair. Still, the DV-578A's audio performance is at least 80 percent of the DV-47Ai's. Considering that the price of the newer model is less than 20 percent of the older one's, the DV-578A starts to look really good. And its overall performance—both visually and aurally—is very good. If you're on a budget and you want to start exploring the wonderful world of high-resolution, multichannel music with a player that also kicks ass with DVD movies, the Pioneer DV-578A should be on your short list.

• Kick-ass DVD player
• Good-sounding DVD-Audio and SACD, especially for the price
• Poorly organized menu system and default settings

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