Pioneer DV-AX10 universal DVD/CD player

Seldom in my life as an equipment reviewer has a product arrived that, out of the box, I've known I wanted to own. The Pioneer DV-AX10 is one of them—the first universal player that can handle CD, Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, and DVD-Video, complete with progressive-scan video output. It's a wonder to behold and a joy to use.

The DV-AX10 is a harbinger of the future; technology has eliminated many of the format wars that have recently plagued the industry, and this player epitomizes that change. When Sony and Philips first announced in 1998 that they were going to come out with a new format called Super Audio CD (SACD), a format war seemed inevitable—all of the other major manufacturers were backing an incompatible rival product, DVD-Audio. Both new products are intended, over time, to replace the CD.

Both formats offer much-improved sound quality, multichannel audio (or at least that capability), and the merging of audio and video. Equipment manufacturers and record companies say they might package video content—liner notes, music videos—along with the music. But the two formats record data differently. Sony argues that its recording technology, Direct Stream Digital, gives SACDs superior sound quality. DVD-Audio proponents, relying on the old, reliable PCM recording format, though at a much higher resolution, say their product can sound just as good.

Well, the idea that consumers would have to decide which of two different players to buy rubbed everyone the wrong way. But manufacturers quickly made it clear they could make players that would handle both formats, not to mention DVD-Video discs and CDs as well. So the only place these two formats will compete is in the record stores, where buyers will be able to choose between SACD or DVD-Audio discs.

The first SACD players, from Sony, went on sale last fall. Sony's flagship product cost $5000; a scaled-down version cost $3500, and a much less expensive version is due out soon. Those first two Sony players are 2-channel devices only and are strictly for audio. They will not play DVD-Video discs.

Panasonic had expected to be the first major company to sell a DVD-Audio player; the company had planned to send its first model to stores last December. But on the first of that month, Panasonic announced that the player would be delayed for about six months so the company could incorporate a new copy-protection system.

When some European hackers let it be known last October that they had broken the copy-protection scheme used on DVD-Video discs, the news rattled the record industry and prompted Panasonic's delay. But at that time, Pioneer said it intended to proceed with plans to begin selling DVD-Audio players by spring 2000.

The DV-AX10 is the first of them, and the unit I reviewed is fully functional but still a preproduction prototype. The first commercial model is supposed to reach the stores by early fall. As I write this, Pioneer has not set a price for the machine, but Chris Walker, a Pioneer spokesman, estimated that it would fall between $4500 and $5000. For that, you get not just the several audio formats but a full-featured, top-of-the-line DVD-Video player that also offers progressive-scan output—and Pioneer claims that this DVD player provides a video image of even higher quality than the company's vaunted DV-09, a reference standard. More on that later.

Meanwhile, the much-delayed Panasonic players were to go on sale in mid-summer, and may already be in stores by the time you read this. These players will play DVD-A and DVD-V discs as well as CDs, but will not play SACDs. One model will cost $1200 and be marketed under the Technics brand, while another will be sold under the Panasonic brand for $1000. Other manufacturers of similar players are certain to follow soon.

Sony is already selling several dozen SACD titles, available on Sony's website and in a few record stores. At this point, few if any DVD-Audio discs are available, and the major record labels had announced no plans for immediate shipments by the time I finished this review.

Philips has announced an intention to make a true universal player like this one, but date and price have not been set. So for now, the Pioneer DV-AX10 is the only one.