Processors

Integra DHC-80.1 Surround Sound Processor

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

The AV receiver has become a very important component in home theater today. This box is the hub that ties all our other components together. Everything runs to and from this key device. While receivers have nearly reached dime-a-dozen status, those of us desiring separates have fewer options. The choices that do exist are usually very expensive. The problem is once you've experienced the superior dynamics and power handling of separates, it's hard to go back to a receiver.

 

Specifications

 
  • Design: 9.2 Channel SSP
  • Codecs: All Dolby Digital Codecs including Dolby TrueHD, All DTS Codecs including DTS-HD Master Audio, Audyssey DSX, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, Direct Stream Digital (for SACD), MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless, WAV, AAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, LPCM
  • DACs – Burr-Brown 32-bit 192kHz
  • XLR and RCA Input Connections
  • THX Ultra2 Certified
  • Streaming Support – DLNA Server, Windows Media Player 11, Internet Radio
  • Three zones
  • Inputs: 8 HDMI (1.3a), 7 Digital (3 coax, 4 optical), 9 Stereo (with Phono stage) RCA plus Stereo XLR for CD Player, 7.1 Audio, 4 S-Video, 3 Component Video, 5 Composite Video, PC (VGA), 1 Ethernet (RJ-45), 2 USB
  • Outputs: 9.2 RCA and XLR Audio, 2 HDMI, 2 S-Video, 2 Component Video, 3 Composite Video, 1 Headphone
  • Control: RS-232 and IR (2 in, 1 out) control ports, 3 12v trigger outputs
  • Dimensions: 7.7" H x 17.1" W x 17.25" D
  • Weight: 29.8 Pounds
  • MSRP: $2,300 USA
  • Integra

Integra is a boutique brand sold mainly by installers and integrators. They have always been at the forefront of new technologies in AV. Integra was among the first to include now-commonplace features like HDMI 1.3 and height/width channels in their products. Integra has placed value as a high priority with its latest line of AV processors. Their flagship, the DHC-80.1 is no exception to that rule. Coming in at an MSRP of $2300, it undercuts the high-end competition by a considerable margin. Does the performance measure up to the big boys? Please read on to find out why I say "most definitely."


Design

Physically, the DHC-80.1 is a large box with contemporary styling. It has the curved front panel common to all Integra products. The top has cooling vents in the rear and they should be given proper air circulation as the processor does run a bit hot. The front panel has a large array of controls which include buttons for all inputs, controls for zone output, menu navigation, and other functions. A large metal volume knob dominates the right side. The display carries a bevy of information including the active input, speaker configuration, sound codec, listening mode and of course, the volume level. It has three dimmer settings but cannot be turned off. Also up front are HDMI and USB inputs along with jacks for composite video, two-channel analog audio and a TOSLink connection. On the left are jacks for headphones (quarter-inch) and the Audyssey setup mic.

The rear panel has every conceivable connection one could need. It's hard to imagine a device that cannot be hooked up to the 80.1. There are seven HDMI inputs and two outputs which can feed the same signal to two displays simultaneously. Component, composite and S-video are also supported by both inputs and outputs. Audio inputs include nine 2-channel analog RCAs (including a phono stage), a pair of XLR jacks and seven digital connections both coax and TOSLink. There is also a 7.1 multi-channel input and a second USB port. Outputs number nine speaker channels plus two subwoofers via both RCA and XLR. There are also 2.1 outputs for zones 2 and 3. Something relatively new to the processor (and receiver) scene is a network input. You can connect the 80.1 to your home network via its Ethernet port. Through this, you can stream music from a computer or listen to Internet radio.

The DHC-80.1 includes a full-featured video processing section anchored by an HQV Reon XV chip. This is the same solution found in many high end projectors, disc players, and receivers. In addition to scaling and deinterlacing, it offers a complete set of ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) calibration features to include RGB high and low controls for white balance and a choice of different gamma curves. These adjustments can be made for each source. The best part is you can have different output resolutions and/or refresh rates for all sources. You can also set ISF Day and Night modes. These adjustments are great for displays that lack full calibration ability. Plus with its independent source configurations, you can maintain a single video connection to your TV or projector.

The remote is one of the best I've seen included with any component. It is fully backlit (thank you Integra!) and extremely versatile. In addition to full control of the 80.1, it can be programmed to control other devices. It has a full set of transport controls and pretty much every button you need to control a complete home theater system. It even has a macro capability for turning multiple components on and off and setting correct inputs. Though I prefer a true universal remote like the Logitech Harmony, the Integra remote could easily be pressed into service as the sole system controller.

Setup Menu

The setup menu is quite extensive and contains full access to a myriad of features and options. It is divided into nine sections – Input/Output Assign, Speaker Setup, Audio Adjust, Source Setup, Listening Mode Preset, Miscellaneous, Hardware Setup, Remote Controller Setup and Lock Setup.

Input/Output Assign allows you to specify the signal path for all HDMI, digital audio, video and multi-channel analog connections. Any input can be linked to any signal type for ultimate flexibility. You can also create global settings that are applied to all incoming video. These options are quite extensive. In addition to resolutions up to 1080p at 60 and 24 Hz, there are full picture controls, white balance adjustments and even custom gamma curves available.

Speaker Setup contains all bass management and loudspeaker options. Since there are two subwoofer outputs, you can set them to mono or stereo here. Crossovers can be selected for main, center, surround, back surround, front height and front width channels individually. You can adjust the low pass filter for the sub from 80 to 120 Hz. You can also turn on Double Bass which sums the main channel bass output into the sub. This only works when the mains are set to Full Band. Speaker distances can be entered in fifths-of-a-foot and level settings in increments of .5 dB. If you don't wish to use the Audyssey room correction, the manual EQ has 15 bands for the speakers and six for the subwoofer. Finally, there is a sub-menu for THX Audio Setup which offers a number of options including Loudness Plus.

The Audio Adjust menu has all the options for the various codecs supported by the DHC-80.1. This includes settings for Dolby Volume, Audyssey Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume. If you're using the processor in a living room, this is great for low-level listening. By changing the frequency response at lower volumes, you can retain optimal quality below reference level. It provides an intelligent choice for volume compression while maintaining decent sound quality.

Source Setup allows you to set input volumes for individual sources to make level matching a simple affair. You can also adjust lip sync in 2 millisecond steps, an extremely fine resolution. If you want to custom label your inputs, this is the menu to visit. Finally, individual video settings are available for all sources. This is extremely handy as you will likely have only one cable feeding your display. Now you can different calibrations for say a cable box and a Blu-ray player.

Listening Mode Preset is the place to specify the default codec to use for each input format. I find this useful for music sources as I generally matrix two-channel content to multi-channel using Dolby PLII or DTS Neo:6. Presets save me the trouble of toggling through the modes each time I fire up the system.

The Miscellaneous menu has options for Volume Display (Relative or Absolute), Muting Level, Maximum Volume, Power On Volume and Headphone Level. OSD Setup changes the position of the menu and controls the overlaid display for such things as volume and input information. Lastly are the three trigger controls. These are quite flexible and can be set to activate components in other zones with or without delays. This kind of control is important in a multi-room system.

Hardware Setup has options for Remote ID, Multi-Zone Setup, Tuner Presets, HDMI, Network and Firmware Update. Updates can be downloaded from Integra's website and installed over the network connection or from a USB thumbdrive. The Network settings can normally be left at the defaults but if you have to specify an IP address, you can enter it here. The final menu is Lock Setup and when activated, prevents any changes to your carefully entered settings.


Setup

Cabling was a fairly simple affair as I only used one source, an Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player. This was connected via HDMI. I also ran a pair of analog interconnects to test the 80.1's direct mode and a coax cable to the first S/PDIF jack. A single HDMI cable was run out to my projector. My sub was hooked up with an RCA-terminated coax as it does not have an XLR input. I did use XLRs to connect the pre-outs to my Emotiva XPA-5 however. To link up to my computer network, I plugged in a wireless bridge to the 80.1's Ethernet port. I finished up with a cable for the 12v trigger to activate the amp on startup, and an IR input to make the Integra a part of my Logitech Harmony's RF control system.

After dialing in my initial settings, it was time to run the Audyssey room correction. The 80.1 supports the Audyssey Pro Kit with its more-precise microphone and software but as I did not have the kit, I used the included mic and the built-in program. The Pro Kit is sold by Audyssey or you can hire a certified installer to calibrate your processor. I had developed a winning measurement layout during my previous experience with Anthem's room correction (ARC) so I decided to repeat the same five positions. Audyssey MultEQ XT will calculate from a minimum of three to a maximum of eight measurements. After running through the program, I checked the results. The distances and levels seemed correct but the crossovers looked too low. It suggested 40Hz for my mains, 45Hz for my center and 60Hz for my surrounds. After listening to some music, I knew right away this was not ideal. Fortunately, you can change the crossovers to your liking while still taking advantage of the corrected frequency response. I increased the settings to 60Hz for mains and center, and 100Hz for the surrounds. I left the sub's low-pass filter at 80Hz. This sounded quite right to me and aside from increasing the subwoofer level later on, I was very happy with the results.

With Audyssey dialed in, I was free to explore the various volume compression and eq features of the 80.1. Both Audyssey and Dolby have contributed their technologies here. My first experiment was with Dolby Volume. This is accessed from the Audio Adjust menu or by pressing the Audio button on the remote. The effect is a compressed dynamic range so you can balance, for example, dialog and loud sound effects in a movie. We've all been "volume tappers" at one point or another – turn it up for the dialog, turn it down for the explosions. Dolby Volume saves you from constantly reaching for the remote. I found it effective at reducing the dynamic range without compromising sound quality too much. There are three options, Low, Medium and High. Which one you use will depend on your room. Since my theater is isolated sonically, I did not use it beyond my initial tests.

Audyssey also includes two dynamic functions, EQ and volume, and they are designed to work together. Dynamic EQ alters the frequency response based on the factor below reference level of the volume control. It also varies response with the actual level of content so it is constantly adjusting itself. This is meant to compensate for the fact that Audyssey's automatic calibration is performed at reference level. I found it increased bass energy a bit too much. I got a more detailed and balanced sound by simply bumping up my sub's level a bit and leaving the other channels alone. If you turn on Dynamic EQ, you can also use Dynamic Volume. This has three settings like its Dolby counterpart. At the highest setting, all sound is output at the same level which is quite bizarre. At Low and Medium, the effect is similar to Dolby volume. I think in multi-use rooms, this feature will be welcome as it makes movies a bit easier to listen to.

As the DHC-80.1 is THX Ultra2 Plus certified, it includes a THX listening mode. This can be applied as cinema, music or games (5.1); or Ultra2 cinema, music or games (7.1). Using any THX mode will bypass the content's native codec (like TrueHD or DTS-MA). In all THX modes, you can engage Loudness Plus which is yet another volume compression technology. In my listening, I found no advantage to the THX modes. The only DSP modes I use are Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 to convert two-channel content to 5.1.

Though I did not test this, the 80.1 supports height and width channels using either Dolby PLIIz or Audyssey DSX listening modes. If you do install the extra speakers, the Audyssey room correction applies to them as well. Since there are nine channels available you can use front height or width (not both at once) and rear surround channels. You can also connect two subwoofers and adjust their delay and level independently. For those wishing to use all the available channels, Integra has a nine-channel amp available called the DTA-70.1 that sells for $1800.


In Use

Before I address my individual content selections, I have one overall observation about the DHC's performance – detail. It's a word I use a lot in my reviews but it applies even more so here. Accuracy and clarity are what I covet both from audio and video and the 80.1 delivered in stellar fashion. A convincing surround sound effect depends on every detail, every environmental cue, and every nuance to be reproduced from each channel equally with clear placement of the sonic elements in 3D space. The Integra did this with total precision. It also showed a level of transparency I've only heard in the best audio products.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

Avatar on Blu-ray disc represents the finest audio and video quality the format has to offer. I couldn't wait to watch this film as I had previously seen it in IMAX 3D and was dying to make the comparison. The video quality was, in a word, stunning. I used the 80.1 in its video bypass mode as there was no need for the application of video processing in the signal path. In fact, all my Blu-ray viewing was done this way. The DTS-HD Master Audio track was handled by my initial configuration as described in the previous section. In the past, I've felt Audyssey left the sub a little light and the 80.1 was no exception to this. A few minutes in to the movie, I went into the setup menu and turned up the level 5dB. After 20 more minutes or so, I went to the back of my SVS PB-12 Plus and turned the gain control from 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock. This gave me the punch I was looking for. Bass was still beautifully controlled and detailed. I just needed more. The rest of the frequency range was exquisite. Dialog was perfectly clear without even the slightest hint of chestiness; even after the sub level bump. The surround effects were very realistic especially during the battle scenes as bombs, bullets and bodies flew around me with chaotic abandon. Better than IMAX 3D? Yeah, way better!

Francis Ford Coppola's artistic film Tetro has one of the most subtly detailed soundtracks I've ever heard. While is a dialog-driven movie, the ambient sounds of the city are used to great effect. I was glad to view this film in a no-noise environment so I could hear the softest dynamics. I literally felt like I was sitting in a Buenos Aires apartment listening to cars and pedestrians move past my window. The softest elements were just as clear as the louder ones. This processor gave up no dynamic range whatsoever. If there was ever a reason to embrace lossless audio, a film like Tetro and a pre-pro like the 80.1 are all the justification I need.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

The audio quality of the first two Spider-Man films is quite different. The first movie has fantastic sound design with a very realistic and detailed mix. Background effects provide a lot of environmental ambience and really put you in the scene. The second movie on the other hand, sounds very processed and flat. The sound is very present and clear but every scene sounds like it was recorded in the same studio. The environmental cues just aren't there. The 80.1 reproduced this quite faithfully. There is a price to be paid for accuracy and that is hearing everything that is wrong with a bad recording. It's worth it though because good tracks sound so realistic and immersive they transport you off your couch and into the film. While Spider-Man 2 delivered lots of punch and dynamics, the realism that comes from fine details wasn't on the disc to begin with.

Since the DHC-80.1 offers high-end video processing, I wanted to view some standard-def content to test its abilities. I started by setting my Oppo BDP-83 to Source Direct and the 80.1 to 1080p/24. Scaling was a tad soft compared to what I'm accustomed to from my Oppo BDP-83. I was quite surprised however at the quality of the 24p conversion. For the first time I was able to view a film-based DVD at 24 frames-per-second with absolutely no artifacts. Normally I see frame drops and tears when I try to do this but the 80.1 did a perfect job converting 60Hz material to 24Hz. To improve the scaling quality, I set the Oppo back to 1080p but left the player's 24p conversion off. This sent a 60Hz signal to the 80.1 for it to convert to 24Hz. Amazingly this not only worked, it worked perfectly. There were still no artifacts of any kind and the scaling was superb. Kudos to Integra for finally giving me something I've longed for – good 24p from DVD.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

For DVD content, I started with A Beautiful Mind and Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope. Both these discs will show cadence problems and artifacts when the video processing isn't up to snuff. I never saw a single problem. Side-to-side pans were super-smooth without the usual 3:2 judder and resolution loss. Jaggies were non-existent and there was no line twitter at any time. I also watched the 1966 film Grand Prix in its entirety; almost three hours. The cadence lock was never lost even for the smallest moment. This is the first time I've experienced consistent and reliable 24p conversion from DVD. The combination of the Oppo's Anchor Bay processor and the superb cadence control of the 80.1 made my DVDs look better than any previous hardware I have tested.

I have one final word before I move on to the music portion of the review. My room is not laid out ideally for surround sound. Because of the small size of my theater, I have to place the seats against the back wall. It would be better to have a few feet of space back there to create a more convincing soundfield. With the DHC-80.1 in my system, the surround effect in my theater has never been more convincing. I could truly hear effects taking place behind my head. The sense of width is also greater than before. I attribute this to the Audyssey room correction and the 80.1's superb imaging and channel separation. Though I have used Audyssey before in other products, this particular implementation coupled with my measuring layout has produced a winning result. If you're not getting the sound you want with Audyssey, I highly recommend experimenting with different mic placements. It really is an excellent technology.

Music

Though I expect a feature-rich controller like the 80.1 to be used mainly for movie-watching, it has a lot to offer for the serious music-listener. I am a big fan of multi-channel music whether it is native material on SACD or matrixed with a Dolby or DTS codec to 5.1. As such I covered examples of both over a couple of music-only listening sessions. I also compared three different connection options – HDMI, digital coax, and analog stereo.

For SACD the only choice is HDMI which sounded great using Direct Stream Digital from the source. When playing Redbook CD, you can use HDMI, digital (coax or optical), or analog. I hooked up all three and did A/B comparisons by simply switching inputs while the music played. The clear winner was coax digital. The soundstage was much larger and the imaging far more three-dimensional than HDMI or analog. You may recall a thread on the Secrets CAVE about jitter. (http://cave.hometheaterhifi.com/profiles/blogs/how-much-do-you-know-or-care) The conclusion was that coax had the lowest jitter and HDMI the highest. I noticed the difference instantly when switching back and forth. I had previously used HDMI for music-listening but will now use coax for all my two-channel recordings.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

One of my favorite vocal recordings is the Berlin Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink CD of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. The sublime soprano solo in the final movement is performed by Sylvia McNair. Her voice has purity and grace that is equaled only by a very few. I tried both Dolby PLII and DTS Neo:6 to convert this two-channel recording to 5.1 with the winner being the Dolby codec. The balance between the front and surround channels was just right. Even though the 80.1 offers control of the center image width, I did not have to change it from the default setting. Hearing this recording in multi-channel form opened it up immensely. Accompanying the voice is essentially a small chamber ensemble from within the orchestra; just minimal strings and a few woodwinds. The separation of instruments was very clear and it was easy to place them in the virtual space created before me. The hall ambience was very clear with a nice long decay and just the right amount of reverberation. The clarity and detail were further enhanced by the excellent Audyssey room correction. I did try listening in both Direct and Stereo modes. Direct sends everything to the main speakers only while Stereo utilizes the bass management settings engaging the sub and the Audyssey correction. Both these choices narrowed the scope of the performance noticeably. Still, if you prefer the purist approach to your music, the 80.1 will deliver a decent soundstage and accurate imaging without the surround channels.

Turning to SACD, I cued up the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov orchestra. This is one of the few orchestral recordings to encode the LFE channel. It is used to great effect throughout. The violin sound was particularly nice as I felt as though I were literally inside the instruments. The bassoon section solos in the Scherzo movement sounded fantastic with a depth and punch I had not heard before. In the opening of the fourth movement you could feel the pain of the tympani heads as they were pummeled without mercy. It was also easy to hear when the string players dug into the frogs of their bows in loud forzando passages.

Integra DHC-80.1 Preamp/Processor

Next I dropped in a disc from my Solti Beethoven cycle, this time the Fifth and Second symphonies. In this case, DTS Neo:6 was clearly better than Dolby Pro Logic II with a more present center image and wider soundstage. The woodwind section was brought forward strongly and much better balanced with the strings and brass than I had heard previously. Along with this newfound balance, the string section sounded like a cast of a thousand with a huge rich sound. In the 70s and 80s I'd give the Philadelphia Orchestra the edge in string warmth but Chicago gets the win for sheer presence. The bass instruments sounded tight and controlled but a little reticent. I initially blamed the 80.1 but when I moved to Mahler's Fifth Symphony on SACD, I knew it was the recording's compression at fault. I've used these Solti Brahms and Beethoven discs for several reviews now and they've never sounded better.

Speaking of discs that reintroduced themselves, the San Francisco Symphony SACD of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was a true revelation. The opening trumpet solo sounded like Caesar's army crossing the Rubicon and marching into Rome! It was an astonishingly big sound for only one player. The hall ambience was so large; I would have believed the audience to be absent – except I know this is a live recording. The transparency was that good. The bass I had missed from the Beethoven CD was back in full force. To assemble a superior setup for hi-res and multi-channel music would cost a good deal more than the price of the 80.1 paired with my Emotiva amp and Oppo player.

I finished my sessions with a blast from the past in the form of Huey Lewis and the News. From the opening track I was treated to crisp drums, vocals with clean tight reverb and great instrument separation. Once again, the soundstage was huge and the post-production environmental effects added an ambience that you won't hear with lesser gear.

To test the 80.1's streaming feature, I ripped a few discs with Windows Media Player to WMA lossless format. If you want to use iTunes, your music must be ripped to AAC format. Apple Lossless is not supported. Also your music must be stored on a PC, not a Mac. Since I use Windows 7, I had only to enable sharing in Media Player 11 for the processor to see my music library on the network. The navigation screen is a bit crude and unfortunately has no search function. If you have a large music collection, you'll have to scroll through the list to find the tracks you want. Once you select a folder, the tracks are presented in order. Simply make your choice and moments later, music comes out. Though the manual recommends a hard-wired connection, I had no problems using a wireless bridge. Sound quality is excellent and indistinguishable from CD. While selections are playing, the screen shows cover art and all the track information along with total and elapsed time. You can use the streaming feature without your TV on but information is limited to a single line of the 80.1's front panel display. The DHC also supports Internet Radio and the Pandora and Rhapsody services.


Conclusions

The Integra DHC-80.1 exceeded my expectations in every way. As a controller, it is extremely flexible and capable of anchoring a large and complex system. Sonically it easily holds its own against more expensive processors, especially in the digital domain. Every movie I watched using it was an excellent experience. The detail and transparency were simply stunning. It had the most useful video processing I've yet encountered in a pre-pro. To date, this is the only box I've encountered that does a proper job converting film-based DVDs to 24p. Coming from a confirmed video geek, this is huge for me. The extensive calibration options make the 80.1 one of the more advanced video processors out there. A request to Integra – please consider Anchor Bay or Sigma for the next generation. That would be incredibly hard to improve upon.

There are several companies now marketing home theater separates. Integra has delivered the first controller I've used that gave me no issues whatsoever. The HDMI handshake worked every time and switching between sources was about as quick as anything I've experienced. Since the 80.1 is compatible with pretty much every source on the planet, there is almost no system that will not be enhanced by this supremely capable controller. Add in a good amplifier and you will be so far beyond the common receiver, you'll never go back. The Integra DHC-80.1 is now part of my reference system as I purchased at the end of the review. Therefore, it receives my highest recommendation.